Jake Habgood & David WilsonGames Design and Development
Jake and David are a dynamic duo. Mario and Luigi, Sonic and Tails. Ash and Pikachu. They lead two seperate but interlinked computer games courses: one in programming, one in design. Together, they′re helping SIA offer two of the most exciting gaming courses in the country. We asked them these questions, and generally geeked it up a bit.
So to begin with, you teach two courses. How does that work?
J: Yep, it′s split in two. My course is BSc (Hons) Games Software Development, and Dave′s course is BA (Hons) Games Design. So basically, when a student comes to us and says ‘I really want to make games’ we get them to decide which route to take. If they like programming, like maths, and want to blow stuff up on screen with maths, they take my course. If they′ve got a great art portfolio, or they′re more interested in animation, they take Dave′s course.
D:But at the same time, the two courses basically work together, because you can′t make a computer game with just programmers, or with just artists. It′s about creative people coming together and making a product. There′s a lot of collaboration involved.
So both courses are set up to work with each other?
J: Yes, completely. We′re both from industry originally, I used to work in programming, for companies like Gremlin and Sumo here in Sheffield. And Dave was lead artist at places like EA, Codemasters and Sony. And in industry, we′d be used to sitting down together,programmers and artists, and making a project work. So we wanted to mirror that connection here.
D: It opens up a lot of possibilities for our students, lots of sharing resources. We can create areas where students will naturally work together, even if they′re just working on their own projects, because they′re in the same rooms, using the same equipment.
How do the courses work then?
J: A lot of it is very practical and hands-on, as you can imagine. One of the big unique selling points for the course is that we′ve got the largest Playstation® teaching facilities in the world including a lab of Playstation® 4 dev kits. We′ve got a little studio environment, called Steel Minions, which is open to the students 24 hours a day. And we′re the first university in the world to release our own Playstation® 4 game, which was a collaboration between the two courses.
Amazing! What was the game?
J: It′s called Piecefall. It′s available on the PSN store, and it′s £1 in Europe. It was made by a team from across both courses, and every single one of them has got an industry job as a result. So it′s these kinds of real life activities that prove really useful.
D: It′s a massive achievement really. We′ve got more students working on PlayStation titles at the moment. So if all goes to plan, by the time they leave some of those students will have an indie title out, which you can play in your house. I think that′s the main thing. A credit on a real game does wonders.
How do you get to the point where your students are ready to start making real games? How do you teach this stuff?
D: What′s really interesting about the game design course is that we do design in more of a traditional sense. If you look at next generation games coming out now, they′re becoming so real that you need specialists in every area. When I was working on Playstation® 1 titles, you did the whole lot: designing characters, animations, environments, vehicles, whatever. Now, with Playstation® 4, you have people just doing digital sculpture of one character for six weeks at a time. So in a way, the course has almost had to come full circle. We now have to do almost a foundation year of design to begin with: architecture, illustration, perspective, the basics of visual communication. And then the technical stuff is layered on top of that. By the time they get to third year it′s about specialisation.
So the emphasis is more on becoming good storytellers, or environment specialists, to keep up with the technology?
D: Well, it′s about finding a personal voice really, helping the students say: ‘this is the area I want to work in’, and develop from there. We could easily break the course down and just do three years of environment art, because the industry′s big enough now to find a job there when you come out. But we′re not here just to service what companies think they need now. My goal is to produce, to art direct so that those students have a sustainable role in the future, because of the way they think, because they understand how to solve the wider problems of communication and design.
Is it becoming more of an art-based medium then? Is the design more important than the technology?
J: Not at all. I think sometimes you can get very creative games that are based on technological innovations. So the programmers can come up with a new rendering technique, and that drives the whole game.
D: You can′t have one without the other. I′ve worked with art directors before, and they have these ideas, and they′re great ideas but we just can′t do it. But what can we do instead? It′s the coders who can bridge that gap. I get annoyed by people making the assumption that the creative side of games is the artistic side. It′s rubbish, because if you didn′t have creative programmers, we′d still be playing Pac-man.
You mentioned Sheffield earlier: is it a good place for the industry?
J: There′s definitely a long tradition in Sheffield, so you′ve got certain employers in the region. Sumo–Digital is a good example, you might not have heard of them but they′ve done the Little Big Planet games and they′re working on the next version of Crackdown. Wider than this, there′s just a lot of digital industries in the city. You′ve got the Electric Works building next to the station, and that′s full of indie game developers or coders, and everyone′s in the pub, so it′s a good audience for the students to tap up.
D: The games industry isn′t really based in one city or area the same way, the special effects industry in Soho was. There are pockets across the country, depending on where people started studios in their bedrooms in the 80s! But I think the great thing about Sheffield is its design heritage beyond games, and to be honest, it′s just a lovely place. When people come here, they don′t leave.