How Creative Assembly gets kids interested in video game careers

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The Total War maker’s head of talent Emma Smith takes us behind the scenes on the studio’s Legacy Project.

For many, the video games industry is something of a black box. It’s not uncommon for those outside the market to see it as a far-off dream where coders produce blockbusters like Grand Theft Auto.

As a result, it’s hard for a lot of people to consider a career in the games industry. Many don’t know what it involves, what skills are required to land a job, or even where to start looking for one in this fast-growing sector.

But one company has been trying to rip down this wall and show people that working in the games industry can be a reality. Since 2014, Horsham-based studio Creative Assembly – best known for the Total War series of strategy games, as well as horror title Alien: Isolation – has been running the Legacy Project.

Spearheaded by the company's head of talent Emma Smith, this initiative was originally intended as a way of working more closely with educators following the introduction of the Computer Science GCSE in 2012.

"We had an outpouring of people in the studio that really wanted to give something back to education," Smith explains. "They wanted to share their passion, enthusiasm, knowledge and expertise with teachers and students.”

During the last seven years, Creative Assembly has been pretty busy to this end. The studio has been actively engaging with local secondary schools and bringing students in for workshops to break down all the different aspects of development.

More recently, it has been inviting kids to its annual game jam, in memory of senior programmer Simon Franco who passed away in 2014. This started with students from West Sussex all-girls Millais School in 2018.

"When the parents came in at the end of that, the way they understood and realised that this was actually a career which they’d really love for their children to be in was amazing,” Smith says. “It really helped address some of the misconceptions about whether games could be a profession that they can have a great career and solid income in, and also be happy.

“Seeing that shift was a massive boost for us. Some of the developers have been really enthused about not only making games for their job, but as their outside interest and passion as well – we really foster that."

Over time, Legacy Project has become larger in scope. Creative Assembly still engages with local schools, but the company has started to liaise with other educational institutions. In 2018, the studio even teamed up with East London Arts and Music college to help out with its Game Design course.

"As Legacy Project has grown and become better known in our industry, education and the local area, we've been able to listen more," Smith says. "That's been the step change; we can understand where the barriers are in education and coming into our industry, but hearing that from the students themselves and the parents, it feels like we're really well integrated and understand the lay of the land with all of those different areas."

At first, the focus of the project was purely on computer science but this scope has since become much broader. One of the big barriers that Legacy Project has had to overcome was the perception that in order to work in games, you had to be involved on the technical side of things.

"As our industry is continuing to grow, it's not just those areas," Smith explains. "It can be PR, marketing, finance, business development, HR, recruitment and all of those other areas that can help make a game really successful."

This isn't the only barrier either; Creative Assembly has encountered parents who didn't realise just how many games companies were based in the UK – something that the studio has been able to showcase thanks to data from video games trade body UKIE. Meanwhile, Creative Assembly has also been collaborating with Digital Schoolhouse to help educators come up with ways of teaching skills that are useful for game design.

"It becomes easier for students to be comfortable trying new things and getting rid of that fear of failing," Smith says. "That can be quite strong."

But perhaps the biggest barrier is bringing underrepresented groups into the games industry. This has included engaging with local girls’ schools, and trying to find ways to help those from less well-off backgrounds by providing them with the equipment they need as well as suggesting courses that are cheaper than going to university.

“Finance and access to technology is a big game changer and something we'd like to focus on,” Smith says. “Equally, what we are noticing is a change in the diversity of our graduates that are coming into the industry. That's where we've been really pleased with our trainee programme. The quality and the diversity of the graduates that start their career at Creative Assembly is so much richer than it was five or six years ago.

“The majority of the trainees that come through the doors at CA stay on, become permanent and have access to career development pathways. They've been mentored by people that are not only great at their jobs, but are really great human beings as well."

“We're also seeing more discussion around the length of courses. Next Gen Skills Academy has been great at looking into what more the apprentice programme could work more for our industry. There are real game changers behind the scenes about the financial impact of going to university.”

Creative Assembly isn't the only studio that's looking to engage with the education community, but it's perhaps one of the most experienced in this field. Asked what advice she'd offer to those developers who want to do the same, Smith says that it is important to provide support for those at your company with a desire to do this kind of work.

"When it comes from someone who really cares about this stuff, it's so much more meaningful," she says. "They'll have the passion and enthusiasm to just keep moving it forward rather than traditionally where this work is held by a member of the HR team. I want to see people who don't feel that this is something they can be to come and be their true self and be really happy and creative and add to the things we do.

“It's also about a developer being able to find their own way of doing this. Linking with education in the same ways we do, they might not have the same number of ambassadors, so it might be you partner with one local school or you might have a different set of mentors, there's lots of different things. Just try and find our own groove for doing this.

“Also, share the success stories. Tell people what you are doing. It inspires others. All boats rise with the tide. If one person starts doing great things, other people will want to do more. Over time, it will grow into something bigger thanks to those small interactions."

Overall, though, Smith just wants the industry to be more open. To many, the games sector is a black box. Without already working in the market, it can be hard to know what actually goes on.

“It is about information and busting misconceptions wide open,” she says. “As an industry, we're used to being introverted and secretive about what we do. This isn't about sharing what your next new IP is, this is about sharing the joy of the thing that makes us all super passionate and so happy to be part of such an amazing industry.

“I keep likening it to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. We know what the end product is but we want to be able to share what we do. The real changes come from when we work together and for schools to come to use and say we want to know what kind of GCSEs our students need to do to be able to come into the games industry. We have lots of useful resources, like the Creative Chronicles section on our website that educators can take and use. They can look at resources like Next Gen Skills, which are trying to fortify their career advice.”

She concludes: “Really it's about listening to your students about where they'd want to go and what they'd like to do and make the most of the information that's already out there.”

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