Dr Maria Stukoff checks out the new PS Vita dev kits at AIE during the PlayStation First launch.

Dr Maria Stukoff checks out the new PS Vita dev kits at AIE during the PlayStation First launch. Photo: Daniel Boud

Academia is a funny thing. You can teach a student the skills involved in their business, whether that be law or music or science, but there are always some real-world skills that are difficult to learn any way other than simply doing the job and living the lifestyle.

Look at video games, for example. Universities and specialised video game training institutions can teach students how to program, how to make 3D models and animate them, and how to progress from initial design through to finished product.

Far harder to teach, but equally vital, are the real world skills required to make a video game studio productive and financially viable. Some of these skills involve collaborating with a third party publisher, getting a game onto a digital sales platform like PSN or XBLA, or dealing with an independent quality assurance department.

PlayStation First is an academic partnership programme launching this week in Australia, a collaboration between Sony and AIE (Academy of Interactive Entertainment). In superficial terms, it places PlayStation development kits in the hands of students to give them experience outside the typical PC and iOS platforms. Deeper than this, though, it aims to give students a taste of the processes involved in creating a complete, saleable game and getting it accredited for sale on the PlayStation Network.

Expatriate Australian Dr Maria Stukoff is the head of academic development at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and she is back in Australia this week for the launch. Her role is a complicated one, a blend of university liaison, course quality assurance, and evangelist, and she summed it up as “to champion the best possible game development skills on PlayStation platforms”.

Her colleague Steve Wherrett is generally the director of sponsorship and promotion at Sony Computer Entertainment Australia, but he has also dealt with educational institutions. “Over the years I’ve played a key role as the conduit between our side of the business and the development community,” he told me.

I had the opportunity to chat with both Stukoff and Wherrett this week as they were gearing up for the local launch. I began by asking them to summarise the broad aims of the PlayStation First project.

“It’s important to recognise that the next generation of game development talent is currently in education,” Stukoff explained. “It’s very much in our interests to work with those universities who can support and nurture and incubate that new talent. We want students to be really keen to be the game developers of the future, and this incubation will foster entrepreneurial skills”

Stukoff stresses that this is not about simple student projects, but complete games. “What really drives our interests is that we’re looking for students to produce real products, real games, to publish on our platform.”

The first stage of this collaboration is now underway, with AIE taking possession of six PlayStation Vita development kits. “Because AIE is now part of our select university group, they connect into an educational dev support portal that we run, alongside our professional dev support portal,” Stukoff said. “Through this connection they become part of the university network, so any technical issues or project support they require comes through that portal.”

“The really unique thing about this is that students learn how to work with dev support and push their game through QA, so that when they do come to set up a company, they already have that business savviness about them,” she said.

These skills are particularly valuable in Australia, where newcomers to the games industry can no longer rely on starting out with a job at a big studio. Most of Australia’s grand old development houses, like Melbourne House and Krome, have long since gone out of business. It is now the industry norm in this country to either go it alone with solo projects or form small independent studios. Knowing how to run a business, not just how to make games, is vital.

Wherrett gave some historical context. “Our interest in this started several years ago, when we were looking for an institution to offer a Sony Foundation scholarship,” he recalled. “One of the issues with this is that we were offering just one scholarship to one student, and we wanted to broaden that out. This allows us to offer a broader range of opportunities to a broader range of students.”

“At the time, the student who had been awarded the scholarship wasn’t actually doing anything on PlayStation,” he went on. “They were learning game development, but PlayStation wasn’t really part of the curriculum, so at the end of that process we offered a placement programme. But what we really wanted was to foster students learning in the PlayStation environment.”

This first step with AIE is the beginning of a larger, ongoing project. With the PlayStation 4 around the corner, it is likely that the programme will offer PS4 development kits in future. It is also likely to expand to other teaching institutions.

Overall, this seems like a win-win scenario for everyone involved. Sony will have a new generation of creative young people making games on PlayStation hardware, the students will be learning vital new skills that will give them a much better chance of surviving in a tough industry, and the academic institutions will benefit from the boost in business partnerships.

It will be very exciting to see what new games come out of this programme over the next couple of years.

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez