Disclaimer: These are a few pointers I thought were important based on my personal experience taking part in Dare to be Digital 2009. Prior to being asked to join a team in last years competition I was working towards becoming a games artist, and had heard about Dare to be Digital, but I didn’t know a whole lot about how it operated. Dare was easily the best experience I’ve had as a games artist so far and hopefully future participants can get the same out of it by reading this and knowing a little more of what to expect during the course of the ten weeks. Really the worst thing about Dare to be Digital is that it’s the only competition of its kind in the world, and you can only take part in it once.
A lot of the mistakes I made, saw others making or have heard of others making in the past are covered here; hopefully by reading this, you can avoid them and land yourself a great job after or win yourself a shiny BAFTA. 🙂
The harsh truth
Only three teams are chosen as the ‘winners’ of Dare each year, and only one of these teams is going to be walking away with the BAFTA ‘Ones to Watch’ award. The fact of the matter is (and this was especially true in 2009) is that the majority of games made during the competition deserve to be one of those three winners, and the three nominees that go forward probably all deserve the BAFTA.
Keep it simple
They key to not only getting into Dare but doing well in the competition is developing a prototype that has a unique gameplay mechanic and a simple and clean but appealing visual style. Innovative gameplay will always trump lots of lovingly sculpted orc space marines in this competition. You are tasked with creating a prototype of a videogame, not a 5 hour epic cinematic experience with ten fully animated normal mapped phong shaded characters with fully fleshed out back-stories. The judges will most likely only spend a few minutes judging you final game at the end of August, and anyone playing your game at Protoplay will probably spend around 10 minutes playing it.
Make the game you pitched to the panel during you interview (!!)
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised. Don’t pitch something simple because you think that is what the judges want to hear and then attempt to develop some barely recognisable mutated version of the original idea during the actual competition; because the only people you are fooling is yourselves, your game probably won’t get finished, and you will probably end up crashing and burning.
Your team leader works for the team, not the other way around
If your team leader is spending his/her days drafting his BAFTA acceptance speech instead of actively contributing to the game in ways you can point to and say ‘This is what they are working on, and it’s oh so very important to the game’, it is up to the rest of the team as a collective to address this with the team leader. The role of team leader is vital to the project but is unfortunately open to abuse. A team leader’s job is not only to keep the team happy, organised, focused, and operating smoothly, or to keep any web 2.0 tomfoolery (twitter, blogs) updated, but also to contribute heavily to the production of the game like everyone else on the team. If the team is not happy with something the team leader is/is not doing, the best way to address it is to talk it out early as a group instead of letting resentment fester.
Your game should really only need between zero and four individual character assets, four being the absolute maximum in my opinion, unless the assets are very simple. Modelling, texturing, rigging and animating four characters to a presentable level is more than enough of a task for an artist during the nine weeks of development, without even taking into account any environmental work, which you will probably want a second artist developing if it is substantial enough. You can have it done quickly, or you can have it done well. You can choose only one of these options. The artists should have the time they need to do their job well; if they don’t, there’s a good chance the entire project is being mismanaged and you need to seriously rethink what is needed and what isn’t needed to make your game.
C.V./ Portfolio padding
The ugly truth is that there may be people in the competition who put themselves and what they are personally trying to get out of the competition before what is best for the team and the game. Don’t do this, it only ends up hurting the game. You should already have a pretty decent portfolio/skillset if you have been selected to take part in Dare. It’s going to be glaringly obvious to all around you, including industry judges/mentors if you have this attitude. And they won’t want you anywhere near their companies future endeavours if they sense you are not going to be a team player and making the best game possible your top priority.
The other contestants are your (friendly) competition, not your ‘enemies’ or anything of the like, and treating the other sixty-odd people you are going to be living and working with for ten weeks in the competition as the latter would be very silly indeed. Work together. Troubleshoot with coders from other teams that are using the same tech or coding language as you (or spend three days solving an issue that the guy/gal next to you would have spent three seconds telling you how to fix). Artists, use the opportunity to get to know other like minded artists and share techniques, tools for doing certain jobs faster, etc. Socialise. Don’t hide in your room at Victoria Chambers for ten weeks. You are going to be living and working with these people for ten weeks. I had the privilege of working alongside some of the finest and most talented gents and ladies I’ve ever met during my time at Dare, and meeting people like these is by far the best thing you are going to get out of Dare.
A word on using the Wiimote as your controller…
You will not get browny points from the judges for implementing plug-ins coded by other people into your game (e.g. Glovepie) so there is no reason to risk rendering your game unplayable at Protoplay by doing so. The lights at Protoplay will interfere with the I.R. sensors in the Wiimotes and have done so for two years running. Button based Wii controls and general waggle is fine, in fact one of the best and most innovative titles from last year used the Wiimote and Wii Balance board to great effect. If your entire idea revolves around using the Wii zapper, try to arrange it so your stand at Protoplay isn’t situated directly opposite a 300W light-show during your time there. Keep in mind however that the Dare staff will have 1,374 other things to deal with during Protoplay, so it’s best to just avoid that mess altogether.
Do make time for ‘touristy’ things
Wear a kilt if you’ve got the legs for it ( ;P ), eat at least one haggis (even if it is one bought from Tesco) and go Nessie hunting in the Highlands. I wish I had taken the time to do these things during my time in Scotland. Deep fried mars bars are, unfortunately, a myth as far as I know, at least in Dundee. During my (extensive) search for this supposed Scottish delicacy I did hear rumours that it’s more of a Glasgow thing though…
For non U.K. teams that get paid straight into their bank accounts…
Don’t do what I did and get the smallest possible denomination out of the ATM whenever you visit it, as you may be charged a few pounds for the pleasure each time you do so, even if it says on the machine that there are no additional charges (these are for U.K. Cards only). A £10 charge for a £10 withdrawal (x20!!!) was not fun when I realised it was happening, I can tell ya. Your charges will probably not be that high, just a word of warning. It might be better to use a credit card if you have one, and taking out slightly larger denominations at a time.
This is be far the most important advice I can impart to you about the Dare experience. Papa Joes is a restaurant in Dundee that just happens to serve the best steak in the world. You must eat this steak as often as your stipend allows, which is probably once a week. Best not drop £20 on a steak more than once a week. I recommend booking if you intend to eat there on a Friday or Saturday evening, especially if there is a group of you heading there, because everybody else in Dundee also knows they serve the best steak in the world there and so it does tend to fill up at these times.
Papa Joes website: http://www.papa-joes.co.uk/
That’s about it. I hope Dare is as great an experience this year as it was for me in 2009. Fingers crossed that Icelandic volcano doesn’t cause any of you any travel troubles. Good luck!