Gaming suffering skills shortage, says Ian Livingstone

UK computer game manufacturers are struggling to find skilled programmers following a fall in the number of students taking computer science courses.

UK computer game manufacturers are struggling to find skilled programmers following a fall in the number of students taking computer science courses.

The problem is reaching crisis proportions says Ian Livingstone, Creative Director at Eidos and father of the video game character Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.

"There's definitely a recruitment crisis. There has been a 20% fall in the number of computer science graduates and the UK has slipped from third to fourth in world devlopment."

The computer game industry grew up in the UK in the 1980s following the home computing boom, and now contributes £200 million to the economy.

"We've been a world leader for 25 years and we got off to a flying start because Clive Sinclairput affordable computing in the hands of a creative nation. It's no surprise that games like Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider were created in the UK," says Ian Livingstone.

He points to a report from Games Investor Counsultancy which shows that the lack of programmers for UK software publishers could mean the loss of £700m of foreign investment into the UK and 1,700 jobs over the next five years.

The success of Eidos and other UK software publishers was due to the local pool of talented programmers and computer scientists, Ian Livingstone says. Now Games developers are under pressure to move overseas.

The quality of graduates software publishers are getting out of universities isn't helping either, says Livingstone.

While 81 universities in the UK currently offer video gaming-related degrees, software publishers claim the majority of these courses produce generalists, who lack strong specific programming skills required to code games.

"Because of the need for getting bums on seats, many universities have converted their old media studies courses into computer games courses," says Livingstone.

"It's easier for me to go to drag a computer scientist from Imperial College who knows nothing about games and give him a job tomorrow rather than someone who's done a general computer game design course who's useless to me."

Programming skills such as C/C++, Java, Java EE, Ruby, Python and graduates with degrees in computer science are remain high in demand but low in supply.

Eidos is turning its attention overseas where skilled IT staff are easier to find. Generous tax incentives outside the UK are another lure.

"You've got Canada which offers a 37.5% salary rebate for people programming video games. Add to that a 40% R&D tax credit and it becomes a very attractive proposition to a company like Eidos," said Livingstone.

The company has opened a new studio in Montreal, where they will make their next big game.

"We could have made that game in the UK but no we're doing that in Canada because of the tax break and because of the investment in skills working with universities and partnering with industry. They've spent half-a-billion dollars on attracting companies to invest in Canada."

Livingstone would like to see the government encourage partnerships between universities and the IT industry to ensure syllabuses reflect the needs of employers and so that companies get graduates with the right skills, with an emphasis on promoting computer science and programming.

This might be difficult. While video games may be perceived as cool by graduates, a career in IT is not. Many graduates view the IT profession as less than glamorous.

Ian Livingstone is currently working with Tiga's Games Up? campaign, which seeks to promote the role of the video game industry in the UK economy and to address skills shortage concerns.

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