Tag Archives: Toronto

The Tiniest TOJammer

After a tumultuous delay, the TOJam registration form is currently live! What was the hold-up? Remember that scene from Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf battles the ferocious Balrog and they wrestle each other off a cliff? Well, imagine that Gandalf is TOJam organizer Jim McGinley, the Balrog is the new database system for TOJam, and i’m a really sexy elf.

Ryan Creighton is a sexy elf

Go on: imagine it.

Seriously, if you want to attend TOJam and you haven’t signed up yet, i don’t know why you’re over here reading this crummy blog. Space is limited. Go sign up now. Like, right now. i’ll wait.

Party of One

This’ll be the first TOJam that i haven’t done all by my lonesome. After creating Two By Two, Here Be Dragons, Bloat., and Heads single-handedly, i’ve finally roped someone into spending an entire weekend with me in a room full of sweaty nerds building video games. And better than that, she’s a girl. How did i do it?

i’m her legal guardian.

Spawn of Creighton

Behold my progeny!

This year, i’m teaming up with my five-year-old daughter Cassandra to create a game called Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, which is a magical adventure game featuring ponycorns. (At this point, i usually have to stop and explain to people what a “ponycorn” is, which dismays me … a ponycorn, clearly, is a single-horned pony – a pony/unicorn. A ponycorn. You see? Was that so difficult?)

Ponycorn

Get some fekkin’ imagination, you freaks.

Cassie, who is a great little artist, will be drawing the game’s pictures in crayon, and i’ll be scanning them in and trying to shoehorn them into a sensible game experience. Because the handicap is so high on this one, i won’t be building the whole thing from scratch. i didn’t approach my first TOJam this way … i was determined to build Two By Two from “scratch”, starting with nothing and using Flash to build the game from the ground up.

Having proven that i can do it, over the years i’ve grown less and less dogmatic about TOJam. For last year’s game, Heads, i used UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), as a sort of proof that the time and money we spent building the engine wasn’t a total waste. (It wasn’t! Heads was our very first release on the Blackberry Playbook, and we’ve gone on to use UGAGS in other projects). When i got thinking about it, even using Flash is a bit of a cheat. i didn’t write that software, and it does a lot of heavy graphics lifting for me. i also didn’t build the computer, or smelt the metals used in its creation. There’s only so much “scratch” that you can start from.

So this year, Cassie and i will be using the Citrus Engine to make our ponycorn-themed puzzle platformer game. i’m not even starting from scratch with the Citrus Engine – i’ll be re-skinning an existing game that i completed for a client. i’ll even be using some artwork that Cassie already drew months ago, because it’s adorable. (“What’s that, honey? An alien? A slug? A jelly bean?” “No – it’s you and me and Mommy.”) As is required for any weekend game jam, we’re keeping our ambitions reined way in; if we come out the other side of this thing with a title screen and one functional level, i’ll be happy.

i’ve also got Cassie slated to do some voice acting for the game, which will toally rock. Unless someone’s planning to one-up her, Cass will be the youngest developer ever to attend and work on a game at TOJam.

And i’ll be the sexiest elf in the room.

Gamercamp Came to Kick Ass and Chew Bubblegum

Gamercamp came to kick ass and chew bubblegum. Unfortunately, it was unable to locate a single morsel of bubblegum, be it in stick, cube, or nugget form, so it was resolved instead to staying its original course and so it did, ipso facto, kick ass.

Jim McGinley at Gamercamp 2010

Sponsors AND signage? Are we still in Toronto?

The sophomoric outing of the annual event expanded to two days this year, and spanned two different venues: the Toronto Underground Cinema, and the Hernando Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, both in Toronto. After hearing great reviews of last year’s event, i begged the organizers to give me a speaking slot. i heard they were looking for someone with experience building educational games, and we happen to be completing just such a project at Untold. Serendipitous!

Two Rad Dudes

As with any event, some things went off without a hitch, and some things were rough around the edges. Some ideas worked, and some didn’t. But you have to hand it to the two event organizers, whose background is in film, not games – their enthusiasm, winning personalities, and passion for the games community are infectious, and they give us all a real hope for the future of games-related events in Toronto for years to come.

Mark Rabo and Jaime Woo at Gamercamp 2010

Capy prez Nathan Vella describes Gamercamp organizers Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo “two rad dudes”. (photo by Ryan Couldrey – see the uncropped original here)

Mark and Jaime got a lot of things right with Gamercamp this year. They did a lot of ground-level research, personally attending the events that already existed (like the Hand Eye Society socials). They made the right contacts, finding people around the city who were doing all sorts of interesting things with games … some folks i’d never even heard of, but was very glad to have discovered. And they put the right amount of effort into organizing their event. i can’t fathom the number of hours that went into running Gamercamp, but i can always tell that any event that has printed programs, and where the venue ceiling is not falling on the attendees, and where three or fewer people die or are irreparably injured, has had boatloads of effort put towards it.

The Right Way to Do It

Gamercamp stands in contrast to a certain other Toronto event, where the organizers don’t run in quite the right circles or grasp exactly what makes games enthusiasts tick. One of the Vortex Competition organizers actually attended part of Gamercamp on the second day, which was great to see! I hope she was taking extensive notes.

The key difference between the two events is that Mark and Jaime play games. They grew up with them. During my talk on the second day of the conference, i repeated the importance of this: for men and women who have grown up with video games as an essential element of their lives, there is a language – a common understanding – a culture in the truest sense of the word, that folks in the older non-game-playing generation just don’t get. i don’t think it’s impossible for them to get it, but it would take a lot of hard work and effort playing games, researching games, reading game magazines and articles, and striving to understand the culture like an anthropologist would try to dissect a newly-discovered tribe in South America (for whom there are extensive Wikipedia entries and funny YouTube videos).

If you’re not part of the culture, you need to put in that legwork and that effort in order to run a games-related event with any feeling of legitimacy or relevance. What Gamercamp has that Vortex currently lacks is credibility – a feeling that it’s genuine – that it’s motivated by a true understanding of gamer culture and a kinship with its people. If Gamercamp is run by natives, Vortex is run by missionaries.

Location, Location, Location

Of course, not everything at Gamercamp went off without a hitch. Jaime explained to me that he and Mark were throwing ideas at the wall like wet spaghetti and trying to see what would stick. For me, day two stuck. It far stronger than day one, which slid down the wall in places. i think the disparity was largely due to the venue. Toronto Underground Cinema was plagued with technical problems, most notably audio, and the in-house techs were frustratingly slow on the uptake when it came to fixing problems on the fly (including turning up completely inaudible presenters, and even simply turning down the house lights after one speaker’s repeated requests before an increasingly impatient crowd). This could be due to the fact that TUC is a relatively new venue. i’m not sure how many events of this type they’ve handled, so they could still be working the kinks out.

Jim McGinley at Gamercamp 2010

BigPants Games and TOJam co-founder Jim McGinley stands defiantly before the crowd, as his wife and business partner em fusses with the tech, and Mark Rabo looks on in child-like awe.

The building, though, isn’t ideal for a conference event. The upper foyer with its ticket window is just small enough to feel cramped with ten people. While the lower level foyer is larger, it still struggled to contain the attendees during break times. Certain of the day one talks were worth skipping in favour of networking, but the foyer wasn’t an ideal location for that. It felt more like a thoroughfare than a place where you could stand around and gab without being in anyone’s way.

3D Glasses at GamerCamp 2010

Technical issues plagued the BigPants presentation, but it was hard to remain unimpressed at the hundreds of custom-made 3D glasses, each hand-stamped with the company’s logo and a secret code.

Hernando Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined made a much better venue on day two, particularly with its nooks and crannies perfectly suited to stuffing them with game machines and teevees. Noticeably absent were bean-bag chairs (organizers: please be all up on that next year – daddy loves his bean bags). These areas reminded me of an excellent GDC party i attended, where Autodesk dolled up a hotel meeting room replete with an inflatable couch, swag lamps and a shag throw rug … and one big-ass wood-trimmed cathode ray tube teevee set with an Atari 2600 hooked up to it. These small details really made the space, and with (even) more effort, the game rooms could be taken completely over the top in a fantastic way.

3D Glasses at GamerCamp 2010

Hernando Velasquez replicates everything you remember from your childhood rec room, right down to the gigantic letters on the wall. (Photo by Ryan Couldrey)

Content with the Content

The content on day two exceeded much of the day one talks. It was agonizing to have to choose one out of four talks that ran simultaneously (scheduling only three talks together may mitigate this). i spoke to a number of people who said the talks i missed were “great”, “excellent” and so forth. i’m not sure there was a lemon in the bunch … the talks i attended were very good.

i think it comes down to venue again. When you put everyone in a large theater setting, it’s far less personal. The speaker isn’t making eye contact with you, or even speaking to you – he’s speaking out into this vast space. During some of the day one talks, the lighting was such that the speaker was in total silhouette. This made it easier to tune out, heckle, or completely ignore the day one talks.

Jim McGinley at Gamercamp 2010

A completely silhouetted Matthew Kumar was responsible for the most memorable moment on day one, when he compared Internet video games discourse to a shit-covered house that he was attempting to clean with a tiny squeegee.

Contrastingly, the intimacy of the day two talks, in their smaller rooms, was excellent. The rooms were just a hair too small, in fact … it’s a very difficult balance to strike. One possible solution to the big room problem is to have cameras projecting the speaker’s face on one or two secondary screens, but this requires a much more robust tech set-up for which TUC was likely unprepared. It’s possible next year’s budget might allow for hiring an events company to handle the fancier tech stuff (like mics that don’t sound like they’re down the speaker’s pants).

A fix for the smaller rooms is to stack the tables where you can, and add more chairs to the room. This would require volunteers to dismantle entire rooms, but as i’ll mention later, if volunteers can be trusted to “own” their rooms, it’s possible.

3D Glasses at GamerCamp 2010

I pimp out my new Unity book during my talk like it’s a dirty, dirty whore. … $38.34 on Amazon, qualifies for free shipping. (photo by Ryan Couldrey)

i was immensely impressed that all of the sessions were recorded – that’s Jamie and Mark’s film background shining through. It means that i can catch all the sessions i missed on day two, and that i’ll be able to make a portfolio piece of my own talk. This is a great incentive to give the volunteer speakers some sort of return on investment for their effort.

Volunteer pwnage

i think next year, provided the organizers continue (and i sincerely hope they do), i’d like to see them delegate certain aspects of the event to some devoted volunteers. For example, hand one of the game rooms to two volunteers. They can find the swag lamp and the shag carpet and the absolutely vital bean bag chairs, and they own that piece of Gamercamp – and it’s one less thing for Jamie and Mark to worry about. Let two volunteers own the Mortal Kombat competition. Let them make a trophy for it, and set up a mic with an amplifier and a sports commentator. Have them play wrestling-style theme music as the combatants enter the room. Hand over the retro cereal breakfast bit to five people who can go stock the room with couches and set up rec room mood lighting and faux wood wall paneling. Have the volunteers treat each element as its own mini-event, and challenge them to completely outdo each other. Since most of the volunteers were Hernando Velasquez students, throw some extra credit marks at it and make it a project. Event management is actually a valuable skill to have in the games industry – think game launches and corporate parties.

Gamercamp 2010

i snuck into the retro cereal breakfast before it started and stole all the prizes out of the cereal boxes, because i’m kind of a dick. (photo by Ryan Couldrey)

But all this is fine trim on an event with very, very good bones. It was inspiring and exciting to see an event pull together game developers, game enthusiasts, educators, press, trade associations, tool makers, and two rad dudes with the gusto to slam it all together so that the pieces fit. Gamercamp is a very good idea, and one that i hope will make non-Torontonians rabidly jealous. My only regrets are that it’s not longer, and that it doesn’t happen every weekend.

IGDA Toronto Producer Panel Stocked Game Industry Heavy-Hitters

The IGDA Toronto Chapter ran its final content event of the year last night before a final December social, when the reins are handed over from outgoing president Josh Druckman to incoming president Lesley Phord-Toy, a producer at the newly-minted Ubisoft Toronto studio.

Lesley Phord-Toy predicts the end of the world

Lesley writes the date of Armageddon on the whiteboard, when she will purge the world of the faithless through her righteous anger. Tickets available online or at the door. [thanks to Jason MacIsaac for these photos]

[Read my interview with Lesley Phord-Toy, IGDA Toronto Chapter’s new President]

Last night’s panel was stacked with three game production super-powers:

  • Alex Parizeau, Producer on Splinter Cell Conviction at Ubisoft)
  • Lesley Milner, Producer on Bioshock 2′s multiplayer feature at Digital Extremes in Toronto, and a former Relic employee
  • Rhys Yorke, Producer on The Secret World at Funcom, About a Blob with Toronto’s own Drinkbox Studios, and formerly of Marvel Comics.

the IGDA Toronto Chapter producers panel

From left: Rhys, Alex and Lesley.

My capsule review of the evening is that the panelists played very nice, were careful not to dish any dirt, and generally didn’t say anything too alarming, surprising, or even insightful for much of the hour and a half. i much prefer solo speakers to panels, because soloists can give very personal, opinionated lectures. Panelists have a real challenge, because they can only dole out their wisdom in bite-sized nuggets, and there’s this constant pressure to wrap up quickly so that others have a turn to speak. As a result, much of the content on the panels i’ve attended is safe, pleasant, and dull.

The panelists had a challenging room. Despite the IGDA being a professional organization, the audience, when polled, admitted that over half of the standing-room-only crowd were not making video games professionally. About 10% of the people in the room were producers of various stripes. This was a great panel for the folks in the room to learn what a producer was, and to learn about the responsibilities that come with the position. But for professionals seeking more insight, and producers wanting more take-aways and tricks of the trade, the content was disappointingly lightweight.

IGDA Toronto chapter crowd

The discussion may not have been as relevant for me, but it was a very large room filled with people of varying experiences and backgrounds. It was hard to gauge the efficacy of the talk. [Thanks to Lesley P-T for the photo]

i spoke with a colleague of mine whose producer pal said the panel was helpful in upholding staffing decisions they were considering. The panel revealed “nothing revolutionary”, but confirmed that they were on the right track with goals they were trying to accomplish.

For a very small business owner, a panel like this is a bit like a Cessna hobbyist hearing from three commercial airline pilots. But it was definitely good to hear the panel humbly admit that despite their massive teams and budgets, they didn’t have it all figured out, and still struggle with many of the same issues you’d have on much small projects. The plane still has to stay in the air, after all.

If you can stomach it, here’s a very rough transcript of the evening with each panelist’s responses, based on my amateur shorthand note-taking.

How do you divide your teams?

Alex: It depends on the game. I like to reduce dependencies between teams, and to create multi-disciplinary teams that can accomplish a piece of the project on their own.
Rhys: My teams are grouped according to discipline – concept artists, environment artists, animators, etc. Team sizes are from 8-10 people at their smallest, and 30 people at their largest.
Lesley: We take a hybrid approach of forming multi-disciplinary teams and specialists.

What is the size of your teams during different development cycles?

Alex: It depends. Pre-production is about 70-80 people. Concept phase has 40 people. Full-blown production is at about 200 people.
Rhys: Secret World was in pre-production for about 2 years. It started with a team of 5-8, and had reached 130 people by the time he’d left.
Lesley: Prototype phase is about 5 people. Pre-production is 20. Production is 60.

How do you decide what your team members work on?

Lesley: It’s mostly top-down. I supply tasks, and the team decides how to split them up (a good example is the concept art team). Programming is almost entirely top-down. Other teams can be self-directed.
Rhys: Top-down.
Alex: It’s a balance. Prioritized tasks come down from on high. The team is left to decide how to split up a task and tackle it. Giving the team input and autonomy like that increases morale.

Do you prefer Agile or Waterfall methodology?

Rhys: We used Waterfall, due to inertia. That’s the way it had always been done, so we continued in that vein.
Lesley: The AI group uses Agile, but the whole team is more of a mix. It’s Waterfall in general.
Alex: We try to create a generally Agile studio, but we have priority tasks that we know we must accomplish. If we don’t finish these, we can’t ship the game.

Does Scrum work?

Alex: Agile/scrum is common sense stuff. It’s a lot of confusing lingo to describe stuff we do anyway (e.g. stand-up meetings, prioritizing tasks).

Do you need a Certified Scrum Professional to train you?

Alex: I once talked to one, and I asked him how scrum works when you have 200 people. He drew a complete blank. He said you’d need to do a scrum of a scrum of a scrum of a scrum …
Lesley: I went through the same thing at Relic.
Alex: It’s not that tough:

  • Have a backlog of features
  • Give it to the team
  • Define what they’ll do in a 2-3 week sprint
  • Complete a task with measurable results
  • Remove any existing roadblocks
  • Hold daily meetings
  • Achieve your objectives

Rhys Yorke checks out Lesley's tats

While Lesley makes a point about Phord-Toy’ss megalomaniacal plans to destroy the Earth, Rhys surreptitiously checks out one of her tattoos.

How much authority do you have to hire and fire staff?

Alex: I have final responsibility for the project. I don’t make rogue decisions – I share a vision with my creative director Max.
Rhys: My role was advisory to HR – I wasn’t directly responsible for staffing decisions.
Lesley: We would hold operations meetings with the producers, HR, the company owner and the operations manager. Terminating someone is a pretty long process. I rely on my leads strongly for hiring recommendations, because I lack specific creative experience. I studied project management, not art.

What is your role as a producer?

Alex: Define a vision. Ship it.
Rhys: I ran meetings, I managed the Beijing team, I counseled the art team … (there was someone breaking down every week.) I kept the game director away from the team because he wanted to fire someone every week.
Alex: Job titles are a big problem. The role of a producer is different everywhere you go. There’s no consistency.
Rhys: My title was “Project Manager : Art”.
Lesley: At EA, Development Directors are producers, and Producers are actually designers.
As a producer, I oversee the entire project, liase with the publisher, give out tasks, remove roadblocks, give out coffee if people want coffee … i don’t do any design at all – that’s the Creative Director’s job.

What tools do you use daily?

Alex: Nothing ultra-fancy. Outlook, Excel, MS Project, Jira. Mind Manager works really well for mapping new ideas.
Rhys: Bugzilla, and Alien Brain for art assets.
Lesley: Excel, Jira, and a Confluence wiki for our game design documents. Anything but MS Project!

How do you handle time tracking?

Alex: We use Jira, but it’s a little like predicting the future. I’d have more luck calling up Jojo the psychic. I wish we did more in this area, but things change constantly. I have 13 years experience, but I feel like I should be a junior producer. Every time I work on a project, I need to re-think it. On each new project, you have to do better with more people.
Lesley: It’s definitely difficult to try to go back and learn from past projects. We use milestones. We have to predict the future in broad strokes. Everything’s different.
Rhys: I used to try to track time to the minute. Now I try not to sweat it.
Alex: Sometimes I wish I was in a job where I had a roadmap, like in film, where they know how long things will take.
Rhys: Or in construction. We’re in a young industry that is like film was in the 30′s and 40′s.
Alex: The most important thing, despite the change and the uncertainty and the volatility, is the people. Producers aren’t experts on anything. They rely on their people.

Are you more valuable as an employee the longer you stay at a company?

Alex: Outsiders can bring a lot of excellent experience and freshness to the group. We’ve built the Ubisoft Toronto studio with a lot of outside talent. I’ve learned more in the past 4 months than I have in the past 4 years.

What tools do you use to predict the future?

Alex: There are a lot of good psychics in Toronto.
Lesley: That’s not our job. We make the present go smoothly. I count on my leads to help me predict the future. I stick to milestones – broad stroked. I don’t want to promise anything I might not be able to deliver.
Rhys: Give the team ownership, and let your leads delegate responsibility.
Alex: It’s not about predicting the future, but one thing we’re getting better at is knowing where we need to be at the main gates of a project – measuring where we are vs. where we need to be.

Andrei Petrov

Many of moderator and fledgling producer Andrei Petrov’s questions presumed the panelists had Magic Producer Powers that Andrei could wield like the sorceror’s apprentice. Sadly, no such luck – there were no magic talismans or secret pieces of software that could make someone a better producer.

How do you deal with conflicting game design ideas from team members?

Alex: It’s important to stick to a clear vision.
Rhys: Design by committee never works. You have to make people feel respected even if you decide not to go with their idea.
Lesley: Weigh all ideas against your core goals. Remember what it is you’re trying to make.
Alex: Sometimes we’ll give an idea a shot, and allow for maybe a month of experimentation. This happens more toward the beginning of a project, not the end.

How do you determine the value/return on investment on a new feature?

Alex: There’s absolutely no way to do that.
Rhys: I was just told to “make it more like World of Warcraft, and we’ll be fine.”

Note: At this point, i shot up my hand and said that metrics-driven companies like Zynga would whole-heartedly disagree with Alex. Alex was enthusiastic about the direction metrics-driven design was taking, and admitted it’s more difficult to do that with boxed products, but pointed out that it’s becoming easier with downloadable content. He referenced the kind of ongoing maintenance that companies like Valve put into their products through digital distribution.

What can you tell us about overtime?

Rhys:I’ve found that buying people beer and pizza works quite well.
Lesley: We’ve had a revolt against pizza, but yeah – beer works. At our studio, OT is not mandatory, but sometimes you have to make it mandatory. (What in bloody Hell? – ed.) We run activities, special dinners, and parties to compensate the team. We offer time in lieu, and we shut down the studio between Christmas and the New Year.

How do you get people to work overtime?

Lesley: This industry is known for its long hours and OT. We hire dedicated, pro-active people who automatically put in OT because they’re passionate about the project.
Rhys: In Norwegian culture, people go home every day at 4 PM. It wasn’t unusual for me to stay until 10. It’s important to maintain morale, and to work with passionate people.
Alex: It’s a sensitive topic. We try to work with passionate people who love video games. It’s not just a job. People have to believe that their project is run well, managed well. I strive to be transparent with the team so that there are no surprises. You have to communicate. You can’t just spring crunch on people – you have to have a goal. OT cannot be mandatory. Some employees are students with no girlfriend and nothing better to do, and it’s nothing for them to put in the extra time. But other employees are at a different stage – they may have three kids, and have to arrange all week for Nana to pick up the kids and babysit them, and they can only put in that extra four hours.

When do you decide to pull OT, cut features, or push back on the client’s deadline?

Alex: It’s a judgment call. If you predict that a push will achieve your goal, do it. Otherwise, review it. You don’t always predict it accurately. If you let people down again and again with a push that doesn’t end up achieving your goal, you start to lose the trust of your team.

How do you recruit your leads? Are they usually internal or external?

Rhys: You need to take the time to get to know your team. We may promote someone who is not the best programmer or artist on the team, but he’s well-organized, confident, can communicate well, and holds up in a crisis.
Lesley: Leads must be well-rounded, and good communicators. We promote leads internally because trust is already there, and they’re already friends with the team. You don’t get that with an external hire.
Alex: We look for qualities of leadership, organization, good communication skills. We have three types of leads at Ubisoft:

  • Managing Leads – these people are well-organized
  • Technical Leads – they understand tech well and can teach it to others
  • Content Directors – they show good judgment and organizational skill

Organizational skill is very important for a lead.

How do you communicate with your team?

Lesley: It depends on who I’m communicating with. I use MSN, email, face-to-face time, team meetings, some ad hoc meetings, and I have weekly meetings with leads.
Rhys: For best results, I prefer to meet face-to-face.
Alex: I got this link from the IGDA Production SIG, and have been reading an article about how proximity improves communication.

Do you use middleware?

Alex: Yes. Havoc, ScaleForm.
Rhys: Yes. Havoc, SpeedTree. We write our own game engine, but we use middleware whenever possible.
Lesley: Yes. We have our own engine as well, but we do use middleware.

What was your biggest unexpected hurdle in your role as a producer?

Rhys: I didn’t know that managing hundreds of people wouldn’t be the same as managing a small team. I had no experience with that, and no background in business. I tried to micro-manage everything.
Lesley: Communication. I can’t name all the people on my team. I wish I could.
Alex: You start losing track. Things start out small, and then they grow and grow and grow, and suddenly one day it’s a few hundred people. It’s freaky. You think, “am I a bad manager?” It’s more like you’re building a business or an organization.

How to you keep from over-polishing a game to the point where you polish out the charm?

Rhys: It’s very difficult. Make sure you follow the Creative Director’s vision.
Alex: We never really have the problem where our product is too polished! Bigger games don’t tend to surprise people. It happens sometimes, but more risks are being taken by smaller indie studios – those games have charm – and then bigger games start to incorporate those ideas and innovations, in much the same way that indie movie ideas make their way into big blockbusters.

How do you incorporate testing and act on testing results?

Rhys: Test early and often.
Lesley: We do QA from day one. We get as many people involved as possible. We try to get fresh eyes on the game all the time. We put the game in front of friends, family, and focus testers.
Alex: We’re starting to put metrics in the code to replace purely observational playtests. We can figure out what people are actually doing in the game, and whether they’re favouring one weapon over another, or missing this or that pick-up or game area. It’s worked well.

When does audio come into play in your projects?

Rhys: Audio is the forgotten love child of the video game industry. You need to get audio in early.
Lesley: You need to consider audio from day one. It’s hugely important.
Alex: We solved the problem by hiring the tallest sound designer in the world, so you can’t ignore him. Get audio in early. We consider a whole sound strategy, instead of doing integration right off the bat.

Alex falls asleep

While Rhys reveals his findings about Lesley’s tattoo, Alex falls fast asleep.

By this point, time was up. We all got up and stretched our legs, and then about half of the attendees went across the street to crowd into the Elephant & Castle for a tall mug of sarsaparilla.

Ryan Goes to Camp

i think i only missed one Toronto game community event last year. It was called GamerCamp, and it was on a Saturday. i skipped it because Saturdays are family days, and i wanted to spend some quality time with my wife and kids.

i’ll never make that mistake again.

GamerCamp

GamerCamp : worth forsaking your family for

People came back positively RAVING about GamerCamp. i knew this year that i just HAD to be involved.

Thus Spake Ryanthurstra

i am thrilled that Jamie and Mark, the awesomazing organizers behind the event, invited me to speak (after a teensy bit of grovelling). (… from me, not them.) They wanted someone with experience in educational game development, and Untold Entertainment’s got it. In addition to the educational preschool games we’ve built for Sinking Ship Entertainment, we’re currently working on a project funded by a high-ranking ministerial body of educational governance. i admit it sounds a little dull, so i wanted to spice it up a bit.

Here’s the advice the event organizers gave on titling my talk:

You can call your talk whatever you want and by no means self-censor. Try and make your title a declarative statement or provocative question.

(For example, Dragonette has a song called “Get Your Titties Off My Things” and if they wanted to speak at Gamercamp and call it that, I’d high-five them.)

So without very much deliberation, and because i absolutely love high-fives, i decided to call my talk “Get Your Titties Off My Things : Adventures in Educational Gaming.”

Titties and Education Don’t Mix

hot for teacher

Apparently, no one’s hot for teacher.

In updating the site, the organizers had a last-minute change of heart and decided to censor the talk title. Since it didn’t make much sense any more (not that it made any sense to begin with), i decided to re-title the talk “SCUMM-Sucking : Adventures in Educational Gaming“.

What do you do when you LOVE building LucasArts and Sierra-style graphic adventure games, but you have to take boring educational service work to pay the bills?

>Get MONEY.
>Use MONEY on GAME.
>Give PRESENTATION to GAMERCAMP.

SCUMM Bar

Time to nip in for a pint of Grog™.

The educational project is an experiment in teaching deadly-dull guidance counselor material by speaking the students’ language – the language of video games!

i’ll also be talking about how i leveraged the educational project to add features to UGAGS (the Untold Entertainment Graphic Adventure Game System), which is my attempt at building a Flash version of the LucasArts SCUMM engine. (They used SCUMM to make Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island and others.) The client benefits from our increasingly feature-rich engine, we get a better product that we can use to make awesome games in the future, and everybody wins!

Including you! Come out to GamerCamp in Toronto November 13-14 to hear the tremendous line-up of speakers, eat some cupcakes, jam out to a crazy nerd party, and battle your hangover to hear about UGAGS the afternoon following the big bash.

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.