[In this in-depth piece, senior Rare developer Nick Burton explains how the Viva Pinata and Perfect Dark developer works with academia to nurture graduates, warning against 'cherry picking' and explaining how your developer can grow the pool of skilled game creators.]
With ever-present discussion on skills shortages in the game business, experienced game developers leaving the industry and the question "are specialized game development courses the right direction for education?", staffing is always in the spotlight.
Historically, the company I work for, Rare, has always targeted new graduates rather than experienced hires, and our current ratio of 90% graduates to 10% experienced staff is proof of this.
I think it's safe to say we have plenty of experience in this area, and I'm no exception as I came straight out of postgraduate research to work at Rare almost 10 years ago. But getting good graduates today is much more than advertising for positions vacant.
For many years Rare, together with Microsoft's UK Academic Team and a few other interested organizations, has been forging links with many UK universities, trying to help and support them so that they can help and support us. Over the next few pages I want to give you a flavor of the work we do, together with some guidelines that I believe will help the whole industry be more successful in addressing its staffing needs.
Rare has always aimed recruitment activities towards graduates as they are often more accepting of new ideas and able to think outside the box more easily; this is not always the case with experienced hires. It's true that lack of experience can lead to problems with graduates pursuing crazy development ideas, which is why they have to be managed carefully and mentored by more experienced staff to ensure things go smoothly.
However, sometimes experienced developers get tunnel vision. How many times have we heard "that will never work, I tried it once and I'm not trying it again"? This sort of preconception can be bad for so many reasons, but if you get the right kind of graduates who can argue their case, they can help drive improvements in even the most experienced of us.
We find our teams need to be a mix of both. I guess what I'm getting at is that you can train a graduate to become a key part of your studio, in our case to become a Rare-type developer, the team player who's like a close friend that you trust and respect. Yes, you get experienced hires like this too, but they are much harder to find, so it's easier to make them most of the time.
So fresh graduates are good, but some recruiters in our industry take the very cynical view that they are cheap labor -- and you can quote me on this one, graduates are NOT cheap labor and should NEVER be treated as such or we risk hemorrhaging talent while it is still embryonic. Consider this, you employ Mr. X. He's the greatest graphics programmer you've ever seen, but he's a bit green and so you get to pay him peanuts and work him to the bone. Eventually he will wise up and leave, and when he does he'll probably move out of the industry that burned him. The industry has then lost him forever -- not just your studio.
It's true that Rare works with academia to generate great hires, but it's more than just that, and certainly more long-term. If our industry is to grow and remain at the forefront of creativity, we must help the educators in their work, nurturing new talent and ensuring they have a steady input of students to teach. Every university exists to teach students skills that can be applied to gain employment, but sometimes universities either don't know what these skills should be or just get it wrong!
We're seeing this problem a lot at present as "Computer Game Programming" and "Computer Game Design" courses proliferate and seem to be flavor of the month. Have you ever wondered why these courses are becoming so popular? It's for two reasons: 1) our industry needs people and where there is demand the market follows, and 2) computing in universities is in trouble, and as with the other sciences, course numbers are way down. Attaching "games" to the title helps stimulate more applications, as it's something the young can relate to.
Obviously there are also the pure courses in the arts and sciences, which should not be ignored. Remember, there are good students on all courses at all universities, so the way you target them is purely down to your requirements. For example, what Rare needs at any one time can be surprisingly different from Lionhead Studios' needs.
So what do we actually do in terms of working with academia? This can be split into two categories, nurturing talent both directly and indirectly.