Earlier this month, thousands of people flocked to Cambridge – but well over 100 of those had no interest in visiting the Tour De France.
Instead, 135 games development and design students made their way to the city’s Anglia Ruskin University for the annual Brains Eden Gaming Festival. Now in its sixth year, the event has become far more than the 48-hour development contest it is centred around, offering participants the chance to learn directly from industry professionals, win internships at notable studios and more.
The result is a weekend that more than lives up to the technological heritage the city enjoys.
“Some of the big names in the games industry are based here in Cambridge,” explained Deborah Hayden, Creative Front coordinator (pictured far right). “With studios like Guerrilla, Jagex, Frontier and PlayStation First based here, it’s an opportunity for them to get together and see what students across the UK and Europe are studying and producing and to see the next generation of talent. It’s also an opportunity for students to showcase their work to these studios. Brains Eden brings these two groups together.”
Brains Eden is co-funded by VIVID, which stands for Value Increase by Visual Design. Project manager Kat von Glos (right) said: “We’re all about stimulating the creative industries, and helping graduates with their routes into employment.
“So we co-fund the festival and bring our partners here from across Northern Europe – hence NHTV and some of the universities that are here. It fits with the goal of our cross-European venture to help with this sort of event.”
With studios like Guerrilla, Jagex, Frontier and PlayStation First based here, it’s an opportunity for them to get together and see what students across the UK and Europe are studying and producing and to see the next generation of talent.
The result is an impressively diverse cohort of students taking part in the competition. This year’s intake of 135 aspiring games designers – split into 26 teams for the game jam itself – hail from such far-flung lands as France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.
There was even a Canadian team taking part in Brains Eden 2014, marking the first time the event has gone truly international – a development that greatly pleased Games Eden chair and Gameware Europe director Jeremy Cooke.
“It’s really excellent news,” he said. “They did a radio interview with me on BBC Cambridge the day Brains Eden began. They’re happy to be here in Cambridge, they’re having a good time and enjoying everything the city has to offer.
“We’re bringing the very best creative talent from Europe and hopefully the entire planet to look at what’s going on in the digital creative industries here in the UK. So we are looking to shine the spotlight on our local digital creative talent and get students engaged with their prospective employers.”
So what is it that attracts talent from such a distance? Hayden hopes that it is the reputation Brains Eden has built since its first iteration in 2008.
“Because it’s been running for six years, Brains Eden has become known for being successful for students that take part because they establish links with studios,” she said. “Some of them secure internships, which in some cases have led to full-time employment.”
Certainly, the non-UK students visiting the university seemed pleased to find an event that would offer them such opportunities and experience.
“Our headmaster told us about this event, and it sounded interesting to us in terms of what we could learn and the experience we could gain,” explained Ines, 19 (pictured left, in middle), a member of French team of three ‘The Froggies’ from Supinfogame Rubika.
“A guy from Guerrilla Cambridge gave a very helpful workshop on level design and how to do realistic cinematics in video games. He gave us some tips, which were very interesting. I don’t know if there’s an event like this in France, but it’s always interesting to go to events like this, to meet people from different cultures.”
Her teammate Gautier, 22 (left), agreed: “It’s a good way to improve your English. We’re hoping to have a good time, make friends and get more information on the industry.”
Daniel, 24, from Swedish team ‘The No Brainers’, said: “It seems like an exciting game jam, and a good way to meet new people from around the world. We’re keen to see what we can produce in a weekend. My team had a brainstorming session before we came to work out what mechanics we have done before, to see what we’re comfortable with, and hopefully we’ll have the chance to apply that.”
CALLING IN THE EXPERTS
While the game jam itself is centred around a weekend, a 48-hour period in which teams are challenged to create a game from scratch, Brains Eden actually kicks off the day before.
Friday, July 4th saw Anglia Ruskin University host workshops from local studios, including Killzone: Mercenary developer Guerrilla Cambridge and electronics giant ARM. The support of these firms lends even more credence to Brains Eden’s efforts to establish itself as more than just a game jam.
Meanwhile, UKIE ran a series of speed surgeries: 20-minute slots during which students could gain insight from key industry players, ranging from designers and artists to programmers.
“The studios that we partner with are some of the largest studios in the world, with some of the biggest names,” said VIVID’s Kat von Glos. “Students can come to Cambridge, which is a beautiful city with a lot of technology already here, and get the chance to be in front of these studios. It’s good for the studios as well, as they get the chance to meet new talent from around the world.”
Hayden added: “A lot of the big name studios get to meet the students and see what’s being taught at university level. It’s a chance for the studios to feedback to the educational establishments about what they need skills-wise.”
“We have such great involvement from these studios. They’re on board from the beginning, and their support is invaluable to the success of the festival. We also have support from BAFTA in the form of our Friday evening symposium, which gives Brains Eden access to some of the biggest names in the industry. So students are not only producing a game in 48 hours, they have so many opportunities to meet studios and potential employers.”
The Symposium, a two-hour collection of speeches and presentations, offered words of encouragement from Cambridge’s Member of Parliament Julian Huppert and pearls of wisdom from familiar industry faces, such as Mastertronic’s Andy Payne (pictured top) and ‘Thomas Was Alone’ creator Mike Bithell (bottom) – both of whom were proud to help the new talent taking part in the jam.
“I think it’s important to try one’s best to help up and coming talent who have clearly got an interest in the wonderful video games business,” said Payne.
“A lot of them are going to find ways into the industry anyway, but it’s important to help signpost the opportunities that are there and offer fatherly or uncle-y words of advice.”
Bithell added: “It’s absolutely certain that anyone making games will make hundreds and hundreds of mistakes in their career. If we all tell each other about those mistakes, we’ll be able to help new talent avoid them.
“So I try to get students as quickly as possible to tell them about all the stupid stuff that I’ve done in the hopes that they may not fall into the exact same traps that I’ve done.”
Representatives from the various studios that support Brains Eden even offer their services as mentors for the game jam itself. In fact, this year saw the return of 2013’s winners ‘Breathing Bits’ from NHTV of Applied Sciences.
Stepping up to a mentor role this year was Nils Ruisch, Mark Scheurwater, Robert van Duursen and Michel Paulissen from Dutch university NHTV of Applied Sciences. Not only have they won the Brains Eden game jam previously, but four of the team members have also secured internships through both the contacts they made and the event’s Careers Clinics.
“I did an internship with Guerrilla Cambridge for a month and during that time I found out they were running art tests to look for environment artist,” said Ruisch. “I asked if I could do it, so during the last week of my internship, they allowed me to try it, saw the result and offered me a job.”
Scheurwater, who now works full-time at EA DICE, added: “It’s hard for a programmer to get into the industry, so getting the contacts here at Brains Eden’s Careers Clinics really helps. You get great information about how to improve your portfolio.
This year, they were able to take the experiences they had gained from Brains Eden, other game jams and their first years of employment to offer support and advice to those tackling the 48-hour challenge for the first time.
“It’s really hard,” Scheurwater warned. “With only 48 hours to make a game, you have so many design ideas and so much stuff goes wrong, and you don’t really have time for that. We’ve done nine or ten game jams, and being able to relax for a change is really cool, and it means we can help the other students, share the knowledge that we gained and the failures that we had.”
Ruisch added: “I heard people talking about narrative and stuff like that – things you really don’t need on a game jam. I think it’s nice to be able to talk to these people and stress that they should be making a game, and help them with all the mistakes we used to make.”
A TOUGH TWO DAYS
To many Develop readers, the prospect of a game jam is nothing new. Many studios host internal ones to let employees take a breather from their current projects and try something new. But for the students at Brains Eden, it’s a far more daunting challenge.
Thanks to Anglia Ruskin University, they have computer labs, accommodation and even a restaurant close to hand – everything they need to survive two days of intensive games development. On the morning of Saturday, July 5th, participants were given this year’s theme – ‘Unequal’ – and then challenged to have a finished game ready to present by the end of the following day.
The results were impressive. Teams were able to interpret the theme however they wanted, leading to a wonderfully diverse range of finished prototypes. Projects included defence titles, endless runners, puzzle games, and some even more unusual titles – including one in which players make a series of moral choices in how to deal with the dilemmas of two or more characters, before seeing the result of their decisions.
One title, ‘Llama Llama Dog’ – which actually came in second place – was a multiplayer console game in which one player controls a coyote charged with keeping llamas within a circular pen while the other plays a llama that has to encourage the rest of the herd to escape.
Llama Llama Dog was created by Howest University team, ‘The Interns’ (pictured left), another team of previous winners from Belgium. Despite their aforementioned victory, the team still found it tough to cram production into just two days.
“It was great, it was a lot of fun,” said team member Emiel De Paep. “We did have some trouble at the start but I think we got into it quite fast and I think we’re quite happy that we finished.”
Teammate Stan Loiseaux added: “We did have some features that we left out at the end, but we think it was for the best.”
It’s a similar story from the Glasgow Caledonian University team (right), as Alex Malcolm explained: “I’ve never done a game jam before, so it was my first experience. I think we did quite good, I wouldn’t say we’ve done worse than anyone else – just that we’ve done different things, in a different way.
“The hardest part was bug testing: finding things that were wrong and making final sweeps. Or when things started happening and we didn’t know why. That and the part where one of our teammates lost two hours of his work.”
His colleague Claire Maunders agreed: “It’s my first game jam as well, and the first time doing something like this to a scheduled time. It was pretty good doing more than just the art and dipping into different things.”
But as tough as it can be, mentor and previous winner from Dutch university NHTV of Applied Sciences Mark Scheudwater said that events like Brain Eden are a great way to gain experience ahead of full-time employment.
“With game companies, you have deadlines, you have crunches and you have to do a lot of crazy stuff – and that’s what you do here for a whole weekend,” he said.
AND THE WINNER IS
The victors of this year’s Brains Eden was ‘Bloated Squid’, a team from Anglia Ruskin University that created Space Hole (pictured above), a prototype in which players deploy special anomalies to deflect missiles from enemy spacecraft and defend Earth. Each member of the team took home licences for Unity.
The team captain Josh Newland said: “It was a great event, we had lots of fun and the mentors were a lot of help. The quality and variety of the games was really cool. Winning was so unexpected and amazing.”
Meanwhile, NHTV of Applied Sciences team 'No Sleep Til Cambridge' won the Brains Eden Mobile competition, earning each member a Nexus 10 tablet.
There were also two internships given to students selected from the Careers Clinics, with Dan Moody from Southampton’s Solent University set for an eight-week paid internship at ARM and NHTV’s Alex Williams securing a 12-week paid internship at PlayStation First.
And those that didn’t win still gained valuable experience and advice from those already established in the industry, as well as lessons in game development and production that can then be applied to future game jams.
Mentor and previous winner Nils Ruisch offered the following advice: “What we’ve learned most is that a good game comes down to polish. If you get a really tiny game that works really well, and you try to make that really polished – get the menus, sounds, particles an everything to feel right – you end up with something that really flows.
“We used to do stuff that was fun and then try to add more gameplay and more fancy stuff, and we ended up with something that didn’t feel good to play. So we decided during our first Brains Eden that we needed to focus on polish.”
The team at Creative Front and VIVID are already making preparations for Brains Eden 2015, to prepare the next generation of talent for careers in games development.
“It’s the melting point,” explains Games Eden chair Jeremy Cooke. “It’s where students are looking to get a job in the industry and if we can help them to make those decisions – whether they want to be corporate, whether they want to be indie, or if they event do want to go into the industry – this is the time where they’re close to graduation where we as an industry can take a look at their skillset and the students can look at us as games businesses and make decisions about their future.”
You can find out more about Brains Eden by visiting www.brainseden.net