by Arend Stührmann, co-dev producer at Ubisoft Stockholm
Apprenticeships have been how the next generation of tradespeople have been educated for generations. Learning the practical side of their craft from master tradespeople, apprentices get their hands-on training supplemented by theoretical learning in a trade school. I’d like to make the case for why the production discipline in video games should be treated as an apprenticeship, rather than a university degree course. Why is the production craft in video games so suited to this model? Because a large percentage of the work is based on smart skills (nee ‘soft skills’) that one cannot learn from a book, seminar, or degree course.
Similar to how an apprentice learns how to skilfully apply a tool to material, producers have to learn hard skills related to project methodologies, product management, data analysis, and business principles. They must learn how to adapt these tools to projects at different stages of the project life cycle. But mastering the production craft also means developing smart skills in people management, business communication, mentoring, conflict resolution, interpersonal interactions, and more.
Traditionally, the games development industry has relied on other entry-level positions within QA, customer support, or games design as an on-ramp for individuals who may have an interest in the production craft. These individuals are often then thrust into associate positions and expected to learn their craft as they go, with minimal structure and varying levels of support. So why not have this learning take place over three years that are clearly identified as a learning period? A period during which the apprentice earns a salary, is given real-life responsibilities appropriate to their learning goals, and can draw on the advice and guidance from someone who has developed the skills to a high level themselves.
Theoretical learning of hard skills can be achieved by regular attendance at an institution of higher learning, for which time is allocated well in advance. Production apprentices can present their learnings to others in the production team at regular intervals, starting discussions that support the on-going development of the whole team. Throughout this time, the apprentice earns a salary, which can be raised in increments as they pass exams and career milestones.
After three years, the company will have a new producer in their team, familiar with the workflows of the company and the best practices of the production craft. Meanwhile, experienced producers will have managed a direct report providing valuable assistance in running the project. All this will have happened within a framework that actively requires engagement with the learning process and provides regular touchpoints to monitor progress. This approach can be open to anyone, from young adults just leaving secondary education to people who have relevant skills from related industries considering a career change.
There are of course a myriad of edge cases and logistical challenges involved in implementing this approach. Who decides what the content of an apprentice’s theoretical curriculum should be? Do experienced producers even have the time or motivation for such an approach? Regardless of the questions, as an industry that pushes the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to creativity and technology, I feel we can direct some of that problem solving energy into improving the way the next generation of producers learns their craft.