Thursday, February 10, 2011

Animex and a New Workshop for Animex Pro!

Middlesbrough and Newcastle, UK

My friend and colleague Gabby Kent invited me to come speak at the Animex animation festival again this year, as I have several times in the past. Animex takes place at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough, UK, where I'm a visiting fellow and PhD candidate. She warned us that the budget had been cut back sharply thanks to the recession, and we speakers wouldn't be staying in the sumptuous hotel that we've enjoyed in the past. It didn't matter, though -- in my opinion the event was better than ever.

Gabby is responsible for Animex Game, the video-game-oriented first two days of the event. I could only stay for the first day, but I learned a lot. I heard a great talk from Florian Zender of Spec Ops:The Line about the challenges of implementing a simulated sand avalanche in a game. Very small solid particles are still a problem for us, because they don't just flow to the lowest point like liquid -- a large sand dune slumps down and stops as a lower, more spread-out dune. Sometimes it looked a bit too much like Silly Putty or pancake batter.

Ken Tateishi of LucasArts gave an enlightening talk on how level design has changed from the days of Dark Forces (1995) to The Force Unleashed (2008). (He's not allowed to talk about anything more recent.) Ken said that the traditional approach of thinking up a series of levels and then writing a story to link them together is no longer used at LucasArts; they write a story that contains opportunities for activity and then create those opportunities as levels.

On Tuesday I left Middlesbrough and traveled up to Newcastle at the invitation of Christine Wilson, who runs an offshoot of Animex aimed at the business community, called Animex Pro. Christine asked me to create a new game design workshop specifically for this group, about casual free-to-play games. I did some research and wrote a lecture that discusses how various game business models compare to each other, and how casual free-to-play games monetize their gameplay. Then I created a worksheet that challenges the participants to devise a game based on a theme that I give them, creating an internal economy that should produce a revenue flow for the publisher. In addition I asked them to consider what kinds of real-world companies might be interested in advertising or co-branding with the game.

Animex Pro Conference, Live Theatre, February 9th 2011
One of the participants explains his game idea at Animex Pro.
Photo courtesy of the Institute of Digital Innovation.

I was a little concerned about exactly who was going to turn up to this workshop, because the event was aimed at executives and I didn't know if they would want to do game design. However, as it happened most of the attendees were in-the-trenches developers, so it went well. I divided them into teams of two or three and gave each team a different theme: beauty salon, airline, trucking company, etc. and for spice a few strange ones: game developer, oil sheik, California 49er (gold miners, not football players), and wolf pack. It seemed to go very well -- there was some great imagination shown.