Dundee's Game creation competition Dare To Be Digital returns

Can you make a working, innovative videogame prototype in just eight weeks? Dare to be Digital asks just that ahead of August’s annual Dare ProtoPlay indie games festival. We spoke to some of its competitors, past and present, about the experience

Feature by Darren Carle | 05 Aug 2014
  • Dare Protoplay

When American game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was given six weeks to produce the videogame E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial, the results were so bad that, if you believe the legend and ignore other contributing factors, it decimated publishers Atari and led to the 1983 videogames crash. It’s a sign of the times then that three decades later, the advance of technology and the healthy state of the industry means making a good game within such a tight window is no longer an impossible task, nor is it likely to end in financial apocalypse.

Dare to be Digital is an annual competition run through Dundee’s Abertay University that tasks student teams from around the world with making a game over a period of just eight weeks. Since its launch in 2000, the size and number of teams has varied, and the location of the competition has eventually settled in Abertay itself, but the core spirit has remained the same – to showcase emerging game designers and innovative ideas within a competitive but fun environment.

“Dare to be Digital was really amazing to do because I’d never made a game with a team before,” begins Sophia George who, along with her team Swallowtail Games, won the competition in 2011 with their game prototype Tick Tock Toys. “I came from an art background so I didn’t have much experience working with other programmers, so that was probably the most valuable thing that the experience of Dare gave me. Then winning the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award got me a lot of exposure and a lot of contacts.”

Since 2007, Dare has worked in conjunction with the BAFTA Video Games Awards, where the top three teams go forward onto the Ones to Watch shortlist. The candidates are chosen at the games’ showcase event, Dare ProtoPlay, the UK’s biggest indie game festival which will be held in Dundee’s Caird Hall from the 7-10 August. “Winning the BAFTA gave us the confidence to properly release Tick Tock Toys,” says George. “It went from a student-y prototype to something that could be properly released on the App Store because of that.”

This year there are 15 teams, with five members apiece, all hoping to follow in these footsteps. With the competition launched in mid-June, The Skinny dropped in on the process mid-point to get a flavour of how the teams were coping and the actual games themselves were developing. With a range of nationalities hunched over PCs and huddled around joypads, and an even wider array of game genres being put to the test, the one common factor that unites all is that of innovation.

One of the teams spearheading this thinking is Manchester-based Torque with their cross-device, local multiplayer game Don’t Walk: RUN! Ostensibly a 3D platform game paying homage to B-movie classics, three players control on-screen characters and are overseen by a fourth human player, dubbed ‘the director,’ who controls the environment via a touchscreen tablet. The premise is that the protagonists must work together to overcome the hurdles thrown at them by ‘the director’ while also competing against each other in a score-based league table.

“We do have the option for the director to be AI, and we might implement that later, but not for the competition itself,” explains level designer Niall Taylor. “It would still be a lot of fun that way, but it’s not really Dare to be Digital, is it? It’d just be another platform game really, which would be great – the game has a nice aesthetic and great mechanics – but it wouldn’t be a unique experience.”

As with several of the games in development, technological advances, along with tackling age-old game problems, have borne inspiration. “One of the issues with local multiplayer in the past is that of split-screen,” says Taylor. “You’re watching the same screen, watching each other play, and people would just end up taping cardboard to their TV! Technology has advanced to the point where we don’t have to do that anymore. No one’s done this before, we’ve looked – the theory has always been there but no one has actually done anything with it.”

Just a few tables away, American team Overly Kinetic are tackling a similar issue but in a different way. Their game, Chambara is also a local multiplayer PC game but this time going with first-person stealth and playing out on a single screen accommodating up to four players. The ‘cardboard’ issue is overcome with an elegant bit of game design whereby players can close their characters' eyes at any time, thereby neutering the issue of ‘screen watching’ to some degree. It works, mainly due to Chambara’s stealth approach and cool ninja aesthetic.

“We had a very strong core mechanic that we were really excited to implement immediately,” says designer Esteban Fajardo of the game’s eye-catching palette. “The environment is entirely black and white while each ninja will be black or white, allowing players to blend seamlessly into the background.” It’s a striking approach and feels laden with possibility. It also comes with a lot of style, even at this early stage, something the team attribute to their influences. “We drew a lot on traditional cinematic aspects of samurai action where each strike is very elegant, decisive and filled with commitment,” explains Fajardo. “If you slash and you miss, you’re very vulnerable at that moment.”

Not looking vulnerable at all are Five Pixels and their game Seek. Being built for Android tablets, players use the device as a window into a first person puzzle game, turning the pad in all possible directions to view the beautifully rendered island setting. “(Seek) doesn’t really take advantage of people’s familiarity with existing mobile games,” begins graphic programmer Ross Davies of their own unique take on things. “The control scheme isn’t that familiar to people so we really have to beat it into them and find out how best to do that.”

Beyond the controls, Seek has another mind-scrambler to overcome; that of the various child protagonists and their differing abilities. “Towards the end you’ll come to a big dark cave and to navigate it you need to find the ‘sound child’ who sees in echo location,” explains artist Jess Hider of the incremental puzzle element. “Then there’s the broken bridge which requires the ‘history child.’ That lets you look into the past and see the bridge as it was, allowing you to cross.”

It’s all extremely forward-thinking, innovative stuff that belies these games’ modest roots. And whether these individual prototypes make it to the next stage as a fully-fledged game, you can be sure that the unique elements in each will survive in some form or other. It is perhaps this grassroots experimentation that makes Dare to be Digital the ongoing success it is and the reason why Dare ProtoPlay now attracts over 13,000 people through its doors.

“You don’t learn skills like this anywhere else,” claims Torque’s Niall Taylor of the experience so far. “We’ve been a little terrified just because, technology-wise, no one’s done what we’re doing [but] we wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without Dare. We’re just out of university and don’t have the capital to set up our own team, so having this experience has been awesome.”

It’s something 2011’s winner Sophia George agrees with. Now games designer in residence at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, George is well poised to see Dare to be Digital as the platform it is. “It’s interesting to think of Dare as being a stepping stone,” she says. “It led to the BAFTA award which introduced me to so many people and that led to my post at the V&A. It got me involved with the things I really wanted to get involved with. It’s been an amazing experience.”

It’s both an experience that continues for the teams working on this years’ competition and one worth having for yourself when the finished products land at Dare ProtoPlay this month. Game on, as they say.

Dare ProtoPlay takes place at Dundee's Caird Hall and City Square from 7-10 Aug. http://daretobedigital.com