Thursday, 3 May 2012

If you are an independent or "garage-based" game designer your input is key to the design of an Independent Video Game Design & Development program at Dawson College. The program is slated to start Jan. 2013, if there appears to be enough interest in the community.

It would help if we knew:
  1. where you are in your career as an indie, how you got there, and where you want to go; 
  2. what you need to know and the what skills you need to acquire to achieve your goal(s); 
  3. what other general support would help you; 
  4. what types of games you are working on; and 
  5. what technologies you use or want to use. 
Below is a rough outline to get the ball rolling, although at this stage even the overall objectives are up for grabs.

An esteemed board of external advisors have commented on this outline (see below), and there's a split between those who would like to make it an incubator-style program, and those that would like to see some preparation at a more basic level. What do you think?

Independent Video Game Design & Development (IVGDD) A.E.C. Program
Certification: Attestation of College Studies
Schedule: 900 hours – Part-time evening over two years

Growing interest in mobile, casual and social gaming, accessibility to game development tools, and new platforms for distribution, has made independent game development a global, economically viable sector of the gaming industry. The IVGDD A.E.C program is being designed to:
  1. accelerate students toward a career in game design; 
  2. support the production and marketing of commercially viable games; 
  3. support new and innovative game creation; 
  4. provide training in entrepreneurship. 
In general, it is expected that graduates of this program will not find employment as game designers in the mainstream industry. It will, however, accelerate them along this career path or toward a career as an entrepreneur / game designer in the independent game design industry. The IVGDD program will achieve this overall goal by providing graduates the prerequisite knowledge, skills, production experience, promotion and marketing experience, and as a portfolio of self-published games.

Although game design for triple-a games could be an objective of the program, design and production experience should be skewed toward ludic/abstract/mobile/social games, as these can be produced in the timeframe provided: the program can be at most, approx. 900 hrs.

IVGDD will be funded by the Ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport and will be open to anyone who meets the Ministerial and Program Requirements, and be tuition free.

Given Montreal’s high standing in the world of interactive entertainment, interest in the local community in this area, and the lack of quality programs, it is believed the IVGDD program will attract a large number of motivated and well-prepared applicants.

Program Description
A key element of video game creation is game design. Game Designers in the mainstream industry establish the broad outlines of the game: the high level concept, unique features, story, setting, characters, goals, types of challenges, number and difficulty of the levels, mission outlines, progression, rules and mechanics, and style. They work with the leads to validate the technical feasibility of the concept and the coherence of the overall vision of the game. They work with the creative director, the art director, the design team and the art team to ensure the coherence of the levels with respect to the overall scenario and vision.

Independent game designers are often also required to be more flexible: including art and creative direction, assisting in the creation of art assets, scripting, sound design, playtesting, debugging, marketing, etc.

The overall aim of the Independent Video Game Design program is to help students move toward a career in game design, with an emphasis on the independent games industry. The program is specifically designed to develop creative, conceptual, technical, collaboration, communication and entrepreneurial skills, focusing in particular on designing and marketing of (preferably innovative) video games.

Candidates should possess characteristics such as excellent communication and teamwork skills, a sense of design and innovation, creativity, an aptitude for teamwork, proficiency in working with computers, and be detail oriented. Prior game design or level design, programming or scripting skills is an important asset.

Exit Profile
Upon successful completion of the Independent Video Game Design, the graduate will have acquired the skills and competencies to perform the tasks of an entry-level position related to the occupation of Game Designer in either the mainstream or independent video gaming industry. Additionally graduates will have acquired the underlying entrepreneurial skills and competencies necessary to start-up their own independent game design studio.

Graduates will be able to:
  1. analyze and compare the design of various games 
  2. design, produce, promote, market games of various genres 
  3. use relevant application software in the exercise of the profession 
  4. work and communicate effectively with team members 
  5. present and communicate effectively with investors, publishers, and distributors 
  6. effectively manage time and stress during individual and group work 
List of (Suggested) Courses: 225 hrs. per term, Total 900 hrs.

Term 1:
Scripting I, 60 hrs.
Intro to 2D Game Art, 45 hrs.
Game Analysis, 60 hrs.
Introduction to Game Design & Development, 60 hrs.

Term 2:
Scripting II, 45 hrs.
Game Production I, 60 hrs.
Game Narrative, 60 hrs.
Entrepreneurship in the Gaming Industry I, 45 hrs.

Term 3:
Game Design, 60 hrs.
Intro to Level Design, 45 hrs.
Scripting III, 60 hrs.
Introduction to 3D Modeling and Animation, 60 hrs.

Term 4:
Game Production II, 90 hrs.
Scripting IV, 45 hrs.
Entrepreneurship in the Gaming Industry II, 45 hrs.
Portfolio Preparation, 45 hrs.

First term courses prepare students for production in the 2nd term, and similarly, 3rd term courses prepare students for production in the 4th term. Scripting plays a supporting role to the game production courses in terms 2 and 4.

Given the limited time of the program, it is thought best to stick to one game engine /editor, namely Unity3D.

Technology / Software
Scripting, Game Production and Level Design
Intro to 2D Game Art
Photoshop, Illustrator, Gimp
Introduction to Game Design & Development Game Design, and Game Narrative
MS Office, Visio (or equivalent), MindManager
Introduction to 3D Modeling and Animation
3DS Max

Here are some comments from the external advisors regarding the program:

I'm just going to blurt out some thoughts without any regard for the realities and constraints of actually building and approving a CEGEP program...

Nice to see that there are scripting and asset classes proposed, but on the whole it would be nice if the program was able to take in (and specifically work to attract) a broader set of students with different core backgrounds (ie, art, code, design, biz, etc).

Everything should be massively focused on building games. Even small games. Even a new game each week. Think of the World of Goo guys and how they built a new experimental game each week for 50 weeks to "discover" the success of Goo. All project output focused, all team based.

The program hour allocation should be split 50/50 between building stuff, and then selling/marketing and all the other biz stuff. As an indie, the reality is that making a game is only half the job.

In that sense, the exit results should be a shipped game(s) and/or on the path to starting an indie studio.

Jason Della Rocca, Senior Consultant at Perimeter Partners

I concur with a lot of what Jason said, but I would actually go a bit further.

My main concern is that I'm not convinced that students with no industry experience whatsoever and/or no related training would be ready after a 900hrs AEC to design a commercially viable game from the ground up and take it through all the necessary business and marketing steps to publish it. I think this program is a great idea but should be targetted at people that have already completed some sort of training (like the Level Design AEC, or a DEC or BAC in a related field like Art, Programming, Creative Writing...) or who have equivalent industry experience.

In my humble opinion, this program should be a form of games incubator, where each term covers the development from start to finish of a different game genre, using the engine better suited for its development, along with market research, competitive analysis, marketing strategies, financing options, etc. For example, first term would be a card or board game. What pool of talent is required to make this and how do we go about getting said talents on our budget? Who is our target audience? What's out there and how do we stand out from the crowd? Do we want this to be multi-platform? How do we go about playtesting? Once we have our product, what will it cost us to print and package it? How do we go about financing this? How do we create a buzz/fan-base around it? How do we publish it? Rince repeat each term with a different game type (platformer, puzzle, point and click, FPS, etc.)

While I agree that having some design and scripting classes would be good, I'm not sure this program should be about teaching them the tools to make games, but rather teaching them how to get a production going and seeing it through to the end. People should come in already knowing the basic tools and design principles so that the program can focus on teaching them the steps to design a brand new game from pre-production to launch. Ideally, the program would be similar to what I recall was done at Ubisoft Campus in collaboration with the University of Sherbooke (I think) where there were about 16 students equally divided between college graduates in computer sciences, game design and art. So they were able to design a game from start to finish with each discipline already profiscient in their respective fields but with the mentoring of people from the industry to keep them on track.

This greatly reduces the pool of potential candidates but would greatly increase (imho) the chance that those who complete the program will have a fighting chance of succeeding.

Regine Abel: Senior Game Designer at Eidos

I personally love the aim of the program. My only fear is that the Indie Bubble might burst before the program is done. Then again, it might even be stronger at that point, who knows. A lot can happen in two years.

Perhaps the Game Design course is taught too late? I would put design before narrative, and parallel to production.

Alongside 3DS Max, I would include Sketch-Up as a 3D tool. Instead of Visio perhaps use yEd (same concept but it's free).

I feel you're missing a class on how to start a business. How to register one, do taxes, small lawyer and notary tasks, how to pay an employee, etc.. I don't know what else this course would entail, but if this program is about going Indie then it needs to cover how to be truly independent.

Osama Dorias, Game Designer at Gameloft

I think the idea of a "game-incubator" is very good, although i think that starting "production" right off the bat would be hasty.

I would split the course in two main sections, theoretical and practical.

The theoretical focused year would be split in 3 main categories, academics, administrative, and technical, to provide every student a solid base from which to go on.

Academics course examples:
  • game design & mechanics
  • level design
  • video game software & hardware history
  • game analysis
  • narrative design
Administrative course examples:
  • company creation
  • subventions & financial support
  • taxes & notary tasks
Technical course examples:
  • Mathematics & game implication
  • Physics & game implication
  • 3DS max
  • Photoshop/gimp
  • Yed
  • grasshopper / JIRA / Confluence
  • Basic coding
The first year would be punctuated with practical tasks, but beginning at a higher level to start up gently and get a keen view of our student pool, then lowering the level and getting more and more focus for the next year.

Game analysis essays, game pitches would be mandatory as individual at the beginning of the year, then the further the year passes, the more we could focus on team creation, with group pitches and paper prototypes, to train them to work fast and as a team, with one exercise per two weeks.

The second year would shuffle teams every month and go on with more concrete game creation, with playable prototypes being a reasonable goal towards the second half of the year. Each prototype will have to touch a different genre, to put the student out of their comfort zone and allow them to discover mechanics form a type of game they would have otherwise omit.

I would also recommend mandatory technical constraints for each prototype, again to open the student perspective, from HTML5/flash to unity/unreal.

Along with the incubator, the students would also work on business models study and creation, because as good as the game is, it cannot be a financial success without the proper marketing/hype/business model.

Matthieu Bonnet, Game Designer at Gameloft

I think students should graduate with at least a basic understanding of the following "hard" skills:

  • Scripting/programming 
  • Game design and theory 
  • UI and interface design 
  • 3d modelling and animation 
  • 2d art / texturing 
Certain "soft" skills I would expect the program to focus on:
  • Autonomy and drive (if you're indie, there's no one to force you to work but yourself!) 
  • Budgeting and estimates (finding out how much time/money/skill you have and making a game that fits that) 
  • Outgoing (being able to find and vet talent, to promote yourself) 
  • Teamwork (for obvous reasons!) 
Simon Préfontaine, Game Designer at Gameloft

I think the base of this program for one-man developers is that they be able to actually develop games, theory and business follow. In that case I think the program distribution should be like this: 60% development / 30% Theory / 10% Business.

The question of platform is pretty important:

  • They can only learn any platform so well in a given amount of time. 
  • Related to this is the concept of learning to make 2D games, versus 3D games, which is are two different ball games when it comes to doing it all yourself. 
With that in mind, my recommendations:

One year, one platform, one dimension: if the program is destined to be only a 1 year program, then people should only learn one platform to be able to really learn it well. Similarly, they should also stick doing either 2D or 3D games, not both though.

Start with 2D, follow with 3D:

  • In terms of how much you need to learn to do something yourself, 2D games are lighter. Like Dann said, Flash is a good platform, we even use it on triple A games to handle our interfaces. 
  • 3D games can follow up the year after, learning animation, modeling, cinematography and all that jazz can be jammed up in there 
  • Program: In a term, I think 3/4 of the classes should be dedicated to development, while the last one is dedicated to delivering theory and coordination for the whole thing. 
  • So for example Two classes can be dedicated to learning more something like Flash and action script/Math/System Architecture/Implementation. 
  • One class Art, like said 2D, animation etc.. 
One Mother class, 90hrs long, where students are introduced to game production process, then taught creativity, Game design concepts, Level design, Narrative, etc… In later terms this class can get more serious where we start talking about business aspects of game creation and so on.

The above class can feasibly be split into two but I like the idea of having at least one class that allows students to orient themselves and come up with game ideas. This class can also help coordinate with the other classes so that assignments given are related to theory they’re learning. I think you can draw a parallel with the current term we’re going through now.

Ahmad Saad, Senior Game Design at Eidos Montreal

Overall I think the program orientations are very good, the business aspect of it is a great innovation. Everything in there is extremely useful to independant game devs, but I think it might be short of a few things, however:

I think that using Unity3D as your only game development program might be problematic on some levels.

  • Web-based games are often made with Flash, which is also a good intro to OOP and a pretty good lead-in to using javascript for Unity. 
  • Most free softwares use visual programming (I'm not sure it's the right term for it... it's that interface type where you link boxes together, like in Game Salad). Those are pretty powerful prototyping softwares and often include an exporter to flash and/or iOS at a fairly low price (which means some independent devs might take that route).
This you will probably not agree with, but I believe you should make a 3-years DEC (Technique) with this project instead of an AEC (or offer both??). 

  • DEC opens the way to Baccalaureates if the student wishes to go there. 
  • I believe that focusing a game designers formation on games and creativity alone is a mistake. Knowledge of literature, languages and humanities is a vastly underestimated asset for any designer. 
  • Similarly to my previous point, I believe the curriculum is missing some Math. 
  • Basic understanding of integrals, geometry and algebra (as well as math in general) helps student develop a better grasp of general logic (which is pretty useful in programming and systemic thinking), 3d environments, physics and game balancing. 
  • On top of this, having Math 103, 105 and 203 in your courses list can open the way to most Computer Science bacc's in Montreal. 
  • Finally, I noticed that your game history class (intro to the game industry?) is not in the list. 
  • In my experience, students without any game history formation tend to either become very close-minded (redo Mass Effect or Skyrim at every game design project) or re-invent classic games unknowingly.
Dann Godin, Chargé de formation pratique at Université de Montréal