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


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.”


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”

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