Recruitment is a challenge. Attracting and retaining the best talent affects the bottom line and makes or breaks a business. And hiring staff is now a vital part of any studio’s business strategy. And it has to be: The next 12 months will provide a host of challenges and opportunities for video games companies looking to attract and retain the best talent.
It is true that the experienced talent pool of games industry developers is shrinking – so as games companies increase in size and need talent to meet growth plans we often find oursevles competing with the film, music, IT and mobile sectors. With the following insights, trends and suggestions from the recruitment front line I hope to provide a guide for both developer recruitment teams as well as candidates to navigate the market in search of talent and jobs in this exciting industry.
Taking the easy route and recruiting from competitors does not fulfil growth demands. It results in stalemate. The industry has become overly reliant on playing recruitment chess, taking employees from one competitor and then losing their own in return. While this approach may work in the short term, it won’t benefit us in the long run as the industry’s needs for fresh talent aren’t met.
But weaning away from a habit is hard – so what are the solutions? To continue expanding, games companies need to start looking outside of the quick wins of gaming. There’s a sea of great talent, many blissfully unaware of the great careers available in gaming. Talented programmers work in the IT sector, in the public sector, film, mobile… that’s just scratching the surface of millions of talented individuals. Recently we hired a great AI programmer from a missile defence company working with the MOD. Project managers can come from a host of industries, from FMCG to Financial Services, bringing new ideas and scheduling skills. Candidates may need a little retraining but gain their loyalty and that is but a small part to play for their induction.
More and more candidates are happy to relocate nationally and internationally for the right job. I see this a lot – both from people applying to EA but also from existing staff who look for a new ‘life changing’ experience by working abroad.
Complex decisions are being taken by candidates on a daily basis not only involving working, but quality of life. ‘Where can I work on great games, develop my career and bring my family up with a decent quality of life?’
Europe is blessed with some great programming talent in the former Eastern European communist states, which are becoming part of the EU. A lack of visa issues make this an easy and rich recruiting ground. How many UK companies are recruiting from there? Too few.
Mobility of candidates has a big effect on an industry and the well-known ‘Brain Drain’ is increasingly becoming a reality in the UK. It’s a two-way street as talent in the UK and abroad recognise this change and see games developers investing in other countries with more attractive investment propositions. This could be Montreal or even one of the rapidly expanding countries in Asia.
UNIVERSITIES HOLD THE KEY
With the decrease in the availability of an experienced talent pool, building and maintaining solid graduate recruitment strategies is critical. In many ways graduates are the salvation to recruitment talent pool challenges. While it may seem obvious, this has not been recognised by enough games companies.
But there is more to graduate recruitment than attracting graduates via a jobs site web posting or receiving a CV from an agency. Graduates bring a huge desire for change and to prove their abilities. While experienced hires are schooled in particular eras or methodologies and can bring baggage which is difficult to retrain, graduates are used to learning. Training is like food for their brains. Their hunger also helps drive the internal promotion culture as others in the career chain feel the hunger of the grads chomping at their heels and hence raise their own game.
And setting up a graduate programme is not the preserve of the big publishers. It is not a matter of cost, but scale. An effective graduate scheme could involve selecting two or three universities to partner with, then providing advice, guest lecturers and then partnering with professors and getting to know the best students. It really does reap rewards for both parties – yet few do it.
As we look to diversify the talent pool we need to consider how we position ourselves as an industry. Video games are now mainstream entertainment and we need to ensure that the people who play our games today are more represented in our workforce. This applies particularly to the number of women and ethnic minorities. But when you look at any recent recruitment ads, most if not all still reflect the traditional geeky/nerdy image of the industry that is no longer representative.
60 per cent of gamers playing The Sims are female and this is the biggest selling game of all time. But look at a games team and 60 per cent are not female. There are many reasons that there are not enough women working in games today but key is what we do moving forward. Pipelines show that, to make a real difference real change has to be engineered at both school and university level, to ensure that women feel encouraged about gaming as a career choice, they can progress in the industry and hold major positions. EA can point to a host of successful key leaders, including two label presents: Kathy Vrabeck, president of the Casual Entertainment label and Nancy Smith, president of The Sims label. Again working with bodies like Skillset, can hopefully start to educate at a younger age how good our industry is to work in.
A MORE FLEXIBLE WAY OF WORKING
A flexible workforce is also essential for future development and contractors hold the key. Game development scheduling is defined by peaks and troughs for different areas and there are times when not all of the team is acutely working on the game. How that part of the team can be kept motivated and financially utilised has always been a key question. Can certain areas of the team be best served by hiring in contractors for short periods of time than adding to the numbers of permanent recruits?
Outsourcing provides another alternative and while this topic is often met with fear, it is proven not to lead to job losses. In fact, in areas that have been outsourced, team members who would previously have completed the lower end work have been liberated to work on more creative areas and add more value to a game, which is a win all round. The key is that outsourcing can allow game teams to remain smaller and more cohesive.
NEW WAYS OF SPOTTING TALENT
Recruiters in 2008 have many ways to search for talent. Social Networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn give recruiters powerful tools to search for candidates and allow for a shop window into that person’s life. Candidates should therefore be aware of what they share on those sites, as inappropriate material is likely to be seen and may not benefit their job applications.
Other trends such as user created content or advancements in technology such as Microsoft XNA will also help make aspiring game designer’s work more visible and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more recruiters pouring over content created by gamers to spot the next generation of talent.
When I started in EA’s UK studio, recruitment agencies were critical for pipeline, with over 70 per cent of positions filled through agency candidates. I always advise that proactive recruitment is the best way of recruiting staff. Recruiting by agencies and recruitment advertising is equivalent to a lottery. You just hope the best candidates are on the books at that moment in time or see the recruitment ad. That leaves a lot to chance.
The best recruiters for your company are still your staff. An effective internal referrals scheme coupled with a great working environment should mean your pipeline is never dry. In an age of web 2.0 with great social networking recruitment agencies in the games sector should no longer make placements with games professionals but by bringing to us talent from other industries that we cannot naturally find or attract. Now there’s a winning business proposition.
If you are looking for a job, the clearest advice I can give is to go direct. If you want to work for EA, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo etc., all have great jobs sites and recruiters to contact. Get to know them, meet them at Conferences such as the Develop Conference in Brighton – in short, control and influence your own career. It takes more time but is far more rewarding than hoping an agency wins through for you. Incidentally, agency recruitment at the EA UK Studio now makes up a very small percentage.
My advice to games companies, on any metric, be it cost, candidate experience, brand exposure, is ensure that you have an in-house recruitment team, loyally providing candidates with a great experience. Part of their focus needs to be on re-recruiting your own staff each day. Ensuring staff are happy and loved prevents recruiting for replacements.
With the decline in the size of the experienced talent pool and the growth in demand for staffing, candidates are increasingly in a position where they can negotiate stronger compensation packages. However, I would warn that as an industry we have to maintain a sensible position on this and avoid wages reaching unsustainable heights, while still appropriately honouring a candidate’s level of experience, talent and skill.
HEADHUNTERS ARE YOUR FRIEND
I’ve read in Develop or on Developmag.com a company head or HR leader decrying the practice of headhunting. One head of studio event recently told me he was proud that no one had attempted to headhunt his staff. I had to point out that this should be a real danger sign to him about the quality of his staff.
If you are being targeted by head-hunters take pride in the fact it shows you have recruited the best talent. Headhunting is a common and accepted practice in the traditional blue chip industries; let’s take pride in the fact that gaming has reached that maturity.
So are you a natural prey for head-hunters?
If you answer ‘no’ to any of the following then you are:
- Are your staff challenged?
- Are they well remunerated?
- Do they have a good work/life balance?
- Are they working on world class games?
- Do they have an opportunity for promotion?
- Are they receiving training & development?
- Are their ideas listened to?
If the answer is ‘no’, then start recruiting now for replacements.
TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT
Key to retaining staff is not necessarily money – that may be a short term motivator, but what makes people stick is being empowered and having real responsibility in a dynamic but friendly culture, backed by training and development.
A key exercise has recently been completed at EA whereby all the key job families have been mapped out (e.g. art, programming, audio, game design, production, project management etc.) and within that mapping, all roles and levels have been detailed so staff can transparently see what level of experience and responsibilities are needed to be promoted to the next level. That makes a key difference to staff forging their careers.
Also key has been recognising that a good manager makes all the difference to a person’s day to day career and enjoyment at work. As we all know, just because a person is great at their craft does not necessarily make them a great manager of people. So, at EA we made the project managers, (or development directors as we call them), responsible for people and career development as well as scheduling. That was a huge step forward for us and enriches career development and performance feedback.
LOTS OF IDEAS…
…so little time to implement them. I hope this advice will help you either recruiting new talent or find a job in this amazing industry. Being a great recruiter may not be rocket science, but it is a fine art. There is no better industry in the world to work in; together we can help continue grow it.
Matthew Jeffery is the head of global talent at Electronic Arts