Searching for a star: how Aardvark Swift’s program has spent 10 years helping graduates get into the industry

“We don’t just find the best students anymore, we make them,” says Ian Goodall, the managing director of Aardvark Swift Recruitment.

It may sound like a smart soundbite, but after ten years of Aardvark Swift’s Search for a Star competition for student game creators, it’s hard to disagree. The competition was originally created, Goodall tells us, as “the X Factor competition, but for video games development students.” It puts game development students through a variety of challenges looking to prepare them for a career in the industry – though thankfully you don’t need a sob story to back-up your talents in this contest.

“We wanted to take the best students that were out there, push them through some tests and some stages, and then hopefully come out with the real crème de la crème, if you like, of students in the UK,” Goodall says.

Now, after a decade, the event has grown considerably from its roots as a competition to foster the next generation’s programming geniuses.

“Originally, we started out with a programming competition. That’s where we know the games industry feels the most pain at the moment: finding really good coders,” Goodall explains. “What we did with the competition is we tried to mirror the typical recruitment process that a coding student would face when trying to get into the games industry. The first stage of the competition was – and still is – a C++ code test, because if students aren’t capable of coding in C++ or if they’re not up to a very good standard, then they’re not going to get past that first hurdle.” He goes on to explain that the test is largely what studios will ask new coders to attempt anyway.

The company then surveyed the games industry to find out what it really needed, something it still does annually to ensure that the competition is kept bang-up-to-date with the needs of employers.

“What do you want the students to do? What do you want to see in students when they graduate?,” Goodall asks. “What most studios want to see is a working game. They want students to have made a small game. It doesn’t have to be something epic, but just some experience in the process of designing a game, coming up with the idea and then fitting all that together and making it work. “The tools have changed, but the second part of the contest is to give the students Unity and a month, and see what they come back with.”

He adds that the event started after the team at Aardvark Swift saw a disparity in the market: “We’d been going out to a lot of different universities up and down the country for career talks and we started to realise there was a big gap between what the students were being taught and the level they needed to achieve to transition successfully from student developer to professional developer.”

Inspired by this, Goodall sought to create a vehicle for students to polish the skills that games companies expect from graduates. Tamsin O’Luanaigh, the talent director at game development outfit nDreams, says that the competition has delivered real value to the studio.

“NDreams has been involved with Search For a Star for two years now,” she tells MCV. “We believe it’s important to encourage graduates at this stage of their careers and this competition allows them to showcase their skills with the real chance of employment at the end of it. The graduates that we recruited in the program have already made a great contribution to the studio. It’s also been a great experience for our staff, who have been involved in judging competition entries in a variety of disciplines.”

Each year the judging panel has gotten more involved, with games development studios setting tasks in a variety of disciplines. Studios like Sumo Digital, NaturalMotion and Red Kite Games will often attend the finals day to meet some of the industry’s best and brightest students face-to-face. There are now entrants for art, animation and VFX in addition to programming, with the competition offering a balanced look at the industry.

“These sorts of challenges are vital to the industry’s future,” says Simon Iwaniszak, managing director at Red Kite Games. “Frankly, if you’re a student who isn’t entering Search For A Star or Rising Star competitions then we don’t believe that you’re serious about getting a job in video games.”

From the last decade, Goodall is most proud of the time Aardvark Swift has spent with students and universities. Working hard to make sure studios in the UK are informed and positive about taking on the best graduate talent.

However, he’s also pleased with the work that the recruiter has done using the employment surveys conducted for Search For A Star, to make portfolio and careers advice available to students and universities across the UK.

“Improving the links between employers and academia is key to moving the industry forward,” says Goodall. Aardvark Swift went to 30 universities across the UK and Europe last year to talk to over 2,000 students, in many cases taking along members of the games industry to improve studio engagement.

Another step has been the launch of the Grads in Games initiative, which has grown from the foundation set up by Search for a Star to give even more students a place to shine.

“Ten years ago, many, many studios dismissed graduate hiring. They got inundated every year by weak, badly written CVs and badly prepared portfolios. They’d come to the conclusion that all the degrees out there were rubbish. The students weren’t worth bothering with. They weren’t really too keen on graduate recruitment,” Goodall says.

The industry seems to have changed its mind. Talent acquisition manager Holly Youdan adds that for Sumo Digital, it’s an essential event. “Search for a Star has been an amazing event to be a part of over the past couple of years. We’ve seen excellent talent participate with several of those stars having bright careers at Sumo. It’s important to be able to support Search for a Star to help foster the best and brightest game developers for the future.”

Since Search for a Star started, Aardvark Swift has placed hundreds of students in roles, landing 14 graduates in jobs in just the last two months.

In the first year, there were 50 to 60 students from 20 different universities entering the competition. 2018’s contest had 1,000 students entering from over 100 universities.

For Goodall, the next step is to make the contest truly international, encouraging more entries from mainland Europe and the US. Whether this means the same contest growing even bigger, or separate geographical contests springing up, will have to be worked out, but Goodall is passionate about offering the opportunities to even more students.

“It’s got a real positive output,” he says. “We’ve, quite honestly, taken students that would have never made it into the games industry and we’ve pipelined them successfully into many, many UK studios.

“They would have been lost to the UK games industry, and they would have gone off and got jobs in IT or tech or banking or finance or whatever. I’m very proud that we put a lot of work in, but it actually does get people jobs. Simple as that.” 

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