Last weekend we spent a very enjoyable and informative time at the 6th Game Design Expo  presented by Vancouver Film School . As in previous years, we were treated to some very inspiring and informative talks – some that make us wish we were game developers or trying to figure out a way to apply the processes covered to our own project endeavours.
We also did a video interview with Ian Christy from Slant Six Games , but due to the background noise, the interview will have to be re-done in a quieter environment. Both Scott  and I  live tweeted from the Expo, check out #gdexpo  to find the tweets from Industry Speaker Day – a small army of us managed to get #gdexpo trending in Vancouver, and Scott grabbed a screenshot of the accomplishment. 
Industry Speaker Day began with a subject that always interests me – story. Bruce Nesmith, Director of Design at Bethesda Softworks spoke on the opportunities and challenges experienced in creating radiant stories in video games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in particular, a game which I have not yet played – in fact I haven’t touched a game on my console in over two weeks due to lack of free time.
The possibilities presented through the use of radiant story telling that intrigued me the most was offering a more varied and immersive experience for the gamer with smarter NPCs who could play more than one role throughout the course of the game. Non-Player Characters who actually react properly in a non-repetitive manner would be a very welcome addition to games.
The next presentation’s focus was on working with established IP properties, centering on Capcom’s upcoming Resident Evil chapter Operation Raccoon City, currently in development at Slant Six Games . Senior Game Developer Ian Christy walked the audience through several areas in the new game as he spoke about staying true to the Resident Evil franchise will creating new and creepy experiences for gamers. It is important to the game’s creative team to maintain the expectations of Resident Evil fans while attracting new ones.
Ian touched briefly on a few of the major changes in this iteration of the Resident Evil story, including less focus on solving puzzles and much more high-energy, high adrenalin shooting scenes. In an interesting twist, players are given at least one moral scenario, where they can choose the path they want to take – kill iconic characters and change the story, or maintain the status quo storyline by letting them live. Resident Evil Operation Raccoon City looks like it will have some great play scenarios, especially for those who enjoy games with multiple game tree experiences, including me. You can read Ian’s presentation in full  over on his blog.
Up next was what Scott and I felt was the best presentation of the day – Combat 101: Creating Cohesive Combat Systems with Mark Acero, Senior Combat Designer at Radical Entertainment  for PROTOTYPE 2. Using the example of creating a giant dragon enemy, Mark presented the challenges of realistic physics and balancing game play mechanics to give the player an even better game play experience than was expected. The main message from this session was that if Mark ever designs the dragon enemy of his dreams and your player character encounters it in a game, the best defense will be to run. In the opposite direction. Fast.
The session presented by Bruce Kelly, a Narrative Game Designer at Eidos Montreal  was titled Storytelling vs Storyplaying: Lessons Learned in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This presentation held a lot of potential, but for me it fell far short of the mark. To be fair, this was Bruce’s first ever presentation at a game design event, but I would have preferred a more topical talk over the large amount of time spent on biographical and critical acclaim for the game talk. There was some discussion about team communication and prototype turn-around, but in reality, this talk didn’t hold a lot of interesting content.
We missed two of the afternoon presentations as we were out in the lobby talking to people and getting ready for our interview with Ian, but apparently the talk given by Dan Taylor  on the topic of level design was excellent. We didn’t hear much in the way of feedback on Competitive Multiplayer Design for iOS, the presentation done by Patric Mondou from Gameloft Montreal , so I cannot pass along anything about it, unfortunately.
The final single-speaker session of the day was Lessons Learned While Designing a AAA MMO with Bioware Austin Associate Lead Designer Emmanuel Lusinchi. This presentation was given in the form of seven important points, with a bonus lesson at the end, of areas that all game designers should pay particular attention to, and there are so many studios who get some of these very wrong – making mistakes that could have serious repercussions in this “instant feedback” world in which we live.
One of the most important points was paying attention to your game’s social community – MMO players are among the most vocal in the world, and they will let you know when they are not happy with your product. It’s also important to make it easy for players to socialize amongst themselves during game play – give them some ice-breaking opportunities and benefits such as a buff for talking to another player in-game.
From my Twitter notes, here is a shortened version of the lessons presented:
Lesson 1 – you are not working enough on your tools – a good investment in the long run
Lesson 2 – communication – everything you say can and will be used against you especially with your fan base; leave no room for ambiguity, don’t let your audience think you lied to them
Lesson 3 irrationality – peer validation theory, lifestyle investment theory, existential threats. Forums for MMO games are a bit more … challenging .. for the dev team. It is a Challenge to understand the subtext of all forum arguments where perception > facts. As I said above, there is a common perception that devs are out of touch with their audience. Talk to your fan base.
Lesson 4 – covers the social aspect of MMOs that I mentioned above.
Lesson 5 – applies mainly to devs only – be self generated and self directed. Play the game, read the forums, use the tools you wrote
Lesson 6 was about cool stuff – how the cool unexpected stuff happens – include a recipe for lots of them in your game. The secret recipe for cool stuff includes: a healthy project, motivated dev, broad knowledge, good tools, attention to details, and understand the limits. There is a fine line between a company hero and a loose cannon creating wildfires.
Lesson 7 – hiring well is the single most important success for any project. Interview seriously, use the veto rule, test prospects before, during & after the hiring process.
Bonus lesson – be that guy (or gal) studios are always in need of stars. After grad, everything new will be self taught, add to your knowledge base. Using in-game mod tools is good practice & a way to show your worth & understanding of tool sets.
A panel discussion moderated by Victor Lucas concluded the day. Indie developers Brian Provinciano , Chevy Ray Johnston , Rick Davidson , Jake Birkett  and Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch  presented a spirited and entertaining session about some of the realities in choosing the path of being an independent developer as opposed to working in a studio owned by one of the major publishing houses. Brian’s game, Retro City Rampage, was set up in the theatre lobby where it proved to be a popular attraction.
Some of the important take-aways from this panel were:
- Marketing is a full time job – don’t expect to just publish a game and then it will sell itself
- Be willing to give away part of what you own in order to get ahead
- Chevy spends all of his time making games, not thinking about what it means to be indie – he makes games because he is compelled to create
- Rick feels that being indie has become somewhat trendy
- Victor feels that part of being indie is that the creator takes control of his or her IP from start to finish
- Rick also thinks about food when he thinks about games – some are Thai, some are McDonald’s
- Brenda feels that there is a huge gap in game development that is neglecting a big audience
- The jury is still out on whether or not Chevy is in fact insane
- Brian found it too difficult to work a full time job creating games for someone else and then work on his own project at night, so he left his job to work on his own projects full time
- Jake pointed out that success does not happen overnight – it takes time to build a good base of projects that will financially support you
Congratulations to Relic Entertainment , winner of the annual VFS Award For Outstanding Educational Contribution. In 2011, Relic established the Brian Wood Memorial Internship , an internship that will be awarded three times annually to celebrate the life of Relic game designer Brian Wood, who was killed in a tragic car accident in 2010.
Day Two of the Game Design Expo took place at the VFS Game Design Campus , and I don’t think we have ever seen so many attendees at the Open House  – and I also noticed that this year there seemed to be an abundance of young teen and pre-teen attendees. I think this is encouraging when one considers the future of the creative talent pipe over the coming years. This year, instead of socializing with other members of the local game development industry, Scott and I took some of the mini-classes that are offered throughout the day.
If I were to pick a favourite class, it would be Storytelling, which touched on the differences between stories in games and movies as well as what a player expects from stories in games. The next class we took was Game Theory, another class that I completely enjoyed, except for how fast the presenter spoke. Both of these classes made me wish that they were offered as a night school course out here in the Fraser Valley. While there are creative writing classes offered through some continuing education programs out here, they aren’t quite the same as writing for games or developing game play.
The class we sat in on was for Level Design, which we also found interesting but at the same time also a bit lacking. We would have liked to have learned more about some of the tools available to the public so that prospective students could work on their skills and perhaps build a good skill set before attending a game design program. While the presenters did use the freely available UDK, alternatives were somewhat ignored. We also sat in on the Flash Game class, as we were hoping that the possibly insane Chevy would be the instructor. Sadly, he wasn’t, but Scott still messed around with the platform and created a bit of a fun game.
As always, we would like to commend the volunteers, students and faculty at VFS for another great event. We would also like to recognize the sponsors  and speakers who play such an important part in the success of the Game Design Expo – and we are already looking forward to next year’s event.
This year’s Game Design Expo Sponsors:
- G4 TechTV Canada  – gold level & exhibitor
- AnnexPro  – bronze level & exhibitor
- Radical Entertainment  – bronze level
- Big Park  – friend
- HP  – tote bags
- Slant Six Games  – networking reception & exhibitor
- Georgia Straight  – media
- iDesign Solutions  – exhibitor
- Relic  – exhibitor
At some point in time in the near future videos from Game Design Expo 2012 will be available for viewing. In the meantime, it is possible to look back on the 2011 and 2010 sessions  on the video page.