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Thursday, 19 June 2008 19:04

95 percent of UK game design degrees are sub-standard

The UK video game industry is facing an uncertain future as the majority of games design degree courses are labelled a waste of time by the industry. David Braben, creator of all time classic Elite, has gone on record to claim that 95 percent of courses are simply not fit for purpose. The resulting skills shortage could mean that £700m of foreign investment into the UK gets lost, along with 1,700 jobs, over the next five years according to gaming industry experts.

David Braben carved out a much deserved reputation as a game developer guru by creating the space trading game Elite way back in 1984. One of the first games to use wireframe 3D graphics, Braben was an innovator as well as a developer. In his new role as spokesman for gaming industry campaign group 'Games Up?' Braben appears genuinely concerned that innovation could be a dying art as far as British game designers are concerned.

The fact that there are 81 video game design degree courses in the UK but only four of them have accreditation with the government monitoring body, Skillset, is at the heart of his concern. "Without some sort of common standard, like Skillset accreditation, these degrees are a waste of time for all concerned" Braben insists, adding "we are facing a serious decline in the quality of graduates looking to enter the industry."

This is particularly galling for the UK in the face of boom year forecasts for global games industry growth. PricewaterhouseCoopers has published data drawn from a forthcoming report entitled Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2008-2012 which suggests $41.9 billion (US) in global game sales last year. Look forward to 2012 and that figure is predicted to jump to $68.3 billion.

Console games are likely to continue doing well, up from $24.9 billion last year to $34.7 million four years down the road. But the online games sector eclipses that with potential 16.9 percent growth by 2012, and in game advertising to more than double from $1 billion last year to $2.3 billion in 2012.

It looks like being bad news for the UK, to the tune of as much as £700 million in lost foreign investment over the next five years according to researchers at Games Investor Consulting . It also suggests that as many as 1700 jobs could be lost in the industry as a result.

So where is the UK video game business going, if not to UK companies? Outsourcing is simply not an option because of the requirement to have a knowledge of local culture when creating entertainment of this type. There is certainly no suggestion that we will see a raft of Bangalore beat-em-ups any time soon. The short answer is that there will simply be fewer home grown video games coming out of the UK.

Instead, of course, there will be a continuation of the video game creation dominance that we already see from US developers. Alongside which expect to see emerging development markets such as Australia continue to grow.

Much of the decline in games programming talent within the UK mirrors a general decline across the last decade in the study of maths and physics. Science and technology, it appears, are no longer seen as sexy subjects with the UK student body. If there is a shortage of maths and physics geeks, then it does not take a genius to work out that the skillset for potential games programmers is also in short supply.

ComputerWeekly quotes Richard Lambert, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Director-General as insisting that "the UK cannot compete with the developing world on low-skilled jobs, so to thrive in the global market we must excel in the higher-skilled roles that demand expertise and innovation." Yet if Braben and others are to be believed these roles are precisely the ones at risk from sub-standard degree courses.

The fact is that unless the UK can keep up with the demand for games programmers, then those Games Investor predictions will come true. Unfortunately, there is little chance of that as Richard Wilson, CEO of the UK games software publishers trade association, Tiga, reminds us. Talking to ComputerWeekly Wilson says that there has been a 15 percent drop in students taking computer science, maths and physics degrees over the past ten years.

With the UK unable to grow its development businesses at an equivalent rate to international rivals, the only way for the industry is down. Ironically, this will mean that prices are likely to go up. If the skilled labour market is in short supply so the costs of those that are available goes up. These costs are then passed on to the consumer when the games hit the high street.

Although I would love to finish this story with a happy computer game ending, it appears that things are going to be more akin to GTA IV levels of destruction than Super Mario firework displays. Games Up? say the UK video games industry earned £4 billion globally between 2006 and 2008, contributing £200 million to the balance of trade in the process. Unfortunately, unless something can be done quickly and effectively to turn around the skills shortage, I am afraid it will indeed be games up for that kind of economic gameplay.


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