EA, Frontier and others question 'games academy' idea

EA, Frontier and others question 'games academy' idea
Michael French

By Michael French

January 11th 2007 at 2:30PM

SPECIAL REPORT: Tiga loves it, EA doesn't - MP Shaun Woodward's suggestion that UK studios form an academy for games developers has ignited sector chatter, but opinions clash over the idea's worth.

Last week, Woodward told the Financial Times that the best way for the UK games industry to secure fresh talent "is to move into the hot seat itself; to come to the government and say 'we want to put some money into an academy'."

He described a ‘school for geeks’ that would not only serve graduates and students but also encourage young gamers "traditionally" left out of higher education to consider a career in games production as well.

Yesterday, development association Tiga stepped up to applaud Woodward's headline-grabbing suggestion, which was in fact spurred by a meeting between the two in July '06.

Tiga and its CEO Fred Hasson wants to see the industry put together an academy-style Centre of Excellence and has conducted research into the issue.

Explained Hasson: "The industry is crying out for more suitably skilled people to enter the sector. Skills needed to cope with the next-gen transition to larger studios and changing patterns of production are needed now. There are potential gains to be made by looking at how techniques and know-how from other closely related industries can inform the way we develop product. These are the issues we are exploring with companies and partners.”

A similar idea is also being put together by computer game and digital media agency Pixel-Lab, which according to managing director Toby Barnes is "further reaching than a 'school for geeks'" and "would work along side the countries excellent post graduate courses and would develop a sustainable future for UK development".

PERCEPTION PROBLEMS
However, the already-established and fast-growing games education sector has been left a little puzzled by Woodward's outcry. From their point of view, such teaching is already available in the UK via established colleges and universities - and the idea of sending out a message that all gamers might make it in academia is mistaken.

"There has always been a perception among the ill-informed that someone who spends a lot of time playing games must be able to make them. There is obviously no link between the amount of time someone spends watching TV and their potential for a career in the BBC, so why are games seen as any different?" said Dr Jon Purdy of Hull University's Games Programming MSc.

"I would suggest that there is a very good correlation between excellence in traditional academic subjects and suitability for employment in the games industry, just as there is in all technically demanding, creative and highly profitable industries."

Purdy told Develop that numbers for the course are already falling due to lack of studio support, and that Woodward's suggesting private sector money fund a games academy is a short-sighted. Instead the opposite is needed: "The only thing that suffers when specialist masters’ level games graduate numbers fall is the games industry. If the Government or games industry don’t give some assistance to the students wanting to do masters’ courses, like ours, there will be very few graduates entering the games industry from these courses in the near future."

Meanwhile Electronic Arts UK, which runs a successful Universities program, has blasted everything about Woodward's suggestion, from the use of the word ‘geek’ through to the fundamentals of the idea itself.

“As an industry the sooner we can shake off the perception that our companies are staffed by geeks the better. Geeks conjure up the image of social outcasts, nerdy disfunctionals who live for their work," explained Matthew Jeffery, head of European studio recruitment.
 
"The games sector is not in the midst of a talent crisis. Those touting this are obviously not creative in the way they are seeking to attract candidates and they need to focus on attracting talent not only from within the gaming industry but outside of it. With the appeal of Next Generation gaming we can attract the best talent from our finest universities, from film, TV, music, mobile, IT hardware and software, FMCG, retail and defence industries, to name but a few areas where great talent is."

Jeffery explained that traditional graduates are EA UK's priority for its recruitment plans in 2007, with the publisher-developer hoping to make sure over 30 per cent of its studio hires this year are graduates.

SHOW US THE MONEY

Some independent studios in the UK remain unconvinced as well, with Frontier boss David Braben telling Develop: "I would be wary of any special interest group running education. On the art side, our prime competitor for staff as an industry is the film business. On the programming side our prime competitor is probably the finance industry.

"We are simply looking for good solid candidates who are very good in their respective fields, with a broad knowledge of the associated disciplines - the knowledge we require is not particularly specialist. It is these good solid candidates that are hardest to find.
 
"Universities have been going downhill as they dumb down to attempt to meet the government's ridiculous targets of 50 per cent 'university' attendance - resultant computer science graduates, for example, no longer have the knowledge they need, like basic maths."

Another UK independent studio executive, which dubbed Woodward’s idea as ‘a games version of Hogwarts’, pointed out that it might be hard to get studios behind such a privately-funded venture because they would want assurances that they could cherry-pick the best students once they finished studies.

But there are already comparable establishments with games-exclusive teaching elsewhere in the world, if they are rare. Centre NAD in Montreal bills itself as 'a finishing school for developers' by offering an art and animation design course, while Germany is host to a Games Academy which has around 100 students learning games art, programming and level design - it even offers courses for would-be producers. Both of these schools are privately run from funds generated by tuition fees and donations.

And it's money of course that will prove the main test for such an idea in the UK. Explained Tiga's Hasson: "The key issue will be willingness to pay. We are working on the basis that few will want to put in funds for general training at present so that what we are doing now is investigating potential partners willing to pump prime this process, and developers willing to work with others."

The recruitment sector goes under the spotlight in the next issue of Develop, out on February 1st.