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Studying on Sheffield Hallam University's MComp (Hons) Games Software Development degree
Tom Sampson, graduate of Sheffield Hallam University's Skillset Accredited MComp (Hons) Game Software Development degree.
Sheffield Hallam University
MComp (Hons) Games Software Development
What was it originally that attracted you to study at Sheffield Hallam University?
The open day at Sheffield Hallam was a breath of fresh air. All the staff I spoke to seemed very enthusiastic and motivated about the subject and advocated the importance of practical skills and employability, in addition to the required theory.
After visiting numerous universities I was impressed to find that Sheffield Hallam was one of the only universities to encourage low level C/C++ programming on real gaming hardware, whilst other universities were pushing higher level languages such as Java or XNA development for the Xbox 360. This approach has been continued and improved each year I have studied here and today we have access to a lab full of Playstation 3 development kits. The university now also has its own SCE registered games studio ‘Steel Minions’ which gives students the opportunity to develop and publish their own titles on the PSP (Playstation Portable).
What was the most important thing you learnt:
Conceptually I think the most important thing I have learnt is how important it is to learn! That might immediately sound pretty obvious, but especially on a course like mine it is not enough to simply show up and be spoon fed information and regurgitate that information when it comes to an exam or assignment. After being exposed to real game studio environments and speaking with professionals in the industry, I soon became aware that game developers are responsible for their own learning way beyond their graduation, and are required to acquire new knowledge and understanding on a daily basis in order to keep up with technological advancements in the field. At first this can seem a bit daunting but if you enjoy what you do then this should not be seen as a chore.
I think technically one of the most important things I have learned is the importance of understanding the hardware on which your code runs, and having the depth of knowledge to understand how the code you write gets executed at the CPU/GPU level. Learning about hardware architectures for all the major consoles and being constantly encouraged to investigate compiler generated disassembly code really gives you an advantage in some scenarios. I have learned how dig beyond the surface to debug low level problems, manually unwind call stacks, debug multi-threaded code, track memory allocation, interpret profiling information, and even spot compiler bugs. Ultimately, I have found that having learnt these skills not only helps when working at a low level, but also filters back up, enabling you to write better, faster and more robust C++.
What was the toughest, most challenging thing you encountered?
Last year one of our group projects involved prototyping a small game on the PSP. At this point we were the first team to utilise the PSP hardware and were presented with the challenge of writing a small game in a matter of months. As there was no game engine or substantial existing code to work with, I began developing a small PSP game engine, using only the low level graphics/sound libraries provided with the PSP SDK. I was also responsible for setting up the art/sound asset pipeline and build system for the engine and maintaining a level editing tool for the designers. All of the code for the engine was written in a generic way such that it could be used to driver future game titles if required. Ensuring the game engine was capable of fulfilling all the functionality required by the design team on a daily basis, whilst maintaining a generic interface to the engine, proved to be a huge yet rewarding challenge. The game in question is currently being taken through the QA and submission process and will hopefully be published by Steel Minions on the Playstation Store later this year.
Where did you do your placement year and what did you get out of it?
My work placement year was spent working for SN Systems (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe) in Bristol. SN Systems produce tools for the games industry, including compiler, debugger and profiling applications for the PC for use with PSP and Playstation 3 hardware. This was an excellent experience as I was given the opportunity to work alongside some brilliant people and contribute directly to production level code. One of my placement year projects has been fully integrated into the latest version of the Playstation 3 Tuner application, available to developers worldwide. Having my work taken through to the end product in this way was extremely satisfying and coupled with the amount of invaluable contacts I gained throughout the year, made my placement year a very rewarding experience.
What do you feel were the best parts of your course/university?
During my time at Sheffield Hallam I have enjoyed the course material and have found the lectures and assignments both interesting and challenging. The teaching staff, some of which have prior experience in the games industry, are approachable and are always keen to share their knowledge and expertise. Accompanying them we often get talks from professionals outside the university who offer a good insight into what is currently going on in the industry. I think the course’s links with industry partners and external events has always kept the course interesting and leaves students with a good understanding of what might be expected of them if they were to pursue a career in the games industry.
What was the biggest achievement/success on the course for you?
Although I am still studying in the final year of my degree, I have been lucky enough to secure a job within the games industry at Sumo Digital, a local games studio. After carrying out short summer placement at Sumo they offered me a full time position working on their core technology team (commencing post-graduation) and also offered to pay my final year tuition fees.
What advice would you offer to other prospective students?
Prospective students should expect to be up against a lot of competition. Games development courses are usually very popular so I would advise that you always make an effort to go beyond the material taught as part of the course and read around the course modules as much as possible. Also, make the most of the opportunities provided by the University and don’t be afraid to ask lots and lots of questions. Use the university industry links to your advantage and build up a list of contacts, this will help when looking for a placement and finding work during/after study.