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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 17:37 GMT
Students aim for career in games
By Diarmuid Mitchell
BBC News

3D model by Sophie Shaw of London Metropolitan University
Students learn to use 3D software to create game characters
Competition for jobs in video game development has never been higher.

The release of new consoles has lead to a downturn in sales of games for older platforms, while the market for next-generation games has not yet matured.

The result has been a fall in global games software revenues of nearly $3bn (1.5bn; 2bn euros) in the last two years, according to media analysts Screen Digest.

So how hard is it to break into the games industry at a time like this?

Matt Jeffrey, head of recruitment for Electronic Arts (EA) in Europe, receives hundreds of applications for every new design and development position he offers.

"The strongest talent pool in the world is residing in the UK and Europe so our challenge is to get the most talented individuals into our studio," said Mr Jeffrey.

Potential talent can come from a number of sources.

"Some of those people could be working on a game degree now," Mr Jeffrey said.

Core skills

An increasing number of UK universities offer degree courses in games design and development at graduate and post-graduate level.

Most degree programmes in computer games cover core programming skills, using languages like C++, and focusing on game elements like engine architecture, game physics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Art and design skills in 2D and 3D modelling and animation also feature highly.

As well as learning to use industry-standard software, computer games design students at the University of East London (UEL) learn to work within real-world constraints.

3D game level by UEL student
Designing 3D game environments is a key part of many degree courses

As part of a course module in games markets and production, third-year UEL student, Ryan Wiltshire, developed an online role-playing game (RPG) for the Chinese market.

"Some Chinese gamers are 'addicted' to online gaming so the Chinese government has set limits on how long you can play for," said Mr Wiltshire.

"I designed a game so that if the player takes a rest after three hours, it will improve the character's powers. If they play longer the characters loses items and skills."

Industry's role

The games industry is also taking steps to foster the development of the next generation of game designers.

Microsoft released the XNA Games Studio Express software in December as a free games development kit for hobbyists and students.

The software includes the XNA Framework, chunks or pre-written code that Microsoft describes as an "enabling platform" which simplifies access to graphics, sound and input.

The software package also features a set of tools designed to allow developers to create games for Xbox 360, as long as users subscribe to the XNA Creators Club.

While the kit is free for anyone to download, Microsoft believes the development package has particular potential for uniting industry and academia.

Microsoft UK's academic lead Andrew Sithers says he is in the process of creating "a community of academics and students who want to share information" on using the XNA kit to produce games for Xbox 360.

It's not the kind of job where you can sit on your hands and hope somebody notices you're having trouble
Chris Roberts
Senior Designer, Electronic Arts

Mr Sithers has initiated a "seeding programme" with 20 UK universities, donating five Xbox 360 consoles to each one, and asking them to contribute ideas and white papers on how to use Microsoft's technologies in teaching games development.

"The academic community sits alongside the XNA Creators Club," said Mr Sithers.

"The Creators Club is going to have example code, professional games and source code that students can play with, and break apart and reassemble in different ways so they can explore the capabilities of the system," he added.

'Live projects'

Games publisher EA also works closely with a number of British universities, advising on course content and providing guest lecturers, while offering internships to university students.

"Last summer we had fifteen interns in the UK studio working across the game teams. We had a mix of programmers, audio staff and artists," said EA's head of recruitment, Matt Jeffrey.

"What was important was to put them on live projects so what they worked on was of relevance and critical to that project as well. That gave them a good flavour of exactly what it's like to work in the industry," said Mr Jeffrey.

3D game level by UEL student
Students use lighting effects to add atmosphere to game levels

However, work experience and university training in coding and design are not the only skills necessary for a career in game development.

Chris Roberts, senior designer on EA's forthcoming Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix game, believes that working on a large project makes special demands on the development team.

"At the moment, anywhere between 80 and 100 people are working on Harry Potter," said Mr Roberts.

"It's a logistical nightmare so you need really great communication skills. It's not the kind of job where you can sit on your hands and hope somebody notices you're having trouble," he added.

No ego

The ability to communicate well and work as a team player is vital, according to Dave Ranyard, creative services manager for Sony's London and Cambridge studios.

Mr Ranyard, who has worked on Sing Star, Wipeout and Killzone titles for PlayStation 2, says that personality weighs heavily in getting into the games industry.

"We have a lot of high-pressure situations and what you don't want on top of that is some kind of ego. You want people who are confident about their work but aren't arrogant about it," Mr Ranyard said.

So how should graduates go about applying for their first job in the games industry?

"A good show reel is important on the creative side - maximum five minutes, and only your best stuff, or a game demo if you're a programmer," said Mr Ranyard.

"And when you get to interview, don't be too nervous. And don't wear a suit."

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