Hard work and home truths: How one festival is preparing students for the games industry

Keith Andrew reports back from the long-running Bradford Animation Festival
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“I've never wanted to do anything else but work in the games industry,” opened Simon Smith, formerly of the likes of SCEE, Codemasters, Reloaded Productions and Blitz Games, speaking on day three of the Bradford Animation Festival in the heart of Yorkshire.

“I never wanted to be an astronaut, I never wanted to be a train driver, and I certainly never wanted to be a farmer like my Dad.” 

Just as well, then, that Smith – now founder of brand-gaming specialist Thumbfood – ended up working in his chosen field, rather than ploughing them. As Smith's hour on stage in Bradford was designed to prove, however, getting the ideal job in the games industry is not necessarily as straightforward as it may first appear. Those entering the games industry need to be prepared to be creative when it comes to building up experience and moving on up the ladder.

“There weren't any games design courses available in 1993,” Smith added, speaking to an audience packed primarily with students, “so if you're on one now, you're very lucky.” 

The Bradford Animation Festival – now in its 21st year – naturally covers more than just games design in its five-day run, but its presentations aimed at the games industry this year appeared primarily designed to tell a few home truths about working in the sector, doing away with some long established myths in the process. 

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There weren't any games design courses available in 1993, so if you're on one now, you're very lucky.

Simon Smith, Thumbfood

Faced with getting into the games industry during an era when games design qualifications were few and far between, Smith designed to study film because it was “as close as I could get” and, naturally, many of the skills were transferable. Indeed, as much as the course would allow, Smith focused his work on the games scene, making his qualification-to-be work for his intended career. However, this wasn't the only time in Smith's career he's had to take the scenic route to his intended destination. 

At the now-defunct Blitz Games, he said, he took on the role of “design co-ordinator” at a time when the company didn't actually employ a single game designer in house. His work led him to work on games that tapped into big licenses such as Reservoir Dogs, Fairly Odd Parents, Bad Boys II, and even Mattel behemoth Barbie. But even if you have designs on creating the next Grand Theft Auto, Destiny or The Last of Us, you shouldn't sneer at the idea of making games for brands that may not appeal to you. 

The key, he argued, is to make the best game you can, whoever it is aimed at and whatever IP it is tied to. Blitz's Barbie game, Smith said, was essentially a rally game on horses, and featured “probably the best horse animation I've seen in any game” thanks to the skills of a particularly knowledgable member of the development team. You might not change the world, but even a game based on a popular doll brand can serve up something of value.

“Remember not to be too precious about what you're working on,” Smith told the young crowd, “unless you've got a rich Daddy who can bankroll you, that is.”

Even if Bad Boys II wasn't the best game, he continued, the money the deal generated enabled Blitz – and all the staff it employed – to roll on to the next project. Indeed, securing the Bad Boys II license also enabled Blitz, which had been pigeon-holed at the time as a firm more likely to work on kids projects, to pitch for the equally adult Reservoir Dogs game – coupled with Smith and others at the company heading down to London to secure the deal dressed in full Tarantino-esque get up.

Just as firms like Blitz professed at a company wide level, so individuals have to keep plugging away, working on project after project to ensure that the next game they work on or the next role they take on is what they want to do.

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Case in point: During his time at Sony Computer Entertainment, Smith ended up working on several releases in the incredibly successful quiz franchise Buzz – an IP he'd pitched for when he was previously working at Blitz. In the words of Smith, the Buzz team was rolling from one success to another, “knocking them out every six months” with each one selling a couple of million each. 

Remember not to be too precious about what you're working on – unless you've got a rich Daddy who can bankroll you, that is.

Simon Smith, Thumbfood

Indeed, Smith's experience with Sony led him to urge anyone in the audience to make contact with those at the company working at Liverpool on PlayStation if they have something worthwhile to pitch. 

“If you make an iOS game and it's quite successful, you can then go to Sony's external development team and ask for a dev kit and to fund your team and they'll do that,” Smith added.

Even if you don't land the support of a major player to fund your dreams, however, Smith is a great advocate of work-for-hire. You'll find far more developers doing work-for-hire that they simply don't publicised in order to pay the bills than you might expect, he said.

“The games industry doesn't hire enough freelance people,” Smith, who has been made redundant several times during his career, concluded. “Companies hire people, they do game X, and if it doesn't sell very well they don't get to do game Y. One of the things I'm pushing for in the games industry is more freelance hiring, so people get hired for 12 months, but at least they know it's only for 12 months rather than taking on a role they think is permanent only to be let go a year or less down the line.”

Smith's final piece of advice? “If you want to be in the games industry, be in the games industry, even if that's working in GAME. It's better working in QA than it is working in McDonald's.”

If Smith's assertion that the idea you can only work on IP you like on critically acclaimed projects was one myth he was looking to smash, former game developer and now University of Bradford lecturer in computer games Kaye Elling – who followed Smith on stage – had a whole host more she was looking to take to task.

A few years ago Elling was behind a mini internet meme titled 100 Things Every Game Student Should Know, which was designed to lay out the obvious and somewhat more obscure facts that everyone going into the games industry should be aware of.

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If you want to be in the games industry, be in the games industry, even if that's working in GAME. It's better working in QA than it is working in McDonald's.

Simon Smith, Thumbfood

“Working in games can be really tough,” opened Elling. “Sometimes it's like being in a war, with the people who have the money in the industry, like publishers.

“The industry is very good at letting people see things on the surface – it's all PR and marketing etc – it's good at letting people see what they want you to see rather than how things actually are. We need to stop thinking like consumers and starting thinking like developers do. Unless you see developers in the bar after an event, everything has this kind of veneer over it.”

According to Elling, what those coming into the industry in 2014 need is a few truths – some more amusing than others. While you might think anyone of adult age shouldn't need telling that body odour is an issue that no-one should overlook - “smelling nice is a way of showing respect to other people,” Elling summarised – other truths raised by Elling may be harder for people to swallow.

“There is no place for ego in games – respect is earned,” added Elling. “Some people who interview you may not have a degree and may not care at all about your work.”

On a similar note, when pitching for a job (or, indeed, pitching a game) you shouldn't make assumptions about who you're talking to or aiming your game at. The games industry is a diverse place in 2014, Elling pointed out, and success within it can come down to respecting other people working within it.

There is no place for ego in games – respect is earned.

Kaye Elling, University of Bradford

“Do not make assumptions about who is looking at your portfolio – they might not necessarily be male, or white, or straight,” she continued. “Games offices tend to be really relaxed, so people sometimes feel like it's the internet and start talking like they would on the internet,” said Elling, before adding to laughter from the crowd, “Don't discuss or admit to having any knowledge of what tentacle porn action figures actually are.”

To put it simply, Elling knows of countless couples, straight and gay, who have met while working at the same developer, so “if you act like an internet dweeb in the office, you could be denying yourself a lifetime of marital bliss.”

Likewise, if you secure a position at a games developer, try to remember you are a professional first and a gamer second. As well as making sure you aim your games at wider consumers rather than yourself, this also means keeping your opinions to yourself when it comes to issues such as GamerGate. Well, that's if you want to keep your job.

“Gamergate is a consumer revolt and not a developer result, so when it comes to things like this, we ask you to act like a developer,” concluded Elling. “Yes, they may have an opinion on things like this, but in the office they do not.

"You have to think of the consumer, but the consumer is not always you. Unless you are lucky enough to be working for a company where you personally are the demographic, you have to think like a developer.”

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