i felt really honoured to be invited to speak on a panel at the Toronto Fan Expo this weekend alongside a number of other local industry pros. i couldn’t attend the event as a non-cosplayer, so my wife Cheryl whipped up a little something to satisfy my desperate desire for attention, and my business need to extend the Untold Entertainment brand in ridiculous ways:
The panel was moderated by Jason MacIsaac of Electric Playground fame, late himself of a small Ontario game studio from the Niagara region called Cerebral Vortex Games.
My fellow guests on the panel were (from right):
- Ian Kelso, head of interactiveontario
- Leslie Phord-Toy, a producer at UbiSoft’s new Toronto Studio
- Ryan MacLean, formerly of Pseudo Interactive and a founder of Drinkbox Studios (also both the second Mac and the second Ryan on the panel)
- Philippe McNally, from Longbow Digital Arts, who recently released their PC RTS Hegemony: Philip of Macedon
i was thrilled to see that the line-up for the talk was substantial. A Fan Expo staff member asked us if we were okay with people sitting on the floor when we ran out of seats. Of course, Ubi Soft was the big draw, as many of the audience members wanted to know how to get a job there working on their favourite triple-A console franchises. i made a point to mention that UbiSoft also developed the Nintendo DS Babiez/Petz/Horsez games, as well as a number of cash-in movie licenses that have failed to pull in the same acclaim as their more well-known blockbusters.
i’m doing my best to end this (apparently prevalent) notion that working in the video game industry is the ultimate fulfillment of this masturbatory Tom Hanks in BIG fantasy everyone has. Bills gotta get paid, and you may be asked to (gasp!) work on something you don’t like, such as a (shock!) video-heavy bank website instructing visitors on the various retirement products available to them (as we did last year).
Most people were delighted to see Ian, who they mistakenly thought was cosplaying as either Lex Luthor, Professor Xavier, Kratos, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, John Locke from LOST, or as a member of the Blue Man Group after a bath.
Half-Remembered Q & A
i admit, i’m having a hard time remembering what went on at the panel. There was a girl in the second row wearing an incredibly distracting Slave Leia costume, so i think most of what i had to say was along the lines of “hummina hummina hummina.” (Slave Leia costumes don’t usually do it for me, but this one was worth strangling your hutt over.)
Alternate Star Wars masturbation euphemism: HAND SOLO.
So the pro reporters will definitely cover the panel better, but here are a few questions and answers that i can recall:
Q:Why develop games in Toronto?
A:Lesley’s answer was no secret – Ubi was attracted by the tax credits and government funding. Ian hinted that interactiveontario and the government are trying to secure at least one more “whale” to move into the province. For the three small developers, the answer was “intertia”. Our families are here, we live here, and for folks like me who have young kids and ties to grandparents, it’s very difficult to seek our fortunes elsewhere. Ian added that the work they’re doing to attract big companies helps heal the brain drain; if Lesley were to leave UbiSoft (for example), he wants enough studio muscle here to retain top talent in the province.
Q:Does your choice of school make you more or less employable?
A:Ryan M seemed to be more impressed by educational pedigree, saying that it was not the only thing he looks for, but that it is an indicator of a qualified applicant. The only “good” Ontario schools mentioned were Waterloo, Sheridan, and University of Toronto. There are many, many schools that aren’t on that short top-of-mind list, including yours. Reflect on that.
i took a few digs at the International Academy of Design and Technology, saying that nearly everyone i’ve known from that school – both students and faculty – bad-mouthed the place (and forgetting that the moderator had been an instructor there – oops). Despite the school’s rock-bottom reputation, i’ve hired two programmers in my stint as a studio owner, and they’ve both been IADT grads. For me, individual excellence beats a school’s bad rep.
i’m not bothered that this guy is an IADT grad. The moment we need a flaming torch juggler, he’s hired.
Q: Why aren’t more studios embedding themselves in schools to cherry-pick the best talent?
A:(no one really weighed in on this, but i gave it a shot at a local community college this year with disastrous results)
Q:How do you get a job in the industry?
A:The panel agreed that portfolios were really important. Ryan M said that demonstrated capability trumps a fancy CV. Philippe liked to see evidence of problem-solving ability. i said i’d much prefer a candidate with a portfolio of a few finished games he’d created himself, rather than a student project he completed with a number of classmates.
Q:Why don’t more companies take interns?
A:The three indies – Philippe, Ryan M and myself – said that interns were a risky proposition for small studios, due to the resources they demand. Leslie said that Ubi takes interns (theirs was in the front row taking pictures), but that the intern would have to have something valuable to commit to the organization.
One thing i didn’t get a chance to say was that people should be very wary of schools that offer internships. Picture it: you’re a college program head, and your school has guaranteed this placement program. You’ve got a few great students, a handful of middling ones, and two or three absolute morons who have barely managed to squeak by. Do you really want your school’s reputation stymied by those guys? Do you really want to risk damaging your relationship with industry by sending them out on a placement? No, you don’t.
Uh … hello, UbiSoft? We have a student who’d like to complete his placement in your shop.
Add to that the fact that there are very few shops in town, compared with the number of schools cranking out game-trained grads (Humber, Waterloo, George Brown, Durham, U of T, UOIT, Ryerson, Trios, Sheridan, Seneca, York, and Max the Mutt off the top of my head). Some schools churn grads as often as every six months. There’s a clear internship supply-and-demand problem here.
That’s why in my personal experience (and from what i’ve heard anecdotally from others), when you enroll at a school that promises a great placement program, they’re lying. It’s often a marketing ploy to get you in the door. You’ll certainly have to complete a placement to earn class marks, but you’ll have to hunt down the placement yourself. When i was a student at Seneca College here in Ontario, the school had two or three placements in industry for their favourite sons, and the rest of us scrambled. One girl got a job at her uncle’s trucking plant. i found an internship on my own at the Durham Board of Education, working in the computer lab with students in junior kindergarten. This was the final program requirement for 3D computer art and animation students.
The type of school you really want to attend is one that has high entrance standards, and that fails students early and often. There are very few that do this, but i heard an apocryphal tale that Sheriden will refuse to graduate a 4th-year student with a weak portfolio/art thesis presentation. (Note that Sheridan was on the panel’s very short list of prestigious schools.)
Ryan M covers his mouth in horror as Ryan C tells Lesley a particularly upsetting fart joke.
Q:How do you choose the right school?
A:Most of the panelists were too political to answer frankly. i don’t toe the same line, because i feel that many of the schools in this province – particularly the community colleges – are doing the industry and their customers a great disservice, and should be held accountable. i warned against schools with very new programs (which is most of them), because they often work out the kinks at the expense of their initial student intakes. i also took issue with schools whose teachers have very tenuous connections to industry. i was speaking to a colleague of mine not long ago, who suggested that every two years, the colleges should kick their instructors back out into industry to ensure they’re keeping their skills up to date.
Ian mentioned that organizations like io in other countries have partnered with (bullied?) schools into an arrangement where the trade association has to approve its course offering in order for the school to earn a passing grade from industry. As a prospective student, you just look up which schools the association recommends, and apply there. i like that idea, but i worry it’s prone to abuse in the name of politics and playing nice.
Party On and Be Excellent to Each Other
If there was one main takeaway from the conversation, it was to focus on personal excellence. The very best stand out, while everyone else falls to the wayside, as in all things. You wanna make games? Then the barrier to entry is so low, as Jason said and as Ian reminded us, that you should already be making games. Don’t wait on UbiSoft or some small indie shop to give you your big break. There’s a golden opportunity for you right here, right now that didn’t exist when the rest of us were getting our start.
The panelists spoke about a number of groups, technologies and resources. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- Hand Eye Society Where Toronto’s indie developers meet.
- IGDA Toronto Chapter This group places more emphasis on professional development than the HES.
- Artsy Games Incubator Artists who want to make games, but have no programming ability, get together to … make games! Closely tied to Jim Munroe’s efforts at the HES.
- TOJam The Toronto Indie Game Jam, an annual event where the city’s pros and hopefuls get together over one weekend to make games. A fantastic event.
- FlashInTO The Toronto Flash user group.
- Unity 3D Create 3D video games in the browser, with a (comparatively) low learning curve.
- Adobe Flash A relatively inexpensive program for creating 2D and quasi-3D browser games. Lots of books and tutorials – join our ranks of over two million developers!
- Game Maker A free game creation tool, and the favourite of many indies.
- Scratch An easy-to-grasp game creation tool from MIT
- UDK The consumer version of the Unreal Engine. i don’t recommend this one because of its eventual high cost (despite an initially free download)
- Unity by Example, a book written by me that is coming out very shortly. It’s a great resource for new game developers that teaches you how to make small, simple games, and how to approach your game dev career so that you don’t give up on it. Send an email to info [the at symbol] untoldentertainment.com and i’ll send you a note once it’s available.
- MochiMedia, Kongregate, FlashGameLicense, HeyZap Four places (of MANY) to distribute and monetize games you create with Flash.
- Wooglie A unity game portal.
- TIGSource The de facto site for indies.
- Pimp My Game Our own series on making money (or not) with Flash games. Includes tons of sites that spill the beans about the financials on their games.
Were you at the panel? Do you have anything to add? Was there anything you wanted to ask that you didn’t get a chance to ask? Leave me a comment and we’ll have a great discussion.