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
- 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”
- 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
- 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.
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.
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!).