24 March 2022: Welcome back to The NFTS Dispatch, a series of blogs written by National Film and Television School students to give readers an insight into their time at the School and the unique journeys and experiences each of them have while at the School.
In this latest dispatch, Charles Britton, a current NFTS Games Design and Development MA student opens up about his early experiences learning to be a game developer.
The National Film and Television School, Beaconsfield. Perhaps not the first place you would expect to find a games design and development MA. And yet, every year up to ten students enrol with the hope of working in the games industry. This February, I was among those hopefuls.
A disclaimer: I’ve never 3D modelled before, never written a line of code, my undergraduate degree was in English Literature. But I’ve always loved analysing how video games tell their stories, using their mechanics and audio-visual flourishes to make players feel certain ways. So, while the fact I will have made five games by the end of this year is terrifying, it’s equally exhilarating. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in my very young journey along this unconventional route into gamedev.
Inspiration In Strange Places
The thing I’m most thankful for about studying at a film school is being encouraged to cultivate interests outside my discipline. Since the NFTS is a film school, there are regular film screenings of recent releases and old classics. In addition, the School invites speakers from the creative industries to deliver Masterclasses: anyone from author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman and Turning Red director Domee Shi to documentary presenter Louis Theroux. They might not be talking about video games, but I can’t get enough of storytellers discussing their crafts. Besides, aren’t we all storytellers, just in different mediums?
Inspiration can come from anywhere, especially outside video games. Read books. Roller-skate and fall on your ass. Bake all the banana bread! For me, I find comfort and inspiration in reading (I know, you can’t take the literature out of the English student). So many times I’ve caught myself thinking “this relationship would be really fun to explore in a game” or “this situation could be gamified in some weird ways”. Even if you never end up making a game based on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (don’t worry, I wouldn’t blame you), who knows when those unconscious influences will inspire you in the future? Some of my favourite titles gamify niche interests or mundane activities, like PowerWash Simulator, Unpacking, or Yakuza’s minigames. It’s when playing those games that I feel the strongest connections to the human beings behind the code.
"Inspiration can come from anywhere, especially outside video games. Read books. Roller-skate and fall on your ass. Bake all the banana bread!"
With so much to learn and everyone at different skill levels, learning through doing is the way on my course. If I learn how to add transparency to a texture map, it’s because I want to make a window for my current project, not because it’s on a syllabus. Admittedly, there have been times where Maya’s Neolithic interface has made me want to tear my hair out, or where Unity has overwhelmed me with a million options to achieve the same effect, but I always feel a rush of satisfaction when I see the final result.
That is to say, I’ve learned to be curious without stressing about mastering everything at once. It's easy to get overwhelmed by what you don't know in gamedev, so I find identifying the bare minimum I need to achieve and breaking tasks down into 'need to haves', 'should haves', and 'nice to haves' makes the path forward clearer.
Another reason I feel so privileged being able to study gamedev is the freedom to take risks. In this safe space, I can experiment with mechanics and concepts without necessarily worrying about how profitable they are. While our tutors can advise us on which game concepts to develop, we are free to go against that advice and make something we’re proud of. Money isn't the concern - creativity is. Finally, I always try to look at games with a critical eye: what design trends are driving me up the (repeating texture) wall? What little details do I really appreciate? What kinds of experiences are being neglected altogether? Whatever makes me feel empowered and motivated to develop can only be a positive thing.
"I can experiment with mechanics and concepts without necessarily worrying about how profitable they are."
It Takes (More Than) Two
Our first project involves making a walking simulator with the whole games group. In a mad dash, we delegated roles like narrative designer, lead Unity developer, and QA lead between us. I even got the chance to pitch one of our game concepts to our tutors like I was on an episode of The Apprentice (except our team of barely-experienced students was a lot more competent than anyone you see on the show). Streamlining your workflow, labelling your assets clearly so your peers can find them easily in Unity: I've found there’s an art to making your - and your colleagues’ - work easier. Even little challenges such as how people can see what we’re working on at any given time were fun to solve. Spoiler: we settled on Trello and a quick stand-up presentation every other day and we’ve only wanted to pour coffee over our keyboards a couple of times…so far.
Again, studying at a close-knit film school adds a fun twist to proceedings. We collaborate with Sound Designers, Composers, and Screenwriters. We’re even able to consult professional voice actors to record lines for our projects - a privilege afforded to few game courses. Giving collaborators enough information to work with without dictating how to do their job is an exhilarating challenge and I’ve been blown away by the results. Helping others to visualise a game that doesn’t yet exist and sell its emotional beats is an experience that stands us in good stead for entering the industry. I hope to continue attending industry events like EGX, Develop Brighton, or WASD, this time with more confidence in my ability to talk to exhibitors. I cringe at the idea of 'networking' as much as the next person, but if I view it as making friends first and connections second, there’s no reason it should be a dirty word.
"I’m grateful that I get to dabble in everything from modelling and programming, to pitching and playtesting in a safe environment."
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’ve fallen in love with this eccentric place where no two days are the same; where I’m constantly bumping into boom mics and the coffee machine is perpetually broken. I’m grateful that I get to dabble in everything from modelling and programming, to pitching and playtesting in a safe environment. There will always be more to learn as hardware, design, and cultural trends evolve. But one thing I’m learning above all else: the core beauty of indie games is in adapting to the unique challenges every project brings.
Places are available on The National Film and Television School Games Design and Development MA. Create your future today by starting your application at nfts.co.uk/games
Duration 2 Years
Next intake January 2023
Application deadline 07 Jul 2022
Article originally published by Talenthouse Media Foundry.