Inside an Italian game academy

Jem Alexander talks to Geoffrey Davis, general manager of the Digital Bros Game Academy, about how the school seeks to arm the next generation of Italian game development talent with real world experience
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The world has seen a rise in video games university courses, with games design and art degrees a now established sight at mainstream institutions. Alongside that, there are a smattering of specialist courses that seek to train students in intense, professional environments. Italian company Digital Bros, owners of global publisher 505 Games, invested in the creation of one of these as a way to foster talent in the country. 

“The main objective is to identify and train the next generation of development talent in Italy,” says Geoffrey Davis, general manager of the Digital Bros Game Academy. “The idea that Digital Bros had in creating the academy was that there’s a lot of creative value and talent that needs an outlet. The company started in Italy and there’s something about giving back to the market.

“Intrinsically there is value both from a company perspective and from a cultural perspective in creating an initiative like that and so we are trying to build a talent pool that, because the games industry is essentially very country neutral – you can be anywhere in the world and make a game – why do we need to keep seeing, for example, Italians going to Santa Monica, going to Canada and even going to Finland, or Holland? Why can’t they stay here?

“So we want to create that fabric, create that base. That’s about investing. Investing in the market, investing in talent, investing in infrastructure and so on.”

It's not an easy year. You're testing yourself. We're testing you. We want talent and we'll do everything to help.

Geoff Davis, Digital Bros Game Academy

This investment means that people who grow up in Italy loving games can stay in their home country to find their dream job, bringing money into the country to boost the industry in the region. The majority of students who join the Digital Bros Game Academy do so out of a love of games, one which pushes them to fulfill the strict entry criteria.

“We start with people who have a very strong passion,” Davis says. “99.9% of them are hardcore gamers and they’ve got this passion. They’ve always dreamed of being on the other side. Usually they say ‘I was playing that game, and I don’t know why they designed it like that. I want to change that’. Those are the kinds of people we accept. That’s the profile. But they haven’t necessarily had the formal training.

“Applicants go through a process where you write letters. You have a personal interview. We want to know what language skills you have. You have to give project work. And even if you never developed anything, you’ve got to try. We have a selection committee and we go through every single student. So to give you an example, this year we had 110 applications and we accepted 71.”

PERSONAL TRAINER

The reason for making sure people who apply really want to attend the academy is because of how testing it can be. It’s hard work, but you’ll be given a huge amount of support by the trainers on site.

“We want to know you’re going to be committed,” says Davis. “It’s not an easy year. It’s emotionally trying. It’s technically trying. You’re testing yourself. We’re testing you. We want talent and we’ll do everything to help you.

“To give you an example, we have students who are Skyping with our trainers at midnight. Working on a project, they can’t get past a piece of code, they send a Skype. We give them our emails, our Skype, our mobile numbers, we’re there for them. We have a great team. That’s a huge part of it. Very similar to developing a game. You need a great team.”

With crunch a pressing concern throughout the industry, Davis is keen to explain that while they’re teaching their students about the hardships of the industry, they’re also trying to instill in them a sense of balance.

“It’s a year program,” he says. “We want to get them through in a year and they commit to a year. Do I think that it is healthy for a studio to stand on somebody’s head and beat them? No I don’t. Do I think that there are some necessary long working hours? Absolutely. Do I think you can be productive personally? Yes, I do. But you need a balance. So we teach that balance.

“An example of that is: We have some people who are very, very focused and work very long hours. We sat down with them all, separately, and we said ‘you need to go out and have a drink. Go have some fun. Go have a pizza. It will help your thinking process’. There is a responsibility for us, and the games companies, to have a wellbeing strategy. But that doesn’t mean that you might not work 12 or 18 hours. If you’re under deadline, you need to. And we see that with our students, but we prepare students for that, so they’re ready.” 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

The academy teaches industry-grade tools that students would expect to use in a professional games studio, and the format of the year ramps up so that they’re creating games early and often. 

“After the first month you’ve already created a game with either a programmer or an artist,” Davis explains. “Then it becomes three person teams, you’ve got an artist and a programmer and a designer. You’ve got bigger teams, and we just launched last week what we call The Big One. Our final project, or our thesis project, which will take them to the end of the year in April. So it’s about a seven or eight month project. They are in ten people teams. We’ve assigned a lead project, a lead art, a lead design, a lead programmer. And then within those teams they negotiate who will be the level designer, who will do the gameplay programming. They have a milestone schedule. Our trainers are the studio directors, if you will. We have stand up meetings, we have a production meeting every morning, we have post mortems after our milestones, we turn them down.” 

Just like in the working world, people make mistakes. The emphasis here is learning from those mistakes and giving and receiving constructive feedback.

“I think that we as human beings are not used to failing,” Davis says. “I think that we are built to be successful. I think that’s pounded in our heads. But studies have show that actually those that don’t make mistakes don’t learn, and there’s not one solution to every problem. We know they’re going to make mistakes. We don’t tell them that, but we know they are. We then do a lot of post mortem work to help them work through that. Either as a team, or as a whole community get together, where we talk about how a project went. We learn from each other. There’s a lot of feedback sessions and they learn from one another. That’s what it means to make a game. You’re working together, you’re communicating. Not being defensive about criticism. We’re not born with those skills.”

GET INVOLVED

While the course is taught in Italian as its primary language, the school encourages guest trainers to visit and teach. A lot of specialist knowledge comes from these guest lecturers, but these aren’t just fly-by-night visits. Guest speakers are expected to become part of the Digital Bros Game Academy family.

“One of the tools that is probably most important in our view is having a network and almost everyone comes in without a network. So part of the deal of being a guest trainer is that you agree to be part of our network. What does that mean? You have to leave your details for our students, and if they want to call you, or they have an idea or need some advice, or they’re feeling low. ‘How did you do it? Tell me your story’. Or they want to pitch something, or can I work with you? There is that agreement and we haven’t had a no yet. So students walk out with a stack of business cards. That’s a big tool.”

Any developers interested in molding the Italian games industry of tomorrow can get in contact with Geoffrey Davis directly at geoff.davis@dbgameacademy.it

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