Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Reason I'm Entering the Videogames Industry

I've been fortunate to squeeze in about 15 hours of Mass Effect 3 over the past few weeks, and I love it. It's a bit glitchy, especially during the in-game cinematics, but those rare lapses are easily forgiven thanks to consistently pretty environments, dramatic and rewarding character abilities, and (especially) an interesting cast of characters that you can identify with. The guys and gals responsible for the aliens in ME deserve medals, both for how they look and animate, but also how they speak (good job, writers), and how they sound (good job, voice-actors). I genuinely care about almost every character in the game, and I want to be their hero.

The next paragraph is full of spoilers.

I was treated to several sombre moments during those 15 hours. I said goodbye to Mordin and watched him heroically cure the genophage while singing his version of the Major-General's Song softly under his breath—his singing provided one of my favourite moments in ME2. I said goodbye to Thane while reading scripture with his son. I wanted Legion's AI people to experience their awakening, but wasn't willing to sacrifice the Quarians for it.

My point is that in each of these situations I was genuinely feeling something that was much more far-reaching than what many might even consider is possible through this medium. I've been genuinely sad for these characters, and deeply conflicted in what choices to make. Hearing Mordin vehemently admit that he was wrong before sacrificing himself—seeing him close his eyes and hearing his characteristic sharp intake of breath as the lift took him to the top of the tower for his final act—this was cathartic and satisfying in ways that good novels and movies have only occasionally made me feel. Do you remember how you felt when Sia's Breathe Me started to play at the end of the season finale of Six Feet Under? ME3 is delivering miniature moments like these every few hours.

It's a big deal. BioWare has really achieved something here, just as they've always worked to do, and I'm pleased and even kind of absurdly proud that they're uplifting two of my passions, gaming and writing.

Anyway, to bring this ramble back around. How I felt during those moments in Mass Effect 3 are why I want to make games. I believe, like many do, that videogames are the art form of the 21st century and that these games can have enormous emotional impact. I don't think you can overstate how significant they will be over the next decades, and I'm looking forward to helping create moments that will make my players feel.

Did I mention R.O.Bit is a bit tragic? ;) In case you missed it, I provided a bunch of details about our final project over on the LiveFire Studios blog. Katie said she wouldn't play it if it made her sad, but my description of the game coupled with Grey's mock-ups might have convinced her.

Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, 16 March 2012

My First Piece of Games Journalism

Well, not exactly.

During the four-or-so months leading up to school I was writing for—you can see my pieces by searching for my name directly on their home page. I had to quit shortly after school started, but it was a good experience that gave me a greater appreciation for the news cycle and for that particular gaming news site. They focus on article depth at Game Rant, really digging in to the research for any given story.

With my writing background, I've been leery of each new class in the story stream here at VFS. After all, I took years of classes at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton learning to write, and I focused on the creative streams, especially scriptwriting. As a medium, games borrow heavily from film to tell our stories. And, as an art form, the quality of a written work is often subjective; it is rooted in the audience's experience. Sure, there are best practices and rules to follow, and these tools are extremely helpful in dissecting and improving written work, but it's far from a science when other people are involved.

So I've been worried as each new class begins that my instructors will hate my writing style and harpoon my chances at graduating with honours. That hasn't happened. Quite the opposite—my average over the story focused classes since term one is hovering around a perfect grade. That still didn't stop me from being worried on our first day of Games Journalism class, however.

Our instructor introduced himself as a notoriously hard marker with decades of games-industry writing and editing experience. He looks, sounds, and teaches like he has a real appreciation for classical art, which I almost universally detest for the praise we heap on it. He's direct—which I actually really appreciate, thank you—but when you're on edge and new to a person the 'wrong' criticism might sour your impression of them forever.

It's three weeks in, and nothing has changed, though as usual my fears were unfounded. Well, sort of. Jules has made good on all of his promises—he *is* a tough marker and he is rather direct in his criticism, but none of it is personal, and all of it is targeted to improve our writing. Frankly, I should have known. After all, a writer's ongoing job and the first responsibility they need to learn is to take nothing personally. Jules probably perfected that when I was still flicking chocolate milk on the roof of our classroom during recess. I shouldn't have worried that he would hate my written voice and sink my chances. Though it's still going to be hard work to impress this guy. I'll see what I can do.

 Jules said my first piece was "publishable," though he rightfully pointed out that I was lazy and didn't cite my sources. I also let an easily missed grammatical error slip in. Can you find it?

Also, do you like the piece? Let me know with a comment.


Bloody Memory Lane: How I Killed All of my Favourite NES Characters in one Afternoon

A bit of media made especially for you is a rare delight.

Seldom over the last decade has a movie, book, or videogame been so pitch-perfect that I felt the creators were some alternate-universe versions of me, delivering a labour of love whose goal was to make me happy. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (the movie) was one of these. Let's talk about another.

Abobo's Big Adventure (ABA) is simultaneously a free Flash game and a concentrated dollop of sense memory from my formative years, with each level more surprisingly delightful and familiar than the last. As a 29-year-old gamer raised on Nintendo but who was forbidden to play videogames during school days, ABA is a time machine. For some, I'm sure the experience might be like sitting down for a home-cooked meal; for me—for many in my generation—it's like the dimly lit, comforting weekends getting lost on Zebes, tirelessly learning the patterns of Dr. Wily's robot pawns, and the first time I could kill a blue slime with just a bamboo pole.

As Abobo, the lumpy-headed miniboss from the Double Dragon games who busts through background walls to pound on the Lee brothers, you walk, swim, shoot, wrestle, and fly through eight varied levels ripped directly from several of the most beloved games of the NES era. The core mechanics of each level are different, and no matter the superstar status of a particular game character, Abobo irreverently makes them pay for the kidnapping of his son (Aboboy)—the object of desire throughout Abobo's rampage.

These murderous interactions provide a good deal of the charm in ABA. For example, Abobo in turns punts a classic Diddy Kong off the screen, performs a fatality (or Friendship) on the Urban Champion, and eats a piece of the triforce before decisively ending a horrified Zelda. ABA is filled with sprites, sound effects, and music tracks that look and sound identical to the 25-year-old originals, and pixellated cutscenes provide the transitions from level to level. Even the ending cinematic was ripped directly from Super Mario Bros. 2, and that realization provided a real eureka flashback where I relived those final moments where I defeated Wart, the least loved of Mario's nemeses, 20 years ago.

In short, the game drips charm, graphic pixel violence, and crude humour, and it allows for many "older" gamers to relive their childhood glory days where one-hit kills and lengthy passwords were inherent to the medium. The team of three indy developers behind ABA conceived the idea in 2002, and only over the past two years were they able to finally make it a reality. The time and attention they put in pays off big dividends to a very specific audience. Do you have a fondness for the NES games of the mid-eighties? If so, you’ll love Abobo.

As brilliant and refreshing as ABA is, firing it up again after "wrapping" it, as we used to say, is bittersweet. Credit is due to a pixel- and byte-perfect re-creation of games that will, forever, occupy some small part of my brain, but as the surprises fade you see that ABA is simply a tribute. The “ultimate tribute to the NES,” in fact, where the 'what' has all been done before. Fortunately, the 'how' is mostly new.

The sweet, concentrated execution of so many classic ideas has maybe never been done so well in one title, but there's little on offer here for certain audiences. Younger gamers in particular—or at least those whose formative years were filled with the Master Chief rather than 8-bit Mario—might be turned off by retro aesthetics and unforgiving, pattern-based gameplay. In addition, the default keyboard controls, which feel backwards thanks to my console upbringing, can't be changed (though there is an option to play with a NES gamepad if you have the proper hardware).

At this point, I hope my recommendation for this game is clear. For fans of 8-bit Mega Man, Contra, and The Legend of Zelda, Abobo’s Big Adventure is a no-fail, laugh-out-loud way to re-experience your childhood, if only for an afternoon. Simply recognizing the tunes and characters as you progress is an enormous part of the appeal of ABA, but take all of that rosy pigment away and you still have a clever title that plays well, and best of all, costs nothing.

Intrigued? Check it out at

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Term 4 - Less Learning, More Application

So, I guess our final project is here. We have taken the first steps in creating the focal point of my efforts at VFS. It feels both good and bad.

If you follow the blog you know that Term 4 was hyped as the toughest term of them all, with the full pre-production cycle stacked on top of a normal class load. The truth is that most of our instructors have taken that into account this time around, and the new and improved workload reflects that we want to spend much of our time planning our final project. There is still plenty to do, but it isn't overwhelming.

This is really good news. I'm really pleased to see my skills growing, and it's pretty satisfying to look at environments in Modern Warfare 3 or Mass Effect 3 and know that I could build them in UDK. With the assets of talented artists, of course. Still, it's nice to feel like there's a bit of breathing room before we launch ourselves full-blown into production of ROBit (our final project).

After six months of concentrated learning, we are now mostly just applying those skills and building useable assets. The artists are creating 3D characters in Maya, the programmers are coding minigames, and us writers and level designers are, well, writing and building levels.

I should admit that I *am* a little behind when it comes to Kismet, the visual scripting language in UDK. I've learned that new software doesn't come to me very easily, and the standard classroom setting doesn't work well to teach me the software (especially when the classrooms are as hot as 28 degrees). I've made a number of suggestions as to how our UDK classes could be structured to encourage good planning, better learning with lessons that would stick, and more effective personal work pipelines that we will need in the industry, anyway. Things to discuss with Dave when I apply to be a TA, and if I get the job.

Did I mention that we've made our decision on our final game? We have, and I've written about it on our dev blog over at As a side note, I will be posting a little less here as the weekly posting schedule at LiveFire takes over that time. If you forget the URL, just google LiveFire Studios or Ikesgamingblog and click the first page that it pulls up. :)

Anyway, I'm working on some exciting projects right now. I have created a shotlist for the emotional cinematic (basically an in-game movie) I hope to make later this term, and I have some mission and environment planning to do for my UDK classes, but otherwise it's just design and management on our final project.

That should cover it for now. If you really want to keep up with my activities here at school, you should really go check out the LiveFire dev blog at the link I dropped earlier.

Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

On Deck: The Toughest Term Yet

Term 3 has come to a close and I have a three-day weekend to enjoy before getting back to work on what has been hyped as the new toughest term in the program, Term 4. The reason? Term 4 stacks the entire pre-production cycle for our final projects on top of a standard course load (and if you've been keeping up, a standard course load here can become hectic in a hurry).

There is much to look forward to. I will be learning how to build machinima (in-game cinematics) in the story stream while continuing to build my skills with UDK. I will get to fully test my abilities to guide my new team, and I will have my two favourite instructors—Chris Mitchell and Olivia Bogacki—back this term to improve my processes, expand my horizons, and tell me what to do if I lose my mind. 

With so much work to do it would be easy to relax a day too many and fall behind, but I keep tabs on the students who have come before; their advice usually constitutes the very practical "be proactive and work hard." I'm about as ready as I can be.

Over this break I have a list of 10 priorities that I want to take care of before I start again on Monday at 9:00AM. One of the lowest-priority items is posting what you are now reading, but when I have a lot to do I like to knock a few lighter items out of the park to build momentum for the tougher items. Here are a few of them.

1. Apply for the Associate Producer job at Irrational Games.

2. Hold a LiveFire Studios meeting to discuss our priorities heading into T4.

3. Spend three hours each on making matinées and editing materials in UDK.

4. Get Pistol Reef internet-ready with the help of my Flash team.

5. Go through the business cards I collected this past term and contact the industry professionals to thank them for their time and establish connections.

You'll have noticed that some of those items are multi-parters, particularly applying for that very appealing job with Ken Levine and Co. Applying for that job involves updating a resume that will be so different from the previous iteration that I wonder if I shouldn't just start all over. Many new skills, many new featured projects, and even a new career direction. Stack a cover letter on top and you have a lot of work.

The only qualification I am missing is that I haven't shipped at least one title, but my years of experience as a manager could combine with the very targeted experience I am earning now in school to provide a strong case for equivalency. Without fooling myself, there's a possibility that I would be considered as a candidate. I don't really expect to get a call back, though. 

It might make sense to hire me on paper, but if that was all it took I would have been hired at BioWare almost 10 years ago. No, I'm doing the work to get a leg up on the job hunt. I will be actively looking for work from here until I graduate. For that I will need business cards, an updated resume, and good portfolio pieces.

I mentioned the job application to one of my peers in the program—an artist named Jay—and he asked me what I would do if they offered me the job. After some discussion I realized that the only thing I could do would be to ask them to start my contract with them after school was done. Not only do I want to finish the program here and earn my diploma (with an honors average of 90+), but my team is relying on me to work my ass off over the next six months.

I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Scheduling and Team LiveFire

Term three is winding down and I am looking forward to my break.

I may have mentioned that I have never worked this hard in my life. I know, I know—you hear that from people and it's easy to dismiss it, but I can quantify the claim for you by describing my average weekly schedule.

Here goes.

I have between seven and nine classes every week. Each class is scheduled for three hours, with a handful habitually only reaching the 1.5-2 hour mark, providing lab time for the remainder. Let's average that out to 25 hours a week in class.

I have major assignments due in two of those classes most weeks. Major assignments might take anywhere from five to forty hours to complete. Those are extremes at either end, and averaging them out is basically meaningless considering the range.

The time I spend at school is much more telling and useful. For terms one and two, I stayed home for about five days in total. That means I spent 55 days out of 60 at school. On average I probably did around 10 hours of work for each of those days, inside or outside of class. My schedule was a bit different in term 3, and I tried having a day off each week. It didn't go well, and I have spent the last week scrambling to catch back up.

The bottom line? I spend 60-90 hours a week on school projects. That might not seem like a lot to some people—I'm sure there are stock brokers or realtors or career criminals out there who spend 100+ hours a week doing their thing—but to most people, to me, it's a lot. As the end of each term rolls around I start to crave a little downtime for my brain. Well, I have some coming to me, though I have one more massive assignment standing in my way before I can really relax.

There are a couple of contributing factors to my excessive time spent at/with school. I want to do a good job of every assignment I touch, and I also want to maintain my honors average. I'm sitting at 93% atm. The other thing is my specialization. As a project manager I end up not only doing a fair chunk of every group assignment I am on, but I also take on the role of keeping other people rolling, setting deadlines, and organizing the workflow. This adds anywhere from 10-50% to my project workload, but someone has to do it for a project team to turn out good work, and I'm happy to be practicing the skills that I am hoping will get me hired at companies like Irrational Games and BioWare.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to polishing Pistol Reef over the break—I want to get it up on Kongregate or another web portal—and Sacrifice (my board game) is begging for some playtesting so I can get it up for sale online. That's work, too, but it's so far removed from the stressful school stuff that I am really looking forward to it.

Oh, and also? LiveFire Studios is a thing. I will be posting there a lot over the next six months. Check us out.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Pitching Shroud Isle

Shroud Isle is the name of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign I ran with some buddies over the course of two years. It's a complex story that unfortunately never even reached its halfway point at the gaming table, though I had planned well beyond that. It's got everything, from love to betrayal; from gunzerkers to jungle ninjas; from conflict borne out of individual racial prejudice, all the way to the potential for the players' to end the world.

After spending so mich time and effort building characters and planning encounters and even creating a basic language for the natives of the island, the San'Nakkai, I have subconsciously been keeping my eyes open for an opportunity to pay all that off. I got it this term with my Creative Writing class, where we are expected to pitch a story as our final project.

Pitching a game story is a lot like pitching a game, something I have done a lot of these five months. As a side note, I am more than a bit flattered and proud to have heard from a couple of fellow students that I'm the best speaker in our class. Anyway, I've had four meetings over the past two weeks to pitch my game idea to fellow GD students and some of the excellent guys from the VFS screenwriting program. I was unprepared for the first pitch, which was unfortuate since that meeting was with a guy working as a producer in Vancouver. He was all business, and the 60 minutez I spent with him were exhausting.

The next three meetings went very well, with one listener even going as far as to say that he loved my story and thought I should pursue it to completion. Never mind that the game would rival a BioWare title for length, complexity, and production costs, it was still incredibly gratifying to have someone buy my creative work so completely.

I owe that positive experience to knowing my story well, understanding what a listener needs to hear to to keep them centered on the plot, and being passionate about the whole thing. I broke the ice first thing by asking him about his schooling, something I sometimes struggle with, and drew a map on a handy whiteboard to keep him oriented in the world as I told my story.

Most of all, I owed that later success to that first failure. I made sure to do all the things in that second pitch that I didn't do in the first, and while I hope I won't have to screw up to learn at some point in my life, I'll never expect it to happen. You learn a lot from failure.

Anyway, I'll be presenting that story in a couple of weeks, and maybe in five or ten years you'll be playing Shroud Isle or zome derivative for yourself.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Post School Plans

This post is maybe a bit premature, but I wanted to talk about some of my potential plans once I graduate.

First of all, I really enjoy the academic setting. If you watch Extra Credits—please, please do if you have any interest in Game Design—you may have seen the episode where they discuss post-secondary Game Design education. Hundreds of people like me are graduating every few months with formal Game Design experience. This wasn't a thing ten years ago, and with game companies and publishers becoming enormous—with their triple-a titles now costing tens of millions of dollars—these companies are less willing to take risks on innovation. So where does innovation live?

At school.

You can also find it in the minds and skills of thousands of awesome indie designers out there, including more than a few entrepreneurial indie development houses. But school brings together dozens of passionate idea people and gives them the skills to implement those wacky ideas that become Minecraft and Portal.

I also love a bit of structured chaos and meeting new people and being a mentor, all of which I am finding at VFS. I have thought for a long time that I'd love to teach, too, so I am considering becoming a TA. Teacher's Assistants at VFS help teach, answer student questions, mark assignments, help with events, and do a number of other tasks as required. I think I'd be a good fit, and that it would be a good fit for me. The work/life balance I am seeing there is appealing, and I believe I would feel valued there. I will be able to bring my communications degree, five years as a professional writer, editor, and manager, and my game design diploma (and all the ancillary skills and experience) to the position.

Anyway, just thoughts for now. I need to set up some meetings with current TAs and speak to the program head to see if it would be as rosy as I think, but from here the view is just fine.

As a side note, James Portnow of Extra Credits is coming to VFS Game Design to chat with us about narrative in games this coming week, and VFS has asked me to write a short article about the talk. I'll link to that article later this week.

Thanks for stopping by.