Paul Durrant, Director of Business Development at the University of Abertay Dundee – an institution recently higlighted in an industry report as a leading light in computer games education – celebrates the 20th anniversary of the seminal computer game Lemmings and describes the university’s efforts to ensure the next generation of game developers have the skills to create the ground-breaking games of the future.
Suddenly the games development industry is getting old enough to have birthdays and haul out grainy photos with 80s haircuts, desks laden with CRT monitors and early games computers, show off faded copies of royalty invoices for pence and talk about bygone days. So it was with the celebration to mark 20 years since the creation of the Lemmings computer game series which took place recently at Abertay University.
It was particularly fitting that the celebration took place here at a time of significant recognition. In the space of a week we saw Abertay University highlighted as the exemplar of best practice for its approach to workplace simulation in its role as the UK Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education in the Livingstone/Hope Skills Review, commissioned by Ed Vaizey. We saw the Scottish Affairs Committee describe Abertay University’s Prototype Fund project, which uses funding administered by BIS and DCMS, as “excellent” and we also welcomed Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey here to see the new facilities we are creating to support small companies undertaking prototyping. During the visit Ed also met the BAFTA Young Games Designer Competition winners.
Young talent is as important as it ever was to this booming industry and one of the critical aspects of the Livingstone/Hope review was to highlight the significant work that is needed to raise the game in schools to be more inspirational in the teaching of STEM subjects and creative disciplines. Abertay University is working with a number of partners to try and address that challenge. The BAFTA competition winners were able to spell out to the Minister how little their routine schoolwork had contributed to their self-development in media and creative literacy. This isn’t such a problem if you are as self motivated as the bright sparks who won the competition but represents a much bigger issue for those turned off maths and science and unable to make the connection to a fulfilling and rewarding career such as games development.
The Lemmings story told during the birthday celebrations described the mix of serendipitous and creative events that led to the creation of the game by a small, young group of developers. The significant popularity and market success of Lemmings in the nineties and beyond passed largely without political recognition of its economic significance at a time when the games industry was more castigated than congratulated.
That we have a Minister prepared to vigorously defend the industry and highlight the sector’s importance to the UK as Ed Vaizey did during his Select Committee evidence and through his commissioning of the review provides a glimmer of hope. We may just live in a different world now where finally the economic impact that can arise from small, talented teams can be realised for greater benefits in the UK.
Our Prototype Fund project seeks to be part of the drive to do that. The focus is on very early stage companies, some of them with just one or two staff. The fund helps them create a prototype that can be used to garner partnership and funding. Ed Vaizey also met a number of the applicants to the fund during his visit and took time to listen to the difficulties they face during a round table lunch. Small content creation businesses still face challenges in terms of the availability of working capital and low cost premises. Interventions in these areas could help grow the volume of new UK content IP being generated so that we have critical mass of new starts at the mouth of the “innovation funnel” the UK needs for economic growth.
Another groundbreaking area Ed Vaizey saw during his visit to Abertay University was how the core technologies used in video games can be applied as a generic innovation tool by interdisciplinary teams to visualise complex problems and solutions. The Minister saw examples of games technology being used for environmental modelling and problem-solving visualisations in medical science. Interestingly, the interdisciplinary teams working on these projects include young games development graduates from science and art backgrounds. The Technology Strategy Board’s plans for investment in a number of UK Technology and Innovation Centres could provide opportunities for interdisciplinary, industry-focused problem solving to draw on the strengths of the UK games development talent base, but this will further increase the demand for talent now reverberating from higher education to schools.
Twenty years on from Lemmings, the skills review sets out the potential for a virtuous circle where innovative school work improves achievement levels pre-university and universities themselves are measured by employment performance and industry links. The increased volume of young talent from that approach will generate more original IP and become involved in cross-disciplinary innovation, all of which will drive economic growth. Abertay University’s model demonstrating the virtuous circle in action formed the core of Ed Vaizey’s visit here. We need to make sure that the UK’s strengths in talent development are supported, nurtured and grown from school to start up. If we don’t, we might just find the UK games development sector following those Lemmings off the edge of a cliff…
Read more about Abertay University’s Prototype Fund project on the Protoscribe blog.
Photo courtesy Steve Hammond.