Dare To Dream: The Gaming Stars Of Tomorrow
Johnny Minkley asks what the next generation of developers thinks about its career prospects
"If you're the best person in your band, find a better band". Denki MD Colin Anderson invokes Miles Davis in his closing remarks during a BAFTA panel at this year's Dare Protoplay, in his studio's home town of Dundee.
What he means, of course, is the best way to learn and advance your art is to surround yourself with people more talented than yourself. One of the things I love about this great industry of ours is how much, how often and how freely knowledge, experience and insight are shared by the brilliant, successful men and women who make it up.
Britain is buzzing in the wake of Team GB's golden fortnight and all the talk has been of how our Olympic heroics can be harnessed to inspire a new generation. At the same time in Scotland, I witness the impact of Digital Team GB's efforts to inspire the next stars of game design, as 15 fresh-faced teams compete to win a place among the BAFTA Ones To Watch, a competition which effectively offers a huge leg-up on the ladder to an industry career.
From BAFTA Young Game Designers to Games Britannia, Dare To Be Digital to Skillset, Raspberry Pi to the return of computer science on the National Curriculum, the industry has rallied decisively to tackle the skills crisis head-on.
But while we've been banging on about this to each other for ages, what do the students actually think? In Dundee, home to Abertay University, the centre of learning viewed as gaming's gold standard, I seize the chance to hear the hopes and fears of the industry's brightest developing talent. And the first thing I want to know is, well: why games?
"I've been into drawing and the movies and especially music, but I never really wanted to do any of those alone. I wanted to combine them somehow. The games industry is something that does that."
Victor Guerrero, Team ISO
"In other fields where you're studying computer science, you're isolated so you just know about your own field," says Victor Guerrero of Spain's Team Iso, developer of IsoChronous, an eye-catchingly smart action-strategy game voted by the 15 Dare teams as their favourite. "But in video games I can speak to an artist, I can speak to a musician, so I can learn from different fields."
"Gaming is very special because it combines so many different fields," agrees Kailin Chu, from all-female Chinese team iDeer. As does Vili Viitaniemi, the sound designer on Kind Of A Big Deal's Starcrossed, a superb Angry Birds Space-inspired app.
"I've been into drawing and the movies and especially music, but I never really wanted to do any of those alone," he explains. "I wanted to combine them somehow. The games industry is something that does that. No particularly area of art is closed to you."
Speaking of art: "I could do painting, but it's boring," offers Euan Mitchell of GasTank Games. "I'd rather have paintings that move and you can touch."
For others, though, it really is as simple and sweet as following their heart. "We love to play and make games, so it's our dream to develop our own games company," chirps Rohit Sarkar of Indian team LazzyBrains, maker of cute iPad title What A Day!!
"This competition has increased our confidence a lot. Before this we were just students who had graduated, but after making this game and seeing people really liking it, especially the children, we are pretty confident we can do it."
"Being able to work in an industry making something that I love as well, it's lucky more than anything," believes Caracol Games' Adam Ellis. "It's an honour, and hopefully I can make other people passionate about this industry."
And at Dare Protoplay the teams get their first real taste of what that means, with 10,000 members of the public turning out to try the games they've each spent nine crazy weeks creating in the city. "It's so gratifying to see people have fun with something you've done," says Adam's colleague Jake Carney. "It's a brilliant feeling."
"Being able to work in an industry making something that I love as well, it's lucky more than anything. It's an honour, and hopefully I can make other people passionate about this industry."
Adam Ellis, Caracol Games.
The Dare To Be Digital final 15 were whittled down from over 100 applicants. Only the best three go through to compete for the BAFTA next March, but the value of the experience is potentially career-making to everyone involved.
And proof of what can happen next is to be found elsewhere at the event. The last time I met Mark Banford of Swallowtail Games, he was in a kilt at the 2012 Games BAFTAs, where his team had just been proclaimed the Ones To Watch.
"You say BAFTA to someone and they know what that means," he says. "It's a really good boost and it opens doorways." Swallowtail is currently polishing its debut game, Tick Tock Toys, and on the verge of securing a serious cash injection via the Abertay University Prototype Fund.
"I think we've got a good foot in and a strong chance of being successful. But it's down to getting it out there and people picking it up and enjoying it."
"We believe in supporting talent," Abertay's biz dev director Paul Durrant tells me. And with the tax breaks consultation winding up, he's lobbying - nobly, if possibly futilely - to make that part of the equation: "It would be great to see companies who contribute to the skills agenda recognised for that when they come to claim tax relief. For us it's really about how we create some additional value for the whole of the UK."
Quartic Llama, meanwhile, is what happened when two different 2011 Dare teams collided. "We just had such a great time at Dare that we wanted to work together," says programmer Erin Michno. The previous day she'd been in Edinburgh mentoring 11-16 year old game makers in a BAFTA workshop.
Further wise words come via an encounter with Daniel Hinkles, CEO of Serious Parody, who collars me in the cafeteria at the end of the event. You make your own luck in this industry, you see - and through self-belief and a pro-active approach, Hinkles this year secured £1m in funding from a local businessman and a grant from Scottish Enterprise. With an iOS title, Wrestling Manager, already under its belt, the Dundee outfit is now working on its first console title.
"The biggest advice I'd give students is you're never going to be in a better place than you are now to do this," he says. "While you're at university you're surrounded by programmers, artists, animators, marketing guys, business managers - and they're all the same as you, trying to get somewhere in life.
"It would be great to see companies who contribute to the skills agenda recognised for that when they come to claim tax relief."
Paul Durrant, Abertay University
"Don't waste that time. Don't wait until you've finished uni. Do it now - you don't realise the expense of a studio until you've got your own."
Back in the competition tent, and after two days of judging, the three Ones To Watch are revealed: Kind Of A Big Deal for Starcrossed; Raptor Games for its ambitious horror title Project Thanatos (which uses a £12k VR headset that has me squirming in my seat); and Loan Wolf Games, whose platform-puzzler Pixel Story also bags a Channel 4 award of £25k and a publishing deal. That's what you call a head start.
"I'm utterly speechless, it's mindblowing," beams Loan Wolf's Ben Rushton. "The feelings are welling up inside!" Briefly composing himself, he adds: "It will be a brilliant future because I will put everything into this and so will the rest of the team."
And for all the fears and uncertainties swirling around the games industry, it's not only the winners who are confident of success.
"Events like this are just amazing to give people like us who just want to crack the industry an amazing opportunity to really show off what we can do and show that we could be up there if we were given the chance," says Caracol's Carney. "I'm obviously nervous about trying to get into the industry, but at the same time I'm excited to try and get up there."
But the last word should go to Raptor Games' Tom Kemp who, while his team revels in its nomination, blurts out on stage: "Don't listen to your parents when they say you can't make money from games".
We've all been there, haven't we?
You can find out more about all of this year's Dare To Be Digital games over on the official site.
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