Are you looking for your dream career in games without a degree? We can help with that. We spoke to top UK games studios like Codemasters and Rebellion about how you can stand out in the sea of applicants and land the job you’ve always wanted.
Since 2013, the number of university graduates studying video game degrees has more than doubled – it’s even higher if you include games-related courses in art and animation.
With some universities having close ties to local developers, it’s becoming more common for studios to seek talent straight out of university. According to trade body TIGA, there is a high demand for skilled graduates as the industry continues to grow in the UK.
But for those who did not study a specific degree tailored to games – or didn’t go to university at all – there are other routes into the sector.
We spoke to developers from some of the UK’s most renowned game studios, who offered their insight in how you make yourself stand out if you’re trying to cut your own path into the games industry.
Formal qualifications in video games are still relatively new. During the time it has taken for them to emerge, we have also seen the democratisation of the medium through free game engines and self-publishing, which has been instrumental in the rise of indie developers.
“Anyone can study any part of games development in a self-guided manner, and there are plenty of websites and forums where people get together to discuss ideas and share their creations,” says Ross Gowing, game designer at Dirt Rally developer Codemasters. “There is so much quality content and tutorials created by incredible talented people available for free online these days that as long as you’re prepared to put in the time and hard work, you can teach yourself nearly anything you need to know.”
Eamon Vann-Harris, talent acquisition manager at Rebellion – acclaimed for its Sniper Elite and Zombie Army series – adds: “I’ve seen people who haven’t graduated from university take level design positions because they’re part of a modding community and built brilliant maps. At Rebellion, we’ll look for raw talent – people who understand the creative process or already have a passion and an eye for detail.”
Even before learning Unity or Unreal, there are benefits from making use of creation or editing tools in games like Super Mario Maker or Dreams – even one of Sumo Digital’s senior level designers was offered a job based on making his own levels for LittleBigPlanet 2.
“Making your own level or game has enormous merits,” says Ash Tegray, producer of Rebellion’s forthcoming Evil Genius 2. “That’s literal hard evidence that we can jump on and go, ‘This person knows how to make a game’.”
Have a strong portfolio
Arguably more important than going to university is ensuring you have a strong portfolio to demonstrate your abilities, whether it’s in game design, character art and animation, or any other discipline related to game development.
“The industry doesn’t care whether you’ve done your games degree to get your portfolio or whether you’ve been a hobby developer,” says Sumo’s Jacob Habgood, director of educational partnerships, who works on initiatives such as the Sumo Digital Academy, which is designed to train new talent who have not graduated in a games degree.
Tregay, however, believes there is an advantage for candidates who haven’t gone to university to better differentiate themselves: “If someone’s going to university, their portfolio will fit a template because of the nature of a degree programme. So, as employers, we then have to look for the differentiating factors – what else did this candidate do to make themselves stand out?
“Whereas if you didn’t go to university and you’re building that portfolio from scratch – granted, there’s a lot more onus on you to drive yourself and to look around at what other people have done – you’re more likely to end up with a more unique or interesting portfolio as an entry level hire.”
While looking at qualification levels might be more important when it comes to a role where coding is essential, everyone is in agreement that skills and experience is what they’re looking for, which is best demonstrated through a portfolio and interview.
The value of teamwork
While you may have an innate talent for game development – and there are certainly hobbyists and solo developers pursuing their own passion projects – it’s also vital to be able to work as part of a team if you want to land a role at a games studio.
“It's a level up if someone’s completed a project in a small group, because that’s then showing us they’ve got the right mindset for game design,” says Tregay. “They've got the discipline to finish their projects, and we can then talk about their experience of working with the team because, let’s be honest, this is the professional games development environment. You have a larger team, a greater support network, and mentors.”
That doesn’t mean a talented solo developer’s portfolio can’t impress on its own, but it won’t necessarily provide any insight into how you work in a team, which would then give other candidates an advantage.
Codemasters’ Gowing adds: “Communication and teamwork are extremely important across every department. Teams at larger studios are often made up of a hundred people or more, so it's key that everyone understands their common goals and is willing to help each other so that together everyone can create the best game possible.”
James Whitston, a lead designer for Total War developer Creative Assembly, believes being humble and fostering trust are key requirements for anyone who wants to work in games.
“If you go in with the attitude of ‘I know everything about this game,’ then it doesn’t take much to make us realise that’s not going to work. It’s about the team, where people can share ideas in the most effective and unconstrained ways. If that’s not happening, that’s an impediment to the process rather than you making yourself an asset to it.”
Games testing: A foot in the door
For people who want to get into games without specific qualifications, Gowing recommends a role in quality assurance as an excellent entry point into the industry. Like so many developers, it’s how he started his career.
“This is a great route for people who are passionate about gaming to start working in the industry before they’re really sure what role they fit into,” he explains. “Working hard, communicating effectively, and being a good team player can open up opportunities to progress your career, and get involved with development itself.”
QA was also the path that Whitston took before he found the internal opportunity to contribute to Creative Assembly’s step into game expansions with 2006’s Rome: Total War – Alexander. This in turn opened the door for him to become a designer for the series thereafter – not bad, considering he had spent almost a decade previously as a landscape gardener.
“I think QA is an absolutely excellent route for getting into games because if you’re not already doing this in the games you’re playing, then it does introduce you to a more formal way to looking at the product as a whole,” he explains.
“Obviously you’re spotting bugs, too, but you’re also potentially looking at those deeper gameplay elements of it, and providing feedback in a lucid way that people can actually action. If you can say, ‘I'm not particularly happy with that feature and I think we could do this, this, and this,’ then that's valuable feedback.”
There’s more to development than coding
Whitston’s innate ability to analyse good and bad games equally has been one of his strengths in game design, which is another way to illustrate that there are more ways of working at a game studio that isn’t just about coding.
While the Sumo Digital Academy is still primarily training its candidates in programming, they are specifically casting the net wider.
“We’re asking, ‘What if we just looked for potential?’” says Habgood. “As a result, for our first year we've got a fashion student, a physicist, a historian, and a philosopher.”
Tregay previously worked in software development but emphasises it was his experience in people and project management that ultimately led him to becoming a producer at Rebellion.
“The producer role is by its nature a generalist role,” he says. “On any given day, I'm looking at the project timelines and scheduling, staffing, HR, marketing, without ever really deep-diving into any specific area. You're basically there to help everyone else in your team do their job more effectively and be able to focus on the things where they are specialists and maximise their skills and experience.”
However, when Whitston began his games career, he found that – more than knowledge, skills, or experience – it was most important to work out what his values were, and ultimately how they align with the studio’s own values.
“The environment I went into was clearly based around teamwork and respect, as was humbleness and generosity with your colleagues,” he concludes. “At that time, Creative Assembly had these tacit values in the role but as the company has grown, it has also made its studio values explicit: quality, focus on our strengths, respect, teamwork, and trust. They are going to be the things that allow you to succeed.”