How Early Should Gamers Start Playing? On the Floor of E3 with a Game Design Academy Founder

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When should students specialize their learning? Does doing so narrow their futures or allow them to follow their passion to a strong portfolio?

Peter Warburton, co-founder and production manager of Rizing Games, believes that kids who like video games should start building their own as early as 10. The reason? By the time they graduate from university, he argues, they’ll be near-professional quality video game makers. They’ll also have an impressive portfolio, as gaming is a heavily project-based pursuit.

Rizing Games, a two-year game design academy attached to Cambridge Regional College, instructs 16 to 18-year-old British students on how to design games and run a gaming company as they train towards their A-level exams. It started in 2011 with 15 students in each class; it now takes 65. This year, Warburton took his second year students to E3, the gaming industry’s largest gathering, to present their games and see industry professionals at their best. We sat down with him amidst the chaos of the convention to hear his thoughts on the benefits of learning game design, the British government’s support and how terrible he is at video games.

EdSurge: How did Rizing Games come to be?

Warburton: About five years ago, I was seeing a trend: students were specializing in their learning, but they were never proving that they could do anything. They would do a bit of art, a bit of programming, a bit of this or that, but it was never coming together. So the idea is to task students with running a game company one day a week. Design, create, and publish real games for iPhone and Android. Form teams, manage them, specialize within them, and make a product. It’s quite fun!

Is this your first E3?

Three years ago was our first time exhibiting at E3. We wanted to come over as a trip, but as a final test, I wanted the students to be able to release them commercially on a large scale. The obvious choice was E3, which works well for the end of the educational year. Three years ago, we had four games, and we made our way over, manned the stall, and had a fantastic response. We didn’t expect the positivity we got.

Why not? What about it was so good?

At the time, we couldn’t spend $12,000 on a fancy stall, so we got a mobile one, which was new that year. It’s not flashy, but it’s here. Anyway, that year, Unity came over here, and they asked if we had built the games in Unity. We hadn’t, and so Unity started letting us use their engine for free. Playstation came over, and we developed such a relationship that they’re now endorsing us and given us a developer’s license. Because of that, we’re now working toward building games for their store. The mobile processor creator ARM, which does 95 percent of the world’s mobile tech, was also interested and now supports us in a big way with talks from professionals and their technology.

Asking students to take that extra step, to see the product from idea to release, has opened up so many doors for us. People are shocked and excited that 16 to 18-year-olds can do this.

What do they gain from coming to see this spectacle?

They get the fun of seeing everything, of course, and it’s the culmination of building their game and releasing it, but it’s also the soft skills of presenting it that don’t get taught within any course. There’s networking, communicating your project, being able to talk to someone clearly, convincing them to try your game, which all amounts to how to sell a product. That’s what the industry, especially in the UK, is searching for. They say they’re getting people with excellent technical skills who can’t communicate with the rest of the team and work with a deadline.

Every year, the students come very nervous and anxious. They’re worried about their games! It’s the first game they’ve ever built, and they’ve released it to the commercial market. There are giants out here, and that scares them! They get here, and they realize they’re amongst peers. There are people in the industry they aspire to be like, but as soon as that first person from Warner Brothers comes over and asks to play their game, they realize, ‘Hang on, that’s a human being.’ They open up and become able to communicate with people.

So far, thankfully, there hasn’t been anything hugely negative. There’s constructive feedback from people playing, but nothing compared to how harsh the gaming community can be.

Do those relationships lead to jobs for your students?

They do! We send students to do quality assurance testing once a month, which is a win-win. Our students get work experience and a foot in the door. The game companies get a tester. Once our students complete university and develop those high-level skills, we’re starting to see a trend of them getting hired by the games companies with whom they’ve developed relationships and trust.

Tell me about the challenges Rizing Games faces.

In the UK, the challenges come from government changes related to education. With the new conservative government, they’re pushing people towards A-levels [UK college qualifying exams] or outright employment and apprenticeships. That’s fine for certain lines of work, but within the gaming industry, you can’t just turn up at a games company at 16 because you don’t have the skills like 3D modeling at a deep enough level.

The battle I’m getting into is that the government is cutting funding for colleges, reducing the possibility of us funding our course, and telling our students to go get an apprenticeship. The games companies say, ‘They’re not at the skill level we want. They need to go through university.’ It’s hard, but I keep jumping up and down and screaming, hoping that someone in the powers that be will hear me. The way they want people to learn doesn’t function; it’s creating an elitist education system.

What is the local and national gaming industry like?

We’re very lucky in Cambridge; it’s quite a hub of the industry. There are five different studios with massive titles—Jag X with Runescape, Frontier with Elite Dangerous, Sony Guerrilla, Ninja Fury with Devil May Cry—within a five-minute walk from where I teach. It’s phenomenal.

Games companies are actually flocking to the UK; they get quite a few tax breaks now because the government wants to encourage the creativity and technical excellence. The government is recognizing that the games industry is a powerful part of the UK economy. The government has put aside a lot of funding for independent developers to get started, they can get a good 50,000 pounds to develop a project.

That’s surprising that there’s a lot of government funding for the industry but not for the education that you’re trying to provide. How do you square those things?

I really couldn’t say. I wish I could answer that one. It’s very much opposite poles. The most common answer would be that the government is trying to save money in the education system. They don’t want to prop up colleges; they’d rather people go to private education or apprenticeships where it’s really the company that’s paying for the student’s training and learning.

Do you consider yourself a gamer?

I’m rubbish at gaming. I’m awful! My gaming started with the NES in 1985, before that I had a BBC Acorn Electron, so I’m awful at anything beyond Mario or Duck Hunt. There’s constant mockery from the students that I can’t play games.

Do you ever play against your students and get trounced?

Absolutely. Always. I can build games, but I can’t play them. I can’t even play my students’ games.

So how do you recognize if a student has done good work?

I understand the process of what should go into a game and the production. I teach students how to produce a title from start to finish; the title, what should go in it, the theory behind a game—all that’s there, but I get them to play it.

What’s next for Rizing Games?

Well, my dream is to roll this model out across the world. It’s about getting the industry to open its doors to a younger generation. I find that the gaming companies are very willing to work with university students because they know that, by the time those students are done, the gaming studios can employ them straight away. If we want students to have the skills and maintain strong skills to push the industry forward and break new ground, we have to nurture them before that.

We should start working with them at 10 years old. The science and design curriculum could all be based on gaming! Both math and art could both be intertwined in game design. That’s what I’m trying to get to happen all over the UK. I’ve started the first gaming festival for ages 10-18, which is a first in the UK. It’s happening in two weeks, and I’ve got about 50 schools and colleges participating, which is much bigger than I thought it would be for the first year. It’s not only good for the students: teachers are meeting games industry people.

You can hear the entire interview here:

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