I have explored many avenues of MIGS (Montreal International Gaming Summit) from the show itself to interviews with Inon Zur and a look at the Artstation Gallery but a big part of the show is the Sessions. At MIGS 2017 they have gathered notable experts and developers from across the world to educate and entertain the participants of the show. I have attended many consumer shows and generally people are just there to hear the process and have some fun, here people were actively learning. There were large amounts of people with notebooks jotting down points for reference or future questions was very interesting to observe.
At MIGS the sessions are nicely separated into a number of categories that gave paths for each participant to explore. There were talks in Arts & Animation, Game Design, Audio and Advocacy and Industry among others. This distinct pathing of the talks is very interesting and gave me plenty of options when selecting a session.
Keynote Session – StudioMDHR and the Cuphead Craze
MIGS started with a very interesting fireside style chat with three of the principle creators of the beautiful but deadly hard game Cuphead. This session was quite inspiring because of the raw perseverance shown by the developer to follow their dreams and get this game made. Started by brothers Chad & Jared Moldenhauer the game that became Cuphead was a passion project inspired by old time cartoons from the 1920’s and 30’s they used to watch with their father.
Both of them wanted to make a game and had these ideas rolling in their head but there was a little problem, they didn’t have any training in the field. They were working in construction and were successful so they developed the game part-time and taught themselves art and the Unity engine as they went. Years went by and a number of design and art styles were attempted and they eventually stuck with the signature style and characters we see in the finished product.
The game development started in 2010 and the brothers received some funding from a Canadian game development fund and luckily got some interest from Microsoft after they saw it at a small event in Canada. This led Microsoft to show a small snippet of the game at their E3 2014 briefing and the world fell in love with Cuphead. This led to a great deal of press, attention and potential investors but the brothers and their core team held firm and self funded the game until completion. Microsoft continued to promote the game at E3 2015 and 2016 until the game released in September of 2017. The game has an instant hit and has since sold over 2 million copies.
The brothers literally bet everything on this game, quit their jobs, re-mortgaged their homes, and eventually found success through sheer determination. Cuphead is extremely tough but also very beautiful and true to the aesthetics of the cartoons that inspired it. Every background is hand painted and every animation frame is hand drawn. The music is performed by a Jazz musician and dynamically works with the action to make a truly unique experience. It was a great start to MIGS hearing this story and it made me appreciate Cuphead in an all new light.
Game Design – Architecture and Game Development: The Give and Take – Maia Levinshtein
This session was quite interesting as the speaker, Maia Levinshtein, has studied both architecture and Game design and is hoping to blend these two passions into a career. In speaking to Maia she has a very distinct background having lived in Israel and Russia before landing in Canada with her family. Gaming and architecture has always been of interest to her and she started her education in architecture eventually taking an internship at a firm in Tel Aviv, Israel. Here she really learned to stretch her mind and create conceptually designs for competitions and bids the firm was working on.
From there she shifted her focus to game design hoping to leverage her previous experience in world building and design. In her talk she discusses some of the principles she learned such as designing spaces to bring focus to a key building or site. In Team Fortress 2 as an example there is a distinct path built in many of the Payload maps built using structures and objects to guide the players to the end goal. Many ancient temple sites, such as the Temple of Zeus in Athens, also have these designs built into them to guide visitors to the temple on a specific route to appreciate the building and site.
Another principle she discussed centered around the Vitruvian Triangle which is the cornerstone goal of all architecture. The triangle has three points – Beauty, Stability, and Usefulness. If a building meets all of these goals it is an example of perfect design. Buildings do exist that have some of these features, stability and usefulness as an example, but lack beauty (think most modern generic office buildings) meaning they are serviceable but not the ideal of the design methodology.
In my further talks with Maia it was interesting to explore her background including her time in Tel Aviv and current focus on learning game design in school. She has already interned at Gameloft in Toronto and has designs on working with some of the best studios in Canada. She is a huge fan of the work Ubisoft has done with the architecture in the Assassin’s Creed series and Blizzard with Overwatch. Please listen to the chat I had with Maia Levinshtein at MIGS 2017 below.
Mixed Sessions – Producing “Machines” for Horizon Zero Dawn – Dave Gomes from Guerilla Games
One of the greatest video games of 2017 is Horizon: Zero Dawn from Guerilla Games and it was a complete surprise from the developer of the Killzone series. Known for visually stunning but slightly bland First Person Shooter titles the vibrant, exciting and endearingly different open world game was a delight to play and experience. Dave Gomes from Guerrila games was at MIGS and shared the behind the scenes process to get this game made.
You would think that a game as well received as Horizon: Zero Dawn was always conceived as Guerilla’s next big game, but in fact it was part of an internal competition to decide a potential new game from the studio. As the company was working on Killzone: Shadow Fall there was an internal call for game submissions and Dave Gomes and his small team pitched the core concept of Horizon. The early look was very rough and an identity for Alloy was not refined, but the concept of a female lead and robot dinosaurs/animals was there.
As the team went through the competition they roughed out some designs and quick gameplay snippets to show how the concept could work and they eventually won the right to be the next game. At this stage they had mocked up concept art, some rough gameplay slices and combat but no story or character beats. Writers were added and the core of who Alloy is was the first thing to be established. She had to be tough, independent, wild and capable, as they veered towards Disney princess territory the design was pulled back on track.
Eventually the core identity of Alloy was locked down and then the concept of the world state we find in Horizon: Zero Dawn. The next stage was how they all integrated together. Are they truly robots, or are they partially organic? Can others control them as Alloy does? How much of these creatures can be harvested and how complex will that be? How dense should the regions be to generate excitement?
All of these questions were tackled by Gomes and his team over years of development until the hit their true stride in terms of gameplay and story integration. Once the story, Alloy and the world/creatures were locked in it all fell together. The end result is a game that I would call a masterpiece and is one that has re-shaped my opinion of Guerilla Games. Dave Gomes running through the process in this fascinating talk also impressed me. The determination he and his team held onto in order to deliver a product they believed in to market was inspiring.
Industry and Advocacy – How To Write Gender-Inclusive Games – Alex Zandra Van Chestein
In this session Alex Zander, who is an independent game developer but spent many years working at Frima studios in Montreal. She has worked on PC, console and mobile games rangin from tiny projects to large ones with 100+ person teams. One thing she has learned and shared with us in this enlightening talk was that added gender-inclusivity is not as hard as many think.
Her talk focused on looking at some of the larger games that could have added some female roles, such as the Zelda games and other that did and were successful like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Many developers state that adding female options take too much time or involve too may complications but have female skins for multiplayer which could be used for the main game. Most people would appreciate a simple female option even if the dialogue is nearly the same as the male options, so the time invested could be well worth gaining the additional audience.
She also discussed games that backslid on their inclusivity, Persona is a good example. In Persona 3 Portable a female protagonist was added as an option but never leveraged again in Persona 4 and 5. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, as mentioned, had Female and Male leads that could be chosen, but in the newest Assassin’s Creed the main character is male once again. If you as a studio are committed to being inclusive to all genders try to stay on the path started in your series instead of flipping back and forth.
The core issues to writing a game that is inclusive to all genders according to Van Chestein is to be careful about the pronouns. Writing more with generic ‘they’ and ‘their’ terms is key to making neutral dialogue that could be used for a male, female or gender neutral protagonist. In French and some other languages it is more complex as they deal with masculine and feminine pronouns often, but still achievable. The key, she stated, was to start from the beginning trying to broaden the audience by offering choice to the player. This choice will only benefit the game and can be justified in cost by shifting other priorities down the list that do not potentially alienate 50% of the population.
It was an interesting talk that veered into what if scenarios, budget options, and writing techniques to try to bring as many gamers into the experience. I had to agree that any developer would love to have all people want to play their game and not be disappointed by a lack of choices.