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WORD TO THE WISE: GET EXPERIENCE BEFORE BECOMING AN INDIE

Dave Sharp is a veteran videogame developer, entrepreneur and technologist.  Dave taught himself programming as a teenager in the eighties and whilst still at school, was designing and developing videogames.  This experience allowed him to join the games industry at 17 and continue to work on a number of hit videogames.  

At the age of 25, Dave moved into the business side of the games industry, working for major games publishers such as Acclaim, Virgin Interactive and Interplay.  This work included the development of games based on high profile IP such as Star Trek and Bladerunner. This led Dave to join New York based Viacom and taking part in several mergers and acquisitions to bring new IP into the company.

At 32, Dave became an entrepreneur, starting his first solo games venture and selling it within two years. His second startup, REALRIDER, a safety aid for motorcyclists was his first departure from gaming, quickly followed by his second, TapSOS, a safety application for the deaf community.

Dave's involvement with the games industry continues to this day via several mentor and advisory roles within UK/US games companies, providing development and business advice as well as access to finance.  He also writes course content for students studying games development within the UK.

To date, Dave Sharp has worked on 85+ videogames on 20+ hardware platforms.

You started game programming as a teenager. What was the first computer that you used?
I was very lucky. I had access to one of the very first computers available for the home, a Sinclair ZX81. It was in 1982, I was 12. It came with just 1k of memory, which was expandable to 4K via an add on. It was black and white, had an awful spongy keyboard and tended to overheat. I spent a lot of time typing in source code in BASIC that I got from magazines. It initially helped me understand what the computer could do. I then started to learn Z80 Machine Code – the computers natural language, which then led me on to start writing my own games. I wrote a 4k version of Galaxians and it went from there.

What was the first commercial videogame that you developed? Did you develop the whole game yourself or with a team?

It was very much a team effort from the beginning. I had school friends also learning how to code and make art and we would spend weekends building very simple prototypes of games we wanted to play. Its now 1984/85 and there were more home computers available – Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad, Dragon 32 etc.

The Dragon 32 was an easy machine to program for, 32k of memory, colour and with some extended graphic options. The first two commercial games out of the pipeline were Castle of Doom and Sporting Decathlon. They were available on cassette at a £1.99 price. Nether were hugely successful, but our team of three went on to develop more Dragon games and port them to other machines. As we got better as developers, the games became more successful financially, and in 1987, the team joined Acclaim to start our careers as professional games developers, I was 17.

You worked on some famous IP like Star Trek and Bladerunner. What did you do on those projects?

By the time I had reached the point of working on large IP driven projects, I had become a senior producer within publishing. The role of the producer is a bit like a soccer manager. You need to build a team, organise it, monitor its activities, progress and quality control. You also need to report on the team’s progress to senior management, facilitate budgets with the finance team as well as interface with the IP owner to ensuring they are happy with the use of the IP.

I spent most of my time making sure that the IP was used effectively and that the audience would not be unhappy. Star Trek fans know the IP, the stories, the characters and the science brilliantly. So every little detail is important to them. It makes development slow and challenging. But if you get it right, the fans adore what you do.

Bladerunner was harder in some respects. A lot of material we wanted to use had never existed. So there was no point of reference. We spent a lot of time in discussion with Ridley Scott’s production team discussing things like what Dekkards bathroom might look like and what kind of social life he might have. They were very protective of the world and its characters and it was often difficult to get agreement.

As a senior producer, there are a lot of things that keep you away from the day to day activity of building a game. But all these other aspects are equally as important.

What are the creative constraints in working on a game with licensed IP like Star Trek?

The IP owner often has a stance about the use of the IP that can make game development difficult. When something is as big and powerful as Star Trek, they do not want the game developers to stain the IP. This can often mean that certain characters can’t die, some characters cannot have a different relationship with each other, some locations can’t be used, or some storylines are inappropriate. For the games design team, this means that there are difficulties right from the beginning.

With Star Trek New Worlds (PC), we wanted to have the player build new bases as part of the main game mechanic. However, there has never been a base building aspect to the TV show or films. So Paramount wanted to do some thinking about how this might work. Once they agreed, we designed base building rules and regulations for the development team that Paramount felt fitted with the Star Trek universe. The Federation would build bases ethically, the Klingons recklessly and the Romulans sneakily.

There was always a strict process to developing anything that had not previously existed to ensure it met Paramount’s standards and expectations and could be imported into the main Star Trek lore, something Paramount guards.

What was the hardest project that you worked on and why?

NBA Jam I think. It was released in 1993 for ArcadeSuper NESGenesisGame BoyGame Gear and Sega CD. It was made in the UK, where basketball is a minority sport. The team was new and there were 7 versions of the game planned. I think there was some scepticism that a UK team that didn’t really know the game would be able to make something that the fans would like.

We felt that trying to make a simulation was beyond or capabilities and we opted to make an arcade game that we could play fast and loose with the details. Setting the player’s hair on fire or making their feet twice the size gave the game a crazy, anarchic feel, but we felt that we were doing something different to other games in the market and paying homage to games like Jordan vs. Bird: One on One, which had been a hit game a few years earlier.

Seven versions meant a programming team of around 20 and this is at a time when there wasn’t such a thing as version control. It meant the programming side of things got very complex very quickly and there were constant blockages and mistakes across all the code bases.

The team worked very hard to get the game finished and it was a big commercial success, but anyone who worked on that game had been truly put to the sword – a complete test of their technical and organisational abilities. The late nights and constant weekend working took its toll and a couple of the team opted to leave the games industry rather than go through that experience again.

You have overseen the birth of several indie game developers over the years. Is it still viable to be an indie developer today?

That’s a tough question and probably takes me to a controversial answer.

Games development is hard, regardless of being in a large well-funded studio or if you’re in a small indie team. I think it is extremely unlikely that without some hard experience at making games it is possible to go and be a successful indie studio today.

Most of the best performing indie studios are staffed with experienced games developers. That’s an important fact.

I still believe that 3 to 5 years’ experience at building commercial products is the necessary pre-cursor to be an indie developer. Of course, the challenge is finding a seat on a team to get your 3 to 5 years of delivery under your belt.

Every indie team is going to need some hardcore experience to make it work. Even if it is not the whole team, certainly the majority will need to have shipped multiple titles to have the right experience. Someone must take care of the business side of things. It is more important that the coding in some respects – everything the team does must have a commercial outcome.

I would still encourage new graduates to pursue jobs rather than forming start-ups. The start-up indie studio can come later. The experience needs to come first.

There is a lot of talk in the game media about the Indiepocalypse. Do you think that has already happened or is imminent?

There is a massive difference between a good game and a commercial one. The indie developers that survive will be the ones that learn this distinction. Every game must have an audience and that audience needs to be willing to pay. Anything other than that and your company will not survive – the games industry is not immune from Darwinism.

I think there are a lot of indie developers heading for a cliff. Many of them do not have a business plan, skills or experience to understand how successful companies work, what the commercial side of the industry looks and sounds like, or how to commercialise their games to the right level. There is a lot to running a successful games company that has nothing to do with making a game.

What are the basic mistakes that new indie developers make while starting out in the games industry?

  1. They think it is easier than it is

  2. They think that all games make money

  3. They fail to identify an audience for their game

  4. They make a game they want to play, not necessarily that other people want to play

  5. They fail to find someone to run the business competently. The lead programmer tries to be the CEO as well and buy the milk. It doesn’t work

  6. Hire their friends

  7. Hire their family

  8. Take no/little/poor advice from people who don’t know much more than they do

  9. Chase lost causes. If something isn’t working, fail fast and move on

  10. Unrealistic expectations around money, lifestyle and commitment

What projects do you have in the immediate pipeline?

Currently, we are building some core tech to support a range of games that use location-based AR. There are several opportunities on the horizon for AR based games and we would like to have a comprehensive suite of tools and technologies, so we can act fast and move on ideas as the commercial opportunities arise.

We are also investing in a blockchain-based concept, which whilst not strictly aimed at the games arena, we feel we have a technology idea that can feed into the back of any console or PC based game and would give the developers a new capacity for the development of collectable, tradable and unique assets for the players to enjoy.

Lastly, we are continuing to work with a variety of developers to help them optimise their code for specific hardware chipsets like Qualcomm Snapdragon.

WHY TRADITIONAL SKILLS ARE STILL IMPORTANT

Oleksandra Bulatseva who prefers the nickname 'Lesya', was born in Ukraine. Lesya has worked on several shipping games in the past 15 years. These include The Sims (PC), Castaway Stories (PC), Overlord (PC, Xbox 360), Championship Boxing (Nintendo DS), Darkened Sky (PC) and BumperWars (Arcade). She is also a guest lecturer at BVA.

Read below BVA’s interview with Oleksandra Bulatseva.

What is your educational background?

I successfully graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kiev. The main focus of our studies was to master classical techniques of drawing, painting, human anatomy, perspective etc. I have also finished Maya and animation courses.

Which was the very first game that you worked on?

It was a third-person action-adventure videogame, Darkened Skye, which was released in 2002 in North America.

What was your biggest challenge as a texture artist? 

My biggest challenge was from myself - to see how I can constantly improve my techniques to perform high quality work as a character and environment texture artist.

Your CV mentions that you worked on The Sims? What did you do on that game?  

Yes, I was a part of the team working on The Sims. It was outsourcing project. We had to follow very strict specifications. I was responsible for creating the textures for the  characters, clothes and props.

What are the key skills that a good texture artist should master?

First, you have to become familiar with Photoshop or Substance Painter. These are very essential for creating the textures and materials. Texturing skills in 3D software like 3DS Max or Maya will be a big plus. On top of that, it would be useful if you can get acquainted with sculpting software like ZBrush or 3DCoat.

Being a traditional painter, you are able to paint the textures by hand. But most texture artists today use textures from existing libraries. Do you think the traditional texture painting skills are still important?

Well, it is true nowadays texture artists use different software to generate textures, normal maps etc. But in order to be a good texture artist, it is critical to develop your artistic taste. In my opinion, drawing skills give you flexibility and freedom during the different stages of your creative process. In the ideal world, before starting to learn any 3D or 2D software, students should get some decent drawing skills, have some basic knowledge about anatomy, perspective and colour sense.

You worked in Bangalore, India for a couple of years. What was your experience like?

Working in India was a great opportunity for me. Firstly, I really appreciated the positive team atmosphere where team members shared the same goal of creating something great. It was also a way to discover a new culture.

What are your goals for the future?

I am still working in the videogame industry as a texture artist and figuring out new ways to improve my skills. I am now settled in France with my family.

HOW TO TRAIN TO BE A VIDEOGAME DEVELOPER

The British Videogame Academy (BVA) today announced the start of enrolment for its one year videogame diploma courses. The academy is now offering two separate one year diploma courses in videogame art and programming.

The BVA diploma courses are taught by current videogame industry professionals with many years of experience in developing games for the PC and consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox. All training is via weekly online lectures and end of semester projects.

One of the unique features of the diploma courses is the Final Videogame Project during the fourth semester. In this three month period, all BVA students will get the opportunity to work on an actual commercial videogame which is currently in production at a partner studio. This is a game for the PC, VR and game consoles. The Final Videogame Project allows all students, both artists and programmers, to get hands-on industry experience. The students can also use a demo from the Final Videogame Project in their showreel.

The other salient features of the BVA courses are:

  1. Guest lectures by current videogame industry professionals on specialist subjects such as graphics, audio, networking, game design and project management

  2. A highly focussed practical syllabus for both artists and programmers

  3. An in-house Employment Cell that arranges interviews with prospective employers in the videogame industry

Interested students can enrol by visiting the BVA website at www.learngames.co.uk.

Contact

British Videogame Academy

Email: training@learngames.co.uk

Website: www.learngames.co.uk