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April 27, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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Game Changers

At some point in their youth, everyone wants to make a video game. Maybe you assumed that you would literally get paid to play video games all day so that all that time on Crash Team Racing as a child will have been beneficial to your career. But most have had that dream quashed when they realise that making a game is not the same as playing one.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Patrick Shannon, a postgraduate in Game Art at Yoobee School of Design.

“The process is: you start with nothing, then you come up with an idea, and for that idea you have to think about the gameplay: how you want people to interact with your game, what you want the AI to be like, do you need AI? Then you have to look at the art: what is your game going to look like, what is it going to sound like.” Designers must ask themselves these sorts of questions over and over again until the idea is boiled down to one central concept.

Overworld map

The larger games developers overseas spend millions of dollars and months of man-hours from thousands of people; programmers, modellers, shaders and digital artists, to make a big budget or “triple A” game. These companies often come from places with a large populace to assist these massive creative endeavours. For instance, the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series come out of Canada’s Bioware. The Grand Theft Auto series, known for its sprawling city environments and multitude of characters, is published by Rockstar Studios, appropriately located in New York City.

In our own industry landscape, the two biggest game developers are Grinding Gear Games and Sidhe Interactive. Founded in 1997, the Wellington-based Sidhe had a steady gig making rugby games for the Playstation and PS2 in the early noughts, before finding critical and commercial success with Shatter, a brick-breaking game for the PS3’s Playstation Network in 2009.

When the iPhone took off and created a whole new interactive platform on which to market and create new interactive experiences, the mobile gaming industry exploded. Using simpler but more diverse mechanics, mobile games were the springboard for a whole new way to play. In a matter of months, we’d gone from Snake to Angry Birds. This was especially beneficial to game developers, as smaller teams could knock out several games over the course of a year rather than dedicate their time to making a single bigger one.

This was the impetus for the creation of Pikpok, a subsidiary of Sidhe Interactive founded in 2012, which has since become the face of the company. Pikpok makes around three games a year, mostly licensed work for iPhone and iPad and based on Dreamworks Animation properties, as well as marketing their own creations like the addictive word-making game Four Letters. The company has recently made content for Adult Swim Games, who use online games as a testing ground for iOS and downloadable properties. Some Adult Swim-Pipok creations include the destructive rolling-rock sim Giant Boulder of Death, the colour-matching game Monsters Ate My Condo, and the sequel to the memetic technicolour internet darling Robot Unicorn Attack.

Auckland has the other major game developer, Grinding Gear Games. They are the makers of the internationally acclaimed action RPG Path of Exile, arguably New Zealand’s biggest and most well known game. For those who don’t make up part of its five million person playerbase, Path of Exile is a Windows-based action RPG game with a top-down third person view, in the same vein as Diablo II. The game is free-to-play for all users, but the company makes its money through a business model of “ethical microtransactions”, which are small amounts of money paid by the players. In freemium titles, games usually charge you for better characters or weapons, essentially meaning the richest player rather than the most skilled is the one who wins. Path of Exile offers purely aesthetic paid content, like alternate character animations and spell effects, ensuring that no players are at an advantage purely from their bank account.

However, in the beginning the game still needed a financial kickstart from hopeful players. Path of Exile began as a crowdfunded effort by a team of developers in Auckland, the goal being a big budget triple A style game that could compete with overseas. The games industry in New Zealand continues to grow thanks to an avid and active games-making community. Events are held in both Wellington and Auckland, which continue to be the central hubs of the development and publishing community. PXLJM (pronounced “Pixeljam”) is an equivalent to the 48HOUR Film Festival, where teams have to make a whole game from scratch over a weekend, of which all previous efforts are available for download on the Pixeljam website.

Since May of last year, the first Tuesday of every month is the Game Developers of Wellington meetup, where established and wannabe game developers meet to discuss their work and nurture connections within the community. Everyone with an interest in the medium is welcome to attend, including high school students who want to get into game design. I managed to miss the meetup for this month by a day, but Patrick Shannon filled me in on what I missed. A group of developers who had been to Game Developers Conference in San Francisco came by to talk about their international experience. The founder of Pikpok, Mario Wynand, and Robert Curry, head developer from another Wellington-based developer, Dinosaur Polo Club, were there to speak about their recent projects.

The most interesting international figure present was Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, the composer for indie puzzle platformer FEZ and the upcoming horror flick It Follows. According to Shannon, he had been hired by Dinosaur Polo Club to compose for their game Mini Metro, a SimCity-style subway building game. With Disasterpeace currently active in Wellington, this gives Shannon hope that the New Zealand game industry and its developers will continue to attract international interest.

Level up

At present, all game design courses in Wellington and the whole of New Zealand are at tertiary level. Design schools like Yoobee offer a Diploma in Game Art, while Victoria has a course in Advanced Computer Game Design open to both design and engineering students. Massey has an introductory course to games programming, while the Auckland Media Design School offers programming and design courses specifically angled towards game design. Shannon particularly wants schools to introduce 3D modelling, programming and character design at a secondary level, so teens who want to get into game design can actually do so at an earlier age and see if it’s right for them.

Game making programs such as Unity and Unreal Engine are free to download, but having a tertiary qualification in game design or programming means that you at least have a reasonable chance of getting a job and making good work. To Shannon, the most important part of game design is “getting your player to understand what you want them to do. If you don’t do that, then there is no game. If the player does not know how to do that, it will just frustrate them. You need to get across your goals (in the game) as a designer to the player so they can enact on those goals.”

Most people getting hired out of Vic, Yoobee or AMD are joining local companies like Grinding Gear and Pikpok, as well as Gameloft, a French company with a studio in Auckland. Pikpok even supplements a scholarship for the Auckland Media Design School to get people to work for them when they graduate.

Of course, you don’t have to work within the industry to be a game designer; you can level up in other ways. Pippin Barr is a Victoria graduate who now lectures overseas at universities in Copenhagen and Malta on game design and programming, and has written a book for Awa Press’ How To series titled How to Play a Video Game. While obtaining his PhD in Computer Science, he researched game theory and did qualitative research on player experience. Despite his experience, he has never worked a day in the local industry. Instead, he opts to make his own games to demonstrate and experiment with gameplay principles. My personal favourite is Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment where you get to play out the futility of Sisyphus’s boulder or Zeno’s Paradox in pixel-style. Just before this article went to print, Barr released Let’s Play: The Shining, a pixelized adaptation of the Kubrick film. The full catalogue of his games and writing can be found at his website.

Current objective

If you do want to work in the industry, you don’t just have to bring skills to the table, you need to bring ideas. The real currency in the entertainment industry is IP, or intellectual property. One great idea can turn a struggling company into a booming one, while an idea for a game that sounds good in theory could turn out to terrible to play in reality. The developer of Angry Birds, the Finnish company Rovio, was on the verge of bankruptcy before making the game. Predicting that there was money to found in the then-nascent mobile gaming market in 2009, its development team pored over hundreds of concepts before settling one image of a bunch of birds being flung towards a bunch of blocks, and the rest is history. Now Angry Birds is a multi-media franchise juggernaut, with toys, board games, clothing, an upcoming movie and even a fragrance. But the real value in IP is the creative control that small companies have over them, and this is especially beneficial to smaller companies like the ones in New Zealand.

“If someone decided to make Path of Exile into a TV show or a movie, Grinding Gear owns that IP so they will get all the revenue from licensing it out,” Shannon explained. “Owning your own IP is incredibly valuable.”

However, owning intellectual property is a double-edged sword. The main drawback with creating your own IP is that this tends to cost money. Developers will often have to go to publishers to get money to fund their projects. Crowdfunding is easier, especially for smaller or even one-person development teams, so long as the developers can keep sponsors interested. But in either case, the further drawback is that once a developer has the funds to make their game, it then becomes a matter of doling out where the money goes.

Beyond play

Despite the medium being a thriving art form and platform, game design in New Zealand is always in need of fresh faces. This isn’t helped by the current job climate.While there are plenty of opportunities for employment in game design here, getting more people into the essential parts of game design, like programming, is a challenge. One could easily get work as a programmer at a bank and make more money than they could making video games. There is a persistent need in our culture, beyond the gaming sphere, for games to have a sense of credibility beyond “fun” and a capacity beyond play. Games are either a time-waster on the bus or a time-sink when you’re done with exams.

Kah Chan is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Victoria University Design School, who co-ordinates the third-level Advanced Computer Game Design course for design and engineering students. Chan is currently researching applied game design, a field that looks to implement game principles beyond games themselves. Chan works with Swibo, a team of six who make “games-enabled rehabilitation devices mainly aimed at high performance athletes”, and ImAble, inventor of ableX, a rehabilitation device with video games that aids people recovering from stroke. So if applied game design is the new avenue under which games can be experienced, should games then strive more towards utility than play?

“Absolutely not,” Chan says. “The value of play is vastly underestimated, I think. An opportunity to engage in an experience that is abstracted or provides entertainment is inherently valuable. In a lot of my work, when I talk about applied video game design, we strive for creating really good, really engaging video games that are for a specific audience that’s something they are interested in playing.

“You should be thinking about the applied part, but that’s not your primary goal. The primary goal is to create really good, really entertaining games that just so happen to be good for physical rehabilitation, for example.”

Applied game design is not just the next step, but a new facet of game design, and there is no short supply of people who want make their mark in video games in New Zealand.

“We have these awesome people with crazy ideas for everything from mobile games to triple A games,” Shannon says. “Let’s make that known to the world.”

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