When a job is kid’s play

Working on computer games is not just a job for nerds. Britain’s computer games industry is the third largest in the world. In the UK it’s bigger than the music industry and brings in more money than both cinema box office takings and DVD rental incomes combined. It’s a new industry that’s been growing fast and the leading companies are looking to recruit the best graduates for a range of careers.

The games industry breaks down neatly into three sectors: developers are the people who make the games; the service sector provides software tools and does most of the pre-release testing; and the publishers decide which titles make it to the shelves. The path into games publishing is similar to other areas of media publishing, but with a need for knowledge and enthusiasm for games. Commonly, first jobs in the service sector or with a developer tend to be junior programmers, junior artists and testers.

A great game is a marriage of science and art and the computer games industry demands high calibre graduates from both. Artists create the characters, the scenery and the games environment; science graduates create the computer programming to make the game work. Testers can come from either discipline, although a science background is usual.

For the best candidates, starting salaries with some of the larger companies are between £16,000 and £24,000 a year with good potential for that to rise steadily throughout your career and often a broad package of employee benefits. However, many jobs are on a contract or even freelance basis; the hours can be long, it can be stressful and demanding, but the working environment is relaxed.

There’s little of the stuffy traditional hierarchies common in many other businesses and “dress down Friday” has been extended all week. Even fresh recruits can find themselves working on important projects almost from day one and because it’s a new and successful industry, there are many opportunities for career development. Good graduates can quickly move up the ladder.

Just as many top directors got into film and television by serving their time as runners, so testing is often the first step for aspiring games designers. Testing means playing games; going through them to find any bugs and occasionally evaluating how good a game it is. It’s not all glamour, though – it can be tedious and high pressured, especially when deadlines are tight, and in the games industry, they often are. But testing is a great way to learn about what makes a great game: vital knowledge if you aspire to creating a great game yourself.

Miles Davies started out as a tester and is now a quality assurance co-ordinator for Babel Media, a highly successful company based in Brighton that has carved out a niche providing services to other businesses within the games industry.

Developers bring their games to Babel Media to be thoroughly tested at various stages before going on sale. Miles got a freelance job with the firm while still an undergraduate at Sussex University. Since graduating he has been given a full-time job and has moved up from testing to overseeing the testing process on various projects.

“I did a degree in multimedia and digital systems which is a mixture of half creative multimedia and the other half computer science theory. My degree did serve me well in an indirect way; I did quite a lot of programming on the course and that helps your understanding of how a game works when it is being tested. But the course wasn’t specifically computer games orientated.”

As well as more established computer and IT degrees, higher education courses in computer gaming have sprung up all over the country. There are currently more than 70 gaming related degrees on offer. But these courses are by no means the only path to a career in gaming. In fact, Richard Leinfellner, executive vice president at EA Games UK, believes the more traditional degrees are often a better bet.

“Some universities offer really strong courses, but there are lot of other vocational courses that are almost too specific. At EA we go more for people with a very solid basis in the core skills like maths, physics, computer programming or animation. It is actually much easier to learn specific skills rather than general, so get the general first.”

Jenny Brown, university relations manager for EA’s European studio, agrees that core skills are particularly sought after, but aside from excellent qualifications, the strongest candidates will be the ones with a genuine enthusiasm for computer games.

“We’re looking for people who have made their own games, developed their own game characters or environments. They have to be people who have always wanted to play games and work in games. They need passion, because if we just recruited academics there would be no passion breathed into the games.”

Getting that little bit extra into your portfolio rather than just your degree work is essential and there is a short course designed to do just that. Dare to be Digital is a finishing school for graduates who want a career in games. Based at Abertay University in Dundee, it is sponsored by games companies and runs ten-week courses where students work in teams to design, develop and produce a working game under as close to industry conditions as possible.

Competition to get onto the course is tough but successful candidates have their employment prospects significantly enhanced as many firms see it as a fertile recruiting ground. Dare to be Digital is run by Jackie McKenzie – she believes it offers student a vital bridge between academia and industry.

“Computer games companies, like most employers are looking for experience as well as qualifications. That’s where all students struggle and that’s the gap we are looking to fill. And for their part, the companies are seeing us as the lifeblood of the industry.”

Edmundo Kapusnaik got onto the Dare to be Digital course after completing his undergraduate degree at Abertay University. He’s now working as a junior programmer at Rare, writing code that allows the characters created by artists fit into and interact with the rest of the game.

“Dare was invaluable. Even though I came from a good computer games undergraduate course I learned so much with Dare. One essential thing it taught is working as part of a team, which is the way it is in the industry.”

But whether you get onto the Dare course or not, Edmundo believes it is the work you do on your own initiative that puts you ahead of the pack.

“If you want a job in the computer games industry you have to be prepared to really know your stuff. Get good at what you are doing and get good at working with others. Come up with your own projects, not just the portfolio stuff you do at university, but work you have created on your own initiative. And that goes for anyone, programmers or artists.”

More information

If you’re interested in a career in computer games try to attend the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival that runs from August 10-14. It’s the UK’s main industry forum and is open to the public. All the major employers will be present and although not a recruitment fair, it’s an ideal way to gain an insight into a career in the computer games industry. Visit the website eief.co.uk

The Skillset website has detailed downloadable information sheets about specific jobs within the computer games industry. Visitskillset.org/interactive/

The Guardian, Saturday 6 August 2005

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