Lights! Camera! Assassination!
At a career crossroad, Adam Bursill’s passion for programming led him to enrol in a Bachelor of Science in Games Development at UTS in 2016 and co-create an award-winning game at this year’s Student Games Showcase.
In Reaper Co – A Hollowood Adventure, you play one of Death’s minions on a mission: navigate a blockbuster movie set, locate a ridiculously-named star and snuff him out. A bit of a showbiz commentary, perhaps? “There’s definitely no anti-Hollywood vibe,” laughs Adam Bursill, who created the game with Philip Johan Aubert, Sebastian Du Toit and Matthew Andrews.
A hit with both industry judges and students, it won Best Game (Game Design Studio 1) and the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 UTS Student Games Showcase. “We were one of two 3D games in the class and ours had quite a wacky sense of humour,” he says of Reaper Co’s reception. “There were a lot of different mechanics that worked together.”
Think a mix of platform jumping, puzzle-solving and bantering with non-playable characters. A rewind feature saves the day if you bite the bullet on a dodgy jump. Before a boss fight, you have to mow down a wave of enemies with a gatling gun—while dressed as a princess.
“It had quite an ambitious scope in the beginning,” Adam continues. The medieval movie set was originally one of three differently themed environments connected by a hub world. “We pared that down to one level with a boss fight at the end.” The boss creature, he explains, is a corrupted soul released by the actor’s death.
The streamlining was for a good reason: applying two years of knowledge, the team had to build the game in just eight weeks. “One of the biggest challenges was that we had to have a deliverable every two weeks,” says Adam. Juggling the project with other university subjects and assessments was another hurdle in itself.
As a part of the development strategy, every deliverable had to be a game with a goal, not just a graphics demo. For the first presentation, the team completed the reaper character model and a minimal stage. “You walked around hitting boxes, and had to find all of them in the level. That was the game.” Everyone was working against the clock but having fun.
We tried to be as crazy as possible with our brainstorming. Often our meetings descended into anarchy for a good hour, and we had to pare back and get some work done!
Having worked for eight years in event lighting and becoming a department head, Adam felt that a career change was on the cards. “I’ve always played video games and loved them since I was a child,” he says. After trying out some online programming courses and enjoying the experience—“it was one of those moments in life where things just clicked”—he decided to study full time, which eventually led to the UTS course. The competition, he decided, was too focussed on game programming and limiting in the long term.
“The Australian games industry is quite unique and could produce amazing, big products,” he says. With the government pulling games funding a few years back, however, there’s no federal support for blockbuster-style games and big studios anymore. Some funding and grants are available at the state level, but a lot of Australian game development is concentrated in the mobile space: Crossy Road and Fruit Ninja are some examples. “We do have a good industry, but it’s smaller developers.”
I wanted to go broader into IT programming with a focus in games so I was more employable. I could come out of this degree and go into a programming position anywhere.
As well as being a valuable portfolio piece, Reaper Co caught the interest of staff from online game developer and publisher Wargaming at the 2018 UTS Student Games Showcase. Adam and the team were invited to give a presentation about the development process at a monthly meetup for game engine developers. It’s one of many great outcomes of the showcase that engages with the games development community.
“It was quite packed with people who hadn’t built games before, people with experience, and students who had lots of questions,” he recalls. The team announced plans to develop the game further for future release and attracted interest. They also discovered that Wargaming runs an internship, which Adam and other team members plan to apply for.
It’s not the only way for students to connect with industry. “We get emails about applying for internships or potential projects. [The school] also maintains relationships with previous students who are now in the industry; that’s a good connection to have.”
One of the biggest surprises Adam found about studying programming was that you didn’t have to be a maths genius to do it. “That’s what I thought from the beginning. I’ve always loved computers but assumed that computer science or programming were beyond me. I wasn’t terrible at maths, but wasn’t great—and I had no love for it.”
Luckily, he experienced programming from a creative angle by manipulating pixels and images on screen. “The maths has slowly crept up over time, but I’ve found that now I can visualise it as I’ve seen it in practice.” It makes a huge difference. “My passion is in programming, and games development has been the cherry on top.”
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