The next generation of game developers: more flexible, more independent

Southampton Solent university

Southampton Solent university

Students facing the challenges of an industry in flux have a golden opportunity to redefine games, says a Southampton Solent University academic.

Senior lecturer Adam Barton believes we are in safe hands as a generational shift in consoles takes shape and social gaming continues to thrive. “I’m optimistic about youth,” says the course leader for the UK institution’s BA (Hons) Computer and Video Games degree programme.

The former Argonaut technical artist points out that British industry luminaries such as Codemasters founders the Oliver twins and development demigod Peter Molyneux started young, but many of their generation are now too hamstrung by corporate responsibilities to reinvigorate an industry.

“We need new blood to say ‘I’m going to set up my game industry’”, he explains. “The little sleep I get is because I believe there will be a fresh generation of people who can take gaming in a different direction. We’ve kind of reached the long-term end of what triple-A gaming is going to be and there are new opportunities in gamification, mobile gaming and interactivity.”

A technical artist and former engineer, Barton is not alone in ruminating on the future of games. Across the corridors and over the faculty divide at Solent his counterpart in programming, David Horne, is addressing the same challenge of producing graduates fit to land a job in a changing industry.

Horne’s 2013/14 intake of students will choose between a mainstream coding degree and one geared specifically towards those aspiring to work as indie developers. That change, say Solent, has been informed by indie startup successes as well as a good track-record of getting people into traditional jobs.

The BSc (Hons) in Computer Games Indie Development is one of the first of its type in the UK. But isn’t there a risk that a less code-heavy version of the BSc (Hons) Computer Games Development degree will create graduating classes of all-rounders?

“It’s not a risk. That’s absolutely the intent,” says Horne. “Part of the remit of the new course is to give people a broader range of skills and focus on things that are useful for indie devs. There’s a much larger push on business and on entrepreneurship taking the focus away from the highly technical you don’t always need. Five years ago I would have laughed in your face if you said you could make a game without a team of programmers. Now, with a little knowledge and skill, you can make a game and understand what the marketing, PR and business processes are why they are important.”

Dave Horne Southampton Solent

Dave Horne of Southampton Solent University.

Employability is a key concern of all universities, with courses changing to respond to demands of employers on an almost termly basis. And with self-employment and contractual work taking up an increasing proportion of job opportunities for games graduates, those students on the art side are learning more about core business skills too.

Students can sit a business unit which teaches them how to setup in enterprise, manage cashflow and raise capital. But that’s extra-curricular, just as it should be according to Barton. “My course is full. You need to drop something out to fit something in. We are trying to get them to think broader and have wider ranging thought processes.”

The principle economic theory behind universities is that they will help to produce people who can make a living and contribute to the wealth of nations. “Students have to be prepared to be flexible,” says Barton. “Already we are saying students shouldn’t expect a traditional game industry job and should always have an eye on setting up companies. The University is having a big push to make people vocational but not limited to careers.”

Not that the core skills which will appeal to traditional games employers are being neglected. In fact, Horne has added a console development module in response to the imminent arrival of Microsoft’s next Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 4.

“I think it’s going to be a cycle,” says Horne who co-founded work-for-hire coders The Code Mafia and formerly worked for ATI and NVIDIA. “When I was coming out of uni, there were lots of small companies doing creative stuff and everyone got swallowed up and the indie scene disappeared. Now indies are coming back and monetisable ideas are coming back. We’ll see a consolidation where there are a lot of small indie companies under a bigger one.”