Just for a total change of tack from the last Wire interview posted here (with Bruce Logan of the Maxim Institute) I thought I'd set the transcribing monkeys to work on Simon McCallum PhD, the founder of The University of Otago's Computer Game Design course. It's a paper covering the various disciplines of game design, from hardcore programming to theatre studies and character development.
Simon is also an organiser of the first New Zealand Game Developers Conference, to be held in Dunedin from June 26 to 29 2004. Further details are available from the conference website here.
PS: It wasn't really transcribing monkeys (although I'd be prepared to set aside any qualms about animal rights if such a thing did exist) but my Wire producer Damien Lay. Thanks Damien.
Geek of the Week interview with Simon McCallum of Otago University, by Russell Brown, The Wire, 95bFM, April 21, 2004
RB: Simon, welcome.
RB: What actually prompted you to devise this course?
SM: Interestingly, what happened, one of our students got a scholarship to a conference in America, the GDC, and came back all fired up about game development, came in and asked us what we could do for the club he was starting up and it sort of snowballed from there and I created this paper and we just kept growing and growing and now we’ve got a conference and all sorts of things happening.
RB: And you’ve had some international help in putting the course together haven’t you?
SM: Oh yes, essential international help. I had an intern come over from Germany who’d been doing a degree in computational visualistics, which, sounds a bit weird. They claim that they do things with pictures in the same way linguists do things with words. He was majoring in game design over there and he came over and helped and I’ve got various friends in the industry including Chris Butcher who is one of the lead developers of Halo 2. So we got some good international contacts.
RB: Halo’s an interesting one isn’t it? It’s a good example of what makes a game good. On one level it’s just a shooter - yet there seems to be something a bit more to it.
SM: Yes. Chris is actually a New Zealander. He started in a small town just outside of Oamaru and came to university and went over and got a job in America. He’s been developing some artificial intelligence: when your partners/colleagues in Halo wander around and talk to you and each other, he did some of the development of what they’re doing and how they react to you which is some of the most engaging part of Halo.
RB: Do you think your students understand the breadth of skills required in game development as they come into the course? There are things like plot and character, as well as being able to program, aren’t there?
SM: Oh yeah, it's an enormously creative discipline, which I think is underestimated and certainly some of our students, are as you say … quite geeky. They just don’t realise the breadth of the discipline and when you look at a game out , a 100-person team, you might have 10 programmers, and the rest are artists, musicians, storywriters, script developers, directors even. So, it’s just an enormously creative discipline.
RB: How many opportunities are there in game development in New Zealand though? You’ve talked about Chris Butcher who’s in America. Is it realistic to think about working in game development in New Zealand?
SM: Well, until recently, probably not. We’ve got one large company - and by large I mean 30 people - and that’s Sidhe which develops Stacey Jones Rugby League, which people might have seen around in the stores recently. They are in Wellington. We’ve got a few other companies who are starting up. Binary Star, Right Hemisphere do some stuff, there are a few companies. But realistically, it’s a bit like the music industry. Everybody, well, not everybody, but lots of high school students want to get into it. They want to start their band, they want to become famous, but it’s about the same ratio of people who want to get into game development as people who want to get into music and the ratio of who ends up actually making money.
RB: As you said, Sidhe interactive did Stacey Jones Rugby League which has been a success. I understand it was the biggest pre-sale of any console game into Australia ever.
SM: Indeed. In fact they were at number one on the Australian charts for five weeks over Christmas. They sold somewhere over 120,000 units which compared to records … I mean, when you look at New Zealand bands if they sell more than 10,000 records they’re happy. So,120,000 units at $100 a pop is like $12 million dollars of product they’ve produced.
RB: That’s a sports game. Is that a pointer to where the potential is for game development in New Zealand?
SM: Sports are definitely one of the areas for development. We also have to look internationally. Our local market isn’t large enough to support game development companies. We need to look at Australia and the UK and the US. That’s part of what we’re doing is bringing in people from overseas to actually look at what we’re doing and saying look, we can actually make really great games. Luckily with Lord Of The Rings you can actually get a hold now, internationally, because we can say, look, we can be technical and creative.
RB: Now I presume this is the kind of thing that’s going to be discussed at the New Zealand Game Developers Conference. Can you tell us about that? When is it, where is it and what does it involve?
SM: Right. Well it’s down here in Dunedin. The 26th to the 29th of June. We’re going to have five or six keynotes coming from various places. Ernest Adams, which sounds strange in New Zealand, but he’s a well-known game designer and Daniel Sanchez-Crespo, and various other people are coming over. We’re going to be discussing New Zealand gaming culture and looking at how academics like me can set up internships for students with companies so that a student, while they’re doing their degree, can go and work for a game company to see a) if they like it and b) if they’re good enough. We’re going to have the government come in and talk to us about what’s available to start up new companies. I’ve got a small company that’s started up out of this games course that I gave. There’s a group of five students who’ve started their own company and they’re going reasonably well and they’ll be presenting at the conference as to what they did and how they got to where they are. We’ve got some funding from the government so its probably going to be about $100 to attend for a student, which is pretty cheap compared to some conferences. We’ve set up accommodation so it’s like $40 a night accommodation with a Bed and Breakfast down here. We’re trying to keep costs down for students.
RB: That sounds extremely reasonable. One thing that strikes me about game development is that it’s kind of at the intersection of practicality and creativity, which is sort of where New Zealanders have always prospered.
SM: Yes, I agree. Its one of the things we’re ideally suited for, because you have to be practical, you cant just make incredibly pretty millions of polygon count models, you cant have lots of details on your models because they’ve got to run on a computer and move around and stuff. It’s a trade-off between getting something working and making it fun and being creative and new and innovative.
RB: The staff on your course list their favourite games on the webpage and I noted that your number one is a really old-school arcade game called Time Pilot which I recall playing 20 years ago. What’d you like so much about that?
SM: Well, for me it when I was a teenager and it really engaged me It drew me in, I felt that it just kept giving me small rewards because you’d get through the level and there was the standard sort of feedback from the game and I spent many hours crossing over on the Cook Strait ferry playing Time Pilot when I was a young kid. It's still one of my favourite games as a game to play when you’re just relaxing. In terms of more recent games, you can get some pretty interesting games - like the Ultima series is quite a lot of fun if you’re wanting a story based game. There are different types of games, some people don’t recognise the difference between a computer toy and a computer game. We generally think of things like the Sims as a computer toy because it doesn’t actually have an objective. You’re not competing against anybody; it’s just a toy that you play with.
RB: Now, one mildly controversial element of the game scene is the rise of the console and arcade emulator. Looked at one way, these things are piracy. Do you think they’re also good for gaming culture?
SM: I think they are reasonably good for gaming culture. The idea of having emulators on your computer certainly allows you to play some of the games that you would only be able to play if you had those consoles. Certainly the older consoles which you can no longer buy or computers that you can no longer buy, the Amiga’s and things. Those games and those emulators are really great because they revive some of those old games. In terms of game selling, so long as you are actually willing to purchase those games, if you’ve played them on your emulator and you think "no, I really like that game, I want to see more of that game developed" you should go out and buy it because just like the music industry, in fact games have probably been stuck with this longer than the music industry, games have probably been stuck with this longer than the music industry. If you don’t buy the game, the company that made the game will go under. So if you want more games like that you should go and buy it as an investment into future games of that sort.
RB: Well I ask, because I’ve got a nine year old boy who’s downloaded just about every console emulator he can find. He also plays Warcraft and Runescape and so on and he actually wants to be a game developer. He’s nine years old. Is there anything I can do to help that dream along at that age? I mean, you started fairly early on computers didn’t you?
SM: Yes, yes. I was given my first computer at the age of 10 and I started programming games at that age with the old ZX Spectrum. So, that was 19 years ago. What you can do is encourage him to understand maths: games require a bit of an understanding of maths and geometry. The game developers generally say play a lot of games - which if he’s doing that already that’s probably easy. The other thing is to think about the games. Encourage him to actually sit back and say "why was it fun?". Just like, instead of just sitting and watching movies, if you want to actually make movies you ask questions like "why did the director show me that scene?" ‘What was the point of that bit of the movie?’ and that’s how you start to think about how to make your own movies. And the same thing with games. Why did the game give me a reward then? Why did it have that particular sequence of events? What was fun about playing that game? By just thinking about that, 9 year olds can do that; they can talk about why things are fun. They start to think ‘Well ok, if that’s why things were fun, how would I make a game that was fun?’
The New Zealand Game Developers Conference is to be held in Dunedin from June 26 to 29 2004. Further details are available from the conference website here.