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Academic Expansion - How Rare Recruits Graduates

In this in-depth piece, senior Rare developer Nick Burton explains how the Viva Pinata and Perfect Dark developer works with academia to nurture graduates, warning against 'cherry picking' and explaining how your developer can grow the pool of skilled game creators.

Nick Burton, Blogger

February 6, 2008

18 Min Read

[In this in-depth piece, senior Rare developer Nick Burton explains how the Viva Pinata and Perfect Dark developer works with academia to nurture graduates, warning against 'cherry picking' and explaining how your developer can grow the pool of skilled game creators.]

With ever-present discussion on skills shortages in the game business, experienced game developers leaving the industry and the question "are specialized game development courses the right direction for education?", staffing is always in the spotlight.

Historically, the company I work for, Rare, has always targeted new graduates rather than experienced hires, and our current ratio of 90% graduates to 10% experienced staff is proof of this.

I think it's safe to say we have plenty of experience in this area, and I'm no exception as I came straight out of postgraduate research to work at Rare almost 10 years ago. But getting good graduates today is much more than advertising for positions vacant.

For many years Rare, together with Microsoft's UK Academic Team and a few other interested organizations, has been forging links with many UK universities, trying to help and support them so that they can help and support us. Over the next few pages I want to give you a flavor of the work we do, together with some guidelines that I believe will help the whole industry be more successful in addressing its staffing needs.

Why We Aim At Graduates

Rare has always aimed recruitment activities towards graduates as they are often more accepting of new ideas and able to think outside the box more easily; this is not always the case with experienced hires. It's true that lack of experience can lead to problems with graduates pursuing crazy development ideas, which is why they have to be managed carefully and mentored by more experienced staff to ensure things go smoothly.

However, sometimes experienced developers get tunnel vision. How many times have we heard "that will never work, I tried it once and I'm not trying it again"? This sort of preconception can be bad for so many reasons, but if you get the right kind of graduates who can argue their case, they can help drive improvements in even the most experienced of us.

We find our teams need to be a mix of both. I guess what I'm getting at is that you can train a graduate to become a key part of your studio, in our case to become a Rare-type developer, the team player who's like a close friend that you trust and respect. Yes, you get experienced hires like this too, but they are much harder to find, so it's easier to make them most of the time.

So fresh graduates are good, but some recruiters in our industry take the very cynical view that they are cheap labor -- and you can quote me on this one, graduates are NOT cheap labor and should NEVER be treated as such or we risk hemorrhaging talent while it is still embryonic. Consider this, you employ Mr. X. He's the greatest graphics programmer you've ever seen, but he's a bit green and so you get to pay him peanuts and work him to the bone. Eventually he will wise up and leave, and when he does he'll probably move out of the industry that burned him. The industry has then lost him forever -- not just your studio.

Why We Work With Academia

It's true that Rare works with academia to generate great hires, but it's more than just that, and certainly more long-term. If our industry is to grow and remain at the forefront of creativity, we must help the educators in their work, nurturing new talent and ensuring they have a steady input of students to teach. Every university exists to teach students skills that can be applied to gain employment, but sometimes universities either don't know what these skills should be or just get it wrong!

We're seeing this problem a lot at present as "Computer Game Programming" and "Computer Game Design" courses proliferate and seem to be flavor of the month. Have you ever wondered why these courses are becoming so popular? It's for two reasons: 1) our industry needs people and where there is demand the market follows, and 2) computing in universities is in trouble, and as with the other sciences, course numbers are way down. Attaching "games" to the title helps stimulate more applications, as it's something the young can relate to.

Obviously there are also the pure courses in the arts and sciences, which should not be ignored. Remember, there are good students on all courses at all universities, so the way you target them is purely down to your requirements. For example, what Rare needs at any one time can be surprisingly different from Lionhead Studios' needs.

So what do we actually do in terms of working with academia? This can be split into two categories, nurturing talent both directly and indirectly.


Nurturing Talent Directly: Face Time

Go and talk to students. Get your staff to return to their old universities as alumni lecturers -- they have a foot in the door and universities love to promote them as it shows the undergraduates that they really can succeed. This is what we do. Last year we delivered around 20 lectures across the UK and this year there'll be even more. Deliver lectures on real subjects like "Real Time Computation of Global Illumination" and "The History of Computer Game Development" -- not "Come and work for Rare, we rock".

I recently delivered the inaugural lecture to the first-years at my old university, all 1200 of them in the science faculty on their first day. Funny thing was, one of the lecturers had been trying to get a computer game development society off the ground for years and failed because the first-years just wanted to party. This year he's done it. They actually went to him to ask if they could set one up because they wanted to make sure they get into the games industry when they graduate, and all for a few hours of my time.

Giving undergraduates something tangible to aim for that also seems attainable helps lecturers so much, by generating enthusiasm in their class, and it's well known that when someone is enthusiastic they apply themselves and usually achieve better results.

Nurturing Talent Indirectly: Meeting Time

As I said earlier, some courses are good, some not so. Should we ignore the bad ones? Or is it better to try and help them improve with advice and guidance? After all, if educators are trying to generate employable graduates but no one tells them what qualities that person needs, that just makes their job even harder. The main thing that helps universities here is just talking to developers to see what makes our industry tick, but it's worth remembering that we have a responsibility to explain our needs at a higher level than solving our immediate development problems.

I've seen so many courses where they are teaching the use of a specific package because a developer has said it's very important to do so. Unfortunately this is completely wide of the mark, teaching an undergraduate 3DSMAX or Maya or Visual Studio or DirectX is NOT giving them transferable skills.

They are useful additions, yes, but shape, form, color theory etc. for art, software engineering, math, concurrent programming for software, that's where the real skills lie. Packages can be learned on the job. Educators want to know this kind of thing, but obviously they're not as attractive to students as "learning to program an Xbox 360" so we have to help them out by explaining first-hand to the undergraduates what our business is about.

In the UK there are also some great organizations and events that help us to engage with academics. Skillset (The Skills Council for the Audio Visual Industries) currently has a program of accreditation for courses, which are based on criteria, arrived at by developers and the Skills Council. GamesEdu is a conference that runs alongside the UK's Develop conference with the aim of bringing together developers and educators to discuss all aspects of our relationship. Dare to be Digital is a wonderful student game design and creation competition run yearly, there is now a game development track for Microsoft's own Imagine Cup and there are many more around the world -- this is my call for you to get involved.

The Payoff

So we go to universities, give lectures and meet the staff and students whenever we can, we also send as many different staff out as possible and have a varied roster of lectures, but does it actually pay off? The obvious answer is yes, but it's not an easy thing to track and the benefits of one lecture alone are quite difficult to see sometimes.

The obvious thing to do is ask your applicants where they heard about your studio and if they had met, or attended a lecture by, one of your staff in the past. However, if that applicant met them three or four years ago as a first-year student then there is a huge gap between investment and payoff.

Being part of an organization like Microsoft lets us take this long-term view and hopefully help grow the industry talent pool -- yes, it benefits other studios too, but I think we have to get over that. If it benefits your studio and the industry as a whole, that can only be a good thing. So, putting my money where my mouth is, let's look at a few examples of this payoff working.

In 2004 I gave a lecture on the history of game development at one of our local universities as a favor because my wife works there. It was in the computing department, delivered to digital business students, though some other computing students came along -- hardly rich pickings for a game developer.

Roll on 2006, and a guy called Ash starts chatting to me at the bar during a local IGDA meeting. Ash says he was in my lecture two years previous, is interested in becoming a games programmer and would love to work at Rare, so I get him to apply. Roll on to 2007 and he's developing Global Illumination solutions as part of Rare's Shared Technology Group and giving lectures on this subject too, the last one of which was at the British Computer Society. Result!

Kieran, our Head of Software, visits his old university as an alumnus lecturer a couple of times a year, as we have a long-standing relationship with them. In the audience in 2006 is Kostas, who knows about Rare through this relationship -- so much so that he's holding a completed application form which he thrusts into Kieran's hand at the end of the lecture. Kostas is now one of our Shared Technology developers doing some very complex code cutting for game engine components. Result!

We do internships at Rare, and the first time we tried these was in 2004 when Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero were in production. Tom is in his second year at another university we visit, and attends one of our lectures where it's mentioned that we're doing internships, which is just what he's looking for, so he applies and is successful. Tom then finds himself working on PDZ for a several months before he returns to complete his studies. Tom completes his degree in 2006, returns to us and is now one of the key members of our Build Lab team. Result!

Obviously Ash, Kostas and Tom had their own reasons for applying to Rare, but one of the overriding factors for anyone should be what it's like to work at any given studio. If you're applying to work somewhere, make sure you want to work with the people already there.

One bit of advice I always give to graduates looking for work, is that if you meet someone from a studio or get interviewed and they give you a hard time or have the big "I am" attitude, you probably don't want to work there.

At Rare we have a particular interest in making everyone we meet see what makes us tick and that we are nice, normal people. We're right in the middle of the English countryside, which makes our facility a wonderful place to work, but it does have the drawback that our staff needs to commute -- so we need that little extra touch.

Fortunately we are within easy driving distance of four major cities and several large towns, many of which have very good universities, but it still means we have to work that bit harder to promote the very nice working conditions and surroundings that you don't get in urban areas. Another advantage of this "quieter" working life is that it encourages teamwork and creativity, but wherever your studio is, if it's a nice place to work -- tell people about it, show them.

Cherry Picking

As you can see, the long-term view does pay off -- not immediately, but it only takes one or two years to bear some very nice fruit. So why not get out there today, next week, next month? Don't wait until you're ramping up that next project in 18 months' time and then panic. Do some planning now.

If you don't, this often leads to what I term "cherry picking" -- which is something we see all too often, especially from other high-profile developers. Developers arriving at the end of the academic year, or at one of the many student game development competitions or conferences, and taking the line "we're great, come and work for us", does our industry a disservice and often makes us seem aloof and self important -- but it's all too common.

Typically we see this with the most well respected universities, where many developers are fighting over just a few graduates -- but what about the rest? And what about the problems this causes? Surely every university has some great graduates, even if they're at the bottom of the league tables?

Think about it -- if you go to only the best establishments you can get into a bidding war with other developers, which often leads to inflated salaries and inflated graduate egos. Both are quite obviously bad for your team. Which is better, cherry picking and grooming, or nurturing and attracting?


Working with Microsoft's UK Academic Team

I said earlier that we could take the long view, to nurture potential new staff while they are still in education, and that making the educators' jobs a little easier is also our aim. One of the main reasons we can do this is the backing of Microsoft, in particular Microsoft's UK Academic Team, so it only seems right to validate this with a little more information.

The academic team has, for many years, been working with UK universities, helping them get the most out of Microsoft products and technologies, and so they have a lot of pre-existing relationships and experience with academics. After the launch of the Xbox and subsequently the Xbox 360, they found a new area of technology they were not familiar with, coupled with universities starting to offer games technology-based courses. At the same time we were doing our own thing with universities, so naturally at some point we were going to join up our work.

In 2006 the XNA group was ramping up for the launch of XNA: GSE 1.0, and the Academic Team wanted to launch this in the UK with some kind of event -- this was the first big project we worked on together, as they needed game developers to bring credibility to the launch. So together we came up with the UK XNA launch day for students and academics, coupled with three days of XNA workshops for 60 lecturers, which we held at Rare -- the content of which was developed and taught by our development staff.

Since then we've worked together on Freeplay Lounge at GameCity, which was a game party for 200 students and lecturers celebrating game development and XNA. We are currently promoting the "Rare Lecture Series", which is part of the Academic Team's "Inspiration Tour/UK", where lecturers can book one of 10 different lectures presented by our staff covering a wide range of topics. We still do our own thing too, but the relationship works very well, as we take up some of the Academic Team's lecturing duties and bring a lot of credibility to the work they do, and they provide the backup and logistics for us.

In Summary

What works for Rare might not work for your studio, but the free lunch is over. If, like other technology-based industries, we are to continue to grow rather than continually poaching staff from one another, we must help educators to help us by growing better graduates, and more of them.

We can all help stimulate more university applications in the technology and art fields by helping create a tangible link between the games people play and what's going on inside the box. Once at university we can help inspire undergraduates and teach them the right skills. Trust me, this does pay off. Finally...

Tips for developers:

  • Don't treat graduates as cheap labor; doing so hurts us all as they are the industry's future.

  • Work with as many universities as you can; there are good graduates to be had from all of them.

  • Work with other developers if possible; one developer can't reach out to all universities but together we can.

  • Take an active role in educational conferences where possible; the more developers and universities that are engaged the better.

  • Universities are businesses; they don't exist solely to make graduates for us. They have to get enough students to keep courses financially viable, while turning out graduates that are employable. Help them improve their courses and get plenty of undergraduate applications.

  • Don't do hard sell presentations to students or lecturers. Just tell them what it's like to do your job, or even present your GDC talk to them; we work in a very exciting industry, and if your studio is a nice place to work, that will be more than enough to get them applying.

  • Tell the truth; if you lie or conceal things like crunch, new staff just leave and all the hard work recruiting them was for nothing.

Tips for students at all stages of education:

  • Developers don't bite; we were all like you once -- come and join the collective.

  • Don't just apply to one studio; cast around and see what's on offer.

  • The best fanatical deal is not always the most desirable; working conditions and career prospects are far more important than an extra £1000 on a starting salary. Remember, it's only a starting salary.

  • If you want to look good in an application, have good core skills, base skills, and soft skills. Specific knowledge of software packages and engines are useful but only in the short term.

  • When you are interviewed, the interviewer(s) may be as nervous as you are; interviews are just stressful. Hopefully the interviewer(s) will try to minimize this for you.

  • If a developer turns you down once you can re-apply later; developers' staffing needs change over time.

  • If you are choosing a course, look at lots of courses, take your time choosing; if you know any developers or meet some, ask for their advice.

  • Not all courses are created equal, but all should be continually trying to improve.

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About the Author(s)

Nick Burton


After completing a Computing Systems Degree, Nick spent 4 years researching 3D Volume Visualization and Surface Reconstruction in academia. In 1998 Nick left research behind and moved into the Games Industry where he now works as a Senior Software Engineer for RARE, which over the course of the past two decades has grown into a huge creative force behind today’s consoles and become a household name to games players worldwide. With nearly 10 years experience working on the Nintendo 64, GameCube, Microsoft XBOX and XBOX360 Nick’s main areas of expertise are graphical FX and game polish though he is also interested in XBOX Live Arcade development, XNA, computer vision and academic relations. Nick recently completed work on ‘Kameo: Elements of Power’ for launch with the XBOX360 and Jetpac: Refuelled for Xbox Live Arcade and is now working on his third, and as yet undisclosed XBOX360 title.

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