Talent troubles

Talent troubles

By Tim Heaton

February 9th 2012 at 9:30AM

Tim Heaton looks at UK challenges for hiring the best developers

Recruiting into a games team in the UK is pretty challenging at the moment. There are a series of hurdles for us to overcome, and we seem to have erected some of those ourselves.

We’re in the privileged position of recruiting into both of our teams, Total War and ‘the secret Alien IP one’ (which is primarily on console).

Finding talented people for the Total War team is probably more straightforward – people know the game and its heritage, and we have an established structure with very specific demands and positions to fill. The written test that we give designers still makes me feel totally inadequate.

ANOTHER WORLD

With the console team, it’s very different. For a long time we weren’t able to even mention the IP. We weren’t able to say anything. How do you attract people to come in for an interview when you can’t communicate how exciting the opportunity is?

Blogs and the press aren’t interested in writing a news piece saying ‘CA are making a game. Yes, a game. More news soonish’. Eventually we convinced our partners to let us say something, and we had an enjoyable day inviting the charming Mr Ed Vaizey over to see the work-in-progress and talk to the press.

We’re still not really allowed to say much more about the game, but in a bittersweet way, we have benefited from several high-profile studios closing down. When that has happened, we’ve been able to go over and speak directly to everyone affected, and anyone who shows an interest can be NDA’d and shown what we’re up to.

Culture matters within a team. When developing a game that will be sold across the world, it really helps to have a cross-section of different gamers making that game.

And as the teams discuss features and implementation, it’s great to have reality checked by people who didn’t all grow up in the UK, watching Blue Peter and playing FIFA on PlayStation. 46 of our 190 staff are from outside of the UK. But there are significant barriers to bringing people from outside the EU to work in the UK.

Thankfully it’s slightly easier than it was a year ago, when there was a virtual ban, and we had to stop inviting non-Europeans to interview. Now, when we find someone who brings unique skills to our team, we can apply for a visa and most of the time it’s fine.

But it does create a barrier, because those candidates have to go through a period where they can’t be sure we’ll be able to employ them; it extends the offer period, and creates confusion and uncertainty.

THE BRAIN REGAIN

Some of those candidates will be from the US and Canada. Yes, it is possible to reverse the brain drain, seemingly oiled by the tax breaks allowing large investment in certain areas of those countries. You can see the attraction for UK developers to go and join a burgeoning community, but part of me thinks we may see some fallout from that.

The mega-studios being built and resourced now with relatively ‘cheap labour’ are growing very fast. They also seem to be responding to some of the difficult questions about development with the answer ‘throw more people at it’. I’m not sure that’s the way to build great teams and keep everyone motivated.

When you’re paying more for each member of staff, you’re much more careful in the recruiting process to get the very best, and to support them once they’re in the team. And let’s be clear, the difference between a good team and a bad one puts any tax-break savings in the shade.

Skills matter too. Outside the UK, most countries seem not to have fallen into the hole of creating generic ‘Games Development’ degrees, but specialising in the core skills games developers still want – maths, physics, software engineering etcetera. Generic degrees feed off students eager to progress into a highly technical and specialised industry, but without the world-view of what that really requires.

As the Livingstone-Hope Review addresses so well, more specific skills need to be taught. Putting computer science on the National Curriculum and diminishing the more general ICT is a start; let’s hope the tide is turning. Meanwhile, some of the best-educated staff are from outside the UK.

Given all the obstacles we face, we’re still managing to bring in hugely talented people at the levels we need. We make great games in the UK; it’s so easy to reel off a list of world class developers over here, from our friends at Sports Interactive through to newer stars like Mind Candy. But we certainly don’t make it easy for ourselves.