Creative arts in the games sector

Choose the right degree and you could be well on course for a rewarding arts-based career in the games sector

The variety of successful careers available in today's video games industry is one of the best-kept secrets around. Studios in the UK and abroad continue to grow at a rapid pace in their quest to produce the games that fill our waking hours - and, quite often, our dreams!

There are over 100 game development studios here in the UK, each creating something unique. More studios continue to pop up across the world too, with hot spots in Canada, the United States, China, Korea, Eastern Europe and Japan.

What you many be unaware of is how many creative jobs there are within the industry. It's not just game and level design roles that require someone with more of an artistic eye: a design team within a games company would include storyboard artists and map builders alongside illustrators and designers.

From Guitar Hero to Grand Theft Auto and Fifa to Final Fantasy (left and top left) the one thing that all of the studios that produce these games have in common is that they want to hire the best graduates each year and, importantly, they all look to hire specialists. So, when choosing a course, bear that in mind: excel at one thing rather than being competent at five. Video games are made by teams of all sizes - ranging from nine to 150 - and it's easier for a studio to slot you into their organisation if you have a much-needed and easily identifiable skill, such as 3D animation or 3D character modelling.

The key to selecting the right course is to start at the top and work down: research the job market to discover what is currently on offer before even looking at courses. Then, match the course to the skills required; for example, learning how to use the Maya, Max and Illustrator 3D software packages that studios list in their recruitment adverts.

Study the course curriculum to work out how it is divided between practical modules and theory. Your employer will expect you to walk the walk and not just talk the talk: you'll have to demonstrate your skills in certain packages, not just be knowledgeable about them about them. Upon graduating from a degree you should also have what is an essential tool for getting your first job: a portfolio. This will show your artistic talent and range as well as your capability in using the relevant technology and software packages.

Some qualifications are more highly regarded than others, while some universities and colleges are known for the festivals they run to attract employers from across the world, such as the Swansea Animation Days (Sand) at Swansea Metropolitan University. All artistic positions usually favour candidates with formal training and qualifications in the form of a fine art, graphics or animation degree.

It may seem obvious that artists are a crucial part of the creation of a game, but creative roles can be lost in career discussions about programming, technical and quality assurance (QA) games testing. For instance, the position of lead artist is a most sought-after role within a game company because they control and create the game's overall look. They create the initial artwork for the game that then sets the technical and creative standards for the entire artistic team.

The lead artist is also responsible for teams of animators and artists, making sure they stay on budget and schedule. They have concept, environment, pre-visualisation and technical artists in their team, as well as animators and 3D modellers.

You could also consider a career in sound design or audio engineering, because games have soundtracks that can help to create an iconic brand. Larger companies will have people that look after music production, sound effects and dialogue for the game. Qualifications in this aspect of games creation are less developed in the UK but there are still courses out there.

Don't be afraid to ask development studios for advice: call or e-mail them directly and ask what they look for in a graduate and which courses or qualifications they recognise. It is also worth finding out how long the university or college has been running its course, whether game development studios recognise their qualification, what software packages they teach and whether they are involved with the industry: through guest lecturers and work placements, for example. Lastly, read the media and the gaming press to keep abreast of the studios that create games that you might like to work on. In fact, you've already made a good start by reading this magazine!

Nicolas Oliver is the international and domestic marketing officer for Qantm College,