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Hit-and-Run Developer Agreements, or why you should get university students to use your developer kits

This is a story about the PS3 academic program (in closed beta, sponsored by Sony/SCEA) at UC Santa Cruz; and how students here have survived using one of game development's most elaborate environments.

 

Addendum: The PS3 academic program held at UC Santa Cruz is in 'closed-beta'.  It is still being developed and fine tuned by Sony, as well as by students and professors here at UC Santa Cruz.

This started exactly one year ago; Sony/SCEA shipped 2x PS3 developer stations (models DEC1400 and DEC1000), along with a PS3 SDK software suite.

We were nothing but ecstatic.  Well, myself and Professor Jim Whitehead.  But some more juicy back story on this, before I proceed with the argument of this article.

I have been pining for the opportunity to learn on a professional-grade kit.  I've asked Professor Whitehead for any chance where we can apply to Sony, and possibly get the PS3 developer environment using university funds.

It turns out that we already had a foot in the door.  Professor Whitehead told me we were in the process of getting PS3 kits.  This was during my junior year, I was ready to take on larger API's, and have enough tools to rock-the-socks out of my senior year.  At UC Santa Cruz, our game design major is HQ'd at the School of Engineering.  

Our major focuses on the technical side of game development, while giving enough breadth to take on games from artistic and design oriented purviews.  Our major is also a subset of the Computer Science department; it is expected that all students master programming.  Our senior year revolves around a 3 quarter long game design workshop, where students team up and develop a game from start to finish. Most of our projects, like ARC Infinitum and Penumbra, have had their game engines developed entirely from scratch.

Essentially, our student body is comprised of game engine hacker-recruits.  Aggregately, we've held expeditions into myriads of engine environments; XNA, HL-Source, C4, Unity3D, just to name a few.

What we REALLY crave though, are developer kits from the major manufacturers. We WANT access to the hardware, and those high-brow software suites; it sucks having to think about re-training in a professional establishment, when we're already in the environment suitable for training. Having to walk around as the FNG, with no skills or experience with professional tools, fresh out of graduation, feels like a sham.  It is magnanimously dreadful. 

 

So, there you are, possibly an executive, or lead engineer from the big manufacturers? (Nintendo, Microsoft) Or, you're a big-wig at some professional studio.  Why in the world should you let a bunch of students access your gear and software?

 

First, let's talk about how Sony/SCEA helped support the PS3 Academic Program here at UCSC.

0.  They dropped off some developer stations and the software.  Most importantly, they shipped over numerous sample programs and all the documentation and reference material for the API's.

1.  All students and professors involved must sign the equivalent of an NDA, with the university overseeing and enforcing its limits and liabilities.

2.  There was limited access to "SCE Devnet", well, there was no access.  We have our own version of it, supported and implemented by Sony, but it is still lacking some content, and users. Currently, I am the only person actively using it.

3.  We have no "expert presence"; Sony didn't send over anyone to monitor or teach the developer environment.  We have just one contact, who happens to be an academic liaison. The contact we had with the liaison was minimal; either software upgrades or kit maintenance.

Even though, this was not a formalized process, nor was it anything standard with university relations, the above scenarios gave students and professors a chance to explore the PS3, without having to need Sony/SCEA on a daily basis.  The lack of a "local expert" forced Team ARC and Team Penumbra to develop games on their own, and also learning the kits on our own.  So, simply having access to the environment, tools, having a legal agreement, with minimal contact was more than enough to get student developers on track.

 

I present the arguments below as untapped incentives for the game industry. 

Technology Adoption 

Get 'em while they are young; at least that's how the tobacco industry does it.  So should you.  The more we get used to your environments and tools, the more we are going to use them professionally.

Having the SDK is NOT enough.  Documentation, How-To's, simple tutorials, sample code, are all part of the mix.

The market is exploding; its a Cambrian cluster-fuck of technology suites and SDK's.  The bigger question; who the hell is going to use your gear?  

I find it absurd that technology vendors, who want people to use their software, often charge extortionist levels of fees, hoop jumping and bureaucracy.  

For a student who just wants to use and learn your gear, this is even a more pathetic situation; what would I rather develop for?  the iPad/Phone SDK, which costs me 100$ and a Mac mini (both of which are easily available), or the Wii SDK, which requires XXXX$$$$$, a developer agreement, some barrier from Nintendo HQ, and ritual sacrifice of our first born?

 

Professional Training at Low Cost

Imagine a world, where students who graduate from game design oriented programs enter the workforce knowing 90% of the tools available in the industry.  You, the big studio, or manufacturer or publisher, no longer need to do in-house training for your new recruits.  You can now sample the population for graduates that have the skills to work on your gear, to boot!

All we need is your gear.  

Students are in a learning environment, we are not driven by the needs of market production and the various stakes in a project that's supposed to make money.

The current paradigm for new recruits follows this pattern; new recruit is expected to know some open standards and the core languages, trains on the professional establishments tool-set, might even stretch that for months, and introduces risks into the code base.  Establishment must now take care of the new recruit, help clean up his mistakes, and hand-walk him through their software suites.

Why not offload that burden to academic institutions?  It seems absurd for any establishment to retrain new recruits.

 

Limited Interaction 

Professional establishments might find the "support trunk" costly, not just in the monetary cost of a developer station, but also the personnel cost of having to communicate with academic institutions.

I propose the same pattern that Sony/SCEA has afforded to UCSC; give us one contact, a Liaison, who is responsible for helping upgrade software and distribution of hardware. Nothing more than that.

Students and Professors will take care of the rest.  Given enough documentation, source code, and the proper hardware, we will figure out what to do with your kits.

Note that this doesn't involve weekly visits, lectures, talks, and power-point tasks on part of the professional establishment.  Although those would be nice, but they are inherently costly and time consuming. 

 

Conclusions 

The professional side of the industry wants new recruits to have the mettle to handle their gear, and game design programs want their students to develop as many skills as possible so they can get hired.  Achieving this goal can be augmented with a cheap scheme, Professor Whitehead has dubbed this as "Hit and Run Developer Agreements".

Picture this scenario; a windowless-van, drops off developer stations, SDK disks and documentation, as well as the liaison contact for the kit.  The package is delivered to the doorstep at the university, and the van waves off and says "You have our gear, Good Luck!", and drives off into the sunset.  

A brewing pack of hungry, ravenous, game engine students crowd around the package, each of them scheming to compete, ready to use the kits in experiments and projects.  Some of these projects will fail, some might succeed. The failures, however, will NOT cost the professional establishment any money.

The actual cost?  Just the price of the developer environment, and occasional contact with your liaison.  That's a huge bargain; if you, the professional establishments / major manufacturers, want to see new graduates with the skills they need, than these kinds of developer agreements match the experimental/exploratory environment afforded by academia, and give the industry as a whole, a better batch of university graduates.   

You won't have to retrain us; we'll be ready to take on production, and hit the ground running!

 

 

Shameless Plug 

Our professors are still actively seeking developer kits.  Would be nice to add Xbox360 workstations or Wii stations to our game design lab.  (HINT HINT NUDGE NUDGE)  Next year, we are expecting at least 75 senior students in the year long project sequence.

Also, from students and professors here at UCSC, we would like to thank Sony/SCEA for such a benevolent contribution to our game design major, as well as providing us with a professional toolset environment that we will not be able to see anywhere else. 

This also goes beyond hardware development.  Access to commercial game engines are at a high premium amongst our student body.

If you, a benevolent and infinitely generous establishment, would like to see students work on your gear and tools at UC Santa Cruz, please contact Professor Jim Whitehead.  

We also welcome windowless vans dropping off developer kits in the middle of the night :P 

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