The UK videogame industry may not be getting any tax breaks this year, but it’s far from doom and gloom for those interested in working in the sector.
Nobody can pretend that breaking into the games industry is easy. Whether it's a course, an internship or a job, such opportunities are heavily over-subscribed. Matters aren't helped in the UK because game developers don't qualify for the same tax relief as their counterparts in other countries such as the US and Canada. Consequently, while the global games industry is booming, the UK industry has been under pressure and contracted by 10 per cent last year.
Campaigning for tax breaks
Richard Wilson, ceo of TIGA, the body that represents the UK gaming industry, says over a five-year period Games Tax Relief would create or safeguard 9,519 direct and indirect jobs, including 3,366 jobs in the games industry. "Political parties have supported them in the past," says Wilson, "So maybe when the economy picks up, there might be more scope to introduce some kind of tax breaks."
TIGA will continue to campaign for the tax breaks but, in the meantime, it would be wrong to suggest that it is all gloom and doom for those who want to work in the sector. According to TIGA, we still have the fifth-largest games development sector in the world in terms of revenue generation and the largest in Europe. The games business employs 28,000 people and, of these, 9,000 work in development. Salaries are also significantly above the national average of £25,000 at £32,388.
What qualifications game developers look for
While it is fiercely competitive, Wilson says developers are always looking forward highly talented and motivated people. Around 80 per cent of the teams employed by TIGA members, which includes companies such as Blitz, Kuju, Jagex and Rebellion, have degrees and many employ those qualified to MSc- and PhD-level (see Stuart Page's case study below). With the games industry one of the few that combines both technical and creative talents, popular degrees span software engineering, mathematics, physics, computer science and engineering, alongside art, design and animation.
"No course or degree guarantees you a job but these disciplines in principle stand you in good stead," says Wilson who adds that developers will also recruit form other professions and train people up. "One studio I visit has an astro-physicist and an ex-dentist working for it,” he notes.
While high level qualifications are typically required, Wilson also stresses the importance of having a portfolio of work to demonstrate your potential.
Create a portfolio of work
"Many employers put most weight on this when recruiting," he says. Hollie Heraghty, a consultant at Aardvark Swift, Europe's leading specialist recruitment consultancy for the video games, mobile entertainment and toy industries, urges students to put as much time and effort into developing games for their portfolio as possible. "This can be something in C++, an iPhone game, a Flash game...," she says. "The more a person has created in their spare time, the more valuable the candidate. Many people tell me they don’t have the time, but I can guarantee that some people do and it is those people who will find work."
Overall, Heraghty says that programmers are the most in-demand candidates across the industry and she says developers can "struggle" to find junior programmers. "Most studios will take on a junior programmer in a general programmer role, they will give them exposure to front-end, back-end, graphics, engine and more," she says. "This allows a programmer to understand how all the different teams/roles fit together and to find their specialism and interest."
Routes into the sector
As well as qualifications and a portfolio, both Wilson and Heraghty say the ability to work as part of a team is vital because game creation involves people from all sorts of disciplines. Heraghty says many candidates are rejected based on their attitude. "They are not necessarily looking for extroverts, just people who are enthusiastic, willing to learn and able to communicate with other people, regardless of their role within the team," she says.
Because the vast majority of studios are small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs), there aren't many graduate programmes in the traditional sense. What does exists though, says Wilson, is a far stronger link between these businesses and universities and colleges. He says some will send in guest lecturers, as well as offer mentoring programmes and work placements. "Small firms don't tend to have such strong links with higher education," says Wilson. "But the games industry does and this can provide routes in."
While much is made of the importance of having a degree, the launch of Train2Game (T2G) last year provides another potential route into the industry. The idea behind it is to produce industry-ready individuals, explains Train2Game director, Clive Robert, who is also CEO of developer DR Studios. It initially developed three course plans – art and animation, programming and design – and approached TIGA to ask it to form an advisory board made up of senior members from organisations such as SCEE, Rebellion, Kuju, Jagex, Bedfordshire and Portsmouth Universities and others, which approves the content.
"We have omitted any content that we feel is not relevant to the needs of a games industry professional – history of games being a good example – thus the 36 months of study is very focused,” he says. TIGA is the awarding body for the portfolio of courses which recently expanded to include a quality assurance course.
Courses, which work out as 10-15 hours of study per week, are offered as blended learning programmes which includes online content, assignments, live webinars, offline books, portfolio development and ongoing tutor assessment. Robert says that T2G's student base is heavily populated by people who are re-training but do not have an option to study at university. T2G has also launched an incubator scheme in which it is creating a number of micro companies from T2G graduates and embedding them into existing developers.
T2G student Adam Gulliver, 24, recently gave up his job in retail to undertake a placement at DR Studios.
“A big surprise for me during the course was how much documentation was involved in the games design process, and this is something that I am now able to bring across from the course into the workplace," he says. "Learning about pitch documents and high concepts, game design documents at home helped a lot with the tasks I have been given so far. I was given another task involving testing on an unannounced game.
"The course does mention the long hours that you need to be put in but it’s not until you enter a studio that you truly realise that. A few weeks into the placement, I’m learning lots that would aid me in getting a full-time position in the games industry."