Stephanie Bazeley is living the dream of many who want a career in building computer games.
In 2013, Stephanie and nine other university friends made Monstrum, a survival horror game, in their Dundee living room.
The Abertay University graduates dreamed up, drew, and coded the story while crammed around a desk that ran halfway into a hallway.
Their efforts won them awards and impressed an angel investor who backed the game with £250,000.
That was a big deal as they knew they would have a regular salary after graduating.
“Our pay was minimum wage, but compared to living off your student loan, it was still like, ‘Aw yeah, I’m getting take-out tonight!’” Stephanie says.
Without the extra cash from the investor, her game would have been half the size, and her team, like most indie games makers, would have needed to take on day jobs to pay the bills, while coding through nights and weekends in pursuit of their dream.
“People underestimate how much money it takes to make a game,” she says.
Instead, they were able to release Monstrum in 2015. That coincided with the rise of pro-gamers on YouTube and Twitch. Famous online personalities including PewDiePie, Dashie and Markiplier championed Monstrum.
Today, the company has grown to 16, calls itself Team Junkfish, and is in the testing phase for Monstrum 2.
The employees still have to “wear all the hats”, including PR and overseeing quality testing, says Stephanie.
From time to time she will receive an offer from larger games companies for a £60,000 developer job but she turns them down.
“I don’t know if my heart would be in it as much as I like making my own game with my friends. And it’s a team, and the dream that we believe in,” says Stephanie.
Team Junkfish formed on the Professional Project module at Abertay taught by Iain Donald, who continued to mentor them after they graduated.
“I think Abertay owes a lot of its reputation to Iain,” says Stephanie.
The UK’s oldest university programme for video game hopefuls, Abertay has built a reputation that attracts students from across the country and around the world.
Modules are offered in computer arts, game applications development, computing, cyber-security, hacking, and game design and production.
The first two years are spent learning core skills and then the focus changes to building a portfolio.
In their fourth year, students from different disciplines are put into teams of between eight and 10 in order to make a game based on industry contact feedback.
Normally, the games would showcase at an event in mid-May. This year there will be an online show in early June.
Technical competence is the baseline for an Abertay grad, but Iain says: “We try to instil in our graduates that they have to have the soft skills to go with it.”
He reckons there are about 1,200 entry-level positions available each year but about 15,000 to 20,000 students graduating from video game specific degrees.
“There’s a large pool of people looking for a small number of jobs. What makes people stand out is their portfolio, rather than their degree. And, I say that as an educator.”
Brexit has also changed graduate prospects, he says. Jobs in the European Economic Area may not be as easy to land.
“To get the experience you need for a US or Canadian company to give you a visa, you needed to work for a few years first. Europe gave our graduates those opportunities,” says Iain.
He hopes the meteoric rise in sales and the increasing complexity of video game development will open up more opportunities.
The value of the global gaming market rose to £120.8bn in 2020. More people are playing and for 10% longer each year, according to Research and Markets.
“One reason the games industry has expanded massively and has needed more creative talent is because the technology has kind of sorted itself out,” says Adam Procter, the programme leader for undergraduate games design at the Winchester School of Art at the University of Southampton.
Abertay developers like Stephanie learn C++, one of the harder coding languages.
However, some games are built on top of engines.
An engine is a program that works like building blocks of code. Rather than write every line, a developer can build a game using chunks that are pre-written.
“That’s to empower people to be creative, and not worry about whether they got the semicolon in the right place,” says Adam.
On his Southampton University programme, students studying for a Bachelor of Arts in game design are taught to imagine and bring to life the world of a video game.
In the first year of the three-year course, they focus on creative problem solving by making lots of game prototypes and creating experiences.
Last year, when lockdowns lifted, students travelled to London’s Barbican to shoot video, draw and record the sound of the space.
“When you are making a game, whether it be a board game or a video game, you can’t build a world if you don’t observe the world you’re in,” Adam says.
There is also a showcase, normally in Winchester and London, but this year it is online. Adam says 100% of his students leave with a job.
“What the games industry wants is people who are creative, curious, have ideas, and are super passionate about games,” says Adam.
His remarks are echoed by Chris van der Kuyl, head of 4J Studios, which brought Minecraft to games consoles.
“This is a talent-based industry and we’re looking for passionate enthusiasm. Standing in a queue in front of you there are thousands of people saying, ‘It’s my life’s ambition to work in video games,’” says the Dundee-based chairman.
“If you are not someone who naturally works in a team environment you’re probably going to find it quite tough,” he adds.
While Chris agrees that the technology has become more accessible to those who do not have computer science degrees, he says that everyone has to lean into the tech.
“A lot of games engineering is about graphics and graphics performance and sometimes physics. Every one of these things requires tough maths,” he says.
Programmers interviewing at any games business can expect to be given a test problem to go and solve and then the candidate must walk the interviewers through how they solved it.
“You’re not going to have someone playing in the realm of Premier League football who’s got great knowledge of the game and great ideas but who can’t control the ball and doesn’t have the fitness level to last for a 90-minute game,” says Chris.
He advises those who have caught the gaming bug to take the traditional route and specialise at university but also acknowledges there is room for alternative paths – such as the one taken by the creator of Minecraft, Markus “Notch” Persson, an excellent software engineer but one who wanted to produce and release his game independently.
“You know, they might look at someone like Markus and say, ‘That’s me!’ without realising it took him nearly 20 years and 20 games that didn’t work before Minecraft happened,” he says.
Stephanie Bazeley says passion is what keeps her going and if a person really wants to be in video games, all they need is heart.
“Just don’t give up. If you believe in it, make it and just make sure you get out there,” she says.