A career in the games industry can seem impossible. To fix that perception, Emma Smith, Head of Talent at Creative Assembly introduces Martin Cooper MBCS to Creative Assembly’s Legacy Programme.
Creative Assembly (CA) is one of the oldest and largest UK games development studios. It was originally founded in 1987 and based in West Sussex. It now has over 800 of employees, spread between three UK studios and one European studio in Bulgaria. It’s the creators of the BAFTA-award-winning games franchise, Total War, and critically acclaimed titles such as Alien: Isolation.
The company runs a highly successful outreach programme. We explore the company’s motivations, hopes and achievements as it works ever more closely with local schools.
Q. So, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us about Creative Assembly.
My name is Emma Smith, Head of Talent at Creative Assembly – I look after our expert recruitment team, relocation team and our educational outreach team.
Creative Assembly (CA) is one of the oldest and largest UK games development studios. Originally founded in 1987 and based in West Sussex. There are now over 800 of us between three UK studios and one European studio in Bulgaria. We are the creators of the BAFTA-award-winning games franchise, Total War, and critically acclaimed titles such as Alien: Isolation.
We regularly win Best Place to Work Awards – in fact, we’ve won now for five consecutive years. We believe strongly in continually improving the employee experience and demonstrating our values at every turn. Part of this leads me to talk about our commitment to industry education, which is the work of our educational outreach team, titled the Legacy Project.
Q. What is the Legacy Project – how did the idea come about?
The Legacy Project is our commitment to educating, inspiring, and supporting the games development talent of tomorrow and promoting games as a power for good.
The project originally began as our social responsibility programme; the studio had grown to about 200 staff at that time and we wanted to give something back to the local community. I was challenged to create a social responsibility initiative by our studio leadership. Back then it focused on the local community including local schools.
It’s really evolved as CA has grown – it's a passion project and with more passionate people joining our studio each day (did I mention that we’re recruiting!), the scope and impact of the project has also evolved. It was clear early on that our staff enjoyed being involved in the project – specifically engaging with students. By talking to students about their own expertise they felt energised and excited about their industry and the future potential.
The core pillar of the project is education. We recognise that education beyond Further Education in the UK is increasingly becoming a privilege. Under-represented groups in the games industry such as Black and ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted by education barriers. This is especially true in technology, with teachers often expected to teach basic programming skills alongside their ever-challenging curriculum, and students from disadvantaged households not having access to technology at home to support their own learning.
However, the desire of many young people to learn technology or STEAM related subjects is increasing. As one of the largest studios with over 800 developers, we house so many experts who are eager to share what they’ve learnt to benefit future generations.
We began our outreach work on a small scale, visiting schools and giving educational talks about the games industry. It expanded to provide mentorship, studio-based workshops, supporting game design competitions and contributing to game design curriculums. The question we always ask ourselves with any activity is whether we can provide a quality interaction that has the potential to really help these students. If we aren’t adding value, then why do it?
Our focus is on schools and colleges in our local community, on establishments that we know have a high-quality bar with their curriculums, and on those who are actively working to address inequalities in society. That is why we work so closely with ELAM (the East London Academy of Music and Arts).
ELAM is situated in one of the most deprived areas of England. Over a quarter of their students are from disadvantaged backgrounds and 70% of their students are from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The success of ELAM’s work is clear as they are seeing fantastic results for their students; 70% of their game trainees received distinctions compared to 15% nationally.
Rather than aiming to offer all education establishments a small amount of support (e.g., an annual career talk), our approach is to build a deep relationship with a smaller number of establishments that fit our goals. In this way we can provide their students with the right mentorship, the right reviews of their work throughout their time studying, and we can work with teachers on the right curriculums.
Our outreach work is formed of an army of CA Ambassadors, volunteer staff members. Our CA Ambassadors have gone from strength to strength; we now have around 200 within our studio, all committed to sharing their knowledge, experiences, and skills with the wider community.
Q. Creating such a programme seems, in a way, ‘the right thing to do’. But is there a strong business case for outreach of this kind? (Important question)
Some businesses may be concerned about the time commitment of a programme like this. We are firm believers in the long-term benefits of outreach activity, not only for the students, but also for our own staff and our talent pipeline.
For our people, they hone their skills as mentors, as leaders and educators and they bring back these experiences for their team to benefit from. They go onwards to create more high-performing, innovative and growing teams. The enthusiasm from the students we work with is contagious, and our developers always return re-energised to their projects.
For our talent pipeline, the students we work with go on to be ambassadors for the industry. We always seek to make a meaningful positive impact in their education – they remember us, they remember their mentors, and they go on to engage positively with us.
In addition, they may even be our employees of the future. We see several junior roles each year filled by those from the education establishments we have worked with – some we have mentored; others have been involved in expert talks and workshop sessions.
Q. The skills game is a perennial challenge across most tech industry specialists. Given its glamour, do you find the games industry too finds it hard to attract young talent? How do young people perceive careers in the games industry?
Absolutely – the technical skills gap isn’t limited to the type of industry. The reality is that education in the UK is not keeping up with technical skill requirements. Teachers, often with no specific technical skills training themselves, are expected to deliver things like basic programming alongside an already difficult curriculum.
In addition, careers in the games industry are not widely seen as accessible or professional – it is an outdated perception but still stands in the minds of some teachers and parents, for example.
Worryingly, we heard from a parent that “getting a job in games is like getting through the X Factor.” Considering the industry hires over 20,000 people in the UK alone, this is a misconception we need to challenge both with students and parents.
Our aim is that every student, no matter their background, walks away from engaging with our project feeling that the industry is accessible to them and something they could consider in the future. The most rewarding feedback is, of course, students who have chosen Computer Science and other relevant GCSE or A-Level subjects, motivated by their experience with CA.
Student feedback has highlighted the very aspect we set out to achieve: “It has inspired me to take STEM subjects further because I have seen the type of jobs you can get when you take those subjects and the happiness of the employees”. Another noted: “The games industry is a very good industry because there’s such a range of different job opportunities and you can work your way up and get training, so you are more skilled”.
‘Start small but think big. Small interactions now can have big effects if they are well executed with the end goal constantly at the forefront of your mind.’
Q. Was selling the programme to leadership (CFO) difficult?
When making the business case for the Legacy Project many years ago there were absolutely concerns over the potential impact on day-to-day operations. At that time, we didn’t realise the potential of the project and the longer term benefits it could bring. What we did know is that it was something we, and many of our developers were eager to be involved in, so we carved out some time for activities within project schedules – but we kept it lean.
When we first began engaging deeply with specific education establishments, who were known to produce high calibre talent, the business case was clear. The demand on the games industry to provide new and exciting game experiences has grown plus the challenges for attracting talent, and the lack of homegrown talent in the UK, the Legacy Project has increasingly been seen as an opportunity to move past those key challenges.
It can be difficult to make a case when you don’t have clear evidence of what the end result will be, but it can be just as powerful to show the trajectory and impact if no interventions are taken.
Putting energy into education outreach is a long-term gain, but there are short term gains in there too in terms of staff engagement and the other skills they learn along the way. If you start by focusing engagement on higher education students, perhaps partnering with a key university, for example, those results will come sooner - but don’t lose focus on the long game.
So many children are making formative decisions on careers well before they go to university. So, seek to inspire and engage at critical points in the education journey. Start small but think big. Small interactions now can have big effects if they are well executed with the end goal constantly at the forefront of your mind.
Q. Has the Legacy Programme shifted any or your key business KPIs? Staff retention, staff engagement, happiness / wellbeing? (Important question)
It’s difficult to quantify directly as we are talking about longer term goals. But, right now, we see our educational outreach work as one of the most highly rated areas of the business according to our annual staff survey, we see a year-on-year increase in the number of staff signed up as ambassadors to support the initiative (being 100 in 2020, and now over 200).
In addition, we regular see it cited as a reason someone is applying for a career with us – whether that’s because they engaged with us at an education event, or they have seen the scope of our activities and credentials online and are attracted to an employer that supports these initiatives.
Over the years we’ve built stronger links between the Legacy Project ambassador stream and individual career development plans. For example, for employees to gain experience, expertise and skills in public speaking, mentorship, coaching and providing quality feedback, we recommend joining the Legacy Project and honing those skills as an ambassador, before going on to apply them in other areas like Management, or speaking to the press.
‘Don’t be afraid of giving developers time away from their desk to engage in things that matter to them. You will get a lot more back when they return to their day-to-day work.’
Q. What’s the key, from your perspective, to working successfully with schools and education?
The one thing that makes this project work and I mean really work is a genuine passion for what we do and sharing that with others. Having people within your organisation who truly want to see the programme succeed will ensure it is always something that is authentic and meaningful. That’s why it should be founded through team involvement – it shouldn’t be something created in a board room, it should follow a discovery process where employees can have input.
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Find your own way of engaging with the next generation. Align it to your culture, your products and who you are as a business. It becomes obvious when it’s about filling a quota or doing it purely for brand purposes. Think about the core pillars of your brand, what your purpose is, and consider how an outreach initiative could be an extension of that.
Everyone is inspired by stories. We as human beings are naturally curious and seek out others that elevate us in a variety of different ways. That might mean some want to find out more about the subject you talked about or follow the same path themselves. Share the stories you have in your own business as a starting point; it will inspire others to share theirs too.
Whether our ambassadors engage with a five-year-old and encourage them to press the buttons on a code-a-pillar or meet a graduate who joins the studio on their first day in the industry. It makes a difference. Have faith in what you do. They might feel like small interactions, but it builds into a bigger movement over time and each interaction can have a big impact on an individual’s life.
Don’t be afraid of giving developers time away from their desk to engage in things that matter to them. You will get a lot more back when they return to their day-to-day work. They will potentially have just spoken to someone you will be hiring in the future and your developer will be talking about why they love their career, project and employer. That enthusiasm spreads and will be reflected in their work and those around them.
That said, don’t do anything and everything that is requested of you. Quality interactions with students, teachers and parents will have an impact, days, weeks, months and sometimes years after you have interacted with them. You want to make sure that is a positive thing. So be clear about what you can offer and only offer that.
Create useful resources you can send to students, teachers and parents that interact with you or ask for support. This might be something you can share yourself such as facts, information or videos.
It might also be a case of signposting to other fantastic organisations who have ready-made resources in these areas. For example, last year we published our Games industry careers cribsheet. It was developed by our ambassadors and provides an easily accessible high-level view of career opportunities – it is widely used by schools and teachers.