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As universities and research institutions look to protect the knowledge they develop, András Havasi questions time frames, limited resources, and associated risks.
The last decade has seen the number of patent applications worldwide grow exponentially. Today’s innovation- and knowledge-driven economy certainly has a role to play in this.
With over 21,000 European and around 8,000 US patent applications in 2018, the fields of medical technologies and pharmaceuticals—healthcare industries—are leading the pack.
Why do we need all these patents?
A patent grants its owner the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing an invention for a limited time period of 20 years. What this means is market exclusivity should the invention be commercialised within this period. If the product sells, the owner will benefit financially. The moral of the story? A patent is but one early piece of the puzzle in a much longer, more arduous journey towards success.
Following a patent application, an invention usually needs years of development for it to reach its final product stage. And there are many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ along the way to launching a product in a market; only at this point can a patent finally start delivering the financial benefits of exclusivity.
Product development is a race against time. The longer the development phase, the shorter the effective market exclusivity a product will have, leaving less time to make a return on the development and protection costs. If this remaining time is not long enough, and the overall balance stays in the negative, the invention could turn into a financial failure.
Some industries are more challenging than others. The IT sector is infamous for its blink-and-you-miss-it evolution. The average product life cycle on software has been reduced from three–five years to six–12 months. However, more traditional sectors cannot move that quickly.
The health sector is one example. Research, development, and regulatory approval takes much longer, spanning an average of 12–13 years from a drug’s inception to it being released on the market, leaving only seven to eight years for commercial exploitation.
So the real value of a patent is the effective length of market exclusivity, factored in with the size of the market potential. Can exclusivity in the market give a stronger position and increase profits to make a sufficient return on investment? All this makes patenting risky, irrespective of the technological content—it is a business decision first and foremost.
Companies see the opportunity in this investment and are happy to take the associated risks. But why does a university bother with patents at all and what are its aims in this ‘game’?
Universities are hubs of knowledge creation and today’s economy sees the value in that. As a result, research institutions intend to use and commercialise their know-how. And patenting is an essential part of that journey.
The ultimate goal and value of a patent remains the same, however, it serves a different purpose for universities. Patents enable them to legally protect their rights to inventions they helped nurture and claim financial compensation if the invention is lucrative. At the same time, patent protection allows the researchers to freely publish their results without jeopardising the commercial exploitation of the invention. It’s a win-win situation. Researchers can advance their careers, while the university can do its best to exploit the output of their work, bolster its social impact, and eventually reinvest the benefits into its core activity: research.
At what price?
Patenting may start at a few hundred or thousand euros, but the costs can easily accumulate to tens or even hundreds of thousands over the years. However, this investment carries more risk for universities than for companies.
Risks have two main sources. Firstly, universities’ financial capabilities are usually more limited when compared to those of businesses. Secondly, universities are not the direct sellers of the invention’s eventual final product. For that, they need to find their commercial counterpart, a company that sees the invention’s value and commercial potential.
This partner needs to be someone who is ready to invest in the product’s development. This is the technology transfer process, where the invention leaves the university and enters the industry. This is the greatest challenge for university inventions. Again, here the issue of time raises its head. The process of finding suitable commercial partners further shortens the effective period of market exclusivity.
A unique strategy is clearly needed here. Time and cost are top priorities. All potential inventions deserve a chance, but risks and potential losses need to be minimised. It is the knowledge transfer office’s duty to manage this.
We minimise risks and losses by finding (or trying to find) the sweet spot of time frames with a commercial partner, all while balancing commercial potential and realistic expectations. The answer boils down to: do we have enough time to take this to market and can we justify the cost?
Using cost-optimised patenting strategy, we can postpone the first big jump in the costs to two and a half years. After this point, the costs start increasing significantly. The rule of thumb is that about five years into a patent’s lifetime the likelihood of licensing drops to a minimum. So on a practical level, a university invention needs to be commercialised very quickly.
Maintaining a patent beyond these initial years can become unfeasible, because even the most excellent research doesn’t justify the high patenting costs if the product is not wanted by industry. And the same applies for all inventions. Even in the health sector, despite product development cycles being longer, if a product isn’t picked up patents can be a huge waste of money.
Patenting is a critical tool for research commercialisation. And universities should protect inventions and find the resources to file patent applications. However, the opportunities’ limited lifetime cannot be ignored. A university cannot fall into the trap of turning an interesting opportunity into a black hole of slowly expiring hopes. It must be diligent and level-headed, always keeping an ear on the ground for the golden goose that will make it all worth it.
When it comes to technology’s advances, it has always been said that creative tasks will remain out of their reach. Jasper Schellekens writes about one team’s efforts to build a game that proves that notion wrong.
The murder mystery plot is a classic in video games; take Grim Fandango, L.A. Noire, and the epic Witcher III. But as fun as they are, they do have a downside to them—they don’t often offer much replayability. Once you find out the butler did it, there isn’t much point in playing again. However, a team of academics and game designers are joining forces to pair open data with computer generated content to create a game that gives players a new mystery to solve every time they play.
The University of Malta’s Dr Antonios Liapis and New York University’s Michael Cerny Green, Gabriella A. B. Barros, and Julian Togelius want to break new ground by using artificial intelligence (AI) for content creation.
They’re handing the design job over to an algorithm. The result is a game in which all characters, places, and items are generated using open data, making every play session, every murder mystery, unique. That game is DATA Agent.
Gameplay vs Technical Innovation
AI often only enters the conversation in the form of expletives, when people play games such as FIFA and players on their virtual team don’t make the right turn, or when there is a glitch in a first-person shooter like Call of Duty. But the potential applications of AI in games are far greater than merely making objects and characters move through the game world realistically. AI can also be used to create unique content—they can be creative.
While creating content this way is nothing new, the focus on using AI has typically been purely algorithmic, with content being generated through computational procedures. No Man’s Sky, a space exploration game that took the world (and crowdfunding platforms) by storm in 2015, generated a lot of hype around its use of computational procedures to create varied and different content for each player. The makers of No Man’s Sky promised their players galaxies to explore, but enthusiasm waned in part due to the monotonous game play. DATA Agent learnt from this example. The game instead taps into existing information available online from Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and Google Street View and uses that to create a whole new experience.
Data: the Robot’s Muse
A human designer draws on their experiences for inspiration. But what are experiences if not subjectively recorded data on the unreliable wetware that is the human brain? Similarly, a large quantity of freely available data can be used as a stand-in for human experience to ‘inspire’ a game’s creation.
According to a report by UK non-profit Nesta, machines will struggle with creative tasks. But researchers in creative computing want AI to create as well as humans can.
However, before we grab our pitchforks and run AI out of town, it must be said that games using online data sources are often rather unplayable. Creating content from unrefined data can lead to absurd and offensive gameplay situations. Angelina, a game-making AI created by Mike Cook at Falmouth University created A Rogue Dream. This game uses Google Autocomplete functions to name the player’s abilities, enemies, and healing items based on an initial prompt by the player. Problems occasionally arose as nationalities and gender became linked to racial slurs and dangerous stereotypes. Apparently there are awful people influencing autocomplete results on the internet.
DATA Agent uses backstory to mitigate problems arising from absurd results. A revised user interface also makes playing the game more intuitive and less like poring over musty old data sheets.
So what is it really?
In DATA Agent, you are a detective tasked with finding a time-traveling murderer now masquerading as a historical figure. DATA Agent creates a murder victim based on a person’s name and builds the victim’s character and story using data from their Wikipedia article.
This makes the backstory a central aspect to the game. It is carefully crafted to explain the context of the links between the entities found by the algorithm. Firstly, it serves to explain expected inconsistencies. Some characters’ lives did not historically overlap, but they are still grouped together as characters in the game. It also clarifies that the murderer is not a real person but rather a nefarious doppelganger. After all, it would be a bit absurd to have Albert Einstein be a witness to Attila the Hun’s murder. Also, casting a beloved figure as a killer could influence the game’s enjoyment and start riots. Not to mention that some of the people on Wikipedia are still alive, and no university could afford the inevitable avalanche of legal battles.
Rather than increase the algorithm’s complexity to identify all backstory problems, the game instead makes the issues part of the narrative. In the game’s universe, criminals travel back in time to murder famous people. This murder shatters the existing timeline, causing temporal inconsistencies: that’s why Einstein and Attila the Hun can exist simultaneously. An agent of DATA is sent back in time to find the killer, but time travel scrambles the information they receive, and they can only provide the player with the suspect’s details. The player then needs to gather intel and clues from other non-player characters, objects, and locations to try and identify the culprit, now masquerading as one of the suspects. The murderer, who, like the DATA Agent, is from an alternate timeline, also has incomplete information about the person they are impersonating and will need to improvise answers. If the player catches the suspect in a lie, they can identify the murderous, time-traveling doppelganger and solve the mystery!
De-mystifying the Mystery
The murder mystery starts where murder mysteries always do, with a murder. And that starts with identifying the victim. The victim’s name becomes the seed for the rest of the characters, places, and items. Suspects are chosen based on their links to the victim and must always share a common characteristic. For example, Britney Spears and Diana Ross are both classified as ‘singer’ in the data used. The algorithm searches for people with links to the victim and turns them into suspects.
But a good murder-mystery needs more than just suspects and a victim. As Sherlock Holmes says, a good investigation is ‘founded upon the observation of trifles.’ So the story must also have locations to explore, objects to investigate for clues, and people to interrogate. These are the game’s ‘trifles’ and that’s why the algorithm also searches for related articles for each suspect. The related articles about places are converted into locations in the game, and the related articles about people are converted into NPCs. Everything else is made into game items.
The Case of Britney Spears
This results in games like “The Case of Britney Spears” with Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Taylor Hicks as the suspects. In the case of Britney Spears, the player could interact with NPCs such as Whitney Houston, Jamie Lynn Spears, and Katy Perry. They could also travel from McComb in Mississippi to New York City. As they work their way through the game, they would uncover that the evil time-traveling doppelganger had taken the place of the greatest diva of them all: Diana Ross.
Oops, I learned it again
DATA Agent goes beyond refining the technical aspects of organising data and gameplay. In the age where so much freely available information is ignored because it is presented in an inaccessible or boring format, data games could be game-changing (pun intended).
In 1985, Broderbund released their game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, where the player tracked criminal henchmen and eventually mastermind Carmen Sandiego herself by following geographical trivia clues. It was a surprise hit, becoming Broderbund’s third best-selling Commodore game as of late 1987. It had tapped into an unanticipated market, becoming an educational staple in many North American schools.
Facts may have lost some of their lustre since the rise of fake news, but games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? are proof that learning doesn’t have to be boring. And this is where products such as DATA Agent could thrive. After all, the game uses real data and actual facts about the victims and suspects. The player’s main goal is to catch the doppelganger’s mistake in their recounting of facts, requiring careful attention. The kind of attention you may not have when reading a textbook. This type of increased engagement with material has been linked to improving information retention.In the end, when you’ve traveled through the game’s various locations, found a number of items related to the murder victim, and uncovered the time-travelling murderer, you’ll hardy be aware that you’ve been taught.
‘Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.’ – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow.
Do scientists need to have a clear end-goal before they dive down the research rabbit hole? Sara Cameron speaks to Dr André Xuereb about the winding journey that led to the unintended discovery of a new way to detect earthquakes.
Some of science’s greatest accomplishments were achieved when no one was looking with a purpose. When studying a petri dish of bacterial cultures, Alexander Fleming had no intention of discovering penicillin, and yet he changed the course of human history. Henri Becquerel was trying to make the most of dwindling sunlight to expose photographic plates using uranium when he stumbled upon radioactivity. A chance encounter between a chocolate bar in Percy Spencer’s pocket and the radar machine that melted it sparked the invention of the household microwave.
One would think that with this track record of coincidental breakthroughs, the field of science and research would continue to flourish by embracing curiosity and experimentation. But as interest piques and funding avenues pop up for researchers, there has been a shift in mindset.
Money changes things. And while it does allow people to work hard and answer more questions, it has also fostered expectations from stakeholders. Investors want fast results that will improve their business or product. We, the end-user, want to see our lives changed, one discovery at a ti me. We’re no longer satisfied with research for research’s sake. At least for the most part.
Quantum physicist Dr André Xuereb (Faculty of Science, University of Malta) is all too aware of this issue and its effects on scientific progress. Xuereb explains scientists’ frustration: ‘A lot of funding, in Malta and elsewhere, is dedicated to bringing mature ideas to the market, but that is the ti p of the iceberg. There is an entire innovation lifecycle that must be funded and sustained for good ideas to develop and eventually become technologies. The starting point is often an outlandish idea, and eventually, sometimes by accident, great new technologies are born,’ he says.
Over the past few years, Xuereb has been exploring new possibilities in quantum mechanics.
The field of quantum mechanics attempts to explain the behaviour of atoms and what makes them. Its mathematical principles show that atoms and other particles can exist in states beyond what can be described by the physics of the ordinary objects that surround us. For example, quantum theorems that show objects existing in two places at once off er a scientific basis for teleportation.
Star Trek fans know exactly what we’re talking about, but for those rolling their eyes, the reality is that many things in our everyday lives wouldn’t exist without at least some understanding of quantum physics. Our computers, phones, GPS navigation, digital cameras, LED TV screens, and lasers are all products of the quantum revolution.
The starting point is often an outlandish idea, and eventually, sometimes by accident,
great new technologies are born
Another technology that has changed the way we live and work is modern telecommunications technology. When you pick up your phone to message a friend overseas, call a loved one, or email a colleague, telecoms networks spanning the earth carry the data across continents and under oceans through thousands of kilometres of optical fibres.
The 96-kilometre submarine telecommunication link between Malta and Sicily was Xuereb’s focus in 2015. He organised a team of European experts to begin investigating the potential for building a quantum link between the two countries.
The Austrian, Italian, and Maltese trio were particularly interested in a strange property called ‘entanglement.’ This is a curious property of quantum objects that can be created in pairs of photons, connecting them together. This entanglement can be distributed by giving one of these photons to a friend and keeping the other for yourself, establishing a quantum link between you and this friend—an invisible quantum ‘wire,’ so to speak.
Through this connection, you and your friend can send data faster than over ordinary connections; by modifying the state of the photon at your end, you can instantly affect the state of your friend’s photon, no matter how far apart you are in the universe. Using quantum links such as these, all manner of feats can be performed, including super-secure communications. ‘We wanted to demonstrate that quantum entanglement can be distributed using a 100km-long, established telecoms link, using what was already available, with no laboratory facilities in sight,’ explains Xuereb. His team also wanted to demonstrate that entanglement using polarisation of light was possible. Previously it was thought impossible in submarine conditions, even though it has some very technologically convenient properties.
Two years and several complex experiments later, Xuereb and his team have indeed proven the possibility of quantum communications over submarine telecommunication networks. And with one question answered, a slew more lifted their heads.
The Italian subteam, led by Davide Calonico (Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica, INRIM), now turned their attention to a different set of questions for the Malta-Sicily telecommunication network.
MORE TO COME…
Atomic clocks keep the world ticking by providing precise timekeeping for GPS navigation, internet synchronisation, banking transactions, and particle science experiments. In all these activities, exact timing is essential.
These extremely accurate clocks use atomic oscillations as a frequency reference, giving them an average error of only one second every 100 million years. Connecting the world’s atomic clocks would create an international common time base, which would allow people to better synchronise their activities, even over vast distances. For example, bank transactions and trading could happen much faster than they do at present.
This can’t be done by bouncing signals off of spaceborne satellites, since tiny changes in the atmosphere or in satellite orbits can ruin the signal. This is where the fibre-optic network comes back into the picture. Researchers have recently been looking at the telecoms network as a way to make this synchronisation possible. Scientists can use an ultra-stable laser to shine a reference beam along these fibres. Monitoring the optical path and the phase of the optical signal of the beam can then allow them to compare and synchronise the clocks at both ends.
Whilst Calonico and his team were testing this idea on the submarine network between Malta and Sicily, a few thousand kilometres away, meteorology expert Dr Giuseppe Marra was monitoring an 80km link in England. On October 2016, everything changed. One night, he noticed some noise in his data. Unable to attribute the noise to misbehaving equipment or a monitoring malfunction, his gut told him to turn to the news from his home country, Italy. There, he saw that the town of Amatrice had been devastated by an earthquake of 5.9 magnitude.
Further testing confirmed that the waveforms Marra saw in the fibre data matched those recorded by the British Geological Survey during the earthquake. His system even recorded quakes as far away as New Zealand, Mexico and Japan. This was huge news.
In simple terms, the seismic waves from an earthquake tremor cause a series of very slight expansions and contractions in fibre-optic cables, which in turn modify the phase of the cable’s reference beam. These tiny disturbances can be captured by specialised measurement tools at the ends of the cable, capable of detecting changes on the scale of femtoseconds: a millionth of a billionth of a second.
The majority of seismometers are land-based and so small that earthquakes more than a few hundred kilometres from the coast go undetected. Conventional seismometers designed to monitor the seabed are expensive and don’t usually monitor underwater seismic activity in real time. Telecoms networks could offer a solution that would allow us to observe and understand seismic activity in the world’s vast oceans. They would open up a new window through which to observe the processes taking place underneath Earth’s surface, teaching us more about how our planet works. In future, it may even make it possible to detect large earthquakes that cause untold devastation earlier.
The beauty of this discovery is that the infrastructure already exists. No new work is needed. All that is required is to set up lasers at either end of these cables, using up a tiny portion of a cable’s bandwidth without interfering with its use.
THREADS COMING TOGETHER
Marra got together with Xuereb and Calonico, who were already working on the undersea network between Malta and Sicily, to conduct some initial tests. The underwater trial, published in the world-leading journal Science this year along with the terrestrial results, was able to detect a weak tremor of 3.4 magnitude off Malta’s coast. Its epicentre was 89km from the cable’s nearest point, which reinforced the idea that cables can be used as a global seismic detector. ‘We would be able to monitor in real time tiny vibrations all over the planet. This would turn the existing network into a microphone for the Earth,’ Xuereb explains.
If we don’t fund the initial few steps of the innovation lifecycle,
how will we ever develop new technologies?
The system hasn’t been tested on an ocean cable. An interesting target would be a cable that crosses the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the drifting of Eurasian and African tectonic plates creates an area of high seismic activity. Based on the results so far and on conservative assumptions, trials are being planned for the near future on a larger scale, which will give us a better idea of the possibilities.
FURTHER DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE…
In many ways, it is understandable that agencies that fund science favour smaller, more goal-driven research programmes. They seek tangible results in a timely manner to reap quick rewards. But as this story goes to show, a change in mentality is needed.
‘If we don’t fund the initial few steps of the innovation lifecycle, how will we ever develop new technologies? This is a problem that affects scientists from many countries and comes from a mismatch in timescales. A year is a long time in politics, but a decade is often a short time in science,’ Xuereb comments.
Innovation has to start from somewhere, and it often starts from ideas which may have no apparent relevance to our everyday lives. We need to support researchers by keeping an open mind to unknown long-term possibilities—or the world might not only miss the next earthquake but also the next life-changing discovery.
Author: Sara Cameron
At face value, renewable energy seems the smartest choice for a cleaner tomorrow. But when green energy cannot be stored, what do we do during scorching summer afternoons and cold winter nights? Cassi Camilleri speaks to Prof. Joseph Cilia and his team to find out more about the innovative solution they are developing.
The movement towards sustainability has been ramping up over decades. Now, it feels like it has reached fever pitch. Headlines are hogged by the latest scary statistic on air, land, or sea pollution. People are rallying, demanding that new measures be implemented to reduce waste and clean up our streets. Despite this call, real advances on these issues always manage to find themselves obstructed by seemingly ‘rational’ arguments.
For one, renewable energy isn’t as reliable and cheap as fossil fuels. Overhauling the status quo is expensive and requires significant effort, both of which make people frown. Solar power depends on the sun, wind power depends on wind, both of which are quite unpredictable. But while this is true, it shouldn’t even be considered an issue. We live in a country on the receiving end of 550,000 GWh of solar energy annually, while we need only 3,484 GWh to cover all energy consumption. Let that sink in.
Of course, I hear your concerns about the quantity of solar panels needed to harvest that energy—Malta is so small and built up. But in reality, only 28% of our island is built up, and just 7% of the remaining land would be required to meet the total energy demand. So yes. There are solutions to our energy woes. And those solutions need to be combined to create the best results.
Thanks to support from Abertax Kemtronics and MCST (Malta Council for Science and Technology), Prof. Joseph Cilia and his team of researchers (Department of Industrial Electrical Power Conversion, University of Malta [UM]) have found that houses with a normal-sized photovoltaic system can supply more than 100% of the total energy they need during summer. During winter, that figure falls to 50%. To manage this drop, energy can be supplied through other sources. Enter the Micro-CHP.
A small combined heat and power (CHP) machine provides seasonal energy in two forms: electrical and thermal. It consists of a standard internal combustion engine coupled with a generator that produces electrical energy. The thermal energy resulting from the engine and exhaust is then recovered using water heat exchangers and reused to heat the house and domestic water.
While similar systems already exist, most are geared towards industrial applications. The rest cost, on average, around €15,000—pricing a large cross-section of society out. The system Cilia and his team have developed makes use of a grid PV system, combined with battery energy storage, a heating and cooling heat pump load, a CHP machine, and LED lighting. It is also an easy-to-install, plug-and-play solution that fits into your current setup, as opposed to a complex installation that would force everything to change with it. By the end of it, the team’s CHP will cost the consumer around €8,000.
Their study of Maltese households showed that in a typical medium-sized household, energy needs vary substantially. The energy fluctuations for a typical Maltese household are usually about 500 kWhr between the summer and winter seasons. In this case, storing this energy in a battery is not feasible. What is feasible is simply making more efficient use of the LPG gas tank that most people already have and use at home. If one wants to be renewable, one can also use ethanol or methanol to operate the CHP, which, if used in combination with a heat pump, can easily reach an efficiency of 150% to 180% in heating mode.
Added to this, the team’s system is unique compared to others on the market. It is connected directly to the main electricity supply, tapping into it whenever the system needs support, while not using mains electricity when enough energy is being produced by the system itself.
The system is scalable due to the plug-and-play concept the system is based on. It can be upgraded as more and more savings are made on electricity bills. ‘The idea is to provide a cost-effective solution that even low-income households can afford,’ says Cilia. This can not only trigger a widespread use of energy generation and storage for domestic use, but also turn consumers into suppliers of their own energy needs. Gone are the days of being dependent on the grid.
Author: Cassi Camilleri
Project A Smart Micro Combined Heat and Power System financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.
Water is our number one resource. It not only sustains life, but also supports the economy and its development. And yet, water is taken for granted. Kirsty Callan talks to Marco Cremona, the man behind the revolutionary water treatment solution that promised to reduce Maltese hotels’ water use by 85%.
With ever more digital games companies opening their doors in Malta, standing out can be difficult. Dawn Gillies talks to Dorado Games co-founder Simon Dotschuweit to find out how a small company is carving out its niche in an industry of big players.
In 1974, long before the Internet was around, Mazewar introduced the world’s first computer-generated virtual world. With a serial cable to connect computers, friends could play over a network, competing with and against one another for the first time. The Internet now allows thousands of people from opposite sides of the globe to battle it out simultaneously in games set in online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft.
Digital gaming is an industry on the rise, and Malta has seen success after success. It’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise, taking in an astounding $30.7 bn globally in 2017 alone according to Statista. In recent years there has been a surge in free-to-play online games. With so many free games competing for our attention, you might wonder where the money comes from. It may seem counterintuitive, but these free online games sometimes generate higher profits than paid counterparts. Multiplayer PC beat ’em up Dungeon Fighter Online reportedly made an astonishing $1.6 bn in 2017.
With more than 30 digital games companies in Malta alone, it’s a competitive industry to take on. Yet Simon Dotschuweit and Nick Porsche have created Dorado Games, launched real-time grand-strategy game Conflict of Nations, and gained over 400,000 customers.
Porsche and Dotschuweit brought different skills to the table: Dotschuweit came from an IT and technology background, while Porsche gained his experience as creative director for the Battlestar Galactica online game.
Dorado’s Origin Story
Whilst working for the independent creators, publishers, and distributors of digital games Stillfront Group, Dotschuweit was already mulling over some new game ideas. The game engines, platforms, and building blocks were all at his disposal. What he needed was a collaborator. That was when Nick Porsche appeared on the scene.
Porsche and Dotschuweit brought different skills to the table: Dotschuweit came from an IT and technology background, while Porsche gained his experience as creative director for the Battlestar Galactica online game. Their ideas had Stillfront interested. They were in the early stages of building a game, and the endeavour was gaining support. ‘It was going well, and the company wanted to go ahead with it.’ Two years later, Dorado Games was acquired by the Stillfront Group.
When most of us think video games, we immediately think of games consoles. So why choose to create an online game? Or, for that matter, one that’s free?
Dotschuweit says, ‘They’re a lot more fun to do. You have more control. Usually you self-publish. You can do stuff more iteratively. You can release and then improve. With console games, you need a large publishing partner that will take a large portion of the revenue.’ With Dorado constantly striving to improve their online world for players, the ability to continually update was a big draw for them.
The world of online gaming better lends itself to strategy games. With Dotschuweit and Porsche already big fans, their goal was to create a game they wanted to play. Their business model is also better suited to online gaming than consoles. ‘It’s free to play, so we incentivise players to pay for extra features, which doesn’t work well on console.’ This is where the money comes from. Players pay to construct buildings or train their troops more quickly, giving them an advantage over the competition.
But Stillfront’s acquisition of Dorado meant it was decision time for Dotschuweit. He had to choose between keeping his comfortable job with Stillfront, or taking on a new challenge in the startup world. Living in China with his family at the time, the ramifications of that decision were huge. Porsche was already in Malta, incentivised by the Maltese government’s support of new businesses. In the end, Dotschuweit felt the opportunity to join forces was too great to pass up. He made the leap.
The Rise to Success
Money was key. Dotschuweit tells us, ‘We managed to secure quite a sizeable employment-based grant from Malta Enterprise for our company, which was of course a very nice plus. And Malta is a really nice place!’ The grant not only helped Dorado win over investors, but it reduced risk in an industry that’s infamous for its kill rate, both in-game and in real life. Suffice to say that coming out on top in the gaming world is not guaranteed.
Working in a start-up was also a change for Dotschuweit. Having previously worked for US tech giant IBM, he wanted to make a mark with this new venture. ‘You get to have a lot more impact. Your presence matters a lot more to a small business; it’s a lot more fun. You get to wear lots of hats and get a lot of experience.’ The busy and exciting nature of a small business appealed to him much more than clocking in to a regular office job.
The good times continued rolling with more support coming in from the University of Malta’s (UM) Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Incubation (CEBI). CEBI houses the TAKEOFF programme which supports new businesses and provides facilities for them. Dr Joseph Bartolo and Prof. Russell Smith are familiar names when it comes to Maltese start-ups, and they have both been an influential part of Dorado’s story. They now operate from the TAKEOFF building on UM’s Msida campus.
But Dorado’s journey is not all smooth sailing. ‘We are a live service and we don’t have separate teams for operations and expansions, so that sometimes means your plans change!’ explains Dotschuweit. It’s all hands on deck to fix any problems. ‘It’s part of the bane and the fun of operations. But it doesn’t get boring!’ he says. This means that a day of meetings can quickly turn into a hectic day of making sure the game is running smoothly. They don’t want to disrupt players’ gameplay if they can avoid it.
In the past, Dorado hired game developers to bring their ideas to life. But this modus operandi changed when it came to Conflict of Nations. With this project, Dotschuweit and Porsche wanted more control, and they were ready to invest. They dug their heels in and hired their own team.
A game of political and military tactics with elements of espionage, Conflict of Nations requires real-world diplomacy skills to move up in the world. Unlike most other strategy games, it takes place right here on Earth, making use of Google Maps to make the game truly global.
Bringing their dream team to life was a challenge. ‘Finding talent back then wasn’t the easiest thing,’ says Dotschuweit. But their perseverance has seen them build a close-knit team who have all contributed to Dorado’s success.
The quest for perfection is a common theme in Dorado’s story. The perfect team, the perfect platform, the perfect game. Their commitment to giving players the best possible experience is a testament to their investment in their projects. Taking the time to get the right team together has proved to be one of the many reasons for Dorado’s fast climb up the games industry ladder. Another was getting their game out quickly to get fan feedback as soon as possible. The Stillfront platform restricts them somewhat in their design, as it wasn’t made specifically for Dorado, by Dorado, but it has reduced their workload massively, allowing them to get Conflict of Nations launch-ready in a fraction of the time. Identifying and taking advantage of opportunities has also been key to their quick rise.
Many Lessons Learnt
In the crowded world of online games, Dorado games has skillfully managed to carve out its place. Real-time negotiations and political tactics in Conflict of Nations are the stand-out features for fans who enjoy the long timescales and mental strategy involved. With this victory under their belt, we’ll soon see more from Dorado. They have plans to develop another game this year.
With years of experience in the industry, Dotschuweit has some advice for any future gaming entrepreneurs. ‘Get it out fast and get feedback. You can always improve it later.’ He notes the success of game jams in turning ideas into businesses and urges people to get involved. So, what are you waiting for?
Author: Dawn Gillies
The University Maritime Platform, a dedicated space for all those interested in the sea and the work happening around it. Prof. Claire De Marco writes.
I have been directly involved in ICT for over 30 years. The last 10 years have been all dedicated to ICT in health.
I have visited hospitals and health centres in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Italy. During the several health conferences I have attended, I met with people from practically every corner of the world. Their common denominator: no health system is sustainable unless ICT is perceived as an enabler to assist health providers deliver an improved and more efficient care service that governments can afford.”Malta shares this concern. The added pressure is its ageing population.
Q:How can ICT truly reduce the financial pressures on our Health Service and make it sustainable?
A:Malta needs to develop a culture where citizens realise their responsibility to monitor their own health and maintain their own online electronic medical record. This can be done through daily, weekly or monthly monitoring of vital signs such as blood pressure, weight and others. Studies prove that people using eMonitoring services take better care of their own health.
I urge the Ministry of Health to run a simple pilot project in Malta. It could be run amongst the diabetic community. The pilot project would include 1,000 people. 500 of them will use the standard glucose-monitoring device while the other 500 will use a personal, electronic glucose-monitoring device. Within three to six months the results will show the superiority of eMonitoring devices for patient care. These existing health tools can enable people to live healthier lives and stay away from our overburdened hospital. The key is to control a condition without depending on medicines.
Q:Length of stay in hospitals and outpatient visits can be reduced through eMonitoring devices. How?
A:How many patients remain in hospital after medical intervention to have their vital signs monitored? Using these devices patients can be discharged from Mater Dei sooner by being given an eMonitoring kit to monitor themselves from home. The data would be sent electronically to Mater Dei for doctors or clinicians to analyse. These devices could reduce the patient length of stay and make more beds available at Mater Dei translating into reduced costs and waiting lists. They could alleviate the number of outpatient visits that would reduce pressure on the infrastructure and workforce providing more time to increase care quality. Such devices provide an opportunity for every Maltese citizen to have an online electronic medical record that would be always available to clinicians and general practitioners.
My vision for the Maltese health service is one of empowerment. The patient will be enabled to take better care of him or herself and become more accountable, disciplined, and committed to self-healthcare in the same way someone is committed to their job or hobby.
Ivan Bartolo is the Chief Executive Officer of 6PM, a leading IT company delivering award-winning health care products. emCare, a subsidiary of 6PM, provides eMonitoring services. For more information visit www.6pmsolutions.com and www.emcare360.com