While the quality of games-related university courses in the UK is under examination, the work that's being done at Abertay, Dundee, stands out. Not only does the university have Skillset-accredited courses on both the arts and programming sides, but it's also the founder of the internationally-renowned Dare to be Digital competition.
Dare, as it's more commonly known, invites small teams of students to take part in a ten-week game development programme with the aim of thinking up, designing and making a finished game. Here, director Paul Durrant explains some of the thinking behind the competition and ponders on the challenges ahead.
Q: For anybody that isn't aware, how did the Dare project get started?
Paul Durrant: It really goes back to 1999, by which time we'd been running our courses in games technology-related subjects for four or five years at that point. One of the things we were very aware of was the challenge of bringing arts and science students together - particularly programmers working with artists, as they have to do in the industry.
That was something that was something quite hard to make happen in an academic environment, so we decided to run an internal summer competition. In fact the first competition for Dare had two very big teams that we just created from some of our own students.
We had one or two people from industry working alongside us, doing some mentoring and supporting the students in 1999, and it was clear to everybody that there were some significant benefits. All of the students who came into it really learnt a lot.
So we were already involved in a few projects to do with helping students and graduates to start their own business - and of course culturally we've got the legend in the background of Dave Jones [boss of Realtime Worlds] having been a student here, who dropped out of his course to go and start a games company.
And in many ways the competition started, perhaps rather naively, thinking that it would create some additional games start-ups. You have to think back even at that time there were still quite small games development teams happening, and it was just a little bit before the blockbuster, multi-million dollar 3D stuff was really gaining ground.
But then quite soon we began to realise that this was also a great talent showcase too, and while we were creating IP, it wasn't always possible to sustain the team - the good people would go off and get hired, and so on.
For the next few years we focused on steadily growing the competition, but we were also keen to get some international involvement and over the years we tried out various ways of bringing talented people that we recruited with the British Council to take part in one of the teams in Scotland.
Then in 2003 we - rather boldly - went out to Malaysia and ran a whole parallel competition with 17 teams... which showed us we shouldn't run before we could walk from the international point of view. So a lot of Dare has been about trying things and learning as we go.
About three years ago we had an independent evaluation conducted, which said that there was lots of interest from the different games companies that we'd worked with at different times, and we should look at expanding things. That fitted with the Abertay ethos of trying to be an enabler - whether it's in terms of creating IP through research and disseminating it to the outside world, or training people and creating the skills and knowledge to help grow the economy.
So the university quite bravely took on the cost of underwriting the expansion UK-wide, and that's really what I've been doing for the past two or three years - building up host centres to replicate what we've done in Dundee. We've been fortunate to work with some great partners along the way - Enterprise Ireland came on board at a very early stage and have always been very interested in this, the London Development Agency was one of the first development agencies outside of Scotland and Ireland to really recognise the value of this and come on board...so we've grown against that background.
Q: You mentioned Malaysia, but what about the international reach elsewhere?
Paul Durrant: We've had teams from many different countries take part - teams from Canada, Japan, individuals from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, India...we've been slowly building that.
What we haven't managed to significantly do yet is to open up the European opportunity, and that's something we need to address.
Q: As a student, to have Dare on your CV is a pretty good thing as far as most of the UK games industry is concerned - particularly in light of the wider discussions on education at the moment. What's your evaluation on the impact that Dare has for those that enter, and indeed win?
Paul Durrant: It certainly does have an impact - that's great, but I think we've some way to go to attract even more talented applicants to the programme, and particularly there are some general computer arts and sciences programmes where people aren't necessarily so focused on games as a career that we'd like to attract, to come and experience being part of a team too.
So while we've had some success, we've still got quite a way to go before being looked at as always having the cream of the crop taking part in Dare.
Q: Are you surprised that nobody has looked at Dare and tried to copy it?
Paul Durrant: I think it's a case of scale. I think a lot of people have realised the value of prototyping in small teams, and a number of companies have come and taken that on as development exercises internally - and that's perhaps helped them to put a few new starters in among those teams.
So there has been some replication on an in-company basis, but frankly it's a scary thing to actually have to try and put together on this scale. The underwriting that the university has to cover...we're on a budget that's approaching GBP 750,000, and probably just less then half of that is covered by external funding and sponsorship - there's actually a big financial investment coming from the university to make it run, and we're yet to see any way to run it in any surplus-generating mode.
People have talked about the IP coming out of Dare, and it was great to see the CodaChain story that Blitz took on, but we do have to remember that the team developed a bare concept that was just a prototype, and Blitz has actually done all the work in creating the IP beyond that concept stage. So we don’t particularly have a tradable asset in terms of the IP output - not very significantly anyway.
Q: But at the same time Abertay's got a great reputation for its games courses - how much of that do you think is down to the success of Dare?
Paul Durrant: I think that's helped, but it's not the only thing. Not all of our students get onto Dare, of course, because it's a competitive application process - as it is anywhere in the UK. It's certainly not an automatic path for any of our students...and some are lucky enough to go straight into employment and don't even need to enter.
But there's no doubt that the recognition around the Skillset accreditation - and the paucity of Skillset-accredited courses - and the fact that we're the only university that has the arts and programming courses accredited, those things have been extremely positive for Abertay.
But they're the result of a long, hard slog, and we see ourselves only as a little way down the road yet because we've got to do quite a lot more to do what the industry wants - and there are some pretty tough challenges skills-wise ahead.
Q: So what of the future?
Paul Durrant: We're actually really optimistic, because we've got a huge amount of interest and support. I actually think that we can come up with a model that we'll test seriously with most of the key players in the industry before rolling it out.
My ambition is to have something like the event we're running at EIF, that's maybe got 30-plus prototypes, that's also got quite a strong European and international participation too. I believe that by growing that showcase element of the competition - in other words the bigger we create, the greater the carrot, and the greater the show is in terms of when the prototypes get shown off to the public - the bigger the draw will be and it'll be less of a challenge to come up with the funding for the teams.
But we really do want to keep the quality there too - that's one of the challenges, and one of the key things going forward that we'll need to address.
Paul Durrant is the director of Dare to be Digital. Interview by Phil Elliott.
This article is part of Scotland Week on GamesIndustry.biz, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.