As computer games sales boom, institutions are investing in design courses in a bid to mine a rich seam. Anna Fazackerley reports
Nearly half of seven to 29-year-olds play computer games almost every day and, in the US, sales of games now outnumber those of books. The leisure software industry was worth an estimated £705 million in the UK alone in the first nine months of the year.
Like them or loathe them, computer games are big business. Many new universities are attempting to milk this cash cow by creating computer games technology courses.
Steve Hand is setting up such a course at Portsmouth University. “It has created a lot of interest. We’re pretty confident that this will generate decent numbers - it has to because we’ve put in big investment,” he says.
He’s unlikely to be disappointed. Universities have found that games technology has a big appeal to prospective students. Recruitment is not a problem. Mark Doughty, senior lecturer on Lincoln University’s games computing course, says: “We have 150 students in the first year, and last year we had about 90, so it’s growing rapidly. It is proving very popular with adolescent males.”
Computing is traditionally a male-dominated subject in higher education, and the story is the same on the arts side of games learning. Sarah Humphreys, who heads the games design degree course at Hull School of Art and Design, admits it is a problem. The games industry is keen to get more women involved, but this may be an uphill battle. “As a female course leader in this area, I am surprised by the trend on one level, but girls do tend to avoid technology areas,” she says.
Most courses are run by academics, but the Portsmouth course will be led by two lecturers brought in from the games industry. Hand wants it to be practical and vocational so students will get a broad overview of the different consoles on the market, but they will also learn how to design and implement their own games.
However, Hand hopes the course will prepare them for a range of careers. “We’ve been very particular in calling it computer games technology. Many of our students will hopefully work in the games area, but our belief is the technology will have wider implications. It is already impacting on leisure, health, education and general business.”
The course leaders agree that keeping up with trends in games technology is vital. But this can be expensive in an industry that moves so quickly. Lincoln, for example, is debating whether to invest in the new GameCube development kit that Nintendo has just released.
“To give enough students experience, you’d need to buy a few and that would be expensive,” Doughty says. “If they learn to program on the GameCube, there is a risk that in three years’ time it might be out of date.”
Hand has just invested in a large room with 3D front and side walls, where members of his new games department can try different techniques on a big scale. “We will build a team of researchers with those. We certainly need to invest a lot in keeping up to date with the changes in the industry,” he says.
But as universities are already proving, there is a great potential to recoup some of this investment through spin-off activity. Perhaps, after all, you have to play the game to win.
Case study 1: Send in the clones
Researchers from Glasgow and Edinburgh universities have abandoned their departments to start a business that will clone celebrities for computer games.
Spin-off company Virtual Clones, which was launched in June, is attracting potential investors with its groundbreaking 3D character-creation software.
It has invented the technology to take an existing game character and morph it into the shape of a chosen individual or celebrity.
Chief executive Colin Urquhart, formerly of Glasgow University’s department of computing science, says: “We’ve been researching this technology for many years, primarily for medical use, but recently we started to see a real need in the entertainment market.”
The process involved in “cloning” a person for the application is simple. Two digital stills cameras take stereo pairs of images of the subject from a range of angles.
“Getting a sufficiently realistic representation of sporting celebrities for a sports video game is difficult by hand,” Urquhart says. “With our technology, we can go to the sports ground and capture them very quickly.”
The global market for 3D content creation is forecast to reach $1.2 billion (£700 million) by 2005.
“I have no regrets about taking that step and pursuing an entrepreneurial career,” Urquhart says.
Case study 2: Do the locomotion
Naturalmotion, a spin-off animation technology company from Oxford University, started life in the zoology department. The company has created computer characters that use artificial intelligence to direct their movements.
Torsten Reil, the company’s co-founder, says the idea stemmed from research into locomotion in animals and humans. The researchers simulated the nervous system responsible for walking using matchstick figures, and realised the results had commercial potential.
“The walking stick figures reacted with their environment; they fell over things and had natural fluctuations in their walking style,” he says.
Now Naturalmotion is extending this technique to create truly interactive characters in computer games and films. Traditionally, all computer characters had to be animated beforehand, but Reil says his company’s “virtual humans” can react spontaneously to the environment around them.
He is excited about the product’s potential. “Before, you couldn’t have slow motion in football games because it wasn’t realistic enough, but our technology is going to look very different,” he says. “Tackles will be really realistic.”
Not only has the product stimulated considerable interest in the games industry, it also looks set to make a real impact on the film industry.