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Developing the video games of the future

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Matt de Neef:

It wasn't long ago that video gaming was seen as the worthless pursuit of teenage boys; a time-waster with little real-world importance. But now, in 2010, things are a little different.

The average Australian gamer is now 30 years old, 48% of Australian gamers are female and the video games industry in Australia is growing at around 16% every year. In fact, the Australian games industry is now worth more than $3 billion a year, is twice as large as the cinema box office and is worth 40% more than the Australian DVD and Blu-Ray market.

With the industry growing at such an impressive rate, La Trobe University's Bachelor of Computer Science in Games Technology is doing just that.

The three year undergraduate degree, with an optional fourth year for honours, is a modified version of a regular Computer Science degree, with extra Games Technology Units. According to Games Tech lecturer Matt Oliver, the first two years of the course give students a general understanding of how games are constructed before allowing specialisation in later years.

Matt Oliver:

We start it off simple. It's not until you get to your third or fourth year that we really get to the low-level detailed stuff. So we do start off with some game design and some game engine middleware; the basics of putting together a game; what makes a good game, things like that, just to get students interested; get the knowledge started before we get low level…

Matt de Neef:

Phil Ward is an honours student and demonstrator in Games Technology and he believes that it's this focus on low-level programming in later years that sets La Trobe's games tech course apart.

Phil Ward:

Some people use point-and-click game generators – GameMaker, Unity – where they do very little code, they set up game logic and artificial intelligence but they don't actually know where it plugs in, how it works or what it's doing underneath. Whereas, we might touch on something like Unity at first year but by third year we've got the skills to write it ourselves – so we actually know what's happening underneath, we've studied artificial intelligence, we've studied game logics we've done physics, we've done maths and we've done engine architecture and that just sets us apart because rather than knowing how to use a program, we know how to write it'.

Matt de Neef:

The course's programming focus has attracted significant praise from within the games industry including at the Freeplay independent gaming festival earlier this year.

Matt Oliver:

Coz we have a much stronger programming focus than the other degrees, that was commented on quite strongly by a lot of the people there saying that 'yeah, that is quite fundamentally important in a lot of critical games technology areas', which is something we've put a lot of work into trying to constantly improve so to receive that kind of feedback is always positive.

Matt de Neef:

And as Phil Ward recalls, it wasn't just the course's overall direction that received positive feedback at Freeplay.

Phil Ward:

We had an XBOX game set up for people to play as they walked past and see what we do and I had some people that were third and fourth year students at other universities in Victoria doing games degrees and they were playing it and actually asking if we were going to release it because they wanted to buy it and they said 'what program did you do this in?' and we said, we didn't do it in a program, we wrote our own game – this isn't point and click. And they were like, we wouldn't know how to start with that, and I said 'that's a second semester, first year assignment – that's what a first year student did at this university.

Matt de Neef:

One of the course's core strengths is its ability to react to changes in the industry and provide students with the latest training to place them at the forefront of the discipline. Paul Taylor is a games tech. lecturer.

Paul Taylor:

Over the years I don't think any of the original subjects have survived intact; we've altered them, mutated them and kept them up to speed with what's happened.

Matt de Neef:

So what has happened since the course started around 10 years ago? Well, computer hardware has become faster and more affordable, graphics cards have become more powerful and more versatile and games have become more elaborate and visually impressive than anyone could have predicted.

Matt Oliver:

The industry moves really really fast. You have really quick turnovers on graphics cards sometimes every eight months or something you have a whole new graphics card architecture; Intel are pumping out a new CPU every year with their tip-top model; so things are moving really quickly and it becomes really, really easy for someone to go 'this is how you can do something now', get that, but not do anything with it and within a year, two years, there's other companies are pumping out these much better quality looking games with much more interactive physics or things like that and because you didn't keep up, your game just falls away.

If you want to do that kind of fore-front gaming, those triple-a titles that everyone sees on the stores, if you want to know how that's done you have to keep up with the new technology and the new trends. So we try and arm students with the best of what today can do but in such a way that they can actually try and find it easier when new trends come out , they've sort of got that background understanding about how things are going to go and how they can find those things out themselves.

Matt de Neef:

And in an industry where it's hard enough just to keep up with recent trends, La Trobe's Games Technology course is focused on the future.

Matt Oliver:

Well we try and add a lot of new stuff in photo-realistic rendering techniques, the current kind of things you can't do in real time, but hopefully as GPUs become more powerful and computers become more powerful, these are the kind of techniques that will become a lot more mainstream…So these are the kind of things we try and teach now, so students understand that now, to try and get them on the forefront of future trends.

Matt de Neef:

One of these future trends is the use of graphics cards, or GPUs, for processes other than traditional graphics rendering. Phil Ward explains.

Phil Ward:

Graphics cards have greatly advanced over standard CPUs over the last few years. Graphics cards generally have to keep up 60 frames per second altering so many pixels, applying so many matrix operations per second just for computer games to work so you can see what you are doing. They do this by having a massive amount of cores – standard computer you're looking at four cores, maybe 8 cores; graphics cards you are looking at hundreds of cores. So the computing power is there but it's always just been used for graphics.

Matt de Neef:

As Matt Oliver explains, students in La Trobe's Games Technology course are learning how to apply the computing power of modern GPUs to a range of applications.

Matt Oliver:

We also do work on low-level computer architecture…and we've also been pioneering some GPGPU computer stuff using graphics cards for more than just graphics rendering which is a relatively new field and it does have the potential for a lot of performance increases and a lot of applications so we teach it not just for games technology but for a lot of other areas in general; biomedical imaging, lots of scientific simulation, and that's why students from La Trobe can find it a lot easier to get jobs, not just in the games industry because a lot of the things we teach as part of the GT degree are really really useful in a lot of other areas.

Matt de Neef:

Phil Ward is one student who has found a use for his Games Tech. tuition outside of the games industry.

Phil Ward:

I did an industry cadetship which was a summer project through the university at VPAC, which is the Victorian Partnership of Advanced Computing and basically when I arrived I was in a team with three other students and we were given the task of investigating the possibilities of medical imaging on next generation cluster computers which were all GPU based.

Matt de Neef:

Phil and his team were given the task of writing an algorithm that would take individual layers of a full body scan, and combine them into one complete 3D model. By harnessing the processing power of VPAC's GPU-based supercomputers, they were able to pioneer a new method for medical image processing which has the potential to cut many hours off processing times.

Phil Ward:

You're looking at brain scans, full body scans, MRIs that contain a ridiculous amount of data. Typically on a super computer, a registration process like lining them up could take 110 days and thanks to graphics cards some of our work was able to increase the architecture behind this and we saw improvements between 10 times and 100 times faster using the filters that me and the group at VPAC wrote.

Matt de Neef:

The skills that Phil learnt as a Games Tech. student were not only of use during his cadetship, but were ahead of their time.

Phil Ward:

I looked back over some of my lecture notes from third year and realised we'd actually addressed the graphic cards from a games perspective, from a rendering perspective, we'd done shaders and this was the next generation of that that wasn't released at the time.

It came to a point where the stuff I learnt back then wasn't applicable back then – it was a theory of what could be possible, what the next generation might be. And in this case they were right and it set me up for the next generation before it was even there.

Matt de Neef:

While it's often difficult for students to get work experience in the games industry, La Trobe's Games Tech course is making the process easier. A partnership between La Trobe and Australian game developers like Torus Games and Tantalus Media means that third year students can get real-world experience to complement their theoretical training. Here's Paul Taylor.

Paul Taylor:

The main idea behind the industry-based project is it's incredibly difficult to get work experience inside the games development industry simply because their IP is their biggest asset so games companies are really wary about letting any of their great ideas slip into the public domain.

That's why we incepted the games technology project. We have people from industry such as Taurus and Tantalus come in with projects they can't afford to do, either because they haven't got the resources or because it's just too risky to fail, and it gives our students a chance to work on actual games development projects.

Matt de Neef:

While it can be hard getting a foot in the door in games design, there are certainly characteristics that will make a potential employee stand out to games developers.

Matt Oliver:

The main thing that they look for is enthusiasm. It's not so much experience in writing, or the fact that you can demonstrate your knowledge but that the fact that you've shown the enthusiasm to go out there and try and learn stuff and you can demonstrate that you're enthusiastic enough to do the work and that you're likely to continue that sort of thing in the workforce.

Matt de Neef:

But, as Phil Ward found, it's not just within the games industry that Games Tech. students should be looking when they finish their course. Paul Taylor explains.

Paul Taylor:

A lot of companies seek out the games programmers even if they're not inside of games because they simply know that students who have done games programming have worked with some extremely difficult code and they appreciate the difficulty and they want people like that working for them.

Matt de Neef:

So if you are looking study Games Technology, why choose La Trobe over courses offered elsewhere?

Phil Ward:

If you're looking to get into game design and the industry there's quite a good quote I heard from an industry leader was that they are more inclined to hire people who have done physics and maths than the people who have done games because the majority of games degrees in Victoria are too art-based. They don't learn the programming, don't learn the problem solving, the analytical skills so they said they're much more keen to pick up physics and maths people who have done problem solving at a higher level.

And the degree here actually does physics and maths to second year – we do hardcore programming, we do an industry-based project, you've got the work experience, you've got the analytical skills, the programming skills, you tick all the boxes. All you've gotta do is go in there and say you're passionate about games and you're there. IF you're keen on programming, if you're keen on the really low level stuff of gaming, not just 'I wanna draw pretty pictures and say this is a game', then this is the place to be.

Matt de Neef:

If you'd like to leave a comment about this or any other podcast in the series, you can get in touch with us at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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