Rich pickings

Rich pickings

By Develop

April 3rd 2008 at 9:29AM

What's changed in the games development recruitment market in the past year?

This time last year, those studios looking to grow their ranks were complaining about a ‘recruitment crisis’ that had seen ballooning team sizes put pressure on game development teams around the world to grow.

However, it seems today that the shock of the new-gen has calmed somewhat, and studios are handling recruitment far better – specifically via casting their net wider for more diverse talent, and more keenly looking to welcome new blood into the industry through various schemes.

COURSE FOR CONCERN

One of the traditional complaints has been that university courses, and in particular those dedicated to game development, aren’t producing graduates ready to enter the real world studio environment.

For a while, blame was placed squarely at academia’s door for not teaching the right things – but, as the schools countered, how were they to independently produce a curriculum that would meet all these vague needs; needs that likely changed from studio to studio?
 
The solution, we’ve seen, is the establishment of formal links with universities and cooperation on preparing curriculi. Blitz, well known as being the first studio to hold public open days for students to learn more about game development and experience the atmosphere of a studio, also has an annual open day just for course lecturers.

The problem, says the studio’s education liason officer Kim Blake, is that there were – and still are – a huge number of courses, games-related or not, that simply don’t teach some of the absolutely core skills necessary for development. “We try to work with courses who are producing good quality graduates in the fields we need; it’s irrelevant to us whether they are games-specific or not as long as they are teaching the core skills we need.

“What is crucial is that these courses need to teach specific disciplines – programming, animation, 3D art – and not try to cram all the disciplines into any given course. A degree course that tries to combine disciplines cannot turn out graduates with the necessary skills to get a job in the industry.”

Not all studios are so keen on the concept of formal links with universities, one of them being Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley. This may sound as if Rebellion is one of those studios reticent to hire graduates, but actually, the company has found much success from doing so. Rather, it’s a telling indication of Rebellion’s belief that qualifications aren’t quite so important when compared to potential.

“We tend to look as much at hobbies and interests as specific type of degrees,” says Kingsley. “For example, we’re more than happy to consider graduates with no industry experience but suitable talents and enthusiasm, and we’ll help them to train on the job. We hire people from anywhere if they fit our criteria of skill, passion and personality.”

And yet, regardless of how you look at, won’t there always be a ‘crisis’ depending on how you define it?

One of the key factors is not being able to find all the staff that you need – but, as the quality bar continues to rise both within the generational cycle as well as in between it, team requirements will similarly bloat. Even if there was a perfect pipeline bringing qualified staff into the industry, would it ever be enough?

“I don’t think we ever catch up,” warns  Kevin Taylor of NCsoft, which is currently building its new development team in Brighton. “We can always do better. Additionally, with all the new platforms and techniques, the ground keeps shifting. The bar keeps being raised.”
 
Kingsley agrees, adding: “The industry is expanding, and games are taking more talented people to make them than ever before. In that sense, there will always be a bit of a skills shortage.”

It’s not surprising, then, that more and more studios are looking outside of our industry to fulfil not only raw headcount demands but also the new needs of contemporary development. In fact, all of the studios we spoke to revealed that they recruit from outside the industry; some proactively.

“We’ve hired people from communities such as non-game related art, social networking and general programming, amongst others,” continues Taylor. “It’s vital to share information. Good ideas come from a variety of different sources and countries - it’s counter-productive to be too insular, and so it’s necessary for us to continually look beyond the confines of our own industry.”

The widening remit of game development is also leading more studios to offer in-house training on both new techniques inside the industry sphere as well as from tangental disciplines.

“Since we were acquired by Disney we have a huge list of training courses available to us,” says Dawn Beasley, senior recruiter at Black Rock, a studio which continues to hire producers from outside of the industry from companies as diverse as Ford, Lloyds TSB and the BBC as well as the games industry itself.

“We also offer bespoke training and team events which come from suggestions within the studio, such as a cinematography course, life drawing classes and trips to Disney’s Imagineering ride-building department. We also regularly have guest speakers in the studio to give talks on all sorts of topics – even precomputed radiance transfer lighting.”

Blitz is another company that encourages its staff to take on new skills as they work, both through external training and through the internal Blitz Academy, which allows people to share their skills and communicate their specialist techniques and time-saving solutions.

But, as Blake explains, they’ve not had to force their workers to further themselves: “We encourage people to continue improving their skills throughout the careers, but we’ve found that most developers are learning junkies. They want to keep improving, keep learning new things, and they enjoy communicating what they’ve learned to their peers.”

CALMING THE CRISIS
One year ago we wrote that the ‘recruitment crisis’ was actually three problems masquerading as one: “barely a ration of available candidates, a haemorrhaging of experienced staff to other industries, and a worrying lack of adequately trained graduates to plug the gap”.

Those concerns haven’t magically disappeared during the intervening period – but that’s the point. The improvements we’ve seen from talking to studios have all been down to realising that no matter how much we’d all like it to, no magic wand is going to solve the problem, and neither is sitting back and hoping that either time – or Government subsidies – are going to kill it. Only through proactively addressing each of these problems head-on has there been any progress – widening the candidate pool to other industries and therefore being willing to train those with no games experience, addressing the real quality of life issues that underlie staff mobility, and working on training programmes to bring graduates up to speed.

It’s not an easy task, especially when you’re trying to get a monster game out of the door, but perhaps it’s simply a necessity in this day and age. That’s not to say that the problem has been solved – “I still don’t think our industry is doing enough to attract graduates in the UK,” says Beasley – but it’s an issue whose severity seems diminished from last year.

 And, as more and more studios look to their peers to see what they should be doing, we’ll see further development on these programmes – and one day, hopefully, recruitment will be less a ‘crisis’ and more a ‘challenge’.