Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Educating David Braben

Essentially the following article is grounded on a wholesale personal distaste for one David Braben- ‘living industry legend’ and pompous fart. Scandalous you say? Well my initial gut response to Braben was based purely on how he acted in person at the 2008 Edinburgh Interactive Festival. Braben was part of a panel of the 4Talent showcase, which were brought together to discuss ‘Publishing’. The day had been broken up into various sections to appeal to all, but with specific areas of interest for artists, coders, management etc.

I touched upon this on my review of the event closer to the time on my other blog. The panel was in dire need of a chairperson to restrict the ego-fest that ensued. Two members of the panel for the most part kept schtum until questioned, whilst Braben and Gordon Ross, a previous employer of mine went at it. I like Gordie Ross a lot, but don’t let my affiliation fool you; I wasn’t just gunning for his side of arguments. In fact, at times Gordon Ross sounded pretty tongue tied, but I’d like to imagine this was on account of Braben pulling every subject towards himself for the sake of putting his full stop on it. It was cringey to watch, as wide questions were pulled to and fro from one person’s personal experience or example to another. By about forty minutes in, the panel had managed to swerve the subject of PUBLISHING completely, and somehow were still finding things to yap about between themselves, rather than to the increasingly agitated audience.

At this point, because I was there specifically to hear about the subject, I asked a publishing related question. I started it with “It’d be good if you could all talk a bit more about publishing”. I was particularly satisfied with myself, and I relaxed back in my chair to hear the brilliant answer. Within a few minutes, the whole subject had changed again, and our dear Mr. Industry Legend Braben was correcting the rest of the panel again on anally specific details of nothing much at all.

Which brings us up to date on the Braben front- I didn’t like him much in the first place. However, I think what I have to say now is far more encompassing than just getting back at him personally. Education is vital to the games industry right now; not only because the industry is expanding its production techniques, processes and theories to match film studio professionalism or because the industry can truly prove itself through the tough economic conditions, but instead because there needs to be a sea change in thinking about how games are produced and how studios are managed.

"One of the things that is very worrying is there are over 80 games courses in Britain and the sad thing is they aren't really teaching what we need for games at the moment, which is a frightening thing," David Braben. Reported on

"There are something like 81 courses in the UK dedicated to computer games," he added, "but universities get paid for putting bums on seats and they're turning out students who know all about the history of games, but they can't make them."- Ian Livingstone. Reported on

It is sweeping statements like this from the industry’s oldies that are causing concern for me. They punctuate an already growing anxiety I have for how the industry is going to change very soon. I highlighted recently in an essay for my own university course in Abertay, how the elders in the games industry are not forward thinking enough about the next generation of management and development. On the contrary to what Braben has said about education materials being up to five or ten years behind what’s needed within the industry, recognition of Agile development methods in institutions like Abertay has been met with surprise and awe from some studios. Whilst game companies are obviously aware of such theories, all too often I think the management in a studio is for the longest serving member of the team. The old-school method of shunting a brilliant programmer into a management role isn’t working to align the professionalism of a game studio with that of a film studio, or any other corporate company. Brilliant programmers should be allowed to thrive upon newer more exciting programming challenges, not moved into a role which they are not theoretically trained for.

There are two separate issues here. One is that I think a lot of comments like these are made without full knowledge of what is really being taught in the ’80 plus’ institutions across Britain. The second is that there needs to be a willingness from the elder statesmen of the industry to accept that there are academically proven, and talented young individuals raring to step up to the plate. This willingness needs to also stretch to the acceptance of some of the new input that could really project our industry- business and management skills within a studio or publisher. The days of ‘crunch’ should be numbered. Instead, in 2009, it’s still an accepted fact of the production process.

To further illustrate the point that at least one UK University is doing the right stuff (I’m not biased, I simply know more about Abertay!), the amount of team project work I’ve done in the past year is astounding. The courses across the School of Computing are all shaped to accommodate large team projects, where students get a real-life, hands on experience of what making games and software is actually like. Coupled with projects like Dare to be Digital, what more education does a scholar need? Well, industry experience. That’s the problem.

How can the ‘new school’ knowledge infiltrate the industry? Simple- game companies need to recognise the worth of the courses. The film industry is different to the games industry for a number of reasons; (Don’t mistake my use the film industry as an example for me thinking these sectors of ‘entertainment’ are the same- it is simply that the film industry is a number of years ahead of gaming in terms of creating a structure for itself) but one of the most important reasons is that it has recognised film studies courses to draw on for talent. The sooner games companies get acquainted with what universities are teaching, the better.

I spoke to Colin MacDonald, Studio Manager of Realtime Worlds, Dundee, about the possibility of a placement with them in a production type role. I also asked for his take on my CV as it was, and it was telling that he asked me to include more information about what my course- Game Production Management- actually entailed. Furthermore, I quizzed him about ‘runner’ roles or ‘shadowing’ roles for a non-graduate like myself to gain experience in production. I’m somewhat paraphrasing here, but he essentially said that there really isn’t such a role in the games industry- it’s a bit of a gap. And that’s where some of our biggest troubles lie. Oversights like this might mean the difference between a great producer getting the placement he needs to kick off his career, or not.

I think you’ll see that the Braben- hate was probably more light-hearted than I suggested at the start. I am, however, passionately against the element of the industry that I think Braben stands for.

One particular article thats worth a read if you're interested enough is found here

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