Sucked Back Into the Vortex

The Vortex Game Conference & Competition, an (increasingly) annual event, has launched its promotional campaign. i’ve been an entrant in the event twice now, and a very vocal critic of it for a number of years. One of my colleagues said it best: “You criticize because you care, Ryan.”

And i do! i want Toronto to have a really first-rate, world-renowned game design competition, but Vortex falls so far short of its potential that its participants, speakers and volunteer staff come out scathed every year.

Some of the problems plaguing the event in the past have included an impossibly short six week development time frame from funding approval to event date, lack of interest/commitment from industry (as the competition demanded too much commitment), and an outrageously imbalanced judging process that would make Middle East elections officers blush.

Here’s hoping that this year’s event improves on past transgressions. These are the changes i noticed from touring the new website:

Site’s Set High

Vortex Competition Website

The new Vortex website has much higher production values than in previous years. The design is far brighter and more Web 2.0-looking than the black and pink (??!) morass it once was, but the old design lingers in the occasional corner badge and logo treatment. It’s easier to find crucial information, like dates and prices, on the new site.

DIG Didn’t Get Buried

DIG London

The Vortex site now partners with DIG (Digital Interactive Gaming), a mostly student-focused conference in London Ontario. Last year, presumably due to the six week ramp-up, the Vortex event was scheduled right on top of DIG, and the two events had to fight for speakers and attendance. It’s heart-breaking to see that happen – i’m very glad that this year, the two events are not only co-existing, but cross-promoting. The Vortex semi-finals take place in London at DIG this year; semi-finalists will be ferried for free to the event in a special Vortex shuttle (read: the organizer’s car ;)

The Calendar is Roomier

Last year’s competition clumped three days back-to-back at a rather nice venue near the train tracks, just East of Parkdale – the former site of Mildred Pierce, across the street from Famous People Players (that’s the one where mentally challenged performers put on a black light show – i recommend a visit!) The event felt like a bit of a death march – partly due to some incredibly dull speakers and drab presentations by entrants – so i’m not suprised that Vortex is parceled off into four separate dates, spread out across four months and (technically) two years, on into February 2011. (The site says “ONE room, FOUR days”, because “ONE room FOUR days THREE months TWO years” makes it sound like a sentencing hearing.) i hope this will make it easier for the organizers to source speakers and to get the kind of commitment they need, now that the ask is a little more bearable.

Likely owing to organizer Sari Ruda’s TIFF ties, this year’s event takes place at the new Bell Lightbox building (which may or may not be haunted by the souls of dead Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine, and on whose graves the building was constructed).


Canadian One Dollar Bill

The fees are jacked, to the tune of a 135% increase for industry entrants, and a 65% hike for students and individual industry team members. There is a multi-tiered pricing schedule (perhaps too multi-tiered?) that enables participants to experience the event’s three big dates a la carte, or as a complete package. Despite whatever lofty goals the organizers put to this event, it’s no secret that Vortex intends to earn money from its participants. i’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but let’s just call a spade a spade. Even at $235, Vortex is a great deal less expensive and contains potentially more (and certainly more game-focused) content than, say, an interactiveontario event like IN10 ($695!!), their recent INPlay conference ($899!!), or the amount of power required for the DeLorean to travel through time (1.21 jiggawatts!!).

FUN FACT: Last i checked, Vortex is a registered charity. That’s right – you don’t actually have to cure diseased orphans or nurse roadkill dolphins back to health to call yourself a charity in Canada.

Ryan Henson Creighton

Please give generously to the “Ryan Needs a Colonoscopy” fund.

It remains to be seen whether the price hike will scare students away. i felt last year that one big improvement would be to cull the entrants far more mercilessly, to avoid these drawn-out days where groups of ten college students would cluster around the podium mic, not saying anything, while their ordained leader would mumble something incoherently about the year-end project they (barely) completed.

i’m not saying that students shouldn’t be involved, but i think there must be a better way to help train and inform mediocre presenters during the boot camp phase of the event. i’m picturing something like an interactive presentation workshop (rather than a podium sermon) where participants get to stand up and practice their public speaking skills in front of the group. We did something like that two years ago with the feds when they ran a GDC preparedness seminar. It was a video conference between Toronto and Montreal delegates, and we were each asked to give our “elevator pitch” – a one-minute spiel on ourselves and our companies in case we met Rich Investor von Jinglepants travelling between the 4th and 18th floors or whatever.


The Vortex Competition has vastly improved its stated intent. Here’s what the main page of the site said last year (i’m recounting this from memory, mind you, because i couldn’t find an archived copy of the site):

Hey, kids! Do you love to FRAG N00BS with your BFG on your PS3 while GETTING CRUNK?? Do you have a GREAT GAME IDEA that came to you while you were HUFFING GYM SOCKS? Super! Give us $100 to enter our game design competition and you could win $2000 and an Xbox 360! Daaaaaaaaamn, son!

In stark contrast, here’s how the site frames this year’s competition (emphasis mine):

Enter with your submission for a game concept or prototype. It will be reviewed by the stellar Vortex industry panel from whom you’ll receive feedback. Some of you will then get the opportunity to actually pitch your concept or prototype at the Vortex competition. The Vortex Conference and Competition is the only place in Canada where emerging game designers and developers can present their concepts to an outstanding line up of international industry honchos, financiers and venture capitalists in the hope of winning the competition and along the way getting their creation to market. Think a kinder, gentler “Dragon’s Den” with massive networking opportunities and prizing, coupled with industry sessions and coaching from the most successful entrepreneurs in Canada.

“A kinder, gentler ‘Dragon’s Den'”. That’s the key, folks. That’s what Vortex was supposed to be all along, and only now is it being made crystal clear. Gone is the phrase “game design competition” from the site. That’s because Vortex isn’t a game design competition. It’s much more about the bidness of games. Successful entrants and presenters will have their entire gameplan worked out, from timeline and budgeting, to development and marketing costs, to actual marketing and launch specifics. This is a presentation of a game concept as a business proposition. If you’ve ever applied for one of Canada’s content funds, or pitched a game to an investor like a VC, angel, or the Bank of Mom, you’ll know that the actual game idea is only one component in the complex machinery of your proposal. i’m very glad to see that the intent of the event is being made more clear, and i hope word spreads about what’s expected of entrants.

Final Words of Warning

Am i going to enter this year? i’m actually amazed Vortex hasn’t shown up at my office with a pipe bomb by this point. i’m not their favourite person. If i enter, i’ll likely be burning my $235 entrance fee, because it sounds like they’ll be culling their entrants. And man, they’re probably itching to “cull” me.

Hitman Bathtub

OHAI! You say Vortex sent you? Sure – i’d LOVE some toast!

Take a quick look at their Privacy Policy, where they admit they’ll share your personal details to “like-minded organizations” and possibly hit you up for money. If you’re not cool with that, make sure to opt out, and to wait their two business days (!!) to be removed from the list.

Finally, i find it amusing that Vortex claims to be “only place in Canada where [you] can [present your game] in the hope of winning the competition”. So … Vortex is the only place in Canada where you can win the Vortex competition? That’s most likely true.

However awkwardly written, the sentiment that Vortex is the only place in Canada where you have access to industry “honchos, financiers and venture capitalists” is a bit off the mark. Thankfully, there are a LOT of great game-related events going on in this country. Here are just a few (and i’ve highlighted those that are free to participants):

Go forth and game!

4 thoughts on “Sucked Back Into the Vortex

  1. Bwakathaboom

    For the most part I like to stand against the wall during parties and make fun of everyone else for being, like, total losers but I’m considering actually participating this time. If only so I can inconvenience the organizers by demanding my ride to DIG London even though I live a block away from the venue.

    Is there a general anti-web slant or would a Flash product be given equal consideration to, say, the typical X-Box 360 gun porn?

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Things that fit traditional “game” descriptions seem to fare better. i couldn’t get anyone excited about my multiplayer web trivia game last year, but as soon as a presenter mentioned a “boss fight” in his game, you could hear the boners in the room start popping.

      1. Bwakathaboom

        So whatever I pitch should have bump-mapped shirtless space marines with shader 2.0 sweat droplet technology…and boss fights. Got it.

        *Downloads Papervision, spends a week trying to get even a rotating cube to work. Throws laptop out window*

  2. Chris Harshman

    Thats looks interesting but that is still quite a high price, even just to see the speakers. I prefer things that are low key and free, and not spread out across 3 months. Plus from what I have seen it seems increbile bias towards what is considered mainstream gaming, which even with 3 months that is alot to prepare to cover all your bases properly.


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