In a highly personal keynote at the London Game Career Fair, Paul Jackson, the Director-General of UK industry organization ELSPA, and Chairman of the BAFTA Games Committee, explained his background in the game biz and his advice to those getting into the game industry.
Jackson, talking at the Gamasutra.com co-presented fair, explained: "I retired about 6 months ago from 19 years at Electronic Arts", and went on to detail exactly how he got into the industry - as a grocery salesman! Wanting to get out of that niche, he decided to get into mainframe selling at IBM, but they asked him to "go away and get some computer expertise" first. Having seen an advert for a Chuck Yeager flight sim asking for EA salespeople, he signed up, eventually running all of EA's Northern European operations.
But Jackson noted: "It's a hard industry to get into", even though "we've only just started to scratch the surface" of the video game industry's growth. He cited an anecdote at an EA meeting in which John Riccitiello (ex-EA exec, now at Elevation Partners) was riling up the employees: "Do you want us to be a billion dollar company?" Riccitiello then suggested that a billion dollars is really only the start, asking: "Where is your vision?" It's that kind of forward thinking that Jackson hopes to see.
Moving on, the ELSPA executive noted the strength of the UK market, commenting that video games export twice as much in monetary value as the film industry from the UK, and "we're still figuring out" how to run things. He also touched on quality of life issues, noting: "There's been a lot of talk of the stresses and strains of the industry", but explaining his belief that the pressures come, not externally from managers forcing you to work insane hours, but from internal pressures of "not letting yourself down" or your product down.
Jackson quickly switched to a Q&A format to his talk to allow as freewheeling a set of questions as possible, and the first, interestingly, dealt with whether he felt today's games were unoriginal. He replied simply: "I'm not sure that I agree there's a lack of originality in the video game field", but did agree, if looking "at hit products at Christmas on consoles", that the spread of innovation was not as high as it could be.
He referenced virtual world Second Life as an example of gaming innovation, noting that "the scale of creativity is huge" over the entire game business, and commenting that overall, "customers want what they are familiar with", but the industry needs to try to drive that into more originality. He interestingly commented that the public doesn't know what it wants until it gets it, pointing to EA's UK sales forecast of the original The Sims, just 60,000 units, and commenting: "We didn't really know what we'd got".
Other questions included the benefits of starting at a large or small developer (Jackson somewhat advocated starting at the larger, because it may be easier to find your niche and build up a larger skillset, but also noted some advantages to the small developer as a start), important skills to develop your career (he noted a "British trait of saying 'If they'll do a good job, they'll notice me'" which "just isn't true" - self-promotion is important to some degree), and his favorite game title of all time (apparently, Microprose's Silent Service: "I used to stay up all night lurking in the Straits Of Singapore".)
A final question was about the anti-game debate going on in both the UK and U.S. media of late, and Jackson commented: "The British Government is fundamentally... supportive" to the video game business. But he did honestly admit: "We're always the hostage of some nutcase doing something crazy" and the game industry is often penalized for it in some form.
As for more balanced debate, he referenced Steven Johnson's 'Everything Bad Is Good For You', and its supportive stance to modern culture, as well as Sue Palmer's 'Toxic Childhood', a book which has apparently been cited in the media for anti-game elements, but apparently is much more equivocal and even pro-gaming than some reports imply.