Last week Qantm College sent a whole new group of graduates into the real world, into a local industry racked with job losses and constant uncertainty. We caught up with two former students and spoke to Qantm themselves about their hopes and fears as the enter the brave new world of Australian games development.
"The industry here sucks -- it's an absolute shame," says Tim.
Tim isn’t angry, he's resigned. His words don't carry emotion, just the message. And it's a clear one.
“This is the first thing we're told in orientation -- programmers, you're going to get hired. Animators? You'll probably get hired too. Game designers? Most of you won't get hired."
It's graduation night at Qantm College in Sydney and there's a strange, familiar atmosphere. Anyone who has ever graduated can empathise with the mixed emotions -- elation, trepidation. The big bad world awaits, what will it have in store?
Alongside a group of guests from the Australian games industry, we've just finished watching the cream of this year's graduates present their work. Some of the work shown is genuinely astounding. One student presents a money management app that integrates Foursquare and GPS tracking to help monitor where you're spending money, how much and when. It takes all the willpower I can muster not to simply lob my wallet on stage at the poor boy (which says a lot about my own money management). I want that app. I want to tell my friends about it, I'm an instant advocate. Said student says there is scope for gamification in the app. I'm already sold.
According to the tagline, Qantm College are "the experts in creative digital media education" therefore a broad spectrum of said media is on show -- animation, CGI, digital art -- but the vast majority of presentations are by aspiring game developers.
Tim O'Brien is one of those aspiring game developers. His presentation was first, and it was a good one. In all respects he's a model student -- proactive, gifted, diligent. His team's work was selected from the slew of student projects for many reasons: its quality, the attitude of the team, the fact that Tim had enough initiative to chase us here at Kotaku for early coverage of a game still in its infancy.
Despite this, he remains pessimistic about his chances of gainful employment in the games industry.
"I have a feeling that it might be difficult," he says. "I know that the industry, at least here in Sydney, is very limited. Currently I'm looking offshore to find work at the moment -- in Canada or maybe Europe somewhere? I'd like to stay here in Australia, but I'm not sure if there are many job prospects.
"I'm not panicking, I think that's because I'm an older student, I've had experience in the work force before. For some of the younger students, they're a bit more like 'oh my god'! But I know that, worse comes to worst, I'll just have to find a job in a different industry.
"Before I worked in sales and also IT -- would I go back to IT and sales? Well I did alright in sales, but I don't really want to do that. I did uni to start with, then I went into the work force and I just came to hate the idea that this would be my life."
Tim O'Brien, one of Qantm's most gifted students worries that he may have to go back to the sales job he hated. But it's a reality he may have to face.
Bolt of Lightning
Catherine McAdam bubbles with a mixture of nerves and enthusiasm, it's difficult to tell whether she's simply nervously excited about her future or just nervous. Probably a bit of both.
Her team isn't waiting to get hired, under the monicker Molniya (Russian for Lightning) they're keen to get out of the classroom and into business.
"This is the second degree I've done," begins Catherine. "I did graphic design before this so I'm fairly used to the whole 'I'm gonna graduate thing'. You can't study forever. I told myself this was the last time, and I have to get a job after this.
"It's pretty scary, but also exciting, because we have plans for next year. The rest of my group working on our game want to develop it indie and go for a government grant. We've got plans, so that's exciting, but it's still like, do we have to go and get real jobs in the meantime?
"Right now it hasn't really set in, because graduating just felt like another assessment for us," she continues, "but in the next couple of weeks I think it'll really start to set in that we're done with education for good."
Much like Tim, Catherine feels as though the experience of having studied elsewhere, prior to attending Qantm, made her far more focused on a practical approach to learning.
"I guess because I've been studying so long compared to other people I felt that, because I'd done that first degree already, I took this a lot more seriously and really focused on getting a job out of it. I wanted to graduate with something I was really proud of, something I could use to get a job."
It's a stark contrast. Two of Qantm's strongest students -- one enthused about her future in video games, another pessimistic. Each have almost diametrically opposed ideas regarding their chances of success in this incredibly competitive industry.
To an extent Jens Schroeder, Campus Academic Coordinator at Qantm, sympathises with both.
"I think you'll always get this contrast in any institution and admittedly I can sort of see where some of the students are coming from," he says.
"During orientation I'm always trying to make clear to students that this is a pathway. Parents come in for open days and they ask, 'will our children find a job?' It's a fair question. The spiel I give them is probably yes -- if they work really hard, show the right attitude and entertain possibilities outside of the more hardcore side of things. You have to think outside the box -- games for health, games that rehabilitate old people through dance mats! You know?
“A lot of the students still find it difficult to get used to the idea that they might not be working on the next Call of Duty.”
You get the sense that Jens struggles with the naïveté of some students, the sense of entitlement.
“No one is waiting to recognise their inherent genius,” laughs Jens, “which is what I think a lot of students believe. One of the things I'm really trying to encourage is to get students to attend networking events -- like the IGDA stuff. You ask them to attend, and you go there and it's the same five people! I'm like really? Those are some of the basic skills you have to learn. That can be a little disheartening.
“Maybe it's an age thing -- some of them come directly out of high school. They just want to make games, they don't realise the effort needed to succeed.”
But despite his natural pessimism, Tim O’Brien hardly falls into the category of self-entitled student. After a series of interviews, Tim interned at Nnooo in Pyrmont, working on the critically acclaimed EscapeVektor.
According Nnooo’s Creative Director Nic Watt, Tim excelled.
“Tim did really well at his time with us,” claims Nic. "We had recently completed escapeVektor: Chapter 1 and wanted new levels designed and made for the other chapters. Before deciding on Tim we invited a few of the students in to interview and get a feel for how they thought and worked. Tim was the obvious choice; he was really well considered and took to the task of designing levels really quickly.
“Tim managed to design over 30 levels during his six weeks with us, all of which he sketched out on paper, prototyped in illustrator and then scripted and built into the game.”
Despite his great work, Nnooo is still a small studio, and didn’t have the resources available to offer Tim a job after he graduated.
“It's really hard,” continues Nic. “We've worked with some great staff and interns at Nnooo and due to our size we cannot keep all of them. If we had more money we could probably do more. At the same time however it is important to note that we want Nnooo to remain a manageable size. All of the games are designed by myself and the intention is to keep it that way. This means there is a limit to what we can do without becoming stretched.”
Some students, however, are more successful -- although not necessarily in traditional games development. Many Qantm students do leave internships with the promise of a job after they graduate.
“Internships are part of the curriculum and I'm in charge of organising those, which is really unthankful work actually,” laughs Jens. “But there are some good outcomes because some students have been offered work out of the internships, which is really great to see.”
Tim himself was disappointed his internship at Nnooo didn’t result in a job opportunity, but fully understands the reality: Nnooo can’t afford to hire every intern that walks through its doors.
“Well I think even though I did an internship, they still weren't able to offer me a job, just because of the size of the studio,” he says. “There's not much they can do. I know that some people have gotten jobs from their internships, but for me personally I think that unless I manage to stumble upon something fantastic in the next few months I'll definitely have to look overseas.”
Despite this, he doesn’t blame Qantm either. In fact Tim has nothing but good things to say about his time at the college, and dedicated his successful internship at Nnooo to the quality of education he received.
“I learned a lot from my internship, but I think Quantm gave me the roots to understand what would actually be happening in the internship,” claims Tim. “Without that sort of foundation of game design principles and stuff, what happened during the internship -- I probably wouldn't have taken it in, I wouldn't have absorbed that information properly.”
The waiting game
Jens recognises that life for a Game Designer can be difficult post-graduation -- options are limited. It’s his job to stay ahead of the curve and provide potential designers with the skill set to adapt to changing circumstances. In the future, claims Jens, he is keen to make designers find their own niche in a world that’s becoming increasingly gamified in all areas of industry.
“We are considering teaching design, or game design, as something that can be applied to a lot of fields outside of the classic entertainment field,” says Jens. “That is something we're looking to do a lot more of. We actually do a serious games course, and I really like teaching it. Interestingly enough some of the students don't really find it that interesting unfortunately, but we do believe that games are a disruptive technology and you have to apply this kind of design to different areas.
“Gamification -- it's a horrible marketing buzzword. As Ian Bogost put it -- gamification is bullshit, in its current superficial marketing form. But as it evolves gamification will be able to take advantage of the unique engaging qualities of games, and hopefully that's something we'll be able to encourage our students to understand as well.
“We're trying to open up opportunities during a time when things are converging. Look at books as apps -- are they games? Are they books? It's becoming blurry. These are important developments and we want to encourage students to have an open mind.”
Nic at Nnooo is looking for a little more assistance from the NSW government.
"I would like to see NSW government think about starting some sort of apprenticeship scheme or similar for new graduates," says Nic. "One of the hard things a games company like ours faces is taking on recent graduates and getting them familiar with working on Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft's systems. This process of training can take 2-3 years as each platform has a lot of idiosyncrasies you cannot teach at university.
"If we had a system where 50 per cent of our graduates salaries were paid for the first year and maybe dropping in percentage terms by 33 per cent each year for three years it would allow us to firstly employ more graduates and secondly increase the skills and knowledge base of people in NSW."
But of course, no such system is yet in place. The NSW Government did recently announce it would be investing more heavily in digital services, helping fund Halfbrick's new Sydney studio. Strangely enough, Nnooo is among the developers receiving a cash injection -- they're using the money to fund two new hires -- both graduates from Qantm. Both programmers.
It reminds us of Tim O'Brien's earlier statement: "programmers you're going to get hired... Game designers? Most of you won't get hired." We wonder what chance Tim really has in this difficult job environment?
We ask him and, surprisingly, a strand of optimism reveals itself.
"I think it's definitely getting better," he says, smiling, "particularly with the change of government. Basically there's a common acceptance that maybe games aren't quite so silly! Especially as gamers start getting older and they start filling in those roles in parliament. And especially because well... Angry Birds! Now MPs play Angry Birds and realise this makes money! These kinds of games are really changing the attitudes of people."
If Jens is right, and the world continues to gamify itself, maybe Australia will have more need of people like Tim O'Brien and his unique skillset in the future. Maybe MPs across this country will have the eureka moment they had when they first got wind of Angry Birds or, more likely, Fruit Ninja.
But, for now, Tim O'Brien must play the waiting game.