The unrelenting pace of the videogame industry means it isn’t an easy partner for the necessarily more ponderous world of higher education. It’s a disconnect that any external observer could be forgiven for thinking was easily rectifiable, given that the cutting-edge games of the past couple of generations have taken just as long as a bachelor’s degree, if not longer, to complete. That would be to oversimplify the relationship, however, particularly as today triple-A games are only a part of the full picture of game development, which now produces games for every demographic and on new platforms from Facebook to smartphones.
Higher education is fully aware of the discrepancy, however, and is investing heavily in becoming more reactive to the way the game industry is developing. A significant part of the solution is to work more closely with game development studios; colleges and universities are building long-lasting links with professional companies in order to keep abreast of the industry’s needs.
It’s telling that every institution we spoke to while creating this year's Get Into Games was keen to highlight their close links with the industry, and, as in the case of Reflections and Teesside, they’re sometimes so close that it’s hard to see precisely where one stops and the other begins. Courses are almost always put together with advice from local and international studios; it’s in game developers’ interests, after all, that higher education is producing talent that meets their priorities, so the relationships are very much mutally beneficial. On the same basis, many degrees offer students the option of a work placement sandwich year with their development partners. Of course, developers will often gain longterm staff from such placements, giving them first refusal on successive new generations of talent, along with some welcome additional help in creating their games. It’s a turnaround that has seen higher education become far more important to developers when interviewing a prospective new member of the team than it used to be.
“People can still get together, make a game together and then get it published – that’s easier today than it was previously. But when I look through CVs now, I look for people who have gone to university more than I did ten years ago,” says Marcus Nilsson, formerly DICE’s executive producer and now EA Gothenburg’s senior producer.
“The game industry has moved away from three people drinking coke and coding to being mainstream, and I think that the world has finally caught up with game development. [Games are] probably on the edge of what we can do with technology. I don’t really see a game as something you play on a TV or console; when I think about games I think about the web component, the iPhone component... It’s all one, it’s not about you sitting at home with your controller.
“What [developers] are doing is always cutting-edge, so you need really dedicated people, and I think educators have, in some aspects, understood that. [Committing to] education shows us the person is dedicated, that they wanted something and went for it.”
But despite this, there’s still room for improvement when it comes to industry relevancy, according to Criterion senior development director Alan McDairmant: “Game studios need to help these courses so they can stay relevant and get stronger and stronger, and we’re very much invested in this considering the successes of our graduate hiring.
“But one clear issue we struggle with is the fact that many BSc Computing courses now teach Java instead of C++, which makes it harder to recruit for programmers – if you know C++ you can probably code in most languages.”
The sheer number of courses available to those who want to learn a game industry discipline is bewildering, and when every one is selling itself as the way to get your dream job, making a decision about which one is right can be daunting. Whether a course has obtained Creative Skillset accreditation or not is one rough pointer as to its quality, but the developers we speak to are quick to point out that there are many great courses that don’t have official approval, or are in the process of obtaining it.
“The number of courses that are springing up purporting to provide a qualification in a games-related discipline does concern me,” warns Reflections general manager Giselle Stewart. “I haven’t looked at them all, so I don’t want to knock any of them.
“But I know there are some very good courses out there at the universities that we’re working with, and a lot of universities are making a huge amount of effort to build links with us and invite us to speak. They find ex-students and ask if it’s OK if they come to talk, and some universities are actually putting course content in front of us and asking us to comment on it. Is it appropriate? Is it still relevant? Is the balance right?”
But the expectations of students, as much as those of developers, is an equally important factor in the equation. “The industry is changing quite rapidly; there are fewer jobs,” says senior lecturer of games programming at Teesside Anne-Gwenn Bosser.
Teesside University senior lecturer Anne-Gwenn Bosser and DICE general manager Karl Magnus Troedsson
“Students come in and they want to develop triple-A titles. Now there are a lot of smaller companies doing social games and mobile, and so I think they have to be able to understand who they’re working for, who they’re making games for, and how that will have an impact on the skills they need to demonstrate.
“There’s a common requirement for programming languages but, especially for beginners, the industry is looking for students who are able to use middleware. It’s not just low-level programming.”
New technologies and methodologies will continue to spring up at an alarming rate, especially as the industry fragments itself further across the big-budget/indie divide, and educators, no matter how plugged in, will remain reactionary for the most part. But it’s clear that the best universities are preparing their students for the long haul by focusing on transferable skills, not just the headline technologies – and developers are aware of this too.
“We cannot expect university graduates to come out and just get instantly into our production line of working, because there will always be a period when people need to get up and running and get to know the internal tools that perhaps we cannot supply to the school because they are too secret,” says vice president and general manager of DICE Karl Magnus Troedsson.
“We have to have people come in and actually work for us before they get to know every single little part of our pipeline. So there will always be a bit of a disconnection – the question is how much can we do to minimise that?”