How Abertay University nurtures the creators of the future

The UK's most famous games academy is changing with the times

Abertay University has been a key player in the video games industry since the mid-1990s, when one of its post-graduate software engineering programmes became more focused towards games as a result of demands from the fledgling games development cluster in Dundee. Formerly known as the Dundee Institute of Technology, Abertay officially became a university in 1994, and its alumni include the likes of David Jones, founder of DMA Design – now, of course, known as Rockstar North.

“Essentially, it developed from there,” explains Paul Durrant, the university’s director of business development. “It was a popular course, which attracted lots of applicants from across the UK and the portfolio was built and added to from there.” Now Abertay offers five separate undergraduate courses, from Game Design and Production Management to Computer Game Applications Development.

Abertay also hosts the annual game design competition Dare to be Digital, for which teams of students travel to Scotland to develop a new game. What began as an internal student contest has expanded rapidly. The games created during the nine-week event are showcased to the public at the Dare ProtoPlay festival, with three chosen to compete for the coveted BAFTA Ones to Watch Award.

Digital Goldfish is one of Abertay’s biggest success stories. In 2012 it was acquired by mobile/web game maker Ninja Kiwi, responsible for the popular Bloons series.

One of Abertay’s key strengths is its teaching spaces, which aim to replicate a traditional game development environment by allowing programmers, designers, animators and artists to work together. It utilises the expertise of large and small developers alike – and many of its graduates now work for some of the industry’s biggest names – including EA, Sony and Rockstar North.

For Durrant, it’s crucial that Abertay students have an “environment of interdisciplinarity” so that the projects they produce have a full complement of team members from all disciplines. “Experience is really valuable at the formative stage of doing your undergraduate studies and certainly from a post-graduate perspective in terms of performing at what is essentially a practitioner level.”

But Abertay has broadened its range significantly in recent years, not just helping undergraduates learn about game design and development but to foster post-graduate start-ups and enterprises. “We started in 2000 with a graduate enterprise incubator called Embreonix which ran for five years,” says Durrant. “During that five years, about 60 potential student and graduate start-ups came through it and four or five them have gone on to do great things in terms of raising six or seven figure sums. [Studios] like Digital Goldfish, which was acquired by Ninja Kiwi; TPLD, who are big in the games and earning space; and Waracle who have gone on to build games and apps for big-name brands.”

"Many Abertay graduates now work for some of the industry’s biggest names – including EA, Sony and Rockstar North."

The university’s Dare ProtoPlay event quickly became a success, but Abertay was concerned that few of the featured games ever went beyond the prototype stage. “People were saying, ‘Why aren’t these things becoming products?’” he recalls. “That was when I raised a few million pounds for the UK Prototype Fund. And between 2010 and now, we have supported 70 plus companies – some of which are graduate start-ups, some of which aren’t – with project finance to develop games prototypes.”

Durrant believes that this kind of help is key in crucial for the British games industry as a whole. “We want to make sure that we have a continued flow of new IP being developed in the UK. There really has to be a volume of original IP games created on a continual flow of innovation. Because [they’re] going out there into a hit-driven world. Over the years we’ve seen small companies like Media Molecule developing original IP and taking it forward and ending up being owned by Sony, and Boss Alien being acquired by NaturalMotion - and Mind Candy, of course. All of these companies developed original IP and had success with it. So, stimulating that, alongside creating graduate experiences in that environment has also been really important to us.”

The Prototype Fund was one of Abertay’s most successful projects. Three quarters of the companies the project supported released new IP as a result, and the university provided over 50 graduate placements, some into established micro-studios, and others into slightly larger teams (Durrant cites ex-console teams like Disney Black Rock as a size comparison). The explosion of the app market coincided with the project, which meant that more companies were already going down a self-publishing route. “The prototyping became more about getting an early version of the game out there and getting people playing it, and then using metrics and analytics to tweak it and improve it and hopefully, in some cases, monetise it,” says Durrant. “But as we know, that’s become tougher and tougher as we have a huge sea of content vying for attention out there.”

2012 BAFTA Ones to Watch winner Sophia George became the Victoria and Albert Museum’s first Game Designer in Residence last year, in partnership with Abertay University.

In an attempt to solve that problem, Abertay has created what is essentially a dummy games company, called Specimen Games Limited. “It’s based on profiles across the portfolio,” Durrant explains. “And we’ve been putting that profile in front of a whole range of investors from conventional venture capitalists, angel investors, platform owners, publishers, and lawyers and accountants looking at ways that those companies could present themselves better or enhance their potential to get working capital and using this as a kind of example. We hope that we will be able to influence some of the investment community.”

The Prototype Fund granting a total of 70 out of just under 400 applications for funding, a hit rate that Durrant says “wasn’t too bad” but still demonstrated just how many fledgling games projects needed financial assistance. Durrant is hopeful that there may be further support coming owing to the success of the funding drive, which he says should make it easier for others trying to secure funding for similar projects in future.

But he also believes that the UK games industry still suffers from a lack of entrepreneurs. “We have to try and find a way that creative teams can come together with people who might not necessarily be hands-on creative in terms of the games development,” he explains. “In a small start-up, it’s challenging to potentially carry somebody like that. But at the same time, they’re going to be someone who is seen by potential investors and funders, the companies you’re trying to do a deal with, as being the right sort of person to lead a company.” There’s a tendency at the moment, Durrant explains, for one of the creative team to be forced into adopting that role. And in many cases, they’re not necessarily best suited to it.

"Stimulating original IP has always been really important to us."

“People who can lead a games development team and have savvier business models and the foresight and presence to pitch to investors. Some people have said to us putting suits together with games developers is a bit like oil and water and they just don’t mix. But some of the things we are trying to do are going to try and emulsify that, if you like.”

It’s a noble aim for a university that continues to do much more than just teach the game designers of the next decade or more. By balancing youth with experience, and assisting creative ideas with commercial initiatives, it is doing more than most to make the future of the UK games industry look brighter than ever.