David Braben: An Elite gamer
It's BAFTA night - no, not one of those little affairs involving Hollywood stars or soap actors, but the video games version. It's the biggest awards ceremony of the year for an industry which is becoming more important to our economy than movies or music.
And, while the BBC does of course take an impartial view of these matters, I am hoping that someone who represents the best of Britain's games sector walks away with at least one of those golden masks.
David Braben's company, Frontier, has been nominated for two BAFTAs for its work on Kinectimals, a family game which was one of the launch titles for Microsoft's Xbox Kinect system. I spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon at the firm's Cambridge offices with David, discussing the science which goes into games, his worries about whether Britain is producing enough of those scientists, and finally persuading him to have a quick play with something which, nearly 30 years ago, took the art of gaming onto a whole new level.
For a whole generation, Elite, created by Braben and his fellow Cambridge student Ian Bell, is what first turned them into gamers, hunched over their BBC Micros for hours at a time. Its 3D graphics, its open-ended nature, its creation of a virtual world and an in-game currency - all foreshadowed the way the industry would develop.
But, while it was great to get a quick demo of Elite from its co-creator, I'd really come to talk about the present. Frontier stands out as one of the few British games developers competing with the big players on the major platforms while retaining its independence.
While many great games are still made in the UK, much of the industry is now foreign-owned and that leaves its workforce vulnerable when the games business goes through one of its periodic downturns, and head offices in California or Paris are looking for savings.
David Braben stayed in Cambridge after graduating and in 1994 founded the business he still runs. "It's a really good place to be based because of the university", he explained. The company, which now employs more than 200 people, seeks out students in computer science, maths, and physics as potential employees.
You might think that Kinectimals, a game that allows children to adopt an animal and go on adventures, was a pretty simple affair, not requiring much science. Not a bit of it. A team of more than 100 worked on it for 16 months, and making the animals move in a realistic manner involved some heavy lifting: "There's all the science and maths of the skeleton tracking," Braben explained "There's also modelling and drawing the movements, the physics of how the skeleton works."
As well as the scientists, making the game also required people with what the boss called more "touchy feely" skills - designers, writers, artists, animators. Our universities churn out plenty of them, but Braben's concern is of a growing skill shortage in the sciences: "A real problem is there are way fewer graduates coming through the system now than there were five years ago," he explained. "Computer scientists are down by a factor of two."
But Braben is not the type to sit around moaning about the industry's problems, or obsessing about the need for tax credits - he's doing something about it. He and some friends in the Cambridge technology sector are looking at ways of reintroducing into schools the kind of basic programming skills he learned, and which seem to have disappeared in an ICT curriculum which teaches how to handle Microsoft Office and little else.
They've a cunning plan for a very cheap programmable device which could fire young imaginations today in the way the BBC Micro and Elite did 30 years ago. More on that in due course.
For now, good luck to all the nominees at the games BAFTAs, but especially to Frontier, which is showing how British science and creativity can combine to create something we can be just as proud of as The King's Speech.