Graduates need to play a better game

2 Dec 2004

Irish software graduates looking for careers in the games development industry need to show more focus and gain more experience of the sector, while colleges must provide the right kind of specialised training to prepare students. That’s the view of Will Golby, managing director of TKO Software, an international games developer that has a facility in Dublin’s Digital Hub.

According to Golby, Irish students can often underestimate the requirements to work in the games industry or they lack the specialist skills by comparison with graduates from other countries.

“Many applicants we’ve seen have no commercial experience. Their coding skills generally speaking could be better and they’re applying for specific sectors such as wireless gaming without knowing exactly what it would involve,” he said. “We’re saying to universities, it’s good that these guys get a broad training but it’s very important that at some stage they begin to focus. They need commercial placements and a real understanding of real products.”

Golby said that those who become successful in the gaming industry are “rare people” with a focus on what they want and an understanding of what it takes to get ahead in the industry, as well as some practical commercial experience gained from placement with a company in the sector. “It’s an approach that’s more common in the US and needs to be taken up here,” he acknowledged.

The education sector can respond to the challenge, he added, by forming either formal or informal outreach programmes from university into industry. He also urged them to provide courses with specialist areas, rather than simply giving students too broad a base. “The games sector is very, covering 2D and 3D-art, animation, programming, level design and there is a range of skills within each,” he said. “I applaud efforts to push graduates towards a specific industry but it depends on how it’s broken up within that – PC games, console games and mobile games all have different problems that need solving.”

Golby pointed out that a strong university sector would benefit the wider efforts to create a gaming cluster in Ireland, such as Dublin’s Digital Hub. “One critical thing a cluster must have, for companies starting, for angel investors and venture capital funds, is strong research and development coming out of the universities. Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology all have it. From the university point of view they really need to get students in touch with the latest ideas, so graduates can then challenge our thinking and come up with new ideas. If you put all of that together, then you get students that are ideal for the kinds of opportunities we have today.”

He added that although gaming was a competitive sector and could be difficult to break into, there were skills shortages that students with a background in software engineering could potentially fill. He said the risk of overspecialising or pigeonholing students would not lead them down a blind alley in their careers. “A lot of languages share similar syntax: if you start at C, you’re not going to have to travel too far to get to C++, then to Java and J2ME. Your base of software engineering skills should be transferable.”

Golby drew particular attention to the growing wireless games market, which he said would create a lot of job opportunities, but he added that his comments applied to the industry as a whole and not just the area that his company addresses. “I don’t think it’s self-serving for TKO, it’s a skills gap for people to fill. The long term-future for the sector is rosy,” he emphasised. “Wireless devices are becoming ever more available and ever more useful. If you can develop content for them, that’s a skill with an ongoing market.”

He added: “It’s not fair to say that Ireland’s really behind the curve but I would like to create as many opportunities for local applicants as possible.”

Golby also gave a presentation this morning at the launch of Dare to be Digital 2005. The games development competition is being run for the second year in a row in Ireland by the Digital Hub through the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative, with support from Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. It is aimed at providing student teams with the opportunity of developing their own games and presenting them to leading figures in the Irish and UK gaming sectors.

The closing date for the Irish heats is March 2005 and the winners will travel to Scotland next summer to compete in the International Dare to be Digital competition. Earlier this year, Ireland took part in the contest for the first time, sending the Red Ruckus team to Dundee to compete against other student teams.

By Gordon Smith