Become a master of the digital age

Arts and science graduates are joining forces in the world of video game-making
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The Independent Online

With sales of interactive video games now larger than the Hollywood box office - in retail terms, they were worth $25bn (£14bn) last year - the openings available to both artists and computer programmers are rising.

Outside the games arena, multimedia programmers versed in digital animation, virtual reality and computer graphics can also find posts in software houses, web design agencies, IT consultancies, in-house new media departments and films.

Creative or technical qualifications are looked for by many multimedia employers, as are expertise in software or programming languages such as Dreamweaver, Adobe Photoshop, C+ + and Javascript.

Although a job in games development may seem less glamorous than one in movies, US-owned Electronic Arts or EA - the world's largest independent developer and publisher of games software for entertainment consoles such as Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo - believes that the two-way street between film and game-making is well-established.

"We have an ex-Hollywood director now working on our Harry Potter franchise, as well as a whole host of young graduates who see gaming as the future for multimedia development," says Jenny Brown, EA's UK university relations manager. "Both new entrants and more established talent are attracted by the opportunity to push forward the boundaries in what is still a very young and dynamic industry."

EA's ambition is to become what Brown calls "the greatest entertainment company in the world." With an array of titles covering everything from first-person shooting games to sports titles and lavish fantasy adventures - available on every conceivable platform including hand-held and mobile consoles - it believes it can entice people away from TV to play more interactive games.

Among its top-selling titles this year are Need for Speed, The Godfather, James Bond, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Burnout; each selling over one million copies. In pursuit of "the ultimate gaming thrill," the firm has this year hired a record 58 graduate trainees.

Although talent and originality were enough, even a decade ago, to get a foot in the door of the film or animation world, creative ambition is no longer sufficient. While a candidate's all-important showreel of work is still the ultimate arbiter of who gets a job and who doesn't, a degree in software engineering, 3D design, illustration, IT, computer science or computer games technology can be an important leg up.

"The multimedia sector is changing fast and while sheer aptitude was once sufficient to get you a job in web design or new media, employers now look for a more formal academic background," says Gregor White, division leader in computer arts and media at Abertay University in Dundee.

"Whether you work on the artistic side or the programming side, most of your colleagues will have a first degree or even a Masters under their belt and many of them will, within a few years, have been moved up to management positions."

When it comes to which of the many degrees on offer are most suitable though, opinions are sharply divided. Abertay for example offers a BA in computer arts, as well as a BSc and MSc in computer games technology, a BSc in web design development and a BSc in multimedia development. In all, it has 330 students on these courses.

"We have well-established links with some leading multimedia companies," says White, "and our longest established course in this area - the computer arts degree - has already produced successful games developers."

Yet according to Jenny Brown, the content of many of the multimedia courses on offer today is too general in nature.

"In the UK, students on a multimedia course are taught to use 3D packages, but many of them lack the foundation of classical art skills or the raw talent needed to manipulate facial expressions, understand musculature or create a deep texture. EA can always train graduates to use the packages, but they have to have core drawing skills before their work can be really effective."

While a computer games technology degree may well be suitable for a job in a small company, says Brown - where the project is perhaps making a game for mobile phones, and where the artist and programmer are one and the same - EA's typical games team is 100 strong; with each person having a clearly defined role.

In a bid to gather in the specific talents it needs, EA is turning its attention to graduates who may never have even considered making a career out of gaming. "We are looking for high level physicists unsure of what to do next and skilled 3D mathematicians who may be drifting into a career as a teacher. Both of these people have the skills we need to turn them into games programmers," says Brown.

"As for the artistic side of our business, many of our most successful graduates are from France, where studying and making money out of art is seen as very cool," she adds.

Ciara Willis: 'I work with a range of people including artists and animators. As a female programmer I'm rare, but there are female artists here too'

Ciara, 23, completed an MSc in Infomatics, specializing in artificial intelligence (AI), at the University of Edinburgh in 2004, having already gained a first-class BSc in computer science at University College, Dublin a year earlier.

She joined EA in March as a probationer and has recently been given a permanent role as a programmer on the Harry Potter franchise at EA's studio in Chertsey, Surrey.

I've loved games for a long time, ever since I had a Nintendo as a child, but it wasn't until fairly recently that I thought of making a career out of it.

I expected to do chemistry at university but fell into computer science and realized that I loved that whole world. The AI part of my background allows me to add depth to the different characters in a game - programming them to do certain things or maybe attack in a particular way.

On Harry Potter, I work with a whole range of different people including artists and animators. I was given proper work to do right from the start, which was very important to me. As a female programmer I'm pretty rare, but there are female artists here too. I grew up with brothers and my university courses were male-dominated, so it doesn't register with me any more. I certainly don't feel pushed in a particular direction because I'm a woman. There's work to be done, and we all have our roles to perform.

In terms of my own likes and dislikes, I'm not into "first-person shooters," but I do enjoy car chases and sports games. Killing is not really my thing!

I think the industry will begin to attract more women professionals and more female players, but the way in is to target girls when they're very young. I still love the world of games and I can see this being a very fulfilling career for a long time to come."

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