Putting the dev back into games development

Why you don’t need to be a game designer to work in games

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to hear that video games are no longer the niche hobby that they once were. In fact, the global games sector is larger than the film industry, bringing in billions in revenue every year. It’s even spawned cottage industries, such as the ever-growing community of streamers and esports players, with major international events like E3 showcasing the latest and greatest titles in the flashiest way possible.

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For many players, helping to create these games is a dream career, but amidst all the glitz and hype it can seem like an unattainable goal. Superstar developers like Hideo Kojima, Warren Spector and John Romero are cemented in the popular consciousness as the kind of auteur creatives who make up the games industry. However, it’s easy to forget that in many ways, games companies operate much like any other tech firm.

For example, the games industry faces the same recruitment and talent issues as the rest of the tech sector. IT leaders and analysts have been warning of a growing skills gap for years now, and games studios are just as beholden to it as other software vendors. Part of the reason for this is that while level designers, digital artists and creative directors may be the public face of games development, the industry also relies on an unsung legion of back-end technical workers who toil behind the scenes to support and enable our favourite experiences.

This is one of the challenges faced by James Levick, CTO of game development studio Hutch. After six years working at Sony on projects including Playstation Home, Levick left the company to join Hutch, which had been set up shortly before by a group of former Playstation colleagues.

Hutch specialises in mobile games, with titles including Rebel Racing, F1 Manager and Top Drives, and Levick says that overall, gameplay developers make up less than half of his total technical team. While Hutch’s client-side game developers mostly have experience with industry-specific 3D game development platforms like Unity and Unreal, its backend staff specialise in technologies like Azure, C#, Angular and Node.js.

“We have 30 engineers in total,” he says; “24 in our office in central London and six in Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s a pretty even split in London between gameplay developers and backend developers, and our team in Canada handles our tools and technology platform.”

Levick says that one of the things he struggles with most when it comes to recruiting for this side of the business is the perception that you need industry-specific skills and knowledge to get into the world of gaming. While that may be the case for the player-facing side of games development, the operational side is much more open.

“I hear a lot that 'Oh, I never thought I could get into games, because I went down this road and I was working at a bank or an insurance company, and I just thought my chance was gone. But I didn't realise my skills were the same as you guys need'. So trying to get that word out there is important,” he says.

The majority of Hutch’s games include online multiplayer components running on top of a custom UDP-based networking layer, and experience with high-load web environments and databases is something that Levick is always looking for. He cites FinTech as one example of an industry where developers can possess plenty of transferable skills.

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“Games have quite an aggressive load profile,” he explains. “It's partly self-inflicted, because we try to create this idea of scarcity of time, or we have event periods where we really want people to crowd in at the end. And so sometimes that potentially isn't something that a lot of candidates have had experience with; they're used to more predictable load profiles. Some of the ones coming from e-commerce are used to it – you know, sales and things – and they're used to that sort of load spike that you get as a result of that.”

In fact, while experience in the games industry can be helpful for backend devs, one of the things that Levick specifically looks for is whether or not potential engineers are gamers themselves. Having an understanding of games from the perspective of a player, he says, gives an essential insight into which metrics will be most impactful.

Levick is in charge of guiding Hutch’s technology strategy, and has chosen the elements that make up its tech stack partly to make it easier to hire developers without needing a range of esoteric skills. “It's important to us to use common technologies that are out there, that have good development communities around them, that are mature and that we can rely on,” he says.

Despite this, Hutch is still facing challenges with its recruitment. The company currently has five backend developer roles open across various levels of seniority, as well as client-side gameplay developer vacancies, and Levick cites a lack of available talent as one of the primary constraints he’s facing.

“It’s been a constant challenge over the history of the company finding enough skilled engineers as we’ve grown – I find it requires a lot of my time! Our work from home policy allows us to source from a wide radius around London and we actively search abroad as well, but there’s a limited pool of qualified developers. It’s a perpetual problem, not just in the games industry but programming in general.”

Data science is another area where Hutch is seeking talent, as it’s becoming increasingly important to the firm’s ongoing strategy. The company is making an effort to develop a data-driven culture, and has a data team dedicated to monitoring various metrics. Levick says that the weekly meetings where this team presents their latest findings around user acquisition and player retention have become some of the most popular in the company.

While player retention is an ongoing focus for Hutch, something it doesn’t have to worry about employee retention; the company has a very low staff turnover, which Levick credits to the amount of effort Hutch puts into its personal development programmes. Staff are encouraged to move around between different roles and departments to explore areas that are interesting to them, and one day out of every two-week sprint is free for developers to dedicate to personal projects – whether that’s working on their own game, learning new tools like Adobe Photoshop, or something entirely unrelated. 

Across all of his teams – as well as the business as a whole – Levick is seeking to maintain a diverse hiring strategy, not just in terms of gender and race but also in terms of educational background. While most game devs tend to come from a STEM background, he notes that developers from a humanities background can bring a unique perspective to projects.

“There's a well-known crossover with music and maths and languages; they all work sort of synergistically together. So that's been an interesting observation, I've found some people with that musical background move very well across fields, or into the game dev fields as well. And I think all of this ultimately benefits the game, because if you just get a bunch of mathematicians in a room, I'm not sure they're going to create the most fun game. Ultimately, I think you really want that diverse selection of experiences – you want to represent the player base and humanity in all of its forms. So I think the more you can do that, the better the result will be.”

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