A few weeks ago I was contacted by an old colleague of mine named Dwayne Hammond (he and I worked together for a very short period at gameloft). Dwayne, it turns out, has been working as a strategic advisor for the last two years at Algoma University in Sault Saint Marie Ontario, a relatively small city of 75000 in northern (ish) Ontario with huge ambitions to become a significant player in the game development industry in Canada.
When Dwayne first asked me if I would fly out to SSM to do a talk and a workshop with some highschool students I didn't know what to expect. At the very least I thought it would be another chance to pimp Ubisoft and maybe motivate a few kids to think about getting into game develoment. I had no idea just how serious things were...
As the date approaches Dwayne explained that the second day of my trip would he dedicated to a workshop to kickstart something called 'ProtoLaunch' and would I do another talk to a smaller group of kids about the Game Pitch process. Again - not sure what to expect, but I hammered out a 5 point talk one afternoon based off of my ideas on the 'art of the pitch'.
On the Friday morning I did a talk to about 30 small business owners and university students interested in game development. I used my GDC talk from last year on the evolution of POPs art direction as a basis to explain the Stage Gate philosophy of game development (conceptin, then pre-prod, then production). Standard fare. I thought to myself "this weekend will be a breeze".
Then in the afternoon I had to do the same talk in front of about 300 visiting high school kids who had come to the university explicitly to hear me talk as an initiative of the Algoma Innovation Lab. Now, I've presented POP at PAX in front of thousands. I've been on the same stage as Steve Jobs at a recent Apple event. I've done a fair share of public speaking and I promise you - a room full of 13-15 year olds who are too cool to laugh at my jokes is the hardest presentation I've yet done. I was scared...
I must have done something right as the crowed had loosened up somewhat by the end. I thought for sure, though, the next step would be a failure...
The 'protolaunch' program is funded (quite well it turns out) by a grant from the Trillium Foundation with a variety of provincial community building mandates.
Dwayne and his group propose to run 7 weekend classes over the next 7 months on game development. At the end of the courses several groups of participants win the right to enter a game development competition. The best part? For the entire duration of the 5 weeks they have to make their game they are all paid! Best. Summer. Job. Ever.
Winners get scholorships to Algoma in their newly created undergraduate program in game development, material (books, etc) and various other significant prizes.
But - and I thought this would be a deal breaker - the kids have to really work for it! Giving up a full weekend each month seemed to me too much to ask. I didn't think many kids would be interested.
I need to learn to have more faith. We had spots for 24 participants in saturday's session. We recieved about 60 applications!! After we had chosen the luckly winners I figured some wouldn't bother to come - they had signed up on a Friday afternoon for an event starting early Saturday morning. Surely some would drop out.
By 9am. A full 30 minutes before the starting point, almost 90% of the 'class' had arrived, chomping at the bit.
As we went through the morning's lesson on game pitches (I put them into groups after asking them their area of interest and finding we had a pretty balanced mix of artists, programmers and designers) I started to worry about how we would fill the whole day. These kids immediatly took to concepts like 'start with your hook' and 'define your "X" using recognizable references) and were putting together some cool concepts for games. Things way beyond the scope of what they could possibly develop in a weekend, but cool! How was I going to fill the afternoon? We weren't set up for, nor am I in any position to, jump into lessons on Photoshop or c++.
So I thought about paper prototyping. This lot obviously wanted to make a game and this was the best I thought we could do in the few hours we had left. So we bought some dice, post-it notes, flash cards, pens and rubber toy animals and I explained my idea: take one element from your game and try to find a way to map the mechanic of it to the analogue world of the tools in front of you (it was a little more long winded then that, but that was the gyst). I crossed my fingers, held my breath and hoped for the best. And every single group knocked it out of the park!
One group accidentally stumbled upon a rich combination of a skill-based strategy system (a variety of cards you hold in your hand to play when you want) on a multi-path board (where different paths benefit from certain powerup cards) and the randomness of dice rolling for movement and 'community chest' style status effect cards. The result was a game with surprisng depth and strategy for something made in a little over an hour.
Another group wanted to make a cops and robbers MMO - '24' meets 'capture the flag'. They came up with a setup whereby two identical game boards were played on by each group (cops on one board, terrorists on the other) with a 'DM' player monitoring player positions to inform when the cops had managed to find the terrorists and a fight was to ensue - think a 4 player team-co-op battleship with a DM to ensure action is frequent.
This from a group who had never made a game of any sort. Ever. Not even a LBP level.
If any of these teens follow through with 'protolaunch' all the way and end up taking the undergraduate program in game development they then have the option to follow that up with one of the few masters level game programming curriculums in the world (at least for now).
"The Sault" may be small but they are making incredible moves with serious funding. Montreal and Vancouver (and of course Toronto) may soon have some unlikely competion in the form of a small city previously known primarily for it's steel and paper mills.
And that I may have played even a tiny part in that makes me more proud then I ever thought possible.
Dwayne is on the lookout for industry proffessionals willing to run a weekend course for this group in the coming months (and yes, it's a paying gig). If you want to meet an incredible group of passionate future game devs and help shape something special I highly encourage you to get in touch.