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PANORAMA: 1998

Scottish Take Computer Games to a New Degree
by Giles Turnbull

A SCOTTISH university has opened a course in computer games design, demonstrating the thriving status of the computer software industry in this part of the United Kingdom. At the University of Abertay Dundee, in Dundee, eastern Scotland, the first higher education course dedicated purely to creating computer games was started recently and has attracted worldwide attention.

Further afield, Scotland's software creators are attracting millions of pounds sterling worth of investment that predicts a bright future for some of the graduates of Abertay's school for computer game design.

The university offers a Master of Science degree (MSc) in software engineering (games and virtual environments) and a Bachelor of Science degree (BSc, honours) in computer games technology and virtual environments has been available from the start of the year. Already 40 students have signed up for the MSc course, from Malaysia, China, South Korea and Pakistan.

Exports of software from Scotland are booming, according to the university's principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Bernard King. The information technology (IT) industry is playing a crucial role in the Scottish economy.

"There are now more than 500 software companies in Scotland of which nine out of 10 are Scottish-owned," said Professor King. "Their combined turnover last year was 410 million pounds sterling and that is expected to increase to more than 500 million pounds sterling in the current year, from a turnover of 170 million pounds sterling in 1989.

"In 1989 the value of Scottish software exports from these companies was 35 million pounds sterling; in 1996 it was 133 million pounds sterling and it could grow to nearly 190 million pounds sterling in 1997.

The potential is huge, as the European software market is estimated to be worth 45 billion pounds sterling annually, four times the value of the electronics hardware market. The continued growth of this vital sector is highly dependent on an effective supply of high-level skills.

It is these skills that the university seeks to foster with courses such as the new games design and creation options run by tutor John Sutherland. But Scotland is subject to skills crisis in information technology, warned Tom McCallum, director general of the Scottish Software Federation.

Courses such as the one at Abertay were vital for bringing in new blood, he said. "According to a survey in March last, there were 30,000 unfilled IT vacancies in the UK, so that makes about 3,500 of them in Scotland.

"We tend to have a higher proportion of IT jobs than in the UK because of the amount of oil business and finance business here. The software industry in Scotland was growing by 14 per cent between 1995 and 1996, according to figures from the Scottish Office."

In the 1980s, universities had offered courses combining IT with other subjects, such as marketing or accounting, but these were being replaced now by pure computer science courses, to the benefit of the industry, he explained.

"There is a thriving games alliance in the area around Dundee that is doing extraordinarily well. They are exporting to companies in America and Japan, which are the world leaders,'" said Mr McCallum. "There are also lots of network management firms around Edinburgh and call centre technology is also very strong here."

The games design course was developed with help from one of the Dundee-based games design companies, DMA Design, which has been extremely successful on a worldwide scale with titles such as Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.

Course leader John Sutherland said: "Interaction with computer systems has opened up new avenues for exploration and commercialisation such as in medicine, through visualisation and simulation, training, education and the leisure industry. Students will have an exciting opportunity to become involved in the most rapidly advancing field in computing."

David Jones, director of DMA Design, said the course provided a "golden opportunity". He added: "I foresee a massive demand for these courses, from both students and industry. This demand must surely be a measure of success. This is very much a first for the UK and probably very rare throughout the world. It will help to strengthen the companies that have taken root locally and for those graduates that come from further afield, or who find opportunities further afield."

The Scottish expertise in software development has spawned a thriving community that encourages interaction and communication between and within companies. The Scottish Software Federation is evidence of this, offering companies an independent voice to the Government and wider industry circles.

There is a lot of activity on the Internet too. HotEcho is an Internet-based newsletter for the industry, offering news, features and the chance for members to interact with e-mail, newsgroups and chatrooms.

John Sutherland
University of Abertay Dundee
Bell Street, Dundee,United Kingdom, DD1 1HG
Telephone: +44 1382 308000
Fax: +44 1382 308877
E-mail: j.sutherland@tay.ac.uk
Website:

Tom McCallum, director-general
Scottish Software Federation
Livingstone Software Innovation Centre
1 Michaelson Square, Kirkton Campus, Livingstone, United Kingdom, EH54 7DP
Telephone: +44 1506 472200
Fax: +44 1506 472209
E-mail: ssf@ssf.scotnet.co.uk
Website:

DMA Design
Discovery House, Dundee Technology Park, Dundee
United Kingdom, DD2 1SW
Telephone: +44 1382 561333
Fax: +44 1382 562333
E-mail: marke@dma.co.uk
Website: