Canada has long searched and strived to establish a creative legacy of its own. Often this leads to CanCon clapping, or comparative relationships qualified by the label “North.” Hollywood North. Silicon Valley North.
But the sphere where the country may ultimately build its true creative legacy may be one that still—despite millions of copies sold, billions of dollars made, and a steady stream of cultural think pieces on the medium’s worth (see Esquire’s recent “Searching for Infinity at GameStop”, May 2015)—often gets ignored when Canadian creatives get together to talk about Canadian creative achievements: video games.
Are you taking games seriously yet?
Many young members of the creative class are clamouring for jobs in the gaming sector instead of pursuing agency dreams, starting studios or making a go as artists. “Gamification” is past its due date as a buzz word, but relevant as ever as a tool in any marketing campaign’s kit. The Ontario government sees bright enough things in the future of the industry and the local talent pool that it partnered with AAA publisher (game industry speak akin to “blockbuster studio”) Ubisoft to create 800 jobs by 2020, almost all of which Ubisoft says are creative roles; it’s also doled out over $13-million since 2005 through the Interactive Digital Media Fund, helping to support small studios and the creation of some of the most wildly innovative and critically-acclaimed work available worldwide. Toronto specifically, recently deemed a “Videogame Sanctuary” by Forbes magazine, is establishing itself as vibrant scene populated with the most creative minds in gaming today.
“It’s been great to be here in Ontario, in that context,” says Alexandre Parizeau, managing director of Ubisoft Toronto. “The government really believes in the industry and there’s been great support and collaboration.” Headquartered in Montreal, Ubisoft is celebrating its Toronto office’s fifth year of operation. (It has created nearly 400 jobs so far, for those counting.) Although known for massive franchises like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed, which is set to get the Hollywood treatment next year starring Michael Fassbender, the studio is supportive of local design events for developers large and small, and is active in advising and shaping college game design programs. “It’s been really interesting for us, coming from a AAA environment in Montreal,” says Parizeau about another Canadian hotbed, “to come here and engage with that community [of smaller studios] and get inspiration from them.”
Games being the multimedia monsters they are, Parizeau notes the flow between Toronto’s gaming and film industries, and the talent and skills Ubisoft has historically leveraged from staff that have foundations in other creative sectors. “We have an art director [Scott Lee] that comes from the comic book industry. We have film directors and people who come from web design and transfer over as UI artists,” he says. Senior concept artist Nacho Yague, whose work deserves an appreciative eye of its own even aside from the role it plays in the larger picture of game production, is one such talent. Originally from Spain, Yague started his professional career in branding and web design. “I never thought about video games because at that time it wasn’t that popular,” says Yague, recalling his plans after graduating from fine art school. “I always liked design and thought it was a very important thing. I saw that was the only way I could find a career, hoping I could get money for art, for doing what I liked—it was going through web design and branding design.” As the video game industry found its footing and Yague made his transition, he brought over not just the hard skills he learned coding and crafting, but also the soft skills he picked up in collaborating and communicating with clients. “I think that’s a very important thing,” Yague says.
Concept art brought to life
“People don’t think about it when they’re applying for a job [in games]—that you need to be social. You need to know about people criticizing your work. There’s a lot of work that we create here at Ubisoft that never sees the light of day…because they are ‘cancels,’ or they [the art directors, other team members or stakeholders] don’t like it. We aren’t just making drawings for our own pleasure. We are not just making beautiful things. We’re helping them solve a problem that they have. Maybe you have a great visual idea, but it won’t work because the gameplay artist needs something specific.”
Film professionals can see their trade at work in video game cut scenes, dialogue or motion capture elements. Musicians have their obvious anchor in a game’s soundtrack. For communication designers, the parallel is what the game industry calls “presentation.” It’s akin to branding, but on another level, including not just real-world identity and promotion but also the guts of the game and how it all ties together as a seamless entity. Presentation includes user interfaces, menu design, logos (both for the game itself and any fictional entities in the game world), and more. “Are you going to have a little map up in the corner of the screen?” says Ubisoft spokesperson Heather Steele. “What’s that going to look like? For Splinter Cell: Blacklist, we had the idea of the [military aircraft] Paladin as your home base. How does that get represented in your menus? Everything is connected so that you’re flowing through different experiences within your video game, and it all has a graphic interface to it.”
In the world of video games, “presentation” is where graphic design meets game design and interactivity
Parizeau notes that as the industry gains ground as a profession, it may become more rare for creatives to move over from other disciplines. Ubisoft’s role in boosting college and university game design and development programs includes sitting on advisory boards and counting many of its staff members as instructors. The company is heavily invested in cultivating the next generation and guiding them as specialists. This makes sense—while creative skills transfer over, games require specific knowledge of game mechanics, the capabilities of the technology, and the desires and habits of gamers themselves. For Parizeau, the ideal future candidates will have their roots in games—“game design is more technical than what people usually think,” he says—but will also be diverse enough to pull influences from all directions. “When you’re trying to apply skills from just films and games, you don’t necessarily get a pure interactive experience, something that’s fresh and interesting,” he says. “You don’t necessarily always leverage all that there is [to offer] within the medium. You want people that are passionate about games or learning how to make a game, but that would also bring something else to the table.”
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The bookshelf at Metanet Software is cluttered with high-end graphic design tomes. Founded by Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns, the indie studio is best known for a trio of simple-seeming yet complex and frustratingly difficult ninja games: N, N+, and the recently released N++ for the PlayStation 4. The visuals are minimalist, as is the gameplay: a stick-figure ninja tries to successfully run, jump and slide its way through a succession of single-screen levels. Often, because the game is maddeningly hard, it dies, exploding in a beautiful scattershot burst of geometry and colour. N++ features a vector-based visual style influenced by print graphic design, a look that Metanet has been working towards for 10 years—in a lot of ways, they don’t consider N++ a sequel so much as a final realization of their initial vision.
“When we started making N, we wanted it to have that aesthetic,” Sheppard says. “Super saturated, beautiful blocks of colour—we didn’t have the time or money or experience. It just didn’t come together until now.”
Burns pulls a book down from the shelf to show an early influence, England studio The Designers Republic, who had worked on the videogame WipEout 3—a game that featured a unique array of colour schemes and in-game menus that opened Metanet’s eyes to the possibilities of bringing a graphic design sensibility over to games. For N++, the team tapped Venezuelan designer Miguel Vasquez, also known as MASA, to develop user interface mockups and logo ideas. “He gave us the look and the style, and then we had to do the engineering work,” Burns explains. The colour scheme was fleshed out with the help of Toronto-based illustrator Lisa Harrison.
The game’s pared-down visuals are matched by a purity of motion—dance-like character movements and elegant reactions to acceleration and gravity—that were achieved through collaboration with another Canadian indie game pioneer, Shawn McGrath. “He’s a genius programmer,” says Sheppard of the man behind the psychedelic 2012 critical darling Dyad. With his assistance, Metanet was able to achieve the smooth vector lines they desired—you’d be hard pressed to spot a pixel on screen even during moments of high movement. “We really wanted it to look as smooth as it feels. That’s why you want to play this game. Because it’s so smooth, precise and responsive,” Sheppard says.
“We both have creative backgrounds,” she explains. An artist herself (she met illustrator Harrison in art class), she art directed a unique N++ promotional campaign that featured photos of dancers and flowing fabric, embodying the movement of their game. Burns is a musician. “We’re not actually great at anything,” he says.
“We’re good at what we do,” responds Sheppard, “but we’re not amazing. Even at programming. It’s just that we have so many interests and we’re able to be good enough at all of them that we’re able to combine everything in an interesting way.”
N++ was inspired by print-based graphic design
As a review in the Washington Post put it: “the mechanical limitations of the game’s interface are where the dramatic tension lies… It is a meditative and surprisingly intimate game, something that seems to never stop unfolding even as it appears to remain rigorously spare and constant.”
As the big blockbuster games move increasingly toward photorealism, influenced by film and television, it will be indie artists like Metanet that keep the medium from stagnating. “Graphics in games can get just so boring a lot of the time,” Burns says. Aside from the photo-real projects, he says games tend to skew either cartoon-y or pixelated. He would like to see a wider breadth of visual approaches. “We definitely hope that we inspire some people to try vector stuff, or minimalist geometric stuff,” he says. “It’s not just a style we like, but I also think that it’s pretty functional. For a game where you want to communicate ‘Here are things, and they do certain things,’ it’s just a way of communicating information in a really clean, clear way.”
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Artistic aspirations aside, the rise of the gaming industry holds big implications for brands and their businesses. Gamification is not a new concept, but it’s one that continues to play out in the world of advertising and interactive design. Paul Leblanc, founder of Karma Gaming, is better known as the CEO and founder of Extreme Group agency in Halifax—it was through one of his agency’s lottery clients that he got the idea of stepping into the video game industry.
“We came across a challenge which is universal to them and every other lottery around the world,” says Leblanc, “which is how to [develop] relevant content for a younger generation outside of scratch tickets, video lottery terminals and draw games. The younger generation just didn’t accept lottery as relevant.”
Extreme Group wasn’t able to help as an ad agency, but Leblanc still felt he had a solution to the problem. Young people like to play, obviously, they just prefer casual video games over the lottery games their parents may enjoy. Leblanc saw an opportunity to merge casual gaming with the fixed-odds mechanics of a scratch lottery—not merely adding a gamified achieve-and-reward component to an ad campaign, but coming up with a new type of lottery game altogether to reach the desired audience. Karma, a separate company from Extreme Group but headquartered in the same building, raised $5-million in funding in 2012 and earlier this year started deploying games in the U.S., Italy, Canada and China. It has around 50 titles in its library, with upwards of 20 out in the marketplace right now. “It all came out of the agency,” Leblanc says. “We don’t ever let a gap stop us from doing what’s right on behalf of a client.”
Karma is focused on the lottery market, but Leblanc says gaming opportunities are out there for other brands as well. “There’s literally millions of options from augmented reality, to digital, viral and product innovation…the gamut is so wide, and gaming is the number two activity online, second only to social media. Why not capitalize on that?”
The x-factor should come as no surprise, and it echoes the sentiments of Ubisoft’s Parizeau: Leblanc is a lifelong gamer himself. He’s been at it since Atari, Pong, Intellivision and ColecoVision, and today has all the modern consoles. At one point he was ranked 49th in the world in Clash of Clans, the global online multiplayer phenomenon, a feat that required a good deal of time and money (“to the chagrin of my wife and paycheque,” he laughs). “If somebody was going to get into gaming from, say, advertising, I don’t see a possibility of them doing it without some form of gaming experience under their belt,” he says. He’s talking about creatives and programmers, but even in his case, would the idea ever have even come to him if he already didn’t have gameplay in his DNA?
Karma Gaming carves out new territory for game design
At Ubisoft, Parizeau tells us about Ubisoft’s plans for another interactive installation at this year’s Nuit Blanche art festival in Toronto. He’s excited. I ask him where he sees the future of games. “What we’re excited about here is creating open-world experiences,” he says. Games with experiences that aren’t necessarily scripted, where players can roam off, discover things to do and interact. Where “you can really be the character in a world, in a universe, and drive your own experience. Drive your own story. There’s lots of potential there, and to me it’s been a fantasy since watching Star Trek and the holodeck. We’re at a point where technology and creativity can come together and put together experiences that are really, really, immersive,” he says. “How far can you push it?” The soothsayers may be right and the future of storytelling may very well take root in the video game medium. And if the future gaming, in no small part laying its foundation here in Canada, is one of exploration, savvy creatives would do well to go off and play. •
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