Friends of Design – SA’s big thing in game development education

Do you dream of making the next big game about velociraptors and rocket launchers? You know, the game that will change everything they thought they knew about velociraptors and rocket launchers.

Of course you do, and the people at Cape Town’s Friends of Design digital art school know all about that kind of stuff. We locked up Friends of Design lecturer Lars Espeter in a cage with Japanese fighting spiders, and demanded more information.

This was just before we locked him up with the spiders.

Tell us a bit about the Friends of Design school, and how and why the game development course came into being.

The short version: A 20 year freelance game designer gets asked by a German academy to plan and create and manage a game design faculty, two weeks later, by accident, the guys of Friends of Design run into me. So we decide, okay, let us have a Graphics for Games module for the Web Design class at Friends of Design. Games are getting more and more important for advertising companies, digital media companies and students who have experience in creating graphics for games, as well, have better chances in finding a job.

Three and a half years later we decided to have a full-time game design course in Cape Town.

The long version: I am still writing that book

What’s your own background in game development?

I go way back. First of all, I have been a gamer for all my life. I started playing and designing graphics on a Commodore C64 with 16 pre-defined colours, 160×200 (they doubled the pixels in width to make it look like 320×200) resolution and 64Kb RAM. My digital alarm clock has more processing power than that thing had – and it has a satellite connection.

In 1993, while studying English and German language and literature and Cultural Studies, I was planning to go into film directing and writing when I got into a team of developers who needed somebody to write a story for an adventure game. That is how it all began. In the following years we created our first game Skullitaire.

I got into designing 3D graphics and writing documents for games. Then the new economy got off the ground and we started to do outsourced projects for larger companies. Mostly advertising games. Companies involved BBDO Germany and Volkswagen, Focus magazine, smaller German game development companies and even a company that was developing the “Smell Blaster” – should have been in “smelling the game” what the “Sound Blaster” is to “hearing the game”.

Well, those guys did not make it.

Believe me, you do not want to smell a place with a hundred rotting zombies in it or the streets of Baghdad after a car bomb went off.

By the year 2000 I started working on larger games for our own team, which we first called FIN arts that then turned into Angry Ant Entertainment. We developed our own 3D game engine (The Bone Machine, after a Tom Waits song we loved) and published our first casual action game called Bacteria. Other projects followed as did the liquidation of two of our publishers we were creating games for – in a single month (New Economy imploded …).

But the way Angry Ant Entertainment was set up as an organisation, we got out of it relatively unharmed. So, put our projects to rest and did other things for a while.

I went to southern Germany where I worked as a lead game designer on a first person shooter for two years, added a year of producing mobile games to it, Angry Ant created two more casual games and a larger educational game, which was pretty successful, to our portfolio. And then somebody asked me to create a Game Design faculty in Germany.

What sort of stuff can students expect to learn?

The experience I now give to my students and the way the students turn out in Germany gives me high hopes for my South African students, as I use the same approach to education in game technology here.

Over seventy percent of our ex-students in Germany get a job in game development, advertising agencies, film productions and related branches in the first six months. One of my first students now hires my actual students as paid interns. I am very happy about this, as it shows that my approach to education in game development is working.

First of all, my students learn that game development is a job like every other job out there. If you love it, it will make you happy, but it is hard work and it can be tedious at times. If you do not like cars and motors, do not become a a mechanic or an engineer, you will not be good at what you are doing and you will not have a career. There is no magic involved in game design.

Most of it is knowing how things work, being creative and finishing your tasks. As a game designer on large projects that need a lot of planning, 50 – 70% of my work, for example, happens in Excel. But there is this moment where you see somebody having a good time with what you have created over long hours of hard work and that person has a great time … that is worth it.

Our students here in Cape Town come with a couple of prerequisites. On top of what they already know (Photoshop, for example), they have to learn a certain set of tools used in game development. As in every education you also have to learn stuff you will not actually use but will have to know about as you will always work in a team.

As a game designer writing game design documents and thinking the projects through, I have to know how 3D modelling works, I have to know what a game engine can or cannot do. You really have to know about a lot of things. That also helps you to get a job later on as you are more valuable to employers. That is why we cover game theory, game engine use, 3D modelling and scripting.

Later during the education you can specialize in what has turned out to be your field of interest and talent.

Of course, just like in our school in Germany (or any other institution, even universities), once you’ve passed the exam you will not be a perfect game designer that gets offered a lead designer job by Blizzard or Rockstar. But you will have the tools and the knowledge to start your career. Compare it to a student that made his Master in Economics – he will not be the new manager of ABSA, but in a couple of years, doing a good job and gathering a lot of work experience, he maybe will be offered that position.

Students doing student stuff. It’s harder than it looks.

A game development qualification is better than a B.Com because a B.Com is so last millennium. True or false?

Well, games are the largest entertainment market right now. Since 2009, we make more money worldwide than the movie or even the music industry. Most of that money is not generated by those hugely expensive to develop AAA titles but by casual games, online games and smartphone games. It is everywhere – augmented reality, apps, education, visualization.

If you know what you can do with it and how it works, and you can use the tools, you will be a valuable employee to a growing number of businesses – not only game development companies. A friend of mine does real-time 3D reconstructions for archaeological dig sites.

That is why I do not really like the term “game design” for what we do. There is so much more you can do with what you learn at Friends of Design than “just” developing games.

There are not enough video games featuring velociraptors with rocket launchers. Discuss.

Quiet frankly, it is something I really do not understand. Raptors & Rocket Launchers is such a great game title, first of all. Then you have cunning warrior beasts with cool weapons … well, maybe someone will come up with a great title like that. There is always hope … maybe we should “Kickstart” that project. “Raptors’n Rocket Launchers – Claws of Freedom”, created in South Africa. Sounds awesome!

How can prospective students get in touch with the school?

The best way is to visit our website: If you are there, try the free online game our last year’s web design students created, Quetzalcoatl.

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Friends of Design – SA’s big thing in game development education

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