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Malta's potential in digital games production comes under the spotlight

The first University-Business Thematic Forum, jointly organised by the University and the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, with the support of the National Commission for Higher Education, met at the MCCEI recently to discuss digital game production as a potential industry in Malta.

The event was held in the wake of government-supported initial forays in this field through Malta Enterprise. A jointly weaved proposal was presented to the government by the University of Malta, Malta Council for Science and Technology, and Malta Enterprise last October.

Speakers from industry and academia addressed a packed hall with the audience ranging from academics to students, business people and aspiring entrepreneurs. The extent of disciplines present ranged from computer programming to innovative thinking through to animation, IP law, sociology, policy-making and game design.

NCHE chairman Philip von Brockdorff opened the forum, hoping for an annual appointment where university faculties present new teaching and research initiatives, for the rectorate to present innovative projects for collaboration with business, and for industry and business representatives to present views on requirements and long-term developments and future skill requirements in specific sectors.

University rector Juanito Camilleri immediately confirmed the university's commitment to cooperate with stakeholders.

This lucrative industry, still in its infancy, challenges us to explore what is needed for DGP to take hold in Malta. Young people, their parents and schools need to be persuaded that there are career opportunities. Prof. Camilleri argued that in tandem with the popularisation of a games culture, the setting up of training programmes, and publicity, it was imperative to have one or two international companies transfer part of their business to Malta. Concurrently, indigenous companies need to be encouraged to gear up until enough experience is accumulated locally. Developing a game production industry requires a healthy user community, a games culture in schools and homes, the right incentives, the excitement of young people and the passion of professionals.

Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry deputy president Tancred Tabone pointed out that opportunities for growth in this fast-moving sector meant that companies need to be lean, fast moving and innovative. Medium and long-term measures are needed to ensure sustainability and competitiveness.

Speaking on the relevance of digital games production to Malta and its future, Malta Enterprise chairman Alan Camilleri quipped that in the light of the global economic crisis, the digital games production industry proved to be "somewhat recession-proof." Mr Camilleri listed advantages Malta offers to games companies wanting to set up here: the country's economic stability, research and development incentives, information security, privacy regulation, intellectual property rights and government's commitment and support for setting up this industry.

MCST policy unit director Jennifer Cassingena Harper said the council was particularly interested in digital games production because of its potential applications in education, research, health, tourism.

William Lathams, chief executive officer, Games Audit Ltd, and professor in the Computing Department at London's Goldsmiths University, highlighted the fragmentation and expansion of the games industry. The drift towards online games "caught everybody out". This is a dynamic industry with high-end games achieving ever-growing levels of realism. At the other end of the spectrum are casual games: free, very easy to use, a low barrier to entry for producers, but an area plagued with copyright infringement. There are also online web browser games, iPhone games, hybrid games and social networking games.

The development process for a high-end game requires a large multi-disciplinary team of story writers, musicians, good artists, good programmers, to name a few, where creative energy is just as important as programming skills. He drew attention to the current worldwide skills shortage in digital games production. Given its strength in ICT, Malta can leverage this advantage.

Computer Entertainment UK, Ireland and Nordic president Ray Maguire said that due to a huge increase in interest and accessibility of network applications and gaming, Sony is next year to release groundbreaking games which would include user-generated content and unprecedented realism. Sony would also be introducing advanced motion controlled gaming, together with 3D TVs.

From a sales and marketing perspective Sony embraces a completely consumer-centric engagement model, focusing long-term relationships. A changing media landscape and a fragmentation of consumers' attention mark the industry. These factors lead to shifting consumer consumption patterns. Consumers want to spend less, while the demand for increasing quality pushes up costs. Piracy is an issue, as is the shortage of developer skills.

Christopher Erhardt, head of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, pointed out "Malta right now is a nation of users, we need to figure out how to make you a nation of doers". Downloadable casual games are "the next big thing": the learning curve required has decreased and "instant gratification is king", while the "fun factor" continues to be pivotal.

Barry Townsend, chief technology officer at Cryptologic Inc., identified Cryptologic as a potential employer in Malta and immediately launched the question: "Can you prove to me that you have those skills and can provide them at a suitable level?"

Innovation is what distinguishes an enterprise and allows it to move ahead. Cryptologic set up a Centre for Innovation through which they could determine innovative and commercially viable ideas, do quick prototyping and market the results. On the basis of this asset, the company moved from 2D to 3D games, ventured into peer-to-peer gaming and will be releasing shortly a motion-sensitive game that requires only a computer with its camera.

Saviour Chircop, director of the University's Centre for Communication Technology, acknowledged the audience's enthusiasm but was skeptical about having won the persuasive game with different stakeholders. One still needs to convince parents about opportunities in the digital games industry, policy makers about the potential of such an industry, and investors about the feasibility of a local business enterprise. But such a development would require a joint effort in the training of human resources to attract the foreign investment together with a concomitant research agenda within University that would sustain the industry. For an industry to thrive, practice-based skills need to be accompanied by a sound research basis.

Alexiei Dingli, lecturer of intelligent computer systems launched Gamezing, a Microsoft-sponsored initiative aimed at secondary- and post-secondary educational institutions and university. The would comprises three components: a train-the-trainer-element for secondary, post-secondary and university teachers/lecturers on the use of digital game creation software packages to be provided freely by Microsoft, namely Kodu and XNA; a summer camp where teachers/lecturers would pass on knowledge gained to their students; two competitions (one using Kodu software for secondary students, the other XNA for post-secondary and university students) involving the creation of an educational-themed game.

The winning institution will be offered assistance to equip their computer labs for advanced graphics programming.

I launched a second competition: the "Indie Game Challenge". This competition will require the creation of an original Malta-themed 2D game and would be open both to individuals and teams. Besides a cash element, the prizes are expected to also have added value in the form of business incubation possibilities for the winning teams, linking the winning teams (or individual members) to foreign educational institutions that are strong in dgp, and sending the winning teams (or individual members) to a major international dgp event.

Using examples, Gordon Calleja, head of the Centre for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, indicated the wide gamut of game applications and proposed a three-pronged development approach: working with policy-makers to prepare packages to enable high-end gaming companies to set up shop in Malta; nurturing small teams currently working in other digital media; and creating support from academic institutions to produce an employable workforce.

Dr Calleja suggested the establishment of a Maltese centre for games research to spearhead the dgp:m initiative, and which could serve as an incubator for start-ups. He also suggested the creation of Masters level programmes with two tracks: Analysis and Design and Design and IT concentrated on games. EU partnerships and funding would be crucial, as would the need of recruitment of foreign specialists.

For updates on the dgp:m initiative, become a fan of the Digital Games Production: Malta page on Facebook.

Mr Zammit is assitant lecturer, Digital Media, at the Centre for Communication Technology at the University of Malta, and part of the dgp:m team.

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