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Search for a Star offers students a way into the games industry

The gaming industry is on the up and up: studio staff sizes, revenue and investment have all climbed in the last year according to the latest figures. The games industry in the UK in 2016 is a good place to be - but employers need the best up-and-coming coders and artists to continue the expansion.

Indeed, Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley cites "recruitment of highly skilled people" as one of the key difficulties in keeping the market as buoyant as it now is.

Studios are after talented individuals, and students are looking for ways into the industry, but getting the two to meet isn't always straightforward. That's where our Search for a Star and Sumo Digital Rising Star competitions come in, operating almost like an X-Factor for coders and designers.

The events aren't quite as showy as Simon Cowell's TV creation though: created in consultation with leading industry experts, Search for a Star (aimed at those in their final year) and Rising Star (for those in earlier years) have been designed to mimic the typical recruitment process within the games industry.

The hope is the contestants - some of the brightest and best aspiring game developers from universities around the country and beyond - get a real taste of a studio working environment.

The competitions act as a gateway between academia and the industry where students can pick up valuable advice and perhaps a job or internship, and studios can identify the perfect grad for their needs.

"We get to see some pretty decent talent before they come onto the market," says Pete Harrap, Technical Director at Sumo Digital. "It's almost like a Black Friday for the games industry."

Likewise graduates want to be leaving university with some real-world experience under their belt as well as opportunities to show what they can do. The route to getting a place in the industry can seem impenetrable to newcomers, with lengthy and often opaque application processes to navigate, and a host of other graduates to compete against.

The intention is that this is a win-win for employers and employees.

Competition judge Lizi Attwood, Technical Director at Furious Bee, says the events were started to get graduates in good shape for a career in gaming, both in terms of the core skills they possess and their readiness for industry interviews and code tests.

"Every candidate who makes it through to the final stage of the competition would make an excellent addition to a game development team and to prove this point, most finalists have gone on to have excellent careers," she says. "The competition serves to give them confidence through recognition of their skills, interview practice and provide feedback on areas they can improve on."

"SFAS and similar competitions or events are the best way for exceptional new talent to highlight itself to the industry and stand out from their peers," says fellow judge Jason Fielder, CEO at GaaSworks, adding that it's the mix of raw talent and experience that make such events useful to the industry.

Both Search for a Star and Rising Star are split into two competitions each, covering code and art, though all four events follow a similar structure.

Coding students first take on a HackerRank coding test designed by Lizi Attwood, Thad Frogley of Boss Alien, and a team of industry professionals, while art students are asked to submit a portfolio piece in their chosen discipline (environment, character or animation) which is then judged by industry experts from studios such as Epic Games, Rare and Sumo Digital.

The coders chosen to carry on to round two are given a basic prototype and two weeks to develop a Windows 10 Universal App in Unity. On the art side, round two survivors are given a brief from Epic Games for use in Unreal Tournament.

Even those who don't make the final cut benefit from having a finished art piece in their portfolio or a published piece of work (40 apps were submitted to the Windows App Store this time around).

The final stage - the TV showdown in X-Factor parlance - takes place at Microsoft HQ in Reading for the coders, and the Epic Games Centre at Staffordshire University for the artists. At this stage there are 12 remaining contestants, split equally between Search for a Star and Rising Star.

The final competitions are combined with conference days attended by academics, lecturers, games studios and industry professionals, with guest speakers delivering talks on a variety of topics, including insights into recent games titles, technical walkthroughs and career advice, followed by Q&A sessions at the end.

Again, the theory is that emerging game creators pick up some real-world industry advice to go along with the fruits of their studies; on the developer side, they get to tell students what exactly they're looking for. Speakers from Unity, Autodesk, Exient, Rare and Frontier (including CEO David Braben) were at this years event.

Competition finalists also get the opportunity of mentoring sessions with members of the industry before being interviewed by a panel of judges from all over the industry, which in 2016 included representatives from Microsoft, Sumo Digital, Playground Games, Cloud Imperium and Boss Alien.

As well as a genuinely useful experience, the competitions have a proven track record for giving entrants a foot in the door too: finalists from the 2016 Search for a Star and Rising Star events have been snapped up by the likes of Frontier Developments, Cloud Imperium Games, Exient, Traveller's Tales Ltd, ASOBO Studio, Sumo Digital, Inspired Gaming Group and Boss Alien.

Yan Knoop, from NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences and winner of this year's Search For A Star Code competition, secured an internship place at Sumo Digital through the competition, for example. He says the event facilitates a "rare interaction" between students and businesses that can benefit both sides.

"For students and recent graduates, interaction with developers is vital," Knoop says, "both in giving students face-to-face links with companies, and letting employers see the kind of talent that's available."

It's a formula Aardvark Swift is keen to continue: applications for Search for a Star open in September, with details to be posted on the Grads in Games website.

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