7 Tips for Making Your Graduate Show Sing

i attended the University of Toronto student show for their 4th year CompSci video game design program. The event was held in a small room with six teams of students demoing their year-end game projects. i came away with a few tips on how to make your own student show really sing – if you’re currently a computer science student and your own show’s coming up soon, or you’re going to be in this position in a year or two, i hope this advice will help you.

Statler and Waldorf

Pay heed to cranky, sarcastic old men.

Statler: You know, there’s nothing like a good grad show.
Waldorf: Yeah – and that was nothing like it!

1. Take It Seriously

It’s really easy to have a flip attitude towards you’re schooling when everything’s wrapping up and you’re cramming to get your last assignments in on time. But if your fac head is putting together a student show for you and is inviting industry people, you need to take your show very, very seriously – ESPECIALLY if the industry folks are local, and you’re not planning on skipping town to find a job.

You might not know the industry or have a solid sense of how big it is, but you should assume it’s tiny. Assume that these people who are attending your show ARE the industry. Now, operating under that assumption, there are a few things you might do differently.

2. Get Good Graphics

It’s taken me a long time to admit it, but graphics are incredibly important. i know we all like to spout off about how great gameplay is crucial, but in a situation like a student show, where you only have people’s attention for a few brief moments, first impressions are crucial.

Bad graphics

Just move your player … (uh – which one’s my player?)

If you’re a CompSci major, it’s likely – not guaranteed, but likely – that you can’t draw for crap. Your game is going to look like trash unless you proactively take steps to prevent that. There are a few things you can do, and a few things your school should think about doing to overcome this problem:

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn how to draw. This is probably the most time-consuming and far-fetched option, so don’t sweat it – until they come out with those Matrix tapes you can jack into your spinal cord for speedy learning.
  2. Make friends with someone who can draw. A LOT of people want to break into gaming, and they’d love to collaborate with you. You can find artists at IGDA or other video game-related chapter meetings, online at sites like ConceptArt.org and DeviantArt, or at other programs in your school that teach art.
  3. Pay someone to create assets for your game. You can get a very nice piece of art for a song. i recently paid a few hundred bucks for a couple of pieces, which is on par with what you might pay for a textbook. If it means the difference between your game looking great and your game looking like one of 101 games on a pirate Playstation One disc, splurge.

5000 in 1 Famicom Cart

It’s absolutely supper!

What Your School Can Do:

Your school should consider forging an alliance with its own fine or digital arts program. If there isn’t one, they might consider hooking you up with students in a digital arts program at a related college.

Remember: no one looks at a game and says “wow – what great programming!”

3. Kill Your Baby

Scale your idea down – waaay down. i played three games tonight that wanted to be Zelda. They were all 3D third-person games set in a large forest environment. If you have a 10 week deadline, you can’t make Zelda. You probably can’t even manage the “Z” in Zelda. Hell – you may even be hard-pressed to build the first four screens of the original NES The Legend of Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda

B-but … i only have four months and a team of six people!

The more you scale down your game, the fewer assets you’ll need. That means you’ll save money if you can’t make friends and need to pay an artist to create your game art. Cut that wide-open forest environment down to a room. Instead of doing multiple monster fights badly, have ONE enemy to fight and make it a great experience. No one’s going to be arsed to play past that first monster anyway – they’ve got five other games to look at.

4. Go Overboard

It seems like each team was required to create copies of a game manual as a take-away for visiting industry types. i think every single one of these was printed on a consumer-grade inkjet on standard 8.5×11 paper, then folded and stapled in the middle. Sticking with the theme of taking it seriously, there’s no reason not to go ape on this little detail. Once again, find a friend in graphic design and get her to lay out a proper booklet for you. If you have to pay a graphic designer, don’t sweat it – most of them work for a bag of Fritos and a backrub. Take it to a professional printer, and ask for full-color bleed on glossy stock, professionally folded and stapled. You will be the only team in the room who has done this, and the other guys will look like they built their games during a 3-week summer program for “very special” campers.


Corky wants a job making games.

One of the games i saw tonight was about bubbles. It is ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE at your grad show to buy a few clear plastic beachballs and a bubble-blowing machine to create a fun real-world environment around your presentation. When professional teams exhibit their games at E3, they construct gigantic walking robots, and hire people to dress in mascot costume. Their booths cost tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct. If your game is tropical, buy a few plastic palm trees. If it takes place in a dungeon, borrow your friend’s pet rats and put their little cages on either side of the presentation monitor. Little touches like these will go a long way to making your team memorable, and to proving your professionality, ingenuity, and creative drive. Another hot tip: don’t tell your fac head about ANY of this. Shut the bubbles off only when you’re asked to, and take your sweet time dismantling the gigantic walking robot.

5. Offer Multiple Stations

Every person who wants to play your game should have that chance. If you only have one presentation screen running, you’ll bottleneck. If you can get away with it, consider begging/borrowing/stealing multiple setups to run more people through your game. A nice side effect of this is that on a team of three with three displays, each person gets a chance to man a station all night. Everyone gets practice talking to players, being personable, and promoting the team. If you only have one display, one of you usually talks, while the other two devs stand around taking up space and looking awkward.

6. Shut Up

If i’ve learned anything at TOJam, the Toronto independent game jam, it’s that your game should stand on its own. It should be easy to play. Players should understand it right away. And they should be able to get it in the first five seconds.

If you have to stand their gabbing at someone, explaining what that red thing does, and what those little symbols mean, you’ve failed. Your game is not doing enough of the work. Consider throwing in some in-game pop-ups to explain gameplay. Don’t overwhelm the player with all of your mechanics at once: the second your player realizes he doesn’t understand, he’s gone. This requires you to get your game in front of players early and often, long before the big night.

After two TOJams, i put this knowledge to work on Bloat. i realized there was way too much going on in the game, so i broke all of the controls and features down into individual steps and parceled them out one by one. Voila – suddenly, my game had multiple “levels” that eased the player along and allowed him to master one concept before i added another.

Your role at your grad show should not be as demo jockey for your game. If you’re talking about how to play the game, and what each little fiddly bit does, and making excuses for bugs and missing animations, you’ve wasted your student show. Your game should have been scoped simply enough so that it stands on its own merits. It must be easy for that new industry person to pick up and play, and while he’s thumbing through your game with a big grin on his face, you should be selling your TEAM, not the game.

7. Sell Your Body, Not Your Game

Instead of “we meant to have a more detailed sky texture there”, you SHOULD be saying “Billy added some clever AI. He studied all sorts of different methods, including x, y, and z, but after significant playtesting, Billy settled on this. If you need someone to work on AI in your ship, Billy’s your man.”

This is because no industry person is there to buy your game. Your game is an excuse to show off what you can do. You’re selling yourself, you big man-whore, you. Talk about the talent behind the game and how smart you all are, and where you might belong in a team game studio setting. That’s what your guests are shopping for. If you can arrange it with your fac head, research the companies that will be represented at the show. If possible, find mugshots of everyone and memorize their faces. When they come up to you, say “Hi, Bill – i’m Teresa.” (If your name is not Teresa, don’t say this.) If people think you’ve heard of them or if you know their company and what they’ve done, it’s a very powerful ego stroke. Human nature dictates that that person is now interested in and indebted to you, and feels compelled now to reciprocate by learning your name and finding out about what you do.

Fatal Attraction

Hi, Bill. i went through your garbage last night, and …

Good Dog

If you’re an industry person in Ontario reading this, you might try swinging by the Max the Mutt student show on May 19th 2010 at 6PM. Truth be told, i was actually pretty let down by the students’ animation reels last year, and the static assignments were a mixed bag, but MTM did the show very, very well. Every student was obviously coached within an inch of his life. When i walked in the room, they were all standing next to their portfolio boards. Their takeaways, some professionally printed, were neatly stacked and spiral-bound, and in abundant supply. It was very easy to see which student was responsible for which pieces. Each student was attentive, and conversed well. It’s in the fac’s best interests to provide this kind of strict, serious coaching – the opinions industry people form of an entire school from one bad show can be long-lasting and difficult to change.

Children of the Damned

Would you like to see our year-two layout assignments?

When you’re talking to people at the grad show, know this: everyone is important. Not a single student at the MTM show read my nametag and decided, since he’d never heard of my company, that i wasn’t important enough to be bothered with (unlike at tonight’s U of T show). You never know when you may be speaking to some high-falutin’ industry type who’s attending the show incognito. You never know when smaller guys like myself are in a position to hire you next week. You never know when you’ll be remembered a year later by someone, because it really is a small industry. Everyone deserves your attention, and the whole show deserves every ounce of social grace, professional polish and serious devotion that you can muster up.

This is it. Four years, and this is your shot. If you want another chance to be in a room with a captive industry audience hanging on your every word with all eyeballs glued to your work, you need to pony up the time and money for another four years. And please don’t let THAT happen.

10 thoughts on “7 Tips for Making Your Graduate Show Sing

  1. Nick

    Having attended the show and come from an industry background myself, I applaud the students on all of their efforts. 3D game dev is a world apart from Flash games. With no prior experience, 2.5 months and a full course load, students were asked to be artists,animators, models, and game programmers. Game programming alone involves understanding how to manipulate objects in 3d, GPU programming for shaders and a solid grasp of algebra. And for anyone who has ever worked with modelling tools such as Blender and Mya you’d understand the hardships, especially if you are learning it on the fly.

    Could the games have been improved? Definitely. However you as a veteran or mentor in the field shouldn’t discourage the students or imply that they have lost their chance at industry. You should encourage their passions and creativity and recognize the merits of their work. It’s always easy to be the food critic than it is to be the chef.

    1. Ryan

      Nick – It’s not my intent to discourage the students. This list is full of tips that i wish someone had given me before my graduate show, and i hope it’s timely now that we’re entering graduate show season.

      i think you’ve pointed out the problem with the U of T program: students are trying to do to much. Why should they have to worry about creating art assets for their games if that’s not their strength? It would be a better show if the students were’nt expected to be jacks of all trades. If it’s a CompSci program, let them focus on programming. Give each team the same assets package, and see who can come up with the best-functioning game. That way, you’ve isolated their skills. All the games look the same, and you can concentrate on how they play.

      Max the Mutt does this with certain 2D animation assignments. They give every student the same inked layout for their painting assignment. It makes it really easy to scan the room and pick out the best painter.

      Similarly, you could try out each identical-looking game at the U of T show. The one the plays the best had the best team on it. Easy. The students get a chance to really shine, instead of wearing so many hats that their heads fall off.

      – Ryan

    1. Ryan

      FBIndie – thanks! Maybe U of T fac or students didn’t like the article? i’m trying to help. i hope to attend a few more gaduate shows this year, and to report back if i see anything that blows my mind.

      If students paid for drinks with the profits from their graduate show game, THAT would blow my mind. i don’t know whether the fac would have a problem with that – i, for one, was encouraging my students to put their games on FlashGameLicense. i was even toying with the idea of doing a graduate-year experiment where final assignment marks were based solely on how much money a game earned.

      Of course, i’m no longer employed as a college teacher … ;)

  2. Facebook Indie Games

    Ryan, would you advise students to release their game before they demo it at these shows?

    I mean if it’s a Flash or web game, will the industry be impressed if they say “it’s already paid for tonight’s after show drinks” or whatever? Are students even ALLOWED to do that?

  3. Billy Monks

    Nothing formal, but usually a few local game studios come to see us present our end results at the end of game programming courses.

    I wish my university had graduate shows for CS majors, but most of the CS majors make Java webapps rather than games.

  4. Pingback: Student reads: 7 Tips for Making Your Graduate Show Sing! | iOpixels

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