This article was edited by SPRITE+ Research Associate Dmitry Dereshev, with responses and edits from Program Leader for MSc Commercial Games Development Simon Scarle.
The spotlight today is on Simon Scarle – Program Leader for MSc Commercial Games Development at UWE Bristol, researcher in Applied Games Technology visualisation, and a SPRITE+ Member. Some of Simon’s latest publications include:
How would you describe your job to a 12-year-old?
I teach people how to make the behind-the-scenes aspects of computer games – the tools for artist and designers to make best use of the hardware and make the games more interesting. It is not about making an individual physics effect or an explosion, but rather it is about making a system that would create lots of those. The more it gets to becoming a proper game engine – the better.
Could you describe what you do during a typical workday?
I teach, and the day depends on whom I teach. For the 1st and 2nd years, it is the traditional “lecture + lab” structure. For the 3rd years and the Master students I mostly act as an “expert resource” in the room. Game technology students are very self-led, they must be, because that is how the games industry works.
Do your students end up making a full-blown game by the end of their course?
The last big project we ask our students to do is for the entire class (40-50 people) to work together on the same code base to produce a game. A 40-strong team in games industry would be considered a medium-size studio. This project is quite an eye-opener for students – suddenly you must deal not just with a person in a typical small group, but the entire class could be that person you have to deal with. The games that students produce are not public by default, but some got close to being published.
Straight up computer science courses can be bad at exposing students to group work, and we realise that even a small game studio would have 5-6 people working together. Coding is generally a group effort especially for games, where you have the code side, and the design side. And that is not even touching other typical aspects of business, like sales and marketing.
UWE Games runs some of the largest sites for the Global Game Jam in the UK, with not only students, but also developers from Bristol studios participating. The last year’s Jam gathered over 100 participants. We use a similar format with students, where we give them a theme, and ask to come back one week later with something developed based on that theme.
Could you describe a challenging project that you have recently worked on?
I am working on a system for generalised data visualisation. It borrows ideas from how game engines work. The data is presented as a network which is connected a bit like points connected with springs. This way you can see your data not as a table of numbers or graphs, but as physical objects you can use VR to interact with. I have a wonderful picture of a PhD student grinning ear to ear, wearing a VR set: he is flying down the length of a molecule that is the subject of his PhD, and the visualisation is made based on my system.
One my colleagues used the system to visualise software, where he pinned some of the software code and let the rest of the functions hang below that. Once he ran the visualisation, a chunk of his code just fell off into the void. That quickly showed the code that was not used anymore, since there was nothing in the rest of the visualisation that would keep it hanging.
What training/experience did you have at the start of your career?
Both my undergraduate degree (The University of Manchester), and my PhD (King’s College London) were in physics. I then worked as a postdoc on simulations of different systems. One day I watched a tech demo for an upcoming videogame (Half Life 2), and decided that I really wanted to try doing that. The demo showed some of the physics in the game, which fascinated me. With that, I moved laterally, working in the games industry for a couple of years. I learned on the job the difference between coding for academic simulations and coding for games.
My end goal was not game development as such, but I knew there were starting to be degree courses in games, and the only sensible way I could get into that was to work in a related industry for a while, so I saw working in industry as means to get my current job.
How did you get into your current role?
When I worked at my first postdoc position, my principle coding language was Fortran, but I knew that the leading language in games industry was C++, so during my next postdoc I deliberately used C++ to get experience using it.
Once my last postdoc post was coming to an end, I started applying for both research posts and games industry posts. I sat quite nervously at several game studio foyers before I got my first role. After a few years, the studio that hired me reduced size, and I was let go. I was once again applying for both games industry posts and academic posts, and I got a games-related academic post for a serious games-related project at the University of Warwick. Then I worked at Serious Games Institute at Coventry University. Then I moved to my current post at UWE Bristol.
Are there aspects in either games industry or academia that stand out to you?
I was lucky not to see the worst of it, but I would like to point out the crunch mentality in the games industry e.g. “I worked for 48 hours straight to get this thing out the door because of a deadline”. The industry is more aware of it now, and studios realise that they cannot do it to people. The deadline crunch was one of the reasons why the games industry had such a burnout rate. The whole industry is maturing – it is no longer just the young people who could go on those crunches. There are now people who would like to work in games and have a family.
On the academic side – we must be flexible because we cannot say a year in advance what kind of software our students will be using – there could be several different versions of a specific game engine by then. Balancing that with the need to tell University IT services what kind of layout we need for teaching the course 18 months before the students come in is not practical. There are some pieces of kit that students might find useful this year, but as lecturers we cannot guarantee that the same kit will be useful next year. VR is one example of that. We use project-based approach to allow some of that flexibility and save on the paperwork that would go into reshaping a course every year to fit newer trends and technologies in the area. It is practical skills of developing stuff that students ultimately need.
What do you wish you had known when you started your career?
That the end goal was not going to be what I thought it would. I thought I would be a lecturer in a physics department teaching something related to simulations. I did not anticipate that I would bounce between academia and industry to get my current lectureship. It may sound like my career path is straightforward looking backwards, but at the time it was more about mixing what I could do with where I wanted to go next.
What would you recommend to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
When my students ask me: “how do I get into the games industry?” – I usually say: “make more games, and learn more about games”, so you learn it by doing it. I would say that is also true for coding in general – the more you do it, the better you get. One of my lecturers once said: “they call them computer languages for a reason – it is a means of communication – and like any language, you get fluent by using them”. It is that process of constantly doing and making that will get you there.
Another advice is: do not just play games that you like, play the other stuff too. You might not end up making just the games that you adore. You can borrow ideas from those other games to make something new and interesting.
What troubles did you have progressing through your career?
Once I was back in academia, there were issues with academics in computer science who do not see games as being serious software engineering or even as software at all. They have an impression that games are a trivial thing to develop, when in fact they are some of the most involved pieces of software you could possibly produce. Think about what makes a game: it often needs a physics engine, sound design, interface design, artificial intelligence – there is a lot more involved than in, say, developing an email client. Some of the techniques used in games development are very effective and can be translated to developing software in general, but as soon as you mention “games”, a lot of those academics just drift away. And these are the same people who teach computer science courses where half the students are doing them because they want to develop computer games.
Games are an odd medium. The industry prides itself on how new it is, but it has been around for 50-60 years now. The problem is that a lot of people who would do a more general cultural analysis around other media have not grown up with games, and they are observing games remotely. This translates into them simplifying or over-generalizing what they see. On the other hand, people who are embedded in games industry do not see the point of why you would analyse it on that level.
Media like films have this kind of academic analysis treating them as artwork, whereas games as a medium is not quite there, and people in games industry are not entirely comfortable with that kind of analysis. Games being such a large part of modern culture will end up with that analysis eventually, having a humanities point of view on them as well as the technical view we already have.
Computer games are the most STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths) thing you can do. It requires the scientific, technological, engineering and maths understanding, but all that is geared towards artistic pursuits.
What one stereotype would like to dispel about your job or industry?
For a start, that the games industry are all boys. I will be the first to admit that the ratio of men to women in the industry is not brilliant, but it is not so one-sided either. When it comes to independent studios, it is more of a 50:50 split.
The other one is of game developers being anti-social beings, sitting in their bedrooms coding all the time. Games industry may be nerdy, but there is much more of a community aspect to it – these are the people who populated social media first, with the mainstream following them.
How would you describe your research or business interest in relation to SPRITE+?
It can be challenging to involve game developers into research projects with academia, unless it is directly related to a particular system that they are building. As a large industry, games are part of the culture, they affect human lives, so they need to be more involved in broader discussions around how they affect people.
One example of an ethical issue it loot boxes, and whether they should be classified as gambling or not. When you pay money for those boxes, they give you things that may be of varied value. The games industry argument is that loot boxes have nothing to do with gambling, it is a simple game mechanic. The avoidance of a wider discussion and involvement in this and other issues often plays right into the hands of the anti-games lobby.
How do you hope to benefit from working with SPRITE+ network?
I like to offer my perspective to the network and learn practices that could be applied to the games industry from the network. If I can borrow some of the ideas from the network and apply them to games development, that would be of benefit. I think the industry would find it very useful.
Which of the SPRITE+ Challenge Themes can you relate to from the job that you do? How does it impact your role?
The Accountability and Ethics in the Digital Ecosystem theme is something that games industry needs to investigate. There are some classical ethical issues like loot boxes, but also the whole idea that games are designed to be catchy, and that there is money involved to purchase additional elements beyond the game itself. Doing all that in an ethical way… the industry is more aware of these things than it used to be, but there are still enough studios which do not pay as much attention to these issues, which comes around to bite the entire industry. I am sure I am not the only parent whose child managed to run up a bill on their phone because they bought elements in some kind of game, and didn’t quite realise that they were purchasing them with real money.
There are discussions in some games conferences, where developers explain their ethical procedures which are designed to make sure they are not taking advantage of people who cannot afford additional purchases. As an example, one company has a system which automatically flags any account that spent a large enough some of money in a short period of time. The company would then endeavour to contact them and ask whether it is fine for them to spend that much. One such account had spent over £10,000 in about a month. They investigated, and it turned out that the account belonged to a reasonably well-known person, who used the game to wind-down after work. The person replied to the company basically saying: “don’t worry, I can afford it 😊”.
I am also interested in Digital Vulnerabilities theme – there is a technical challenge to create software that is stable enough to be used to store personal identifiable information, as well as any systems related to money transactions. The level of stability of games and platforms is a lot higher than for some of the other types of commercial software. Part of that is e.g. on games consoles, where you have people’s bank accounts running through them. If a game is not stable enough, someone could hack through it, and access those bank details.
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