Game Design: Scottish Curriculum

16 04 2008

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An interesting move in Scotland: Game design skills are to be taught as part of the national curriculum there.

A drop in enrolment for university computing courses has resulted in a lack of qualified computer experts when the government wants Scotland to be at the forefront of a knowledge economy. Academics believe the fall is a result of the rise and fall of the dot.com industries.

Maureen Watt, Minister for Schools and Skills, said: “There is huge confidence that Scotland will continue to play an important part in the future of video games and interactive entertainment and we are focusing on establishing firm foundations for lifelong learning and, for some, specialised study and careers.

This seems ideal. Too many courses in the UK are crap, rebranded media courses with games tacked on to sex them up and boost enrollment. Somewhere near the end of their degree, it dawns on the third year students that they have no decent CS training and will probably not be able to get a job working in the industry.

It’s not in the interests of rubbish media courses to expose the nature of game development to prospective students, but “Oooh! Games!” really shouldn’t be such a big part of the decision making process for something as important as a university. Bad games courses are irresponsible with regard to student’s futures and the reputations of institutions.

A bad games degree can be rescued by a disciplined master’s degree, but few students follow that path. Given the age at which most of the UK’s bedroom programmers started to learn to code, it seems a very good idea to expose game development to people much earlier, thus letting kids either get it out of their system at an early age, or learn that they love games and will put in what they need to to become developers.

(Image from Wear Science!)

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Yorkshire Games Academy

12 07 2007

Tax credits are one thing, but a regional games academy is a hugely positive step in aligning government, academic and commercial institutions around game development. Taking this further into a national centre of excellence would be a massive boost to UK game dev.

Yorkshire’s Bradford, Hull and Sheffield Hallam universities have teamed up to create what they say is an answer to the UK’s talent drought – the Game Republic Academy.

Regional screen agency Screen Yorkshire and local games development trade association Game Republic have committed £120,000 for the Game Republic Academy scheme to run for two years. The programme provides sponsorship opportunities for burgeoning developers across the globe to study for a masters in games development in the region.

The Academy boasts work experience opportunities and is backed by local developers Rockstar, Team 17 and Sumo Digital. Each will employ the students involved during summer periods and allow them to carry out their final year projects at their studios.





ELSPA’s new role in UK development

31 01 2007

Earlier this month ELSPA published its manifesto for 2007, revealing plans to modernise the organisation and work more closely with members.

The move comes less than six months after Paul Jackson took over from Roger Bennett as ELSPA director general. Jackson, who formerly worked at Electronic Arts and has been a member of the ELSPA board for more than 12 years, took on the role in August last year.

Following the recent announcement, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Jackson to find out more about what needs to change at ELSPA and what challenges the organisation now faces – plus how it will attempt to tackle piracy following the closure of the Evesham office and several investigator redundancies.

full interview here.

Highlights:
When announcing the changes, you stated that ELSPA wants to engage more with the industry. What does this mean?

I think we need to engage more clearly and effectively with our members. The industry has grown rapidly and we need to make sure that we’re meeting and talking with everybody – so it’s not just the board and I who are deciding what ELSPA does.

We also need to engage much more fully in two areas. Firstly in the political arena – we’ve started this process but we need to develop it more aggressively, not just with Government ministers but with shadow spokespeople and Lib Dem spokespeople.

We need to understand where the political consensus is going and be able to affect the political consensus going forward.

Shaun Woodward, the minister for creative industries and tourism, has been in the news recently saying that we should have a “games academy” to train people up. However, some people in the industry have questioned whether there’s a need for such an institution. Where does ELSPA stand?.

At the moment we’re seeking opinion within the industry. There’s a need to make sure that we have a strong and effective pool of talent to keep our development studios fully staffed – that we have enough talent coming through.

We’re not sure what the best way might be of doing that or if there’s a consensus about it. So we’re trying to understand what the industry consensus is and we’re trying to work with Shaun to find out what the best course of action is.

To summarise, what are ELSPA’s key goals now? Where does the organisation need to go next?

There are two key things I want to achieve over the next three years. I want to ensure that the agency is fully engaged in all those areas that a mature entertainment industry is engaged. I want to make sure we’re engaged in the political debate, the public arena; I want to make sure that we’ve got strong industry cultural events ns that will enable us to show our full worth.

Secondly, I want to make sure that ELSPA itself is very professionally organised and ready to help support the industry in all of those things.





EA, Frontier and others question ‘games academy’ idea

12 01 2007

As reported by DevelopMag

Tiga loves it, EA doesn’t – MP Shaun Woodward’s suggestion that UK studios form an academy for games developers has ignited sector chatter, but opinions clash over the idea’s worth. Last week, Woodward told the Financial Times that the best way for the UK games industry to secure fresh talent “is to move into the hot seat itself; to come to the government and say ‘we want to put some money into an academy’.”

He described a ‘school for geeks’ that would not only serve graduates and students but also encourage young gamers “traditionally” left out of higher education to consider a career in games production as well.

Yesterday, development association Tiga stepped up to applaud Woodward’s headline-grabbing suggestion, which was in fact spurred by a meeting between the two in July ’06.

Tiga and its CEO Fred Hasson wants to see the industry put together an academy-style Centre of Excellence and has conducted research into the issue.

Explained Hasson: “The industry is crying out for more suitably skilled people to enter the sector. Skills needed to cope with the next-gen transition to larger studios and changing patterns of production are needed now. There are potential gains to be made by looking at how techniques and know-how from other closely related industries can inform the way we develop product. These are the issues we are exploring with companies and partners.”

A similar idea is also being put together by computer game and digital media agency Pixel-Lab, which according to managing director Toby Barnes is “further reaching than a ‘school for geeks'” and “would work along side the countries excellent post graduate courses and would develop a sustainable future for UK development”.

PERCEPTION PROBLEMS
However, the already-established and fast-growing games education sector has been left a little puzzled by Woodward’s outcry. From their point of view, such teaching is already available in the UK via established colleges and universities – and the idea of sending out a message that all gamers might make it in academia is mistaken.

“There has always been a perception among the ill-informed that someone who spends a lot of time playing games must be able to make them. There is obviously no link between the amount of time someone spends watching TV and their potential for a career in the BBC, so why are games seen as any different?” said Dr Jon Purdy of Hull University’s Games Programming MSc.

“I would suggest that there is a very good correlation between excellence in traditional academic subjects and suitability for employment in the games industry, just as there is in all technically demanding, creative and highly profitable industries.”

Purdy told Develop that numbers for the course are already falling due to lack of studio support, and that Woodward’s suggesting private sector money fund a games academy is a short-sighted. Instead the opposite is needed: “The only thing that suffers when specialist masters’ level games graduate numbers fall is the games industry. If the Government or games industry don’t give some assistance to the students wanting to do masters’ courses, like ours, there will be very few graduates entering the games industry from these courses in the near future.”

Meanwhile Electronic Arts UK, which runs a successful Universities program, has blasted everything about Woodward’s suggestion, from the use of the word ‘geek’ through to the fundamentals of the idea itself.

“As an industry the sooner we can shake off the perception that our companies are staffed by geeks the better. Geeks conjure up the image of social outcasts, nerdy disfunctionals who live for their work,” explained Matthew Jeffery, head of European studio recruitment.

“The games sector is not in the midst of a talent crisis. Those touting this are obviously not creative in the way they are seeking to attract candidates and they need to focus on attracting talent not only from within the gaming industry but outside of it. With the appeal of Next Generation gaming we can attract the best talent from our finest universities, from film, TV, music, mobile, IT hardware and software, FMCG, retail and defence industries, to name but a few areas where great talent is.”

Jeffery explained that traditional graduates are EA UK’s priority for its recruitment plans in 2007, with the publisher-developer hoping to make sure over 30 per cent of its studio hires this year are graduates.

SHOW US THE MONEY

Some independent studios in the UK remain unconvinced as well, with Frontier boss David Braben telling Develop: “I would be wary of any special interest group running education. On the art side, our prime competitor for staff as an industry is the film business. On the programming side our prime competitor is probably the finance industry.

“We are simply looking for good solid candidates who are very good in their respective fields, with a broad knowledge of the associated disciplines – the knowledge we require is not particularly specialist. It is these good solid candidates that are hardest to find.

“Universities have been going downhill as they dumb down to attempt to meet the government’s ridiculous targets of 50 per cent ‘university’ attendance – resultant computer science graduates, for example, no longer have the knowledge they need, like basic maths.”

Another UK independent studio executive, which dubbed Woodward’s idea as ‘a games version of Hogwarts’, pointed out that it might be hard to get studios behind such a privately-funded venture because they would want assurances that they could cherry-pick the best students once they finished studies.

But there are already comparable establishments with games-exclusive teaching elsewhere in the world, if they are rare. Centre NAD in Montreal bills itself as ‘a finishing school for developers’ by offering an art and animation design course, while Germany is host to a Games Academy which has around 100 students learning games art, programming and level design – it even offers courses for would-be producers. Both of these schools are privately run from funds generated by tuition fees and donations.

And it’s money of course that will prove the main test for such an idea in the UK. Explained Tiga’s Hasson: “The key issue will be willingness to pay. We are working on the basis that few will want to put in funds for general training at present so that what we are doing now is investigating potential partners willing to pump prime this process, and developers willing to work with others.”





Developing a UK centre of excellence for videogame development

7 01 2007

In 1933 the British Film Institute or BFI as it is now known was created to promote greater understanding, appreciation, access and support for the film and television industries in the UK. Its main aims were to encourage public appreciation of film, advise educators, carry out research and act as a mediator between industry, teachers and their audiences. In 2007 we are in a very similar position with the UK videogame industry and the time is right to take this opportunity and create a future for growth.

For the last two years Pixel-Lab has been lobbying government, working with regional development agencies and most importantly industry to create a centre of excellence (physical or virtual) that would build upon this countries excellence in game development and provide a sustainable future. Last week Shawn Woodward called for a school for geeks . We should not be looking at industry for the first steps – the major players in this country are American or Japanaese and are indifferent about where their talent stems. We have a number of UK players who are committed to the UK continuing its development excllence but we need more than this. The first steps need to come from government. A new industry needs supporting, it needs catclysts and it needs to be led. There is a demand from industry for higher skilled workforce, for investment in technology, and for more smaller new companies to be formed, and we need to develop the supply of organizations who can create these.

Seventy years after their foundation, the BFI continues to develop new audiences and filmakers with a passion for cinema. They are proud of their expertise and knowledge and while building on their reputation as the guardian of film past, they are championing the very latest in cinema technology and working with young filmmakers to understand British Cinema.

The BGI will sit at the epicentre of videogaming incubation, research and teaching. By creating a dynamic environment for growth the BGI will provide the catalyst for creating a mature future for videogame development, one the UK deserves. If one word will encapsulate the work of the BGI, it is passion – a passion for videogames and videogame culture in all its forms. To an outsider looking in, the BGI’s passion for games will be obvious. The BGI will be the guardian and champion of videogaming in this country.
If further supported how much additional impact could the games industry have on the GDP of UK plc?
How much is being spent on games courses in academia with no central lead?
How are regional development agencies making up their own strategies with little conversation between them, and a lack of centralized support?
How will the UK ensure it’s heritage in videogames is developed?
How will the UK continue to innovate and develop its creativity?
With US and Japanese publishers buying up UK development studios at a rapid pace and those independent studios who are left working in an environment that will only allow the very strong to survive, who will offer a haven for independent content creators?
A centre of excellence is the anwnser to these questions and many more.
• A campus of new and established game companies equiped with all the tools needed to survive and grow over the next few years.
o The centre will create a pool of talented, experienced individuals with a real portfolio of game that developers and publishers will snap up on graduation. This will follow the model provided by the London Film School, New York film School, RADA, or the ARRTS centre in the UK;
• The incubated companies will have access to good students for in-house projects; The opportunity to influence the formation of the next generation of games engineers;
• Input and access to leading-edge research;
o Joint ownership of intellectual property (IP) arising from the Centre and the opportunity to develop it for subsequent wealth generation;
o Obvious publicity benefits, such as visibility at conferences, in academic papers and press coverage;

Along with the growing significance of computer gaming in the UK – both with regards to its cultural impact on society as well as regarding its economic importance to UK plc. – emerges the need to facilitate a multitude of relationships, support programmes and information exchanges. For example:
• As government learns about the economic promise of a thriving games sector it needs to understand how best to support the industry;
• Independent developers require up-skilling in many areas ranging from basic management skills to learning about newest industry trends in the UK and abroad;
• Computer games is a new industry that requires investment and support services;
• Global publishers and small developers require a forum that facilitates information exchange between the two groups; and
• Children, parents, government and companies all need to better understand how players interact with computer games content.

In the UK, the games industry is not primarily based in London but in the UK regions and nations. The Midlands, North East, and the South East all boost an impressive list of computer games companies. This uncommon decentralisation of the sector provides a chance to establish a sector support organisation with national reach and ambition in one of the nations and regions and to support government’s drive to foster economic and cultural development outside the capital.

In short, in the games sector, there is a real argument to be made for the establishment of an institution similar to the British Film Institute – an organisation which fosters sector culture and advances the understanding and literacy of industry practitioners, government and citizens. Moreover, as recently established media support organisations such as FACT in Liverpool have increasingly started to gap the bridge between cultural support and business support, there is an argument to be made for equipping a “Games Institute” with business and management support and training remit.





BGi becomes a reality

5 01 2007

After 3 years of Pixel-Lab campaigning and discusing the BGI (UK Games Academy) Ministers are starting to talk about it.

The creative industries minister Shaun Woodward has called for developers to solve the problems facing recruiters by forming an academy to educate those looking to get into the games industry. Speaking to the Financial Times today, he said that the “best way for the video games industry to have the talent and the skills it wants is to move into the hot seat itself; to come to the government and say ‘we want to put some money into an academy’.”

What he called a “school for geeks” would not only target those looking to get into games but those usually left out by traditional academia: “You might have kids who traditionally have quite a difficult time coping with traditional academic subjects but happen to be the most amazing gamers… you have to look very creatively at the kind of educational background you want.”

“They’re now recognising that ‘actually we’re huge, maybe we need to build our own institutional bricks’,” the minister added of the games academy. “You see television and films schools but we don’t have a video-games school. Why not? Because [the sector] is so new. And yet we’re the third largest manufacturer in the world.”

Woodward said he was confident that there would be private sector support for the theorised initiative – although he was not pressed further on whether the support would be from developers, publishers, or third party financers.

A number of studios around the world already have links to established universities and colleges, and EA even has its own EA University program, however there is no such dedicated games academy such as the London Film School, for instance.