Gaming courses revving to go

8 Jul 2004

Students who blame hours spent on the PlayStation or Xbox as the reason for poor performance in exams will soon have to find a new excuse. Imagine having a university course where working with computer games is an integral part of study time and not simply an excuse to avoid hitting the books.

Okay, it won’t be exactly like that, but from later this year school leavers will have the option of studying computer game development to degree level. Two Institutes of Technology (IT) in Carlow and Dundalk have outlined plans to offer courses more far-reaching in scope than those previously available in Ireland.

Carlow IT will introduce a four-year degree course with 30 places and will give students a grounding in developing computer games for all the major games platforms, including Sony’s PlayStation 2; Nintendo’s GameCube; Microsoft’s Xbox and PCs, as well as mobile devices.

Dundalk IT also intends to offer a software development degree in games development as well as an infomatics degree in game design, which focuses on creating plots, storyboarding and character creation.

Why now? To put these developments into context, it seems likely the courses were partly born out of necessity. Ireland Inc has high hopes for the games industry and expectations are that the sector can make in due course a significant contribution to employment numbers locally. A second, more troubling development has been the alarming drop in applications to study computing and related disciplines at third level – as much as a 50pc decline. Something needed to be done to arrest this trend.

“It’s probably about right in terms of timing,” says Dr Aphra Kerr, a research fellow in the Centre for Society, Technology and Media at Dublin City University, who has closely followed the growing games industry in Ireland. She points out that the advent of such courses may help attract overseas games companies to set up in Ireland. “It will build up a skills base and hopefully will also lead to some start-ups setting up directly out of college.”

Peter Lynch, managing director of Eirplay Games, a Dublin-based games developer, welcomed the news. “I like the fact that Carlow’s course is a four-year degree. It will give people a very good grounding in software and multimedia, and specifically in games development. Because it’s a degree it will give a lot of time over to looking at each of the skills used in developing a game.”

Carlow IT hopes that guest lecturers, especially from indigenous companies, will feature as part of its course. “In terms of course development, this was the most intensive in terms of industry feedback of any course we’ve developed so far,” explains Joseph Kehoe, head of the computing and networking department at the institute.

As a result of the close ties with the gaming industry, Kehoe says that this would make graduates very employable on completing the course. “Even if they don’t go into games, they will be very amply qualified for software engineering,” he points out, “and for games development, these are the people you would hire above anyone else.” At the end of the third year of the course, students will go on a six-month work placement with a games company.

“This is what you need to establish any sort of industry in Ireland that is relevant for games,” says Steven Collins, chief technology officer with Havok, one of the success stories of the indigenous games sector. “Ireland getting into the gaming industry is not a short-term thing, it is a long-term matter. It’s exactly the sort of thing we’re looking for.”

Collins adds that work placement will be an important part of the course – and not just for the students. “We’ve been involved in that sort of initiative before and we are keen to be involved again. That way you can have some impact on the quality of the course and you also get to know the students,” he continues.

The courses have a different emphasis and offer different disciplines from the diploma course in Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art & Design Technology and Senior College Ballyfermot’s Ludo course in interactive entertainment training. The new courses, it is thought, will complement rather than compete with the others.

The Carlow IT course has a strong grounding in mathematics. If this sounds like the boring part, there are mitigating factors. Firstly, the qualifications aren’t too onerous: applicants need to have a minimum of a B grade in pass maths in the Leaving Cert, in addition to two honours subjects. Secondly, mathematical modelling allows characters and elements in a game to behave as they would in the real world. It governs lighting and shading in a scene, the effects of gravity, recoil from shooting a gun or what happens when a character hits a wall, for example.

Inevitably there are some concerns. This may simply be par for the course in the games industry, which is small – in the Irish context – and still developing, with scope for getting things right or wrong. Questions remain as to whether the local sector will be sufficiently large within three years to be able to accommodate work experience candidates pouring forth from the institutes.

There is another possible black mark, cited by one insider who did not wish to be named, against the Carlow course – the speaker was unaware at the time that Dundalk IT had also announced a course. The source expressed doubts that there will be adequate staff training and expertise in gaming. Lecturers may be on a learning curve as steep as that for the students, it is feared. “It’s still a good thing that the course is being set up. I just hope that they’re able to deliver.”

By Gordon Smith

Pictured is ‘Burnout 3’, typical of the sort of games that future Irish graduates could soon be using their advanced programming and mathematical skills to create