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Technical Course Leader on Birmingham City University’s Gamer Camp scheme, Alex Darby, has over 15 years experience in the games industry as a programmer, and was one of the founding members of FreeStyleGames, creators of DJHero.

Alex has played a key role in the development of Gamer Camp (www.GamerCamp.co.uk), a postgraduate (MA/MSc) training scheme for aspiring game developers that simulates a graduate’s first year in the games industry. Due to start in September, the Pro version of the course is endorsed by the likes of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Rare, Codemasters, Blitz Games Studios and FreeStyleGames.

Title – What is your job title?

My official job title is Course Lead – Technical on Gamer Camp, which is delivered at the New Technology Institute in Birmingham (part of Birmingham City University). I have 15 years experience of working in the games industry, as both a programmer and a designer, and I guess that my role would map to somewhere between Lead Programmer and Technical Director if I were still making games for a living.

What is your role about?

Gamer Camp is the brand name for an innovative new suite of industry driven courses developed by BCU at the NTI that are designed to bridge the skills and, most specifically, experience gap between traditional higher education and the day to day work environment within the games industry. The focus of Gamer Camp is on “learning by doing” in a realisitic simulated game development studio environment – working to schedule to create finished game products on current gaming hardware (e.g. PC, iPhone, and PS3) from realistic briefs, within specified deadlines, as part of a team.

My role as technical Course Lead is to drive the design and delivery of Gamer Camp’s technical curriculum, and to mentor and assess the students on the Gamer Camp courses. Most of my time is taken up with the year long Gamer Camp Pro MA / MSc programme, but I am also heavily involved in the 1 month Gamer Camp Nano courses that we offer. Our aim is that a student who completes Gamer Camp Pro should have the same skillset and experience as a graduate who has been working in the games industry for a year.

What are the best/most positive parts of the job/industry?

The games industry is a very dynamic, innovative, and interesting industry to work in; the landscape of technology – in terms of both hardware and software involved – has changed radically in the 15 years I have been making games. It looks set to continue in that vein for the foreseeable future too; physical media such as DVDs seem to be on the way out, digital distribution and social networking websites have transformed (and no doubt will continue to transform) the way in which games are delivered and played.

Overhearing random people talking about how much they like a game that you worked on is a pretty great feeling.

What are the negative parts to the job/industry?

Like any hit driven industry the games industry has its ups and downs, I’ve been made redundant twice and worked for one company that went bust – and I’m one of the lucky ones! As well as a certain lack of job security, hit driven industries bring the threat of extreme overtime when pushing to meet deadlines for release dates (I once worked 200 hours overtime in 6 weeks) – an unpleasant, and generally unpaid, phenomenon that the industry has come to call “crunch”. However, to put that into perspective, I never once in 15 years woke up and thought “I can’t face work today”.

What is the standard career path/qualifications?

For programmers the typical way into the games industry has been a traditional Computer Science degree. However, it seems that the vast majority of Universities are no longer teaching C++ – by far the main language used to make PC and console games – as a core component of their CS courses; and so more and more “Games Programming” courses are springing up. Typically the basic career progression for a programmer would be graduate -> Junior Programmer -> Programmer -> Senior Programmer.

What are the prospects?

To move beyond Senior you would typically have to move into management (e.g. Lead Programmer -> Technical Director) or become a what most companies call a “Principal Programmer” which broadly translates to “Needs to be more highly paid than Senior in order to be retained, but not interested in Management”. It is entirely possible, though defintiely not common, to become a freelance – typyically freelance programmers in the games industry have exceptional skill at some monumentally crucial part of development – e.g. debugging release build crashes from disassembly and registers.

It’s also entirely possible to start your won video game company – and with the current digital distribution boom and the rise of very cheap high quality game making tools like Unity 3D, Torque 3D, and the free version of the Unreal UDK this is increasingly becoming the way that people decide to take their careers forwards.

Reflection and the Future What was it like coming into the industry?

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was young – other than that I didn’t want to be a doctor like my dad. I decided on my degree Joint Honours Psychology and AI / Computer Science primarily because I had always been interested in computers, an intrest mostly driven by games.

As I came toward the end of my degree course I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and had almost resigned myself to the fact that I’d spend the rest of my life working on application software unless I could get a research post and do further study in AI.

It had never occurred to me that working in games was an option, as I had always heard games were written primarily in assembler and I didn’t have any experience of it. However, the Sony PlayStation had came out in late 1995, and C was the primary programming language used to make games for it.

My AI tutor had a friend who worked in games and had said his company was on the lookout for AI graduates.  I signed up with a recruitment agency specialising in games and after a few interviews I got offered a position at Codemasters.

Whilst the CS aspect of the degree course I had been on was very practical by academic standards, it left me woefully underprepared for the day to day working environment I was about to enter. Many ‘best practice’ techniques I was taught at university could land you in a whole heap of trouble in the speed-of-execution-is-everything resource limited world of console development.

Also, I had decided maths was rubbish after being taught vectors and matrices during AS level maths and had purposefully ignored maths as far as possible since then. D’oh! Luckily for me, I am a very fast learner and I met some exceptionally bright people at Codemasters who helped me quickly fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

The industry has changed so much in the 15 years since then. There were only about 25 people working in the development department of Codemasters in December 1996, and they were working on maybe 5 games between them. Nowadays big budget games can have upwards of 200 people working on them.

I was lucky enough to start in the industry at a time when team sizes were small and job roles less well defined. I moved between design and programming roles for the first 6 years that I worked in the industry, and then settled down to concentrate primarily on programming when I helped to start FreeStyleGames in late 2002.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of your role/industry?

The games industry has always been a very dynamic and changeable one. This is more true now than ever – current trends for downloadable games, games for mobile phones and tablets, and social games delivered via social networking sites like Facebook seem set to only increase in popularity.

Even more interestingly, several new ‘cloud gaming’ systems are currently emerging that allow users to remotely play games that are running on bleeding edge PC gaming hardware – one even achieves this within web browsers.

However, even with all this it seems unlikely to me that the traditional console model will be entirely superceded. Even if the games you play do eventually run entirely in the cloud, I think that there is a good chance that people like Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony will still be selling you the hardware which allows you to access it all.

What advice would you give someone entering your industry?

Whenever I give talks to younger (16 – 18) students I always tell them: Now is the best time to make a game.

There are several very high quality game development tools available incredibly cheaply (or entirely free!), and they are all supported by lively online communities of users. Some of these tools allow a single game to run across all modern gaming hardware – iPhone / iPad / Android / Windows / Wii / X360 / PS3 etc.

Games made using these tools can make real money for people, and the low barrier to entry for this sort of thing has lead to a renaissance of creativity and freedom in games.

Have you come across anything or anyone that has helped you move forward in the industry?

I owe a massive debt to Richard Darling for giving me my first break, to Dr. Richard Ogden for teaching me about vectors and matrices, to Dave Thompson for teaching me many valuable lessons about programming, to the other founders of FreeStyleGames for letting me share with them in achieving our dreams, and to Oliver Williams at NTI for giving me the chance to be part of Gamer Camp and to benefit others by passing on my knowledge and experience.

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