Focusing on skills to take ideas to market

Sheffield Hallam University Games, Adam Kaye, Andrew Wiley and Andrea Redhead.
Sheffield Hallam University Games, Adam Kaye, Andrew Wiley and Andrea Redhead.
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Developing blockbuster computer games requires teams of people with a range of skills and that is just what Sheffield Hallam University tries to do as part of its Games Software Development courses.

“You can only take it so far on the course,” says Jake Habgood. “You can create good prototypes, but you don’t necessarily have the experience of taking something to market.”

Sheffield Hallam University Games,  Joanna Osborne and Veronica Hall

Sheffield Hallam University Games, Joanna Osborne and Veronica Hall

That is where Steel Minions comes in.

Unlike the rest of the department’s software, which operates under educational licences, Steel Minions’ operates under a full commercial licence, allowing the studio to take a game all the way to market.

The first thing the students have to do is convince the man who was in at the start of Sheffield’s computer games sector back in the 1980s – Gremlin fonder Ian Stewart – that they are onto a potential winner.

Then it is a long, hard slog, involving designers, programmers, testers and producers to turn the pitch document into a finished game.

Among those working on Steel Minions’ first game are Andrea Readhead, Joanna Osborne and Andrew Wiley, all in their early 20s.

Andrea acts as the producer– responsible for quality assurance and managing the process to make sure all the constituent parts come together and ensuring the finished game meets the potential publisher’s in-house criteria.

Joanna, who is embarking on a Masters degree after gaining a first class honours degree in software engineering, is the logic programmer, whose job is to program how the characters move, the scoring system and other key components.

Meanwhile, Andrew, who has already developed and sold games on his own, acts as the low level programmer – the person who makes the game work by creating the interface between the games software and the hardware it runs on.

“I always wanted to build games because I like to know how things work,” says Joanna, who taught herself to program in a games design language called Blitz Basic after leaving school and went on to learn C++.

She says Hallam University has been “brilliant” when it comes to accepting a girl as a games developer.

“Before I came here I was constantly being grouped with guys – as if a girl couldn’t do it on her own – and getting insults, but everyone on the course has been exceptional,” adds Joanna.

Andrea got drawn into games development for similar reasons.

“I was playing a game and realised there was more behind it, so I looked into what I needed to do.”

Andrew got drawn into games development while doing a computer course at college.

“I was designing a calculator and liked the logic, so I tried developing things myself and got some things published for the Xbox. They weren’t best sellers, but I made enough money at a dollar a game to keep me going for a bit.”

All three are enthusiastic about the experience of being part of Steel Minions.

“It’s very useful,” says Andrew. “We have got the machines that we need and we are away from other people. We are a bit secluded and we have 24 hour access instead of being limited to certain times, which is what would happen if we were working in the department.”

Steel Minions is coming close to completing work on its first game - a platform game called Bounceback and Sheffield Hallam hopes the studio will be able to publish a game a year and bring in enough money to cover its costs.

“Although the university is underwriting us with the studio, it is not an open cheque and there is a three-year business plan,” says Bob Steele.

That said, the department is giving itself the best possible shot at success.

“One thing we have tried to do is to identify the best. They are all here because they did really well on the course and in the modules,” says Jake Habgood.