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Gaming Articles

Various game-related features from The Scotsman – click the blue links to read the original web version of the stories

Scotland and the next gen – from The Scotsman

THE pace of change in the games industry  over the past five years means that it takes a combination of bravery and fortune to predict with any accuracy what the future has in store. Ever since the emergence of mainstream digital distribution platforms such as the App Store and Steam, the science of prophecy and prognostication has proved inexact. Mobile, tablet and browser gaming have irrevocably changed the marketplace, but from suggestions that the seventh generation consoles would be the last to the idea that long-established publishers would embrace a free-to-play model en masse, hindsight reveals innumerable predictions to be rash. Gaming, simply put, is an arena where futurologists would be advised to tread lightly.

With the impending release of a new generation of consoles, the range of platforms available is unprecedented, and what little space remains will be squeezed further come the launch of Valve’s Steam Box, notwithstanding any inroads that might be made by the likes of the Ouya, Nvidia Shield and GameStick. For consumers who value choice, these are halcyon days; but for developers operating in an ever-fragmented market, the choice of which platform to focus no longer as straightforward as it was a decade ago.

A report prepared by analysts, Superdata, and released last month by Digital River, capture a snapshot of an industry ebbing and flowing. Back in 2008, home consoles were at its vanguard, a platform favoured by 42% of gamers surveyed. The PC contingent came a close second with a healthy 37% share, while mobile accounted for just five per cent. Fast forward to 2013 and the deck has been shuffled. Nowadays, just 30% of consumers regard consoles at their primary gaming platform, with more than half (51%) plumping for PC and an increasing proportion (13%) choosing mobile.

As the tectonic plates continue to shift, what opportunities are offered by Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4? In Scotland, where a resounding 97% of developers worked on digital only titles last year according to the Scottish Games Network trade body, the question may seem extraneous at first. But the power and profile of such machines and their triple A rosters means that, for better or worse, they continue to be synonymous with gaming itself in the eyes of many. As Brian Baglow, SGN’s founder and director, explained: ”As far as the ‘games industry’ is concerned, the consoles are still where it’s at.”

As things stand, only one of the country’s 96 games development firms, 4J Studios, has confirmed it is working on titles for the new generation. In addition to the imminent release of a Playstation 3 version, the East Linton developers are producing Minecraft for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. “For us guys in the software industry, the consoles raise massive opportunities,” the company’s chairman, Chris van der Kuyl, told Scotsman Games last week. “Consoles are here to stay and they’re not going to be defeated by people using tablets or mobile, which is a different type of gaming.”

It would, meanwhile, be inadvisable to presume against Rockstar North entering the fray. The only uncertainty is with what game, be it an updated version of Grand Theft Auto V, an expanded Grand Theft Auto Online title, or an entirely new intellectual property – admittedly an unlikely prospect any time soon, given the Herculean resources that went into its California-inspired blockbuster. What, though, of the other companies, the vast majority of whom are denied the luxury of multimillion pound financing and lengthy development cycles?

Glasgow’s Firebrand Games is a firm with extensive experience in developing across every major console platform, up to and including the Wii U. For the lion’s share of its seven year existence, it has worked for publishers on major franchises, putting its proprietary cross-platform Octane 5 engine to use on titles such as Need for Speed: The Run and Fast & Furious Showdown. Recently, however, it has focused on its own IP, such as the critically-acclaimed Solar Flux HD. Having straddled both sides of the fence, it is a firm well positioned to offer a reasoned assessment of what Xbox One and Playstation 4 have to offer.

“For many small indie developers the main reason for choosing mobile and or PC is the lower barrier to entry,” explains Pete Shea, Firebrand’s creative director. “Anyone can develop on these platforms and you don’t need either a publisher or an office to gain entry, or large testing costs to cover platform certification as you have in the past on consoles. Make a fun game, publish it yourself, promote and update it after launch – it’s a very different model to the one games for consoles have traditionally followed which was always: make a bug free finished game, market it for many months in advance and then release it.

“For us, however, as an established developer we don’t really face these same barriers to entry, we have many published titles behind us and had already published games on Steam for example, so once we’d shown Solar Flux to Valve we did not need to go through their green light process. The decisions about platforms then for us are about exposure and size of market.”

Like many developers, Firebrand were greatly enthused the digital marketplace for indie games during the formative years of Playstation Network (PSN) and Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). Over time, though, the appeal of the platforms lessened as the virtual shelf space became cluttered courtesy of a weekly slew of releases. “While the indie games markets on PSN and XBLA on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 were great initially they soon became flooded with titles and sales outside of a few very successful outliers were not great,” reflects Shea. “Likewise with the 3DS Store and Wii U. It seemed the vast majority of console gamers really wanted AAA console game experiences. So this led us and others focusing on mobile and Steam where indie games seemed more accepted and could flourish.”

It is a modus operandi shared by Stormcloud Games, a Dundee studio launched by Frank Arnot, Andy West and Pat McGovern, who between them can draw on over five decades of development experience across a spectrum of platforms. The prohibitive development costs for the premier consoles, says Arnot, means that the company simply has no interest in throwing its hat in the ring for the new generation. “The fact of the matter is that AAA console development is incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive,” he explains. “With the exception of Rockstar North there are no other studios in Scotland capable of developing original content of right quality for these new consoles.

“My own company does not view these new devices as platforms of interest, and neither do I believe do most other Scottish studios. The reason? There is a thriving market for games beyond these two consoles – mobile, tablet and PC, all of which have much lower barriers to entry. Indie PC gaming, and Steam in particular is going through something of a renaissance, and already we have Scottish developers such as Cobra Mobile and Blazing Griffin exploiting these channels successfully.”

The mobile market may well allow for greater affordability and experimentation, but it is in no way a panacea for developers in Scotland. The App Store and Google Play, just like PSN and XBLA, have become increasingly crowded, with numerous titles offering the same core gaming experience with a few cynically tweaked bells and whistles. Lest anyone be in doubt as to the scale of the deluge, metrics analysis by 148Apps show that while there were just 36,941 items in the App Store in October 2008, of which 33,185 were games, the tally had spiralled to 774,441 and 174,787 respectively last month.

As a result, developers need not only focus on designing and coding the best game possible, but reinvent themselves as wizards of publicity and business management. Success in the mobile market is dependent on a dizzying array of factors, and the quality of the title is just one of them. Timing, pricing, word of mouth and even the design of an app icon must be well-judged if a firm is to be heard above the clamour and stand a chance of emulating the success of HalfBrick or Rovio. “You have to be the equivalent of the one man bands you see busking on high streets,” bemoans one native developer.

How then, will the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony impact on this disruptive market? The vast public relations drive on the part of both firms has had mixed success so far and the courting of the indie community is no exception. The Redmond giant suffered a backlash in May amid doubts over whether the Xbox One would permit self-publishing. The public struggled to hear a clear and definitive message on the issue and the ambiguity proved damaging, incurring the wrath of well-known indie developers like Phil Fish. “Let me tell you something, most indies I know already don’t want to publish on a Xbox console, publisher or no publisher,” tweeted the Fez creator. “Microsoft doesn’t care about indie developer[s].”

A fortnight ago, however, the company embarked on a major charm offensive, revealing the the add-on for the powerful game creation tool, Unity, will be given free to developers who register for the Xbox independent developers program, ID@Xbox, with special Xbox One-only Unity Pro seat licenses for Xbox One developers. It was both grand gesture and statement of intent, resulting in favourable, if vigilant responses from indies the world over.

Sony, meanwhile, has adopted a more consistent approach in its courting of developers, perhaps buoyed by the success of titles like Journey, a system seller for the Playstation 3. It announced at an early stage of the Playstation 4 marketing juggernaut that indies will be able to work with the multinational to nail down release dates as well as promote their titles via Playstation-branded blogs and social media accounts. It also revamped its submission process, meaning that microstudios need only have the concept of a game approved as opposed to an alpha version. The approach looks to have reaped dividends already; five of the Playstation 4 launch titles come from independent companies.

Luke Dicken, founder of Glasgow-based Robot Overlord Games and a director of the global International Game Developers Association (IGDA), believes the charm offensive is to be tentatively welcomed. “Both Sony and Microsoft are offering great opportunities for indie developers to have their work released on their respective platforms,” he says. “The recent announcement that Xbox One developers will also receive a license for Unity Pro for that platform is a major step. Unity is the tool of choice for many game developers and allowing us to use workflows we’re already familiar with – and which allow us to make games for all the major platforms – is a significant breakthrough in enabling great cross-platform support.

“Sony have also pledged support for the Unity platform, so in a sense, the core focus isn’t an either/or proposition – with the caveat of adapting for the difference between touch and controller input, a lot of core gameplay code can be shared between games targeting a range of platforms. This a very pro-developer move by the major platforms, allowing a lot more openness and inter-operability such that developers can focus on the games themselves, leading to higher quality products.”

The question remains, however, as to whether the problems of visibility that have plagued the mobile market and the console digital platforms will be repeated on the new generation of Microsoft and Sony machines. “The major hurdle to overcome on the new platforms from a developer perspective remains the same on the existing platforms,” admits Dicken, also director of the IGDA’s Scottish chapter. “Having a route onto the store is just the first hurdle, which is being solved well, but it remains to be seen how the new platforms will allow players to find the games that are releasing, which is the main stumbling block when thinking about profitability.”

Baglow believes there are a great many other questions that require clarity before a robust assessment of the new consoles can be made. While he says many developers will be “very interested” in working for the platforms, their relevance to small and medium sized companies remains “a little up in the air.” High costs, he points out, may preclude developers from pursuing their own IPs, possibly leading to more work for hire contracts, while issues like revenue share, price points, platform exclusivity and the actual process of browsing and purchasing a game are as yet uncertain.

“None of these questions are entirely clear yet,” he concludes. “So, yes, developers are gamers, so they’ll be really keen to see what they can do on the new devices, but it’s going to take a while before any developers in Scotland jump in, because they don’t know what the market will be like, what the audience will be like or what they’re likely to make from their games until the new consoles are well established on the market. Clearly developers already working on projects, or with games they can port straight to the new consoles will make earlier appearances, like 4J and Rockstar North, but for everyone else, it may be late 2014 or early 2015 before you see any original new titles from companies in Scotland.”

Other industry veterans told Scotsman Games that with the “waning” interest in consoles and a decreasing circle of publishers, creativity will continue to be stifled on the major platforms in favour of guaranteed revenue generators. Lol Scragg, co-founder of Binary Pumpkin, predicts that most Scottish developers will probably get involved with the platforms via the indie channels, and even then, “maybe only with ports of their existing products.” That aside, he expects “the same old, huge selling blockbusters every year with only a few pieces of innovation appearing here and there,” arguing that Microsoft and Sony have to switch to a digital distribution model at some point in the consoles’ life cycles.

For Shea and Firebrand, the outlook regarding Xbox One and Playstation 4, as well as the growing Wii U market, is indicative of the stance many are adopting – one of cautious optimism. “Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are making big efforts to change, but I think there still remains a scepticism [over whether] there are genuine opportunities for small indie companies to thrive there,” he explains. “Like many others we are very much taking a wait and see approach, although we are discussing bringing Solar Flux to consoles and are in the fortunate position of having our own cross-platform technology that makes porting our games to these platforms relatively easy.

“The key challenge for any indie developer is no longer, how do I make a cool game but rather how does anyone find out about my game in the first place, never mind decide to buy it. So this is where developing indie games for console could really help them get exposure – the games media still largely likes to write about console games, and you need all the exposure you can get when you don’t have the marketing budgets of huge publishers.”

He adds: “Given just how difficult all games markets are for indie developers right now, and [it is] likely to get even tougher, I’d urge indies to try and get their games on as many platforms as they can, including consoles. You need as much exposure and opportunities for sales as you can get. You can have a big hit on mobile only, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely, no matter how good your game is, unless you are very lucky, catch a zeitgeist or manage to be in the right place at the right time with the right product.”

Dicken agrees: “It’s still far too early to tell if the Xbox One or PS4 will prove to be great opportunities for developers in Scotland, but so far things are promising. We could easily see a resurgence of console game development, but likely alongside our great existing mobile development, rather than in place of it.”

Given that the new consoles are likely to enjoy a lifespan of around a decade, it is nigh on impossible to predict how the industry will look in 2023. What is clear that the technical architecture of each allows for deep integration with their supposed rivals – smartphones and tablets – as well as social networks. The potential is there for a complementary process of development with major studios focusing on a triple A game, while smaller developers work on the likes of accompanying Smartglass applications. That scenario, however, is dependent on any number of assumptions about how the next few years will pan out. The truth is, no one knows.

In Scotland, there is reason to be hopeful that companies will thrive following the emergence of the Scottish Games Network. Under Baglow’s tutelage, the trade body is exploring concepts like pooled promotional activity, a heightened media presence and dedicated Scottish indie gaming bundles. Certain factors, such as visibility in digital marketplaces, are problematic for the industry at large, and it remains unclear if the SGN can hit upon an elusive answer to age-old problems. But by targeting the areas of the Scottish industry where it can have a tangibly positive impact, its growth stands to be beneficial.

Scragg, meanwhile, offers a delightfully Rumsfieldian ‘known unknown’ that should give cheer to one developer from these shores. “There will be at least one Scottish studio that isn’t Rockstar that will do some great things on these new consoles,” he suggests. “There always is, and we probably have no idea who it is at the moment.”

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The Perfect Crime … – from Scotland on Sunday

WITH their wiry frames and wan complexions, the gaggle of Scottish computer programmers and digital artists cut a conspicuous presence as they stalked the evening streets of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighbourhood. Armed with digital cameras, microphones and notebooks, the 50-strong contingent perused every street and alley, soaking up the sights and sounds of the Russian-speaking immigrant community. They scoured karaoke bars and nightclubs, restaurants and shops, taking thousands of photographs and making innumerable detailed notes. In the public bathrooms by Coney Island, they encountered wily old emigrants from the Motherland in their string vests, stooped over washbasins to shave their armpits.

Throughout all five of New York’s boroughs, they continued their quest, capturing for posterity every snippet of life. They had been flown in from Edinburgh to conduct this mammoth task, but this was not their first such visit to the US; in Miami, they snapped the bikini-clad skater girls and hustlers in baby blue leisure suits, while the neon metropolis of Las Vegas proved a sensory explosion. The Big Apple, however, brought its own challenges. Though they had police protection, the group had occasion to regret ever leaving home. “One time a bunch of us were taking photos on 125th street and we were told we were going to be shot if we didn’t put the cameras away,” recalled Aaron Garbut, a University of Dundee graduate. “That was relaxing.”

Garbut, the leader of the unlikely touring party, is art director of Rockstar, the company responsible for one of the most successful and controversial computer game series in history – Grand Theft Auto. For more than a decade, the firm’s young, devoted staff have redefined the medium in which they work, helping emancipate a maligned and misunderstood pastime from its awkward adolescence, turning it into the most profitable entertainment industry ever. The most recent entry in the franchise, GTA IV, made more than £197m within a day of going on sale. Sam Houser, Rockstar’s 39-year-old co-founder and president, has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, with the august publication hailing his ability to weave “tapestries of modern times as detailed as those of Balzac or Dickens.” Yet there has been a price for this dizzying success. Houser and his charges have braved not only threats against their lives in Harlem, but a wave of moral outrage which began in Britain before thundering across the Atlantic, culminating in apoplectic denunciations of their oeuvre in the US Senate, accusations of copycat murders by enthusiasts of their products, and multi-million pound lawsuits.

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David Kushner is perhaps better placed than anyone to assess GTA’s influence. For the past decade, the 43-year-old author has researched its genesis, documenting a torrid tale of egomania, guerilla PR tactics and creative genius for his new book, Jacked: The Unauthorised Behind The Scenes Story Of Grand Theft Auto, which gives unprecedented insights into the company. All of it, explains the New Yorker, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, is inextricably bound to Scotland. “One of GTA’s great and largely unappreciated ironies is that a bunch of Scots created the most influential simulation of America ever made,” says Kushner.

The story began in Dundee, the city of jute, jam, journalism, and now, joypads, where in the early 80s, a young programmer called Dave Jones began his career as an apprentice engineer in Dundee’s Timex factory, which at the time was breaking production records as it churned out Spectrum home computers. Jones, though, yearned to make games, not machines. Already a member of the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club, a ragtag collective of coders, he jumped at the chance of a £3,000 voluntary redundancy package and set up his own company, DMA Design. Modest success ensued until the 1991 release of Lemmings, which sold two million copies worldwide. A millionaire at 25, Jones was hailed as a genius, albeit one consumed by grander ambitions as he asked himself: “How could we make something living inside the machine?”

Around the same time in London, Houser, a brash young executive, was finding his feet at BMG Interactive, a gaming division of the German music conglomerate. He was looking for the next big thing when a DMA demo arrived. The game, initially entitled Race’n’Chase, was graphically crude, but was saturated with US pop culture references, and boasted an autonomy never seen before. “It was the defining entertainment product of its generation,” Kushner told Scotland on Sunday last week. “The acronym GTA might suggest indiscriminate to some people, but ultimately its greatest contribution was allowing people to do what they want.” An enthused Houser handed Jones a £3.4 million publishing deal, but one problem loomed large. The player controlled a police officer, and had to avoid streams of pixellated pedestrians. What if, DMA reasoned, you were rewarded with points for running them over?

So emerged the gamer as an anti-hero, capable of killing police and carjacking in a cityscape densely packed with pop culture references. BMG, mindful of criticism, sought “corporate responsibility” advice from Max Clifford, but the wily publicist urged them to embrace scandal. “We’ll encourage the right people that it would be good for them to speak out on how outrageous this is and criticise it,” he advised. His promises were not empty. Ahead of its release in autumn of 1997, Lord Campbell of Croy, the former Scottish Secretary, was condemning GTA in the House of Lords, and an impudent radio advertising campaign featured excerpts from the subsequent debate. Added to a welter of tabloid outrage, the game was a commercial triumph.

BMG was bought out by Take Two in a £9m deal, and while the programmers in Dundee retained responsibility for essential coding work, Houser and his cohorts moved to New York. At their offices on 575 Broadway, the iconoclastic geeks became renegade businessmen, conducting affairs in a frathouse bolthole boasting arcade games and foosball tables. At Houser’s bidding, Brian Baglow, a Scot who moved to NY to became Rockstar’s “lifestyle manager” took to wearing Dockers, hoodies and T-shirts boasting the slogan, “Je Suis Un Rockstar”. He later quipped: “I look more like a Long Island white boy than a dick from Dundee.” The outlaw image even made its way back to Scotland, with DMA staff given blue velvet Rockstar tracksuits. Not everyone bought in – Kushner notes that one employee gave the outfit to his mother, who wore it while walking her dog through Dundee’s streets.

The team, rechristened Rockstar Games, began developing a welter of sequels, featuring visceral, 3D worlds. The Scots programmers, who relocated to offices in Edinburgh’s Greenside Row, jokingly brandished rifles and shotguns, weapons purchased to allow the art department to render faultless in-game replicas. As technology advanced, so did their ethical boundaries. In GTA III, players could kill prostitutes, while GTA: San Andreas featured a hidden sex mini-game, Hot Coffee, which provoked widespread fury.

Jack Thompson, a conservative attorney who attempted to bring a £156m lawsuit against its makers, while Hillary Clinton was among many politicians to condemn its wanton content. Even Jones, who departed DMA in 1999, expressed misgivings. “Some of it does make you grimace,” he said. “It is like watching Goodfellas. There are some scenes when you ask yourself, ‘Did they really have to do that? How far will this go?'”

For his part, Kushner believes the series shone a light on his homeland’s complex political and ethical standpoints. “Rockstar realised America is a different country,” he said. “For a generation of people who’d never played video games, GTA seemed like something reasonable to blame. The Hot Coffee scandal showed there was nothing more American than our aversion to sexual content while we celebrate violence.” Yet be believes the controversies surrounding GTA simply served to highlight just how supremely creative and immersive the series is. “A lot of it came down to people infantalising the medium of video games,” he added. “There was a generational divide in the media, but I think that era of controversy in games is over. We’re moving past that now.”

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Several Edinburgh employees of Rockstar are millionaires, and live in some of the capital’s most sought-after addresses, such as Royal Circus. It is a reward for their prodigious drive and attention to detail. As well as touring real-life cities, the key programmers undertake forensic research. For GTA IV, they hung plasma televisions over the desks in Greenside Row, featuring non-stop footage of ordinary life on New York’s streets, including time-lapse video cameras so as they could accurately replicate traffic patterns.

They studied blueprints of the city’s sewerage system, pored over census data to determine an approximate ethnic make-up for each borough, and grilled the Taxi and Limousine Commission to establish the precise ratio of cabs to other cars. As Kushner points out, “Though the Rockstars insisted that their pixellated city was a dream version of reality, GTA IV was one of the most passionate love letters to New York City ever written.”

At present, the Edinburgh coders are working around the clock to apply the finishing touches to GTA V, the next eagerly anticipated instalment in the series, which is due for release later this year. With Rockstar’s fiercely guarded secrecy, little is known of the game other than that it is set in LA and southern California. Whatever its content, it will doubtless smash a host of sales records and consolidate the company’s position at the vanguard of an industry expected to be worth £57bn by 2015. Not that they will rest on their laurels, according to Les Benzies, a key figure in Rockstar, whose work as the series producer has given him a multi-million pound fortune. “Until we’ve simulated the world outside,” he says, “we’re not going to stop.”

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Minecraft – Martyn McLaughlin speaks to the team behind the successful Xbox 360 version as well as experts in games-based learning to discover how the hit sandbox construction title is helping children learn complex skills.

NEARLY four and a half years have passed since Minecraft was unleashed on an unsuspected games industry. In that time, it has come to occupy an influential plinth in our cultural landscape. Devised by Sweden’s Mojang studio, it deposits players at the centre of a randomly generated cuboid domain abundant with raw materials. Creativity is essential to progress; the fundamentals of existence such as shelter are the first priorities, but in time, the game allows those who master its techniques and tools to raise wonderfully intricate structures and entire cities from the ground.

Since its official release in November 2011, the title has shifted upwards of 33 million copies, a sales figure in excess of seminal albums such as Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, Hotel California and Born in the USA. In an industry too often obsessed with graphical prowess and the awkward aping of cinematic techniques, its constantly evolving universe has captured the imagination of not only gamers, but an increasing number of educationalists who see the merits of applying its mesmerising form of digital Lego to learning environments.

Around the world, Minecraft is slowly becoming accepted as a legitimate classroom tool waiting to be exploited in the same way as established media like films, books and television. In Stockholm, the home of Mojang, the Victor Rydberg school has declared it compulsory for 13-year-olds, with pupils using it to learn about city planning and environmental issues. In New York, Joel Levin, a computer teacher at a private school, helps run MinecraftEdu, an international resource geared towards promoting the game’s use in classrooms.

One of the earliest advocates for the game’s educational values, he first realised its potential after introducing it in favour of a Google Earth geography project in January 2011. “In my eight years of teaching I have never seen students so excited and engaged,” he recalled. “They run up to me in the halls to tell me what they plan to do [in the] next class. They draw pictures about the game in art.  They sit at the lunch tables and strategize their next building projects. And not only the boys, but girls too.”

Second only to Mojang, it is a Scottish company that has provided the greatest momentum for the Minecraft juggernaut’s thunderous evolution from cult indie project to international behemoth. With offices in Dundee and East Linton, 4J Studios is a developer with an enviable pedigree in skilfully adapting complex PC codes for mass home console markets. When word got out that a version Minecraft for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was on the cards, the firm fought to secure the contract. Like Levin, 4J realised the game’s DNA was not just as an entertainment product. The prophecy has since been fulfilled in spectacular fashion. To date, the 360 version accounts for more than eight million of the title’s sales. So immediate was its success, it recouped its development costs within an hour of going on sale on Xbox Live.

“At the time we started talking to Mojang about becoming the developer of the Xbox 360 version, we were fully aware of Minecraft’s educational aspect,” Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of 4J Studios, told Scotsman Games. “The community surrounding the whole game was something that made us absolutely determined to get involved in the project. We knew it wasn’t just another game development job. It’s technological creativity at its best, a toolkit with some very clever elements of gameplay woven in, such as the day to night simulation and the non-player characters. Underneath all that, the result is whatever you choose it to be.”

Across the country, the game can count upon a small but impassioned group of supporters in the education sector who put theory in practice. One is Lynne Kerr, managing director at ComputerXplorers South East Scotland, part of a UK-wide franchise specialising in technology-based teaching. She and her team are currently working with 20 schools across the Edinburgh and the Lothians, running after-school clubs. The firm only introduced Minecraft this term. While it anticipated a healthy demand, Kerr said she has been blown away. “The response has been phenomenal,” she said. “I knew it would be popular, but the response we’ve had from kids has been huge. We ran three or four clubs during the October holidays as well.”

When her company’s representatives visit assemblies and ask who has played Minecraft, nearly everyone in attendance raises a hand, Kerr said. That vast captive audience, she believes, is a resource as rich as the game’s elusive emerald ore. She explained: “There’s a host of things Minecraft can help with educationally. Firstly it’s a very creative tool; although the courses we offer are fairly structured, kids have a lot of free reign to create whatever they want. It’s a game that that can be geared towards key areas of the Curriculum for Excellence – the mining aspect has a geographic aspect to it, for example, that teachers can use.”

The game world being used by ComputerXplorers is a dedicated map created by A Higher Place, a Dalgety Bay based consultancy that works with the educational sector to encourage games based learning. The firm has utilised a range of best-selling games like Portal, Little Big Planet, Ico and Tomb Raider to enhance the curriculum and instil lessons in subjects as diverse as physics, maths, geography, numeracy and literacy, as well as tackling issues like bullying. Recently, the company completed a project using Little Big Planet to demonstrate the formation of oil.

It is, however, its Minecraft world – free to teachers – that is by far and away the most popular product. The size of France, it allows educators to develop ideas for use in the classroom, including learning about volcanoes, map reading, food sources and the displacement of communities after natural disasters. One literacy initiative, ‘Gruffalo Forest’, uses Minecraft to recreate scenes from the book by Children’s Laureate, Julia Donaldson, with pupils encouraged to read the story in pairs or small groups while playing through the game.

Derek Robertson, a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee and one of games-based learning’s early endorsers in Scotland, points to other special projects, such as those carried out through Massively Minecraft, an organisation which hosts ‘out of school’ mines allowing children to work together. Said Robertson: “The worlds they have built have left people agog at their magnificence, building the likes of gargantuan, complex districts mirroring those in The Hunger Games. It’s mind blowing, and they were doing it on not in creative, but survival mode.

“My daughters are online building on the 360, they’ve created a glass and gold palace with a flushing toilet in every room. It shows what young learners can do without adult intervention. They’re using resources like YouTube to make their own worlds. Minecraft is the kind of sandbox world that sits within the culturally relevant domains that children choose to situate themselves in. James Paul Gee [a prominent US educational researchers] talks about semiotic domains that have meaning for learners, and I subscribe to that. If you can link skills to off-the-shelf games, children suspend their disbelief and the teacher has them in the palm of their hand.”

Amanda Wilson, a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland specialising in teaching game development in primary schools, believes the popularity of 4J’s 360 version has been essential in broadening the game’s reach to a young audience. She said: “I think its ease of use [and] also the fact that it can be played on the Xbox will make a difference for children a they won’t be seeing it as an educational thing they are doing but simply playing a game.”

Robertson, a former national adviser for emerging technologies and learning at Education Scotland – the Scottish Government agency responsible for supporting quality and improvement in learning and teaching – added: “It may seem like unconscious learning, and in some ways it is, but that’s us looking at it from our adult, formalised education perspective. I think you need to frame it in a different way. My girls know they’re learning and speak to each other about the processes.”

Thanks to the regular and responsive series of updates rolled out by 4J to its vast user base, Van der Kuyl is also attuned to the different, nuanced types of learning the game promotes. Many chat with their peers in the playground about fundamental techniques, and he has been cheered to see primary age children using Minecraft Wiki, a meticulous online resource created by and for the community offering exhaustive instructions and details. Once they learn about the site, said van der Kuyl, “the next thing you know you have an eight-year-old talking to you about strip mining techniques and the most efficient angle at which to drop a shaft to gain the highest yield of diamonds.”

“All this information is on the Wiki and none of it is written for kids,” he added. “The language is not overly complicated, but it isn’t dumbed down. A lot of it is probably lifted from undergraduate geological courses and then simplified and translated. It’s still pretty damn complex and the motivation for kids to learn about it is to build more amazing things, which is a huge reward. That drives kids on to learn and experiment until they finally reach a crest. Those pedagogical factors are mind-blowing.”

So too, van der Kuyl has been genuinely surprised and “humbled” by the way the game has been harnessed to aid youngsters with special educational needs. Around the world there are numerous case studies from parents who attest how Minecraft has helped their children. This summer saw the introduction of Autcraft, the first server dedicated to providing a safe, fun and learning environment for children on the autism spectrum. As with so many modifications to the game, it is the brainchild of an ordinary player, in this case a father to two boys diagnosed with the condition.

Perhaps the genius of Minecraft as an ally to conventional education is the fact young players will happily immerse themselves in their worlds for hours at a time, learning without always realising the beneficial processes they are participating in. Whether using raw materials and minerals to forge weapons, grow crops or bake cakes, the mechanics are nothing if not instructive. Recently, my cousin convinced me to download the 360 version and within minutes, was offering me a tutorial on agricultural design, a indoctrination which grew more intricate and enthusiastic as hours passed by. He is, I might add, nine-years-old.

When I mention this van der Kuyl, one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he becomes immediately enthused. Such intuitive and informal schooling, he said, has long been the Holy Grail amongst game developers. Almost by stealth, Minecraft has grasped the elusive salver in both hands. He explained: “Over the years I’ve spent in the games industry, people have approached me about building educational games. But I’ve looked into that and I’ve tried, and I actually don’t believe the best use of my time and the developer’s talents is in building educational games. It’s to build great games that can then be used educationally.

“The best English teachers I know use the best of Hollywood filmmaking to show great writing and narratives, and films are used to show examples of inspiration and other exemplars in coaching environments. Nobody set out to make those movies because they wanted to them to be an educational staple, it’s because of their quality that’s what they become, and I think the same is true of Minecraft.

“We’ve never put any features into the 360 version based on making it more applicable educationally. We put them in because it’s what our fans want. The fact that some amazing educators think about how to use those features to deliver educational inspiration and content is something we support, and we want to see more of it, but we would never implement educational features per se. We just want to create a great game and we’re delighted it’s used in an educational environment.”

With 4J Studios currently putting the finishing touches to versions of  the game for a host of new platforms – including the Xbox One and Playstation 4 – expect Minecraft’s already remarkable sales figures to increase significantly. With more young players than ever before set to inhabit its chunky realms, those who champion its values are urging teachers, policy makers and academic across Scotland to pay close attention.

Some, though, sound a note of caution. Wilson argues that although games based learning has been around for a few years, there is still a lack of empirical evidence to back up its benefits. “There is far more use of games based learning going on, however academically speaking, [there is] still little proof, and that will have an effect as well on those who may be thinking about using it,” she said. “Also, it’s about getting the teachers confident with the tools too. Surveys have shown that teachers may lack confidence in their abilities or they aren’t sure how these things will fit in with their curriculum and also the lack of suitable technology in their schools.”

In a statement, Education Scotland  told Scotsman Games that while there were no “definite plans” to capitalise on the skills and experiences demonstrated by titles such as Minecraft by establishing a dedicated games based learning service, such a concept was under consideration. It stated: “Many schools and local authorities throughout Scotland are using games based learning initiatives in their teaching. Minecraft is one such game and can be an effective tool for teaching and learning.”

The agency added that it would continue to work with and support councils and schools to embrace new and emerging technologies, and pointed to the Learning Experiences Catalogue, launched in September. It challenges pupils to survive, mine, build and craft in Minecraft by creating video tutorials and how to guides, as well as answering questions and offering hints, tips and ideas.

Even if the approach to Minecraft based learning is far from uniform or comprehensive, one local authority – Aberdeenshire – has acknowledged the game’s educational standing. “We are enthusiastic about the opportunities Minecraft provides to engage learners in a range of building and collaborative activities,” said Rosaleen Rentoul, the council’s principal officer for learning resources. “We are currently investigating taking forward a pilot project around using Minecraft in learning and teaching both as a contextual hub for games based learning activities and as a tool in its own right.”

Ask van der Kuyl how the game can be best employed in a top-down way and he is unequivocal. “If you look at Scottish Government and Education Scotland policy, it’s very much about putting the tools in the hands of teachers, schools and local authorities,” he said. “I think Minecraft has a huge distance to go in terms of what people can do with it, we’ve only scratched the surface. It’s an amazing tool and given what the Curriculum for Excellence is trying to do, it’s something on which to build lessons across all sorts of subject areas. It’s accessible, available and with the new versions, will become even more ubiquitous. I think there’s every chance that’ll translate to the education sector, and given all the console versions are built here, it would be nice to see Scotland supporting it.”

Only time will tell just how pervasive Minecraft’s influence becomes in the classrooms of this country and others. Like the best kind of education, it is a game limited only by the imagination.

—–

9.03m – Martyn McLaughlin looks at 9.03m, a unique game from a Scottish independent studio offering a tender and considered interpretation of the destruction wrought by the Japanese tsunami.

IT appeared on the shores of Del Norte County from nowhere one spring morning, as if a crew of ghosts had delivered it to safety from the swells of the Pacific, only to retreat back into the surf. When the distinctive boat was first discovered by residents of the rural community in California’s northwestern tip, its well-weathered hull found upside down,  they knew it had come from afar. Only when they scraped back a layer of gooseneck barnacles, however, did the startling truth emerge.

The panga fishing boat, the property of Takata High School Boat Club in Iwate Prefecture, was the first recorded item of debris washed up on the western seaboard of the US from the Japanese tsunami. The vessel, discovered more than 12 months after the disaster, was among an estimated five million tonnes of debris which fell into the ocean after nature exacted her wrath on Japan. While around 70% of the material sank to the seabed, the remainder was whipped by wind and currents towards distant land masses.

It is a harrowing reality which may seem an unlikely source material for the medium of gaming. But a graduate from the University of Abertay Dundee has won plaudits for his sensitive interpretation of the disaster that claimed the lives of nearly 19,000 people. Tomorrow night, Karl Inglott’s game, 9.03m, will come before some of the heavyweights of the British game industry, having been shortlisted for two prizes at the annual TIGA game awards ceremony. For a title which began as a university project, it is a resounding success story, and proof of the vision and enterprise prevalent in the independent sector.

Set on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, one of the areas where swaths of the debris ended up, 9.03m asks players to follow shimmering the trails of light left by butterflies as they flutter across the coastline. The discoveries that lie in wait ought to be made first hand, but each provides a poetic reminder of the lives lost, casting the on-screen tide back further. The entire experience lasts a little under a quarter hour, but it will linger in the mind for long after.

The story of how Inglott came to create 9.03m is no less gripping than the end result. Having researched games with emotional weight as part of his honours project at Abertay, the idea of coding his own arrived after the Tohuko earthquake struck on 11 March, 2011. An honorary member of Dundee’s Japanese community thanks to his wife, a Japanese national, he paid close attention to the media’s coverage of the disaster in her homeland. Stumbling across articles about the debris washing up in the US was a key moment in the game’s genesis.

“The first thing that I thought was how poignant it was, a reminder,” he told Scotsman Games. “I read how the US was taking measures to dispose of the debris, and how hoarders had been collecting it to sell on or keep.” Allied to the devastating videos of people trying to escape the tsunami, or the footage of matchstick figures left to simply look on helpless as waves landed ashore, Inglott soon had the basis for 9.03m.

“I decided to use objects on the beach to mimic the news stories, making the game quite calm, as it probably was when they first found debris washing up,” Inglott explained. “I wanted the player to look at the object and think of the person, think of who they were and the memories they left behind. The objects, I felt, had to be quite personal. I also wanted to put some memory to each of them, something that would link the objects to the people who passed away.”

The concept – refined and eventually released via Space Budgie, the independent studio where Inglott is both director and designer – is executed with tenderness: a bracelet found on the beach bears the inscription, ‘Love life and happiness together’, while a pocket watch is stopped at the time the disaster struck. Each object leads to another as the player walks around the beach, the only control manoeuvre available.

Indeed, the mechanics of the game could scarcely be more elementary, giving some cause to categorise it as a ‘wander-em-up.’ However, the pared back mechanism provides the perfect complement to a title where the narrative is king. With a minimalist piano score and an art style evoking the deep blues and lilacs of twilight, it is a creation of brevity and grace.

Inglott describes 9.03m as an “art / empathy” game, but like many inspiring releases of late from independent developers, it is more than the sum of its descriptive parts. If categorisation is essential, then the title could be said to come under the banner dubbed Games for Change. A label given to games exploring complicated subject matters grounded in the everyday, exemplars of a genre still in its incubation include Lucas Pope’s Papers Please, a superb and taut game which sees the player become an immigration official, and That Dragon, Cancer, an Ouya release exploring a father’s response after his four year-old child is diagnosed with cancer.

The breadth of issues and emotions broached by such titles – others have tackled themes including depression, suicide and Tourette’s syndrome – may be an encouraging indication of how a new generation of developers have self-assurance in their medium, liberated rather than constrained by the resources of working outside the traditional powerhouse studios. So too, the releases to date have coalesced into a powerful argument against those who believe the only way games can elicit sentiment is through photorealistic graphics.

So too, the nomination of 9.03m at the TIGA awards – it is shortlisted in the Game with the Purpose and Student Game categories – shows that the wider industry is paying attention. The judges at tomorrow’s ceremony include Jason Kingsley, Rebellion’s CEO, Stuart Whyte, Lionhead’s studio director, and Agostino Simonetta, Sony Computer Entertainment Limited’s European development account manager. In a year or two, it may be that will we may see such companies of that stature muster the bravery and commitment to eschew the usual annualised sequel cycle and create something entirely different, although commercial sensibilities may dictate otherwise.

In the meantime, Inglott and his five colleagues at Space Budgie – all alumni of Abertay – are pushing ahead with future projects, including Glitchspace, its first commercial game, which makes the intriguing promise of granting players “the ability to reprogram objects in the world through a visual programming language.” As a graduate game developer with a young family, Inglott concedes that the journey has not always been easy. Half of the revenue generated by 9.03m has been donated by Space Budgie to Aid For Japan, which helps children who were left orphaned by the disaster, and the studio hopes that in time, all the proceeds for the game will go towards the charity’s cause.

At the same time, however, the team realise they need money to grow and prosper.  “I’m not sure how I’m actually still going,” Inglott admitted. “It didn’t help that most of the funding for start-ups had dried up by the time I graduated. The recession and cutbacks most likely had a large role in it. My project, because it’s quite niche, was not something that many investors would have wanted to finance, so we had to do all of the post-university work on it with no income.”

Unless funding emerges to aid the creation of Glitchspace and other games, Inglott concedes that he will probably have to take up employment away from Space Budgie, working on its IPs in his spare time. The studio is, however, exploring the possibility of raising capital via Kickstarter. Whatever the model, the industry as a whole should hope that Inglott and his ilk receive support, for they are offering a glimpse of what the narrative of games are capable of.

As for the discovery made in Del Norte County? A few months after it came as shore a group of six US students began making plans and raising funds  for its return to Japan. Last month, their work paid off, and the humble vessel arrived back home at Takata High School in Iwate Prefecture. According to Akihito Yokoto, the school’s principal, it is known as the “miracle boat.”

—–

Battle of the Black Boxes from Scotland on Sunday

THEY are technical powerhouses vying for a place in ­living rooms across Britain, promising not only progressive gaming, but an entertainment experience that will render every other black box under your television obsolete.

Consumers across the world are gearing up for the launch of the next generation of consoles later this month when Microsoft and Sony release their new machines. Each hope to corner a market which contributes £947 million to UK GDP and is expected to be worth £52 billion worldwide by 2016.

In Scotland, home to a critically-lauded and thriving game development scene, several firms are working on titles for the Xbox One and Play­Station 4, with the head of one suggesting that, in a few years, the latest iterations could be “in every single home”.

Microsoft will have the first bite of the cherry when it launches its £430 console on 22 November with 22 games. A week later Sony releases its £350 machine, accompanied by 21 titles. Already, both firms have signed exclusivity deals with various developers to secure coveted intellectual properties like Titanfall and Killzone, a process bound to reinforce the tribalism that characterises the console market, where brand loyalty is all.

Games, however, are only part of the multi-million-pound sales pitch. The array of features boasted by each console is testament to the medium’s evolution from 1980s bedrooms to the cultural mainstream.

Microsoft’s marketing strategy has zoned in on the Xbox One’s ability to play, watch television and browse the internet at once, using voice commands and hand motions to flick between media. The US giant has also commissioned its own television series, including a strand based on its hit Halo franchise and a remake of Blake’s 7.

Sony, while focused on the PlayStation 4’s strengths as a gaming powerhouse, promises its own original programming, with access to thousands of films and shows along with a music library of millions of songs.

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Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of 4J Studios, the Scots company behind the eight-million-plus selling Xbox 360 version of the sandbox (creative play) building phenomenon, Minecraft, believes the new generation will succeed like never before.

“There’s never a huge amount of software at launch,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “It will be early adopters buying the consoles at Christmas, but as we get into 2014 and must-have games start to appear, I think you’ll see they become ubiquitous.

“As we saw with the current generation, once the price starts to fall four or five years into the cycle, the popularity really increases, and this could be the generation of consoles that is in every single home.”

However, Michael Pachter, a respected games analyst with Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities, cautioned against excitable sales projections.

He explained: “The current generation saw around 260 million consoles sold – 100 million Wiis and 80 million each of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It is highly likely that the Wii U will flop and sell only 20 to 30 million units, and it is unlikely that all of the purchasers of Wii last generation will buy an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4.

“I think more likely, half of the Wii audience has migrated to mobile, tablet or social games, or no games at all. It is possible Microsoft and Sony will expand their appeal geographically, but unlikely they will make up much more than the number lost by Wii. I think the next generation will most likely be about the same size as the current generation.”

Brian Baglow, founder and director of the Scottish Games Network, the trade body for the industry in Scotland, said: “Consoles now have competition. Real competition when it comes to playing games. A whole new generation of non-dedicated devices are available at lower prices and which do far more than the current or next gen consoles.

“Smartphones, tablets and even web browsers are now the norm for a huge part of the global gaming market, who’d never dream of buying a dedicated games device.”

Although around 90 per cent of Scottish developers are devoted to this market, a handful are producing titles for the new generation, including Edinburgh’s Rockstar North, tipped to release versions of the acclaimedGrand Theft Auto V.

4J Studios, meanwhile, is developing editions of Minecraft for both platforms at its East Linton offices.

No-one knows how the battle between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will pan out, although the consensus has Sony slightly ahead at present.

“Right now, Sony is the winner, solely on price,” said Pachter. “Microsoft can fix that by cutting price, but they’re stubborn, and unlikely to do so until Sony takes a clear lead. I think Sony wins until Microsoft cuts price, then they run neck and neck for the next few years.”

Van der Kuyl agreed: “As things stand I think PlayStation 4 is the gamer’s console of choice at the moment. But it’s almost like a split between Democrats and Republicans. People are either or the other, and they’ll never cross the divide. It’s the swing voters you have to convince.”

—–

Innovation at Scots Game Jam – From platformers combining Orwellian motifs with anaglyph glasses to a card game satirising censorship and state propaganda, Martyn McLaughlin reports on some of the innovative new titles to emerge from the Glasgow chapter of this year’s Scottish Game Jam.

THERE is something about watching a game being made that reveals the qualities that set the medium apart from other modes of artistic endeavour. The good ones are a delicate union of durable coding and creative flair, where no single component can succeed unless they coalesce and complement one another. On occasion, an already strange and quixotic formula will welcome another ingredient. The result can be so intangible as to defy definition, yet when it happens, you know instantly that a good game has become great.

The Scottish Game Jam is the ideal place to gain a fuller appreciation of the beguiling alchemy that passes as games development. In the space of less than 48 hours, the creative process is not so much deconstructed as anatomised, as designers, artists and programmers gather en masse at locations around the country to showcase their craft and ultimately, overcome the burdens of sleep deprivation and technical gremlins to produce a playable game.

The weekend-long event is part of the Global Game Jam, an initiative that has captured the imagination of developers around the world since it began in 2009. In its inaugural year, the jam took place at 53 locations, with a respectable harvest of 370 games at the end of the two days. This year, the numbers reveal just how popular the collaborative gathering has become, with more than 4,200 games emerging from around 480 locations in over 70 countries. In Scotland, the growth is equally impressive, with hubs established at Abertay University and Napier University in Edinburgh. The largest, however, is at Glasgow Caledonian University, where over 170 people gathered last weekend; five years ago, the figure was just 23.

The proceedings are held in the Saltire Centre, a sprawling five-level riddle of design where wooden walkways and multicoloured flooring zones curl around the central feature of a huge copper clad drum staircase. An imposing yet inspirational space that looks like the headquarters of a Californian tech company helmed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it is ordinarily home to the university’s library and support services. Come game jam time, the vast majority of the 10,500 square metre facility is transformed by a phalanx of developers and the wares of their trade.

Soon, the sprawling open-plan ground space becomes a labyrinthine riot of technology. On the floor, a tangle of cables and wires snarl and snake around powerpoints, while tabletops groan under the weight of desktop towers, laptops, tablets, gamepads, virtual reality headsets and keyboards. Occasionally, a pair of trainers can be spotted below a heap of jackets as an exhausted jammer steals an hour’s rest. With only 48 hours to play with, however, many choose to ward off fatigue with an E-number buffet of energy drinks, pizza and Haribo, wearing the expression of someone forced to sit through a box set of The Only Way Is Essex, then repeat the whole sorry experience with the cast commentary switched on.

Time, certainly, is one of the main barriers to success at a game jam, as is the courage to jettison an idea when it is simply not working. On Friday evening, when the developers were bright eyed and Sunday’s deadline seemed like an aeon away, a member of last year’s winning team offered some sage advice. Jon McKellan, creative lead at Futuro Games, recalled how in 2013, he and his two colleagues had explored and discarded no less than three game ideas by 6am on the Saturday morning, some 12 precious hours into the event. Having conceded that their concepts were “terrible,” they did not panic, but resolved to start again afresh. “If you’re not getting anywhere in a couple of hours you might be on the wrong path,” McKellan explained.

In hindsight, Futuro’s decision was inspired. McKellan, who is also lead UI on Creative Assembly’s intriguing new IP, Alien: Isolation, was the only member of his team with game development experience, but after discussing what kind of experience they wanted to create, Futuro hit upon the concept of a multiplayer infinity runner and built it using the GameSalad engine. The resultant game, Lub Vs Dub, went on to amass 120,000 players after heavy promotional activity from Starbucks and Apple.

Wandering between the teams, chatting to developers and playing their games, it was clear that while some members of the class of 2014 had paid heed to McKellan’s words, others were simply out of luck. The makers of one local multiplayer title struck upon an inventive idea and created all their graphics and sound from scratch, yet their hard work was undermined after they were unable to localise cameras due to changes implemented by Unity only a few days previous. Soon afterwards, the team was further hindered after their main computer gave up the ghost. In a game jam, fortune is vital to ensuring the gap between concept and execution is as narrow as possible.

Equally, lateral thinking is a virtue in such a pressurised situation. As in previous years, the 2014 jam offered developers an irreverent and vague theme around which to sculpt their game (“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” was the leitmotif of the weekend). While some to developers elected to all but ignore the theme, such as Michael Kargas and Victor Portela, creators of Space Rigs, a polished 3D shooter, others relished the opportunity to create a unique context for the statement.

I See, for instance, pits the player as a bat, forced to use echolcoation to navigate their way around a maze shrouded in darkness. Created by Glasgow Caledonian University students Cheri Lynn Skivington, Andrew James Dick, Gary Thomson, Nathan Mcdermott and Zeeshan Abid, the game is best played using headphones, as the pulsing sonar guides the nocturnal creature around the structure, alerting it of pathways but also hazards and enemies.

One the most compelling interpretations of the theme came in Doctrine, deemed by judges in Glasgow to be most innovative of all the submissions. It melds Orwellian philosophies to homespun props, as two players try to put up their own propaganda posters or deface those of their opponents. The hook sees each participant wear a helmet with a red or blue visor, meaning they are colour blind to political slogans daubed in a certain colour.

Colour, too, is crucial to progress in QuadBox, another of the games that proved most popular over the weekend. Developed for mobile and tablet platforms, it has an immediacy that makes it instantly playable, yet challenging. Utilising a tilt mechanic, players are asked to roll balls into one of four corners, depending on the colour shown at the top of the screen. The game – created by the five-strong team of Jonathan Dillon, Leanne Gavigan, Andrew Lindsay, Heather MacGill and Alisdair Muircroft – becomes increasingly complicated as the number of balls increase and the colour of the background changes, disguising some of spheres.

Sometimes, though, the games that worked best did not boast progressive or innovative features; they simply won players over with charm alone. This was true of Selfie. Far and away the most frivolous game showcased in the Saltire Centre, it did not fail to raise a smile from anyone who played it. The title, the brainchild of Darren Maxwell, Tony Brown and Stew Hogarth, is influenced by the mobile phone selfshot mechanic popularised by games such as Dead Rising and Grand Theft Auto V, but with a uniquely nonsensical twist. Bonus points are awarded for the most bizarre image, with high scores assured for those who capture Elvis, badgers, and Stonehenge in the one frame.

Two games, however, captivated the panel of judges. The first, Prism Saga, a cunning platformer by novice developers Daniel Callander and Scott Goodwin, finished runner up in both the best game and best art categories. Boasting elegant yet unfussy graphics, it enjoyed the most individual game mechanic of all the entries, with progress made by switching between modes of vision using a gamepad’s shoulder buttons. The left button makes hidden yellow blocks appear, yet any blue blocks will vanish; the right button reverses the effect. However, the energy required to switch between these modes is finite and players must recharge regularly. A deceptively simple premise, the game frustrates but teaches, rewarding the player as opposed to punishing them.

The title voted best game, meanwhile, had the one of the most distinct concepts and won critical acclaim from all who played it. Building on the legacy of subversive political board games like Twilight Struggle and Campaign Manager, Good News by Andrew Reid deserves to be the next addition to that small yet influential cannon. The game is an iconoclastic satire of state propaganda, censorship and the relentlessness of the modern news cycle. Wielding an array of cards and tokens, players become “information enhancers,” tasked with averting political crises by amending potentially ruinous headlines with any number of pre-approved corrections assigned by the fictional politburo.

The game, the judges decided, was one they would have happily purchased on the day. The same was true of several other games. Every team at the jam deserves praise for producing work that were playable, but the fact that so many of them would comfortably warrant a place on the App or Play Stores is an acute reminder of the skill involved in creating a game and the depth of talent in the Scottish development community.

Call up for Scot in $1m video game contest – from Scotland on Sunday

WITH his steady aim and quick reactions, he has achieved global recognition and five-figure earnings by excelling at a video game played by millions every day. Now a Glasgow teenager is preparing to take on elite gamers from around the world in the hope of securing the lion’s share of a $1 million prize pot at a US tournament.

Mark Bryceland will this weekend pit his skills against the best players from across every continent at Call of Duty: Ghosts, the latest installment of the first-person shooter game that has become one of the most popular series of games ever made.

Having already secured the European title and its £12,500 prize earlier this month as part of a four-strong British team, the 19-year-old has flown out to North Carolina for a week of intensive practice against crack US teams before the Call of Duty Championships gets under way on Friday.

Depending on how he and his teammates in TCM Gaming perform against 31 other teams at the Los Angeles event, they could take home a sizeable part of the $1m prize fund, which will be divided up among the top eight teams. Overall success would net Bryceland and his team nearly a quarter of a million pounds, with lucrative sponsorship deals likely to follow.

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Bryceland told Scotland on Sunday he has taken a year off from his course in interactive media at the City of Glasgow College to pursue his dream of turning competitive gaming – known as eSports – into a fully fledged career for “years to come”. Practising for several hours a day, he expressed confidence that he and his team will return from LA recognised as the best in the world at what they do.

“I think we can honestly win the entire world championships,” he said. “It’s going to be hard and we’re certainly going be underdogs, but being Scottish we love a good underdog story, so I’d love to make that happen.

“American squads are always going to be the favourites to win but I fancy our chances. Winning wouldn’t only be massive for ourselves, it’d be big for the whole of Europe.”

Bryceland, from Newton Mearns, said the skills required to succeed in Call Of Duty – a militaristic franchise which pits two opposing teams against one another across a range of battlefields – boils down to communication and practice.

“Working together to accomplish something is always rewarding, and Call of Duty is no different,” he explained. “I suppose the easiest comparison to traditional sports and Call Of Duty eSports is practice makes perfect.”

Bryceland and his teammates – Londoner Tom Handley, Dylan Dally from Birmingham and Tomas Jones from North Wales – normally play online together for five to six hours every evening.

With more than 10,000 followers on social media channels such as Twitter, YouTube and Twitch, the Scot makes money by streaming live footage of his gaming sessions and compiling videos. Although 
eSports has not made him rich, he said he has started to make a “steady income”.

“Through prize money in the last year, I’ve made roughly around £10,000,” he said. “I believe that’s roughly around minimum wage but that’s fairly good considering I wasn’t in a top team until around June and didn’t win my first slice of prize money until then.”

A minority of leading players have amassed hundreds of thousands of pounds in winnings by competing in tournaments the world over, though others are able to make the kind of income ordinarily provided by a nine to five job. The tournament, sponsored by Activision, the publishers of Call Of Duty, takes place between Friday and Sunday.

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