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April 2014
Issue: April 1, 2008

HIGHER LEARNING: VANCOUVER FILM SCHOOL'S GAME DESIGN EXPO 2008

By: Courtney E. Howard
VANCOUVER, BC — “A single conversation with a wise man is better than 10 years of study.” This proverb rang true for attendees of Game Design Expo 2008 (www.gamedesign-expo.com), a sold-out industry event hosted by Vancouver Film School (www.vfs.com) in association with event partners G4TechTV, EA, CAEAA, Annex Pro, Crystal Dynamics, Radical Entertainment, Big Fish Games, Metropolitan Hotel and The Province. 

Academia is an invaluable part of one’s education, and yet learning never stops — especially in the fast-moving, ever-evolving computer design field. Digital content creators know well that a great deal of learning takes place outside the classroom, through experience, both their own and that of their peers. It is perhaps for this reason that professionals working in the game design industry comprised much of the Expo audience.

Game Design Expo 2008 constituted an “industry weekend,” two days of informative lectures by some of the leading minds in game design and development. Game designers, artists, producers, presidents, CEOs and founders of studios in North America discussed their processes and tool sets, innovations, audience, and present, past and future, as well as infused attendees with enthusiasm and offered real-world advice.

The Expo’s sessions were approached in much the same way as the Vancouver Film School Game Design program’s curriculum: with the knowledge that it is important to be cognizant of each and every part of the game design and development workflow. Attendees at this second-annual event took in sessions on cinematics, sound, focus testing, intellectual property, start-ups, consoles and audience, “the subjects that make up the very core of what it means to be involved in games,” describes Dave Warfield, head of the VFS Game Design Program. 

A WEEKEND’S WORTH

The price of admission for the two-day event was $80 Canadian (nearly the same US), but several attendees considered the experience priceless. Speakers at the Expo hailed from some of the biggest names in gaming — Activision, BioWare, Eidos, EA and Stormfront Studios — and worked on some of today’s most popular titles.

The Expo provided attendees the opportunity to gain insight from, as well as interact and network with, company owners, successful game designers and developers, recruiters and industry legends. The sessions, many of which focused on lessons learned in the making of a recent game, incorporated information about the latest game design tools, workflow processes, caveats, challenges and workarounds.
“The year saw several enormous and critical successes from which we can all take away important lessons,” explains Warfield. This theme of lessons learned permeated the event, beginning with an insightful opening keynote.

Bungie Studios’ Jay Weinland, audio lead, and CJ Cowan, director of cinematics, opened the Expo with the keynote address, “The Bungie Way: Audio & Cinematics in Halo.” Cowan was among four people honored recently by the Visual Effects Society with an award for Best Real-time Visuals in a Video Game for Halo 3.

HALO CINEMATICS

Engineers worked a year and a half to deliver an entirely reworked, streamlined pipeline and to provide the tools necessary for artists to craft Halo 3.

In the pipeline that Bungie used for Halo 2, artists produced custom animations in Autodesk’s Maya and then exported the work to each individual game engine. Scripts were hand-authored and consumed considerable time. Individual assets were saved in a series of folders and subfolders, which proved painful to manage. “It took a long time to get everything working together,” recalls Cowan. But the Halo 3 workflow was quite different.

The company designed the Halo 3 pipeline with the specific goal of giving more power to animators and artists, so they were well equipped to create their best possible work. Custom animation was streamlined in Maya, and hand-scripting was replaced with an automatically generated cinematic screen UI. The export process — saving “guns to that folder, characters to this one,” explains Cowan — was automated.

The cinematics team on Halo 3, which included two artists from the film industry, including one from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), brought content into Adobe Premiere Pro to perfect the timing, and then used QuickTime within Maya to achieve the initial layout.

Cowan walked attendees through custom tools, several of which were used in-engine. One streamlining solution, One Button Exporter Version 1.5, features a Make It So button for exporting an animation. “It takes 30 seconds or so to synch over to the XBox,” says Cowan, “and it used to take hours.” Each cinematic involved six or seven Maya files, and all the scenes in Halo 3 were put through Guerilla, part of the Halo engine.

The internal pipeline overhaul resulted in more time spent perfecting the project, and many contend that it paid off in spades. “When you can see your work immediately, in-engine and as quickly as possible, it means you can do more iterations,” Cowan says. “More iterations means better art.”

FOCUS TESTING

In a presentation by game publisher Eidos Interactive, Riley Cooper, principal designer at the Crystal Dynamics subsidiary of Eidos, impressed upon attendees the importance of focus testing and the value of hiring an independent company to provide that service. “You are so familiar with a game that you won’t see challenges that can’t be overcome,” Cooper explains. “Testers find dead ends, barriers that might make the player put the controller down — which is the last thing you want. You are too close to the material. You know it too well.”

It is often very tempting to write off a problem with the game, attributing it to bad and inexperienced players. “You can’t do that,” continues Cooper. “You need to address weaknesses, things that detract from the quality of your game.” With potential issues addressed, the designer is ready to pitch the game to publishers.

INNOVATIVE IP

Attendees also became privy to the intellectual property (IP) and game publishing insights of Kelly Zmak, president of Radical Entertainment, a development studio of Vivendi Games. “The kill rate on IP is huge,” says Zmak, who estimates the current IP success rate at 20 percent. This figure is not surprising given the risks — money, reputation and relationships, he adds. 

Zmak, in his own charismatic style, laid out the IP pros and cons. After a publisher greenlights a game development project, he says, reality hits: time constraints, a strict schedule, milestones due, ego and fear of $30 million failure. Those who succeed, however, stand to gain a positive industry reputation, return on investment and the satisfaction of knowing they have created a unique experience.

“Risk mitigation is the opposite of innovation,” Zmak warns. “Formulaic development never works. Innovate within the parameters you are given. For example, if it is a sequel, push boundaries within those parameters.”

Zmak has seen phenomenal growth in team sizes over his career. It is not uncommon to have a team of 150 people working on a single title today. “When working with someone you don’t like, focus on the one percent you agree upon to get along,” he suggests, imparting wisdom he had gained from an industry peer.

Keep learning, Zmak further advises: “The game industry starts at hard; there is no easy, no medium. The reason they call it ‘bleeding edge’ is because it hurts.”

WARRING CONSOLES

Don Daglow, the founder of Stormfront Studios, who is responsible for the first MMORPG, Neverwinter Nights, discussed the past, present and future of console wars. A console war, or next-generation transition, has occurred roughly every five years since 1978, he says. In the ’70s, the Atari, Intellivision and ColecoVision platforms were battling for consumer attention.

“Prior generations still have legs,” recognizes Daglow, citing 12 million Sony PS2s vs. 10 million PS3s in current use today.

A cycle begins when new consoles are released, explains Daglow. After the debut of a new console, the early adopters are hard-core gamers. Because demand is high for the completely different, it is a great time for new IPs. Mid-cycle, the install base grows and the hard-core audience broadens. It is still a good time for IPs, but more licensing titles — Star Wars, for example — make their way to market. The install base is large late in the cycle, as licensing titles with familiar brands help reach “the non-gamer gamers.” Hard-core gamers are the minority, but the opportunity exists for major successes, or hits.

Daglow recognizes that the exciting, artistic world of electronic interactive entertainment also has a strong business side. Big global teams have replaced regional ones, and MBAs want to globalize the process to save approximately $20 on a $20 million game. Yet, he advises, “Never surrender your passion for games or the art — no one can take that away from you. It is your craft.”

MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER

Speaking of consoles, the Nintendo Wii is hands-down the break-away hit of the decade. Other consoles have floundered a bit in the market and dropped in price; and yet, the Nintendo Wii continues to be sought-after and commands its asking price. It has awakened — whether intentionally or accidentally — the until-now latent inner gamer in many women and seniors, particularly.

“Nintendo threw the industry a curveball, appealing to a non-traditional audience,” says David McCarthy, executive producer at the Fusion Business Unit of EA. EA Canada has, in essence, followed this example and launched Fusion, a business entity designed to tackle something different and drive into new platforms and new experiences.

Emerging market segments include female gamers and legions of retiring baby boomers; in fact, roughly 25 percent of today’s gamers are over the age of 60. This phenomenon has brought about an increased demand for multiplayer, multigenerational, and casual games. It is a void that EA is filling with great success — at least in part, no doubt, thanks to the company’s philosophy on multiplayer games.   

“There’s a winner in everyone, and everyone has a shining moment,” says McCarthy of the multiplayer experience. “Too much competition kills the buzz.” For this and other reasons, some of which having to do with preserving a child’s self-esteem, the company has done away with the “You Lose” screen.

Among the lessons McCarthy and his colleagues learned making games for a larger audience are: Making a game more accessible does not mean “dumbing” it down, and a game should be instantly engaging and enable the users to evolve through experience. Additionally, simplified menus and screens are beneficial. Lastly, the game’s basic operation should be outlined up front. “Game designers gravitate to complexity, and we mistake complexity for challenge,” he admits. “We get bored when we’re too close to it for too long. Instead, think Apple iPod — the complex made easy.”

McCarthy acknowledges that with new platforms and audiences, risk is unavoidable. He cites as an example Nintendo’s Brain Age, a huge departure for the company that proved an even larger success. “Your process needs to accommodate uncertainty,” he suggests. “Do one or two things perfectly, not a laundry list.”

Overall, Game Design Expo 2008 provided students and alumni of game design and development a considerable shot in the arm. Students on the cusp of entering the workforce gained valuable insight and practical advice from major industry players. The speakers’ words were encouraging and inspiring, and yet, deeply rooted in reality and not sugar-coated.

Students and even aspiring students of game design — whether their interests lie in design, animation, art, writing, audio, or business, marketing and publishing — can learn a great deal from today’s award-winning gaming gurus at the top of their game.

Courtney E. Howard is a contributing editor of Post’s sister publication, Computer Graphics World.