Art in creating computer games

With the industry now worth millions, it is time for parent to stop looking down at design courses. Jean McLeish reports

Mums and dads who look down their noses at computer games courses should think again.

The creators have to be highly skilled in subjects like maths and computer programming, art and music to make it in an intensely competitive and lucrative international industry. And the pound;20- pound;30 million price tag to create today's top games is bigger than many movie budgets.

Pupils from all Dundee's secondary schools spent a week learning games design skills at the University of Abertay earlier in the summer. This is the fifth year of Dare School Team Challenge and 37 youngsters starting sixth year were encouraged to let their imaginations run riot in a contest to design the best computer game.

Instead of playing school against school, the competition mixes students from different schools in teams of four and five and they benefit from training sessions in a range of disciplines from key figures in the industry.

The event is organised by the University of Abertay's School of Computing and Creative Technologies and Dundee City Council's economic development department and educational development service.

"I thought it would be cool to do this because they needed people from art to do cartoons," says 17-year-old Stephanie Sinclair, who recently finished her Highers at St John's High in Dundee. Her team called themselves the Wooden Parrot Company and their game involves pirates shooting parrots with cannons.

It's a concept unlikely to win high marks from wildlife enthusiasts, but Stephanie and her friend Jenni Bangs, 16, already had colourful designs for parrots and pirates well underway by lunchtime on day one.

Jenni's using PhotoShop for her work on the parrot design and is hoping she'll be able to get the parrot to wink at the end of the game, if it survives. The games industry will have to work hard to recruit these two, though. Jenni wants to use her art in fashion and textiles and Stephanie wants to follow her parents' footsteps and become an art teacher.

Across the desk, behind her computer screen, Becky Findlay from Craigie High is searching for sound effects of parrots on the internet. Becky is passionate about games and is more interested in the programming side of things. She spends what she describes as "multiple hours" playing games - about five hours a day, she says. Favourite games are RPG - role-play games, for those not in the know.

Thomas Cartwright, 16, from Harris Academy, explains the attraction of interactive entertainment: "In games you can do things you can't normally do in real life: in `Guitar Hero', you can play amazing songs that you could not normally play on the guitar."

He's interested in computer programming: "I don't actually play games that much. The only time I play a game is if a friend has come over and you play against them competitively."

Henry Fortuna is divisional leader of the Complex Systems division within the school of computing at the University of Abertay, which includes undergraduate and Masters courses in computer games technology.

"They've got to come up with a game concept, they have to design the concept art and create a story board of how the game will progress," he says. "Then they have to use Macromedia Flash to create the game itself, so they do some programming and put that all together into their game.

"They also have to think about the marketing and publicity side of it as well, so they produce a CD cover, design the CD and get it printed up and published.

"The idea for school pupils at the end of fifth year who have finished their Highers is to try and get them interested in careers in the interactive entertainment area."

The week also includes a team-building event with one of the sponsoring companies and a workshop on creating music for games by a composer from sponsor Jack's Hoose Music, Jed Grimes, who is currently touring with Deacon Blue.

Youngsters will also get the chance to tour the studio of another sponsor, Dundee-based games company Realtime Worlds, the team behind some of the world's best-selling video games, including Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown. The company employs 200 people in Dundee and almost 50 more between its bases in South Korea and Boulder, Colorado.

Student helpers are crucial to this challenge - some of the concepts are new to the school pupils, and students like Hazel McKendrick are patiently explaining what's involved to them.

"I'm working in Flash, going over how to create functions and some of the basics. There was nothing like this when I was at school. I would have loved it," says Hazel.

Lecturer John Shearer described the ingredients of a good game: "A good story and a challenge - it's not just a case of finding something and shooting it. You tend to find the best games have a story behind them and a bit of a challenge to find something - something that hooks someone and makes them want to come back."

The challenge was won by Te4m, a mixture of pupils from Morgan Academy and St Saviour's, Menzieshill and Craigie high schools, for their game Animal Olympics.

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