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Meetings such as those at the Games and Media Event are crucial networking opportunities that open up relationships for funding and inspire work like Robin's. Now four years old, GaME has played host to a spectrum of gaming luminaries, including David Braben, Peter Molyneux and of course the Introversion team. But just as importantly, it's also had software engineers from Rare discuss the complexities of Xbox 360 programming, the founder of Codeplay chatting about multi-core games creation and a host of academics demonstrating the cutting-edge results of their research projects. GaME has science and technology at its heart - something that not only separates it from many similar networking events, but also makes it a perfect breeding ground for this very specific sort of cooperation.
One of the academics who has demonstrated at GaME in the past is Maja Pantic, a reader in human-computer interaction who presented her work in automated facial expression analysis, something that she's hopeful will one day be used in games to assess the player's mood. It might seem blue-sky to think that a game like Valve's zombie fright-fest Left 4 Dead could one day regulate enemy spawn patterns based on how scared the player looked, but this is very much the beauty of an event driven by research rather than profit.
Paul Kelly is the Professor of Software Technology at Imperial and one of the chief organizers of the project. He's a believer that relationships between industry and academia can really benefit both sides. "What [universities] are really doing is looking for compelling instances of general problems where our research ideas can make a difference. By developing a good long-term relationship with interesting university research groups, a company can both tap into the research community and sometimes also guide it towards interesting problems."
However, as with any collaboration where large sums of money are involved - and note that some grants being issued for research work relating to the videogames industry are quickly approaching seven figures - there's a fine line between taking part in academic investigation and outsourcing development work to students. "The key thing is to recognize that they're not buying results," Professor Kelly emphasizes. "They're investing in a relationship."
Of course, these collaborations don't always result in any tangible benefits for gamers. Leave the leafy confines of London and travel across the sea, and you'll find two academics that used their research to deliver an indie gem.
Talk to the average gamer about Fašade, and they'll probably be able to tell you that there's some unusual artificial intelligence at work behind this sparse dinner party sim. They'll also probably tell you it's not all that good of a game. Yet despite this it's won awards at the Independent Games Conference and the Slamdance Games Festival. Since its launch in July 2005 over half a million gamers have downloaded this extremely unusual interactive experience.