THE DEVELOPMENT GAME
The divergent videogame industry of 2014 moves fast, so what ensures that you have the best shot at working in it?
You may be able to code your way out of any problem in C++, or knock up a mean run cycle in Maya, but if you really want a studio to take notice, there’s one piece of advice you must not ignore: set aside time to create a showreel of your work. “I can’t impress on people enough how difficult it is to glean any information from written CVs,” Siobhan Reddy, studio director of LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway creator Media Molecule, tells us. “In this incredibly competitive field it’s assumed that people have a wide range of skills and a clear talent within their chosen field; it’s really important for us to be able to see the results of the skills that you have.
“Demonstrating that you have made something good actually tells us a lot. From that we can find out about your taste, your ability to dream up ideas, your ability to figure out what needs to be done to implement it, your ability to stay focused, your ability to finish, and most importantly we can see what your ‘finish’ actually looks like. And if you’ve worked with a team, we can use that example to find out about team dynamics, or how you organise yourself and others.”
And thanks to the success of indie productions in recent years, the ability to promote yourself well, irrespective of whether you intend to go it alone or find a role at a studio, is more important than it’s ever been. But while the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie might paint a romantic picture of bedroom coding, industry experience is invaluable.
“Graduates have traditionally entered our industry by joining existing developers and experiencing the many different elements that go into making a triple-A game alongside talented, experienced colleagues,” says Elite co-creator and founder of Frontier Developments, David Braben. “In the last few years indie development has again become a possibility, but success is more typically from people who already have industry experience. Ultimately I think it’s generally a sound choice to join an established studio to understand what it takes to deliver a high quality title, even if your ultimate goal is to be indie.”
Mike Bithell, who spent just over five years working in various design roles at Blitz Games Studios and Bossa Studios before reworking his Flash game Thomas Was Alone into the highly successful PC and console versions, agrees: “We’ve seen a number of folk drop out of uni or not go at all, and find big, loud success as indies – Vlambeer are good examples. However, you have to be a genius, and few are; I certainly couldn’t have done it that way.
“My advice to students remains the
same: find clever people and surround yourself with them. I’m always a bit worried when a student tells me they’re graduating and starting an indie company with friends. That’s a big risk – you’re bound to make mistakes, and learning them on your own is never fun.”
Thomas Was Alone was built in Unity, the game-creation tool that was itself built by indie developers in a basement, and one that has enjoyed huge popularity in recent years thanks to its combination of accessibility, power and, of course, the fact that the basic version is free. Until recently, it was the most obvious choice for smaller projects and prototyping, but nowadays more – and larger – studios are using it. But as Unity continues to increase its reach and add extra functionality, the traditionally triple-A-only engine makers
“USE UNITY, USE UNREAL, USE WHATEVER – IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER AT A FIRST JOB STAGE”
are beginning to compete at the more accessible end of the market, too.
Epic’s Unreal Engine, which was previously the preserve of studios with hefty budgets, can now be licensed for $19 per month. Just days after Epic revealed its new, more affordable pricing structure,
Crysis and Ryse developer Crytek made its CryEngine available to licence for $9.90 per month. Both moves were driven, of course, by the rise of smaller development studios and increasing popularity of mobile games. Even prior to this shift, though, both engines were available at no cost for non-commercial use.
But while Unity, Unreal Engine and CryEngine now constitute the ‘big three’ commercially available engines, there are other affordable options, too. Chief among these is YoYo Games’ GameMaker which, while less powerful than the aforementioned examples, is behind some of the biggest indie successes of recent years, including Derek Yu’s Spelunky and Dennaton Games’ hyper-stylised Hotline Miami.
Bear in mind, however, that while all-in-one game creation environments are certainly handy, most studios also use traditional art packages such as Maya, 3DS Max, Photoshop, ZBrush and Mudbox, and still others build their own tools from scratch. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what packages you have experience in, just so long as you can demonstrate your abilities. Tools can be learned, but creative chops less so.
“For design and gameplay programming, a thorough understanding of the process is what matters,” says Braben. “How you get it is secondary, but the understanding of what works is key. There are many tools out there, each with their strengths and weaknesses; what matters is the quality of what you have produced and your understanding of what is good about it, not so much the tool or tools it was produced in.”
“Specialists require specialist tools, but honestly, software is easier to train than art or design skills,” says Bithell. “Use Unity, use Unreal, use whatever – it really doesn’t matter at a first job stage. Software is a tool, not a qualification.”
While you should be motivated to work on your own projects, one of the best ways to gain knowledge and experience of a variety of different tools is, of course, by embarking on a degree. Choosing the most suitable course for your specific needs is key – the interviews with course leaders of various universities over the following pages will help you get a sense of the sheer variety of approaches now available in game education – but how much water does
a degree hold with developers looking to recruit these days?
“When I was a student, only two per cent of the population went to University,” says Steve Jackson, who co-founded Games Workshop and Lionhead Studios and now lectures at Brunel University. “A degree was an impressive qualification – it opened doors. But now that around 50 per cent of people go into tertiary education, there’s no question that the ‘worth’ of a degree has diminished.”
Jackson adds that he always makes it clear to prospective students that employers generally prefer experience over qualifications, but points out that when two candidates with no industry experience compete for a job, it’s the one with the qualification who will likely have the edge. “Three years of studying game development indicates they are pretty serious about a career in the industry,” he says, “and not just fanboys!”
Braben also sees general value in degrees, irrespective of the subject studied. “A degree in any subject shows the ability to follow through on a commitment; it shows that the applicant can apply themselves over a long period of time,” he says. “In many cases it doesn’t relate much to their eventual career – though our industry is an exception, where it can help there too. Generalist degrees like computer science are great, for example, but maths or physics are also useful even in game programming, as long as the applicant has a good feel for algorithms and problem-solving.”
He’s more wary of highly specialised degrees, however, warning that there is a danger that a particular specialism can become out of date quickly in such a fastmoving industry, or even cover too narrow a remit to be more generally applicable, limiting available roles and potentially constraining your future career.
Bithell shares his concerns. “I would always encourage non-specific degrees – computer science over game programming; art over concept art,” he says. “The syllabuses I’ve seen seem to be lower skill count at the end of the course on game-specific courses, so I’d encourage direct comparison. Of course, there are standout game courses and awful traditional courses, too.”
Reddy, who after doing a quick straw poll reveals that Media Molecule’s split between staff with a degree and those without is roughly 50/50, points out the differing expectations between roles. “It’s unusual for us to hire a programmer who hasn’t been to university,” she says. “All but one of our coders went to uni, but not all of them studied computer science! But it’s more common in other disciplines for us to hire people who haven’t attended university. We look for people who can demonstrate their work to us, and we aren’t prejudiced about how people have learnt these skills. Lots of great people went to uni, and lots of great people didn’t. It’s not binary.”
Braben is similarly open-minded: “I wouldn’t distinguish game education from other disciplines. Frontier takes candidates who are from top schools in their field, be that computer science, animation, technical art, etc. I think it’s important students are taught a broad range of skills, and the game-specific elements for all disciplines – except possibly game design – are just a small part of a rounded education. In programming we compete with the banking and film industries; in music, sound, art and animation we compete with film, advertising and TV.
“But I’ve noticed in the last year that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of applicants to study computer science at university – the dramatic fall in computer science applications in 2001 was one of the things that gave us the impetus for Raspberry Pi in the first place – for me, at least. Hopefully that rise is partly due to the phenomenal success of Raspberry Pi!”
And ensuring that any such influx of students are taught relevant skills is a continual challenge for universities. “This industry moves so quickly that it’s difficult to keep up with what’s happening in the real world,” says Jackson. “Just as studios are guessing at what will be the industry standards when their game is complete, we are trying to guess what skills our students would benefit the most from, and where we can find an ‘expert’ who can teach those skills.”
Justin Parsler, who lectures in Games Design at Brunel and has been making
games professionally for 16 years now, notes the reduction in new game-related degrees being offered of late: “The last few years seemed to see swathes of new game courses, but that seems to have slowed down – perhaps as institutions discover that teaching games is actually quite hard! It takes more than just industry knowledge, and more than just academic knowledge – you need both. Generally, though, higher education is getting better at teaching games, and that trend will only continue. It won’t be many years before a games degree of some kind will be pretty much mandatory to get into the industry, as those graduates will be so far ahead of the game.”
Whether or not that turns out to be true, it’s certainly the case that there have never been more routes in to a game industry career than there are today. Traditional roles such as programmer, sound engineer, artist and game designer are now flanked by a litany of less-familiar job titles driven by new business models. Free-to-play, games as services, Early Access and even young genres like MOBAs require all manner of new skills and, perhaps most importantly, an ability to communicate directly with players.
“Maintaining news to and from the community, analytics, Kickstarter, public relations – these sorts of areas would have been considered at one time to be the responsibility of the publisher,” says Jackson. “But in the New World Order, the studios themselves must handle all this stuff.”
He goes on to identify the increasingly granular nature of many traditional roles. A lead designer, for example, used to be responsible for all aspects of a game’s design, but today there are more specific divergences such as level designers, UI designers and combat system designers. Braben, meanwhile, talks up the importance of interpreting anonymised
tracking data from online multiplayer games such as Elite: Dangerous, and the huge demand for people with skills relating to computer network activity.
“Right now, a lot of those [statistical analysis] jobs are staffed by people without mathematical training, so it’d certainly be interesting to see maths graduates entering those roles,” says Bithell. “I’m also interested in the role of entrepreneurial types in the burgeoning indie scene: a lot of designery arty types like me need the help, and I’d like to see what an indie producer or manager might be like.”
“The exciting thing about right now is that people generally arrive with a variety of skills,” says Reddy. “Some crossdisciplinary, while others are totally laser focused, and we’re still finding interesting ways to use all of the skills available to us. For example, our community and web team impact our game design all the time. It’s only the tip of the iceberg: as new skills emerge, new opportunities emerge which aren’t always to do with roles but sometimes mean that we can innovate experiences within, or even outside of, our games. For us specifically, QA, community management and customer service are all areas in which I imagine we will see new roles emerge. We’ve dipped our toes in the ‘service’ waters but our next project will take that even further and so I expect these areas to change shape over the next few years.”
But whatever role you want to take up, and however you learn your skills, everyone we talk to for this article agrees that the most important trait in a strong applicant is an inquisitive mind. “I want an applicant’s work to show engagement with other people and games, be that the incorporation of feedback into work, intelligent adaptation of ideas from elsewhere or whatever,” Bithell explains. “The best portfolio I ever saw was a student who’d done an analysis of their favourite Quake III: Arena level, breaking down why every object was placed where it was, and why each wall the exact height it was placed. I want to see an applicant who’s ready to learn.”
“IT WON’T BE MANY YEARS BEFORE A GAMES DEGREE WILL BE PRETTY MUCH MANDATORY TO GET AN INDUSTRY JOB”
The Guildford-based Media Molecule is best known for LittleBigPlanet, but it also created the first great Vita game in papercraft adventure Tearaway. Of the company’s staff, only about 50 per cent went to university
FROM TOP Media Molecule studio director Siobhan Reddy; Frontier Developments founder David Braben; indie developer Mike Bithell
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Mike Bithell’s Thomas
WasAlone proved succesful enough to fund Volume; Hotline Miami is testament to what can be achieved with game-creation tools like GameMaker;
Elite:Dangerous’s origins lie in the formative indie scene: David Braben and Ian Bell created the first
Elite during their time at Cambridge University in the early 1980s
ABOVE Some of Media Molecule’s team had never made a commercial game before, while others were very experienced. “It’s about the work,” says Reddy. “Graduates have as much chance as anyone else.”
RIGHT Raspberry Pi aims to help kids learn to code
FROM TOP Lionhead and Games Workshop co-founder Steve Jackson; lecturer Justin Parsler, who teaches Games Design at Brunel University
At Frontier, programmer interviews are test-based, Braben reveals, “but we select candidates based on good qualifications, relevant experience and – although currently to a lesser extent – sample projects”