Make Something Unreal Live report
This year’s Gadget Show Live 2012 saw the culmination of nearly six months' work for the four development teams that secured a place in the Epic Games and Train2Game-sponsored Make Something Unreal Live game jam. Amid the bustling halls of the UK’s biggest consumer electronics event in Birmingham earlier this month, each of the ten-strong student teams had 48 hours to very publicly polish up their iOS games under the expert guidance of industry veterans including Cliff Bleszinski, Jon Hare, and Peter Molyneux, as well as Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, authors of the long-running Fighting Fantasy interactive novels on which all four games were based.
The frequency of game jams – both internal, such as Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnights, and public, from Ludum Dare to the recent tongue-in-cheek Molyjam – appears to be on the up, but Make Something Unreal’s prominence at a mainstream public event like the Gadget Show, an event which attracted over 100,000 attendees, is unprecedented. With the recent, successful push for computer science to be taught in schools (highlighted by Livingstone’s own Next-Gen report), exposing the general public to the process of game development – and the idea of a career in it – seems more relevant than ever before.
“I think it worked really well as a spectacle,” says game designer and Fighting Fantasy author Jackson. “You could see people coming along to the exhibition and they were curious; they didn't really know what was going on. There's a bunch of people with code and wireframes on their screens, and when they found out what it was they were really curious about it.”
Of course, the general public, no matter how enthusiastic, is unlikely to ever take as much pleasure in clean, efficient code as your average programmer, so it's better to push the visual aspects to the fore. “We were quite careful with the way we set up the development areas and what was displayed on the big plasmas, purposely showing visual artists and animators for those particular screens,” explains Epic Games European territory manager Mike Gamble.
“Having said that, we did have plenty of people come up and talk to the teams and members of staff that were around about how they could get into game development, both on a professional and amateur level. From that point of view it was very successful.”
The four teams – Commando Kiwi, Derp Studios, Digital Mage and Indigo Jam – were chosen from entrants to last year’s Train2Game and Epic Game Jam, another 48 hour competition which took place at the University Of Bedford last November, and all used Epic’s Unreal Development Kit (UDK). Commando Kiwi was crowned the winner for its touchscreen-controlled dungeon crawler The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain: Lost Chapters (see page two for more details on the games) but all four teams will benefit from a publishing deal with Appynation that will see the titles released on the App Store in the coming weeks. It means, of course, that the Gadget Show event was not the finale; in many ways, it's only just beginning.
“Let's not forget we were judging a race that's only half run – in another couple of months time Warlock might not be the ultimate winner,” stresses Livingstone. “The final judgement will be made by consumers when these games are published.”
The winning team, Commando Kiwi
It’s a striking point. A great deal has already been written about the democratisation of videogame development through digital channels such as iOS and XBLA, but the effect such direct routes to market have had on the career trajectories of students is profound. It’s a seismic shift that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Train2Game course director Myra Smallman.
“I think students are now very much realising that they can start a studio with just two or three people, and that there are more real possibilities for small studios than there have been in years,” she says. “It’s all about the ideas, of course.
“Our students are very excited and it's something we are now covering in the courses. Working with industry experts like Steve and Ian gives students a huge boost, too, and they begin to understand that there are huge opportunities out there for them.”
Gamble adds: “What really, really surprised me was the way the students stepped up to the challenge and the difference in the quality of their games from when we arrived. Their games were all playable; they were okay. When we finished on Sunday there were four very playable, and I think good, games with the potential to be very good games.”
Despite the jam officially concluding at the Gadget Show, the teams will continue to finesse their games in the run up to publication, expanding as they take on additional artists for the final push. But even as one group of devs winds up their efforts, Epic is already looking at repeating Make Something Unreal Live next year, a process that will likely kick off in late summer as new teams compete for a place in the live final.
“I think [competitions like this are] very important because they give small teams and students a chance to be masters of their own destiny much earlier in the careers,” concludes Gamble. “In a very short amount of time they've been exposed to a range of experience that can take years – a whole career, really. From business models to how to actually look at the figures you've got on screen and work out how best to present them.
"Irrespective of what happens to the games and the teams as they exist now, I think every single one of those students has got an amazing leg-up into the industry so that if they want to go and join a studio they'll have a shipped game on their CVs, and have worked on a team – that's immensely valuable.”