Art college and video games may seem like an unlikely match. But a project run by a Scottish university is trying to persuade art students to consider a career in the games industry.
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor
Every year the Dare to be Digital project brings together teams of students over the summer to create their own games.
The City Scrawlaz game encourages teens to tag a virtual city
The aim is to showcase the skills of the students and help them find jobs making video games.
The organisers say they are also trying to dispel stereotypes about the games industry by promoting it as a career option to art students.
"When we go to art colleges, we find it is not something they have thought about doing," said Sarah Johnston, Dare marketing officer.
"We try to encourage artists and animators that the gaming industry is something they could get into," she told BBC News Online.
Corner shop job
Among the students who took part in this year's competition was Sally Greig, who graduated with a degree in drawing and painting.
But like many art students, she did not have a job to walk into, and instead spent the summer working in a corner shop.
She had never thought about a career in games until she heard about the Dare project, run by the University of Abertay in Dundee.
"When you leave art college, you don't get any practical advice about how to get a job," said Ms Greig.
"Art students are pushed towards the insular arts community, which is usually a choice between working in an art gallery or being a struggling artist.
"There needs to be more communication between a fast-growing industry like gaming and art schools.
"There is a vibrant games industry in Dundee which is not being promoted to students."
Her team came up with an online graffiti game called City Scrawlaz, designed to appeal to teens.
The project won the Dare award for creativity, worth £2,000, and there has been interest in the game from the BBC.
The organisers realise that the games industry has an image problem, which may never change.
Games is still largely seen as a male-dominated industry
"There will always be an image of hardcore gamers and programmers," said Ms Johnston.
The result is that the Dare teams tend to be largely male. This year, there were only two women on the teams and they were both artists.
"We are always saying, 'come on girls, it is something for you'," said Ms Johnston.
"We try to promote it as another career option, telling them they could be the senior designer on a game seen by millions in the world."
Jobs to go
The Dare competition is now in its fourth year. It started off as a Scottish project but is now opening its doors to teams from across the UK, as well as from abroad.
Teams of five are given financial and practical support to develop their ideas into a prototype game during a 10 week period in the summer.
Some of the games created by the students have been sold to publishers to be played on mobile phones.
And the competition has opened doors in the gaming industry. Six Dare students are now working for games giant Electronic Arts and others have got jobs in smaller studios.
"People see the games industry as very technical," said Ms Grieg.
"It is like the beginning of cinema, when it was all about getting the manufacturing right. "But it is changing."
The winners of the Dare competition showcased their games at the recent European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) in London.
Are you a student considering what career to pursue? Have you thought about getting a job in the games industry? Tell us about your experiences.
This debate is now closed. Here are a selection of your comments:
I have a degree in computer science and have spent the last year trying to get a job in the industry. Without experience, it's impossible. Without working in the industry, it's impossible to get experience. It's one of the most closed, insular and unfriendly industries there is for graduates to join.
Jennifer, Cambridge, UK
I'm about to start my second year on my computer multimedia course at university, and the thing I have found to be quite depressing is that everyone I speak to says how great and wonderful it is that I'm able to do amazing things with a computer, yet I'll never get a job out of it. Why won't companies take a chance and realise that without bringing in young people their business will cease to exist. The natural progression in life means you need young, talented people to work with the experienced "old guard" to have a successful company. It's not hard to see why many of may friends decided against University.
Michael, Broxbourne, UK
Having known the established problems with employers preferring experience, I chose to not attend university after my A levels and instead get a job within the computer industry. Two years on, I am now managing the technology for a medium-sized company and have convinced them to pay for my Open University degree whilst I work. My CV is looking great and I have managed to get the best of both worlds!
A job in the games industry? No thanks! It seems to me that the workload and stress levels would be amazingly high, and the rewards pretty low, unless you're lucky enough to work on a major hit. Most games aren't and disappear without trace.
IT, London, UK
I used to write games in my spare time (when I was younger) for my Atari ST, Amiga and PC, so the natural step was a computer science degree to allow me to progress into the games industry. Now, 10 years on I am stuck in the 'exciting' world of business computing. Oh woe is me.
There are several sites for budding computer game artists to show their stuff. Just try typing "pixel art" into a search engine. Many of these sites have a jobs section. Whilst the jobs advertised are often fairly lowly paid or even for shareware projects, they offer an opportunity to build up a portfolio of work which can be presented to prospective employers.
I've read many letters from people stating how difficult it is to get into the games industry. As someone who has employed many artists and coders over the last few years the most valuable advice is get drawing or get coding. Nothing impresses a potential employer more that a portfolio of work. Team up with each other, one coding, the other on the artwork. Also look beyond the traditional players, look at similar industries, like gaming (video slot machines) and web design.
James, Uxbridge, UK
I think it should be made very very clear that people who want to get into the games industry require more than just a degree and talent. Nearly all games companies are requiring that people have upwards of three years of experience. I should know. I've recently graduated with a degree in games software engineering and can't find a job anywhere in the industry. It's all well and good people claiming that there are jobs out there for people in the games industry but the honest truth is you have to be the best of the best of the best before your even considered.
Andrew Giggal, United Kingdom Chesterfield
I completed my art degree about seven years ago, by the end of it I had become much more interested in CG and video games, but I didn't know how to get into the games industry. After a few years spent as a web designer, I am unable to find any more work in that field, and like another person commented here, no way can I get a job in the games industry without experience or knowing someone on the inside.
I graduated in computer networking a couple of years ago, and I had to get work as a contractor just to try and get some experience in the industry. Even after a years contracting, I still struggled to find a permanent job, and when I did it was distantly related from what I did at uni.
Raymond, Fife, Scotland
I am an experienced programmer who has diversified into system admin, and about to move into computer security. I strongly advise people to avoid "worker" trades in the UK. You have no career path to a "boss", you will work very hard for rewards that others can earn with a fraction of the effort, and you will face social stigma beyond comprehension. Use your skills in a self-employed capacity, or get out of the UK and go to a country that values the software industry instead.
Paul, Worthing, UK
I have six years commercial programming experience in EPOS, production and scheduling and finance. I have a mathematics degree and a software engineering degree. I suspect that even I would have trouble getting into the games industry although I haven't tried. I am having enough difficulty breaking into the investment banking industry despite my vast experience and knowledge. The games industry like investment banking is a boys' club. If your face doesn't fit and you don't give them exact answers to all there stupid questions they won't let you in. We shouldn't be kidding art students that they can get into this hostile environment full of smart Alecs.
Big Big Al, Harrow
I am a computer science graduate and have always been interested in pursuing a career in the video games industry, but not as a "small fish in a big pond", the big pond being companies such as EA and Microsoft. Rather to start my own company. This cannot be done nowadays with today's licensed games, multi-million budgets and huge software teams, as opposed to the 1980s when bedroom coders were rife. The industry requires a portfolio of work before you are considered for a job (eg games you have worked on) yet a successful applicant will have such a small role in a team that time spent developing skills needed to put together a modest attempt at your own video game becomes redundant as technology develops. Currently I work at Burger King but hope to put my degree to good use in due time.
Laslo Panaflex, Belgium
I am just starting my final year of BA (Hons) Animation and am fed up of the lack of respect for animators in the general public's eyes. I have lost count of the amount of people that react to my chosen degree subject by saying "oh, so you make cartoons, what can you do with that for a job when you graduate then?". I know it's hard to get your first foot in the door but I would love to use my animation skills to work in the games or film industry. If we don't encourage young people to follow their passions, we are going to end up with no one taking that risk to aim high with optimism and determination to succeed. After all, if you don't try you definitely won't get that foot on the first rung of the ladder for your dream job.
Monica Healy, Southampton, UK
I've been on both sides of the fence as an employee and an employer. Students (or recent graduates) are in a terrific position. They're used to having large amounts of time, and keeping living costs low. Jobs are definitely hard to get at the moment, so the best way you'll get one is to impress people. Use your initiative and take some risks now - find a problem and use your IT skills to solve it. Rope in friends - show off your 'soft' skills too. You won't get a chance like it again. It will impress potential employers, boost your self-confidence and with some luck and persistence you might even find yourself as the one looking for the employees. Have a look at that recent BBC article about 30% of US economy being driven by graduates forming businesses within five years of leaving college.
Richard Kirby, Cambridge, UK
I went to uni in Scotland to do a degree in computer games technology. Being a new course, it was very poorly set arranged and organised. The work was very difficult without massive amounts of help for the teachers on the programming side. I would suggest anyone who has a flare for art to get some experience in industry standard modelling packages and move into the industry as an artist. Leave the C++ to the people who have done it for years. If you do feel like venturing into games development, my only advice is to club in with a group of people with various skills and develop something for yourselves. Selling a good idea may be the only way to get your foot in the door in to very hard industry.
Jackson Nutt, Larkhall, Scotland
I've been working as an artist in the games business for 20 years and would offer this advice to those attempting to get into the art side of the industry. A high quality and varied portfolio of models and textures will go a long way, but having some idea of the technical side of the work is invaluable - try the web and specialist publications for this. In addition, 3d animators (human figure) are especially in demand and games experience is not essential. The industry won't be easy to break into, but there are definitely jobs for graduates out there, but not in massive numbers.
As an art college graduate who went on to get a job in the games industry. I'm happy to say it's not impossible but requires dedication and effort (took me a year) The most important aspect is the quality of your work. I know many graduates employed from a single piece of work they did that clicked with the employer. Colleges need to teach students about how to break into the industry and what companies look for because that's as important as the skills themselves!
Matt Dickinson, Cambridge
Sliding away from the art issue for a moment, I'm sensing a little hostility towards the games industry here. I got a job in the industry after graduating by making a game demo, and then going to a lot of interviews. That process got me used to the kind of questions I was going to be asked, and eventually I got the job. What game developers are looking for is an interest in games and an ability to code, and a good personality. The teams tend to work hard together so it's important to be friendly. There are many agencies that will help you get interviews. You won't get as much money as in other IT sectors and you'll have to work overtime without pay. But it's fun - keep trying and you'll get in.
I am a female artist, graduated three years ago and now I work in computer games. It's hard work to get into such an incredibly male-dominated industry but well worth trying. My job is actually fun!
E W, UK
The two most important things are portfolio and agencies. Without a portfolio you're not even going to get a foot in the door, just waving your degree in front of people will get you nowhere at all unless you can back it up with some examples of what you can do. Agencies are important simply because the number of places you're going to have to apply to before you even get an interview is immense and without an agency to help you do that, you're probably not going to get very far. I think the main problem, at the moment especially, is that there are quite a few experienced games industry workers out of work and many companies would, understandably, rather hire experienced people than inexperienced ones. There are still many companies who are willing to take on graduates though (after all, they can pay them less) and if you keep looking (and if you're good enough) you should be able to find one of them.
As someone with a fine art degree and a career in the games industry, I can see the need for trained artists in a field of employment that hires a lot of people as "artists" but who have no meaningful creative ability. Unfortunately fine art degrees are often very poor on traditional skills, I recommend life drawing as the key skill to unlock doors for any artist who wants to make a living in the game industry. Beware of game/animation degrees, they tend to be unfocused.
Getting a games industry job these days is very difficult. I have worked in the UK games industry for over 15 years and in the past seven years, 75% of UK games development companies have gone out of business (according to official figures). Plus I've also been made redundant four times in the past seven years and I know of people who have been made redundant three times in one year. As the cost of developing games increases the risks to games development companies increase. Plus with increased competition for many other countries many of which have financial government backing, the UK games industry once the third largest country in the games industry is rapidly heading the way of so many UK industries. On top of this there are experienced UK artists out of work plus games developers only employ experienced staff as they want people to work to tight deadlines.
Alan Barton, London, UK
I'm a fine art graduate of Dundee and have been working in the film industry in London for six years. I have continued my fine art practice during these years and plan to get back into it full-time and stop the day job. It's good that art graduates can now get jobs in the game industry, but many eventually get bored with it as after a few years it becomes a rather limited career option compared to being a practicing fine artist, which they have been trained for. I would advise people to use a job in the games industry as a way of funding a real art practice, and get out when financially secure.
I work for a middleware company in the games industry, and have had a lot of success in recruiting graduates. I have found that motivated and intelligent graduates benefit my team hugely, and bring original ideas and solutions. When I recruit, I get many many CVs, and look for project work, either "hobby coding" or final year projects, to demonstrate the applicant has a love for games, graphics, and coding. A creative person joining my team will need to show a portfolio of work. The attraction of the Dare to be Digital project, and the (similar) Playground Squad school in Sweden is that it brings programmers and creative people together. This massively increases the chances that students can graduate with high quality demos or portfolios, that show what the student can achieve when working with other programmers or artists.
GrahamD, Guildford, UK
I have been working in the games industry for a few years now. It was a slog to get my first break. You just simply need to put the effort in. It's not exclusive, just competitive with high standards. I hope more artists do turn to video games as I think they need a poke in the ribs. Visually most games are rather stale, but times are a-changing and developers are more and more interested in breaking the norms. J Lambchop, London Village, England
I crossed over from "mainstream" IT into the games world nearly ten years ago. My suggestion is that to enter the business, as has been said, its a little vocational - it helps to be passionate and to have some examples of your own efforts (demos etc.). Also, set your aspirations to realistic levels - games are expensive large development projects these days. In particular, "Games Design" roles are very hard to get into - there are few of them, and mostly insider selected. For coding experience, consider "PS2 Linux". It helps if you can show that you have some understanding of the architecture of these machines, and its a pretty cheap option.However, it is a vibrant industry to be involved in - and certainly highly innovative on the tech side.
Paul Holman, London, UK
Really isn't that hard to join the industry, a good degree in a related subject, and some enthusiasm about games is all that's required. I joined as a grad, and I hire many grads. Just look for specialist recruitment agencies.
J, Leamington Spa
As someone that took part in Dare way back in 2002, I can't recommend it enough if you're considering a job in the games industry. It not only provides you with valuable experience and a demo, but it also helps you decide if you're really passionate enough about games to make it your career. Out of our team of five, two of us now work at Lionhead Studios, and one worked (up until they went out of business a couple of weeks ago) for Acclaim Cheltenam
Kieran, Guildford, England
I work for a games developer and we would like to take on graduate artists and programmers. Unfortunately we don't get any applicants from our job adverts.
Simon, Brighton, uk
Worked in the games industry for seven years. My advice to anyone trying to get into it? Get redundancy protection on your mortgage. It's the most unstable of all industries.
Carl Jackson, Warrington, Uk
I just accepted an employment offer from one of the most successful computer game firms in the US. There's a variety of employment opportunities within the industry but as has been mentioned it's a competitive area. Many here seem to be missing a key factor: an insatiable passion for games and understanding of the people who play them must accompany your skills as an artist, programmer, or businessman.
If you want to get a job as an artist in games, you have to be able to use some of the industry standard packages like Photoshop, Max, LW, Maya and Zbrush, but more importantly, you need a portfolio that is impressive. Artists are hired on the basis of talent and experience, so if you have no experience, you need to demonstrate a high level of talent. It's a competitive industry, but as far as artists go at least, the bottom line is your work, if you are good enough you will be hired, there are a lot of mediocre artists in games. Do not think however, that art school or any kind of degree is going to make much difference, it should help you learn the skills, but if I interview you, it's your work that will be doing most of the talking.
Zorro Del Monte, Texas
The games industry is a closed, stagnant environment that sees the same four or five ideas perpetually thrown back and forth. Why would anyone want to work for one of the established games producers when it seems that any genuine creativity is beaten down, favouring perceived 'market forces' as the shaper for any new project. Why not make a wave rather than complain that you can't join an old tired one?
I am starting an animation and digital arts degree. I would just like to say thanks to all your views. Some positive encouragement goes a long way.
Ebony N, London
I always wanted to work in the games industry as an artist, and shaped my GCSE's and A Levels towards this goal. When it came to a degree I decided to go down the Comp Science rather than Art route, as this would offer me more freedom. I took all the graphics courses at the uni, gaining a strong understanding of graphics programming, and spent all my spare time working on my portfolio. I felt that it would easy to get a job as a games artist with this portfolio and technical knowledge. However, after six months of applying to pretty much every company in the UK, I still didn't get anywhere. I even tried door-knocking on several doors in Guildford asking for an interview! The reasons they all gave me was the old experience issue. There was no-way in, so I looked for experience elsewhere. I now work as an artist for an architecture firm, which should give me the relevant experience I need (producing images / animations to tight deadlines in a studio environment). If you
can't get in, consider an alternative!
Derek, Norwich, UK