Scotland Focus: Training the next generation of game developers

Scotland Focus: Training the next generation of game developers

By Louis Natanson

March 25th 2014 at 9:55AM

Abertay University’s head of games education reveals how to get into games development and what its course offers

How do I get a job in the games industry? It’s a question we’re asked a lot, from students finishing their undergraduate degree to primary school pupils visiting our Dare ProtoPlay games festival each August, here in Dundee.

There are lots of answers, but they all come back to one thing – getting real, practical experience of building games in a team. Companies need artists, audio engineers, designers and programmers who, as well as being highly skilled in their area, understand each other and understand the demands of working together to deliver a fantastic digital product.

And it’s something we take very, very seriously. All Abertay students get professional mentoring – they have access to over 50 companies, including Rockstar North and Sony, plus PlayStation 4 and Vita dev kits through the PlayStation First initiative. We also have the largest PlayStation Vita teaching lab in Europe.

DEVELOPER LINKS

I’ve been teaching people for the games industry since the 1980s, when Dave Jones came to Abertay to learn computer programming. Dave was an incredibly intelligent, passionate student, and he was always very open with sharing his knowledge with team members.

He is also a brilliant, inspirational game designer – which became very clear to the rest of the world when he launched Lemmings and then Grand Theft Auto – two incredible game franchises with their roots right here in Dundee, and graduates of our degree courses.

Since then, there have always been very close links between Abertay and the games industry. Developers are always dropping by to help mentor our students, and we benefit hugely from major global companies like Disney, Microsoft and Sony visiting, giving feedback on student pitching sessions, and helping us to develop our courses.

Why are these links so important? Because we like to think we take a very different approach to games education – by recreating a professional studio environment right here in the university.

All students work in open-plan areas, right next to their lecturers. Everyone freely mixes, sharing ideas, asking questions and collaborating on different game projects. It’s a really healthy, safe environment to learn how to be a game developer, whether you want to join an established company or build your own indie business.

Our Professional Masters in Games Development is the best example of this unique Abertay approach. Over 12 months, teams of students build a succession of fully working game prototypes, reporting to their ‘clients’ – our lecturers and professional industry partners.

Working in a professional studio space, the student ‘companies’ face a safe version of running a small game developer, with realistic deadlines and client briefs, access to professional dev kits, and industry-standard hardware and software.

PROFESSIONAL MASTERS

We take students from any undergraduate subject that contributes to making games, such as art (audio or visual), mathematics and computer science. It’s really competitive to get into the course because you’ll spend a year with other very bright, very motivated developers looking to break into the industry.

There’s no doubting the year is a big challenge, but it’s the closest any student will get to being part of a game studio while still studying. And it’s really important to us that young professionals get the chance to experiment, to make mistakes and learn how to work effectively in teams, before launching into their first jobs or starting their own businesses.

V&A Game Designer in Residence Sophia George completed this course before founding her studio Swallowtail Games, as did local developer Guerilla Tea who just released Cancer Research UK’s first mobile game. It’s a practical, hands-on environment for people who want to make an impact on the games industry and get noticed.

DARE TO DUNDEE

A lot of the approach on the Professional Masters in Games Development is the same as Dare to be Digital, the student game design competition we run every summer. There, students from all over the world get eight weeks to build a brand new game, with all the finished games going on show at our Dare ProtoPlay games festival in August. Competition to get into Dare is fierce.

Studying the Professional Masters is like doing Dare to be Digital three times, back-to-back, with the opportunity for a huge amount of personal and professional development from one dev cycle to the next.

And it all comes back to teams with different skills – art, audio, design and programming – coming together, sharing ideas, and creating something completely new. What matters most to potential employers, investors and business partners is what you’ve delivered.

How many games have you finished? Which companies did you work with? If you want a professional portfolio and professional contacts, we think Abertay is the place to be, right at the heart of Dundee’s development community.

www.abertay.ac.uk

[This feature was published in the March 2014 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad. Watch out for more features on Scottish games development throughout this week.]