Dare To Be Digital, the annual development contest held at Dundee’s Abertay University, sees 15 teams from around the world descend on campus, each tasked with developing a game from concept to playable prototype in just 10 weeks. It’s a widely respected contest, virtually guaranteeing its participants a job in the videogame industry, and its three winners are shortlisted for a BAFTA award.
It’s also great material for a documentary, prompting Headlight Pictures to create Crunchtime, a three-part series about last year’s Dare, which begins on Channel 4 this Sunday. Part reality show, part love letters to Dare, Abertay, Scottish development and games in general, the programme is interspersed with brief features explaining different aspects of modern gaming culture, and interviews with local studios like Ruffian and Denki. Crunchtime covers a lot of bases from a lot of angles, chiming with Headlight’s intent for the show appeal to as wide an audience as possible. We caught up with Headlight’s Will Templeton to find out more.
“History’s shown that gaming TV made specifically for gamers isn’t the kind of thing that the wider public is interested in at all,” he says. “Go too specific and you alienate everybody. One of the most interesting things about development isn’t the coding or the art. As fantastic as some of the artwork is and as efficient as the coding might be, the best things are the stories that come out of it.”
Image credits: Craig Hastings / Headlight Pictures
From the two episodes we’ve seen, he’s right. One team working on an iPad game find they're unable to get their hands on the then recently released hardware, leaving them unable to test their game for the first few weeks, until organisers intervened on their behalf and sourced them a few units. Another team is developing for Windows Phone 7 before Microsoft’s smartphone platform has even been released.
“That’s the cost of wanting to be on the bleeding edge,” says Templeton. “[The iPad team] were developing on the Mac in a simulation – the iPad at that time was so new it was like gold dust. The Windows Phone 7 team had to scale their game back significantly because they couldn’t get the hardware.”
Another team experiences quite different problems: a group of four Indian friends and one Scottish student are led by someone who is, put politely, prone to overpromising. A fraught few weeks culminates in one team member pointedly saying: “To anyone looking to set up a company I have one piece of advice: don’t work with your friends.”
“In that vein Dare reflects real development, which is so useful for these guys,” says Templeton. some people have team differences, some have sticky coding problems and some can’t get the hardware they need. What the programme shows in the end is that if you have that solid design and people respond to it then you will end up being successful.”
Headlight was given extensive access to the competition, with a base in the same building as the contestants. “We were working extremely closely to them – close enough that if anyone shouted in excitement or dismay we were there to be able to capture it,” Templeton says. “We’re so grateful to Abertay because it was so valuable in making the programme.
“When you’re making a documentary you want to make it as close to the source material as possible,” he continues. “Being there and having that immediacy really helped the show – we were able to make sure we captured things as they happened. But we were careful not to get in people’s faces. The priority has to be the games they’re making: we’re not there to interfere, we’re there to document.”
If there’s one disappointing thing about the show, it’s its length. Telling the story of the ten weeks of development itself, the Dare Protoplay showcase in which three winners are selected by public vote, and the overall winner being named One To Watch at the BAFTA awards in just three half-hour episodes meant a lot had to be left out.
“I definitely would have loved the opportunity to tell more,” says Templeton. “Even though we weren’t able to feature everybody there’s more stories to tell. Because it’s the first series, we’re testing the waters. If we were approached to do a second series I think it would be a very easy decision for Headlight to make. We’d definitely be interested in pursuing it further given the opportunity.”
That opportunity, of course, is only likely to come if the programme is watched by a significant audience. “If people want to see more all I can say is make sure you watch it,” says Templeton. “Record it on its first broadcast, watch it afterwards on 4OD, make it clear that this is a programme you want to see more of.
“We want to challenge the misconception that gaming TV is terrible. We definitely think we’ve made something based on videogames that is great to watch.”
Crunchtime begins this Sunday at 7.25am on Channel 4. Yes, 7.25am. Set your recorders.