Canadian Vortex Game Competition Named a Scottish Team as its Winner

In 2009, the Vortex Game Competition used municipal and provincial Canadian funding to award its top prize to a Scottish game design team.

We followed up on allegations made by CultureGET, a news blog that covered the event, and found that last year’s Vortex winners, Alex Quick and John Josephson, likely had nothing to do with the creation of the winning game.

Alex and John keep their cool after winning the $4000 Vortex Competition top prize, which included industry mentoring and a distribution deal.

The Facts

Here’s what days of online research turned up:

  1. Colour-Coded, the winning entry, was created and developed by a team of five developers in the UK called the Pixel Pirates.
  2. Colour-Coded won the UK-based Dare to be Digital competition in August 2009, two months before the game was entered at Vortex. As a result, the game was nominated for a Scottish BAFTA award five months after Vortex 2009, and also appeared at the Scottish Game Jam in early 2010.
  3. Neither Alex Quick nor John Josephson are listed as members of the Pixel Pirates team on the Pixel Pirates front page, team page, or team photo. They are not mentioned at all during the team’s year-long development diary.
  4. The plan by Alex and John to continue developing Colour-Coded in Toronto with a team of five developers, and the Pixel Pirates’ alleged sale of the game IP to Alex and John and detachment from the project, is similarly never mentioned on the team’s very public development diary.

Meet the Pixel Pirates. Clockwise from top left: Sean, Nanna, Murray and Liam. Absent: Faye. NOTABLY absent: Vortex 2009 winners Alex and John. [photo taken August 3rd 2009 in the UK]

Eligibility Doubts

These were the Vortex Competition 2009 eligibility guidelines:

II ELIGIBILITY AND APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS

1. Eligibility

a) An Entrant is:

i) An individual person or team of persons (with the majority of the group being Canadian citizens), who is or who are Canadian citizens or residents; or,

ii) A legal partnership or a corporation established under the federal laws of Canada or the laws of a Canadian province or territory, and which is resident in Canada.

If the two Canadian winners are (generously) considered team members, despite having no apparent involvement in the game, the team is still comprised of a majority of UK citizens, and so does not meet the first eligibility criterion. Of the five Pixel Pirates, only Murray now lists a Canadian address, in British Columbia. Vortex organizer Sari Ruda confirmed for us that Murrary is a UK citizen.

The Question of Incorporation

Failing the first criterion, the team needed to have a Canadian corporation or legal partnership to be eligible for the competition. I asked Alex and John whether such a corporation existed, and neither winner laid claim to one.

In asking the two winners and the competition organizer about the apparent eligibility error, I received conflicting responses. Alex told me that at the time of the competition in October 2009, he and John were speaking “on behalf of” the Pixel Pirates team in the UK.

For his part, John claims that he and Alex had been working with the Pixel Pirates to commercialize the Colour-Coded prototype for nine months, when development was supposed to continue in Toronto with five local developers. Given that the game’s prototype development cycle ended in August 2009, and that Vortex was two months later, it becomes difficult to see where these nine months could have fallen.

John said “The original members of the Pixel-Pirates had moved onto other projects and job opportunities, and would not be involved in the production of the game.”

I contacted Pixel Pirate Liam Wong to verify this. Liam initially agreed to answer my questions about Vortex, but later failed to respond. Liam’s Twitter message, in which he agreed to be interviewed, seems to have been deleted.

A Year is a Long Time to Remember

Vortex organizer Sari Ruda said, surprisingly, that Alex and John did have a Canadian corporation that actually owned the Colour-Coded IP. This is information that neither Alex nor John offered when I spoke with them, despite each being asked the question directly, twice. On my second request, Alex pleaded memory loss:

I’ve told you everything I can remember about the vortex competition last year. As I mentioned in my last email, I have been out of contact with John and the Scottish team (with the exception of my friend, Murray) since shortly after Vortex ended.

Despite having “moved on”, the Pixel Pirates managed to maintain the Colour-Coded production blog for an additional year, showcase it at the 2010 Scottish Game Jam, and appear in person to accept a Scottish BAFTA nomination for the game.

The Pixel Pirates get gussied up to accept their BAFTA nomination for Colour-Coded in March 2010, five months after the Vortex competition, despite Vortex winner John Josephson’s claim that they had moved on. Not in picture: Liam. Still notably absent: Alex and John, Vortex 2009 winners, alleged owners, and supposed majority Canadian developers of the game.

Responsibility

All of this raises the question of who was ultimately responsible to ensure Entrants’ eligibility. The 2009 guidelines state that by entering, Entrants warrant their own eligibility. As a check and balance, the competition organizers may request proof of eligibility from the Entrants. After organizers confirm eligibility, the competition’s judges have the final authority in declaring an Entrant eligible. Alex said:

“At the time of presenting Colour Coded at Vortex, we made it clear that we were doing it on behalf of the ‘Pixel Pirates’, which was the name of the UK team I had contact with. This didn’t seem to be an issue for judges and everything went ahead.”

In the email response from Sari, where she asserted that John and Alex had both a Canadian corporation and ownership of Colour-Coded, and were therefore eligible to enter, Sari unnecessarily added:

“We (the organizers) were not involved with the choice of the winners in any way. Only the judges were and we were not on the panel and had no influence on any of them during the whole of Vortex or spoke to any of them while they were deliberating at any time.”

Methinks the lady doth protest too much. If Alex and John were eligible, as Sari claims, I can’t fathom why she would then try to wash her hands of the responsibility to confirm the eligibility of the Entrants in her competition, leaving the high-profile final judges, including UbiSoft CEO Yannis Mallat, holding the bag.

Possible Outcomes

The worst case scenario, and the one that the online record and Alex’s own admission suggest, is that Alex Quick and John Josephson were not eligible to enter the 2009 Vortex Competition.

If Sari and John’s claims pan out, then the best possible outcome is this: in the six weeks leading up to Vortex, two Canadians bought an award-winning Scottish-developed video game prototype and presented it as their own game, and subsequently won the competition.

For a competition that Sari Ruda increasingly strives to align with the business affairs side of the game industry, this best case scenario may be acceptable to some. But for the small and struggling game developers of Toronto who, based on the site’s misleading promotional materials, expected a game design competition, Vortex is at best a profound disappointment, and at worse, a disorganized sham.

Months after winning Vortex, Colour-Coded enjoys another moment in the sun at the Scottish Game Jam.

Limited Resources

Taxpayer dollars fuel the funds that made the 2009 Vortex Game Competition possible. These funds are limited, and should be spent on cultural events and activities that enrich and support the local and provincial game industry, including TOJam, the Hand Eye Society, the Toronto chapter IGDA, the Artsy Games Incubator, and newcomer GamerCamp.

The facts brought to light by the CultureGET article and which I expound in this article beg three results:

  1. The results of the 2009 competition must be revisited by the event organizers to ensure that the $4000 first place award and accompanying benefits are re-awarded to one of the five finalists who met the event’s eligibility criteria.
  2. Prospective entrants should give very careful consideration to their participation at this year’s event, which was rumoured yesterday to be canceled.
  3. Where applicable, the involvement of the City of Toronto, the Ontario Media Development Corporation and other sponsors in the 2010 Vortex Competition should be strongly reconsidered.

UPDATES

Wednesday October 20th 2010

In an interview with Pixel Pirate Murray Sinclair, Edge Magazine reported in March 2010 (five months after Vortex) that following the game’s ProtoPlay debut in August 2009, the Pixel Pirates team received “an offer to buy the IP,” and that Murray had moved overseas and was “in talks to found his own indie studio”. Contrast this with John Josephson’s claim that as of Vortex 2009 he, Alex, and Murray controlled a Canadian corporation that owned the Colour-Coded IP, and were continuing production with a team of five Toronto developers. Since the article was posted in March 2010, well after Vortex (and indeed, mentions the Vortex win), one wonders why the article didn’t say that the Colour-Coded IP had been purchased, and a studio had been founded.

Thursday October 21st 2010

Alex Wiltshire, Online Editor of Edge Magazine, confirmed that by the time the article ran, Murray “had already moved to Canada and was working with a local company.” Looks like the Edge article had some future-tense responses about events that had already occurred by the time the article went live.

Thursday October 21st 2010

i had a chance to speak with the Vortex organizers in person today. They are aware of the issue, and are working to resolve it. i’ll be sure to post their conclusions once i hear about them.

18 thoughts on “Canadian Vortex Game Competition Named a Scottish Team as its Winner

  1. Dillon Andrews

    Extremely well written and researched, Ryan. I definitely think people should be wary of entering this years competition… if it still exists, that is.

    Reply
  2. Andrew

    Wow, I’ve had John Josephson sitting in my gmail chat list since last year. I was trying to give them a hand with marketing for the game, but he never really got back to me. This explains why he never did, and why he’s mysteriously disappeared from my chat contacts in the past week or so.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Vortex Conference and Competition Cancelled? | Dork Shelf

  4. Bwakathaboom

    Interesting business plan – getting paid for the same game over and over. Not really worth all that effort, though. In the end we’re still only talking about $4,000 bucks and some pretty low grade distribution / mentoring deals that you could get on your own with a decent prototype and some door-knocking.

    I didn’t attend in part because the whole thing gave me a creepy “Bay Street” vibe, especially with the inclusion of Kevin O’Leary as a speaker. The industry doesn’t need more sniveling rat-race types spouting their “greed is good” philosophy. Competitions like this do very little to actually “support” game development.

    You’re right, tax dollars would be more effectively spent on organizations and events that foster a “community” for all developers.

    Reply
      1. Ryan Henson Creighton

        Also of note: there were fingerprints on Mrs. Migillicutty’s flashlight that match the ones we found in Old Man Murphy’s garden shed!!

        Reply
  5. Taz Hasni

    Fact checking wasn’t the only problem that Vortex 2009 had – it just wasn’t that well managed and the emphases was less on game developers/designers/writers and more on the business. That’s not necessary a bad thing, but there was zero indication in the pre-launch that THIS was what the event was going to be about (although Dragon’s Den was hinted…). The big sour note for some was that final ‘unanimous decision’ that was quickly shuffled out at the end which felt kind of disingenuous to the rest of the final competitors (“Tribes of Mexica” anyone?). I get the sense that a lot of people who attended last year’s Vortex Competition aren’t going back for this year (me included). This story you’ve uncovered will certainly explain one aspect of why that is. Hopefully they will read your aticle and learn from it.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: The Vortex (Game Conference and Competition): Reconsidered « CultureGET

  7. Liam

    Hey there, sorry I haven’t replied to your Twitter messages, I haven’t been online much since I’ve just moved myself to a different country for a job.

    It is worth pointing out that myself, Faye, Sean and Nnanna were all still in education (university) so we were too busy to be involved in developing the game any further – but we were keen to see it move forward. Murray graduated the same year as Alex (a year before the names mentioned previously), and they were classmates, and the 6 of us all went to the same university. So the development was passed on to the Canadian lot.

    And no, I don’t have anything to hide, I was on my phone at the time, if you read through my tweets you’ll see it was giving me problems :) So I apologise for the ‘deleted Tweet’. I normally get a lot of random messages directed at me from spambots which is why I didn’t notice it sooner.

    Cheers,
    Liam

    Reply
    1. Liam

      Also, you weren’t following me so I couldn’t DM you my responses. I don’t really like putting personal stuff on Twitter, I mainly just RT stuff or rant :) Just because I’m the only person on the team to use Twitter doesn’t mean you should just put my name out there so that all your followers have a negative opinion on me, based on something I wasn’t a part of. I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate someone putting your name out there either. I haven’t worked on the game for over a year now, heh. If you have questions, feel free to email me, but I won’t be answering questions based on other people as it’s up to them. As far as I’m concerned, the game was in Canadian hands when it was taken to the competition (with the intention of developing it further in Canada), and they were open about it like you said. Myself, Sean, Nnanna and Faye are now all hired in the UK. The only credit we take was working on the game when we did.

      Reply
  8. Liam

    “Despite having “moved on”, the Pixel Pirates managed to maintain the Colour-Coded production blog for an additional year, showcase it at the 2010 Scottish Game Jam, and appear in person to accept the Scottish BAFTA award for the game.”

    If you check the “dev diary” it was updated in 2009, not 2010. The site of the game is maintained by me, and I haven’t touched it in ages. We didn’t showcase it at the Scottish Game Jam, it was organised by someone else, we weren’t even there. And on top of that, we were only nominated for the BAFTA. Just thought I’d clear up some of the inaccuracies. If anyone has any issues here, get in touch with me. I believe in people having freedom of speech. But there are clearly inaccuracies in this story and I don’t like being named out for it.

    I’m wondering if you’ll even accept my comments through this moderation system? You have your information from different sources, and this took place a year ago for many of us involved. I don’t appreciate having my name put out there like that, it’s pretty rude don’t you think?

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Hey, Liam. Thanks for getting back to me – we’ve had a few email exchanges now off the blog. Let me reiterate here what i said there:

      1. i was careful not to accuse you of deleting that tweet – i only said that the tweet was deleted. It seemed pretty strange that you agreed to talk to me, and when i asked you five questions about Vortex, you didn’t respond, and then your tweet disappeared. It’s less than ideal that we’re talking now, after the article’s up, but let’s see if we can’t straighten some things out.

      2. The Pixel Pirates Twitter feed on the Colour-Coded site was last updated two months ago, not 2009. This suggests that the Pixel Pirates are still involved somehow.

      3. i didn’t say that the Pixel Pirates were at the Scottish Game Jam – i said that the game was there. And the fact that it was there, nearly a year after the Canadian team supposedly took ownership, only serves to strengthen the game’s ties to Scotland.

      4. i mistakenly said that the Pixel Pirates had won the BAFTA award – thanks for pointing out that it was only a nomination. i have corrected this. Like the Scottish Game Jam appearance, though, the fact that the Scottish team represented the Scottish game at the Scottish BAFTAS in Scotland lays the game’s Scottish roots down deeply.

      5. As we discussed over email, i’m not trying to suggest that either the Canadian or Scottish teams involved were necessarily acting maliciously or dishonestly. Colour-Coded is a great-looking game with an interesting concept, and is clearly an award-worthy piece, particularly having been developed by students. I still don’t have all the facts sorted out (was there a Canadian corporation or wasn’t there? Did Alex and John own the game IP?), but i summed up my suspicions in the article: either the team wasn’t eligible (whether they knew that or not), and the Vortex organizers failed to catch the error (and are now placing the blame on the judges), or the team WAS eligible, but they didn’t have very much to do with the game. In that case, their qualification and victory were simply not in keeping with what most of us expected from the competition.

      Reply
      1. Liam

        Just to clear up your comment again as discussed in the email, the game wasn’t being worked on by us in 2010 as you have stated. The twitter feed on the site is actually a retweet from one of this years winners, if you click the link – then it will take you to the page. The reason behind this is so that we could help promote future teams, as we had a big following: http://twitter.com/ThatGameStudio/status/21252215603

        Reply
        1. Ryan Henson Creighton

          Thanks, Liam. i missed that important detail in my recap. Through the article, i tried to show that the Scottish team was still attached to or involved with the game. Nothing i turned up showed that they were still actually working on the game.

          Reply
  9. Lemon

    Ah man, when does this guy ever find time to actually work. Your name is noted. You may never eat lunch in Toronto again.

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Vortex Gaming Conference Under Fire | Shh Mom!

  11. Pingback: untoldentertainment.com » Untold Entertainment Goes Forth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *