Tackling the Talent Shortage: Identifying the Skills Critical for Game Development

by Alexander DiLeonardo - Chief Talent Officer on Sep 29, 2022

Editor's Note: Today, 104 newly minted game developers graduate from Level Up U (LUU), Activision Blizzard’s in-house bootcamp to train and develop talent for engineering roles. The core components of the 12-week program include technical training, game development 101, teamwork and collaboration skills, culminating with the students presenting Capstone projects. Upon graduation, these engineers will start new roles supporting the company’s franchises. 

Alex DiLeonardo is Activision Blizzard’s Chief Talent Officer and one of the architects of this program.

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Creating some of the world’s most iconic interactive entertainment requires exceptional talent across a broad range of fields.  In these fields – whether it’s computer engineering, design, art and animation, production, analytics, or corporate leadership – that talent is scarce.  In game engineering, for example, there are at any given time 30-50 thousand open positions globally, multiples more than the number of qualified people applying for those positions. 

The view for job seekers is just as daunting: Hundreds of thousands of passionate applicants each year attempt to find roles in the game development industry, with only a fraction landing a home.

Additionally, across this landscape there is a salient opportunity to advance diversity.  For example, women make up only 24% of roles in gaming, lagging the broader technology and media spaces.

The industry’s legacy recruiting practices, which have focused on experience over raw skill, make it difficult to address talent demand/supply imbalances or shift the makeup of the workforce.  We recognized that something needed to change.

Which skills are critical to game development?

We approached the challenge by first focusing on an area where we are growing extensively and that is critical to the success of our games – engineering.  Our next step was to develop a fact-based profile of what a high-performing engineer looks like.  Through a series of interviews with our technical leaders and a little analytics magic, we narrowed in on a set of critical skills and critical experiences.  In terms of skills, we found programming, DevOps tools, game engines, and collaboration/management to be most important.  In terms of experiences, we found an educational background in computer science and previous game development roles to be most important.

As part of this exercise, we busted a few myths along the way, identifying characteristics that mattered less than we thought or only mattered in select contexts.  For example, we found that most engineering job descriptions in gaming called for graphics skills but fewer than a quarter of these roles used them in day-to-day practice; removing this constraint could widen the talent market by 2.9 million additional workers.  Similarly, artificial intelligence and machine learning skills are often listed in job postings but less frequently critical for success; removing this requirement could widen the market by 2.8 million workers.  In total, we found 14 skills commonly cited in engineering role specifications that weren’t broadly predictive of success.  This data has significant implications for the gaming industry: Companies who use these criteria could erroneously screen out otherwise qualified candidates or even deter those candidates from applying altogether.

We also looked at our findings through a different lens: What does matter but most limits our potential labor market?  Here, we saw that while game development experience was critical to success, it constrained our talent pool by 99%, excluding nearly 4 million workers who had all the other technical expertise needed to succeed.  This insight led us to consider what elements of the engineering job description we might hire outright versus develop ourselves.  Ultimately, we decided to select or hire for skills in programming and DevOps tools along with basic educational backgrounds in computer science, and we chose to develop skills in game engines and collaboration/management as well as provide in-house experiences or “reps” in game development.

Engineering Success Criteria

What has this new approach meant for Activision Blizzard?

With our newly calibrated hiring specifications and a tailored talent development curriculum in hand, we founded Level Up U (LUU) to accelerate opportunities in the gaming industry for individuals from diverse backgrounds.  

This program has made a positive impact on our organization.  It allowed us to scale critical talent, contributing to 25% year-over-year development headcount growth; it yielded an inaugural LUU class of 45% women, 40% underrepresented ethnic groups, and 14% existing teammates who were able to realize re-skilling and internal mobility opportunities; and it helped us deliver a holistic and integrated onboarding experience across our divisions.  

What are the implications for HR executives, the video game industry, and job seekers?

For fellow HR and business leaders across industries, we believe that this methodology can help unlock opportunities in myriad skill and functional areas.  Regardless of market cycles, there continues to be a finite set of individuals with the requisite skills to qualify for the open job positions as they are written today.  Through upskilling and reskilling, organizations have an opportunity to optimize both business and societal outcomes.

For our industry peers, we offer this approach and these findings as a rubric for how to rethink some of our most systemic talent-related challenges in gaming.  We are humbly learning, refining our own practices, and committed to sharing as we go.

For applicants, we’ve laid out a clear set of foundational skills that are important and can open the door to a career in our industry.  Low- and high-level programming languages can be self-taught or accumulated in part-time or four-year-degree educational programs.  We invite you to apply to future cohorts of LUU as well as visit our career site at any time to explore engineering opportunities.

What's next?

We are excited to continue expanding our Level Up U program in 2023, both in terms of size and disciplines.  We also plan to infuse learnings from this effort into all elements of our people management function, helping us continue building an environment where exceptional creative and technical talent can do their very best work.

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