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.

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