During the week of July 8 to 12, 2013, the Game Design program at Vancouver Film School, located in Vancouver’s Chinatown district, welcomed 15 brave explorers to its Game Design Summer Intensive experience. These explorers may have come from different lands and backgrounds, but they had one thing in common – a passion for creating video games. It is thanks to this passion that they found themselves enrolled in a week-long intensive experience of All Things Video Game Design.
The students’ initiation began with a welcome from the Head of the Game Design program Dave Warfield, after which they were off to their first class of Game Theory taught by Instructor Chris Mitchell and Senior Instructor Andrew Laing. During the course of the day students became immersed in the roles of the game designer and analyzed the basic rules and mechanics of gaming.
One of the hardest things to do is to come up with an idea… and by idea, I mean a ‘good’ idea. There is a fine art to making a game challenging yet entertaining – the motto: if a segment of the game or level is not fun to play, then it needs to be cut, no matter how much you love it. Chris and Andrew shared useful advice, suggestions, techniques and approaches on how to keep the creative process fresh and flourishing, as well where to find inspiration.
Right off the bat, students were divided into teams and asked to brainstorm unique game ideas, keeping in mind 5 essential questions:
1. What is the game?
2. What is the core mechanic?
3. What is the core challenge?
4. Why make the game?
5. Why would you enjoy making the game?
Next, the students were asked to implement the same technique, but this time to create innovative sequels to existing Intellectual Properties (IP’s). IP’s are concepts that have already been developed to which the exclusive rights have been recognized and are under ownership. In relation to this, the notion of ‘creative stealing’ was also discussed; this is not the open theft of an idea or concept, but rather taking the core idea of a game – its essence, if you will – and giving it a different spin. As an example, Chris surmised the game Saint’s Row was clearly inspired by Grand Theft Auto, but exists in a very different game space despite being mechanically almost identical.
Perhaps one of most unexpected messages to be taken away from the Game Theory class was on the importance of failure in prototyping; it is often through mistakes that the most experience is gained and the best lessons learned. This holds true for any project in any industry.
Tuesday saw the students tackle Level Design with Instructor Victor Kam and Jr. Instructor Calder Archinuk. They learned about the necessity of level design during development, as well as how it is actualized in the industry. Assisted by Teaching Assistant Caylen Robertson, students received hands-on experience using Google SketchUp – a simple and easy-to-use 3D modeling tool – before progressing onto the more powerful Unreal Editor to build and play their own simple level.
Victor then introduced students to the Big Daddy of Game Engines, the Unreal Development Kit (UDK). UDK is a download available to the general public to develop non-commercial games – and best of all, it’s free to download! It uses the Unreal Engine. Originally developed by Epic Games, the Unreal Engine was first used in the 1998 first-person shooter game Unreal.
As the day progressed, the students were made to exchange their game player hats with game designer hats as Victor asked them to think about the importance of coming up with game play environments that would not only hold the player’s interest, but feed their desire and curiosity to explore the world of the game. How would one do this? Some tricks of the trade include pacing, placement of items, enemy encounters, cinematic mise-en-scéne, variation and charting a player path. “Imagine you’re being led through a haunted house,” explains Victor, “The scares come from anticipation and unpredictability of what’s to come. Despite that, you want to know what’s around the corner and so keep moving forward – you can’t help yourself!”
After lunch, Calder continued the day’s focus on Level Design with a tutorial on Kismet, the visual scripting language for defining game events in UDK. This intuitive interface allows the designer to control program flow by dragging connections between objects.
Everyone then got their hands dirty by taking a partially completed level and experimenting with the different tools in UDK. Using Kismet, the students created simple door functions and enemy AI. They began with the terrain tool to mold large exterior landscapes, and then created an atmosphere for a level using some lighting and fog and ended up with a cool level of their own. Nifty!
Wednesday marked the half-way point of the Summer Intensives and it was jam-packed with all things Narrative and Game Art related.
Often overlooked, the writer’s role is imperative to make an emotional connection with the player to draw them into the game and build on their expectations and sense of intrigue. With background music setting the mood, Instructor Paul Jensen kicked off the day by immersing the students in a PowerPoint presentation on the Fundamentals of Storytelling and how storytelling for video games is unique due to its interactive player experience.
Paul also talked about developing memorable characters for games, the mantra being: memorable characters make for memorable games. Then it was time for a walk down memory lane as he went through the Top 30 greatest game characters from Mario to Master Chief. I can’t be certain, but a few nostalgic tears may have been shed…
The students were taken through the Hero’s Journey – the backbone of storytelling. Created by scholar Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey outlines the foundation of the typical story structure in 12 stages:
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies & Enemies
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
8. The Ordeal
9. The Reward
10. The Road Back
12. Return with the Elixir
Using classic movie examples from Star Wars Episode VI, The Matrix and Avatar, Paul led a fun Q&A session to have the class identify each of the steps of the Hero’s Journey. Go ahead – see if you can identify the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey of your favorite film! Paul went on to identify that Mythologies, Folk Tales and Archetypes are a rich resource for story ideas and character development, however offered the caveat that the writer must be careful to avoid using bankrupt imagery (imagery that has been so overused that it is no longer effective, and can instead come across as dull and banal). To put in more simple terms, this basically means taking an story and making it feel new – eg: Avatar is essentially a reinvention of Pocohontas.
One way to keep a story fresh is through ‘structure twists’. Leading the viewer down one path, then pulling rug out from under their feet increases unpredictably of a story, and thereby keeps them interested. Structure twists can include elements like sudden revelations, innocent people at risk, characters changing sides, falling into a trap or a hostage being taken, being forced to submit to an enemy’s agenda – to name but a few.
Once the plot of the game has been charted, the game’s objective determined, the story flushed out and characters developed, it is now time to bring all these elements together to draw the player in and have them invested in the world of the game, while also communicating the kind of game play involved.
The afternoon saw the introduction of Instructor Roger Mitchell for Game Art. With help from Teaching Assistant Jordan Lang, Roger led the students through a Maya tutorial, guiding them through the construction of a 3D model which the students animated, mapped and textured – all within a span of 3 hours!
Roger identified the various ways art is used in games ranging from front-end menus to the creation of worlds and characters. He outlined a list of the variety of art styles used in the many different games being produced and played today, as well as the various tools used to create and modify the art.
Time to get into the nitty-gritty of video games, namely Programming. Programming is an essential tool for many aspects of game design. Prototyping, tuning, game logic and decision making become more efficient when the language used is accessible to the non-technical members of a game team (i.e.: producers, designers and artists).
Instructor Peter Walsh opened the door to the basics of Programming. He demystified this sometimes feared aspect of video game creation by going over the fundamentals of basic programming in C#, explaining how programs work, defining variables to store and work with data, and how to use the console to communicate with the user, and ended with the more advanced topics of looping and decision making.
Having grasped a better understanding of the fundamentals, the students applied their newly acquired skills of basic programming through guided in-class exercises in Unity (the aforementioned 3D game engine that uses C#) with guidance from Instructor Bren Lynne and Teaching Assistant Quin Henshaw.
Friday brought the Game Design Summer Intensive week to a close with a full day dedicated to creating a Flash Game with Flash Instructor Jacob Tran and Game Audio Instructor Steve Royea.
Through lectures, discussions, in-class exercises and a hands-on tutorial, students created a Flash game prototype. The world and characters were developed using colour, fonts and vector drawing tools to ensure a polished look.
Once the game had been created Steve continued development by showing the students how to use Pro Tools to incorporate audio to give their games another layer of completion. Pro Tools is a digital audio workstation used for recording and editing music for scoring.
So 5 days later, this group of 15 strangers, some now friends, have taken their first steps towards the games industry. They walked away having learned new skills in Game Theory, Level Design, Story, Game Art, Programming, Flash and Game Audio. To commemorate their experience, the students received Certificates of Completion as well as a better understanding – a glimpse if you like – of what to expect from the one year Game Design program here at Vancouver Film School.
It’s been fun – see you next year!
Tanya Jensen is the Program Manager for Game Design at VFS