The games degree bubble

If modern game development is growing fast, and becoming increasingly challenging, it’s obvious that we need to hire quite a few graduates, and they need to be the best and brightest, capable of solving really tough problems, with the people skills to work in large teams.

Graduation Cake

In recent years, a number of universities spotted this trend and began to offer dedicated game development degrees. On the surface, this would appear to be a great idea:

  • Game developers are hiring lots of graduates, so there would appear to be a market for these degrees
  • School kids love games, so attracting students is easy
  • Traditional (higher-ranked) universities aren’t going to change their course offerings in a hurry, so this is a great way for lower-ranked institutions to differentiate themselves and gain some degree of competitive edge, perhaps attracting some decent students that otherwise wouldn’t have given them a second look.

Initially it was only a few universities, but pretty soon everyone wanted a piece of this. If you search UCAS now for courses starting in 2009 with the keyword “game”, there are 314 results (compared to 1762 for “computer science” and, coincidentally, also 314 for “software engineering”).

A closer look

Unfortunately, there are huge problems with many of these courses. From an employer’s point of view:

  • These tend to be lower-ranked universities, producing lower quality graduates on the whole
  • Sucked in by the lure of videogames, these courses attract some students with extremely low aptitude for programming.
  • Most courses spread themselves too thinly in attempting to cover the whole breadth of game development (for example looking at sound recording, or 3D modelling) – unfortunately taking time away from core computer science and software engineering topics (a degree is short enough as it stands for learning these topics seriously in depth).

From the student’s point of view, there are just as many problems:

  • The best students don’t get the challenge and quality of education they deserve.
  • The rest struggle with programming – they’re just not cut out for it
  • Very few of them get jobs at the end of it all

What others are saying

By happy coincidence, this month’s Develop magazine contains a few choice quotes on the topic, saving me the trouble of needing to think up anything too rude myself (I’m being extremely restrained in this post):

The games university bubble will burst in the next few years. Industry cannot and will not take these droves of mediocre graduates…

John Sear, Derby University

That’s coming from someone on a game degree’s teaching staff! He’s spot on – the quantity of these graduates is definitely excessive (the number of courses blatantly outweighs the number of graduate jobs available), and the quality is mostly low. He suggests the employment rate is under 20% on average, including testing roles. This brings me onto my second quote:

I consider it frankly immoral to encourage students to spend money on a course that can never deliver.

Kim Blake, Blitz Games

I’ve met several people who deeply regretted choosing a games degree when they realised they weren’t being taught much, and were unlikely to get a job at the end of it all.

I’m also reminded of the Mickey Mouse quote.

What’s right with them?

I’ve obviously made some gross generalisations here, and it’s only fair to mention a couple of success stories. John Sear claims for example that Derby have a 90% employment rate. And here at RTW, we’ve hired a pretty significant number of our staff from Abertay’s Computer Games Technology degree, for which we have to be grateful. I think Abertay may have been the first such course in the UK, so they really spotted the opportunity and created the market themselves (I’m slightly torn between respecting them and blaming them for that!!) – they can’t be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, for sure. They definitely run one of the better courses of this kind, and their reputation is sufficiently good to attract some excellent students.

Even in the better courses, there’s huge room for improvement, but I’ll leave that for a future post … for now, place your bets on how long the bubble will last.

Dog chasing bubbles

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4 Responses to The games degree bubble

  1. Weeble says:

    My mother lectures computing at a college where they now have a games course. This is even worse. Students are those who were unable to meet the entrance requirements of university games courses. The best that they can hope for is to get a qualification that will get them into the second year of a university games course.

    Bart: “Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”

    I think there are a vanishingly small number of people for whom this is a valuable service. They’re smart people who for whatever reason left school early or didn’t get the qualifications they should have done. For them the only really point of the course is to give them the bit of paper that gets them into a real university. For everybody else, this is a waste of time. There’s no way a poorly funded college with extremely low entrance requirements can provide a level of education that catches these kids up with university students. The course is next to pointless and I think it’s doing a disservice to its students.

    The question is, do worthless courses actually die out? I’m not sure that the people signing up to them are in much of a position to evaluate them in advance.

  2. Kristen Barghout says:

    I did a games degree course at uni, and sadly, I now realise how correct this blog is. I had 2 lecturers out of 10 that spoke English, the rest spoke either Japanese or Indian. Now, programming is hard to learn as it is, but when you’re being taught by people sho speak broken english, the difficulty of learning is increased dramatically.

    So basically I ended up teaching myself everything I know, and have £12k debt thanks to going to uni. Now I have been working on websites and in my spare time learning new programming languages and have even decided to learn animation and modelling.

    So I ask, as I seriously want to work in the games industry and make games for the youth of today that they will remember for years to come (much like my favourite games in my youth), what can I do to improve my chances of getting a job in the industry, more specifically as an artist.

    Also, what exactly is it that you would like to see as a piece of concept art etc? I would seriously appreciate any advice that you can give me. If you would like to see my current online cv (which I started about a week ago) the address is http://kristenbrionybarghout.wordpress.com

    If you could give any criticism to my work, and tell me any improvements I could make, I would greatly appreciate it.

  3. lukehalliwell says:

    Kristen,

    Unfortunately I’m a programmer so I’m not really the best person to ask about artist jobs!

    A number of game companies have information on their websites about how to get into games, one of the better ones I’ve come across is Blitz games, and it includes an art section:

    http://www.blitzgames.com/gameon/

    From a quick glance at that, the feeling I’m getting, which doesn’t surprise me, is that just as we coders are looking for increasingly traditional graduate skills (maths, algorithms, software engineering, compilers, operating systems), so the art teams are looking for strength in traditional art skills: fundamental drawing ability, composition, form, colour (he says with barely the faintest ideas of what those terms mean!) – things you’d presumably learn at art college? Obviously on top of that you need to know how to use standard packages for 3D modelling and 2D art … I’d guess it takes at least as much talent and hard work as becoming a good programmer.

    If you’re really struggling to find a job in the industry, applying for QA roles can be worth a go. The benefit is that you get to see the process of making games, you’ll have access to experts so you can ask them how to improve your skills, and if you’re really, really lucky and hard-working, you can move on to other roles in the company. The down side is that the pay tends to be pretty low, and only a few people manage to move on to land their dream job.

    Whatever you do, best of luck🙂

    – Luke

  4. Rams says:

    “A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more
    competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer. ”

    From Page 1, A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockhart

    That paper addresses this question though that’s not the main intention of the paper. I googled for it some time back and got it.

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