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Vancouver International Game Summit – Poaching for nerds

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British Columbia is home to 138 video game companies employing close to 3,000 people, generating $300 million in revenues and boasts presence from 4 out of the 5 major global publishers. In other words, Vancouver has become a major hub for the gaming industry. This week the best and brightest of Vancouver’s gaming community met at the Sheraton Wall Centre for the Vancouver International Game Summit to share ideas, learn from each other and engage in some friendly poaching. More on that last one later.

A major part of the event was New Media BC ’s announcement of the formation of a “task force to keep the Province a world leader in digital entertainment.” Their goal is to “maintain the momentum the province has created and to keep the province a world leader in digital entertainment” – in other words make sure the past 20 years of success continues for another 20 years. And based on what the people at the summit told me, this doesn’t seem to be too lofty a goal. After all, who wouldn’t want to live and work in Vancouver?

But enough with the formalities. What I wanted to know was what it’s like to work in the gaming industry in Vancouver. Driving past the enormous Electronic Arts campus in Burnaby and passing the Radical building on the SkyTrain on my way downtown I’ve always been curious about what goes on on the inside. So while the nerd herd game designers assembled to talk about multi-threading advanced design techniques and applying agile methodologies to game development, I talked to those left outside to tend the booths.

First up were two game balancers there to demo Company of Heroes and Dawn of War: Dark Crusade – two strategy games for PC with roots in classics such as Command & Concor and WarCraft. The games themselves were impressive enough but I found their jobs more interesting. As a game balancer you play the game to find inconsistencies and work flow problems in the both the designs, story and gaming itself. The balancers then take their findings to the designers and propose solutions and workarounds to make the overall gaming experience more attractive to you and me. Like one of them told me: “Designers work out a lot of things on paper, but sometimes when they are implemented they don’t play out exactly as they had envisioned so we make sure that all the elements of the game play out as envisioned and if they don’t we discuss with them and help either work out a new design or alter the existing design or even just alter the existing mechanics so that it does fit with the overall design vision.” In short they play games over and over, get to impact the end result and get paid for it – every gamehead’s wet dream!

Further down the line was a stand that prominently spelled out Technicolor . A film buff myself I was puzzled to find a company largely known for providing colour to motion pictures at a game summit. But after talking to their people it made a lot more sense. Turns out Technicolor has a gaming division (albeit located in Burbank, CA but still) and a large visual design studio in Vancouver, BC. The woman at the booth (whose last name was Reynolds and first name I am embarrassed to say I couldn’t quite make out) told me that with the advances in gaming and the introduction of CG in movies there is more and more crossover between the two genres. As a result people are now more free to work in both fields as opposed to confining themselves to one creative outlet. Reynolds herself moved from Technicolor’s Toronto office to Vancouver to be a part of the booming visual effects industry out here on the West Coast. Her story was reiterated at the Art Institute of Vancouver ‘s booth where they proudly displayed the work of a visual effects student saying that “even though this student focuses on visual effects for movies his skills can just as easily be implemented in the creation of games.” Watching the reel I couldn’t agree more.

Rockstar had a stand prominently featuring the Vancouver-made game Bully . One of the designers Jacob whose name and accent gave away his Danish origins talked enthusiastically about the merits of the game. “It’s a whole new genre I would say. Yes, it’s built on the GTA engine but the game is completely different. No blood and more realistic game play. You even have to go to classes if you want to win.” On the appeal of the game he said that everyone likes it because we have all gone to school at some point in our lives and we all had someone we hated there. Looking around the booth I saw countless paraphernalia promoting the fictional school Bully takes place in Bullworth High. A cricket bat, t-shirts, hats, even stickers and team banners. As I lingered at their stand I noticed that the entire Rockstar had a rapport normally only seen in a group of old friends.

Finally I walked up to a stand with some breathtaking artwork and a loop of what looked like a game stuck between Gears of War and Lara Croft. The guy told me it was the new version of Turoc – currently in production at Propaganda Games in Vancouver under the umbrella of Disney Interactive Studios . Noticing his title of recruiter I asked him why he was really here. The answer was quite interesting: Apparently most of these conventions and summits are like hunting grounds where different companies scope out and try to catch the best talent from their rivals. As one attendee told me: “Almost everyone in Vancouver at some point or other worked for EA . Then they either broke out and made a new company or they joined an earlier break out. That’s just the way it goes here.” And although at this particular event most of the attendees were higher-level people and not designers it was still important to be there to make your presence felt. I guess in such a competitive environment it is important to make it clear you are still in the game.

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