AFTRS Game Course: Ian Brown Interview

Yesterday we had an interview with Gary Hayes from AFTRS about the new game courses launching next year (applications close November 7, people). Today we offer up an interview with Ian Brown, currently a lecturer in animation and visual effects. He has one hell of a track record, having worked at Animal Logic for ten years and had lead VFX roles on movies like Lord of the Rings. But he’s also been making games since ye olde days, having even had a commercial release of a game for the Commodore 64!

We spoke with Brown more specifically about the game design side of the new AFTRS courses, exploring games like Portal, Braid, Flow, and God of War in a discussion of what games need to learn from film, how the game designer should be recognised like a film director, how gameplay and story should mix, and most importantly what a game design student at AFTRS can expect to take away at the end of the course.

What is your perspective on the new game design course?
We think the course is pretty unique in this country. While there is definitely a niche for the vocational training provided by most other course out there — after all, 80% of the work of producing a game is asset creation and coding — we think there is a gap in the ideas generation side of things. Australia hasn’t been very good at developing world class creatives, with a few notable exceptions of course. But there is no training institution dedicated to sucking the marrow out of that area, saying “alright, we’re not going to worry about the technical side so much, we’re going to concentrate on story and game mechanics and trying to be innovative.” So that’s been our basic philosophy.
We’re talking the Portals, the Braids, and the Flows. They’re maybe not AAA titles, although we are totally focused on integrated story and narrative. They are games that should have something new about the game mechanic, and we are going to emphasise that.

We are a film school, so we do want to make story and narrative a fundamental building block of everything. There are a few schools of thought on what makes games tick. You’ve got the ludologists over one end who say it’s all Chess, all kids chasing each other around playing tag, there’s no story. Then you have the narratologists over the other end, saying everything is a story. Even Chess has an implied story. But the reality is probably somewhere in the middle, and we do want to cover both perspectives. Personally, I think there is a story implied in just about everything. We can’t help but to impose a narrative on just about everything we do. I love the Flows of the world, but I’m wondering about the universe and the story implied there.

We are trying to elevate the role of game designer to the same level as the role of a film director. Games don’t have this hundred year history and glamour associated with it, but a game designer can be in charge of $50m+ creative projects and a lot of it is basically the same. Look at the God of War series, and there is some really strong narrative to it expertly told. Shadow of the Colossus too, and I was just devastated at the end! I had a greater sense of loss with that game than with most films, and I can’t believe that someone with the right level of talent and mastery of this process can’t achieve the same kind of satisfaction that famous film directors achieve. So I’m quite interested in, if not promoting the idea, at least giving them the same opportunities with education and training. So they know about creating great characters, and tension, and all that great narrative stuff that hook you in and propel a story. If you are going to create a game you should know about these things, or at least be given the opportunity to learn about it.

It does seem like there are more small, well polished ideas, like Portal, like Braid, appearing in the market right now.
There’s no real reason for games to be 20 hours long. If the money you pay is proportional to the time you get. But Portal, and Flow, and de Blob, have all been based on student projects. So we think, yeah, wouldn’t it be great to create an environment where these sorts of ideas might happen? We’re definitely hoping we get some people with some really creative ideas and give them as many toys and as much opportunity as possible. I know animation is definitely inbred as an industry, and I think to a certain extent games are too. Very inward focused. So we are deliberately trying to break down the barriers a bit here. Not like going to a graphics college where everyone just talks about the same stuff all the time. There’s little broadening of horizons. But here some people will be talking about film, someone else animation, and then we’ll have our game designers. This is all hypothetical, this is really new so we are hoping, but with any luck we will see some things that test the boundaries.

What will the rest of the school bring to the world of game design?
I think one of the great things film can bring to games is a strong sense of editing and pacing. I mean, anyone who has sat through a Hideo Kojima game… god, it just goes on forever! I admire the Metal Gear games, but it feels like the dialogue is on auto-pilot. It’s nice to have a beautiful, strong story, but at the same time less is kind of more. Most films work because of what has been cut out. Like the Ironman film. I realised that it must have worked because of what they had left out. It could have been so silly at so many points, but I have a strong suspicion that they probably did cross over into ludicrous territory in places but then were smart and cut that out so what you are left with is a really strong implied journey. But games aren’t restricted to only letting you sit there for two hours, which is a long time. You play a while, you save, you come back the next day. A bit more episodic in a sense, so maybe there is more in common with TV. But even TV has a real discipline — a story must be half an hour from exciting incident to resolution of the plot. I just get the feeling games don’t have that discipline at the moment. The structure of the pacing has a bit to learn from film.

Act and Episode structures do seem to be appearing in the game space more, so maybe we are making some headway.
Looking at something like God of War and how expertly the first game was told. It was almost Tarantino like. You are given something tantalising and you are slowly given little nuggets. When you play through for the first time it really feels like you are playing a TV series, as you reveal a little more background. It is a rare thing in games right now.

People got very excited about Bioshock.
But in essence it is still a shooter.

And the developers have also discussed how they had to move away from shaded endings and deliver the black and white outcomes instead.
Yes, they often promise shades of grey. Bioware promised this a number of times. But in the end you have two distinct linear tracks — the good and the bad. But how do you structure multiple pathways? I’d suggest just picking one and finely honing that to get a real emotional response. So when you start doing this choose your own adventure style of thing. I just remember how in those books you’d get a few decisions in and suddenly you’ve fallen through a trap door and died so you go back to the beginning. Oh, that wasn’t very satisfying. I guess the same is true of games. How do you create multiple versions of the same story that are all equally satisfying? It’s probably close to impossible.

But maybe an exciting challenge for the field?
Here’s to hope. Film has got a really strong vocabulary now. Everyone knows it like a second language. But it’s hard to get to know the mechanics of it and that’s why places like this exist. Part of the hope is if we can teach them about how people have done things in the past we can get closer to this idea of creating more variations and more satisfying for the player. Hopefully there will be more courses like this at other institutions in the future, concerned with the art of story.

What kind of student intake are you expecting?
It’s hard to know. In the past it has been four students across two years, so eight in total. This year we are hoping for up to ten or twelve.

We have had a lot of dreams come true, actually. Birthday Boy [Academy Award nominated animated short film]was by a student here, and he got to go to Japan, meet Miyazaki and show him his film.

We had another graduate from last year personally hired by George Miller to work on his new games project. He really wanted to meet him, and he went and interviewed George and they really hit it off.

Everybody has gotten a job that they wanted. There are very few disappointments coming out of here. Peter Giles, our Director of Digital Media, is a fantastic guy and a real visionary, and he provides a lot of opportunities for people. Though we don’t really say that as part of our recruitment message.

What technical areas will you explore in the course?
While we are de-emphasising the coding, it is a technical thing, so you have got to know what you are doing. We do everything we can to support students trying their hand in the labs as well. We often see cinematographers getting into visual effects, for example. We do everything we can to support that, by making sure we have plenty of machines and plenty of software, and mentor them and support them with their questions.

But we are going to work on paper-based things for a start. Basic gameplay. What it means to engage in a game. Board games, that sort of things. These things are still drawing stories out of you, and creating spaces you can move around in. Very representational things you can learn a lot from. Maybe even some choose your own adventure style work with story options on cards to lay out on a table and get comfortable with the creative process.

At the other end of the spectrum we will work on rapid prototyping and possibly finished games in Unity and maybe Virtools. For relative newcomers we are favouring Unity as it leverages the skills we already have here — you can seamlessly bring in Maya assets and it uses Javascript. It’s an amazing tool and so stable. That has the possibility of exporting to iPhone as a platform, which is consistent and won’t demand bizarre licensing.
If you really want to get to a commercial level game we have the tools here and hopefully the support needed as well. But we are emphasising the rapid prototyping and the ideas, but if you want to create a sample or prototype to show somebody you can.

These courses are really focused on creating something you can pitch. So if you have one great idea when you come out of here we are going to work that up, even in a business sense. We have the Centre for Screen Business here as a resource, so you can create something and package it as a presentable business idea. That is common to everything we do — we are not just creating art pieces here. At the end of the day it is great if someone has their great creative idea and they can realise it too.


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