After being in transit for six hours, I finally arrive at Liverpool, home of the nascent GDTW conference, now in its fifth year. The programme of talks this year isn't the most enticing thing I'veMark MorrisDarren Jobling
"Long papers" session
ever read - it has an academic bent to it that is a little alarming, and I'm sure I saw at least one of the talks here on the programme at GDC 07 (Ed: yea, it was Luigi Tramonata
http://www.citygen.net/. The software includes support for exporting
generated cities to COLLADA, so it might come in very handy for anyone in need of a quick city…
Life – and a couple of people to look into, Amy Jo Kim and Danah Boyd.
Middleware in Game Development: Homura IDE
Because the other speakers hadn’t shown up, and Alice could only talk for so long, the conference organisers decided to throw this session impromptu. Unfortunately, the only notes I appear
to have taken from it is “GET ME OUT OF HERE” so clearly I wasn’t enjoying it. From what I remember the session was about 50% showing off a plug-in someone had written for Eclipse
for making games in Java (I think it’s here, if anyone actually cares), and 50% telling us what middleware is.
We took a brief break for coffee, and then the people who’d been at the design workshop rejoined us for the final section of the conference.
Skills issues for the Games Industry
Tony Hughes, from Liverpool JMU’s International Center for Digital Content, presented their findings on the current problems around the games industry’s workforce. Firstly, the
industry’s not diverse enough – we need more women and ethnic minorities (though there was no mention as to why). Secondly, the skillset most in demand is “design” –
I’m not sure exactly what that consists of – and it’s particularly requested by the independent developers.
Lastly, he presented some of the issues that studios have reported with fresh graduates from the games courses – not good feedback, summarised with “not appropriate to what the
industry actually needs.” Graduates are lacking in teamwork and communication skills, they can’t take constructive criticism, and they’ve got no concept of budgets or schedules.
I’m not sure how much of this is inevitable with graduates – a lack of ability to take constructive criticism, for example, I suspect is simply down to lack of experience rather than a
failure of education; while a lack of understanding of budgets and schedules is perhaps a more clear indicator of something missing from course content.
The final session of the conference, this was a simple question-and-answer panel moderated by Jon Weatherall and featuring Ernest Adams, Dave Burrows (SCEE), Isaac Barry (Sierra Online), Neil
Jones (Rare), and Tony Hughes (ICDC). Unfortunately, there was no microphone being passed around the audience so I didn’t catch all of the questions, but here’s some of what was
Q. If there was one skill that you could create infinitely for free, which would it be?
EA: Leadership and project management. The vast majority of games that fail, fail because the team can't work efficiently, or is confused, or just gets itself into a mess for one reason or
DB: Low-level coding - not so much understanding assembly language, but understanding the workings of the computer (especially the cache).
IB: I second Ernest's suggestion. Plus communications skills (particularly empathy).
NJ: I agree with Dave about the low-level understanding; also, many people don't have good math skills.
TH: I’m an analyst rather than an industry guy so I can’t really comment, but I will say that to improve communication and math skills requires a lot of work, right down to school
EA: Students nowadays start with C++/Java - they don't get the low-level skills.
Q. Art has gotten a lot more complex; the skills involved have 'accelerated.' Have you had to change the way you work much?
EA: I've not changed the way I do anything in 10 years.
DB: Artists used to be technical; then, not so much; and now, they are having to be taught shaders. So it's come full circle, but there's still room for pure artists.
IB: Designers coming out of the academic system have more of an abstract understanding of what they do. I'm constantly learning and trying to acquire new skills that are relevant to making games (or
NJ: I've only been in the industry three and a half years so nothing has changed for me. The only thing that's really changed is the amount of art required.
Q. What do you think of game degrees?
DB: You need to be careful that you have something more in there to differentiate you - five people all applying to the same company, submitting identical final-year projects, does not make a good
IB: The industry doesn't have the highest opinion of Digipen graduates, but that's changing. I did hear a story about a designer who had students bringing in magazines with him in so he could talk
about how he was famous…
NJ: Lack of specialization is a problem.
Q. Industry and university shouldn't mix – it puts too much pressure on skills acquisition rather than on thinking. Thoughts?
JW: Universities won't let that happen.
DB: Thinking is part of the skill base.
A very welcome contrast to a day of sitting and listening, the GDTW organisers set up a joint party with the IGDA Northwest chapter – the kind of party where they take over a pub and put
somebody’s credit card behind the bar. A great way to end the conference. I got through a number of ciders, played some pool, and spent quite a long time chatting to assorted people.
Kaseem and Richard, IGDA Northwest committee members, and doormen for the night
Rocking out with Guitar Hero
Ross, a LJMU student, shows me his Marathon tattoo.
It’s always tempting to walk away from an event allowing the final part of it to leave the biggest impression, but looking back over the whole two days, my opinion of GDTW as a whole –
at least for the 2007 conference – is not high.
I’m left with a distinct feeling that there’s very little here for people who are actually doing professional development right now. Much of the content seems to be targeted at
Liverpool JMU’s own students – certainly they must have made up at least 75% of the attendees, and Ernest Adams’ workshop on the second day appeared to be laid on exclusively for
them; a good chunk of what’s left is too buried in academia to be useful, full of things that are too niche or too unrealistic to be applicable, and anything that is worth paying
attention to already appeared at GDC or another similar conference. It’s pretty telling that for the first day, even a load of the students didn’t turn up; someone told me that apparently
Wednesday is their free day, so they didn’t want to spend it at the conference, only turning up on Thursday when they’d otherwise have to be working anyway.
Maybe there’s a bleeding edge in there for somebody, somewhere, but you’ll have to sift through an awful lot of pointless waffling to find it. I don’t need to go to a conference
to sit in a room, have someone tell me I should have a system for tracking where my textures came from, and then show me an XNA starter kit. Now maybe this really is a problem with the state
of games academia – maybe the papers presented there are the best that the universities of the world have to offer. If so, it’s very depressing. However, I doubt that it’s the case
– and one thing I’m suspicious of is that the papers were selected with an audience of academics in mind. I can easily imagine that what was covered will be more valuable to other people
writing papers than anyone else. Looking at the website for the conference, I found the technical programme committee – I assume the people responsible for reviewing and selecting papers
– and there are exactly two names, on a list of 46, that aren’t from a university (and of those two names, one is from the ACM and the other is from the British Broadcasting
Corporation’s R&D department). With a selection committee composed so entirely of academics, it’s not surprising that the result is a set of papers that appeal strongly to
Networking opportunities, also, are practically non-existent; it’s unlikely that you’ll bump into somebody you know or want to know unless they’re giving a session or are going
to JMU. (Granted, this isn’t something they can easily fix – they can’t exactly hire people for you to network with – but still, it needs to be said). The IGDA party was the
high point from this angle.
To be fair, there’s only so much that they set out to do; rather than evaluating them purely on my own criteria, I should probably hold them up against their own standards as well. The goals
listed on their website are:
- To provide a forum to discuss state of the art games design and current and future games technology with the specialists. The presented research may have been “state of theart,” but in many cases, it wasn’t my art. “State of the somewhat related art,” maybe. And of course, discussing things with specialists requires that those specialists attendthe conference, which – beyond the people presenting the sessions themselves – didn’t seem to have happened very much.
- To enable academics and researchers in computer game technology and computer entertainment to present their work during the research sessions, and to seek opportunities for collaboration withthe industry and for academic research partners. Again, this mostly happened aside from many of the presentations only having loose links to either “computer game technology” or“computer entertainment,” and collaboration with the industry will again have been difficult with an industry that wasn’t present.
- To facilitate relationships and collaboration between academics promoting Computer Games Technology courses, the UK games industry and supporting organisations. Er, ok. I’m not anacademic promoting Computer Games Technology courses (might even go so far as to say I disapprove of them), nor was I asked to be involved in facilitating relationships and/or collaboration with anacademic promoting Computer Games Technology courses, so I have no idea whether this happened. If all it means is “a chance for LJMU staff to shake some industry hands,” then yeah, ithappened.
- To provide games companies and related industries the opportunity to present their companies, products, job opportunities, and to discuss and discover alternative technology for gamedevelopment. I can see how companies like Craft Animations were able to take advantage of this.
- To allow students studying Computer Games Technology to make early contact with key players in the industry, enabling them to learn first hand about games development, and the challenges ofworking with and for a fast moving technology. Not much in the way of “key players” in attendance. Also, stop me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t learning “firsthand” about games development mean… actually doing it? Learning by being told about it by a developer is learning second hand. Maybe I’m just being picky.
So, that’s how well I think they met their own goals. I don’t think that those goals are exactly in line with what most people want to get out of a conference – they’re
definitely written with LJMU’s staff and students in mind – but there you have it. If they stay focused on those targets, it’ll remain a thinly-disguised “industry day”
for JMU undergraduates bolted to a thinly-disguised “paper presentation day” for JMU postgraduates.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. There are two directions GDTW could go in for the future (and no, you smart-alecs, those directions are not “down” and
Its first option is to try to become a full-blown developer’s conference, and live up to the image that its name conjures. Pick sessions that are more accessible – and more useful
– to people who will have the opportunity to go back to work the day after the conference and start applying what’s been presented. Cut the JMU students loose a bit so that they
don’t overwhelm the attendance record. To be clear, I don’t think this is an option they should take – they’re not the best people to do it, and besides, GDCE shut down for a
reason. We’ve got things like the Lyon GDC and the Leipzig GCDC to attend already.
The alternative is to put even more emphasis on the presentations from academia, get people from industry onto the selection committee to ensure things stay relevant, and end up hosting a
conference that is explicitly about academia presenting papers to the industry. An opportunity for academics to present their f