I want to work as a video game developer – part 1: can I get a job in games?
The best thing that aspiring developers can do is to know the field they want to work in and specialise as early as possible.
The competition for graduate jobs in video game development is exceptionally fierce and securing a position at a game developer will require you to get noticed. As Luke Johnson, senior recruitment resource at Creative Assembly (the Total War series, Alien: Isolation), told us, ‘Graduate roles can have 800+ applicants – the need to stand out from everyone else is key.’
- This is part one of our series on graduate jobs in video game development. Click here for part two, and find out about the skills you need in development jobs, the different stages of a typical application process, top portfolio tips and things to consider when choosing an employer.
The good news is that many employers in the industry make an active effort to seek out, hire and train graduates. The largest studios, including those owned by Microsoft or Sony, may run more traditional ‘graduate schemes’ with a yearly graduate intake. The majority of opportunities, however, will only arise at certain stages throughout a project’s lifecycle. ‘We hire at a graduate level throughout the year, when the project allows us to bring in somebody with less experience,’ says Meg Daintith, recruitment manager at Codemasters (the Formula One and GRID series). She adds, ‘We wouldn’t generally hire a graduate on a title which is very close to its release date. We prefer to nurture our people and bring them in at the start of the project. That way we can spend more time on their development, and they get the chance to see their efforts come to fruition.’
Where are game companies based and what do they do?
While many game development studios are based in London, they can be found across the UK (especially around Manchester, Guildford, Cambridge and Brighton). These developers make games of all sizes, genres and for all platforms – from big budget console blockbusters such as Grand Theft Auto V, casual and mobile giants like Candy Crush, to indie PC offerings like Frozen Synapse.
- UKIE, the UK Interactive Entertainment Association, hosts a map of all the UK’s game developers and publishers, which can be viewed here.
For a student or graduate interested in a game development career, the UK is a dream location for starting out.
Specialisms in game development
There are a number of specialisms that fall under the umbrella of ‘game development’, and entry-level roles can be found in each one of these fields:
- Design: both graphic design and game/level design
- Art and audio: creating the art and music that fill a game world
- Animation: making things move, in 2D and 3D space
- Technical art: working with art and programming teams to integrate art into the game
- Programming: writing the code that is the building blocks of games
- Production: overseeing projects and ensuring that teams work together and deadlines are met
- Quality assurance: testing games to ensure they are free of bugs and glitches. You can read the first-hand account of a producer who started out in QA here
Many universities offer degree courses focused around teaching students the skills required for a career in the games industry. Examples of course titles include: computer games design, computer games technology, games development or just games.
A video games-related degree is recommended for many graduate roles in the industry, and the best thing that aspiring developers can do is to know the field they want to work in and specialise as early as possible. ‘We’re a large independent studio and tend to look out for specialists rather than generalist game degrees,’ says Meg. ‘However, smaller studios and indies may prefer people to have a generalist degree, so there are career options for both.’
Pay close attention to the course content, modules and options for specialisation that are on offer in generalist degrees. If you find you have a particular aptitude or preference for one field, consider starting to pick up more specific modules or studying a more specific course (such as computer science for games, sound and music for games or games animation, modelling and effects) can give you the edge with recruiters at larger studios.
Degree courses are also likely to have close ties to local developers; when choosing a degree or university, see if you can find out what links they have with development studios. TIGA, a trade association representing the UK games industry, also accredits a number of video game-related degree courses, with an accredited course needing to reach certain milestones in terms of the skills it teaches and whether it is up-to-date with industry trends.
What degree grade do I need?
‘There are more people coming out with a games-related degree than will ever work in the industry – it is significantly over-subscribed and is a very competitive field,’ says Meg. Your degree isn’t the whole story, but a strong grade will be incredibly beneficial to your job hunt. Meg adds: ‘Applicants should try to get as high a grade as possible – when sifting through CVs we take note of a first-class degree and a high 2.1.’
Becoming a developer without a games degree
There are options for students and graduates of non-games degrees, but your routes may be limited. ‘Programming is by far the most short-skilled area across the industry and at every level,’ explains Meg. ‘For programming roles, we’d accept applicants with computer science, physics or maths degrees – anything that shows a high level of logical reasoning and an aptitude for accuracy. Of course, they will also need some experience of coding.’
If you have a strong attention to detail, an interest in games and strong communication skills, you could become a QA tester. QA tester positions are open to graduates regardless of degree subject and can lead to other roles in development. However, this is not an ‘easy’ way into the industry. ‘We probably get around 50 applicants for every QA or testing vacancy and temporary contracts are common,’ Meg adds. ‘However, it’s a foot in the door for many people and can be a great platform to build a career.’
How to turn a QA job into a producer role
One route into more ‘technical’ roles within game development (such as production, design or programming) is through QA. While vacancies are still very competitive, QA roles are typically open to a wider range of potential applicants and can be a ‘foot in the door’ at a development studio. To find out more about career progression for quality assurance testers, we spoke to Adam Lavender, senior associate producer at Ubisoft Leamington.
Adam's route into games
I actually got into the industry by accident. I played in a lot of bands as a teenager and later became a venue manager, tour manager and concert promotes, which is what I did for a few years during and after university. When I was looking for jobs, I contacted a guy who was in a band that I used to book and who worked at FreeStyleGames and asked if there were any jobs available – and they had a position in QA.
I used to teach guitar and my main role in QA was to make sure that the notes on the screed in Guitar Hero Live were as musically accurate to a real guitar as they possible could be. As well as the traditional responsibilities of looking for issues in the game and reporting any bugs, working with the development team to get these fixed.
Moving into game production
Producer is another way of saying ‘project manager’. Their main purpose is to facilitate the team and make sure that they have everything they need to be able to get their work done, as well as fighting any fires and making sure everything goes smoothly.
I had experience of project management from my time booking gigs and organising shows, so I applied for a producer role that was advertised internally. I’ve been in production ever since and have never looked back.
I didn’t play that many games as a kid, apart from a few franchises that I really loved, but it’s become an ongoing joke at the studio that I don’t play that many games. I think it many ways this is okay because it helps you to take a step back and make tough decisions with an impartial mindset when you have to.
Advice for aspiring developers
It’s competitive, but many people start off in entry-level positives such as QA. After finding their feet and learning a bit more about the industry, most people transition over to different specialisms such as design or art.
I didn’t have many technical skills, but needed an eye for detail. I’ve been able to pick up skills along the way as I encountered things on the job.
My main piece of advice is to do research. We interview a lot of people and it’s important to know things about where you’re applying to! In interviews I like to ask people the question, ‘what do you know about our studio?’ and so many candidates can’t answer.
People skills are just as, if not more important, than technical skills. Working in production is like spinning plates and your job is to make sure that none of them fall. Being able to communicate effectively and work closely with hundreds of people is super important. Every link in the chain is just as vital as the next to realise the vision of the project.