Art Director Iain Harrison, Develop Interview July 2013

Recently Iain was interviewed for Develop Magazine, the article is in this July’s copy of the magazine.

The published article is an edited version of the interview, the full version is post here.

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What differentiates your course from other courses in game design and development?

I see Gamer Camp more like your first year in the video games industry and less like a year on a degree course, that’s what attracted me to joining the staff team here. The Gamer Camp course differs from traditional degree courses in that we focus heavily on work based learning, with the prerequisite skills for a project being taught in teaching sessions at the beginning of each dev cycle. We then allow the students to use these skills in ‘real’ situations, which we achieve by running a mock games studio environment. There are three postgraduate courses at Gamer Camp specialising in code, art and production, the students work together full-time in a studio environment to develop three video games in one year.

Students are supported in their development activities by industry experienced teaching staff; Alex Darby is the Technical Director, ex Codemasters and FreeStyle Games and Zuby Ahmed, ex EA and Warthog supports the business and production students, I am the Art Director & I’ve previously worked for Free Radical Design and Eurocom. The team was assembled by Oliver Wiliams, the Gamer Camp Studio Director who had the vision to take a new approach to games education. He has over 15 years experience working in education and training within the private and education sector having worked with BT, Microsoft and Apple. It’s a strong and dedicated staff team.

With regard our teaching ethos, we focus quite heavily on what we term ‘T skills’. According to the Strategic Skills Assessment for the Creative Media Industry (Skillset December 2009), there is a shortage of new people in the industry equipped with ‘T-skills’ – highly specialised in one core field, but with broad skills and knowledge to utilise their specialism across teams and platforms. The term T-shaped People is also used in the Valve employee handbook.

Consequently, the Gamer Camp course considers that the students need an overarching understanding of the games industry and their place within it. They need an awareness of the entire game development process, and a critical understanding of their own discipline and its relationship with the other disciplines. The students are also required to learn how to use highly technical software to produce game assets and code whilst also having the ability to understand and articulate the complex game development process, the scope of their colleague’s roles and the relationship between the various specialisms.

Can you briefly describe the course structure (if you haven’t already) OR what a typical project would involve for students?

At Gamer Camp Studios we believe the best way to learn the skills needed to make games is to make games. The courses at Gamer Camp are split into three distinct phases. Each of these is a development project aimed at a different platform. The first project is often the students first ever experience of working as part of a multidisciplinary team using defined project management methodologies and industry practices such as stand up meetings and using source control. We therefore try to ease them in. With this in mind the platform is a PC game and the team sizes are small, only three to four per team. The development cycle however is very short and this creates a very intense learning environment, this initial phase was described by one of this years students as a 10 day GameJam and I think that’s quite a good description. It can actually help if students make mistakes at this stage as it provides great learning opportunities, Gamer Camp is set up to be your first year in industry but with a safety net, mistakes on Gamer Camp don’t mean financial penalties from publishers for a late milestone delivery or a trip to HR for a written warning! In our studio the students are encouraged to reflect and learn from their mistakes making them better professionals in the long run.

The second project is an iPad/tablet game and this mirrors the development experience they might have in a small indie studio. The teams increase in size to around eight individuals with outsourced testing and sound.This year the students released these games which are available on the Apple App Store as a free download.
Totem Rush
Baggage Reclaim
Tubby Toucan  (there’s also a trailer for this game http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32AbomSDqhM)

Finally the longest project of the course is the last and the most challenging. Where as the first two projects give students experience of indie development the third project is a AAA development for PlaystationTM 3 with PSFirst and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE) as the client. They provide the students with potential concepts to be developed (the images provided are from this project) The students then work together as a simulated external development team to create a PlayStationTM 3 game prototype and pitch the game to SCEE ‘s Vice President Studio Group, Mick Hocking.

What partnerships do you have with games industry studios or industry-related companies, and what do they add to the course?

Gamer Camp was founded in 2009 by Oliver Williams and Guy Wilday. Guy was formally the Studio Director for the SEGA Racing Studio and is currently the Development Director for Sony’s London Studio. Gamer Camp has support from several large local studios including Codemasters, Blitz Games Studios, Rare and FreeStyleGames with TT Fusion and Crytek joining most recently as partners.

The early vision for Gamer Camp was centred around Guy’s experience of recruiting graduates. In his experience no matter how good the graduate it was only after they had completed a full development cycle that they would become a really productive member of the development team. They needed to gain an understanding of the ethos and processes required in each of the development phases. To that end Oliver and Guy started to work with the key local games companies to define the common techniques, processes and knowledge that would be most beneficial to form the Gamer Camp curriculum.

By the time detailed cirriculum development started Alex had joined Oliver and Guy, between the three of them and with plenty of external assistance they put the Masters courses together. Phil Hindle, Technical Director at FreeStyleGames and Mike Rutter, Art Manager also from FreeStyleGames were very influential at the curriculum definition stage. Since launching, Codemasters and BlitzGamesStudios have both been into set briefs, deliver specific sessions and review student work. Gary Rowe, VP, Digital Business at Codemasters and Jolyon Webb R&D Art Director at Blitz Games Studios have both been involved with Gamer Camp delivery and we are very grateful for their input. The input from local studios helps to keep the course relevant and ensures we are producing employable graduates.

Our biggest partner is SCEE and we are proud to be part of the PSFirst Academic Game Development programme. PSFirst provides the studio with all eleven of our PS3 development kits and also the brief for the final stage of the course. Through PSFirst London and Evolution Studios provide us with templates for concept development, reporting processes plus face-to-face mentoring. Further to this, PSFirst has set up a scholarship programme in collaboration with Gamer Camp that champions top talent. Every year they provide full funding for two students and part funding for a further two.

What tools and tech do you offer for students to work with?

The art team are required to know Maya, Mudbox and the usual Adobe suite of software. Programmers get to use cocos2D-X and Marmalade for the PC and iPads project, as the core programming language we teach throughout the course is C++. To deliver the Sony project on PlayStation3TM students use Phrye Engine on PS3 dev kits. What we’ve found has been very important and valuable to employers has been that all students use Perforce source control and Hansoft project management software in the studio.

Where are your alumni now? What have they gone on to do?

This year we have already had some success stories with two students having already left to work within the industry. Evolution Studios (SCEE) have taken on one student, while the other has acquired significant funding to enable him to start a new studio in Rome. Previous years students have gone on to work at Sega, Crytek, Travellers Tales, Feral Interactive, Playground Games and other video games companies. We’ve also had a couple of new start-ups form from ex-Gamer Camp students.

In one sentence, why should aspiring games students choose your course?

Gamer Camp Studios isn’t just a course; it’s real game development, in a real studio with experienced veterans from industry as your mentors.

What are your plans for the future of the course?

We are currently looking to extending our course offering to include an undergraduate course which we are working with our partners and the Next-Gen Skills Academy in the development of.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I have worked exclusively in Computer Game Development for twelve years, starting at a small developer called Supersonic Software and moving on to Free Radical Design and eventually Eurocom.

One of my roles, especially once at a senior level was as a mentor to people who were new to the games industry, especially those who were in their first job after higher education. Due to this experience I have firsthand knowledge of the inadequate skills some students were graduating with. Due to this experience I started to find that I had a growing desire to bridge the skills gap that was so obviously evident.

The competition to enter this field is incredibly intense, and due to this, higher educational courses in Games Development have flourished. Unfortunately, we have a situation where some educational establishments promise to educate, but leave the students floundering without the prerequisite skills necessary to really move ahead with their careers.

Clearly there are some good higher education courses in the UK in art, computer science and video games development that really try hard to ensure students have the right skills and experience to succeed in the games industry. I think Gamer camp has joined the established successful courses and hopefully we’re leading the way in changing how games education is delivered.

Recruiting Programming Talent

We regularly hear from our Gamer Camp games industry partners that finding good, able programming graduates is one of the biggest recruitment challenges they face.

If you are looking to get into the games industry as programmer its likely you’ll be interested in the PlayStation First Scholarship scheme

The scheme seeks to spot top programming talent and support them through a MSc in Video Games Development at Gamer Camp and into their first job in the games industry, full details can be found here on the Gamer Camp website.

For more information on the Gamer Camp MSc in Video Games Development course check out this video presentation by Alex Darby, Gamer Camp Technical Director

Posting Questions on Tech Forum – Tips on how to do this better

Alex Darby the Gamer Camp Technical Director sent this message to the code team on how to post technical enquiries to tech forums. It was a good, useful piece from Alex so I thought it would be good to share on the Blog, any student names have been removed from the original message. – Oliver Williams, Gamer Camp Studio Director

I was just reposting this post from a Gamer Camp student onto the PS3 forums, and I felt I had to change it a little to attempt to get a useful response.

After checking with the student, I thought it might be instructional to show you a before and after so you can see how I have re-written it.

Here’s the before:

Hi everyone, I’m currently working with PhyreEngine at GamerCamp. I’m learning it pretty well for the most part, however in our experimenting I’ve got myself a bit stuck.

In the examples, in particular the Animation example, a file is specified to load for the Fella model – “Media/GL/DonkeyTrader/fellanmap.dae.phyre”. Iterating over this using a for loop of type PCluster::PObjectIteratorOfType<PAssetReferenceImport> allows me to find the Fella’s references, which are a standard texture, a normal map, and two shaders, which I can then load.

My next step is extending this functionality such that from a given level file, I can load the entirety of it as a cluster, but then also locate and manage the clusters it references. For example I could then, just from a level file, be able to have full control over everything contained within it, rather than have individual parts of the level declared and added separately.

My problem is that when iterating over a test level that contains a single textured and lit cube, the object iterator IDs return two references, one to TestModel.dae#colladafxShader1 and one to TestModel.dae#pCubeShape1. Obviously these are the shader and geometry, with the hash (and lack of file extension) I assume to be indicating that these are contained within the main cube dae file. However, there’s no reference to load the texture (which I can see exists if I examine the dae file in a text editor).

Essentially: I’d like to know how to get individual clusters out of the .plv in such a way that we can manage those objects ourselves using just the level file.

Thanks in advance for any assistance!

From Gamer Camp Student

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it at face value…

It’s well written, coherent English, it explains the problem succinctly, and asks a specific question – these are all Very Good Things.

However, believe it or not this communication via email / forum posts is actually harder than you’d think; so hard, in fact, that Activision run compulsory internal courses on effective email communication for team leads and managers…

So, here’s my take on the same material which is what I’ve posted to the PS3 developers PhyreEngine forums:

Hi,

 We’re currently trying to write some code that will recursively iterate a .plv file and individually load all the asset files it references – this is because we want to sit an asset manager on top of Phyre (e.g. to stop the same asset trying to load > once even if it’s in multiple .daes etc.)

 The first thing we tried was to load “Media/GL/DonkeyTrader/fellanmap.dae.phyre” (as used in the animation example) manually instead of loading the assets via the header generated from the assets.xml file.


By hunting about in the samples, we found that Iterating over this .dae using Cluster::PObjectIteratorOfType<PAssetReferenceImport> would allow us to find the files referenced by it (i.e. in this case a standard texture, a normal map, and two shaders)

 Importantly, the references contain the paths to the referenced assets, which we can then use to load them individually.

We have a test asset – a real time lit cube with a single texture – that we exported from maya to test the pipeline and this works fine (i.e. renders fully textured and real time lit) if we put it into an asset .xml and load it in the same way the samples load assets.


When we try to load this test mesh in the same way we loaded fellanmap.dae (by loading and iterating the cluster to find out its references) the object iterator finds just two references:

 * TestModel.dae#colladafxShader1

* TestModel.dae#pCubeShape1

 Obviously these appear to be the shader and geometry, but there’s no reference to a texture; and no path information.

 We’re assuming that the # and lack of file extension indicate that these are contained within the data in the dae file.

 If we look in the xml version of the collada file for TestModel.dae we can see that the texture is clearly referenced within it.

 We’re wondering if this means the differences between the asset references in TestModel.dae and fellanmap.dae might result from differences in the way they’re being handled by the asset processor or something…

 We’re at a loss as to:

 1) why the content of our TestModel.dae might be so different from fellanmap.dae

 2) why TestModel.dae works with the asset.xml -> auto generated header technique when it doesn’t seem to contain any reference to the texture it requires 

 3) why the assets seem to have been embedded in TestModel.dae

 4) why the .xml version of TestModel.dae clearly contains the texture, but the platform specific data produced doesn’t

 and wondered if someone could point us in the right direction?

 Sorry if this is obvious and we’ve missed the relevant documentation / sample code!

 Any help appreciated,

 Alex

So, what’s different?

  • Well, firstly I’m stating what we’re trying to do, and why, clearly and right at the start. This sets the context for the rest of the information, so it’s important information to have before reading the rest of it.
  • I’m also using way more paragraphs than you would in regular prose – more or less one per sentence in fact.
  • This is sort of an un-bulleted bullet point – it says exactly one thing, and leaves space before the next bit of information to make sure it’s not lost in the reading of it.
  • Whenever I might use a comma separated list, but I want to be 100% clear about the elements of that list, I’m using bullet points.
  • When I get to the end, my “summary” is a very clear multi-part question that is very specific (numbered bullets!) about the information that doesn’t make sense to us and that we’d like explained.
  • Finally, I’m signing off in a way that says we’re friendly, and acknowledge that the people on the forum are basically doing us a favour – politeness is always good :)

All of this is geared up to make the key information I’m sending to them clear, and make it as clear as possible what I’m hoping for in a reply.

I hope that all makes sense (and that I get a useful answer from the dev forums after this email ;)

 

Quote

…Some examples for different formal models for understanding games.

One of the most famous and most simple is probably Sid Meier’s: ‘a game is a series of interesting choices.’ Here’s another one: ‘anything in a game that a player has no control over is bad.’

Some more just off the top of my head: ‘Multiplayer games are contests of skill, and any significant luck in a multiplayer game is bad’. Or ‘games are a set of interlocking systems or games are large, ambiguous math problems or a game is a set of rules and a goal.’

I like that last one a lot, and I want to talk about it in another post at some point.

It’s surprising how little serious critical or journalistic writing is published about video games.

So it was a pleasant surprise when we stumbled across this article, which touches on how mathematic tools such as game theory can impact on how games are designed and developed.

Formal Games Writing | In Machinam