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Computing, Science and IT Research: Dare to compete

The Dare to be Digital computer games design competition for students attracts top-flight competitors and the support of leading games companies. Tracey Caldwell investigates the success of the competition

Seven teams of students compete for ten weeks in the Dare to be Digital competition to produce a fully functioning computer game prototype. The high calibre of the students putting their talents to the test has attracted the attention of computer games companies around the world. They are interested in students who perform well in a video game development competition that has all the time pressures and teamwork of commercial development.

The competition is hosted by the University of Abertay, in Dundee, Scotland and is in its sixth year. Representatives from computer games companies such as Electronic Arts, the BBC and Genuine Games select seven teams from those that apply to take part. Just to be selected to compete is an achievement, as the competition attracts many of the best students. During the competition there is practical support from computer games companies, which provide technical, design, scriptwriting and marketing help.

The competition

Designing the way ahead

Matthew Hanlon is now a programmer for leading computer games company Lionhead. He was part of a winning team in the Dare to be Digital Competition in 2002. Since then he has graduated from Glasgow in computer science and studied for his Master’s in Computer Games Technology at Abertay. He feels that the competition was instrumental in winning his current job.

‘I truly think Dare helped. When you apply for a job in the games industry, especially coming out of university, experience counts. Also, you need something to make your CV stand out above the other applicants. Dare was a huge advantage on both these points,’ says Hanlon.

Hanlon’s team created Midget Wars , a team-based multiplayer game: ‘We wanted to move multiplayer games away from teams being a collection of individuals who just happen to be on the same side towards a game where the players on the same team had to work together to win.’

He adds, ‘There’s nothing else around like Dare. It’s one of the best experiences of my life, ten weeks of brutally hard work (the teams set their own work schedules) but also ten of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve had. It certainly helps you decide if the games industry is really the place for you and it helped me get where I am today. If there’s anyone out there that’s thinking of applying for it, my advice is do it, you won’t regret it.’ , for example, is an international home exchange forum, where members can exchange homes with each other for a limited time, providing a cheap alternative to renting.

Dare to be Digital has grown from being a Scottish competition with local sponsorship to an international event with multinational backing. It was set up in 2000 to attract and retain talented professionals to Scotland. Scottish Enterprise and Dundee Council supported it and at that time it was only open to students who were studying in Scottish universities.

Since 2001 international students have joined the competition. Teams from Malaysia, Japan and Ireland all took part in Dare on an ad hoc basis. Last year, with funding from the Scottish Executive’s Fresh Talent Initiative aimed at attracting talent from abroad, organisers were able to fund individual international students from India and China to join UK teams. Students are interviewed in their home countries and those selected are offered a ten-week paid placement at the competition in Abertay, with flights to Scotland paid for.

This year the competition comprised four teams from Scotland, one from Northern Ireland and one from Algoma University College in Canada and each team was joined by an international scholar. These included four scholars from China (including Hong Kong) and three from India. Each international student joining the competition is an extremely talented artist or programmer with good English language skills and is matched with a team according to their skills.

Jackie McKenzie, Abertay University’s project manager for Dare to be Digital, says the competition has inspired some innovative game ideas. ‘In 2002, a team of Japanese students created a co-operative game designed as naive 2D line drawing when all the rest were doing shoot ‘em ups. Since then, we have said, “don’t just give us 3D shoot ‘em ups, give us something more interesting”. Last year, we had some fabulous educational games that have just been invested in by NESTA (the UK National Lottery-funded endowment for science, technology and the arts).’

During the competition, students stay at Abertay University. They can keep diaries and video diaries on the Dare to be Digital website , which also showcases entries from previous years. At the end of the competition, the prototypes are judged by a panel of experts, and prizes are awarded to the teams at a special awards ceremony and talent showcase.

This year the judges will be awarding £2,000 prizes in three categories: the team with the program that has the greatest commercial potential; the team demonstrating the most creativity and innovation; and the team making the best use of technology. Sponsor companies will also be awarding prizes to individuals in categories including best programmer, best artist and best team leader. These prizes will range from cash to paid work experience or free software.

Sponsor Electronic Arts has produced some detailed hints and tips about what it will be looking for in this year’s winning entries, available on the website. It believes that talented arts, programming and animation students should be working on fluency of movement with consistency of style. Quality of modelling over quantity should be the aim and the judges will be looking at the students’ modelling skills. Characters should be responsive. The game should be well designed and its development well documented. The game is likely to be written in C++ but Java is acceptable if the end result is effective.

Richard Leinfellner, vice president and executive producer at Electronic Arts, says, ‘Dare to be Digital continues to be a fertile breeding ground for generating games development talent. Its unique formula of providing a typical games team production environment, coupled with high-quality games industry mentoring, makes this one of the best experiences any budding game creator could wish for.’

Dare to be Digital 2006 is funded by Abertay University and Dundee City Council, and sponsored by NCR, BBC Scotland, Belfast City Council, The Digital Hub, NESTA and the Scottish Executive.

The competitors

Students selected for this year’s competition had their work cut out to match the quality of previous years’ entrants. Amrita Bharij is studying computer arts at Abertay. She is focusing on animation on her course and saw the competition as a way of broadening her skills. Her team name is Electrolyte, and their game is Glitch.

Bharij says the team plans to produce a prototype up to level one of their game, which will be a fast-paced futuristic game with a robot as the main character. As the team prepared for the competition in spring, she said, ‘I am looking forward to learning from the computer games industry professionals. It could be a nice way to break into the games industry.’

She believes the competition will allow her and team members to showcase their skills in animation, character design and modelling as well as their teamwork.

Tommy Millar’s team is named Artisan Games. He and two team members are studying computer arts while the other two are studying computer programming. Millar believes it is essential to start with a team focused on success: ‘Our team began as a concept, myself and two programmers, Al and Dave. After a lot of gaining and losing artists, we settled on the talented individuals Ewan and Damien. The previous artists we had were either unenthusiastic or unable to meet the structural deadlines. I think it’s important that a team has passion for what it’s doing.’

Many of the teams were not previously groups of friends but were created through artists advertising on the Dare to be Digital website for programmers to join their team and vice versa.

Millar’s team is developing Metalheads , a strategy-based platform game for use on the Nintendo DS console. It features the magnetic walker ‘Metamagnet’ in its attempt to magnetically save the tiny metalhead people. He can magnetise them into blocks, chains, wheels, rotorblades and more to traverse deviously designed levels. This game will utilise both DS screens, the touch screen and microphone.

Millar says he and his team set out to be innovative: ‘We all entered as we want to make this title something a little different. We wanted to make an innovative, original title that, at the same time, can be marketed well. To this end, we chose this generation’s most innovative hardware, the DS, to develop for.’

The team members of Artisan Games hope the competition will propel them into their future careers: ‘We all want to work in video games. We’d love to work in this industry, and Dare to be Digital offers a unique stepping stone for this. Also, as Dare to be Digital favours the more original titles for use in the competition, it’s truly different to the mundane alternatives for a budding developer,’ says Millar.

He hopes to take from the experience the skills and discipline necessary to undertake the task of building a successful game in ten weeks and also gain opportunities from potential employers by showing what he can do. ‘Personally the most important thing for me is the ability to show that not just the large developers can create unique and addictive games,’ says Millar.

A third team in this year’s competition has come up with an innovative game based on the development of cults. Elaine Reynolds is studying for an MSc in Computer Games Technology. Her team’s game is called Join Us! It’s an online strategy/simulation game where players create fully customisable cults and compete against others to take control of a city by converting followers.

It is a humorous, satirical game but, according to Reynolds, much of the game play is based on how cults actually operate.

‘Players will be able to devise their cult’s teachings and beliefs and then share them online with other players, making them as wacky as they want. It’s a game for all the megalomaniacs out there,’ says Reynolds.

She says: ‘Getting into the games industry is tough but one of the best ways of getting in is making a great demo to show to employers and hopefully that’s what we’ll come out with at the end of the ten weeks. Dare is a great way to make industry contacts, with regular seminars and support from people working in games companies.’

The competition also offers students a chance to be creative: ‘The industry is notoriously risk-averse. There are so many sequels being made that it’s brilliant to have the creative control to be able to work on an original game,’ says Reynolds.

Springboard to success

Team members from previous years’ competitions have gone on to great things and believe the competition contributed greatly to their success. Two teams from the 2005 competition became start-up games companies, while another was negotiating the sale of their game to a developer. Stig Vilholm Petersen now works at Real Time Worlds in Dundee as senior games programmer looking after the AI team working on the game Crackdown for the Xbox 360, due to be released at the end of 2006.

Petersen originally came from Denmark to study in Scotland and took part in the 2001 competition. ‘I thought the competition was an excellent way of proving that we could create a computer game in ten weeks and it would not interfere too much with our studies,’ he says. He felt that the experience of working to a schedule and creating a product was much closer to what was going on in the games industry than other parts of his course, and showed that the team was capable of advanced computer graphics.

His team created a futuristic Manga-esque multi-player game that won first prize – at that time cash and a trip to a games exhibition in London. When Petersen went for a job interview with a London-based games company, they already knew about the competition and he was offered a job with Elixir Studios. Since then he has left London to move back to Scotland and a job at games company RTW.

Future is global

There is no doubt that the competition offers real opportunity for students at the cutting edge of video game creation to develop their skills and showcase them to the games industry. Next year the organisers plan to expand the competition. They hope to open two additional host centres in England, in locations where there are pockets of excellence in computer games, to run the competition on site. With three host sites,

it might be possible to have up to 30 teams competing and to collaborate with overseas institutions. The intention is to offer opportunity to more talented students throughout the UK and internationally.

Tracey Caldwell is a writer who specialises on IT and educational issues.

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