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Andrew studied the Creative Skillset-accredited MSc/PGDip Computer Games Technology at University of Abertay Dundee. Here, he discusses the course and his career since graduating.
What was it originally that attracted you to study there?
I really wanted to work in the games industry, but the theoretical computer science and general software engineering practices I was studying during my undergraduate programme at the University of Edinburgh - although a solid foundation - weren't really going to equip me for that.
In 2003, at the start of my final year, I couldn't see how I was going to find the time and pick up the skills to work on game demos and have a shot at getting into the industry.
I'd been aware of the then-fledgling BSc Games Technology course at Abertay in 2000 when I was originally applying to university, but had been worried it might cause me to over-specialise. I was delighted to discover that Abertay also offered the postgraduate MSc course, and immediately applied, starting it after graduating from my BSc Software Engineering degree in 2004.
Doing case study reports on games companies really helped to build an understanding of what the industry is like and how it works
What was the most important thing you learnt conceptually?
The course really encouraged us to learn about the overall process of making a game. To think about the whole production cycle, from conception, through various stages of design and production. Doing case study reports on games companies really helped to build an understanding of what the industry is like and how it works.
What was the most important thing you learnt technically?
The chance to spend a whole (academic) year improving my C++ skills, with the relevant tutelage, and creating full, working demos.
What was the most toughest, most challenging thing you encountered?
Bridging the gap between the pure, conceptual software engineering with Java I'd learned during my undergraduate degree, and the reality of writing high-performance C++ code for games. Virtually no-one works with C++ outside of the games/visualisation industry, and there's a good reason for it. It's hard! However, it's necessary if you want to squeeze performance and work at the low level that games often require.
The coursework really held my interest in a way that it hadn't during my previous degree course. It really compelled me to push what I was doing as far as I was able
What do you feel were the best parts of your course/university?
Mainly the chance to work in a creative environment with lots of other like-minded students, essentially pooling our ideas and skills to help each other to improve. The tutoring we received was also generally excellent, and primarily from lecturers who had actually spent time working if not in the games industry, at least with the games industry to develop the course.
What was the biggest achievement/success on the course for you?
I found that the coursework really held my interest in a way that it hadn't during my previous degree course. It really compelled me to push what I was doing as far as I was able, instead of just doing enough to get through.
Achieving a Distinction and also gaining entry to (and finally winning an award for) the Dare to be Digital competition were my great successes.
Did you know that your course was accredited before you went there? Did it matter to you?
No. Although I knew that the course was generally held in high regard within the games industry, being the first of its kind. The original and best!
How did what you studied help you get a career in games?
My year at Abertay is what made me capable of working in the games industry, full stop. Without that, I probably wouldn't have had the skills, and certainly wouldn't have had the confidence or demos to break into the industry.
What titles/projects have you worked on since graduation, and where at?
After finishing the PGDip section of my course at Abertay, I took part in the Dare to be Digital competition. My team, The Frozen North, won "Product with Greatest Market Potential" for our dance-mat based educational game, Primary Steps.
Immediately after that, I went to work at Outerlight in my home town of Edinburgh. I was basically thrown straight in at the deep end, starting work on The Ship just as it went into full production; it was released 9 months later to great reviews and a small, dedicated fan base.
I spent the next two and a half years working on supporting The Ship, my dissertation, and then the sequel to The Ship, which is yet to see the light of day.
My year at Abertay is what made me capable of working in the games industry, full stop
What is your current role, and where? - can you briefly describe your daily duties and responsibilities?
Since May 2009, I've been an AI (Aritificial Intelligence)/Gameplay Engineer at Ruffian Games in Dundee, working on Crackdown 2 for Microsoft Game Studios. I'm basically responsible for the implementation of all the non-human ('Freak') AI - combat, movement, that kind of thing. I work exclusively in C++, and on the Xbox 360.
You realise that you have the ability and passion to do great things too, all you really need is experience
What was the toughest, most challenging thing you’ve encountered at work?
I think probably feelings of inadequacy. The thing about the games industry is that it attracts passionate, brilliant, extremely (often overly) hard-working people. It can be very mentally tough starting out in a new job - especially your first job - and seeing all the brilliant people around you doing amazing things that you wouldn't even know where to start on, and doing them from 9am to 9pm every day.
Part of that stays with you and just develops into an admiration for the skill level and commitment of some of your peers. The rest of it falls away as you realise that you have the ability and passion to do great things too, all you really need is experience.
Assuming you're smart enough to get into university and get good enough grades to be considered for a position, the main thing you need to focus on is learning how to get things done
What advice would you give to the current crop of students?
As Joel Spolsky once wrote, the kind of people you want to employ are (a) smart and (b) know how to get things done. Assuming you're smart enough to get into university and get good enough grades to be considered for a position, the main thing you need to focus on is learning how to get things done.
On a side note - try and enter competitions, especially team ones. And then - obviously - try and win them
This means finishing things. Better to make an end-to-end demo game based around a really simple concept, than to try and fail to implement some grand technological masterpiece.
Successfully demonstrating technical ability is fine; but really anyone these days can find source code or step-by-step guides on how to do anything from produce the latest graphical effect, to implementing a simple rigid-body physics system.
But not everyone can take that piece of technology - be it graphics, physics, AI, whatever - and base a game around it with a menu screen, solid controls, some audio, and a scoring/progression system, and make it fun to play. That really demonstrates that you know how to pull things together and get things done. And it's a very, very desirable skill.
On a side note - try and enter competitions, especially team ones. And then - obviously - try and win them. Doing well in a team competition shows that you know how to get things done in a team environment - how to balance different tasks and liaise with others. Winning (or, if it's a big competition, scoring some kind of placing or honourable mention) shows that not only can you work well in a team, but that you can help drive a team to be the best. Again, a very desirable skill.
Just remember that smart people - i.e. those with the mindset and intelligence to learn how to program - are a dime a dozen. If you want to break into the industry and work on AAA titles, you have to do something to set yourself apart from the masses.
What’s the game you most wish you’d worked on, ever?
Probably Baldur's Gate, or any of the old Black Isle Infinity Engine RPGs (Role Playing Games).
Do you have any industry role models/heroes?
Hmmm... I'm not really into idol worship in that way. But I would definitely say I really admire the guys at independent game development studios who started out small, ended up big, and stayed true to their standards and beliefs throughout. I'm thinking here of Valve and Blizzard in particular, and also probably places like Bethesda and id. They really drive creativity, and help keep the standard for games in their genres very high.
Which Game character would you like to be?
Probably Altair (or Ezio) from Assassin's Creed. Climbing, killing, smooth-talking - what's not to like?
What’s the most fun you’ve had at work?
I think recently at Ruffian, when we've all been gathered round waiting for big Crackdown 2 announcements or trailers to go live. Like the original unveil at E3, or when the guys were out in Japan doing the first live demos at Tokyo Game Show. You get that buzz going round the studio, and everyone has the feeling of working together to really make something great.
That's another thing to know about the games industry - working 6-7 days and 70+ hours a week as you approach the end of a project means that you spend a fair bit of time doing not much other than working and sleeping. It's all worth it in the end though!
What are you most proud of?
Our achievement at Outerlight in producing The Ship with a tiny team, and getting such a good critical reception. The game did pretty poorly overall because we simply didn't have any marketing budget - there was no publisher really attached to the project, other than to actually distribute the game. But knowing that we managed to turn out a critically-acclaimed title as such a small, start-up studio still makes me feel proud of the work we did.
Click here for further details of accredited games courses at Abertay.