All great games have to start somewhere, and Gotland University gives their students a truly great start. Nestled in a disarmingly picturesque Swedish island, this small yet breathtakingly innovative game design course grounds applicants in the theory, even the ethics, of how to create the next generation of games - but practically applies this knowledge from the get-go. From the very first year, developers (for that is what they are) split into teams and design imaginative, polished games with retail in mind; given free reign to experiment with big ideas and recklessly innovative control schemes, freed from the grasping hands of shareholders and marketing departments. They learn the importance of teamwork and delegation as well as raw coding or design skills... and over the last decade, have produced games that rival even the biggest AAA studios in terms of quality, scope and good old fashioned fun. Indeed, Gotland's output has consistently been a highlight of my Gamescom coverage every single year.
At the end of the academic year, after spending a few stressful and sleepless weeks coding excellent games, students are invited to present their work to a jury of industry veterans, luminaries, developers and us press types - both to gain useful feedback and to participate in an awards ceremony to honour their achievements. Set out like a traditional expo, the Gotland Games Conference merges criticism with informative presentations and a relaxed, candid atmosphere. I was privileged to be invited as part of the jury panel this year thanks to my aggressive focus on indie games criticism (alongside veterans from Ubisoft, Blizzard, DICE, Three Rings, Paradox Interactive and the marketing side of things), and what I saw over the course of three days further convinced me that the sleepy town of Visby is set to become a world-famous indie collective. Just as importantly, their students are destined for great things, and many of the games on show are likely to become household names in the near future.
You heard it here first.
On the academic side, students were invited to attend a series of in-depth lectures from pre-eminent experts, focusing on all aspects of the games market. Industry legend Jason VandenBerghe explained how applied psychology can be used to create better games, and the reasons why Hermione Granger probably likes nothing more than playing Dark Souls between Potions lessons. Three Rings CEO Daniel James took to the stage to deliver a cautionary exploration on how the free-to-play market is evolving, and Paradox producer Shams Jorjani gave a breathtakingly up-front insight into the relationship between publishers and small developers. Adobe and Unity warred for the hearts and minds of the student body, while alumni who work for Meow Entertainment, Zeal, Blizzard and DICE shared their insider experience. In a far cry from PR-obsessed hypefests like E3 and Gamescom, the focus was on (sometimes brutal) honesty, leaving students forewarned and forearmed with how to deal with our evolving medium.
As a journalist, however, I there to investigate the games... and we soon discovered that the first year students aren't hung up on First Person Shooters. For their very first project, development teams are literally forbidden to use WASD/mouse controls, instead being forced to experiment with non-traditional input methods. Which, of course, means properly crazy and seriously awesome stuff. One game, called Block Dropper, hinges around feeding coloured cubes into a hopper embedded into an arcade cabinet, at which point a camera rig detects the colour and converts it into a gameplay command - with the only noticeable lag being the force of gravity. The project, which demonstrates a keen eye for attractive art design and cute characters, was completed in a matter of weeks, and yet boasted custom-designed hardware and software solutions that probably would have stumped the biggest and most experienced teams out there.
Clapper was another highlight. Essentially - and correctly - believing that Pat-a-cake could be turned into a videogame, a small yet dedicated team of artists, designers and coders essentially created High Five Hero by fixing pressure sensors into adorable bear paws and placing both players around a recumbent, pub-style arcade table. As scrolling rhythms marched across the horizontal screen, we slapped, clapped and high fived our way through some catchy tunes while enjoying colourful visuals and some varied challenges. Had Clapper been available on the N64, I'd have parted with my money in a heartbeat. When imagination isn't constrained and students are taught to innovate rather than emulate, they can accomplish literally anything.
And amazingly, this was first year work from fledgling developers who were just starting out, some of whom weren't even literate with programming languages or game design before they began the course. In the second academic year, student teams are tasked with a 'Big Game' project, which hinges around taking a big idea and creating a commercially viable product in ten weeks. What I saw from these outfits absolutely blew my mind in terms of quality and innovation. The Propagandist, for example, resembled a high-end XBLA game in terms of Unreal-powered graphics, 1940's dieselpunk and imaginative mechanics built around manipulating crowds rather than direct combat. Era Of The Paw attempted to merge cooperative Diablo-style loot grinding with cute kittens and a dual-wielding mechanics, which could potentially become a license to print money. Just Us experimented with open-world cooperative exploration for three players, while The Elite took aim at hardcore military enthusiasts who want to play by mail. We saw episodic adventures, 8-player network shooters and cooperative puzzlers - not forgetting two games from third and fourth year students that are going to make a massive splash in the indie scene over the next few months.
And one project, the unassumingly-titled Little Warlock, is almost certainly fated to become the next big thing. Pay attention now, folks, because everyone from Ubisoft to Three Rings can see the potential in this hard working husband-and-wife team's project.
In fact, there's just no way that I can do justice to these sensational titles in a couple of hundred words. Stay tuned for a roundup of the hottest indie properties from Sweden's hidden gem, and prepare yourself for Gotland to become a major worldwide player in both indie gaming and academic circles. It's going to happen, and soon, we'll be honoured to be able to say "we knew them when."