Graduate Games: Aardvark Swift event helps build up industry-academia relations

Aardvark Swift’s annual trio of awards returned this month to Sheffield Hallam University as part of a full day of events to build relationships between students, education bodies and the industry.

Just to recap, Search for a Star aims to find the best students in their final year at university, be that at degree or postgraduate level, while Rising Star, supported by Sumo Digital, looks to spot the best talent among those still in education. Both aim to bridge that tricky gap between education and an actual industry role in a very real way, with industry-like interviews of the finalists helping to decide the winners on the day.

The student awards are run alongside Aardvark’s industry and academia Grad in Games awards. These recognise individuals and companies who have made an impact in improving the relationship between the two. All the awards were presented at the end of the day at The National Videogame Museum.

The awards were accompanied by a full-day conference with speakers including Tara Saunder, head of studio operations at Sony Interactive Entertainment, Jason Avent, who heads up TT Odyssey, d3T’s head of engineering Phil Owen, and many others providing their insight on how the industry works and how to get into it.

All caught up? So let’s talk to some industry attendees for an update on the state of that industry to academia relationship and how the event is helping.


Tara Saunders, Sony

Sony’s Saunders provides an overview of the event’s aims and impact: “It’s important that we all play a part in supporting the next generation of game developers, to ensure that the industry continues to attract passionate and well skilled individuals. Collaborating with Search for Star helps to connect strong industry role models to upcoming developers, giving them confidence, feedback and advice to pursue a career in games. I’m incredibly proud to have shared my journey with others, and hope that it inspires them to get started in their own careers.”

Andria Warren, Rare

Andria Warren, director of art production at Rare, and a judge on the day, looks at the positives of additional industry-directed work in a student portfolio: “The amount of students trying to get into the industry is massive. There’s so many universities around the country doing game art courses or game development courses so the competition is really high. So what you get out of university, your portfolio, doing competitions like this, just adds more work and it’s more experience of doing production-level briefs. It helps elevate your work and your portfolio, so when you’re going for a job you’ve got that extra piece that no one else has.”

Phil; Owen, d3t

D3T’s Owen agrees, adding that it offers essential experience: “It also gives a fantastic insight to the student on how it feels to actually work in the games industry. The quality of work from the students is of the highest standard and I would hope that through Rising Star and Search for a Star, the relationships grown will only further bring universities and the industry together.”

Greg Booker, Wargaming

On those relationships, Greg Booker, lead programmer from Wargaming UK, tells us: “The challenge we face as the games development community is working with academia to find a balance – we appreciate there are challenges, particularly in the UK around funding, but to give students a fighting chance of finding a position in the industry they need to be prepared in ways that provide a strong foundation for what is a lifetime of learning on the job. I hope that together we can help focus university courses on the skills most important to us.”

Lizi Attwood, Furious Bee

Even with those skills, though, the industry remains a tough nut to crack says Lizi Attwood, technical director at Furious Bee and judge on the awards: “Entry to the games industry is highly competitive and universities are producing far more games programming graduates than there are graduate programming positions available. It isn’t good enough to just do the work set for the course. Students need to find ways to stand out from their peers and this competition helps them to do that.

“We try to give students an understanding of what the hiring process might be like, give them some interview practice and a taste of what Day One on the job might entail. No company ever hires a graduate and gives them a project to start from scratch: graduates have to be able to read and understand the work done by those who came before them, so we try to emulate that within the competition process.”

Dave Roberts, Red Kite Games

And work and experience beyond what’s on the syllabus is also highlighted by Dave Roberts, creative director at Red Kite Games: “Obviously the work they’re doing at university is important but because there’s so many graduates and so much competition at the moment. The portfolio is really important in order for applicants to really stand out. It’s not just the work they’ve done at university, it’s showing that motivation to develop stuff and work on stuff outside of university, and build a portfolio that really shows us they’ve got the enthusiasm to actually want to be in the games industry.”

Roberts even wishes the competition had been running back in his student days: “I would have definitely entered when I was going to university. I recognise now that the competition for places is so high, so having that on your portfolio that helps you to stand out is so, so important.”


Moving onto to some of this year’s winners, we talk to Ellie Brown, the Search for a Star 2019 winner in the Character Art category, who attends the University of Huddersfield.

“The competition, for me, has been an eyeopener into how much I can push myself in a short amount of time to produce work that I’m proud of,” she says. “It’s helped me work faster, more efficiently, to produce work that I really like. I actually used this competition to practice what I’m researching for my dissertation which has been a major help because I’ve been able to get actual feedback from the industry.”

We also hear from Jimmy Ghysens, who attends Howest in Belgium. He picked up last year’s Rising Star award for Environment Art, and made it a double in the same category with a Search for a Star award this year. We ask about his favourite part of the process.

Ellie Brown (left) and Jimmy Ghysens (right) receiving their Search for a Star awards

“Probably the interview, especially last year because it was my first time,” he answers. “After that I got contacted by some companies and it kind of helped me to prepare for that. I think that’s the most important part. And meeting people from the studios is always nice.

“Even if you don’t have that much time, you still get feedback, and getting feedback from people who actually work in the industry is invaluable,” he advises potential entrants.

The annual event continues to go from strength to strength then. All the industry members and entrants we heard from were positive about its impacts, with the event helping strengthen academic-to-industry links and provide essential portfolio-building and interview experience for graduates, before they hit the competitive reality of an often tough to enter industry.

All the best to all of those involved, we look forward to seeing your 30 Under 30 entries in years to come!

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