Games Invade Ivory Tower

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The summer's over and a new batch of bright-eyed students head off for university to get themselves an education, learn to drink copious amounts of beer and acquire a newfound appreciation of mum's home cooking. Nestled among the history, English and business studies students lurks a new breed of academic – the videogames undergraduate. It's been a long time coming, but it looks like academia is finally opening the door to videogames.

Over the past few years, courses designed to train a wealth of industry savvy graduates have been cropping up like mushrooms. From Tyne Tees down to the south coast, the UK is littered with universities offering budding Molyneauxs a host of game-related courses. You can hear the collective groan from parents as their children apply for a course called Computer and Video Games or Video Game Design.

As the original gamers get older and the industry itself matures, the need for an academic infrastructure is becoming apparent. Big name companies like Sony and EA are putting their money where their mouth is and sponsoring courses such as the University of Salford's BSc (Hons) in Computer and Video Games. This course was started in September 2000 and the first swathe of graduates will be unleashed in spring 2003, ready to keep the Britsoft fires burning.

Can the hallowed halls of university computer labs breed the next Les Edgar? Only time will tell. The UK has always been seen as a centre of creative expertise and the new academic structure can only serve to benefit the future of British development. At last the bedroom programmers have somewhere to go after their parents kick them out of home and tell them to do something useful.

Their future's so bright"

GiN asked a number of university lecturers from game-related courses to recommend promising students, and we sat down and talked with them about their coursework, and on what they expect from the industry.

Matthew Collier is about to earn a BSc Hons in Software Engineering at John Moores University, Liverpool. Matthew is in his final year at university, after completing a placement year at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in Liverpool and has been programming from an early age. The first game he created was noughts and crosses for the ZX Spectrum 48k, using Basic.

"I started a software engineering degree, rather than computer science, in the hopes that I'd end up with a programming job," Collier said. "Making games has always seemed a lot more exciting and easy to get deeply into than applications programming. When I had the opportunity to get a placement at SCEE, I leapt at it.

"I didn't know what to expect (from the games industry) and I've been interested in everything I've seen during my placement. It's a very exciting world to be a part of, always new things developing. I hope to return to SCEE, as the PS2 is an immensely capable machine and it's great to work with."

Matthew comments on the industry: "I don't see a big difference between the British development community and that of America and Japan. PAL has better resolution and a slower vsync than ntsc, but decent conversions between the two would help get a lot of games produced in one country. I see games that have been in development for years and sell fantastically on one side of the ocean, but a quick conversion, resulting in poor frame rates or huge borders killed sales when it was released on the continent."

Katherine Roberts is working on a MSc in Computer Animation at Bournemouth University.

Katherine did a BSc in Maths and Computer Science at Imperial College and decided to move into a more artistic area using the skills she had learned during her undergraduate degree.

"The games industry is constantly growing and evolving with the new technology, so it's a very exiting area to be involved with," Roberts said. "Also, there are so many different technical areas within the games industry, which means it will never get boring.

"At the moment I'm interested in games AI, although my expertise really lies in graphics programming, so I will probably move into rendering. New games companies seem to be popping up all the time, so along with the more established companies there will always be somewhere looking for technical people like us. The industry is growing at such a rate, it seems at least for the near future there will be lots of opportunities."

Lee Kerley got a MSc in Computer Animation from Bournemouth University.

Lee originally studied Maths and Computer Science at Oxford University. At Bournemouth, Lee worked with Katherine on a game called Indian Brave, as their final year project. His expertise lies in fulfilling a technical role within a games company.

"The games industry has always appealed to me," Kerley said. "I would always be found playing games on my ZX Spectrum or my Vic 20, as a child. The technical attraction developed later, when I realized that I could actually be part of the process of creating these things that had given me so much pleasure, as a child.

"The British games industry has grown enormously in last eight to 10 years. Hardly a week goes by when another games company does not pop up. I'm not really sure whether this is good for the industry, as it is could to lead to some instability, which is why I would rather work for a slightly larger, better established company.

"All in all I think the industry is just a big playground for grown-up kids like me to build their own toys. I just hope it stays like this long enough for me to enjoy myself."

Katherine Roberts and Lee Kerley have just finished an MSc in Computer Animation at the National Centre for Computer Animation in Bournemouth. The course is designed for people wanting to fulfill a technical role in either the games industry or the animation and special effects industry.

Sajjad Ifthkar graduated with a BA in Computer Games Design at the University of Teesside.

Sajjad is one of the first waves of graduates from this new course, which covers packages that are used in the games industry and in animation and special effects studios.

"For my final year project I decided to concentrate on developing my modeling skills using 3ds max," Ifthkar said. "I modeled a small fantasy/fairytale world that could possibly be used within a game engine. It was a very simple idea, in that you were a knight that had to rescue a princess that was trapped in a castle that stood on a mountain peak."

Sajjad is now working at VIS Entertainment based in Dunfermline, Scotland. He has always enjoyed playing videogames ever since he can remember and considers himself one of the lucky few who can say they enjoy their job and get paid for it.

Sajjad comments on the future, "A lot of the Japanese companies are amazing at what they do, and I would defiantly like to go there at some point in my career. I have some ideas of my own that I would like to see take shape, and I'll continue to work on them in my spare time. It would be great to create my own game some day and maybe start up my own company with a few friends from University.

"I never quite realized how many games companies there are in the UK, but the problem is that they always ask for experience, making it hard for new graduates. The problem is how are young artists and coders supposed to get jobs when no one gives them a chance? This is a major problem. Also, not enough people from the games and animation industry visit universities to explain what goes on in their respective fields. Much more has to be done about supporting the new courses and people from the industry have to get more involved."

Game Industry News fully supports educational opportunities in the game industry. If you are a student or a professor and would like to be included in a future article, write to our European Correspondent Chella Ramanan at GiNplaymate@hotmail.com

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