VFS SUMMER INTENSIVE – THE GAME DESIGN EXPERIENCE

Whether soaking in some rays on the beach or hiking up mountain trails, summertime in Vancouver allows people to enjoy all the natural beauty the city has to offer.  Summertime in Vancouver also marks the time for Vancouver Film School to host its Summer Intensives – and we did just that.

From July 21 to 25, 2014, the Game Design program opened its doors to 16 fresh faced and enthusiastic individuals wanting a small taste of what it would be like to enroll in the program.  Located in Vancouver’s Chinatown district the school is a hub of game design activity, bringing together people from various backgrounds and experiences to join in their common passion of video games.

 

DAY 1: ORIENTATION & GAME THEORY

Dave Warfield, the Game Design program’s Head of Department, welcomed the Summer Intensive students by giving them an overview of what the week had in store before sending them off to their first class 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.

What is Game Theory and why is it important?  The first stage of anything is coming up with an idea; a fresh concept.  This might sound simple, but is in fact surprisingly challenging.  We may feel an idea we have is fantastic, but once we start to bring that idea to fruition at a practical level, all its complications being to seep forward through the cracks.

In terms of designing a video game, one of these complications is the simple art of making a game challenging yet entertaining – even if that means letting go of an idea, character or level you love but are finding that it does not enhance the player’s experience.  Chris and Andrew shared useful advice, approaches, suggestions and techniques on how where to find inspiration as well as how to keep the creative process fresh and flourishing.

One of most unusual 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.

It was now time to get down to the nitty-gritty; having understood the theory behind conceptualizing game ideas, the students were put to the task to come up with their own using the already existing IP (Intellectual Property).  IP’s are concepts that have already been developed to which the exclusive rights have been recognized and are under ownership.  As a precursor, the notion of ‘creative stealing’ was 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.

The IP given in this case was Strawberry Shortcake – which, in this predominantly male-oriented class, was met with confused amusement.  However, once Chris pointed out the universal themes Strawberry Shortcake tapped in to, such as colours and artwork, the class understood how surprisingly identifiable this merchandise was which suddenly made it ‘appealing’.  It is precisely this Jungian philosophy of tapping into the common unconscious that a designer should be striving for.

The class was 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?

 

Now that they knew what questions to ask, the students were asked to implement the same technique to create an original and innovative sequel to Strawberry Shortcake.  Many clever and whimsical ideas were shared and the longer the discussions went on, the more animated they got.  One idea that Chris found particularly amusing was an example of a Candy-Crush style Strawberry Shortcake game which also proved to be a good example of ‘adjacent possible’ design.

 

DAY 2 – LEVEL DESIGN

Few can argue that one-button games have a certain addictive appeal, however, when it comes to the more complex narrative based games one of the most important aspects in terms of direct player experience is the level, ie: the physical look of the environment.

Guiding the students into the basics of Level Design were Instructor Scott Morin, assisted by Teaching Assistant Jon Tittley who talked about level design theory, the necessity of level design during development, and how it is actualized in the industry.  “Being a level designer is fun for a lot of reasons,” explained Scott, “you’re always learning something new, meeting different people from the teams you work on and always have hands-on work to do.”

With the students primed, the time came for Scott to introduce students to the Unreal Development Kit (UDK).  The Big Daddy of Game Engines, UDK is 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 called Unreal, which is where it gets its name.

As the day progressed, Scott encouraged these fledgling designers to shift gears and start thinking about the importance of designing 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. To do this efficiently, they had to think about pacing, placement of items, enemy encounters, cinematic mise-en-scéne, variation and charting a player path.

After lunch, Scott 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.

The students then took their first steps into Kismet by playing around with a partially completed level and experimenting with the different tools in UDK.  Using Kismet and Matinee, the students created simple door functions. They finished up with the terrain tool to mold large landscapes, which is used for level designers to create organic exterior environments.

 

DAY 3 – STORYTELLING & INTERACTIVE NARRATIVE

Video games today are a sensory experience equal to movies – some may even say they’re more immersive because you get to BE the hero, instead of merely watching the hero.  Some of the best-selling games in the last few years have had a strong narrative (or story) element to them; take for example Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Halo and BioShock.

Easily overlooked, the writer’s emerging role in video games is an exciting frontier to be explored.  Playing non-narrative based games is super fun, but if you want to make an emotional connection with the player, one sure shot way to achieve this is through character – after all, we are people not machines, and we will identify with the avatar we are controlling.  In some form or other, it will reflect a part of our personality through the decisions we make.

Instructor Paul Jensen provided an immersive experience for his Storytelling and Interactive Narrative class.  Students started the class to thematic mood-setting music as Paul launched into a dramatic PowerPoint presentation on the Fundamentals of Storytelling.  After going over the basic elements of general story structure, he focussed on how storytelling for video games is unique due to its interactive player experience qualities.  The most successful video games have the ability to develop a sense of intrigue and build on the player’s expectations once they have been drawn into it, but arguably, creating memorable characters is what narrative based games should strive towards, his mantra: memorable characters make for memorable games.

The most nostalgic part of Paul’s presentation was going through a list of the Top 30 Best Game Characters, ranging from Mario to Master Chief.  We all relived our childhoods right there, let me tell you.

The students were taken through various examples of Interactive Narrative complete with game clips from Uncharted to the upcoming Tom Clancy’s The Division.

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.  This increases unpredictably of a story, which then keeps a viewer interested – what’s going to happen next?!  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 some examples.

Once the plot of the game has been charted, the game’s objective determined, the story flushed out and characters developed, all these elements are brought 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.

 

GAME ART

The afternoon saw the introduction of Instructor Rupert Morris for Game Art. With help from Teaching Assistant Sebastian Pachmayr, Rupert led the students through a Maya and 3D graphics introduction, guiding them through the user interface and animating a character’s face and hands – all within a span of 3 hours!

Rupert 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.

 

DAY 4: PROGRAMMING and CODING IN UNITY

PROGRAMMING

Programming – the heart of video games and what (literally) makes them tick and therefore makes it an essential tool of game design.  It makes prototyping, tuning, game logic and decision-making more efficient when the language used is accessible to producers, designers and artist, i.e. the non-technical members of a game team.

Instructor Peter Walsh started off the morning class by demystifying the basics of Programming.  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, Peter was able to remove the fear sometimes associated with this aspect of video game creation. He ended with the more advanced topics of looping and decision making.

 

CODING IN UNITY

After the welcomed lunch break, the students met with Instructor Bren Lynne who introduced them to Unity (a 3D game engine that uses C#).  Using their newly acquired skills of basic programming, Bren along with Teaching Assistant Shad Miller guided these budding programmers through in-class exercises in Unity.

Together, students created a simple 3D shooting game as a way of exploring Unity’s input manager, physics system, and foundational 3D math of the kind typical in a game.

 

DAY 5: 2D GAMING

The last day of the Game Design Summer Intensive was spent with Instructor Jacob Tran and the fundamentals of 2D Gaming.  Through lectures, discussions, in-class exercises and a hands-on tutorial, students created a 2D game prototype which the students could take home with them. The world and characters were developed using colour, fonts and vector drawing tools to ensure a polished look.

 * * *

The Summer Intensive week was certainly a busy one this year’s enrolees.  Over the course of the week they learned new skills in Game Theory, Level Design, Story, Game Art, Programming and 2D Gaming.  Equally important, the week gave them a better idea about what one whole year in the Game Design program would entail as well as kinds of experiences they would have.

Whether or not they choose to purse this industry is up to them but for now they can proudly display their Certificates of Completion for the VFS Game Design Summer Intensive to family and friends.


Tanya Jensen is the Program Manager for Game Design at VFS