I was recently asked to put together a games development webinar for some students overseas in my role as chair of the BCS animation and Games specialist group. One of the reasons we formed this group in BCS (formerly known as the British Computer Society) is that often, despite the obvious use of computing in games, the IT industry doesn’t see games as part of it and vice versa. Despite the +$200bn size of the industry it’s still “playing” so not serious business to many. The pandemic has changed that to some extent with games becoming both a much-needed escape and/or a connectivity to others. I thought I would share what I put together here.
On the edge of the industry
I have given a lot of presentations about games and games tech but I do have to admit I don’t work in the traditional games industry. Obviously, my time as a metaverse evangelist in corporate life was very close to that and technically my first ever money for programming was a game listing in the C&VG magazine in the 80’s. I have built games and experiences for specific projects with Unity over the years. I am also very much a gamer, I play and explore all kinds of genres and platforms and that in itself brings over 40 years of experience. Still the industry brings me new things to think about, enjoy and ultimately share. Now I closely cover AR and VR in enterprise and industrial use in a professional capacity. That is a bit of of any presentation to establish why you might be worth listening too, and also why you might not be too.
Space the final frontier
It’s always good to throw in a bit of history and video games have a relatively short but amazing thread. Nearly 60 years ago at MIT a game was created for the DEC PDP-1 called Spacewar! Not the absolute first, but it is a seed from which gaming sprouted. On a round green screen, pretty much like an oscilloscope, this two-player game (now we would call it couch co-op) had two spaceships and a gravity well providing a very analogue experience. The program was coded on punch cards, with most of the design work done with paper and pencil. I add here that in the late 70’s at school our computer science lessons started with us writing on coding sheets to be transcribed to punch cards and our programs ran overnight on the town hall computer. I know I am 50 something now but look where we are at now with tech!
State of the art
I was told, though not sure how accurate it was, that the students I was presenting too were not gamers. I was asked to explain what games and game types there are out there. It is tricky to explain and show the vast different types of games, but I led with the beauty and vastness of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with sweeping vistas and heroic battles. This I contrasted with the cute draw of Animal Crossings New Horizon, still visiting it a year and half after release at least once a day. Then the power of the scripted music presentation held in Fortnite with the Travis Scott gig. Then again to contrast my ability to create in and around game experiences from the individual development of my first game to now being able to create my own car liveries and branding in a game such as Forza Horizon that can be shared with other players.
What is a game?
Asking myself a difficult to answer question, admitting it is not a clear-cut answer hopefully helps the audience ponder this themselves too. This is where the intent of a game more clearly differs from enterprise software. A game is built to enable a story to be told or experienced, narrative is the key. That is not to say all games have a script or a single pathway, some do but many allow the actions of the player to form their own moments and story. Even the humble Space Invaders, seeking to eat my 10p pieces in 1977, provided memorable stories in and around the very playing of the game. Not the same level of narrative of a role-playing game like Read Dead Redemption 2, but they all share this common trait. Genres are a difficult thing to pin down across gaming and many games cross genres. Space invaders is a 2D arcade shooter, but Read Dead Redemption 2 has role play, multiplayer 3rd person combat, horse racing, fishing, poker, character collectibles, free roam and story line. There are many more types of game in racing, sports, strategy, turn based, survival, sandbox …. The list goes on. Each of those is also spread across many ways to play, PC, Console, arcade, cloud, mobile, VR, AR, location based… another long list.
Who builds games?
As video games are IT based the sort of roles a regular enterprise project might have of Programmer, Systems Architect, Project Manager, User Interface Designer, Information architect, Security, Testing, Library management and Support are all essential and in the various flavours and specializations needed depending on the product. However, games need more with Story Writers, Animators, 2D/3D Artists, Music Composers, Audio engineers, Performers/Actors, Level Design, Producers, AI programmers, Networking/Cloud, Tooling engineers, Payment experts, Community/social, Console/PC/Mobile and Licensing to name but a few. You can see some of these roles in the survey commissioned by the games representative organization UKIE and the general makeup of the game develop population.
How to get started developing games?
An obvious question, but I suggest the answer now really is just start! That hole isn’t going to dig itself. I mean that as a hook to be able to show the tools are there for anyone to start creating from the most basic of things such as a web browser. I pointed the viewers towards the Scratch platform, once again that MIT at work in the games industry. The environment is relatively basic but there are plenty of examples of clever uses of it to make interesting little game ideas. For those wanting a bit more both Unity and Unreal are leading game development platforms with huge amounts of teaching resources and examples. I showed Unreal creating a new project from the beginning, choose new game, choose a base mechanism from shooter, puzzle etc then one more page of settings and there you have it a development environment with an example game mechanic to start messing around with. Then for good measure I showed Roblox Studio, the development application to let anyone build multiplayer experiences, and potentially make money from them, in the virtual world of Roblox. In the same way you can pick one of many templates and there you suddenly have a 4 person car racing game to adjust. These experiences take just minutes to set up. My final bit of advice was to look at the indie community game distribution site Itch.io where people sell or share their games, parts of games, graphics packs, sounds and gather on scheduled game jams for specific subjects and genres. It is all so far removed from sitting at home learning to code in the 80s.
Bring it home
Aside from the fact that if I had had all this in front of me back then I may have ended up somewhat deeper in the actual games industry than I am now, I am excited with the opportunities it brings everyone to get creative. I do like to point out that my self-published novels Reconfigure and Cont3xt not only feature a gamer and game dev as the lead using all her wits to deal with the adventure, but that the book covers are primarily generated in the Unity game development tool, which is the same one Roisin uses in the story. You may not actually do AAA game development but there are so many ways to be linked with it. I should also add that last night I saw an early screening on an AR focussed film Sight:extended I backed on Kickstarter which now actually has Reconfigure in it as a virtual poster! So lookout Hollywood the gamers are coming!