Tech Tent: Fun and games in Dundee

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Media captionCari Watterton gives her tips on how to get into the games industry

It is a small Scottish city with a population of under 150,000, but it is the birthplace of Grand Theft Auto and is now a major games hub.

In a special edition of Tech Tent live from Dundee, we explore why this city punches above its weight in the games industry.

We start with a tour of a major exhibition about video games at the city's V&A museum, which opened last year.

Its opening exhibition was about ocean liners, a nod to the past of this port city - now visitors are thronging there to learn about a 21st century industry which is key to Dundee's future.

We meet a young developer - Cari Watterton - and hear her tips for getting into the games business. Cari works for the wonderfully named Puny Astronaut, a games firm located in a new development on the Dundee waterfront.

When we visited, we found Cari and her colleagues hard at work on a game called Skye, due to come out some time next year. She joined recently from Dundee's Abertay University, which is gaining an international reputation for training students in the skills the games industry needs.

Her absolutely top tip for aspiring games industry workers? Get involved in a games jam - a kind of hackathon where you create a game within two days:

"They're fantastic learning opportunities and a great way for you to learn new skills and develop your existing skills - and also working with people. You always end up with something at the end of it which you can add to your portfolio."

Puny Astronaut's founder Cian Roche tells us that many of his staff have been recruited from Abertay, where he also studied. Increasingly, a games industry which used to draw staff from all sorts of disciplines, is seeking people who have had specialised training.

And people who come from across the UK to study here - Cian was brought up in Oswestry - sometimes stay and build new games businesses.

GTA 'afterthought'

Image copyright Rockstar Games
Image caption Hit game Grand Theft Auto came to life in Dundee

Another person who has done just that is Paul Farley - he came from Weston-super-Mare to study architecture here in Dundee in the early 1990s, before playing a role in the creation of one of the greatest blockbuster titles in gaming history. I caught up with Paul this week 23 years after I first met him - although I confess I had no recollection of that meeting.

In 1996 I came to Dundee for a week of reports for the BBC TV programme Working Lunch, visiting a different company each day. Our final stop was at a games company called DMA Design, which was working on a little game called…..Grand Theft Auto.

Image caption Games industry veteran Paul Farley reunited with Rory 23 years after first meeting him

The video of my visit still pops up from time to time on Twitter, so earlier this week I tweeted asking whether anyone in it was still in Dundee.

Paul Farley, who is seen playing pool behind me at the start of the video, got in touch. He tells us that he joined DMA, having dropped out of his architecture course: "I had a few friends there that were artists and said they were looking for someone to build some cities for a game."

But when he arrived he found that GTA was by no means the company's star project: "We were working on a lot of projects with Nintendo and those were kind of sexy, cool projects that everyone was excited to work on. Grand Theft Auto was a little bit of an afterthought."

When I visited, the studio was in what is called the "crunch" stage of development with everyone working crazy hours to get the game shipped. In the event, the first Grand Theft Auto was not released until late the following year - maybe my visit set them back further.

Paul went on to work on several versions of the game before starting his own business Tag Games, a pioneer in mobile and tablet gaming. He has also recently started a new venture Chili Connect, a live game management platform helping other developers run their streaming operations.

Image caption The V&A exhibition details the history of video games

Paul says this small city now has more game developers per head of population than anywhere in Europe. He gives a lot of credit to the presence of Abertay University and to a spirit of collaboration between the dozens of games businesses in the city: "There is a competitive edge to it as well, but it's a very friendly competitive edge. We want to see each other do well."

With its new V&A museum, thriving universities and a higher proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds than any other Scottish city, Dundee appears well placed to build on its success as a creative hub for the games industry. All it needs now is to find the next Grand Theft Auto.

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