With computer games companies now big contributors to the UK economy, degree course leader Fiona French shares her advice on routes into the industry.
Do you want to dream, analyse, innovate, design, create, work in a team, sketch, model, listen, solve problems, research, animate, build, develop, program, engineer, control, test, discuss, edit, publish, compete, document, promote, praise, inspire?
You do? Then you might consider a degree in computer games development.
Careers in games
There are a range of career paths in the games industry and a range of degrees on offer. If you already know which role you would like to pursue, it’s important to select a degree that will give you appropriate qualifications and experience. Your time at university should set you up for the years ahead by giving you the chance to flourish in your chosen area.
Developing a computer game is a bit like a virtual engineering project and requires a team with complementary skills – programmers, designers, artists, musicians and writers, as well as people involved in production, quality assurance, and marketing.
“You need loads of team skills, that’s a major thing.”
Franklim Sousa, programmer
There is high demand for developers who can handle the programming skills required to set up MMOGs (multi-player video games) and social networks. These days, every game ships with an associated website.
“The world of games production includes a lot of late nights, hard work, stress, pressure and pizza dinners. Play lots of games. Never wear a suit.”
Will Sykes, games programmer
Game designers need great verbal and written communication skills, as well as technical prowess and a broad knowledge of games development, encompassing such topics as software engineering, artificial intelligence, probability and human-computer interaction. Level builders need to be able to use scripting tools – any programming experience will help.
It’s important to note that there are hardly any graduate entry points for game designers. Most people enter this role via a different route. Games companies value teamwork and development teams are comprised of programmers, artists, designers and occasionally testers. If you have one of these roles, it may be possible to demonstrate your commitment to design and gradually take more responsibility for this aspect of the development.
“The most important thing is to find what you’d love to do and what you’re good at and find a way to develop your talent. Dreams can come true!”
Magali Stratton, game designer
Art and animation
Artists and animators require traditional drawing skills and outstanding portfolios. A concept artist might produce the initial paintings that define the look and feel of the game, while a 3D modeller might have to build characters or vehicles or locations. An animator’s job is to portray subtlety of mood through movement – something that programming alone can not achieve.
You will need advanced software skills using 3D programs such as Maya or 3D Max and 2D programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. It is vital to understand how to model objects so that they can be integrated successfully into a game engine, and very useful to be able to team up with games programmers in order to develop real games to showcase your work.
“Always have the broadest education you can get. Don’t just talk about it, do it! Have something to show.”
Christian Jelen, art director
Game testers are employed to ensure the quality of the game before it’s officially released on the marketplace. Many people think this must be an ideal job – playing games all day and getting paid for it! But quality assurance personnel have a challenging role, often re-playing titles many times in order to document every bug for the developers. They need to be highly motivated, disciplined and hard-working with great communication skills and attention to detail.
“Follow your gut and do what you enjoy.”
Nigel Canin, CEO
What to expect at university
Before applying to a university course, you should check out the syllabus and find out exactly what skills are being taught and to what level. As teamwork is such an important part of the games industry, see if there are opportunities to work with other students on larger projects, as well as produce your own portfolio to showcase your individual talents.
While “games” degrees should be vocational, remember that a degree is much more than a training course in software skills. It provides students with a rare opportunity to network, develop their creativity, explore ideas and mature as individuals.
You are free to change your mind about the kind of job you want and how to use your energy and talents. A good technical games degree, however, will provide you with skills and knowledge that may be applied to many other fields, such as medical imaging, forensics, banking, digital media or software engineering. It is useful if the college has established industry links – benefits may include external speakers or the chance to undertake internships.
Some courses have an active social element, with students running LAN parties and degree shows and participating in public events, such as local games festivals and careers fairs.
At university, there is a lot of emphasis on independence and personal growth. You get out what you put in, and you are expected to work independently on projects outside timetabled hours. Competitions for game developers have proliferated, with regular opportunities to take part in gamejams (48 hours to meet a brief) and enter prestigious events such as Search for a Star and Dare to be Digital. If you want to participate, you’ll have to stop playing and start making!
“Being in the games industry is more like a lifestyle than actual work.”
Donatas Cereska, games programmer
Passion for what you are doing, the ability to express yourself, people-skills, self-motivation and determination will take you a long way.
Fiona French is course leader for BSc Computer Games Programming in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Computing at London Metropolitan University. Her research interests include location-based gaming, physical computing and Animal Computer Interaction. She is currently conducting research into the development of smart toys for the cognitive enrichment of elephants. Find out more about the activities of staff and students from the university’s games degrees at THINK MAKE PLAY.
Find out more
Watch icould videos:
- Mark B – computer games 3D modeller, Jagex
- David C – bug abuse lead curator, Jagex
- Carol C – computer games producer, Realtime Worlds
Ways into the games industry (Creative Skillset)
A map of the UK games industry (NESTA)