Building a graduate game development team

Building a graduate game development team

By James Carroll

July 18th 2014 at 11:00AM

Evil Twin Artworks MD James Carroll on why giving aspiring developers an opportunity to work can benefit both your studio and the wider industry

In the UK we have some very prominent universities producing some of the most talented graduate developers in the world.

That said, many in the industry do not perceive these graduates as ready for a productive role straight from university. These graduates need a significant amount of resource and money allocated to training within a company before they are, which companies struggle to justify.

The UK industry itself has also suffered, having plummeted from third largest in the world to sixth in just two years. This prompted a report by Nesta, written by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope, who relate this to issues within our education system.

This worrying report states, “In just two years, it seems the UK’s video games industry has dipped from third to sixth place in the global development rankings... That is mainly a failing of our education system – from schools to universities – and it needs to be tackled urgently if we are to remain globally competitive.”

There is often talk about how industry can, or should, get more involved with universities and students to boost the quality of graduates. This does have its challenges, but we have spent four years developing an approach that has enabled us to build a great team, mostly with graduates. We believe that this process could well be applied far more broadly across the industry, which would help studios, universities and graduates.

When we started out, our approach was simple; we decided to teach young people how to make video games ourselves. As a result we have become veterans of over 1,000 workshops in nearly every educational setting, teaching thousands of young people from the ages of seven to 22.

Through the years we developed a term-based, weekend and after school vocational model designed to inspire and encourage creative freedom and teamwork. Because it is a rolling program, the participants can come back year after year, developing their technical skills so significantly that some of the older students work on limited commercial projects without their own development team. Once we find a student with the right talent and temperament, we give them work experience.

Our lead programmer, Ben Coombs, now in his 20s, came to our courses when he was in his teens. He went through all the stages with us, and now works with us full time.

Once the students begin to work for our studio, they know how we work, they know what we expect and we know what makes them tick. A job interview seems pointless when you have watched the real person develop over a period of years.

We are not devaluing degrees, but we do believe a vocational supplement can be helpful to fast track a graduate and enable them to hit the ground running. Having to carry someone poorly prepared can be disastrous for a small team on a small budget.

There are three key challenges to this model. The first is that if you get good at teaching, it you will get a lot of work! We have a clear rule that we are not teachers but rather game developers looking to engage and train the next wave of talent, so we keep the training down to no more than a couple of hours a week, usually at the weekend.

Secondly, if you bring someone in for work experience who is not ready, it can cost you time and money. However, having got to know them through our workshops, we generally have a good idea before we take them on, and whilst we do give them real work, we don’t count on them, making sure they know that there are no guarantees their work will be used.

Another way to counter concerns about time input from your team is to give the student a freelance project where they have to work from home and on their own; you will guide them but not invest too much time so if they are not good at self-motivation you spot this without it affecting your team negatively.

Thirdly, and directly relating to the second point, getting a student from keen amateur to employee takes years. Enter into this process knowing it will take a long time; it’s not about instant results, but more about building strong foundations and a loyal team.

For us, necessity is the mother of invention and being based in Swindon we found there is no hub for game developers and virtually no opportunity for talented people, and therefore we had to find alternative ways to build our team. However, that doesn't mean if you are based in a hub, this method isn't just as useful.

I would advise any small studio who wants to build a happy, solid, talented and cost-effective team to consider approaching a local school or community group to see if they would be interested in such a partnership. In our experience, everyone is very keen to make these things happen. If you are looking at two to five years down the line, and not short term, there are huge benefits for the university, the students, your studio, and ultimately, the game industry.

[James Carroll is MD of Evil Twin Artworks, who produce PC strategy games.]