Graduating to games

Graduating to games
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

February 8th 2017 at 2:00PM

For graduates, the path into the games industry is a winding one. Jem Alexander seeks advice for students eager to find their fortune developing video games.

Today’s students are the game developers of tomorrow, but it’s getting harder for young people to enter the industry. A shortage of entry-level jobs means that the growing number studying games- related degrees are having a difficult time finding work when they leave education. So how can graduates make sure they stand out from the crowd?

Liz Prince, business manager at games recruitment agency Amiqus, says that “it’s no secret that the games industry is over-subscribed with more games graduates than there are entry-level jobs. In our experience achieving the higher grades of a 2:1 or a first class degree makes landing that first job in the industry much more likely.”

This sentiment is mirrored by Aardvark Swift, another games recruiter. “For technical grads who studied coding, first class degrees are usually essential,” says managing director Ian Goodall.

It’s not uncommon now for games studios to have partnerships with universities across the country. One such developer is Supermassive, which has had great success with hiring students in the past. “We spend quite a bit of time building relationships with institutions,” says Steve Goss, executive producer for design and technology. “We try where we can to help them be the absolute best they can be, so that they are turning out people with great skills who understand the way the industry works.”

You also need preparation for working in a real-life studio environment and some understanding of how your skills fit into a team. This is something universities are getting better at providing. “They’re genuinely getting better,” says operations director Jonathan Amor. “What we’re looking for are people who are good problem solvers, they work well in a team and they’ve got a genuine idea of what they’d have to do if they joined a company like Supermassive. We’re seeing more of that now, than we used to certainly.”

Ian Goodall suggests students deeply research available courses. “Look at the backgrounds of the lecturers and course leaders. Many are led by really successful games industry pros who have chosen this path in favour of games creation. This is a good starting point in making your choice.”

But why stop there? As Liz Prince says, “there’s lots of detective work you can do! Have a detailed look at the course content and check out the quality of the portfolios of some of their grads. Have a look at the kind
of studios you’d love to work for on LinkedIn and see where their employees went to Uni,” Liz recommends. 

Portfolios are lovely, but actually having converted your idea into something you can then hand to me is so valuable.

Steve Goss, Supermassive Games

For students who will be searching for their first jobs in the near future, the most common piece of advice seems to be simple. Be passionate about games, and don’t be afraid to display that. If you’re interested in a job in the industry, chances are you’re already interested in playing games, but it’s a true passion for the medium that will carry you into the games industry above other applicants.

“I generally look for people who are interested in games,” Steve Goss says. ”It’s like being a chef who doesn’t like food. I don’t know how you can make something if you don’t engage with it.”

In fact, Jonathan Amor would argue that passion for games can be more important than a games-related degree, when it comes to programming roles. “I think the people who come through a computer science or maths degree, they’ve still got a great background and if they love games and they’ve taken initiative they’ve gone away and made things themselves, which is much more viable nowadays. You learn so much more from that. You stand out from the crowd, having done something.”

The easy access to free games engines for students and hobbyists means that coming to an interview with something tangible to show your interviewer is easier now than ever. “For a number of disciplines that we hire for, having made a game or a piece of software is a requirement,” says Steve Goss. “Portfolios are lovely, but actually having converted your idea into something that you can then hand to me and I can touch and we can talk about, is so valuable. Particularly for designers, I’d almost make that the rule. You’ve got to have a game. It doesn’t matter if it’s terrible. As long as you know it’s not very good and I know it’s not, then we can talk about it. Often that’s the really critical thing. We had a guy come in to interview and he was so passionate. He showed his game and he said ‘I’ve got to really apologise, it’s awful beyond all belief’.

"And it was, but he’d put so much effort into it and he knew where it was and what it should be, that you could have a massively creative and constructive dialogue with him. And we hired him, I think on the spot, to be honest. Because it wasn’t about success. It was about giving it a go and trying to make something. All we do every day is make things, and we need people who want to make things.”

Thanks to the number of graduates, studios are able to pick and choose from a large pool in order to make their teams the best they can be. “ We are quite fussy, actually,” says Amor. “We are quite careful to hire people we genuinely believe are great people, great team fit. One wrong person can completely upset the balance. That counts negatively a lot more than not hiring anybody, often. So hiring the right person is massively important.”

But don’t feel disheartened by the fact that there are so many people after the same jobs. There are plenty of ways into the industry that you perhaps haven’t considered.

“I don’t think people realise how many different roles there are in the industry,” Amor says. “There are so many roles, even beyond development. Marketing, sales, writing...”

“And massive specialism, as well,” Steve Goss adds. “We have people who do just lighting. They just light. That’s all they do because it’s so skilled and specialist. The depth of knowledge you need and the amount of work required to light a game is so massive. Say you want to be an animator. Is that someone who works with motion capture data? Is it someone who does hand animated data? Can you do humans? Do you want to do creatures? Do you understand how horses move? Oh my god, there’s this massive world.”

Ultimately, however, it’s up to you to make yourself stand out to prospective employers by going the extra mile.

“People need to realise that they need to do something that really stands out from the crowd,” Amor concludes. “It’s really hard to stand out these days. It takes a lot of work. People can go on a great course and do really well at it, but unless they’ve done a bit extra they won’t stand out, because there’s thousands of others who’ve done the same thing.”

“You will fail,” says Goss. “And that’s good. Then you’ll succeed, and that’s even better. And as long as you can keep doing that and not be put off by falling over, that’s the kind of person we need.”