Every June, Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University plays host to a special event that sees aspiring games maker from colleges and universities around Europe taking on the full challenge of development – often for the first time.
Brains Eden has become established as a significant event in the UK games industry’s calendar, and the 2016 iteration continues to raise the bar. A total of 33 teams made up of 169 students made for the festival’s biggest event to date, with the largest turnout for the final day.
It’s not just students and graduates that benefit from the event, either. Numerous studios, from both the local Cambridge area and around the UK, come for the weekend to mentor, advise, inspire and even learn from the young developers.
The core of the event is a 48-hour games jam, where participants are challenged to develop a fully working game prototype to a strict deadline – but Brains Eden is more than just another jam. Career workshops and speeches from established developers offer attendees the chance to better equip themselves for a job in the games industry.
“The sense of community that enveloped this year’s festival was unlike anything seen at other game jams,” says Andy Salmon, interim dean and pro vice chancellor for ARU’s faculty of Arts, Law and Social Sciences.
“The teams collaborated with their mentors throughout the weekend, but also engaged with other teams to share best practice and shortcuts to help each other achieve the best results for their games.
“For the first time in the festival’s history, we had a tie in the shortlisted winners. This meant we had to expand our number of shortlisted games from six to seven, as the quality was so high. We also noticed a large number of the teams developed their games for both PC and tablets, stretching – and showcasing – their capabilities even further.
Sumo Digital’s Karl Hilton, one of the industry figureheads that helped to mentor this year’s teams, adds: “The cross-pollination that is possible via a game jam event such as Brains Eden is already a great experience for both students and games companies. Giving students the chance to work on realistic games propositions and be subject to industry feedback from companies will highlight the actual types of issues that games creation faces in the commercial world.
“Students get first-hand knowledge of the issues and experiences that need to be considered by games developers and gives valuable experience for their future job hunting.
“For games developers, it is very useful to see how academic institutions are teaching subjects related to video games creation and to understand what knowledge transfer is possible and also useful between companies and universities. In the long term it will enable more effective partnerships between the academic and business world.”
Giving students the chance to work on realistic games propositions and be subject to industry feedback from companies will highlight the actual types of issues that games creation faces in the commercial world.
This year’s winners where the excellently-named Disco Ninjas, a team of students from the Netherlands’ NHTV Breda University, with a multiplayer brawler. For their accomplishments, the team earned an afternoon at the London headquarters of PlayStation First, where the platform holder’s Game Content team will give them more insight into how they can bring their games to market.
“This was our first Brains Eden and we enjoyed it tremendously,” said lead ninja Tim Baijens. “Our curriculum supervisors organise a trip each year, so I was very happy our team was amongst the chosen this year to represent our university.”
According to Baijens, there are several things students can gain from games jams: the chance to network with other developers, opportunities to learn and put your name out there for future internships and other early career moves, plus the challenge of not only making a game but finishing one.
“Brains Eden gives you the opportunity to do all of this,” said Baijens. “This makes it a great event for students that are seriously pursuing a career in game development. If you do well, you'll even have a project to add to your portfolio.”
This year’s theme was ‘parity’, and was interpreted in a myriad of different ways by the teams taking part – although Baijens reveals the winning team wasn’t even sure what this meant.
“We actually had to Google it first,” he says. “Our initial thought was that it screamed co-op play. We sat together, and used post its to note ideas that came to mind with ‘parity’. We further categorised them into a field of mechanics, camera perspective, theme and feel, and whether we wanted single player, co-op or multiplayer – eliminating ideas based on risk or what we were simply not the most excited to work on.
“We ended up with a physics rope mechanic, either an angled or 2.5D camera perspective, co-op multiplayer, and a wacky style with cartoon and Mayan inspirations. We prototyped our game in-engine, and adjusted after play testing it ourselves and receiving mentor feedback.”
Some of the games produced during the event were easily on a par with the games I see teams with many years' of professional experience create.
On hand to assist them were mentors from across the industry – not only established developers but some of the minds behind the technology students were able to use on their prototypes.
“I really enjoy mentoring,” says Unity’s Cat Burton. “Having been in the industry for a number of years, I'm always keen to share my knowledge and experience with people looking to join the games industry.
“I was very impressed with the quality of the games and the skills of the teams at Brains Eden. Some of the games produced during the event were easily on a par with the games I see teams with many years' of professional experience create.”
Baijens goes on to add that having mentors gives participants the chance to impress with their knowledge, as well as learn: “It was fantastic, at one point one of the mentors sat with me while I was iterating on the camera perspective of our game, we talked a bit about the game and he gave me feedback.
“While working on the camera I was able to show the mentor a few tricks in the engine which he didn't know. He also really took his time to share his expertise, which sped up our work, and is a valuable experience for me in the future of my career.”
There are already plenty of games jams throughout the calendar and held around the world, but few focus so much on students and giving them the chance to kickstart their career. Salmon says Brains Eden’s growth is due in no small part to how much it does for the industry as well as its young participants.
“Since the festival’s inception eight years ago, it has grown in not only popularity but in standing within the digital creative sector,” he says. “It is now regarded as one of the ‘must attend’ gaming events for university students, providing an unrivalled opportunity for industry representatives to meet with students, linking up the next generation of gaming talent with potential employers, helping to bridge the skills gap.
“This year’s event made it clear that the games industry, especially in Cambridge, is rich with talent, which is good news for our region, in which the creative digital industry is one of the fastest growing and most innovative.”
Burton adds: “Game jams and events like Brains Eden are a great way for young talent to learn more about the industry and show their existing skills. It's a great way for them to get access to advice from industry experts. It is also a good opportunity for companies to see upcoming student talent.
“Jams are a great way for you to be really tested and to try new things. I personally enjoy them because they require strong team work and give you a chance to work on games in a genre or style you might not have worked on before.”
Hilton says that such events afford an opportunity for creative and tech-driven industries such as video games to strengthen ties with academic institutes like ARU.
“These institutes are nurturing the next generation of creative talent coming through, presents a fantastic opportunity to learn from each other,” he explains. “Students get a chance to interact with industry people and we, as professional games creators, get to meet a new generation who will bring a wealth of new ideas and perspectives on what can, and should, be achieved in creating entertaining experiences.”
Game jams and events like Brains Eden are a great way for young talent to learn more about the industry and show their existing skills. It's a great way for them to get access to advice from industry experts.
Events like Brains Eden and FXP – Future Experience Points, a new coding competition aimed at school- and college-aged students, held during the same weekend in Cambridge – also present another opportunity. It’s the chance to highlight the need for better education in computer sciences and the other subjects that form the foundation for games development.
“We know that teachers are feeling the pressure,” admits Salmon. “Now that Computer Science is a compulsory subject on the National Curriculum, the responsibility of educating students to fill the shortage of skilled workers in the rapidly growing tech sector, has been placed on their shoulders.
“Support is needed across the board to help students and teachers get the most from this opportunity, and the more industry can do to provide this support, the better.”
The leader of the winning team believes more can always be done to connect aspiring developers with the industry – an interaction that can be beneficial for both sides.
“In my opinion, we can improve the creative process and the skill set of the industry by putting talented young individuals next to seasoned industry veterans as soon as possible,” said Baijens.
“Students and indie game developers often work with less conventional tools or software, which is not always integrated into the workflow of, or known to, established studios – or so I've heard.
“Additionally, I've often found at the start of any new job or career, that people have a certain energy, a thirst to prove themselves – if you like what you do, of course. This thirst and energy can be contagious on the work floor.
“Someone from the industry once told me that young developers can, for more experienced developers, remind them of the passion and energy that they once shared at an early stage in their own career, but may have lost because game development has become part of their normal, daily routine. To me game development is still a very magical and fresh process, sometimes until the wee hours of the night.”
Brains Eden will once again return in June, and the organisers are always on the lookout for industry support and mentors. You can find out more at www.brainseden.net.