From education to employment

Innovation on a budget – engaging the games industry

Michael Warburton credit BAFTA James Cannon

When I started teaching on the new Games Development Course at Cambridge Regional College one of the things that struck me was that I needed the help of the games industry if the course was to be a success. Games development is a fast moving sector, where the technology and software changes regularly. It’s also a sector where young people have a keen interest as consumers but limited understanding of what it really means to create a successful game.

Linking with the games industry helped us to address these issues and to offer a course, which embraced innovation without breaking the bank. Based on my experience, here is some advice for other teachers wanting to work with the industry.

Understand where your students really need help

Before approaching the industry step back and think about the help your students might need from the industry. This helped me to make a much more well-informed case for the help I needed. It also helped me to be specific in my requests and I found companies appreciated this. They could understand my needs and also gain a sense of the scale of what I needed.

These are the questions I asked myself:

  • What do students understand about the process of creating a game? Where are their gaps in knowledge?
  • How well developed are their team working abilities?
  • Do students understand how the marketing and business side of the games industry work?
  • Do students understand anything about the types of companies that make up the games industry?
  • How confident are students in presenting and talking about their ideas?

In my case, I found that our students had lots of technical expertise and knowledge of gaming, but lacked insight into how interdisciplinary teams came together to create games.

Also, our learners didn’t understand the business-side of how games were marketed and sold.

Finding the right companies – practical advice

There are more than 2000 games companies located in the UK – where do you start? How should you approach them? And what support can they provide?

#1 Build up your knowledge of the games industry

There are loads of blogs, online magazines and websites stacked with information. A good place to start is the UKIE and BAFTA websites as they have lots of general information about the UK games industry. Meeting people face to face was really useful and I went to local games meet ups and also to the big games events like EGX Rezzed in London which happens annually.

Also, don’t forget to ask your students, in my experience they have a wealth of information about the industry.

#2 Research the companies before you get in touch

Find out about the companies that might be based near you. A local connection can make your enquiry more relevant and many businesses are keen to work with their immediate community.

Don’t just approach the well-known high street brands, they tend to get a lot of requests. Instead get in touch with companies that might be winning technical awards or attracting media attention in the industry press but are less well-known.

#3 Don’t send blanket emails

Ask your friends, colleagues and students if anyone has a contact at a games company and get a personal introduction. It’s surprising how often some will say ‘My neighbour works for….’ Larger companies often have a point of contact for education. Ask the switchboard for their details and send a short email to ask for their advice on whom you should contact.

Getting the ask right

In terms of getting in touch with companies, I admit I was cheeky and persistent, but patient and polite as well. I did lots of different things but in everything I was always myself.

Ensure you are clear and specific about the help you want from a company. This helps them to understand your needs and to get a sense of the scale of the support you need.

My most common request was for advice. Simple questions like: Am I doing the right thing in teaching a particular concept? What do think is most useful for young people to learn? How can I improve the learners’ journey into industry? Asking for advice is also a great way to develop relationships.

I asked lots of companies to come and talk to my learners. I’d keep it simple, something like: Can you spare five minutes to talk to the learners about what you do and your experience? I’d not put lots of pressure on them but be as flexible as I could and explain that we could accommodate them when they had time. I never told industry when they must come and do something.

Once someone confirmed they could come and visit I’d provide some general information, such as what I felt students would be interested to hear about, what I hoped students would gain from the talk, and the questions they might be asked.

Companies were enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and expertise and this was a great way to start building relationships with individual companies.

As I worked with companies, I started to understand things from their perspective and to appreciate the time scales with which they could work. I realised that a company couldn’t always work to my ideal schedule but that it was worth trying to adapt so my students could benefit. I learnt to be available all the time, especially through school holidays – the commercial world doesn’t stop for six weeks in the summer.

The support I secured

Industry knowledge

By far the most valuable contribution for my students was the industry links I managed to establish. The games industry was very generous with their time. They visited the college regularly and we worked closely with them to ensure students would hear from a range of specialists covering different aspects of games production – coding, project management, marketing, design, etc. Each visit included talks to the whole class and also small group or one-to-one sessions for more focused discussion with students.

We worked closely with industry to organise work experience for students, which was often with companies that students had already met when they visited the college.

Equipment and software

We were loaned equipment, for instance tablets for mobile games development which was incredibly useful. The industry actually makes a lot of software available to schools for free. I wasn’t aware of this when I started out.

Professional development

One of the unexpected outcomes of engaging the games industry was that it helped me to keep up to date with new trends whether those were about software, games structure, or platform. When you teach something like games development it is essential you remain connected with the sector if you’re to give students the support they need.

Long-term relationships, long-term success

The games industry is keen to work with teachers but I realised that I needed to think long-term. Companies can move slowly, and I had to plan further ahead to help the sector to help me. One of the benefits of this longer planning phase was that it gave us all a chance to forge stronger collaborations. In turn, this helped our work with the industry to have a greater impact on the course and students.

Probably the best measure of success is that the course has continued to grow. It launched with just 10 students seven years ago and now has more than 130. This growth may also point to a wider trend as more young people consider gaming as a career pathway. If that’s the case then I feel education needs to ‘level up’ and meet the challenge!

Michael Warburton, Master Trainer for Unity Technologies

About Michael Warburton: Until recently he was Course Leader Games Development at Cambridge Regional College where he was awarded a BAFTA Young Game Designers Mentor Award for his work in the education of young game creators. 

Entries for this year’s BAFTA Young Game Designers competition closed on 25th April, but teachers can download free online year-round resources, and sign-up to receive details for next year’s competition.

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