Level Up Student Showcase 2013 – Contents Under Pressure

i attended the 4th (?) annual Level Up Showcase student show last night.

The show is a really great thing, as it combines all of the fragmented student shows from Toronto-area colleges teaching video game design and development, and blobs them into one gigashow. It’s a very smart thing to do, because

  1. industry folks don’t have to run around the city to different shows on different days evaluating emerging talent – Level Up is a “one-stop shop”
  2. it enables the schools and their students to compare output with each other and to compete on results, which will hopefully drive the schools to raise their quality bar
  3. there’s just a nice feeling of unity and community solidarity in having everyone under one roof – even competing entities like schools

The event was hosted at the Design Exchange, a big impressive building in Toronto’s financial district. Impeccably organized, the show was set up in multiple rows of large monitors on stands, with student teams clustered around them.

It’s great to see various media acknowledging the world-class games industry in Toronto

This Bit Doesn’t Really Work Quite Yet Because We Only Had Nine Weeks and Seven Group Members

While the logistics and raison d’etre of the show were both excellent, the games themselves were (once again) somewhat of a let-down. Here’s an exchange i had with a student last night, which is typical of these types of shows:

Student: So you fly around collecting these things, and they fill up your Power Meter.

Me: Okay … cool. (Looking around the screen) Where’s the power meter?

Student: Oh. We didn’t have time to build it. So once the Power Meter is full, you can …

Me: Wait a second … i thought you said you hadn’t build the Power Meter?

Student: We haven’t. i just want to tell you about the way the game would work if it was in there. (Student proceeds to describe how every single game mechanic centres around this non-existent Power Meter.)

Me: MMmm. Alright.

Student: Yep. And we have five levels, where the terrain changes and you …

Me: HOLD THE PHONE A SEC. Why the Hell did you build four more levels of this thing when you didn’t nail down the whole crux of your game mechanic? Don’t build four extra levels … build the g-d Power Meter!

It was the same story throughout most of the show. It got to the point where i was just rage-quitting games at station after station.

Student: So you have to go to the edge of this platform and jump …

Me: How do i jump?

Student: We didn’t have time to program that bit.

Me: (tears headphones off and throws them) FUCKSAKES!!!

i spoke to one group of students who had created an absolutely terrible game (i visited their school weeks ago and i warned them it would be terrible, but they soldiered on). They were dismayed at the sight of one game in the corner of the room from a certain private diploma mill in Toronto. The game had gorgeous current-gen 3D graphics and was apparently made in CryENGINE®. i approached those students and asked what their roles were on the game.

Student: We did everything.

Me: Yeah?

Student: Yeah, everything.

Me: Well, you didn’t write the engine. This is Crytek, right?

Student: Well, yeah.

Me: Because other students in the show wrote their own engines from scratch. What about these assets? These trees and bushes and ground textures?

Student: Yeah. We did those.

Me: Bullshit you did. Those are out of the box, right?

Student: Yeah, they are. But we modelled the terrain and we put the trees there.

Me: Okay. So … so what did you actually do on this project?

Student: The scripting.

Me: WHAT scripting?

Student: Like, LUA. There are inivisible boxes and triggers and when you collide with them, they trigger sound effects and voiceover, and in some places they trigger NPCs to walk away from the player.

Me: KTHX.

i returned to the students who made the terrible game to reassure them that things are not always what they seem. Toronto-area schools are all running very different flavours of instruction. This exchange underscored the importance for both students and recruiters to clearly express exactly which skills are on display in any given capstone project.

Keep It Simple, Students

While i didn’t get around to every game in the show, there were three games that stood out for me. One was a multiplayer pirate ship naval battle. Cruise around in your ship, fire cannons off either side with the two trigger buttons, and sink enemy boats. It worked, it was fun, and it didn’t try to do too much.

Another game was an extremely simple bullet hell game. Big deal, right? But in contrast to most of the games at the show, it worked just fine, and it had the typical variety in power-ups and enemy types. Simple and functional. They weren’t trying to blow anyone’s minds – they just wanted to make a working game. Good plan.

Finally, i played a multiplayer version of a word game with a mechanic that was very similar to Spellirium. While there were still a few kinks to work out, the game had a refined, professional-looking presentation and it played well. Simple and functional.

It’s really easy – especially as a game dev student (and then years later as the president of Untold Entertainment ;) to bite off way more than you can chew. But i hope the students at the Level Up show last night had an opportunity to wander around and play each others’ games. The show is a very, very good step in the right direction towards solving What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges, and towards forging a stronger bond between academia and industry, such that Toronto-area schools produce the kinds of grads that can immediately find work in their chosen field (and that industry is happy to hire!).

16 thoughts on “Level Up Student Showcase 2013 – Contents Under Pressure

  1. Chris Harshman

    Hey Ryan,

    I am writing on behalf of my team to say thanks for the input last night, hopefully in the next week we can work to implement yours and other’s thoughts.

    One thing that is unfortunate is the 5 level thing, on the one hang from my experience the schools are told to make a prototype game, but then we have all these requirements throw at us, like a 5 level requirement each with different enemies and bosses and compelling game play.

    Unfortunately it seems like they want us to build a prototype but throw in a bunch of extra stuff, which is unfortunate and I know I have been lobbying at my school for a change in this, because I feel the same way as you, except I actually have to implement this 5 level prototype.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Yep … i just see it as an emerging negotiation as schools figure out how best to teach this relatively new (very complicated & ever-changing) art/tech form. We’ll get there, i hope. And maybe by highlighting problems like these, schools will continue to refine their methods until absolutely everything at the Level Up show blows everyone’s minds, and everyone gets hired, and everyone gets laid (as in Caddyshack).

      Reply
  2. Zander Milroy

    I know there was a bit of a discussion on Twitter, but I wanted to state things all in one place, and sort of support Chris’ opinions above.

    There are a number of issues regarding expectations and requirements coming from some of these programs that students really don’t have that much control over. I know from my personal experience requirements stating that each member of a group (in order to receive grades for their 3D modeling course) must build a level AND a playable character that’s working and functional in the finished project. These kinds of requirements on one hand are necessary to make sure each student really is doing some 3D modeling (they’re in the class after all) but on the other is not at all what you want for a team trying to make a polished final product.

    I feel a lot of the problems I faced came from a lack of separated course streams, meaning every member of a game team had to contribute “equally” to the code, art, animation and design aspects of the game. Changing this is a very slow process riddled with people who don’t fully understand the problems with a non-separated course, and it’s them I hope find the time to read blogs like this. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but I can see that improvement being made with every graduating class.

    I feel it’s important to have public discussion about this kind of thing so everyone can learn and refine. This article/post is a great example of just that, so thanks again.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Thanks for commenting! i agree: streams are very important. But i also understand where the schools are coming from, when they have so much material to teach, and (relatively) so little time with the students.

      i’m a big fan of the model that U of T and OCADU are using, where comp sci students are grouped with art students. i think the holy triumvirate would be for those two groups to be managed by post-grad games business/marketing/production students, to cut down on issues of design-by-committee, and to keep everyone honest. We haven’t seen that structure yet, but i hope we get there in the next few years.

      You’re in a primarily programming-focussed course at UOIT. Which streams would you like to see?

      Reply
      1. Zander Milroy

        I think you’re right and that it’d be extremely valuable to see both programming and art focused streams first. This was the major conflict a number of people in my year seemed to have and I know talented students who are now taking another year or two in a more art focused program elsewhere. I am not a 3D modeler. However, I’d like to take a class or two on the basics so that as a designer I can understand the tech and know what’s possible, but that’s not what I want to be judged on.

        I also feel it’s valuable to have these streams share some of these “Intro to ___” or Game Design centered courses. Cross discipline stuff is key to having effective employees.

        If the goal is just to get students to apply their skills in a team-oriented culminating project there are better ways then pulling names from a hat and forcing students into groups with an assigned project and client… it’s not the best scenario for anyone.

        I think your point really hits home. Why not have senior year students “hire” younger years to form the teams, giving 2 or so senior students design lead positions and have them create job postings which the other students apply to. Limit team sizes, and students get the final pick of who they work for. Teams would form organically in a process that mimics the way teams form in the real world. Or have students take on younger “apprentices” during the final project development. Less projects with larger teams that span multiple years, I think it could be really neat. There are options for sure.

        You could argue that this doesn’t solve the problem of low quality/poorly pitched ideas getting the bottom of the barrel students, but I personally don’t know the correct way to “solve’ that in the first place. I’d be open to ideas but the current model seems to suggest that spreading out underachievers evenly will work, but I feel this creates a negative piggy-backing effect.

        Reply
      2. Chris Harshman

        From my experience at UOIT, and what I know of upcoming changes we do a fair bit of everything, We get programming, design, art, and production, as well as a bunch of business course like marketing and accounting, there are several 4th year courses that focus around AI, and a couple of other theory courses including some focusing on Gaming in the Real World.

        That said my group, for the most part, we split of tasks, so the guy who likes art does art, I like engines so I did the engine, we have game play programmers and a 3D modeler and then a sound engineer as well. I also did most of the early design to cut out the committee stuff that can happen.

        I do agree with Zander that one of the big issues is the almost drawing out hat group formation procedure after they asked us to submit a resume in my year for what we wanted to do, I got the part I wanted, but many people did not, and it wasn’t for too many people applying for a role. There where 18 people who wanted to be programmers for 20 programming slots, less than half I believe got a programming role.

        Mostly though I voice my issues, and the programming is improving leaps and bounds each year.

        Reply
      3. Friendly Stranger

        I just read this post and I couldn’t help but notice you comment…

        “i think the holy triumvirate would be for those two groups to be managed by post-grad games business/marketing/production students, to cut down on issues of design-by-committee, and to keep everyone honest. We haven’t seen that structure yet, but i hope we get there in the next few years.”

        George Brown Collage’s Post-Grad Game Design program (who were actually at Level Up) does this…and has been doing this for the last 3-4 years! Maybe you should do a little research into game design programs in Toronto before you make blanket statements like this,

        Good day sir!

        Reply
  3. Benjamin Langerak

    okay, pre warning this kind’ve turned into a rant. I guess your article stirred something! *ahem*
    I agree about the bullet hell. sure it was convention, but it was convention done well and it felt playable. This article seemed harsh at first, but I realized by the end how vital commentary like this is to open an honest dialogue. (btw before i rant about something, george brown’s post grad program is very close to what you mention in your comment, they basically delve into project management and design moreso and assets are produced by undergrads, its an interesting idea and it seems to be working fairly well. I go to RCC Academy of Design in north york (hopefully our school will join up with this event next year) and we recently had a discussion regarding our program and all gave feedback that it needs to be branched even further than it is, into more serious programmer/artist specific streams. There definitely is the unfortunate aspect for people like myself who want to learn the art pipeline for project management and will miss out on some aspects during the awkward transition period. but I think its going to be for the best to improve the quality of student that graduates from a game school.
    With regards to students there are two things that I think we all individually have to address, and schools need to encourage as crucial.
    #1 – I heard a lot of excuses instead of honesty. Don’t excuse yourself, don’t excuse your game. strive for perfection, be brutally honest, get to a point you’re happy with, and then iterate further, and then use that to make new ideas, and make them perfect too… Why are we excusing games? it’s nothing personal if your game sucks, just keep working on things based on the feedback you get. The best athletes, or mathematicians don’t make excuses when they make mistakes, they train and practice harder. They strive for perfection. I know this sounds unrealistic to some people, and to others it sounds unfair, but it’s not an attack on any one person, its merely the right attitude to have if you want to make great games, and i think we all want to make great games its why we make them. You have to remove your ego at the door and be open to your game sucking, so you can see that it does and make it better. I heard the excuse multiple times that “they were at the end of their cycle”. That I think can be blamed on both parties but the institution is encouraging a bad mentality that if you can’t make it don’t worry work on your next project. The most crucial thing to good development is FINISHING things not giving up on them. I was actually shocked how seemingly apathetic so many of them were that their game wasn’t finished but they were “at the end of their cycle”. This is starting to sound a bit negative and not inspiring. I don’t mean to discourage any new devs about the work they did. Games are hard. I just think we all need to leave our ego out of it and encourage a standard of absolute excellence and innovation. Here in toronto we’re a powder keg of creativity there’s no excuse for sub par games anymore, and there’s no excuse for defending your sub par game. If your game sucks, accept it, believe it, and understand the factors why. put your bad game in front of people and ask them why it sucks. It’s the best chance you have at improving,
    This leads me to point #2 – Don’t be afraid of change. Improvements sometimes come from going in the opposite direction. Like the game without a gui for power up – why implement things that revolve around a mechanic that is imaginary? Switch it up! look critically at your project in its current state and ask yourself does this game satisfy me or my players, and why or why not? What is the core thing i can do to improve it? what mechanics does it stand on? what breaks my game? Don’t be afraid of being agile. Schools really don’t stress this at all from what I have seen. We had 1 singular lesson on scrum in 1 class of production in our first term, and it blows my mind that fellow students STILL don’t embrace change and want to continue down a failing path as if somehow the game will magically come together because they want it to.

    Again… I don’t think that this is their fault specifically, they just don’t know any better, and they’re in school to know better, and if they don’t, someone needs to give them a good shake and say “this is the industry you are going in to… if you don’t like it… well you better like it”.
    okay, rant done… with all of that being said, I met about 10 people in the room that totally got this mentality and were eager for feedback and loved having frank discussion about the details and flaws of their game, and I think those people are going to do great things some day :)

    Schools are likely afraid of this level of blunt honesty because they risk losing a number of applicants and $$ but any transition is painful and this one is for the best :)

    Let’s all be excellent, and then iterate more excellence off of our excellence, and then do it again

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Agreed – excellence should be our common goal. i was delighted that so many students at Level Up presented themselves well (a vast improvement over previous years), and were very receptive to feedback and criticism. i do find that schools, by being too permissive, contribute to an “excuse” culture. But life doesn’t grade on a curve, and the industry is a lot less forgiving. i think that by fourth year, profs should be much harder on students and that, like Sheridan College (one of the few schools in Ontario with a real reputation for excellence), schools should be prepared to flunk students on their capstone projects and prevent them from graduating, if it means that only the most excellent students earn their paper.

      Reply
      1. Chris Harshman

        I certainly hope I or my team didn’t make any excuses, I know I had a pen and paper ready and took several pages of notes from a lot of people. I know I certainly tried my best to be open to any idea’s and feedback we got, and our groups Trello page shows it with a fresh list of stuff for the next week.

        Aside from the we need 5 levels to do really well for grading, which certainly is not the way I would have liked to develop our game.

        Reply
  4. Alex

    I also visited the event yesterday and I honestly think that Ryan showed up to the event with too high of expectations. I talked to some of the teams and every team mentioned having to work within a specific narrow style or having very little time (UofT had 2 months I believe)

    I do agree that the games are not as polished as they could have been, but on the second hand you have to remember that those are students working on such games and not professionals. For most of the students i talked to, this is their first game and I think that the games they made in 2 months is way better than my first few hobby games.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      It tickles me that two months with a 4-6 person team is considered “very little time”. :)

      i once visited a college where the students bitched and moaned because their team of six couldn’t produce a flip n’ match game in Flash in six weeks. There are tutorials online that can get you there in an afternoon. i coded a flip n’ match game that afternoon right before their eyes, and none of them paid attention. At the end of the afternoon one of the students, after typing away on Facebook the entire time, asked if i could copy my finished flip n’ match game to his USB drive. (i was … less than kind to him.)

      i don’t think that my expectations were too high at all, considering that some of these students have been studying video game development for four years. i honestly think if you compared the output of Ontario’s schools to more dedicated institutions like Full Sail and Digipen, we wouldn’t come out looking so hot.

      With 400 (or is it 800?) students graduating from Toronto-area game dev programs every single year, you have a choice: you can be excellent and rise above the noise, or you can choose a different career.

      Reply
      1. Chris Harshman

        As a Student I totally stand behind this, because I procrastinate I am sure I could have found more time to work, rather than bringing it up to full gear in the last two weeks, like we didn’t have a playable game two weeks ago with 6 people on the team, we had lots of great pieces, but that really means nothing if they dont all fit together.

        Reply
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