This postgraduate course is built around being part of a proper development studio

Training Spotlight: Birmingham City University

Higher education courses are supposed to bring students within reach of their games development dreams. But that’s not always the case.

Conscious that some games companies feel that not enough students are being realistically prepared for life in the industry, Birmingham City University has adopted a vocational approach with its Gamer Camp studio.

“I see Gamer Camp more like your first year in the video games industry and less like a year on a degree course, that’s what attracted me to joining the staff team here,” says Iain Harrison, art director and senior lecturer on MA Video Game Development at Gamer Camp Studios.

“The Gamer Camp course differs from traditional degree courses in that we focus heavily on work-based learning, with the prerequisite skills for a project being taught in sessions at the beginning of each dev cycle. We then allow the students to use these skills in ‘real’ situations, by running a mock games studio environment.”

The team was assembled by Oliver Williams, the Gamer Camp studio director who had the vision to take a new approach to games education. Gamer Camp hosts three specialising in code, art and production.

Students work together full-time in a studio environment to develop three video games in one year. Students are supported in their learning by experienced teaching staff from the industry, who’ve previously worked at studios such as Codemasters, EA, Free Radical Design and Eurocom.

Harrison says its teaching ethos focuses on ‘T skills’, a term used by Creative Skillset and in Valve’s staff handbook to describe students that are highly specialised in one core field, but with broad skills and knowledge to utilise their specialism across teams and platforms.

The courses at Gamer Camp are split into three phases, each one a development project aimed at a different platform. The first project eases the students in by starting with a PC game in team sizes of three or four.

Next, a tablet computer project mirrors the development experience they might have in a small indie studio, with the students producing games that see release on app stores.

Finally, the last and longest project sees student undertaking a full triple-A project for PS3, with assistance from PlayStation First (which also provided the course with its 11 PS3 dev kits) and SCEE as the client.

Williams says: “It can actually help if students make mistakes at this stage as it provides great learning opportunities. Gamer Camp is set up to be your first year in industry but with a safety net. Mistakes on Gamer Camp don’t mean financial penalties from publishers for a late milestone delivery or a trip to HR for a written warning. In our studio the students are encouraged to reflect and learn from their mistakes making them better professionals in the long run.”

Alumni from Gamer Camp has now work at Sega, Crytek, Travellers Tales, Feral Interactive and Playground Games. This year, one of its students has already joined Evolution Studios, while another has acquired significant funding to set up a new studio in Rome.

The course leaders are currently looking to extend their offering to include an undergraduate course.
“At Gamer Camp Studios we believe the best way to learn the skills needed to make games is to make games,” concludes Williams.

“It isn’t just a course; it’s real game development, in a real studio with experienced veterans from industry as your mentors.”

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