Walking the show floor at last month’s Dare to be Digital ProtoPlay event in Edinburgh, it was hard not to warm to the atmosphere of what has become an increasingly important showcase for grass roots video games development and the potential of raw talent.
The ProtoPlay event is focused around the final stage of the main Dare to be Digital development competition, which gives 15 hand-picked student teams the chance to make a working game prototype in 10 short weeks, from scratch, with help from a select number of industry veterans.
Hosted in the midst of the creative chaos that is the Edinburgh Festival, ProtoPlay sees the internationally sourced teams, who are youthful, enthusiastic and – in the best possible sense of the word – somewhat unrefined, unleash their finished projects on the world.
A panel of industry judges from the likes of Ubisoft, Rockstar, Codemasters, the BBC and the good people at Develop then spend time with the games and their creators, as do hordes of the public in attendance, before three winning teams are selected to become the sole nominees for the 2011 BAFTA Ones To Watch Award at the forthcoming British Academy Video Game Awards in London.
Beyond the ongoing process of the competition itself, Dare’s organisers are clear in their goals.
“Dare is about talent spotting,” confirms Paul Durrant, director of business development of Abertay University, which organises the event. “Abertay University works with the industry and our sponsors to create a platform to look for talented students, offering them a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to get real-life working experience before they enter the workforce. We aim to help supply industry-ready talent to the development industry and to encourage entrepreneurism.”
It’s an admirable proposition, but what is most immediately encouraging about the event is its lack of pretention. Glancing at the bustling show floor, it could easily be a hall at Gamescom, but peer more intently, and it’s apparent that teams of eager public are not gathered at a rolling demo of the latest generic triple-A release, or queuing for hours to play two-minutes of a licensed sequel.
It’s noticeably loud too, and not from the white noise of speakers spluttering marketing spiel. It’s laughter that fills the air. The public in attendance at ProtoPlay is young, raucous and delighted.
They are hungrily digesting fresh cuts of creativity, without a thought for the games that usually vie for their attention from the shelves of high street stores. It may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s a lot more like seeing an arm-flailing crowd enthralled at a energetic gig in a garage than a middle-aged audience comfortably seated for The Rolling Stones’ umpteenth comeback tour.
In fact, a publically playable Kinect kit is on the show floor, but it’s doing little to deter players from their fervent consumption of the output of Dare’s indie role call.
WHAT THEY DID LAST SUMMER
Just this summer, the 15 students from the trio of winning teams were among thousands who were taking a break from their university studies. Post-ProtoPlay, they are a BAFTA award nominees. And more than that, they are now experienced in the reality of games development under the pressure of a meaningful deadline.
“They have a game prototype on their portfolio, which has been tested and approved by influential games companies,” says Durrant. “The 10 weeks transformed their life and for sure it will make a great impact in their career when they leave university in a year or so’s time.”
It’s not just the organisers who speak highly of Dare’s merits either. Jocce Marklund is a programmer and designer at That Game Studio, which created Twang, securing it a place as one of ProtoPlay’s trio of victors.
“During the whole competition we’ve got mentors visiting us and giving us feedback on our game and our team,” states Marklund. “They have provided fresh eyes on the game and pointed out things that led to improvements in the game that we would otherwise have not even thought of. Other than that, the people working with Dare made it easier for us to focus on the development instead of spending time with hardware/software and travel arrangements and such.”
Side-scrolling platform racer Twang stood out at the event as one of the most polished games, and in many ways captured the spirit of what this kind of gathering is about. It was a neat, simple idea that gripped the attention of the crowds and judges alike, and offered a glimpse of something far bigger that wasn’t hard to imagine as a hit on Xbox Live.
That Game Studio (above) has every right to feel proud, as do the other main winners, Angry Mango, which impressed with its Zune platformer Mush, which demonstrated a staggering level of artistic flair, and Team Tickle, which encouraged some of the most tactile interaction yet realised on the Apple table with its iPad romp Scultpy.
“Winning this competition means a lot for the team in terms of recognition for our hard work,” reveals Marklund. “It shows people that we can in fact make fun games that gamers and non-gamers can enjoy. The sacrifice of leaving all our friends and families behind in Sweden has paid off because we got the experience of not only making a game, but also visiting Scotland and having a lot of people playing our game.”
The creators of Sculpty weren’t the only visitors from overseas either. ProtoPlay did play host to several teams from the UK, but others from Ireland, India, China and
America brought a cultural variety apparent not only in the games on display, but in the marketing materials and identities each team had created.
“It’s exciting to see so many talented UK students who have the creative minds and the technical capability to execute games which have a strong appeal to the public,” says Durrant. “It’s equally valuable to see talent from other countries, and they learn from each other. Can games cross cultural boundaries? You seem to see this is possible at Dare ProtoPlay.”
Established 11 years ago, ProtoPlay also invites established developers to attend, meaning that along with the main booth space reserved for the indie teams, the likes of Rare, Blitz and Sony have a presence of the show. It of course provides an opportunity to show off new product to an open-minded consumer, but where Dare really distinguishes itself is in inviting studios to integrate themselves with the competition’s entire process.
“We invite established game developers to join our Developer Accord, which offers mentoring support to the teams during the 10 weeks,” explains Durrant. “This is beneficial to the teams but also helps the companies spot talent.”
Talent is certainly on display in abundance, and it’s clear from the flurry of business cards that pass hands that for many in attendance, the opportunity to meet feldgling developers first hand is an opportunity relished.
“The competition benefits all partners involved: universities, students, games companies, technology partners and our sponsors,” insists Durrant.
Of course, an initiative like Dare is not without its challenges, and in these more frugal times, those hurdles can become significant obstacles.
“The biggest challenge we have is funding,” admits Durrant. “In order to ensure the students focus on the competition and do not have the need to look for a summer job, we pay every student £1,700 plus accommodation and transportation in Dundee, as well as in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival high season.
“Running Dare ProtoPlay professionally to give the public an enjoyable time also costs. We continually look for sponsorship and revenue streams to fund the project. Without continued funding support, there’s a risk that the project may need to be discontinued.”
To dwell on the negative is unjust though. While the size of the challenge may define its success, Dare to be Digital is a hugely positive asset that has the potential to benefit the entire industry. It has been recognised as a model of best practice by many who take part, and continues to benefit Abertay University in numerous ways.
As well as informing the course design of the institute’s renowned games education offering, the workplace simulation model that underpins Dare is being embedded in all other disciplines in the University.
“There is a huge opportunity for this type of project to be used as a way of stimulating significant industry/university collaboration. In comparison to placements and internships, workplace simulation brings a consistent experience across whole cohorts of students from multiple disciplines,” says Durrant.
The final word must go to Marklund, who has some advice for those considering a career in games: “If there are any game development students reading this, apply to Dare to be Digital if you haven’t done so already. It is a great way to get valuable development experience that is recognised throughout the industry.”
Having left the event a winner, the That Game Studio designer is likely especially enthused about the potential of Dare, but his story is one that proves his point. Dare can do very good things for those who enter.
And who knows? In a few months, Marklund could be on stage in front of the industry’s finest with the cool metal BAFTA gong in his hands.