AFTRS Game Courses: Gary Hayes Interview

We recently mentioned the 2009 launch of Game Design and Virtual Worlds courses at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. If you are at all interested, remember applications close November 7 so you should be working on your applications now if you haven’t already started.

We caught up with two of the key staff behind the courses and will be sharing those interviews today and tomorrow. First up is Gary Hayes, the Founding Head of LAMP and the leading light on the Virtual Worlds course. You can read his terribly impressive bio here. Tomorrow we speak with Ian Brown, with another ridiculously impressive bio (hello… Sequence Lead VFX Artist on Lord of the Rings), who shares more insights on the Game Design course.

Jump for the interview with Hayes, where we explore the general nature of the courses, the strengths of studying games in the AFTRS environment, and why it has taken so long for games to take story seriously.

So tell us about the new courses.
There are two new courses being brought into the film and TV production mix that AFTRS is traditionally known for. Games design and virtual worlds, obviously with a more cinematic slant to them. Probably more than many other places around the world we looked at. I think they’re exciting because we have tried to integrate them with the two sides of the school — the directing, writing, producing side and the production. We have industry professional level training to offer on both sides of that fence.

Games production courses to date have often been quite vocational based. You know, using the tools and less to do with character, story, and cinematic aesthetic. It’s been a long time planning this. I run LAMP, the Laboratory for Advanced Media Production, here at AFTRS for about three years now. That has worked with many major digital players to expose them to ‘cross media’ but in effect to participatory, interactive media, showing them how to author for that space so they are extending their narrative around that. It often resulted in things like Alternate Reality Games and virtual world designs. So we have already been creating these blended film / TV / game spaces at LAMP, separately from these new courses. So these have partly come out of that as well.

What talents should people have to be ready for these courses.
Well, it is graduate level. We’re looking for creative thought leaders from across the board. The ability to create stories, be innovative, and be a bit different from the typical production person. Students should show they are willing to take risks, think about who the user is in a major way, be innovative, bring a strong vision of new types of games as well. We feel that is something that will move the Australian industry forward. Coming up with new IP in this space.

Other key attributes we are looking for? We are quite keen on medium level programmer types, from a computer background, who want to learn about the filmic world. Perhaps people who have already been modding, or have made some casual games, and are looking for some real narrative story experience.

On the other side of the fence we are keen for traditional producers who really want to shift into game design and virtual spaces. We are not really asking for specialist skills in Unity or Torque or anything like that but we just need to see they have a passion and a vision. If you can show us something you have done that has sticky gameplay we are keen to see it. And any traditional filmmakers who have done machinima and understand game engines we are interested in that too.

Has the school been playing with machinima elsewhere?
Probably half the LAMP projects we have done have been in game or virtual world space. We actually appeared on Good Game for a machinima feature. Some students were working on a machinima project at the time, and since then a couple of students have gone on to work with George Miller on his game projects now. Others have gone on to work with Hoodlum, a Brisbane-based company who are probably world leaders in ARGs. They’ve done ARGs for Spooks and Lost. The Lost one has been pretty big.

Will there be a focus on group work?
We are not going to force students to work in a group, nor force them to work solo. We will encourage them to develop projects that have merit in themselves and then they can decide whether it needs a team or not. We do want them to develop team skills, as that is one of the most important things going. That’s not to say one person in a studio can’t create a fantastic game. We’ve seen things like Braid, so that’s fine! But we want to encourage cross fertilisation with traditional film people so the depth of knowledge here can permeate into the games curriculum. We encourage multi disciplinary teams from across the school, which I think is one of the attractions of coming here. You just wouldn’t get that at a computer-focused games course. Here you can rub shoulders with future Oscar-winning cinematographers and designers. The design department has excellent synergy for this course, in creating virtual sets. There is such a crossover between pre-visualisation in film and in designing virtual worlds.

We want the virtual worlds students, in particular, to become skilled in pre-viz, and then also in MMO design and thinking about multi-user environments. Also understanding social virtual worlds, creating spaces for people to just hang about and be creative themselves. And then animation itself.

We want to pioneer new ways of making films in real time, almost as if you are on a set. Working with writing and directing students we are moving toward ideas in improvisational work in game spaces and virtual spaces. Kind of like where Red vs Blue came from, you know, some guys farting around in a games engine, pretending to voice it, and then real merit emerges. After an improv session done in this way you can export logs and you can be surprised how story can fall out of these spaces.

There is no reason why, with a really rich set, well-designed characters and good actors, you couldn’t have a live performance like you were watching a film.

Back on the cross pollination at AFTRS, game developers seem very keen to bring story to the foreground more and more today. David Cage is an obvious example, but there are many studios bringing in screen production and writing talent to refine story.
Yes, we often pull out David Cage as an example of where things are headed. And it is great having Matt Costello on board here, who is a TV / book writer and has been very helpful in why story is important and character is important. Probably more important is the quality of the dialogue itself. Even in Indigo Prophecy [Fahrenheit]there were some very suspect moments. So that’s such an obvious synergy — the dialogue that informs the character than informs the design. We want students to explore the tension between cut scenes and gameplay, the emotion of AI, particularly in MMO design. This helps to generate better gameplay in game conversations, not just in the action. So we are going to focus quite heavily on the writing, the quality of the dialogue, and the AI engines that drive that.

Why do you think it has taken so long for games to focus on doing story well?
I think we are moving out of the low-resolution, Bruce Willis / Arnold Schwarzenegger, game world — those kinds of movies generally have had crappy dialogue too. In those earlier games dialogue didn’t have to be important. Now we are moving into more richly rendered games and along with that people have decided they are not going to put up with sub-standard dialogue.

One thing here is we will be working with motion capture, and we do get to work with top actors here at the school. So we can explore that human side of character performances.
We really want to explore virtual spaces that are in the middle ground between games like WoW and social worlds. There is one title, Tales of the Desert, that is highly social but has some strong collaborative game components as well. Literally building cities in the desert together, while being a place to hang.

How do you teach people to prepare for the unexpected in virtual world design? How to develop worlds that encourage user creativity?
This is absolutely core to the virtual worlds course. It’s all about iterative design. You get 30-40% there, you invite people in, then you develop it based on how it is being used. It is harder to do with AAA type games, obviously, but it is suitable for casual game spaces.
LAMP has been very involved here in spreading the idea that this is a two-way process. You build something, people try it, we change it on the fly, and things are constantly evolving.

How do you think the course will evolve?
Maybe everything in the school will have a gaming element? We are looking at documentary and drama courses here, and it is starting to feel odd when talking about designing a curriculum that a drama thing has no element of participation, that the audience can’t chip in with their own stories, or that the characters aren’t blogging or on YouTube. It feels odd when you say I’m just creating this one pushed element. And documentary definitely could be viewed through different eyes.

So I might imagine that in five years time these courses are a central part of the school.


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