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The University of Malta’s Institute for Digital Games (IDG) has recently moved to new premises at the university campus. The postgraduate institute — that currently has approximately 20 students following an MSc Programme and seven others pursuing a PhD — expects the digital games industry to pick up soon in Malta, a well-needed scenario as opportunities abroad are taking qualified professionals offshore. Jasper Schellekens, a research support officer at IDG, speaks to Business Malta about the recently revamped IDG and how the digital gaming industry could unfold in the coming years.

The MSc Programme allows students to either choose an analytic approach — involving the humanities and social sciences, where the student would learn about player experience, immersion in the game and in-game narrative — or a technology-focused approach which covers game technology, game engines, artificial intelligence (AI) and affective computing (artificial emotional intelligence) to use emotion and biofeedback — the ability for a game to have a subconscious two-way “conversation” with a player via a sensory input device, such as a heart rate sensor for instance — in games.

Digital games are multidisciplinary, something that the institute thrives on since it is impossible to include everything in one institute. “One of our main roles as an institute is to support and deliver our little pieces of knowledge to other faculties; in fact, we have collaborated with the theatre studies department, performing arts, cognitive sciences, built environment and the faculty of ICT,” Jasper Schellekens, a research support officer at the Institute of Digital Games tells Business Malta.

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In 2017, the institute held a three-day workshop called GameTales which focussed on interactive fiction and featured talks and workshops from three award-winning narrative fiction authors, Meg Jayanth, Rob Morgan, and Aksel Koie, as well as escape room designer Mink Ette.

Having been ranked as one of the top graduate schools in the world according to The Princeton Review Mr Schellekens elaborates on what he thinks sets the institute apart from other universities. “It is a research-focused institute, meaning that we do not simply teach theory, but we try to implement them and test them, pushing boundaries, whilst also trying to create new ones,” Mr Schellekens tells BM.

Jasper Schellekens, a research support officer at the University of Malta’s Institute for Digital Games (IDG).

“We have to take it incrementally, both the industry and the educational service offered in Malta has to grow in parallel.”

“It is not just simply a game design or game development course, but it crosses between the very academic and the very practical.” Even though it is a heavily academic programme, a huge portion of it focusses on the development and the design aspects of a game. “Having studied both the theoretical and the practical will broaden a student’s career scope; when they enter the labour market with this framework, they will have the skillset to be able to create something different and think outside of the box, slightly breaking the mould from other digital game programmes,” Mr Shellekens says.

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Getting to work

A number of international studios are interested in hiring digital games students as interns. The idea came about last year, during the Global Game Jam, which featured Tomasz Kisilewicz, a lead artist at 11 Bit Studios. Furthermore, many graduates opt to start full-time jobs immediately after graduation instead of building international experience by making use of the arguably less lucrative Erasmus traineeships for example.

“They get snatched up as soon as they graduate since there is such great demand in the industry, but there might be certain internships with renowned studios which might be better than accepting a job offer for their CV and for their future contacts within the industry,” according to Mr Shellekens

However, most of the student body that finishes their masters or PhD end up relocating outside of Malta. “Half of our student body is foreign and the majority go back once they finish the course since at the moment the wages are better and the industry is bigger in countries such as, for example, France or Germany.”

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Mr Schellekens describes this as a Catch-22 situation, as the industry will settle where good talent to hire is available, but the well-qualified individuals are ready to relocate and go where the industry is booming. “We have to take it incrementally, both the industry and the educational service offered in Malta has to grow in parallel,” Mr Schellekens says.

During the institute’s inauguration, member of parliament Silvio Schembri stated that the government is aiming to position Malta as a major hub for digital games. Mr Schellekens highlights to Business Malta how the institute can support the industry through innovative research and contribute by providing the groundwork of innovation, whilst also supplying students that are able to deliver in more traditional industry roles.

The digital games industry is currently booming, with global eSports revenues expected to reach US$1.8b by 2020, according to Newzoo’s 2019 Global Esports Market Report. “For Malta to be involved in the eSports and digital games sector would be brilliant because there is no need for any natural resources, only infrastructure and a good workforce,” Mr Schellekens tells Business Malta.