How games have grown up to be a serious career aspiration

  • @laurenjcope

Previously only populated by the hobbyists, computer scientists and self-taught, the game design industry hasn’t historically offered many routes into its midst. Often, perhaps unfairly, viewed as the dream career for any teenage (or not-so-teenage) boy, the game industry is actually now forging its path to become the country’s most valuable purchased entertainment market. Combined annual software and hardware sales have topped the £4bn mark – more than DVD and music sales combined and a shocking four times more than cinema box office takings.

Surprised? Industry experts aren’t. The last few years have been regarded something of a golden age for video games, with sales records shattered regularly and critical acclaim at an all-time high. The release of British-produced game Grand Theft Auto IV grossed £157m in 24 hours, more than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the world’s most successful book) and Spider-Man 3, in that same time period. Video games are demanding to be taken seriously as an industry.

But it’s not easy. The movie spin-offs that rapidly follow any new blockbuster require dozens of team members and months of incredible skill, perseverance and intricacies. As with almost every industry at the minute, it's not easy to get in to – but it is expanding. Cult online game World of Warcraft requires constant development and advancement to satisfy the 12 million players subscribed to the game, for instance. Professionals from other fields are even flocking for a piece of the action – Steven Spielberg was credited as lead designer on Bloom Blox on the Nintendo Wii.

Jim Rossignol, from online games magazine Rock Paper Shotgun, says: "It's certainly very difficult to make much headway within big companies, or to influence any of the really big mainstream games. But the truth is the industry needs game designers more than ever. Not just director-level people who orchestrate and entire game, but the lower-level folk who design systems and individual set pieces."

So, how to get into such a competitive industry? Although many encourage degrees in computer science, Jim disagrees.

"There is only one route: make games. The tools are there. You won't get a job if you haven't made something, and you won't get anywhere independently if you are not making stuff. Game design is less a job than it is a way off life. Like any creative endeavour it must be done to be real."

Head of Games and Development at the National Film and Television School, John Weinbren, sees other options.

‘There's a lot to be said for 'just doing it', but it's really more complicated than that. There are lots of people who now want to work in games, but few who measure up to the requirements of the industry these days; even fewer who have the creative talent, technical know-how, vision and entrepreneurial savvy to really contribute to the ever-changing face of an evolving medium.

"To get a great start in the games business - either as an indie developer or as a 'going-places' employee of an established studio, there are a number of things you need: ideas, skills - technical skills, creative skills, analytical skills, team-working skills, entrepreneurial skills... the list goes on.

You also also need knowledge, he adds: "Not only knowledge of the games industry and how it works, but also knowledge of a wide variety of fields which inform game design and development which is actually a fascinatingly diverse set of disciplines and, finally, connections. This is often over-looked, but in order to get ahead in games - as in many other fields - you need to network."

Can you do it on your own?

"Perhaps, but it's pretty tricky. However, a good postgraduate course in games can help with all of the above, plus provide a year or two of top-level support and guidance."

Courses in games design are offered nationwide. For £5,450, you can study Kingston University’s full-time, one-year Game Design MA. Applicants are required to have a good honours degree in ‘humanities, art and design, multimedia, media production or the academic equivalent.’ An emphasis is placed on having a first degree, but ‘exceptional’ applicants may replace that by more than five years working in the field. 

City University London also offers a Computer Science with Games Technology course.

"The CGT courses are extremely successful," says lecturer Dr Chris Child. "We get great quality students and they have excellent employment prospects in both the games and wider software industries, mainly due to strong technical ability.

"We currently have around 35 games technology students in each year at undergraduate level, and 20 students on the MSc. Our applications have been pretty consistent for this over the last four years. There was no drop."

Knuckle down, then, future designers. And, once you’re in, things look pretty good. With strong job security and average salaries between £33,000 and £38,000, it seems the hardest part is getting your foot in the door. Unfortunately, names like Will Wright (creator of the Sims games) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Black and White, Fable) don’t appear overnight. Most designers start their careers as programmers, or artists, progressing their way up the ladder.

"We run a two-year MA in Games Design and Development as part of a suite of courses within the National Film and Television School," says John. "There is a maximum of eight students per year. A typical candidate for our course has a good undergraduate degree in a subject that fascinated them.

"They made the most of their university experience and cultivated plenty of outside interests - in particular they are interested in all forms of entertainment media, plus have a healthy appetite for all areas of the arts and contemporary culture.

"They may or may not have spent a few years in the working world post-graduation, but have realised that games is going to be their ‘thing’. They are not merely fans, but are fascinated by the future possibilities of games, and have become aware of the increasing current breadth and diversity of the form."

What the future holds

The childish stereotype of the adolescent boy glued to his PlayStation has long been replaced by the more accurate perception of a grown-up medium, grabbing our attention. Families are frequently switching off their TVs to get involved on interactive consoles, shown in the success of family-orientated console the Nintendo Wii. The era of smartphones has seen a wealth of new games through apps, as well as social media. Farmville – anyone?

So what now for games? John believes there is plenty of room for expansion.

"With the growth of these portable platforms, games have become pervasive play-things for a rapidly expanding set of audiences. I see an increasing trend in games becoming more profound and emotive, and there are titles being made which genuinely offer more moving experiences in addition to the diversionary forms that we are perhaps more used to. Games are also a great way to learn things and I see this already big area as an expanding array of possibilities and opportunities."