Computer games are big business. The majority of new computers sold go into the so-called SoHo (small office, home office) market or are bought purely and simply for pleasure.
Worldwide, the market for leisure software, including games, is worth some $20bn a year. The UK is one of the largest players: 30 to 40 per cent of those titles are created in the UK, according to ELSPA, the European Leisure Software Publishers' Association. ELSPA estimates that more than 100,000 people are employed in the UK, writing, publishing and distributing games and entertainment software. "The UK is a major fount of creative, interactive software," explains ELSPA's director general, Roger Bennett.
Intelligent Games is one such firm. It employs 30 staff and was started from scratch by 26-year-old Matthew Stibbe, a history graduate who wrote his first commercial game at university. "A very substantial proportion of the world's games are developed in the UK," says Stibbe. "We are lucky because we share a language with the Americans, which is a key market."
To stay ahead, firms like Intelligent Games need to recruit ever-better qualified staff. Advances in computer power, coupled with rising expectations from users, mean that a programme now costs tens of thousands of pounds, or more, to develop. Games houses employ scriptwriters, programmers, graphic artists, sound engineers and even musicians. A software house is rather like a miniaturised film studio: managers are even referred to as "producers".
Recent graduates at Intelligent Games are typical of the new generation of software engineers. Steve Cass, 25, has a degree in computer science and drama. He joined IG after working on air-traffic control software. He is now programming team leader for golf software, and has completed the latest version of PGA European Tour, for publishers Electronic Arts.
The job is far more varied than business-software engineering, he explains. For the golf package, Cass visited courses to take measurements, and supervised the filming of live golfers: the program uses the likenesses of stars to add realism. "It is fair to say that within computing, games programming is looked at as the ideal thing to be in," he says. "It is quite glamorous, and much more relaxed."
Computing experts are not the only people who can carve a career in games. Richard Guy, 24, has a degree in fine art. He found his way into Intelligent Games by "sheer cheek", but his experience with computer graphics during his degree, and a personal love of games, helped. Guy was attracted to games by the flat structure and freedom of the industry. "The level of freedom in the smaller games houses, and the multiple roles of the job, are very attractive," he says.
The UK's pre-eminence in games software has created a number of larger houses, which are both publishers and originators. One of the largest is Psygnosis, based in Liverpool and currently part of the Sony Corporation. With more than 300 staff, it is able to offer structured training for recruits. Artists, for example, are hired on their creativity alone. "We can train someone to use software, but we cannot train them to be artistically talented," points out Jeff Bramfitt, a senior artist.
Psygnosis does not just recruit from art school, it has graduates with a background in industrial design, and quite a few without a degree. But formal qualifications are more important in programming. This does not have to be in computer science, but the company wants a numerate discipline and good grades at A level. "A degree demonstrates their approach to problem- solving," says Dave Rose, head programmer.
Nick Trout, 25, studied computing at Manchester University and joined Psygnosis after a period travelling. He specialised in computer graphics, and now develops tools that convert designers' images into part of a games programme. He turned to the games industry because he wanted a job that was not "in a cosseted business environment".
Leisure software programmers have the challenge of collaborating with artists and musicians, as well as the latest equipment and games. "We are working at the leading edge of technology," Trout says.
John Harris, 30, joined the company as an artist after a degree in industrial design and a period working for a furniture manufacturer. Now he develops artwork for Psygnosis titles: his job is to create the look and atmosphere of a game. Harris worked in the film industry, on science fiction, before going to university. Games give him the chance to build fantasy worlds, but the work is more stable than in film. "It is creativity beyond what I could achieve as an industrial designer," he says. "I can't think of anything I would rather do."