A Look Back at the VFS Game Design Expo - Part 1

The 3rd annual Vancouver Film School Game Design Expo came to a close last weekend. It was a whirlwind series of industry lectures, design classes and alumni game demos that culminated in a Victor Lucas-moderated discussion panel on Saturday and a special Women in Games panel on Sunday.

It's worth noting that the expo differs from other gaming events in that there are no world-exclusive game announcements, marketing keynotes or the unveiling of top-secret 3D engines. This event is more a forum for prospective students considering a career in games plus any enthusiast who has a curiosity about how games are made and how the business is run. In short, anyone who paid the $75 ticket fee to pose with booth babes or watch Peter Moore fumble through Rock Band on stage would have been sorely disappointed.

For everyone else, there were plenty of highlights during the 2-day expo to stimulate the mind. An infectious air of positivity pervaded the event. Both the Vancouver International Film Centre and the VFS campus are not very large venues and made for intimate settings for industry insiders and public attendees alike. The atmosphere could be best described as low-key, with well-behaved game fans and a smattering of company recruitment booths filling up the narrow Film Centre lobby. There wasn't a blaring loudspeaker to be heard nor any flashing lights to signal some fantastic spectacle. It definitely did not feel like a public event but more of a subdued industry schmooze. More than anything, I think that is a testament to how approachable everyone was, from the VFS volunteers and coordinators on up to the respected industry professionals in attendance.

Industry Speaker Day
Ubisoft creative director, Clint Hocking kicked off the first day of the expo with his rousing keynote address, "The Next Generation of Player". Roaring through presentation slides and over 50 years of modern history, Hocking mapped out the changing landscape of today's gaming populace. This is one comprised of a rapidly shrinking boomer generation, just now beginning to make way for a massive influx of Generation Y adults and with that, the emergence of that demographics's peculiar tastes in gaming. And Generation X? In his rapid-fire and hilarious delivery, Hocking made a case for the gradual end to his generation's stranglehold over video game development, a reign a marked by overly difficult games, solitary experiences and an unhealthy dose of cynicism.

The keynote address was an eye-opener and its impact on the discourse of games resonated for the entire weekend. With his astute cultural observations and ironic sense of humour, Clint Hocking himself could be mistaken for a younger Douglas Coupland... if the local icon had chosen to create video games for a living instead of throwing his lot into all those other artistic mediums except games.

The presentations following the keynote were dryly technical in comparison but no less fascinating. Matt Searcy set a sobering tone to his "Level 1" design process lecture when he announced that the studio he was employed at, Humanature, was closed by its parent company (Nexon Publishing) not two weeks earlier. Much of Searcy's recent work with Humanature focused on free-to-play games on the web but the lessons revealed in his prototyping lecture are universal to all scales and markets of game development.

Those same lessons laid the thematic foundation for presentations given later by Drew Murray (Insomniac) and Scott Dossett (Epic). Murray took the audience through the various design hurdles he and his team faced in the development of Resistance 2. The presentation covered the gamut of techniques, from weapon and enemy conceptualization to scripting, level design and usability testing. Much credit needs to be given to Murrary for his candor; he is a humble man who is all too eager to go out of his way to point out his own errors and miscalculations.

Scott Dossett's presentation was greatly aided by gorgeous Gears of War 2 cinematics played in full on the big screen. With much of his topic focused on the nuts and bolts of motion-capture animation, the audience was also treated to some behind-the-scenes video of mo-cap sessions as well as some very funny audition tapes. The Epic animation team eschewed the common practice of hiring martial artists or acrobats as their actors and instead opted for performers with improv or stage experience. This was exemplified in one hilarious audition tape showing a series of improv actors walking into the studio in-character as "Dizzy", the derrick driver for Delta Squad. With nothing to work with but some character traits and their imagination, the actors did a fine job of capturing the essence of Dizzy and proved the wisdom of the Epic team to use performers who could not only do the physical work but really put themselves inside of the role.

Microsoft lead producer, Ellen Beeman and Radical president, Kelly Zmak both took a less technical bent with their presentations. Beeman showed herself to be personable and a real veteran of the games industry, although her lecture seemed rather brief. The following Q&A session also revealed just how difficult it can be to effectively answer questions while wearing the corporate muzzle. Kelly Zmak closed off the day's presentations with a blast of his infectiously high energy. Already a bit of a staple of the Game Design Expo, Zmak's speech worked to undo and clarify some of the harmful misconceptions that still surround video game development. "It's not all fun and games" was part of the take-home message. But far from being a downer, Zmak still managed to invigorate the crowd and spark some genuine excitement for the future of the industry.

You can grab some photographs taken at the event on Flickr. Later this week we'll cover what happened on the second day of the event, the free Open House held at the VFS campus.
NextGen Player Photos of the VFS Game Design Expo on Flickr