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Hot skills: courses for games developers

Nick Langley

What is it?

UK development studios are the biggest producers of computer games in Europe, and the third largest in the world. This is mainly because the UK is the largest market for interactive entertainment after the US and Japan.

According to the Department of Trade & Industry and games industry association Tiga, there were about 150 UK games development studios, employing 6,000 people and generating sales of £1.6bn in 2006. In recognition, the industry gets solid support from the DTI and the Department for Education and Science.

"There is a big shortfall in the UK for good games programmers and technical managers/directors," said William Latham, creative director of PS2, XBox and PC game The Thing, and programme director of the MSc in computer games and entertainment launched by Goldsmiths College this year.

Like many games BScs, MScs, and postgraduate diplomas, Goldsmiths' course is taught by industry insiders, enabling students to build career-enhancing networks as well as skills. In contrast to much short-term and narrowly-focused proprietary training, these offer a broad education in many related disciplines, from programming to artificial intelligence and 3D design. You also get a lifetime qualification, rather than one that has to be renewed every couple of years.

For those with a year to spare for a change of career (or two to five years part-time), the fees are equivalent to two to three weeks of commercial training (£3,250 to £5,000).

Where did it originate?

With arcade games and simple games developed for the Apple II and its peers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the power of systems grew, games building required ever-larger teams of specialists, and games now take up to three years to complete. This is one reason why, although the number of people employed in the UK games industry has remained constant since 2000, the number of studios employing them has halved.

What does the job involve?

The multidisciplinary teams include designers, programmers, graphic artists, video developers, music composers, and specialists in artificial intelligence. Someone with knowledge of advanced physics is usually needed to ensure that the playing environment effectively simulates the real world, and advanced maths is required to make that codeable.

How difficult is it to master?

You can come to games development from any programming background. There are well-trodden routes for C++, Java and Microsoft developers specialists. One of the most successful 2D and 3D development language families, from Blitz Research, is built on Basic.

Explaining who would be suitable for its MSc course, Goldsmiths College said, "A potential candidate could be someone writing software systems for a city bank who feels like a career change, or a bright graduate in computing science."

Although a first degree in a related subject is usually required, most MSc programmes will waive this for people with relevant experience.

Training

Universities offering masters degrees in games programming include Westminster, Teesside, Derby, Hull, Nottingham Trent, De Montfort and Lincoln, and many others.

Shorter courses are also available: Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education offers 10 sessions on mathematics and modelling for games programming for £138.

For a full list of courses see the Ucas website.

Rates of pay

Junior games testers are paid between £10,000 and £12,000, but lead developers can expect to earn more than £40,000.

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