Brains Eden: Why the world comes to Cambridge for a game jam

Brains Eden once again invited students from around Europe to compete in a 48-hour game jam, but it’s the chance to kickstart a career in development that’s the real draw for attendees
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The end of June once again saw one of the UK’s biggest gaming festivals held in the beautiful city of Cambridge. 

Brains Eden 2015, organised by creative front and Anglia Ruskin University, played host to 109 students split into 22 teams, with participants hailing from far-flung places such as France, Spain, The Netherlands and, of course, the UK.

Built around a 48-hour game jam, the festival’s key hook is the involvement of industry mentors and prizes that will help the winners jumpstart their career in games development. The prime example is the grand prize of a paid contract – a first for the event – at Guerrilla Cambridge, which went to NHTV student Timo Van Hugten.

There was also a series of career clinics, speed surgeries and talks from development experts – including representatives from PlayStation and Inkle Studios – to help answer the many questions students have about entering the industry.

Creative Front’s Clare Green says that the industry support is the lifeblood of Brains Eden and continues to improve year on year.

“We are very proud of the relationships the festival has with the local games community,” she says. “This year we introduced Pitch and Play mentoring slots over the weekend to enable professionals to support the teams with their concept development, gameplay and specific technical advice.”

Crucially, the event – now in its seventh year – has proven to be so popular that many participants come back, even after they have finished studying. ARM artist Laura Mengot Chapa took part in Brains Eden two years in a row, and is returning this year as a mentor.

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It's surprising how much you can learn from the students, especially outside your field.

Matthew Holland, Jagex

Popleaf co-founder Jonathan Skuse, meanwhile, has an even longer history with Brains Eden: “My colleague and I started the game jam. Initially, it was a small part – just 30 students – of quite a different event. It’s become the primary focus of Brains Eden.

“I’ve had students tell me they’ve learnt more in 48 hours than they have in the previous year. Attendees who actively make best use of mentors get exposed to ideas they just wouldn’t otherwise at university.”

It’s not just past participants who sign up to become mentors – the event is supported by a range of leading games firms, from developers to hardware specialists, including ARM, Geomerics, Jagex and more. And this has become a vital part of the game jam.

“Having strong support systems such as mentors provides students with an opportunity to learn about real industry experiences early on in their career,” says Geomerics’ technical artist Sam Bugden. “Access to this type of advice can really help students to avoid common pitfalls and progress within the industry much faster.”

Lead mentor Matthew Holland, who also works as a game designer at Jagex, adds that the industry members taking part also benefit: “It’s surprising how much you can learn from the students, especially when they need help solving problems from outside your field, and no atmosphere is quite like the buzz of dozens of keen developers busy making games.

“I learn more than you might guess: it’s good practice at understanding other disciplines, and even on my own turf I sometimes get some neat new insight. An event like Brains Eden can also be a good place to look for trends in the new generation of gamers and developers.”

Pocket Gamer events editor George Osborn adds that the international scope of the participants also provides interesting insight into the next generation of talent. 

“I like to see what is coming next,” he says. “In the past year I’ve seen developers in Poland, Finland, Germany, India, Ireland and all sorts of other places working on amazing projects; I’m excited about seeing what’s happening here, too.”

Bugden says: “Having the chance to learn from experienced mentors was an important part of my own career progression – it’s fundamental for talented games developers to thrive. Events such as Brains Eden allow everyone involved to learn and develop, regardless of age or experience.” 

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Meaningful mentors

Creative Front’s Green is keen for the industry to show its enthusiasm at events such as this, as it can be a good representation of the sector students one day hope to work in.

“The energy and passion for the industry is infectious,” she says. “It is so important for students to see this, meet key industry figures and chat about their work, portfolio and ambitions. It is hugely important for the students to not only meet professionals but also Brains Eden alumni.”

While the career clinics and mentors are useful, many agree that it is the game jam itself that proves to be the most valuable experience for attendees.

“Game jams are a very enriching experience, because you gather people from a wide range of disciplines with a common interest and passion and bring them together, giving them the opportunity to get to know each other and share information about their work and techniques,” says Chapa. “Whether it is as a mentor or as a participant, you always leave feeling like you’ve learnt something new.”

Arc Interactive Studios' Ross Nicholas adds: “Brains Eden holds a very friendly and competitive contest. These game jams give the competitors a taste of what it is like to work under pressure. This experience is as close to working in the industry as you can get.”

All of the mentors agree there is no substitute for practical experience, and Brains Eden can serve as great practice for real games development within a tight schedule, as well as dealing with a team-based environment and the critical feedback students receive afterwards.

“Having game jams on your CV – and being able to tell good stories about them at interview – is a great sign that you get involved when working in a team, that you’ve at least tried development ‘properly’, and that a prospective employer can count on the basics in various essential skills,” says Holland.

Osborn adds: “Brains Eden is a great opportunity to batter out interesting game concepts. If I had a penny for every time a dev told me ‘we worked on this initially at a game jam’ or ‘part of the game was influenced by what we did at a jam’, I’d have at least a tenner by now.”

But, as Jagex’s talent acquisition specialist John Chalkley stresses, participants need to ensure they work hard to further their skills once the jam is over.

“Students should continue building an understanding of the challenges facing them when searching for their first role in the industry,” he says. 

“Participants should combine the skills harvested from events such as this with additional self-tuition, dedication to improving their portfolio and working with modding groups online, getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of commercial game releases and improving them.” 

These game jams give the competitors a taste of what it is like to work under pressure. This experience is as close to working in the industry as you can get.

Ross Nicholas, Arc Interactive Studios

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Forward thinking

With Brains Eden now over for another year, the Creative Front team is already working
on the foundations of next year’s event – and that means more industry mentors. Fortunately, Green says there is also a healthy number of volunteers offering their pearls of wisdom.

“Hindsight through experience is a wonderful thing,” she says. “Imagine all the things you would tell your 20-year-old self – what would you focus on? What golden nuggets of advice would you give? Games professionals are itching to give advice; for altruistic reasons, to give something back to the future generation of developers, inspire them and make the industry stronger for decades to come.”

Even after the event, some of the mentors are keen to offer suggestions about how participants – or even budding games designers who were unable to attend – can improve their skills and therefore chances of employment.

“If you want to get into games design, get out there and design games,” says Chalkley. “There are free-to-use tools and engines available today that are professional grade, and can really enable would-be developers to break into the industry proper. 

“A degree in gaming is far from essential, but if you’re at university on a games design course right now, ensure that you’re working on extra-curricular projects, specialise in an area and don’t become a jack of all trades – unless you want to work at small start-ups that need that from their employees.

Skuse adds: “Be as flexible and multi-faceted as possible. The wider industry – beyond large-scale console development or even what you’d naturally think of as ‘indie’ – is growing rapidly, so you’ll do your employment prospects a lot of good by being as adaptable as possible. For programmers, that means don’t just
learn Unity and for artists don’t just fill portfolios with Zbrushed space marines, orcs, and robots.”

If you’re interested in mentoring at Brains Eden 2016, or want to find out more about the event, please email clare.green@anglia.ac.uk.

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