TIGA has hosted its Further Education (FE) Games Conference 2023, with speakers from industry and academia showcasing excellence and best practice in games education in Further Education (FE) colleges.
The virtual event, sponsored by Creative Assembly and free to attend for TIGA members, featured talks from thought-leaders at Llandrillo College, Leeds College, ELAM, North Hertfordshire College, ACM, Priestley College, Rebellion and 1010 games.
Emma Smith, Director of Talent and Social Impact at Creative Assembly, opened proceedings with a talk detailing how challenges and barriers can be overcome through collaboration, as exemplified by the studio’s Legacy Project.
“We wholeheartedly support bringing further education and industry together so that we can better understand each other’s challenges and work together to overcome them as much as possible,” said Smith.
“The Legacy Project now has 100 active ambassadors within Creative Assembly who are happy to support, enthuse and be passionate about their role in the games industry. We’ve recognised the importance of supporting the educational journey at every single level. It’s not enough to focus on graduates alone. There’s a wealth of talent and untapped potential in further education that we can all help develop.”
Smith added that Creative Assembly selects the FE establishments it works with very carefully, seeking to be clear about outcomes and sharing them with all its college and university partners.
“We know that having a high quality bar with a curriculum is important, but it’s also important for those who actively work to address inequalities in society through the lens of education – this opportunity is just as vital,” she explained. “We want to understand the full holistic view of the education experience as it is today, including the financial barriers for colleges and students alike, especially in today’s climate where the cost of living is so high.”
Smith added that issues such as post-FE barriers, and diversity and inclusion are particularly important when it comes to collaboration between industry and colleges, highlighting the need to find ways of funding technology for students from lower income families.
“Earlier intervention well before the graduate stage offers far more opportunity for creativity and innovation to really grow,” she said. “The long game is really the right game here. Thinking about your medium term talent pipeline really does pay off. There’s so much more to discover with further education.”
Cari Watterton, Senior Accessibility Designer at Rebellion then gave delegates an excellent whistle stop tour of the ‘Getting into Games’ process, breaking down the career pathways in the ‘Road’, which is the direct route to employment; the ‘Bridge’, which has a bit of a break in exploration; and finally the ‘Climb’ where you go through the ranks.
“The Road is the path most graduates take to apply for roles and then get hired,” explained Watterton. “Ideally the candidate has a strong idea of what they want to do in the industry, a strong graduate portfolio, and perhaps some have existing experience. The Bridge is a bit more complex. Candidates might graduate and then have a break, spending some time building a portfolio before applying for jobs. The Climb is where the candidate secures an internship or mentorship with a studio, usually with a strong sense of what they want to be.”
Watterton explained that regardless of the path chosen, having a strong portfolio is essential for getting a job in the games industry, and stressed the importance of creating something that showcases more than just coursework.
“If it is just coursework, then students are essentially competing against everybody else that they have just taken a course with, and probably a lot of other people across the UK who have completed similar courses,” he said. “So students should try to include other things in their portfolio from their broader experiences, like game jams, work for hire, or personal projects.”
Watterton shared insights into some of the tools students can use to build a strong portfolio and the dos and don’ts of summarising everything in a CV that recruiters will remember, plus some advice on building interview skills employers will appreciate.
The agenda then moved on to insights into games course and teaching innovation, courtesy of Phil Asquith, Games Design Teacher at Leeds City College, who stressed the importance of building foundation skills.
In addition, not all students have access to computers and equipment at home that will enable them to do that, and the approach at Leeds City College is to teach them a little bit of everything in the first year: concept art, 2D graphics, 3D modelling, programming, game engines, narrative writing, game design, level design and sound design. They’re then ready to move on to the A2 project, where they get to specialise, including developing a theoretical AAA game idea. In the second year, the B1 project is all about their personal development and the ‘big’ B2 project that counts half the overall BTEC qualification.
“It’s a project that I personally am very proud of,” offered Asquith. “We’ve always been advised that the industry wants students and graduates who can work well together, who can communicate, who can work in a team. Those soft skills are really important and we try to develop them in the project. It’s also important that they get an understanding of all the different areas of game design, even if it’s something that they’re probably not going to do very much of in their future university course or chosen career.”
When it comes to inspiring the next generation of game developers, Josh Campher, Teacher of Games Design and Development at Priestley College, discussed how to give students the skills that they will need to get into the industry now.
“The students starting the games course usually have an idea of what they want to go into, but they haven’t specifically chosen a career path,” explained Campher. “So we try to point them in the direction that best matches their skills. It’s a competitive industry, so students need to be dedicated and have enthusiasm for what they are studying. Our aim is to then point them in the right direction so their skills can shine, either at this point at level three, or to progress on to university.”
Campher detailed how the college had developed ties with industry professionals like Arthur Parsons from 10:10 Games, who has been very helpful in helping the team model the course. This has led to students, such as Harry Foster, finding direct employment in the industry via initial work experience stints.
Parsons revealed: “When I first met Harry, I was impressed by the quality of his work straight off the bat. But I was also impressed with his personality, because he came in and he was far more mature than his 18 years. And that is so vital for the people he’s working with, who have been in the industry 15, 20, 25 years. Harry’s ideas are just as important as everyone else’s. And it’s how he expresses those, how he interacts with those people, that’s important.”
Foster added: “Priestley taught me that organisation and teamwork are essential for working in games, as well as being organised in your own tasks. It’s helped me a lot. At Priestley, the student teacher interaction was really nice. I always felt open to feedback. They were always giving me feedback. We got to learn AI and level design, materials modelling – we got to combine all the skills we’d learnt from that year into one package.”
Paul Clarke, FE 1 Year Lead at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) delved into FE games teaching, tacking the angles and the tangents.
“We have a mixture of business, music and games courses with a strong creative ethos – a ‘learn by doing’ philosophy. I like to say to people: ‘challenge me, tell me I’ve got something wrong, tell me that you think there’s something you would disagree with’, because I don’t want a student to just sit there inert. We want them to bring something to the table. And sometimes they know more about a piece of software than I do. They have seen an artist who’s inspired them that I have never heard of. We want them to have a voice in this classroom.”
Clarke said that while creativity is vitally important, there can be a tendency in academia to not talk to students in a way that’s engaging, with over reliance on grids, graphs and Excel, when 3D assets are how students want to express themselves.
“We use Discord a lot and the students appreciate the fact that we’re talking to them on their ground, in a way they feel is relevant with a shared level of respect,” said Clarke. “It’s not to say we don’t stick to the rules. It’s not to say that we don’t have non-negotiables and it’s not to say that we don’t have standards. But sometimes you’ve got to find the creative solution to a problem.”
Clarke stressed that education and industry should also continue to factor in the impact of Covid-19, lockdowns and remote working.
“I call it Generation Lockdown. These are kids that have gone through three years of absolute weirdness. As teachers and industry we can have an objective view because it was just a portion of our life. But to them it’s a tenth of their life. It’s more. It is an awareness, a situational awareness. These past two years have been the strangest, but also the most rewarding and I am especially loving this year, but there is no easy way. That is true for our colleagues and the people that we teach with. That is true for our students as well.”
The North Hertfordshire College faculty team was on hand to talk through their own approaches to games education and employer engagement.
Head of Curriculum Nina Clutton said: “Employers are the key stakeholders for us with regards to our curriculum and how we develop it. We’re constantly thinking about not just the skills that studios need graduates to have now but, given the pace of digital advances, the skills that the workforce are going to need up to the next 10 to 15 years.”
Rob Chambers, Course Team Lead at NHC’s Level Three Computing and IT courses, continued: “We have lots of employee engagement activity through the year, and have plenty of employers come to visit us to speak to our students and explain the kind of things they are looking for. This has helped us create a ‘top ten skills’ list, which we can help our students achieve or improve – but most importantly build those skills up, so they can move into the employment sector of their choice.”
BTEC reforms in England were addressed by Joel Cable, Senior Product Manager for Art, Design, and Creative and Digital Media at Pearson UK.
The DfE and Government have been working towards reforms for Level 3 qualifications for quite some time, and they’re just starting to come into effect for subjects involving games and creative media and those involving art and design as well. This new landscape at Level 3 will involve young people choosing either an academic pathway or a technical pathway.
“The academic pathway will form the core of the offer at Level 3,” explained Cable. “They will mainly be made up of A Levels, but BTECs will continue to play an important role there and they will continue to be available in many subjects alongside, or as alternatives to, A levels, and will be known as Alternative Academic Qualifications. Most of our BTECs in Creative Media are academic qualifications currently, and they will continue to be alternative academic qualifications in the future as we go forward.”
For the technical part of this, the T levels form the core of that offer at level 3, and will cover most occupations that a learner might study at 16 to 19 years-old. However, a limited range of other qualifications will also be available to be taken alongside or as alternative to T levels as well. And for adults, the same academic qualifications will be on offer as those for 16 to 19 year-olds. The DfE also recognises there is a greater choice of technical qualifications needed for adults.
In the penultimate session of the day Curtis Le Blanc, Director of Games at East London Arts and Music (ELAM)touched on the art and technical structures of its course offering, stressing the need, particularly in final year projects, to have a look at what is required by industry in terms of skill sets that maybe isn’t being covered.
“The final major project is actually very open, but we do require trainees to look into the accessibility of the game and make the game highly accessible,” explained Le Blanc. “This means researching what makes a game difficult for those less able to play games and how they can open that up. We’ve had lots of trainees research heavily into visual impairment, hearing impairment, cognitive impairment, and motor impairment. Those trainees come up with solutions and, of course, where possible apply the solutions that already exist.”
Le Blanc added that this final project is also where trainees hear from an indie publisher who talks about contracts and how to get that all-important publishing deal for any of the games that they feel passionate about releasing, hopefully demystifying the indie publisher game contract.
The day closed out with Grŵp Llandrillo‘s presentation about their approach to game development teaching in North Wales, with courses from level 2, level 3 and higher education up to undergraduate honours degrees.
Lewis Challinor, Programme Leader for the Level 4 Games Development course for the first year, explained a key outcome was for students to upload their work online to Itch.io, to ensure that they have a game released online and a URL which they can show their friends, their family, potential employers when it comes to their portfolio.
“This is to ensure that they have clear evidence of planning, creation and, when they hopefully hand in their portfolio to potential employers, they can see not only the finished product, but the creation process as well,” explained Challinor. “We also have a lot of guest speakers that come round to the students to help enrich their learning activities. These range from studios such as D3T in Liverpool, as well as Sony Interactive and even previous employers from TT Games. This is to ensure that we’re giving students a chance to communicate with industry professionals, to understand the wider industry, the challenges and the benefits that can come from working there, and also gives them an opportunity to get to know these people on a more personal level when it comes to potential future employment.”
This is augmented with yearly trips to the likes of Comic Con and other game-related conventions. These are mainly for enrichment activities for students, but also to make sure that they’re interacting with other like-minded individuals, creating contacts both inside the industry but also outside the industry for future plans.
Nathan, a first year of a Level 3 Games Development at Grwp Llandrillo Menai, explained that he began the course as he wasn’t very happy in mainstream education: “I just wanted to do what I genuinely loved, which was make games. So as soon as I saw this course, I knew I needed to sign up. More than halfway through the first year I can already feel like it’s something I’d love to do for the rest of my life, even though I’d never coded in my life before September. The overwhelming amount of support from the tutors means the transition from mainstream education has been amazing.”
Dr Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of TIGA, offered: “Excellence in education is the visa to success for studios, students and our entire sector. Colleges are a crucial part of our talent pipeline. Colleges provide thousands of students with games related courses, BTEC qualifications and a route into higher education and the games industry.
“The TIGA Further Education Conference provided valuable insights into the outstanding work of some of our educational institutions, along with outstanding advice from our industry partners including Rebellion and 1010 Games.
“We thank Creative Assembly for their fantastic support of this event as headline sponsor, and all of our speakers for making this a stand-out event for both education and industry.”
If you’re a TIGA member, click here to watch all the sessions online.