The University of Abertay is a small university with only 5,700 students but certainly one whose reputation in relation to computer game education and research goes far beyond its size. I visited the university in August 2003 to see what lay behind this reputation.
Professor Ian Marshall is head of the School of Computing & Advanced Technologies (CATS) and the person who established the computer game technology courses in the university. I asked him why the courses were set up and did he face any difficulties justifying these developments back in 1997/1998.
The origin of the computer games course lies in a BSc (Hons) Microsystems course developed over 15 years ago and which combined low level programming, physics, electronics and artificial intelligence. One graduate of this course was David Jones, the designer of Lemmings and founder of DMA, the first Scottish computer games company.
While the BSc (Hons) Microsystems course itself was not a popular choice with university entrants and was discontinued, the university received quite a few requests from game companies for graduates with the same mix of skills around 1996/1997. As a result they designed the current BSc (Hons) in Computer Games Technology course and an MSc in Computer Games Technology which were launched in 1997/1998. Both courses were designed with the help of local and national games development companies.
Entry requirements for the courses are high and to date there has been two graduations from the undergraduate programme. The undergraduate course takes approximately 60 students annually while the masters takes about 10. The course content focuses on games programming, maths, dynamics, team work and communication. There is also a four year BSC in Computing (Game Development) which is a traditional computing degree with a games programming theme.
Students on the games courses are encouraged to undertake summer placements in the industry and many have found work with Visual Sciences, Vis and a host of other local games development companies. These placements provide invaluable experience, and, in the past, students employed over the summer have been recruited by the host company when they graduate.
The two Computer Game Technology courses focus on programming and I asked Ian Marshall if he had problems recruiting lecturers for the course. Apparently not. Between freelance game designers, some astute hiring from abroad of people like Alistair Houston, Peter Astheimer and Jim Terkeurst, the refocusing of existing staff who had taught on the Microsystems course and returning graduates have meant they have encountered no such problems. David Jones (RealTime Worlds), Chris van der Kuyl (Vis) and Russel Kay (Visual Sciences) are all visiting professors within the School.
With the focus on programming one might ask what of animation and design? 3D and level design are included in both the BSc and MSc courses and there is a sister degree in computer arts in the University of Abertay which has a strong animation focus. While Professor Marshall admits that the links between the two courses could be stronger they are actively working on developing these links and the two groups already work closely on an informal basis – if a programmer needs an image or an animation, one of the arts students will normally oblige, in return for programming help in an arts project.
I also asked Professor Marshall about the challenges posed by the pace of technological change in the industry. In his experience constantly changing platforms have not posed many problems for the university as the underlying programming principles have remained the same. Programming for a console, he suggests, is in many ways easier than for the Windows environment, because the underlying hardware is fixed for about five years until the next generation product is launched. Abertay’s close links with industry also allow it to anticipate new technology, and adjust course content in line with new developments.
These industry links include a good relationship with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE), who equipped the two original Sony Playstation Development Studios, and has just sponsored the SCEE Linux for their Playstation 2 Development Studio. The School has also reached agreement with another of the largest games hardware manufacturers for three full development kits, for use in honours degree projects.
While law, marketing and enterprise are part of the undergraduate and postgraduates degrees a few years ago Professor Marshall recognised that graduates might need additional experience in the business elements of the games industry and experience working in teams with artists and business people. This led to the development of the ‘Dare to be Digital’ competition in collaboration with Scottish Enterprise Tayside, Dundee City Council and Embreonix, the university’s graduate enterprise centre. This was launched internally in 1999 and as a Scottish competition in 2000.
The ‘Dare’ competition is an innovative plan where an industry and academic panel select a small number of teams, currently six teams of five members, who develop a product pitch document and demo for a digital project. The selected teams are paid a minimum project fee, given access to computers and technical and creative expertise and subsidised accommodation over a ten week period. They also receive weekly sessions on issues like contract preparation, business plan development and accountancy from lawyers, accountants and successful entrepreneurs.
The winner is the project with the best market potential, the most balanced team, the best business plan and the most innovative and creative demo. The winner receives a cash prize of €3,500 and a place in Embreonix, a graduate enterprise programme and office space in the University of Abertay. There is also the experience gained from working in a team on an actual project, which is critiqued and judged by an industry panel. It appears that ‘Dare’ people have no problem finding employment in the games industry afterwards.
To date the competition has been run in both Scotland and in Malaysia where the University of Abertay has strong links. Apparently there is no reason why the competition could not be extended to other countries if the sponsorship was available. Indeed a Japanese team entered the Scottish competition last year and came joint second!
A visit to Embreonix found two game companies established there, the Fallen, which is concentrating on developing software for the Game Boy Advance and TPLD which is focussing on developing computer game based training software for large enterprises. Companies can trade from within Embreonix and in return for a modest grant they participate in a post-graduate qualification in Entrepreneurship. Companies can move from Embreonix to a Digital Media Incubator space jointly operated by Embreonix and Interactive Tayside. At present there is one company in this centre focussing on the design and creation of computer games. For further information see www.embreonix.com
The winner of the 2003 Dare competition was announced at an awards ceremony on Friday the 5th of September in Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre. The leader of the winning team was Damian Furlong, a graduate of Computer Applications here in DCU. The winning game was called Demon Lore and is described as a third-person, team based RPG in which players control a holy man and a young woman. The screen shot accompanying this feature is from this game and while the team had only 10 weeks to work on the demo they clearly impressed the judges with their creativity and innovation. Apparently there was a strong Irish element to another team too. Watch the news pieces on gamedevelopers.ie to find out more about this competition from Damian himself.
So the University of Abertay is producing skilled game programmers through its undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and also supporting the development of business skills and companies through the Dare competition and their enterprise programmes and incubator.
An additional element in the mix is the International Centre for Computer Games and Virtual Entertainment (IC-CAVE). Founded by Prof Peter Astheimer, this research centre focuses on industry related technological research with some work on usability and business issues. Indeed Dr. Jim Terkeurst, the Business & Research Development Manager within IC-CAVE has worked with the DTI in the UK to arrange a number of trade missions for UK game companies to Japan, the US and France. These have resulted in very informative reports including ‘Games are like Fruit’ on a mission to Japan and ‘Creativity is Not Enough’ on global best practice in digital game publishing in France and the US.
IC-CAVE has 19 full-time researchers working on a number of projects and the centre is self-financing. The centre offers a number of services to the games industry including rapid game prototyping, network game testing and usability testing. They also run master classes and offer advice on funding. Currently IC-CAVE is working on externally funded research and development projects on realistic bi-pedal motion for games and animation; an automated tool to support the localisation of games in the global market; the use of games with the elderly; a novel interface for controlling games without the use of keyboard, joysticks or mice; various projects on mobile and network games technology; the use of games in education and training; and VR for historical buildings using games technology.
So if you are interested in attending Abertay University there is an open day for the Computer Game Technology courses on Wed. 1st Oct. from 2-6pm in 2003. Contact the university to reserve a place.
Further info from:
Professor Ian Marshall, Head of School, School of Computing & Advanced Technologies, Kydd Building, Bell Street, Dundee DD1 1HG.
Dr. Tim Terkeurst, Research and Business Development Manager, International Centre for Computer Games and Virtual Entertainment, Level 3, Kydd Building, Bell Street, Dundee DD1 1HG