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Universities discuss how they’re preparing the next generation of game developers for the realities of the industry, and how studios can identify and attract the best graduates.

Every summer, a new wave of game developers finish their university studies and seek to begin their career in the industry, making it a prime time for studios to expand with fresh entry-level hires.

We’ve already looked at the first steps into securing a job from the perspective of those who went to university and those who took other routes, and we’ve explored ways in which studios can improve their processes for attracting new talent. Today, we look at academia’s role in preparing aspiring game makers for the road into the industry.

Ruth Falconer
 

Professor Ruth Falconer is the head of division for Games Technology and Mathematics at Dundee’s famous Abertay University, which has long since established a reputation as one of the best academic institutes for games-related education. She says: “As a modern university, one of our key goals is to prepare our graduates for the world of work and, given the current strength of the video games industry, there are plenty of routes into employment.”

Abertay accomplishes this in a number of ways. Students working towards undergraduate degrees are tasked with building games projects for real-world clients, forging those first connections with either the games industry or sectors where their skills will be equally valued. Falconer reports that many of Abertay’s students are headhunted to work in games across the UK, including studios that have based themselves nearby in Dundee.

"Our teaching pedagogy is all about giving students a taste of an industry environment where programmers and app designers mix with computer artists and sound engineers,” she continues. “Because these groups work together to create games during their degree courses – and often enter our Dare Academy game design competition – we find that some will choose to set up as start-up companies straight after graduation, taking advantage of our enterprise support service and access to free office space.”

“As Europe’s top ranked institution for video games education, Abertay consistently attracts the very best student talent from across the world, so the pathways that these students take after graduation are wide and varied.”

Nia Wearn, course director for Esports, Games Studies and Communities at Staffordshire University, says that students often work on “side hustles” to better improve their chances of securing a job in games development. These projects can include tutorial videos, 3D content for assets stores, game jam prototypes, smaller personal projects, blogs – anything to keep both their skills and profile active while seeking employment.

“There are probably a few recurring routes our graduates take into the industry,” she adds. “Mainly they apply and get jobs before, or pretty soon after graduating, or they keep applying and they build up their portfolio and confidence a little, take onboard any feedback they’ve gotten from posting up work, or applications they’ve already got out there and they land something eventually. We talk a lot about the wide scope of the games industry, and the industries that use games technology and the different opportunities there.

“Mostly they listen to all of the great advice out there for their chosen disciplines and work out what applies to them, in their specific situations and keep going until they get something that fits the bill.”

Nick Dixon
 

Nick Dixon, senior lecturer at Falmouth University and head of the institute’s Launchpad accelerator, which prepares students to run their own studios, says there are three routes from university into industry: traditional employment, self-employment (via their own start-up, for example), or continuing to study with a postgraduate Masters course. He notes that while it’s less common, for some self-employment becomes their route by necessity.

“Honestly, given the competition for limited employment opportunities, many who are determined to enter the industry may not have a choice but to become self-employed start-ups,” he says. “As such, it is absolutely imperative that we prepare students for this route and to develop them as self-starters from the outset. 

He continues: “We are now offer graduates incubation opportunities alongside highly experienced industry mentoring to support student start-ups to achieve publishing or funding, which then also creates pipelines for future graduates through employment or internship. We are also working hard to ensure that students in creative and development disciplines are able to understand how their skills and talents can apply huge value to other sectors – the use of UI/UX development or gamification into education and healthcare, for example.”

For those determined to get into games, the conundrum becomes whether to seek employment at an established studio or attempt to start up their own – and, as Dixon says, universities must prepare graduates for both. Falconer observes that plenty of Abertay graduates have gone on to create their own companies.

“We offer all of our graduates career advice and support no matter what they choose to go on to do,” she says. “Many of those who have started up a studio have stayed close to the University, both in terms of their physical base and their ongoing interaction, and we are always please to see successful studios such as Pocket Sized Hands, Puny Astronaut, Team Junkfish and many others giving back to the following cohorts behind them.”

Wearn adds: “We spend a lot of time making sure graduates know the whole range of opportunities around them at any given time. We talk about funding calls, setting up companies, tax and finance implications of setting up studios in the same way we talk about CVs and building portfolios and applying for jobs. The landscape varies so much across the country as to opportunities at any given time and it’s really up to every individual to consider if a certain route is right for them at that time.”

“We’ve had some great success stories of students setting up their own studios, but it’s by no means an easy route and we try our best to prepare our grads for the realities of the industry, however they decided to approach it.”

Dixon notes that, while some may have no choice but to start up their own studio, plenty of graduates actively want to do so: “This is a very valid route, and we provide the support for them to do so. However, for those who want to take the more traditional route, it will give them the time to develop their discipline in a focused way. As business owners, they will quickly learn to multitask the responsibilities of both business owner and creative developer… as an employee, they’ll focus more deeply on their discipline. These are the slight variations in approach, though I would argue that both come with risk and responsibility. But both are valid routes.”

Engaging with Education

Preparing graduates for life in the industry requires close ties and collaboration with the industry itself in order for both universities and students to learn about the realities of working in games. Fortunately, most universities have established great relationships with games companies, although there is always room to further improve these.

“Lots of developers and studios already do a lot of fantastic outreach, directly or through [trade bodies] UKIE and TIGA, which I know we as educators are really grateful for, but the greatest thing any studio – big or small – can do is get in touch with us,” says Wearn. 

“This is especially true if you start to see a lot of graduates from the same courses apply to your positions... [and] if you notice grads missing the mark with portfolios. Drop the course leader an e-mail, don’t start a shouty Twitter or Reddit thread, and start a dialog with us – tell us what you’re looking for in graduates and portfolio for specific roles, etc. Every tutor in every university is trying their best out there for their students, but there’s so much variance in the industry as to what different roles do, or what skills they need to do them that keeping us in the loop too can help a lot in preparing graduates.”

She adds that most universities ramp up initiatives like student showcases and game jams after Christmas, and reminds studios that most students are seeking employment by the end of June, sometimes in May. 

“Staff probably have a good idea of the capabilities and skills of graduates in the first semester of their final year as students take on final year projects,” she says. “Every university will have a final showcase of some kind, so there’s lots of opportunities to check out the graduating classes or just send relevant course leaders an e-mail asking if they have any suitable grads for certain roles.”

Falconer says Abertay regularly invites companies into the universities: as mentors, guest speakers, judges for game jams and other competitions, or to provide design briefs and work placements. “By reaching out to universities to offer this kind of engagement, developers and studios will find staff are very willing to collaborate and set up opportunities that can be mutually beneficial,” she says.

“If you can, engage with universities on an ongoing basis, not just when it comes time to recruit. That way you will have the academic contacts in place to point you towards graduates who might be a good fit for your business. Attend degree show events, offer up work placements and keep an eye on the university social channels as it’s likely student work will be promoted across the course of the year. Finally, don’t be afraid to make contact with possibly job opportunities or situations vacant, we will always be happy to hear from potential employers.”

Dixon adds: “We’re very aware of how precious developer time can be, so it can be a challenging ask of developers to give up development time to spend with our student teams. However, not only do we have a social responsibility to develop our future ecosystems, but where internships are not possible, there is also no better way to evaluate possible talent for your studio than to spend time with them and to look at their work. 

“Good education is all about reality and so whilst we present a very realistic development environment for games students to make commercially and creatively focused content, industry mentoring from developers provides direct feedback that can make all the difference between being employable or not.”

He echoes Wearn’s comments about the importance of student showcases and why they offer companies a prime opportunity to find their next developers by truly seeing the fruits of their studies.

“As an industry person who has ventured into academia, I am constantly amazed at the talent and maturity I see emerging from Falmouth each year,” he says. “No doubt each University can say the same. I believe there’s value in seeing the talent develop each year from when they start to when they graduate.”

“We’ve had a number of high-profile industry friends visit with us during our showcases who have been good enough to sit down and chat with our students. There is no better way to review the talent developing here and to make a note of who might fit your studio culture and your next project. But it’s the work that counts, which isn’t always evident… even in the best of portfolios. Seeing live demonstrations of work and portfolio will always answer the key questions you need long before anyone steps in for an interview.”

The Studio View

One final perspective to take into account is that of the developers. Robert Senior, head of talent at Elite Dangerous creator Frontier Developments, notes that in the last year alone the Cambridge studio has hired 35 graduates into roles such as programming, art, animation, audio and design – thanks in no small part to the quality of universities’ teachings.

“There has certainly been a proliferation of games related university courses in the UK and we are lucky to be able to attract some of the best talent from the best programmes,” he says. “We have relationships with several UK universities where we attend careers events and give talks. We also have strong links with a couple of European universities where we continue to attract and hire really talented graduates each year, particularly in programming and art. Outside of university connections, we also take part in different industry events which give us the opportunity to engage with a wide audience including graduates and entry-level talent.”

Most entry-level hires at Frontier have a degree, Senior reports – often through games-related degrees, but also with more general studies that teach transferable skills, such as maths, physics and computer science. Newly-hired QA testers may not have a degree but “have demonstrated a passion for games, a technical mindset and the right attitude.”

The output of skilled graduates has increased to the point where Frontier has become more selective about how many universities it works with, focusing on running events, delivering talks and offering portfolio reviews with key partners.

“It’s increasingly about recognising that the best talent will be in demand and have choices so it’s about what we can offer them, such as advice on portfolios and hints and tips on making an application,” says Senior. “They’ve heard the usual studio pitches but tend to remember the great advice or feedback they got from one of our developers.”

And developers like Frontier recognise that no graduate truly finishes learning after leaving university. Case in point, the studio runs a ‘Coding Academy’ for all graduate programmers it hires, training them up on the company’s engine and technology before they’re even assigned to the project team.

“Overall we expect our graduates to have a thirst for learning and self-improvement, we expect them to embrace feedback and ask questions so that they can learn from our more experienced developers.”

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