The video games job market moves at a faster pace than the industry itself. In order to keep up with innovations within the industry, employers (and employees) have to predict the future and look to specialise in areas that may not even exist yet. We spoke to several developers and recruitment agencies in the UK and, while their predictions may not all align perfectly, one thing they do agree on is that the state of the UK jobs market is booming.
“There is a lot of activity in the games job market,” says Nathan Adcock, PR and marketing manager at OPM Response. “Recruitment agencies are the first to know when there is a recruitment boom in their industry, and we’ve never had this many active jobs before.”
Developer Jagex feels like there’s been a shift since several big UK developers closed over the last few years. “Right now, the job market is both a vibrant and volatile one,” says Pete Lovell, director of talent acquisition at the studio. “It’s certainly recovering from the lag that a raft of studio closures created a couple of years ago and, while we still see news of closures, there’s a better and more healthy balance of small, midsized and larger studios out there. For every studio that closes, we seem to be gaining more, and there’s a healthy buzz coming from the main UK development hubs.”
Forza Horizon developer Playground Games is a great example of where and how this talent gets redistributed. “The UK games job market is buoyant and fast-paced,” says Nick Duncombe, the company’s resource manager. “The market has more open roles than job seekers, and studios across the UK are expanding. Playground Games has expanded to nearly 200 members of staff in 2017 and we need to hire another 250 over the next two years to meet the needs of our second studio, working on a triple-A open-world action / RPG project.
“Developers have a lot of choice if they are looking to change jobs. With a candidate-driven market, studios are having to ensure their proposition is not only in-line with their competitors, but offers something better, different, or both. Playground operates an uncapped royalty scheme, which allows our staff to share in the success of our games and has seen staff who worked on Forza Horizon 3 throughout development double their salaries this year.”
This is great for developers looking to switch roles, but it’s harder for employers to find specialist talent, particularly of a high level. “Without wanting to sound over dramatic, the UK games jobs market is a bloodbath for talented games developers,” believes Aardvark Swift managing director Ian Goodall. “Experienced developers are as scarce as they have ever been, there are dozens of studios looking to size up in large numbers and dozens more behind them sizing up on a smaller scale. Add to this the trend of experienced devs setting up smaller indie studios, and we end up at a point where there is very little or no ‘available talent’. The situation has never been healthy, but right now it’s worse than ever. There are acute pain points like C++ coders, graphics programmers, tech artists. Ultimately there are not enough very talented games devs to go round!”
Snake Pass developer Sumo Digital feels that this is especially true for those higher up the food chain. “We’re finding that as the demand for specialisms grow with the scale and fidelity expectations of this generation of console development, that candidates at the more senior end of the spectrum are harder to find,” says Rebecca Askham, internal recruiter at the studio. “There’s a notable influx of graduates and people in the earlier stages of their careers, because university courses are coming of age, but the veterans seem to be more content to stay where they are – perhaps because as they get older, their lives become more rooted in place because of family and other commitments.”
The specialism of the games industry is something that Jagex’s Lovell sees as an important thing for developers and students to keep in mind as their career progresses. “Ensure that whichever area you choose to specialise in, you double down on that specialisation,” he says. “The roles for a jack-of-all-trades developer are less numerous in the bigger studios; it’s about knowing your specialist area deeper than ever before and gaining the right professional experience in that area.
“If you’re looking to break into a specialist development role, demonstrating your personal interest and passion in that specialised area is key. Showcase how your interest has influenced your personal projects, prove your personal investment in the specialisation and demonstrate that you have a full spectrum of understanding in it.
“For Jagex, we have a focus on those who have experience in F2P and mobile. Talent with a strong understanding of those business models and their associated disciplines – whether it’s UA marketing, cross-platform development or UX driven design – are core and increasingly important. In addition to securing people that are scientifically creative – big data, business intelligence professionals.”
Meanwhile, at Newcastle-based Ubisoft Reflections, knowledge of games as a service is more valuable as a potential employee.
“For us and many others, live services within games affect the amount of resource we need to support these, producing more opportunities for job seekers,” says Jose Paredes, programming architect at the studio. “From an engineering point of view, we are making games that are delivering new content and features to players for months or even years. Knowledge in software architecture and software design is very important, as systems have to be written in a way that are robust and functional not only for release day, but also for the whole life of the product. With this in mind, UK developers that have live services will continuously search for knowledge in highly specialised areas. As a result of this, we currently have a variety of programming opportunities at all levels at our UK studios, Ubisoft Leamington and Reflections.”
Having a team that understands the 'live product' mindset is only going to become more valuable.
Alex Wright-Manning, Splash Damage
Paredes’ colleague Joseph Rogers, production manager at Ubisoft Reflections, adds that there are some key personality traits that make people even more employable. “If you look at a company on the scale of Ubisoft, one of the challenges we’re facing now with large development teams is finding enough people who are interested in leadership,” Rogers says. “Having an interest in mentoring and leading and developing those skills is and will be very relevant with the size of development teams working on triple-A products.
“It doesn’t have to be something you already have experience of either, maybe you’re looking for your first job in the industry. At Ubisoft we have an expectation for all people to bring a leadership mindset and there’s plenty of resources out there that can help develop these soft skills.”
Alex Wright-Manning, senior recruitment manager at Splash Damage, comes back to live games. This is a clear growth area in the industry and one in which developers would be wise to gain some skill:
“We’ve all mourned the recent closure or restructuring of some of the industry’s most highly respected single player focused studios. This is indicative of big publishers working to the – quite factual – data around the increased longevity of titles with an online/social focus. The term ‘games as a service’ is a divisive one for many but, ultimately, it’s a direction that the industry has been heading for a while, and having a team that understands the ‘live product’ mindset is only going to become more valuable.”
Across all of the studios and recruiters we spoke to, there was a huge variety of different specialisms that were discussed. This speaks to not only an increase in granularity within different skillsets, but also a divergence of focus across the industry. But some of these skills are as vital and basic as competency in a top games engine.
“Experience with Unreal Engine has become more and more important for us across all disciplines,” says Supermassive Games’ operations director Jonathan Amor.
Beyond that, we see some very specific needs. “Artists need to have an appreciation of how to use physically-based rendering materials,” Amor continues. “There is more emphasis on specialised lighting artists. There is so much more potential with lighting now and you need strong technical and artistic skills in order to get the best out of the latest renderers. For us there is also a move away from traditional key frame animation to motion editing.”
Playground Games’ wishlist looks slightly different, however. “Procedural generation, moving away from traditional animation blends, Substance texture generation, machine learning and AI are areas all studios are looking to develop,” Duncombe says. “While this knowledge is very much of interest to Playground we are also keen to hire developers with new ideas and techniques. Our 12K sky-capture in Forza Horizon 3 is a great example of us taking an idea, developing it, and implementing it in-game.”
And finally, the virtual elephant in the room. Aardvark Swift’s Goodall believes that there’s still a good opportunity for developers who are interested in investing their skill eggs in the VR basket. “The VR industry is growing steadily at the moment,” he says. “During its early days not many developers had direct experience working with VR and it was a learning curve for much of the industry. However, it’s been a couple of years now and it’s likely that we’ll start seeing studios specifically looking for developers with VR experience.
“Universities are training their students in VR now. These graduates now have a distinct advantage over many established developers. If VR is an area that you’re interested in getting into, then demonstrating that you have a good understanding of the technology and a passion for where it’s going is still sufficient at the moment. However, as experience becomes more widespread and desirable over the next few years, a side project using VR in your portfolio would help.”
STRENGTH FROM WITHIN
The strength of your studio can only be based on the strength of your employees. This makes it important not only for you to retain key talent that you already have, but also to use internal resources to hunt for new superstar developers.
“Review your benefits and salary bandings on a regular basis against your competitors and ensure you are an attractive option for potential employees,” says Liz Prince, business manager at recruiter Amiqus.
“This doesn’t have to be simply in terms of salary either, things like social events, relocation assistance, flexible working or great tech can carry a lot of weight. Also, get to know what is valuable to your team and talk about that. It could be the autonomy offered by working in a small team, the opportunity to advance your career or a great diverse team, strong culture of productivity and getting things done.
“Keeping current staff happy is also a crucial part of helping to attract new staff. The social validation that comes from current employees talking up your studio is massive. Whether it be on online forums, social media, Glassdoor, at events or even during a break in an onsite interview during a passing conversation whilst grabbing a coffee, or waiting for the interview to start. Every person a candidate comes into contact with from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they leave is a walking advert for you as an employer.
“Bear in mind that the recruitment process is as much you selling the company to the employee as it is them selling themselves to you. Sometimes it’s too easy for studios to make this all about ‘Why should we hire you’ when the candidate is sat on the other side of the desk is thinking ‘Why should I work for you’.”
Aardvark Swift’s Goodall sees retention as more important than recruiting new talent, and it’s something that can feed into the industry ecosystem and help both studios and recruiters alike: “Studios are beginning to realise the importance of focusing on retention over recruitment. Not only is it cheaper for the studio, but it fosters an overall more productive and happy workforce. Benefits and work-life balance are becoming an increasingly important part of the average candidate’s job search; especially those professionals who have sought-after skillsets, such as technical artists.
“This is great for us. While we make our money from recruitment, we want to see the candidates we place stay in their studios, rise up through the company, and ultimately return to us for help with recruiting their own team. We’re very much in it for the long run.”
But external recruiters are finding it harder, despite being industry experts, at competing against internal recruitment teams, according to OPM’s Nathan Adcock. “Over the last five years games companies have got much better at filling their own vacancies,” he says. “Internal HR teams can be just as savvy as recruitment agencies at finding the right people using social media and job boards, so a lot of companies only tend to use our services for the difficult to fill roles.”
Supermassive gains a lot of new hires straight out of uni, but only because it has helped feed into certain university courses to make sure that the students are being taught relevant, useful skills. “We hire graduates straight from a range of different universities,” says operations director Jonathan Amor. “The standard of courses seems to be improving, although there is perhaps a widening gap between the best and the worst courses. We think it’s important to get work experience and learn the skills of working in a multi-discipline team, as well as getting a solid grounding in your chosen area.”
One area of recruitment (and the games industry in general) that we’re seeing improvements in is diversity. For good reason, it has become an important discussion point, whether from the perspective of race, gender, sexuality or any other. Art is a reflection of the people who make it and, therefore, the best way to encourage more diverse people to enter the games industry is to show that they are welcome by including them in the games you are making.
They will reward you by helping to make those stories stronger and more authentic by bringing their life experiences to your game, thereby encouraging more diverse developers to join. It’s a process, but one that is already exciting to see unfold in certain areas of the industry.
“Any down sides in complexity to hiring from abroad are outweighed by having a diverse workforce,” says Amiqus’ Liz Prince. “And once you open the doors to international recruitment, it gives hiring managers much more choice of skills and enriches the culture of your workforce. Additionally, for the candidate it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity which gives them and their family and friends memories for years to come. I’d say around 30-ish per cent of our clients are able to recruit from abroad, and as a result it is common. Some recent examples include relocations from New Zealand to Dublin, from Spain to Leamington Spa, Berlin to London and Romania to Finland.”
The recruitment process is as much you selling the company to the employee as it is them selling themselves to you.
Liz Prince, Amiqus
“Games consumers are a diverse bunch,” says Splash Damage’s Wright-Manning. “So subsequently we should strive to be as inclusive an industry as possible. Development should be a meritocracy of course, but it’s important that we support and shine a light on those groups that are traditionally underrepresented within the industry, and ensure that our selection processes are unbiased. Grassroots and community outreach projects should be a big priority for the industry moving forward, engaging with development stars of the future, and pitching games to all as the inclusive, open and fun career that it is – regardless of gender, colour, religion or sexual orientation.”
There’s agreement across the board from developers and recruiters alike. Aardvark Swift’s Goodall believes that education at a young age will help the next generation of game developers be much more diverse. “For the games industry to innovate and thrive, it needs a non-uniform, diverse workforce from a broad spectrum of backgrounds bringing their differing experiences and viewpoints to the table,” he says. “Historically the games industry has not been great with this, but it’s been proven time and time again that more diverse teams outperform those which don’t embrace diversity.
“There’s no quick and easy fix to encouraging a more diverse range of people into the games industry. In terms of gender diversity, computer science is still seen as a male dominated university and A-level discipline. This is a problem that needs to be tackled early on in education, with studios and role models stepping up, visiting schools and showing that this is an industry in which women can succeed and excel in.
“On a broader scale, I believe a more diverse range of candidates will be attracted to the industry when they begin to see themselves represented in its products. Horizon Zero Dawn and Battlefield 1 dispel the archaic belief that games won’t sell unless they have a white male protagonist. Blizzard’s Overwatch is a prime example of a game which has capitalised on the rich diversity of its cast, and this in turn gives an impression of the values that the studio, and by extension the industry, hold.”
OPM’s Adcock beautifully sums up with one simple question: “Developers aren’t making games just for men in the UK, so why on earth would they just hire men from the UK?”