Hunting for talent: the real issues facing the games job market

Hunting for talent: the real issues facing the games job market
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

January 31st 2014 at 11:53AM

Leading UK recruitment experts discuss the growing skills gap, competition with overseas markets, and what studios expect from potential recruits

This feature is part of New Year, New Job 2014, Develop’s month-long guide to games recruitment. You can read more at www.develop-online.net/jobs2014.

It was also published in the February 2014 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.

Finding the right recruits for your studio is tough, but are managers truly aware of how important the hiring process is? Develop brought together recruitment experts to share secrets about competing for applicants, retaining employees and how aspiring developers can get that dream job in the games industry

OUR EXPERTS

Lorna Evans
Position: Talent and communication manager
Company: Reflections, A Ubisoft Studio
Recruiter since 2012

reflections.ubisoft.com

Ben Harrison
Position:
HR & recruitment manager
Company: Sega Europe/Sports Interactive
Recruiter since 2005

www.sigames.com/studio/careers.php

Peter Lovell
Position: Talent acquisition manager
Company: Jagex
Recruiter since 2006

www.jagex.com/careers

Simon Miles
Position: Talent acquisition manager
Company: Codemasters
Recruiter since 1998

blog.codemasters.com/category/careers/

Emma Smith
Position: HR business partner
Company: Creative Assembly
Recruiter since 2009

www.creative-assembly.com

Erin Turnbull
Position: Recruitment and HR co-ordinator Company: Eutechnyx
Recruiter since 2010

www.eutechnyx.com/recruitment

HUNTING FOR TALENT

In 2012, VALVE released its employee handbook. The document included an interesting diagram declaring that “hiring well is the most important thing in the universe”, ranking recruitment above other important disciplines such as ‘writing code’, ‘building platforms’ and ‘playing Dota 2’. It’s a sentiment echoed by a Google presentation that was uploaded online, which also stated that recruitment is vital to the firm’s future.

And it’s an ethos that, during a special Develop roundtable discussion in London last month, UK experts warned some development studios are neglecting.

“Some of the managers at studios are so focused on making their games, they don’t realise that development involves recruitment as well,” explains Emma Smith, HR business partner at Creative Assembly.

“If they don’t bring the right people in, they’ll never finish their games.”

Jagex’s talent acquisition manager Peter Lovell adds: “Recruitment is absolutely essential to delivering a great finished game. And that isn’t just about screening CVs and conducting interviews; it’s making sure the candidate leaves with a good impression of the studio, even if they weren’t successful – all the stuff you do around recruitment is so important.

“Some hiring managers can let that all fall apart, and it’s horrible for recruiters because it’s painstaking to do all that work bringing a candidate in. If hiring managers ruin that, bad hires get made. The cost of that’s absolutely enormous and you find yourself back at square one again.”

Unfortunately, even studios that dedicate themselves to recruitment face another problem: competition for talent.

EXTERNAL TEMPTATIONS

Graduates who have the skills needed for games programming and other areas of development are increasingly aware that this knowledge is highly sought after by companies outside the games industry, often promising higher salaries and swankier working conditions than your average studio.

“We’re going for the same computer science applicants as Google,” said Reflections’ talent and communication manager Lorna Evans. “And Google can fly them to San Francisco in a Learjet, and pay them just as much. We just can’t compete with that.”

Lovell adds: “Investment bankers are a big problem for us in Cambridge. We spend so much time and effort trying to convince computer science graduates to come to us rather than investment bankers, but you just get blown out of the water.”

Recruitment is absolutely essential to delivering a great finished game. The cost of bad hires is enormous.

Peter Lovell, Jagex

Even if candidates are content to stay within the industry, the unstable nature of the games development landscape makes attracting talent that is already employed far more difficult than it used to be.

“If you’re looking for experienced people, they’re likely to be in their 30s or 40s and they’ll have a family,” says Evans. “They won’t want to move from one end of the country to the other with three children because that’s a huge risk when the reality is that sometimes companies go bust.”

Lovell concurs, adding: “Particularly when their current employer will do anything to retain them. You end up in bidding wars over certain candidates, and that can be damaging too. It’s killing internal salary bandings; you never know where to position people and we often end up giving up on the new candidate.”

Smith agrees: “It causes a huge knock-on effect. The war for talent is still raging.”

CROSSING BORDERS

The answer many studios have found is hiring from abroad. With so many companies fighting over so few viable UK applicants, the likes of Russia, China, Bulgaria and Romania can comfortably fulfil a developer’s needs.

“The reality is that the skills we need aren’t in the UK,” says Evans. “We are all talking to Russia, South America, and Bulgaria because we need the best people to make the best next-gen games.”

Codemasters’ talent acquisition manager Simon Miles agrees: “Romania’s another great example. It produces 3,000 IT graduates every single year and people like Oracle, Microsoft and IBM cottoned on to that years ago. Even Ubisoft’s first studio outside of France was in Bucharest and they have more than 800 people in that studio now. A lot of us are just catching up on this.

“The difference is these Eastern European countries are still teaching traditional programming and computer science. They don’t have university courses that have games in front of them; they have programmers who decide they want to make games.

“We had a guy for an interview that spent three quarters of a day fixing problems in our code. He’s now chained to that desk. That’s exactly the type of person we’re looking for.”

The skills we need aren’t in the UK. We're all talking to Russia, South America, and Bulgaria because we need the best.

Lorna Evans, Reflections

However, bringing in new talent from overseas is far easier said than done. The UK’s strict border control policies and lengthy visa application process can scupper any hire before the applicant even arrives.

“There are 11 pieces of documentation that have to be provided in China before they can get a visa to come for an interview,” Smith offers as an example. “And you can get around that with Skype for the interview, but we need them to be on site for the C++ test.

“Sometimes there are only 30 to 40 people in the world that can fill the senior role you have. It’s tough finding where they are, whether they want to move, and whether or not they can get a visa.”

Lovell adds: “It’s just as tough when you’ve already found someone in, say, Canada, because then you have to retroactively deal with the compliance issues so you can make a case to the Home Office.

“You have to have advertised at Job Centre Plus, on your own website, in industry press for 30 days, then process any applicants from the UK fairly – and all the while you’re keeping the individual you want to hire waiting for three months, sometimes more. And that’s if someone doesn’t snap them up first, or they decide to stay where they are.

“And even if they make it over here, sometimes the individuals joining the company might never have been to the building or the local area and, as has happened in the past, they realise that it’s not the place for them.”

Ben Harrison, HR and recruitment manager for Sega Europe and Sports Interactive, tells a similar story of a Russian programmer that brought his whole family over to the UK.

“He’s amazing at what he does but he’s actually going back home now because the UK education system isn’t good enough for his family,” he says. “We’re losing out on talent because of things like that, and it takes longer for us as a nation to gain talent than to lose it.”

THE SKILLS GAP

As both Harrison and Miles allude to, there is a deficit when it comes to the fundamental skills and knowledge that developers require, which makes filling vacancies even tougher.

“The key skill that we lack is coding,” explains Harrison. “We have some good technical tests, but unfortunately nine times out of ten, the coding skills aren’t there.”

Evans says it’s not just graduates but experienced developers that are falling short of studio expectations: “There’s a huge gap when it comes to programming, even in people that have been doing this for ten years, as well as management.

“They might have the game credits, but just through a phone call you can tell they don’t have experience in decision-making or fixing problems without being told how.”

Smith adds: “We need strong leaders, people that are able to mentor new talent up to a higher standard so that we don’t end up shutting all these fantastic studios down.”

All of our experts said that, while there are exceptions, universities are partly to blame for the widening skills gap. One recruiter even cited a course that tells its students they have no need of C++.

“It’s damaging and almost criminally negligent on the part of course leaders, because they are preparing a whole generation with mismatched skills,” says Lovell. “We find we hire more people that didn’t go to university, that taught themselves programming.”

We need strong leaders, people that are able to mentor new talent up to a higher standard so that we don’t end up shutting all these fantastic studios down

Emma Smith, Creative Assembly

Miles adds: “One course leader I spoke to runs a three-month course on box art. Some universities are so far behind in terms of what we need, and it’s because they think putting games on the course description gets bums on seats.”

Evans concurs, adding that some games courses are becoming “the new Media Studies: wasting kids’ money and selling them dreams that aren’t going to happen”.

But Eutechnyx’s recruitment and HR co-ordinator Erin Turnbull offers a solution. “We approach kids at a young age by going into schools and telling them that if they want a career in games, maths is essential,” she explains. “It’s a case of educating primary and secondary school teachers about what coding requires.

Smith agrees: “We’ve been doing that too, going out to local schools and running a project with their classes. Some of the stuff the kids come up with is absolutely brilliant, and it makes them realise maths isn’t a dry subject. “It was nice to see so many girls involved as well. They see it as something they might like to do.”

WANTED: FUTURE STARS

However, Lovell warns that while a career in games development can be appealing to children, it’s important not to misrepresent how much hard work is required.

“Games seems like such a popular, easy-entry industry from the outside,” he says. “People think if they play Call of Duty for hours, they could make a better one – they don’t understand there’s a science behind games development. It’s not a zero-entry barrier job they can get into and I don’t know how we can convince them otherwise.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. While many graduates are not up to scratch and foreign hires are becoming increasingly difficult, internal recruiters still find that the UK is by no means short of creative talent. The challenge is finding the future stars that really stand out.

“We had 540 applications over the Christmas break, and we have to go through every single one individually because we don’t know if they’re a potential superstar or not,” says Codemasters’ Miles.

“So we look for uniqueness, people who have sent us something that is out of the ordinary, rather than just a bog-standard CV.

“A great example of a bad application was a designer who sent me a letter saying it was their dream to work for the people that created Assassin’s Creed, and they would work in any genre except racing because they find it boring.

“We want people to show that they genuinely want to work for Codemasters and research what we do. That’s exactly how many of our current group leads came into our organisation.”

We look for uniqueness, people who have sent us something that is out of the ordinary, rather than just a bog-standard CV.

Simon Miles, Codemasters

Lovell agrees: “Standing out is key. Recruitment teams spend maybe two to three seconds per CV because we have so many. That’s how long you have to convince us to put you through to the second stage.

“We’re always interested in tech bods that haven’t learned through ready-made tools. We like people who know how to break those systems and understand more than the basics, but that’s hard to find. Most graduates rely on tools, but we need ones that can manipulate code at an almost binary level to make things happen.”

It’s not just technical expertise. Recruiters agree that ‘soft skills’ such as communication, teamwork and dealing with feedback are essential if candidates want a long career in games development.

Eutechnyx’s Turnbull says: “We look for people who have a bit of commercial awareness as well: somebody who has an idea of where the industry is going as a whole, and where Eutechnyx is going.”

Lovell adds: “Certainly when it comes to the more recent disciplines like mobile and tablets or monetisation and free-to-play, people with that commercial awareness go straight to the top of the pile.”

SAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT

Finally, recruiters advise those seeking a games development job to really put themselves out there – in a quite literal sense. Attending events and careers fairs can speak volumes about how serious applicants are about entering the industry, far more so than a strong cover letter.

“Think about all those thousands of young people currently studying degrees in games design,” explains Evans. “How many go to the Develop Conference? Four? So when students save up for it and travel all the way to Brighton, it stands out. Those are the sort of people we would hire.”

Miles adds: “I was in the pub just before Eurogamer Expo last year. A group of 12 young people came in and I automatically knew they were gamers. So I started chatting to them, bought a round of drinks – four of them now work for us.” 

DO WE NEED AGENCIES?

It’s the elephant in the room whenever hiring is discussed: with so many publishers and developers handling job applications internally, are recruitment agencies losing relevance?

“To be honest, I’m not sure how agencies are going to keep on supplying and surviving,” says Creative Assembly’s Emma Smith. “We’re developing our recruitment process in-house so much that we’ve got a wealth of CVs and contacts. I don’t know how agencies are going to make any more money.”

We very much operate on a direct hire model because we’ve invested in talent pools and built a CV database that’s bigger than anything games jobs boards can offer us.

Peter Lovell, Jagex

Sega Europe’s Ben Harrison adds: “All of us know one or two good agencies; you give them a tough role to fill and they help you out. But it’s the other agencies that are just selling, and not really thinking about what it is your company does.”

Jagex’s Peter Lovell says that 93 per cent of the firm’s roles were hired directly last year: “We very much operate on a direct hire model because we’ve invested in talent pools and built a CV database that’s bigger than anything games jobs boards can offer us. I don’t understand why some agencies think they still have a seat at that table.”

However, Codemasters’ Simon Miles argues that it’s because many agencies “have far more resources to get people from other industries” than any internal recruiter.

HOW TO RETAIN TALENT

Once you have the applicant you so desperately needed, how do you ensure they aren’t tempted elsewhere?

Sega Europe’s Ben Harrison says every hire from a graduate level is an opportunity to ensure new talent stays not only within the UK but also within your company and studios. The trick is to treat them right.

“We try to make sure the benefits are right, that they have respect and rewards for what they do,” he says. “Everything from a HR perspective is built towards retaining talent.”

Codemasters’ Simon Miles adds: “We do two game jams a year within the studio that really produce interesting results. The teams come into work absolutely buzzing because they can work on whatever projects they like. And some of the ideas that come out of that are then implemented into our future products.

“Most studios may not have the time to dedicate to things like this. To be honest, we don’t but we know how important it is and how valued it makes the teams feel.”

Jagex’s Peter Lovell stresses that even without extra benefits and rewards, agreeable working conditions are vital to morale: “If you’re an old school dinosaur that crunches their people and doesn’t give them any respect, you’re finished. This is the age of the internet and everyone knows people in the games industry. They’ll hear stories of other, better places and they’ll leave.”

Miles adds: “EA keeps getting voted as the worst company in the US – but how many people work for EA? It can’t be that bad.”