Sheffield leading the way in videogame education
Top-tier education and a growing pool of companies are turning Sheffield into the perfect place to learn how to develop videogames.
Nowhere is that message more clear than at Sheffield Hallam University, which boasts one of the best-equipped development labs in Europe, if not the world.
Jake Habgood is course leader for game development at the university, and has used his past in the gaming industry with Sheffield studios such as Gremlin Graphics and Sumo Digital to help secure all sorts of opportunities for his students.
“Right from the start I wanted to get students working on real products,” he said.
“Hallam already had a good relationship with Sony, so they had PlayStation 2 development kits. I spearheaded getting PlayStation 3 kits.”
“Publishing on PlayStation is actually very difficult. When the PlayStation 4 came out Sony gave us one of the first development kits, before anyone else. And after its release we then got an entire lab’s worth. It was the biggest in the world.”
Having the latest machines on which to develop makes Jake’s course one of the best around. But he has always tried to give his students extra opportunities.
He set up Steel Minions games studio, which is owned by the university and run by students.
“It’s slightly different from just teaching,” he said. “It’s commercially-licensed so we have the ability to publish games.
“We were the first university in the UK to develop a PlayStation Portable game. Of that group of students, quite a few now work for Sumo Digital. You start to get that feed-in. There are some really great students.It was just the difference it made to get through a product from conception to conclusion.”
The first title to come out of the Steel Minions studio was PieceFall, a geometric puzzle game.
It is now available almost worldwide on the PlayStation Store.
“That was fantastic because they were the first students in the world to release a game during their course,” said Jake. “Three of those students went to Sumo. Two went to (Spanish company) Elite 3D.”
And Jake now has a team of students working on a new game called Rink Riot, which is almost finished.
He said: “Not all the students get there. But it seems to increase their employability massively.”
Jake is a product of the Sheffield videogame industry, having first worked for Gremlin Graphics and then Sumo. He believes the city is a great base for any prospective developer - but acknowledges it is not an easy route to take.
He said: “Gaming is a competitive business and you need to be very good.
“I never encourage students to come on the course unless they are really passionate.
“You need to understand that it’s hard and technically challenging. We provide the opportunity and that’s a unique selling point compared to anywhere else in Europe - and you could argue worldwide.
“Sheffield is somewhere with a very long heritage. Sumo is very big and in the headlines but there are a lot of other smaller companies. You get a whole link system created. You have got guys who used to work at Sumo with their own studios. It’s pretty healthy.
“Sheffield is definitely a centre in the north for this kind of thing. I can’t really ever see that not being so. We have a certain amount of expertise and in the area people are always going to want to work here.”
And looking back to his own days as a computer science student, Jake is confident things are now better than ever before for young developers.
“We can offer something that computer science or software engineering courses can’t offer,” he said. “For students that are passionate and talented, you couldn’t do any better than come here.
“We give you the best possible chance of getting into the industry. You don’t have to do a games course to get into the industry but we do give our students a head start.
“I wouldn’t say that an interest in videogames alone is enough. Someone coming on a course like ours needs to be interesting in programming as well.
“If you don’t enjoy programming, you won’t enjoy game development.”
Paul Porter co-founded Sumo, and worked with Jake during his time at the studio. The two still work together and the studio tries to support the university.
“We get involved in a lot of the projects the students do and a lot of the extracurricular development activities. I and quite a few of the staff give talks at schools,” he said.
One project is Games Britannia, an event set up by teacher Mark Hardisty, who wrote a book about Gremlin Graphics called A Gremlin in the Works. It was initially supported by Rotherham Council before Hallam got involved. The aim was to encourage young people with all sorts of interests to get into game development.
“To get into games you can be technical, artistic, process-minded, creative,” said Paul. “It’s a completely broad range of skillsets. Making a game is a completely creative process. What we look for is people that are passionate about making games.”
He added: “Games are a great industry to work in at the moment. It’s in rude health. More people are playing games than ever before.
“The thing I love about it is the medium is always changing. There’s always innovation. To keep up with it requires a lot of skill and it keeps things interesting.”
Paul believes there is still scope for Sheffield to shout about its videogaming heritage.
“Sheffield is a funny place,” he said. “I have lived here since I was 13, so I get it. It doesn’t necessarily have a great public image but once you are here it’s fantastic.
“People are friendly, facilities around the area are great and it’s a really cool place to be. But it’s almost one of the best kept secrets of the north.”