Working in the games industry

For anyone considering a course of study, it is tempting to choose a subject that might have an element of fun, but ultimately many choose traditional degrees, perhaps thinking they are taking the tougher more rigorous option? Computer games courses in particular can be the subject of derision to those who don’t fully appreciate the content of such a course.


There is a similar pervasive attitude towards the games industry as a whole, but consider what it is you are deriding if you consider the games industry frivolous. The most powerful consumer computing device is invariably the family games console, indeed the US Commerce Department famously tried to place an embargo on the export of the PlayStation 2 deeming it to be a ‘supercomputer’, quite where that would leave hardware as potentially powerful as the PS3 is therefore open to conjecture.


Developing cutting edge software for these machines that can compete in a global market is a serious undertaking, and the rewards can be just as serious too. Both the US and UK movie industries are alleged to now make considerably less than their respective games industries and this has been the case for some time.


The continuous growth in the computer games sector and its contribution to national economies is well documented. In 2006 the video and computer games industry in the United Kingdom generated £2 billion in retail sales, invested £370 million in games creation and employed 21,000 people in games development, publishing and retail. The UK games market is the largest in Europe and we are currently the fourth largest producer of games (measured in terms of revenue. The tradition of nurturing skill and talent in the United Kingdom has continued from its roots in the bedroom coding days of the 1980’s with most multinational games companies locating their European headquarters here and we have by far the largest concentration of games development studios in Europe.


Crucially, employees of successful games companies are now increasingly educated to graduate and often postgraduate level and salaries are appropriate to these qualifications. Many of the leaders in the field such as Rockstar Games not only offer generous salary packages but sweeten them with additional royalty and bonus schemes.


So the industry is lucrative, and the rates of pay are good, but surely a degree in games is a soft option?

This is simply not the case, most Computer Games Programming courses in the United Kingdom are accredited by the British Computer Society, it is a real software engineering course in every traditional sense of the phrase, however, additionally it tasks students with the development of not only producing well written working code, but with additional emergent properties in their products such as game play and immersion. There is a real skill in creating a great game, and that is something that British Universities try to nurture and develop in their students.


Games programming students study real programming tasks using industry standard languages such as C++. Computer Games Design students are similarly encouraged to develop their creative skills to professional levels and to utilize powerful tools such as 3DS Max and Zbrush. Games design is a competitive field, and the development of complementary traditional art skills is still highly prized by the games industry, to this end design students study traditional subjects such as life drawing.


What if I decide I want to change career, will my skills be transferable?

Absolutely, both Programming and Design develop the ability to think flexibly, and solve problems, but simultaneously equip students with skills which can be applied to many other industries; C++ programming is the cornerstone of the mainstream IT industry, the 3D, drawing and animation skills from design could equally be used in any number of fields including animation for TV, film or advertising, architectural visualization or graphic design.


How can I be sure my degree will give me the right experience for a career in the games industry?

Games degrees are not about playing games all day long, they may contain a certain amount of critical analysis of existing titles, but crucially they are about the development of new ideas and concepts and the synthesis of many different skills from programming, design, art and animation through to music and sound effects to marketing and advertising. Along the way you will be supported by industry experienced staff, and you will be encouraged to enter your work into competitions such as the Independent Games Festival, Microsoft XNA dream/build/play, Dare to be Digital and Animex.


Another important element of studying a games programming or games design course in the United Kingdom is their focus on developing enterprise skills and real industry experience through a placement year in the games industry. For example, in 2006 the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Huddersfield with support from the games industry established its own student run games development company called Canalside Studios. This is an innovative learning space where games programming and games design students interact to work on commercial games development as part of their degree programmes. Eight placement students are based in the studio and many of the School’s digital media students contribute to game development through project work as part of their studies.


Academics, many of whom have games industry experience, guide and mentor the students with support from local and regional games companies. As well as forming a real part of the students’ academic work, the studio provides students with first hand experience of life in a commercial games development environment. In a major coup for both the University and the region’s games industry, Canalside Studios scored a major success in the Microsoft ‘Dream, Build, Play’ competition. From an initial worldwide field of over 4,000 and a shortlist of 20 that contained only one other UK entry, the studio’s game “Yo Ho Kablammo” emerged as one of only four to secure a development contract to turn their entry into a commercial release for the X-Box Live arcade. Several other games have already emerged from the fledgling studio and discussions are underway with publishers to take these to market.


Developments such as these ensure that you have the right experience for a career in the games industry.


What will I do in the games industry?

In today’s market, this is a tremendously open question, games are played on everything from ipod and mobile phone through handheld devices like PDA , PSP and Nintendo DS up to PC, and the consoles from the three major players. This means massively different products developed in massively different ways. Mobile phone developers may need just a couple of staff with perhaps Java language skills or an artist who can create great graphics with very few pixels. Whereas larger studios working for Xbox 360 or PS3 will need huge teams, all of these staff having particular specialisms. Today’s industry offers programmers the opportunity to specialize in game play, AI, physics, tools development, shaders, graphics and animation engines to name but a few, the artist may be a specialist in character, vehicle, landscapes, scenery design.


Animators also have their own particular specialisms; there are even individuals who specialize in just the rigging of skeletal structures to 3D meshes! And this is before we even mention the actual design, sound, testing, marketing etc. Of course as a graduate you may even decide that your idea is the foundation for a whole new business with you at its head – and you wouldn’t be the first with those enterprising aspirations.


Essentially there has never been a better time to consider studying for a career in computer games, and even if in 4 years time you decide to opt for a career in mainstream development, then you’ll be an expert computer scientist but will have had a bit of fun getting there.

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