Thursday, March 10, 2016

Teaching computer games development - interview with Michael Warburton from Cambridge Regional College

Bartek: Tell us something about yourself. Who are you? Where do you live? What do you do in life?

Michael: Hi, so I am Michael Warburton, in my everyday working life I’m a teacher and head of Computer Games Development at Cambridge Regional College in Cambridge UK. But with my students on the course I manage Rizing Games, releasing commercial games for iOS and Android . As far as I am aware, the only college at least in Europe that runs a commercial games company with the students?
Every year in June, I also organise a stall at E3 in L.A. for Rizing Games, where the students and myself exhibit their titles, rubbing shoulders with the giants of the industry!
Rizing Games over the last 2/3 years has gained industry support from tech giants ARM and gaming engine company Unity.
Last year at E3 2015 we had an amazing full-page feature in the E3 Insider magazine, with the ESA calling us the ‘School of Dreams’. A huge accolade that was completely humbling!
So it is a fun day job! Mostly a teacher, but also running my own indie games company teaching 16-18 year olds how to build and release their first commercial titles.

Bartek: When did your Android adventure start and how?

Michael: So 6 years ago when I was employed to teach in the games department I could see that the learners training was not really being applied to real life outputs. I have always worked with the ethic that; if you want to work in an industry, do it! Put your skills into action and build up a CV to show your professional progression.

So I began with Android due to the ease of being able to teach learners how to build and compile games due to ease of access to the OS and tool development.
Android is so accessible and easy to deliver to learners with. Plus the game engine I was teaching the learners with, GameMaker Studio, the development process with Android is fantastic and easy!

Bartek: How did you learn how to create games?

Michael: To be honest my background is in music technology as far as study goes. But during the late 90’s/early 2000’s, I was mucking around with HTML and Flash programming for website based games on
I never really took myself too seriously and saw it as a creative fun outlet.
So really I am self-taught, I have one of those personality’s that is a bit addictive and become very driven to learn and overcome new hurdles. Not always to the benefit of my own sanity or others around me when caught in a issue I am trying to solve! haha
But to be honest that is a skill I aim to teach my learners at Rizing Games about as well. Motivation and problem solving skills. You can teach yourself anything new and new ways of thinking! These are such important skills to have for employment.

Bartek: What libraries/frameworks do you use? Why did you choose them?

Michael: So I personally use GameMaker Studio or Game Maker Language, but also C# and Javascript in Unity. These are the 2 engines I also use for teaching learners with at Rizing Games.
I chose GameMaker Studio due to the complete beginner tool it can be to introduce learners to programming and games development, but can also be more advanced! At the same time it makes app development/compile so easy and accessible!

Unity I have always personally loved. I used to use it years ago, and in 2014 at E3 I was approached by the head of Unity San Francisco office that thought all our games had been made with Unity.
I said no in which he instantly insisted on helping Rizing Games with setting us up with the engine and support. I was over the moon as you can imagine, and as a result can provide engine knowledge development for my learners.
Once again as for GameMaker, Unity is beautiful to work with, and for the learners progressing from GameMaker, the language and workflow is not that scary a jump!

Bartek: Where do you take app/game ideas from? How do you know if they have a chance to be successful?

Michael: Oh that’s tricky. To be honest for me it’s that annoying moment before I fall asleep and have an idea! Haha! So I always have a notepad near by to write them down.
Sometimes it’s mucking about with a mechanic for a game that will inspire a theme for a challenge in a game which then develops into a title overall.
Haha…I did one year give away an idea for a game I had to my learners working towards a title for E3. I thought nothing much of it at first. Then a few months later another industry professional in a high up position came on a visit to Rizing Games to give them feedback.
All I heard was the industry professional raving about their game mechanic! The students later told me how ‘Unique’ and ‘Not seen used that way before’ he had told them.
I was a little gutted I gave it away now! haha

Bartek: Where do you get resources from (graphics, sounds, music)?

Michael: All assets in the titles are original developed content. The learners at Rizing Games all come with a specialism they are interested in, they learn all areas, but always excel in an area.
As a result the learners are able to form teams and practice and hone their skills, working together to produce original content titles.
It takes a while for them to develop at times the teamwork, but once there, they work like machines.

Bartek: How do you create sounds and music for the games? What tools/programs do you use for it? Do you also use any free/paid resources from the Internet?

Michael: As far as sounds and music goes for games this is a major love of mine coming from the music industry background, being a professional musician and horror film composer. Its always a niggle of mine if the audio experience has not been fully explored! haha
Games are made up of 3 main areas, visual, interaction and the audio experience! Nothing worse than as simple as a button with no sound attached to reinforce the UX.
On the course which Rizing Games learners take I use a pro audio engine called Logic Pro. This is a fantastic all round Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that allows me to teach the learners everything from original composition with virtual instruments, audio editing with maniupulation and effects, plus the benefits of Apple Loops which are copyright free audio samples to build up original compositions and SFX.
It is a very powerful tool, and you see there eyes light up when you show them how you can create new creature sounds using mulitple animal sounds and a bit of flex time editing and mixing! Just like the old days of audio engineers creating alien or monster sounds for 'Star Wars' or say the girls demonic scream in 'The Exorcist'.
So all audio assests in Rizing Games titles are original creations which I feel adds to a more rounded final product.
Sadly Logic Pro is not a free programme and is developed for Mac Systems only. But there are some great simple free audio editing tools out there the learners use such as Audacity etc. If you are using a PC I would recommend on a simliar level using a DAW such as Cubase.

Bartek: What other programming tools do you use?

Michael: At Rizing Games we use various other development/programming tools. Adobe software such as Photoshop etc. for preparing assets, plus 3d modelling tools such as 3ds Max.
A great little tool we have been using for preparing and creating 3d models for Unity is Adobe’s Mixamo. A fantastic player model-rigging tool. It’s still developing as a package, but is fantastic for teaching learners the concept of rigging and applying into their own games.
In addition we do use Dropbox but also Unity’s Asset Server as well for team sharing of project data.

Bartek: How long does is take you to make a single game?

Michael: This really varies based on their stage of the 2-year course. When the learners start the course it is a real mixed bag of ability, and I work to bring them to the same skill level, or as close as possible.
In the first year the learners experiment with producing titles, and most my time is spent working with them to build those ideas in their head, but then on the overall UX to be developed in to their title.
The first pitfall is always thinking that once they have a playable level, that is it! I am done!
I spend a lot of additional time working with them to look at the whole package from the end users journey. Once the learners reach their second year they begin their journey to developing and applying their skills towards their E3 final product. By now they understand the premises of a rounded game and spend about 9 months working on hopefully producing a commercial title with a full UX. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, but that’s the point of Rizing Games. It is a safety net for them to try. If it does not quite go right they can learn in the safety of the company.
With the number of learners on the course, we usually in the last year for E3 produce on average 9 complete titles from teams of about 4/5. This year for E3 2016 we are looking at releasing around 14 titles! I have my work cut out this year! Haha

Bartek: How do you test your games?

Michael: We don’t have any strong system for testing bar the learners and myself setting alpha/beta testing stages in the title development as and when they are ready to. At times we have sessions when we bring the wider college body in to test the games to get an outside opinion. Other than that it is taking advantage of iOS and Google Play sandbox to invite beta testing of developing titles.

Bartek: How much are you making on your games?

Michael: In all honesty we make around £20 a year, but for Rizing Games that’s not always the goal. Some titles have a Premium price, but more often than not the games are Freemium.
Obviously with Rizing Games sitting under the umbrella of the college, our financial support comes from there. We have won various enterprise competitions, which have provided us with collateral to provide sustainability for future titles and marketing, but this is a developing situation.

Bartek: How do you monetize your games? What ad networks do you use if any? Do you have any advice on it for others?

Michael: As previously mentioned all our games have either been Premium or Freemium priced titles due to the production time scale for the learners. But we are now moving into adding a monetization model for the titles. The main way we are going to incorporate this will be through the Commercial Break style advertising in game. For Rizing Games titles, the Commercial Break style approach is the least intrusive and fair style of model.
The main issue is time for the learners to incorporate monetization into their games. They fully understand the various ways to add in other methods being gamers them selves, but as always its time. But they can always build upon this even beyond their time at Rizing Games.
I also feel for others, Commercial Break style monetization is the easiest and fairest model to start with, after so many plays or time, pop in an advert!

Bartek: Which ones of your apps were the biggest successes and which ones were below expectations? Why?

Michael: That’s a hard question! The students put their hearts in to all the games they make and I get just as excited as they do seeing their first commercial title come to life, it’s a great moment to share with them. But obviously being their first release it is hard to gauge success for their titles beyond a learning experience, albeit a complete title experience.
So none of the titles have really been below expectations as such as they are all complete games built by the students and released.
But one game called Lily Pad Leap which was a game built about 4 years ago which in all honest was not quite perfect and released, has gone on to have over 3000 downloads and still growing! It seems to have been a hit with parents for younger children. The ex-learners and myself have discussed that it does need a re-build as so popular.
Apart from that, a title called ‘360 Invasion’ built by 2 learners around 4 years ago during a 36 hour game jam we annually hold called ‘Nerd Rage’ has had great success and consistent downloads and lifetime on consumers devices. A great rework of Space Invaders but in a 360 degree attacking style by the aliens towards the Earth in the middle! Hours of fun! A classic reworked can’t go wrong!
Bartek: Do you use any marketing techniques or ASO to promote your games?

Michael: Sadly we don’t have any marketing techniques at all. We just don’t have the collateral to invest into any marketing. It would be amazing if we did and really would have a major impact on our user acquisition and retention if we did.
Currently our only techniques are good old word of mouth and social media! It is a slow burner as far as growth, but we have a solid base. Hopefully in the future this is something we will be able to grow.

Bartek: What are your favourite Android games?

Michael: Oh blimey that’s a hard question too. I loved Angry Birds myself, and if honest over the last month or so I became addicted to Hungry Shark! Haha I loved being able to evolve your shark. The comedic pop ups as you eat different items in the environment are brilliant! My 6-year-old nephew showed me that game and is still on my phone!
I don’t play too many games myself if I am honest, I am more addicted to building my own and developing new mechanics that inspire an idea for a new game, much to my learners shock and disappointment!

Bartek: What blogs/sites do you read regularly?

Michael: I mainly am on IGN or similar sites as such or anything that provides collated feeds of information. Other than that is social media sites picking up on latest trends of information.

Bartek: What are your plans for the future? What do you want to create/achieve?

Michael: Well Rizing Games is preparing for E3 2016, currently building our titles for our third year there. After last year with the ESA calling us the ‘School of Dreams’, it is hard to imagine where to go from there?
I would love to build in our monetization model and develop funds to market the learner’s games; they deserve to have more support for their efforts.
I’d love to set up more Rizing Games style studios and support other colleges to do so. As a result I am starting the UK’s first educational (school and college) based gaming competition/festival to encourage this called FXP (Future Experience Points)
It’s gaining loads of support from the technology and gaming industry such as ARM and YoYoGames to name a few.
As for Rizing Games we have a Sony PlayStation Develop license now as well, so hopefully we shall be entering into console title releases as well at some point, watch this space! Haha
There is always something new I am working on with Rizing Games, well, many new things at once! But all are great fun ventures. 

Bartek: What advice would you give to other developers (something that you wish you had known before yourself)?

Michael: Just don’t be scared to try something if your not sure how, its fine you wont break it! Also just talk to industry experts for advice, people are more than happy to give you guidance! It seems daunting if not scary at times when trying to develop games/apps, but you can only learn by your mistakes. They are the greatest learning moments as long as you persevere and not become disheartened. To assume you are going to get it perfect first time is kidding yourself, we are always learning and the industry is always developing. That issue that is causing you weeks of pain trying to get something to work, when it does you will have learnt so much more than just the issue to solve, but also how to persevere as a professional. It really will pay off! It really is one of the hardest lessons my learners encounter in Rizing Games, and makes them strong rounded professionals with excellent soft skills beyond the specialist skills!
The last piece of advice is show your friends your ideas, but really get some good feedback at every stage of your title development! You will naturally love your idea, but you need that external view who will be honest. Listen to them, they are your consumer, and don’t take it to heart if they say something you don’t want to hear, it may save you months of development on an idea that is not really going to go anywhere.

Bartek: Where can people find you on the Internet?

Michael: All over the place! Haha We have a website that is in need of an update, we are on the case! And from there is links to the Google Play and
Apps Store for our games. Plus we have the Twitter and Facebook page @RizingGamesUK, and we are on YouTube as well. If you Google Rizing Games
you cant miss us! Haha

Bartek: How can someone sign up for your course? Is it part of a broader curriculum? How much is it (or perhaps it totally free)? Do you know of any similar courses in other places, that people might want to sign up for?

Michael: The course is a mainly a BTEC Level 3 Games Development Course run from Cambridge Regional College, but has evolved to mainly be known for the games company Rizing Games. Anyone can sign up for the course, we have school leavers from 16, returning University learners who have changed professional progression and individuals returning to education after time in employment wishing to change career. It really is a mixed bag due to the applied industry skills and development provided on the course.
I always tell applicants, yes you are coming to study a college level course in Games Development, but mostly I am hiring you to be part of my company and produce commercial games!
The course cost depends on the age of the learner. For learners pre 19 the course is free, but beyond 19 there is a cost but nothing in the way of University fees!
As far as I am aware Rizing Games is one of kind. I am working with other colleges in East Anglia to help them do the same, but this is obviously a long journey to help them. We are the only student games company building commercial games at either College or University, and certianly no other educational course goes to E3 let alone release games built by the learners!

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