So You Want to Make Games

In early 2014 I approached the editor of Hyper Magazine, and pitched him on a long form article about what I thought was one of the larger problems with the games industry in Australia: the huge education industry. What resulted, some 10 months later, was this article, which was published in their annual Education Special. It’s my first heavily research based article, and I’m really proud of it. Speaking to smart people across the industry didn’t necessarily allay my fears, but perhaps it’s not as big a problem as I had believed. Anyway, the article is after the break!

When I entered the games industry in 2007, as a junior on L.A. Noire, most of my colleagues hadn’t studied video games. By the time L.A. Noire shipped, more and more of the junior positions were filled by people who had studied games, either at a private college or at university.

Programmers generally held Bachelor’s degrees or higher in Computer Science. Artists had studied fine art, 3D or graphic design. Designers, well, we were a mixed bunch. The job advertisement I answered simply required we held a Bachelor’s degree. Not in any particular area. Hired at the same time as me were a graduate in Music, a graduate in Design (not game design) and an experienced animator. None of us had worked in games.

In fact, when I recently went through L.A. Noire’s credits, I discovered that something approaching 70% of the people who worked on the game – the biggest ever produced in Australia – had never worked in the industry. Those people now run their own studios, or work internationally for some of the most well-known and respected developers out there: Rockstar, BioWare, Riot, Ubisoft and more.

The games industry has always been popular, but never before has the barrier to entry been so – comparatively – low. Cheap, easy-to-use tools have been developed, that allow smaller teams to make better games. Downloadable titles have become big business for PC and the major consoles, and the smartphone market seems to make new millionaires each week.

Many large universities offer now game design majors, and if you don’t get into a university, there are private colleges in all major cities, and online, that offer an education in game development. Unfortunately, not all courses are equal. I have heard horror stories of conferences in America swamped with students desperate for a job, graduates from an unregulated education industry. I have seen student projects on Kickstarter, asking for tens of thousands of dollars, without any idea of what’s involved in their completion, and without a chance of receiving the money.

Simultaneously, Australia’s industry is still recovering from a series of shutdowns that saw its size dramatically decrease. Team Bondi, Krome, Sega Australia, Blue Tongue, Pandemic and more closed their doors. Then the Federal Government shuttered the games fund that some people saw as the help the industry needed to get back on its feet. And while you do hear about all the smartphone and indie millionaires, the average iOS app makes between $3000 and $4000, depending on who you ask.

So, as it gets easier to enter the industry, but harder to make a living, just how many people are studying games? And where are they going to go straight out of college when there aren’t any big studios like Team Bondi to give them their first job? Do they know what they’re getting into?

The first question was tough enough. In Sydney, no one tracks this data, so I set about finding out. I contacted four of Sydney’s largest games schools – only private colleges, no universities. The number I came to was 700 students, give or take. That’s 87.5% of Australia’s game industry, currently studying in only four institutions in Sydney.

I also contacted the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA), after hearing that they had compiled data for games education in their native state of Victoria. The numbers they shared were frankly terrifying. Their figures? 712% of the Australian games industry – some 5,697 people – are currently studying games in Victoria, alone!

Tony Reed, CEO of the GDAA, was quick to calm me down. While agreeing that the numbers are concerning, he pointed out that these numbers include all students in degrees like Computer Science that are only ‘potential pathways’: where students might not join the games industry.

One final alarming number: in 2013 Australia’s leading games job website,, advertised 124 positions across Australia for all experience levels. Of course there are jobs overseas, but to be eligible for a work visa in the USA, you need upwards of five years’ experience, or a Bachelor’s degree. The most popular courses at most of the colleges I spoke with offer diplomas, not degrees.

Neil Boyd, Director of Marketing and Business Development for the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE), isn’t sure high student numbers are a problem. The way he looks at it, an oversupply of students is good for the industry. “What you want is to put a job ad up and go ‘we’ve got 50 applications and they’re all brilliant’, that’s a nice problem to have.” The amount of talent produced in Australia, says Neil, gives us “an opportunity to build up real momentum in creating [a] digital content producing centre of excellence”.

SAE Qantm’s Dr Adam Ruch takes a more philosophical view. He says students study games at SAE “because you want to do it, because you’re a creative person and you love making things, and we try to give you the skills to do that irrespective what the state of the industry is.”

Simon Costain, Marketing Manager at another Sydney school, the Academy of Information Technology (AIT), says his school has taken a different route to acknowledging the problem of high student numbers. He says that while the actual games industry might not be able to support the graduates, “the skill-sets that the graduates learn can be applied in so many other fields…I think there are enough jobs out there, but they’re not specifically gaming jobs.”

Tony Reed agreed with my initial assessment, stating “there’s no question there’s more games graduates than the industry can absorb.” However, he’s not worried. He went on to say “if you look in any classroom in any university or any tertiary institution, you are looking at a games studio. In fact, you’re looking at several game studios.” This is a great attitude, but one not without its own problems that I will return to later.

Overall, I was happy with these responses. They show that schools have a good understanding of where game development in Australia is at, and that they aren’t trying to convince their current students otherwise.

But the first thing prospective students see won’t be anything as measured as this. It will be an advertisement – possibly many ads – from these colleges. From the moment I started researching this topic, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and even a game of Cookie Clicker filled with ads encouraging me to study at one or other of these institutions. These ads take you to pages plastered with cool 3D art, all selling the dream as much as the course content.

JMC Academy describes the video game industry as “booming”, saying “there’s no better time to do a diploma in game design”. AIT claims “the interactive media industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in Australia and overseas”. SAE Qantm says studying with them will get you “the skills you need to get your dream job in games programming or games design in just 2 years”. Another college (who declined to talk to me for this story, but did contribute student numbers) advertise that students learn to use the same technology as ‘leading games’, and that students receive a laptop when they enrol (with a proviso in small print that they won’t own the laptop until they complete the course).

How do the educators feel about this marketing? Again, Dr Ruch had a philosophical take. “Education is always marketed… along those lines. It’s aspirational… No educator can guarantee jobs, and if you can you’re in a very strange arrangement with some sort of company where you’re doing what the company wants and that’s not what I want to do either.”

I was confused. I came into this concerned that games schools cared only for profit, and did everything they could to attract students. Perhaps a naive view, but some of the advertising seemed to back me up. Yet when I talked to the people involved – teachers, heads of school, even current students – I got a very different vibe. Staff acknowledged that explaining all this to prospective students was a tough gig, and that some did come in with dreams of working on the next Assassin’s Creed or the next Grand Theft Auto, and that it was their job, from the very beginning, to explain the reality of working in games.

For Neil Boyd, that process begins for AIE before the students even sign on to study at the school. When asked at careers expos if studying games will see potential students in a job where they get to play games all day, Neil responds with examples of what game testers do in a normal day. “How many times they would play the same level, how they would document everything…how they wait until it’s fixed and then do it all again. You can very quickly identify the guys who are passionate and have ideas.”

I also spoke with Krister Collin, a freelance game developer and current student at SAE Qantm. He said the realities of the games industry in Australia are made clear from the start. “If you go through a 2 year course and people are telling you you’re not likely to get a job in AAA in Sydney so you’ve got to work out a different plan, and [you] fail to change your expectations, what can they do? There’s only so much you can tell a person when they don’t want to believe you.”

In a city with few full time jobs, and fewer large studios, Krister has started small. Programming contracts at studios like Well Placed Cactus and level design work with Flat Earth Games secured him his next job with the larger studio, Epiphany Games. While Krister talks of being satisfied in the indie space, and of having lost the desire to work in AAA, this represents the best chance graduates have of getting there. By networking and building contacts to get these small entry level jobs, Krister is building a resume that might land him a job at one of those dream studios.

It is tough for game developers to succeed in a vacuum. Krister acknowledges this, and repeatedly espouses the benefits joining the local International Game Developers Association (IGDA) chapter in Sydney has had for him. “The skills I learned at Qantm were invaluable… but engaging in the community is what got me to this point.” He bemoans his fellow students who never showed up to an event “I don’t find it surprising that the people who didn’t engage with the people who had the jobs never got jobs. It just makes sense.”

Without huge AAA studios in Sydney to take on large numbers of junior game developers (and you can argue who benefits more from that system), it’s always going to be hard to get a job. Those students who really want to make games, they’ll do whatever it takes. Krister has taken one avenue, but there’s another, perhaps more popular option, and it’s one that colleges are only too keen to encourage.

In this post-Fez, post-Flappy Bird world, the next big hit can come from anywhere. Indie games are in, and a successful game can make a lot of money. Private colleges seem to love it when students ‘go indie’. From a cynical point of view, it ads to their statistics for job placement. It’s much easier for colleges to talk of people starting their own company and making games with the hope of eventually making money, than it is to talk about low job placement rates or the closure of studios in Sydney.

And students want this experience. If meet-ups at IGDA Sydney are anything to go by, more and more small teams are striking out on their own. Most won’t hit the jackpot – many won’t even survive – but chasing the indie dream has definitely become a thing.

For Tony Reed, encouraging this entrepreneurial spirit is one of the ways Australia can revitalise its industry, with the caveat that it requires “government, educational and industrial input as well. There’s certainly an opportunity there, we just need to foster it.” The schools I spoke with talked about changing course content or their teaching methods to cater to this new demand. Carlton Zhu, the Interaction Coordinator at AIT, said that previously students completed only part of a large scale project at school. Now, they have switched to “more entrepreneurial goals”, and “game projects are smaller but they’re completable and hopefully releasable.” AIE runs an incubator program for its graduates. SAE Qantm talked of shifting their teaching methodology from one of lectures and capstone projects to an entirely project based teaching style.

Pushing this entrepreneurial lifestyle is dangerous, without a doubt. It’s horrible that students are doing this in a climate where government funding has all but dried up, and where venture capital and investment in mobile games is uncommon. But if they are successful? This flood of game developers may be able to build a new industry in Sydney, and a sustainable one at that. I asked what the industry might be able to do to help. I received some responses that the industry was too small, too sick to help, but I don’t believe this.

The positive responses – where the GDAA, AIE, SAE and AIT all agree – are that there need to be more internships. Students should be completing internships for course credit, says Carlton. “allow schools to push interns to [small studios]… that gives students experience and studios get helpers as well.” Tony Reed commented that even if only some students complete internships “the entire classroom gets the benefit of that knowledge, without putting too much burden on the industry.”

Neil Boyd is looking to the next step. He wants these small startup companies to embed themselves within larger studios. This model has already seen success: Sony Santa Monica has a long history of incubating small independent studios like thatgamecompany and the team behind The Unfinished Swan, Giant Sparrow.

If this takes off; if some of these small companies become sustainable, then Sydney’s game development scene looks infinitely healthier. Team Bondi showing up and creating 100 new jobs was great, but it cannot be relied upon. If we want to grow the industry in Sydney, it will be one or two of these little companies making a game successful enough to make a slightly bigger, more ambitious game. Companies doing that creates jobs for graduates, and creates government and industry interest in helping to continue the cycle.

What about students studying, or considering studying, games? Having interviewed people who teach in the industry, and some of the students, I don’t think the problem is as bad as I feared. There are some dodgy operators out there, and also a few students who maybe didn’t do all the research. But as long as people read the fine print and don’t expect to be handed a job, as long as they listen to their teachers and work hard, I think an education in games can be a great thing.

Perhaps the days are numbered for people who accidentally end up in games. That’s not all bad – the people who want it most will always find their way there. I look forward to seeing what todays students do for our industry. I look forward to playing their games.