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It’s a common myth that education in games has no correlation with what we do in the real world. “Students don’t have the necessary skills” I’ve heard said. But there are loads of good things going on in universities up and down the country, we’re just not that great at telling the world about them. So I thought I’d share what I’ve been implementing in my role as a lecturer at Staffordshire University over the last couple of years, and help put the myth to rest.
Coming from a background in games programming, I’ve worked as a programmer for a couple of high profile companies and am now a director in my very own indie studio venture called 'Playing with Giants' where I have a hand in every facet of games development. This background is what gives me a great idea of what our students should be able to do when they graduate. So when I shifted career and started teaching at Staffordshire University I set to getting the games industry itself involved. Two game studios were interested in collaborating in the development of a new course, and both gave vital input which helped shape the format. These companies were Team17 and Matmi. This last year we were joined by Media Molecule.
The name of the course we developed is called Technical Games Production, which is aimed at 2nd year (level 5) students. It runs alongside other modules covering graphics, advanced mathematics and business studies, and the like. This article will discuss Technical Games Production in isolation, but over the coming weeks I’ll be looking to write articles covering other classes I have developed; such as using gamification techniques in a Game Artificial Intelligence module.
So sticking with Technical Games Production for now, this course predominantly focuses on industry practices and exposing students to the real world of game development. Each week there are lectures that cover a wide variety of topics from design patterns, legal issues and software methodologies right through to ethics, pitching, CV writing and portfolio creation. This is all vital stuff for students to learn, but the real magic happens in the practical lab sessions, which is where working alongside game studios has a huge impact and which is what I will focus on from this point onwards.
Technical Games Production runs for an entire university year and is split into 2 core elements:
1. Learning the tools
2. Developing a game from scratch in teams of 5 to be pitched to the studios.
Game studios only participate in the second half of the year once the students have developed the skills to not only develop a game in the given framework but also the management skills needed to see a project through to completion.
'Route Runner’ by Black Box (Prototype to Pitch)
1. Learning the Tools
In the first year the course was run we used C# and Playstation Mobile (PSM), but after Sony dropped this we moved across to C++ using Cocos2D-X. Both of these frameworks were brand new to the students, which was intentional. This was to expose them to a large code base they were unfamiliar with as this is a situation they may very well find themselves in at a studio when they graduate or work in a placement role.
In order to give the students the ability to explore the framework, two game examples were written for them. The first example project was a version of Flappy Bird, and the second a UI example featuring screen transitions. All code was supplied to students and they had 6 weeks to work independently to fix the intentional bugs that are present, implement additional features and combine the two into a single application. This gives ample time to become familiar with the framework and take the Flappy Bird project in different directions.
For the next 6 weeks students are split into teams of two, where they come up with a mock company and negotiate shareholder contracts. Next they design and build a game using the Waterfall methodology. The focus here is not so much the quality of the game, but on the use of source control to manage their code and task management software to facilitate teamwork. These projects are then assessed, and students split into teams of five based on their marks. So the top five graded students become a team, the next five become a team and so on. These are the teams that will be visiting the game studios in the second semester.
‘Push Wars’ by Wild Monsters
2. Game Studio Interaction
At the beginning of the term each student team comes up with a company name for themselves and then draw straws to determine which professional game studio they initially get to work with. Each game studio gets to see only half of the teams - an intentional decision to ensure as minimal disruption for the game studios as possible.
‘Elemental Conflict’ by The A-Team
The students assign themselves roles from the SCRUM methodology that they will be working to for the remainder of the course, and set about designing a game suitable for the intended device. A little twist for this game is that it must work cross-platform and at differing resolutions. This exposes students to all those little issues you never even consider when just developing for a single platform. The exposure this gives students, not only the challenges regarding sizing and and deploying to different devices, but the horror when a game functions perfectly on an iPhone, but then crashes on load for Android devices is worth it alone. When you bring Windows into the mix it gets really interesting.
The first 4 weeks are fast paced as teams come together and develop a prototype which they will pitch to their chosen game studio. All game ideas are vetted for scope and feasibility after the first week. Quite often students will not know their limits and need to be reigned in a little.
‘Gladiator Height’ by Gnome Games (Prototype to Pitch)
In the fourth week each team prepares a Kickstarter style video pitch that will be sent to their respective games studio. These are watched and professional developers fill out a questionnaire giving feedback on what they have seen. At this point each studio will select only two games that they wish to see again. Those teams not selected will switch studio they are working with, meaning for their final pitch they will visit a company that has never seen their game. This adds an element of cut-throat reality to the process, and also gives teams a kick up the arse that haven’t performed well enough up to this stage, but more than that it means teams dropped by a company have a fresh opportunity to impress.
From the feedback, milestones are set that students must hit by week 8. This gives the teams four weeks to implement the suggestions from the professionals and deliver a visual milestone, which clearly demonstrates that the changes have been implemented.
‘The Scientific Adventures of a Husky in Space’ by Hopping Vikings (Prototype to Pitch)
Toward the end of the year we have a week of quality assurance. This sees the students playing each others games and reporting bugs in a professional manner using appropriate bug reporting software.
The final week sees us all on a coach traveling to the game studios. Each student team has 20 minutes to pitch their final game to professional developers face-to-face. The studios will give honest (and sometimes brutal) feedback after each pitch. An overall winner is then selected by the studio based on professionalism, quality of the game and overall experience.
Coach traveling up to Matmi
As part of the final hand in, an ethical statement is included to ensure students have thought about the implications of releasing such a title and that they can justify their proposed age rating and target demographic.
Media Molecule Pitches 2016
Matmi Pitches 2016
The benefits of such an approach are staggering. From this single module alone our students can add three unique cross-platform games to their online portfolios, and have a good understanding of the software used in games development, from source control, task management software to bug reporting applications. They have learned to work in teams of varying sizes and work to different software methodologies - Waterfall and SCRUM. They have experience of not only working to deadlines, but fulfilling milestones along the way. They have prototyped ideas, developed for multiple platforms, delivered both video and face-to-face pitches, negotiated contracts, carried out QA, and reported bugs in a professional format, and also investigated the ethical implications of releasing their games to the wider world.
‘Paperboy Theatre’ by team sEduTech (Prototype to Pitch)
Not only that but the companies involved so far have all reported back favourably on their experience and feel a sense of pride at having contributed to the development of the next generation of game developers. There is also the possibility of spotting a talent for future employment, and networking opportunities between collaborating companies.
We have just completed our second year, which saw a welcome return from Matmi who have continued to give their input, but in place of Team17 we have now been joined by Media Molecule. It is great to have fresh insight each year from different studios, but it is also a massive benefit having Matmi along for the ride. Feedback they gave in the first iteration of this course was implemented, and we have seen a rise in the quality of not only the games, but the pitches year on year. Matmi will be joining us on this journey in our third year.
‘Bit.Meander’ by team Big Little World
So what do the professional studios we have collaborated with think of this approach?
Jeff Coughlan, Founder of Matmi:
"It's a pleasure to work closely with Staffordshire University on this project as it helps the students adjust to real life experience and helps ourselves see the future talent pool that may one day work with us.
These ideas break down the barriers that often exists between education and the workplace. "
Kevin Carthew, Creative Director of Team17:
"Working partnerships such as this between universities and developers are essential to ensure the people coming out of university have the skills game developers need. Students get industry experience, and developers get a first chance to meet potential future employees. In this way such programs can be beneficial to both parties, and in this instance the course team at Staffordshire University did a great job."
"British universities consistently produce some of the best training in the video games industry; working with them to find and nurture the best talent is vital to our continued success."
To those other teachers and lecturers thinking this is something you might try, I can only encourage you to do so. This module has almost 100% attendance from the very first lesson right through to the last, and each lesson is a vibrant hotbed of creativity. We regularly have students attending multiple lab sessions they are not even scheduled to be in so that they can meet with their teams and move their projects forward. By taking a student led approach and allowing them to design the application they push the bar far beyond what you would be able to set for a generic assignment. By looking at the interspersed screenshots you get a flavour of the wide range of games that have been developed and the level our students are at at the point they are looking for placements.
‘TINT' by team 404:Name not found
So if any of you folks out there reading this feel something like this would be a great fit for you then please drop me an email. There are loads of ways of getting involved - not just as part of this module but also things such as guest lecturing, delivering master classes, or even acting as a judge at a student exhibition or competition. And if Staffordshire is a million miles away from where you are then contact your local university. I’m sure there will be someone there who would appreciate the input.
So with a Jerry Springer-esq final thought - games education benefits massively from the input of professional games development studios, and the more the games industry gets involved, the better the experience all round, and, most importantly, the better the graduates coming into the industry will be. We are all part of this amazing industry so let’s work together in a way that benefits everyone.
Watch this space: Several of the games developed this year are still in development and are hoping to be released later this year or early next.
Email: [email protected]