Dare to be Digital is probably the most highly-regarded event in the games and education part of the industryâ??s yearly and busy calendar. We speak to Paul Durrant of organiser Abertay University to look back at how the competition has united the industry and discuss what lies in its futureâ?¦If someone had told you a decade ago that by 2008 British games software companies would have united to contribute to an educational initiative that promotes getting new talent into the games industry, you may well have believed them. But perhaps not the extent of such a scheme’s effect. Because in the past ten years Dare to be Digital has arguably become one of the de facto events that underlines where education and games overlap, and positively contributes back to the industry.
Organised by Abertay University, the event tasks small groups of students to, in just two months, produce a game from initial concept to working prototype. During the competition, the entrants get feedback and mentoring from participating studios.
Since its first iteration as an internal Abertay event in 1999 through to its status today, as a UK-wide challenge that also invites teams from India and China to take part – as well as boasting a big cash investment from Channel 4 – the goal had always been to help facilitate progress in the games education field, but the groundswell of support for the program has surprised even the organisers, who have managed its steady growth.
“The response has been tremendous – there aren’t many developers we knock on the doors of who aren’t prepared to put some time to it, and their time is precious as it is,” says Abertay’s director of business development Paul Durrant, who has worked on Dare to be Digital since its inception. “It’s unique in terms of the way the industry has come together – obviously they come together in trade associations, but this is different in that it is hands-on and they have to roll up their sleeves and muck in.”
Of course, much interest comes from the fact it gets studios close to prospective employees.
Explains Durrant: “A high proportion of it is interest in talent development – that’s a key factor. Of course, while a lot of the studios have very sophisticated recruitment practices, the graduate recruitment rate isn’t actually that high. Working with Dare means that they get the chance to test the graduate before hiring them – almost without employing them – which is appealing, especially for those who want a rounded graduate to sit well in their team.”
But the quality of entrants means Dare has a real watermark standard amongst recruiters as well. “There’s a classic quote from people we speak to, which is ‘When a CV has Dare on it they go to the top of the pile’,” adds Durrant.
In recent years the competition has advanced greatly, including plenty of support from public agencies and broadcast firms, regional host centres alongside the one run at Abertay and international students – the latter of which has helped promote Dare’s status as an incubator of talent out to the rest of the world.
“The international element speaks a great deal to the quality of talent we bring in. Last year’s Chinese team were BAFTA nominees, and now all of that team are now working for Microsoft China,” explains Durrant. “The international dimension helped bring in people who wouldn’t normally get seen in the usual recruitment cycle.”
And although last year Abertay hosted the international teams, “many host centres have indicated they would take on an international team each as well,” adds Durrant.
At the same time, Durrant and the Dare team have two other projects this year. One of these is the Dare Serious Games strand, which is a pilot round of the competition looking soley serious games, hosted at the University of the West of Scotland. There other is Dare 360, which pushes the boundary further by seeing how Dare can be applied to non-games formats in the converged content sector.
Plus, for 2009, Durant is looking at further improving Dare, telling us he’s working on a model that will “really open up the opportunity to any team anywhere to participate”, incorporating a major sponsor and multiple regional stakeholder groups.
DARED TO BE DIFFERENT
But whatever grander aspirations the contest organisers may have, Durrant makes it clear that the core of the event, to promote and encourage people to learn more about the making of games and get students closer to studios, remains key.
Last year’s competition saw the first ProtoPlay exhibition following the event, running alongside the Edinburgh Interactive Festival and then later in the year at London. The event, which showcases the entrants’ games, has since been taken on tour. It’s proven to be an invaluable way to give the public – of all ages – a glimpse of what the industry is capable of.
“Imagine if in two or three years we are showcasing fifty or sixty prototypes of new games made by young teams, put together under specific criteria and deadlines. There’s nothing like that in the game industry which can help demonstrate all that talent,” says Durrant. The fact that all the ideas are essentially new IPs isn’t lost on him, either – it’s certainly not lost on spectators within the industry.
“People are still interested in it, and there are talks and discussions going on about those properties and what might become of them,” says Durrant.
Obviously, they are just prototypes: although often beloved by the competition’s judges and those who sample them, there is still a jump needed to make them commercially ready, which Durrant makes clear. But the spark of creativity and quality they represent is important, not just for those with an eye on emerging talent sources, but the wider industry. Adds Durrant: “I think there is a significant interest in those games to, in time, create a chance for some great British games to come out of Dare.”