High score: Cambridge and computer gaming

In the field of computing, the University of Cambridge is scarcely short of global firsts. For example, its Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) of 1949 is considered the earliest practical general-purpose electronic computer; and on accepting its first cohort of postgraduates in 1953, the Cambridge Diploma in Computer Science became the world’s first taught course in computing.

Between those two landmarks sits a lesser-known entry in the record books. In 1952, PhD student Alexander S Douglas developed the world’s first computer video game – a noughts and crosses emulator that he titled “OXO”. The program ran on the EDSAC, which occupied more than 200 square feet of the Mathematical Laboratory (the name “Computer Laboratory” had been deemed an innovation too far on the lab’s establishment in 1937, and was not formally adopted until 30 years later). Competing against an artificially intelligent opponent, players would input their moves on a telephone dial, and follow the action on a flickering cathode-ray tube.

More than 60 years on from those crude beginnings, video games are big business in the UK. According to industry body TIGA, the games development sector contributes around £1billion to Britain’s Gross Domestic Product each year, employing 9,000 skilled workers of whom 80 per cent are graduates. What’s more, Cambridge is at the very heart of the industry – earlier this year, trade magazine Develop dubbed the city “the UK’s leading game development hub”. It’s home to a cluster of companies including Jagex, Frontier Developments, Geomerics, Guerrilla Cambridge, Ninja Theory and many more.

“Cambridge is thought to have 18 per cent of the games market,” says Adrian Page-Mitchell of the Centre for Computing History. “And depending on who you talk to, it employs anything between 1,200 and 4,000 people, so it’s certainly not small.”

A trip to the Centre, located just off the Newmarket Road in east Cambridge, offers a crash course in how the city became such a magnet for games talent. The museum’s most popular displays are almost certainly the 8-bit machines designed by Cambridge companies in the computing boom of the early 1980s, and particularly the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Acorn BBC Micro.

The rivalry between the two companies’ figureheads, Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry, formed the basis of the acclaimed 2009 BBC Four drama Micro Men. It remains a source of fascination for those who grew up in the era – many of whom remain fiercely tribal about being a Spectrum or a BBC Micro user (along with devotees of the third 8-bit contender, America’s Commodore 64). Hatchets have long been buried between the developers themselves; at a recent Sinclair retrospective at the Centre, Sir Clive himself made an impromptu visit, to be welcomed by Curry.

Today, the presence of technology giants such as Microsoft Research, Broadcom and ARM (a descendant of Acorn) makes Cambridge a particularly favourable location for software development, including games. This dates back to the 80s heyday of Sinclair and Acorn, says Page-Mitchell. “They were hardware people, and always on the lookout for software talent. So feelers went out to undergraduates, and you had these bedroom coders – of which the biggest ones were David Braben and Ian Bell, who wrote Elite.”

On its release in 1984, Elite was a startling piece of software: a space trading and combat game with revolutionary 3D graphics, open-ended gameplay and a vast universe. According to legend, sales figures for the original game exceeded the number of BBC Micros that were able to run it. Co-writer David Braben has remained in Cambridge, where his company Frontier Developments is producing a 21st-century reboot of the game, Elite: Dangerous, after raising a record £1.25million on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Braben cites the close relationship between the University and the “Silicon Fen” tech hub as a great advantage for games developers. It’s strengthened by organisations such as Games Eden and Creative Front, which organise networking, mentorship and events such as the annual Brains Eden gaming festival. “They’re all part of the fabric, if you like,” he says. “It all helps to cement the relationship between the town and the University in a very positive way, and give people opportunities to stay in Cambridge and work for Cambridge-based companies.”

One thing that the University lacks is any courses specifically geared to computer games, unlike institutions such as Anglia Ruskin which runs a popular BSc in Computer Gaming Technology. However, Braben believes that a more generalist approach is best at undergraduate level: “You can pick up the vocational side very quickly. I’m not criticising any of the more specific courses, which teach some important things like team working, but I think it’s much more important to get a proper grounding [in computer science].”

It’s a view shared at Jagex, the UK’s largest independent game developer. Co-founded by Cambridge Computer Science graduate Paul Gower in 2001, the current company is headquartered at St John’s Innovation Centre and is best known for RuneScape – the world’s largest free MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Jagex is a regular recruiter from the University, both at graduate and doctoral level.

Chief executive officer Mark Gerhard says: “We value IQ and attitude over experience. A smart, ambitious, hungry graduate is best for us, as opposed to someone who has been in the industry for 20 years and either has a lot of bad habits or doesn’t want to learn anything new. But we’re competing for talent not just with Google and Microsoft but with Goldman Sachs, Reuters and everyone else in between.”

Yet despite the lure of chunky salaries in the City, the University’s brightest students are still drawn to gaming. Among this year’s Part 1B projects for undergraduates on the Computer Science Tripos are several within the sector. They include “Evolve a Pet”, which will create a game to teach school pupils about genomic sequencing, and a transport game project to enable users to explore the cost impact of their journeys around Cambridge.

Comp-sci students are also targeting firms concerned with gaming technology for their internships and work placements. Second-year student Sakunthala Panditharatne of Churchill College is looking forward to working with Oculus VR, developers of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset who were recently acquired by Facebook for around £1.2billion. Already the winner of a Google technology prize at the age of 16 for her work in computer animation and a £60,000 Thiel Fellowship (which she declined in order to take up her place at Cambridge), she will be writing software to make the headset compatible with games.

Panditharatne plans to remain in the sector. She says: “I think what I’ll end up doing in the next couple of years will be related to the 3D models that go into video games. At the moment a lot is done by artists, but in the future it’ll be done automatically by what’s called procedural generation. There seems to be a lot of interesting stuff heading in that direction, and I want an opportunity to be using my computer science skills – I don’t want my degree just to be a ticket to something else.”

It’s not just a matter of Cambridge talent flocking to the established studios. Like the bedroom coders of the 80s, small “boutique” games developers are once again thriving. The ability to distribute games online, and the need for simpler games for mobile platforms, has produced an environment in which smaller outfits can flourish – and according to Jan Samols, who oversees the Computer Lab’s outreach activities, graduates are successfully going it alone.

She says: “I think Cambridge is unique in that it produces very entrepreneurial graduates, not only in gaming but in whatever area they may be interested in. I’ve catalogued more than 200 companies that have been started by Computer Lab graduates, and currently I’m finding at least 10 a year are being established. Academically, we give them what they need to go it alone, and they can also draw inspiration from graduates who have gone before them and done extremely well.”

But it’s not merely as a graduate career choice that computer gaming permeates the university; it crops up throughout the faculties and departments, including some unlikely quarters. In the Department of Education’s Centre for Children’s Literature, games are analysed alongside classic books to gain a more complete insight into what influences young people. Elsewhere, the High Performance Computing Service, which provides services for the whole Cambridge research community, is employing a cluster of graphical processing units developed for game consoles to deliver vast computing power at a low operational cost.

What’s more, the Department of Engineering recently recruited a Senior Teaching Associate in Online Education and Computer Games Technology for an initiative to get school pupils interested in mechanics and engineering. Professor Richard Prager, head of the School of Technology, already maintains a website to help prospective students prepare for interviews, with multiple-choice questions and help videos. Now he hopes to take the project a step further with a website of interactive games to capture more teenagers’ interest.

He says: “My plan is to develop games that are attractive to play, and yet in which the player gradually migrates from the excitement of game problem-solving to the excitement of engineering problem-solving. I’ve noticed with my own kids and others that they spend a lot of time being enormously creative and ingenious in the way they play games such as Minecraft and Roblox. Now, suppose we could channel all that ingenuity into stuff relevant to engineering. That would be fantastic.”

It’s a new chapter in the long association between Cambridge and computer games, but the past is not being neglected. After a stop at Cambridge’s Centre for Computing History, enthusiasts would do well to head to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, Bedfordshire. Work is well under way on a replica of the original EDSAC, which will be operational by May 2015. Anyone for a game of OXO?


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Easter 2014