Next-gen and games education

Next-gen and games education
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

April 25th 2013 at 10:00AM

Develop speaks to experts about what the new era of consoles will mean for education

[This feature was published in the April edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

The arrival of a new games system still produces an energy like nothing else.

It’s a chance to take a leap forward, and to inspire those who may one day become the games designers of the future.

Right now, of course, the games industry, particularly in the UK, is in desperate need of fresh talent. A report by the Next Gen Skills council earlier this year warned that the UK’s skills gap is continuing to widen, with a little over 3,400 A-level students choosing to study computing in the 2011/12 academic year.

With Sony’s PlayStation 4 on the way, as well as a new Xbox, what affect, if any, can we expect these new games systems to have on games education?

Coding standards

In recent times, consoles have been criticised for struggling to widen the gaming audience. Smartphones and tablets, and the billions of apps available to users, have stolen the entertainment spotlight from the traditional, purpose-built platforms.

Yet, it’s these mobile platforms – the architecture behind them and the thinking that goes into creating the pick up and play mobile experiences that have become a hit with millions – that Andy Thomason, lecturer in computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, believes is going to change next-gen consoles for the better.

“These new consoles are going to have a lot more cores so [students] can do multithreaded programming and embrace multi-core architecture,”  says Thomason. “That’s true on all platforms, even mobile. The Vita has a four-core CPU, for example.”

Multi-core processing is one factor that’s made the mobile devices in our pockets so much more powerful. The flexibility of programming languages such as Java and C# has made them popular for mobile OS and web-based games development, and Thomason foresees similar movement so far as games courses and next-gen consoles are concerned.

“We’re moving to games that are almost 100 per cent script-based, such as Unity, Flash or HTML5 games. These have got a much higher script content than the games of the 1980s,” he says.

“In ways, the web is the new Sinclair Spectrum. People can pick up web programming very rapidly a make something work. And I like to think people are using web programming to learn the kind of fun programming that we learned back in the 1980s and ‘90s.”

Thomason anticipates dynamic languages like JavaScript becoming more important in the future, and suggests that the “low-level skills” students learn on mobile platforms are just as applicable to consoles.

An educated guess

There’s certainly no shortage of university games courses encouraging their students to experiment with devices such as iPhones and Raspberry Pi computers.

But a common complaint from computer science tutors is that technology is constantly moving faster than the curriculums can keep pace with.

Creative Skillset is the UK’s industry-led accreditation body that recognises courses that best prepare students for work in the creative industries. The body’s ‘Tick’ kitemark indicates to students and employers that the skills and knowledge taught on the course match those required by industry.

There are now 18 accredited computer games courses in the UK, which have each undergone inspection by development professionals from SCEE, Ubisoft, Blitz and others, reviewing areas including graduate employment, work experience and links with the industry itself.

Saint John Walker is Creative Skillset’s head of development, and his team leads the accreditation assessments for computer games courses.

“Good courses are flexible enough to have coped with such paradigm shifts before – some had to adapt to the advent of PS3 and Xbox 360 and more recently Android, iOS and Kinect,” offers Walker.

“It helps that Sony has always been pro-active about advising and supporting our accredited courses, rather than seeing them as a revenue source. We’ve always been impressed with Sony’s engagement with trying to ensure the best UK courses continue to improve.”

The courses that have shown a high-level of quality engagement with industry, he adds, will no doubt be in discussion with their industry partners about the implications for their curriculum that PS4 may bring.

Under the hood

Much has been made of PS4’s ‘PC-like architecture’ and the perceived accessibility it will mean for developers. Further to Thomason’s comment about dynamic languages being an important focus for courses, he suspects that there will be some attention to make programming easier on PS4, and points to the steps Sony has taken with PlayStation Mobile as an indicator.

PlayStation Mobile is not unlike an XNA for mobiles and tablets. It allows anyone from its 11 available countries to register as a PSM developer. Those looking to publish their wares to the wider world can pay the annual publishing licence fee – £65, €80 or $99 – which is comparable to what Apple and other third-party publishing vendors charge.

In the classroom environment, PSM gives students the means to experiment right away on the platform, helping them to gain confidence and move up the skill tree faster.

“They’ll probably extend this PlayStation Mobile platform to the console as well, so people can tinker with it,” Thomason predicts.

How exactly Sony plans to approach education in light of its new platform and the changes games development is going through won’t be clear for some time. One woman who will be at the forefront of this though is PlayStation’s head of academic game development Maria Stukoff, whose academic partnership programme works with universities to help students gain the skills needed to master the PlayStation platforms.

“PlayStation First is all about fostering the next generation of PlayStation-savvy developers. Through our unique dev kit programme we aim to respond to the ever changing digital entertainment landscape and provide talent access to the newest and best games development tools to explore and innovate with PlayStation technology,” explains Stukoff.

“Through our partnership programme, we ensure that PlayStation tools are integrated into course curriculum and we impart best practices to students to develop games across all PlayStation platforms,” she adds.

Console complexities

Expect there to be more analysis of PS4’s technical specifications and what they mean for games development in Develop in future.

Right now, though, we asked Skillset’s Walker whether PS4, and other next-gen platforms, could end up producing new complexities for games education.

“It will depend on two factors,” he says, in response. “Firstly, student expectation. With the increase in fees and a system where students are encouraged to shop for courses like consumers, it may be they demand access to PS4, assuming, in our view wrongly, games education is all about the latest kit. The second factor will be Sony’s approach to the best universities, allowing tutors access to make up their minds on how they might incorporate such a development.

“Complexities could emerge around the type of games that might become popular on the PS4. We’ll need open-minded students who aren’t scared to try out new genres that take advantage of the 8GB of RAM and a x86 processor, like open world gaming, new social connectivity or cross-media genres we haven’t envisaged yet.”

Taking it back to programming, Walker is clear about the bare minimum students should learn, and will continue to need for the coming games platforms: “Certainly C++, the mainstay of our games programming courses, is here to stay. For our accredited courses, we have a range of criteria our industry assessors – including SCEE games people – look for in a course. It’s not just about the kit; we look for solid maths ability, skills in fundamentals of compilation and optimisation strategies.”­­

More than graphics

It’s too early to tell just how PS4 will impact games education or indeed how tomorrow’s students, with their knowledge of mobile and the web, will acclimatise to the system.

As for the next Xbox, we’ll have to see what Microsoft has in store. Although, recent decisions, such as ending support for its XNA development toolset, aren’t the actions of a platform holder that has games education high on the agenda for its next console.

Much of the focus in the current generation has revolved around resolution and graphics, with games such as Heavy Rain celebrated for tapping the uncanny valley. That’s not what we can expect from the next generation, our experts say.

To take projects from concept to completion, Andy Thomason predicts that a major factor will be how robust the network aspects are.

“If you can make something fairly quickly, you can prototype it and put it up on PlayStation Network, and that thing can be seen by many people, and that’s going to be a good route into games development for aspiring games developers,” he says.

And Walker too, believes that it will be the connectivity between the next generation consoles and other devices that will define what they mean for academia and industry.

“If the new PS4 does make it easier to develop, as claimed, then that will mean more students will choose it. But, as opposed to the current-gen where the obsession was with graphics, this time it may well be about the social aspect of such connectivity,” Walker concludes.­­