Animex Game 2014

Attending Animex Game in Middlesbrough seems like a decidedly odd thing to have done, no matter how I spin it. I flung myself into this 2-day conference – part of the wider Animex Festival at Teesside University – the day after flying back to Surrey. It was all rather an unknown for me, but what I encountered was a thoroughly friendly atmosphere, and a heap of inspiration to mull over as I begin writing, on the long train ride back towards London.

Animex 2014 Billboard

Format

I’ll be honest: Animex Game was a pleasant surprise not least because I’d never heard of it before. This despite it having a history of impressive guests, who this year included Ashraf Ismail of Ubisoft, Rhianna Pratchett, and Rex Crowle of Media Molecule. I wonder if its relative obscurity is a result of the heavy lean towards Teesside University’s own students, as opposed to the Gamecity festival, which sees Nottingham Trent University actively drawing the general public in. Suffice it to say: Animex has a different vibe to any conference I’ve been to before.

In its current format, Animex is a series of talks and networking events with a split programme allowing each set of ticket holders to see the entire line-up. The talks are staged in lecture theatres, with vibrant Q&A sessions. This makes a pretty good format, in which the guests dispense wisdom from all corners of the industry. There were talks from art, programming, audio, writing and design disciplines, which scaled from indie iOS titles to flagship AAA franchises. Broad pickings then for students, and folk like me who are just curious to learn more.

My main reason for attending was actually for our own fringe event, and I’m indebted to Gabrielle Kent, the festival’s organiser, for publicising LadyCADE in the Animex programme. Unfortunately we had to change venue at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances (that well-worn but appropriate phrase), but I’m pleased to say that some 30-odd Animex attendees – comprising most of the female audience – had a friendly night of it in Middlesbrough’s Walkabout pub.

Content

I wasn’t able to see all there was at Animex, on account of having to travel up during the first day of talks. What I did see was, on the whole, superb – and while the networking social was also unconventional due to its student focus, I had the chance to meet some great people whom I wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths with.

A Blood Angel (Warhammer 40K) cosplayer, and attendee at Animex's networking social
A Blood Angel (Warhammer 40K) cosplayer, and attendee at Animex’s networking social

My first lecture was Monday’s last – an intriguing retrospective on weaving narrative into the level design of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, by Mark Davies. It was particularly useful wisdom from an art design perspective, highlighting the importance of colour theory and shape – important considerations for both level designers and lead artists to make, before the asset pipeline gets to rolling.

I cheated a little on Tuesday morning, switching lecture theatres in order to catch Rex Crowle’s open and inspirational talk about development on Tearaway. We sometimes forget how it’s not only mechanics but themes which can benefit from being kept simple and so relatable as paper. That the game logic could be communicated as readily as that, with a world you can build fold-for-fold in reality, is extraordinary and really rather endearing.

So too was Georg Backer’s talk, You Had Me at ‘Press Start’, in which he enthused about all aspects of game development and gave brilliant advice on getting started – be you an indie startup or aspiring AAA creator. On a personal note, I was very glad to be the recipient of such wisdom and motivation at Animex’s networking event, so: thank you, Georg.

Cara Ellison interviewed Karla Zimonja (The Fullbright Company) in her trademark, sofa-bound style
Cara Ellison interviewed Karla Zimonja (The Fullbright Company) in her trademark, sofa-bound style

I’d have to say that ultimately what made my Animex was Cara Ellison’s interview with The Fullbright Company’s Karla Zimonja. Not only is Cara’s technique of staging a fireside chat (complete with sofas!) uniquely charming, it seems like a great way to make the audience feel included, and – I dare say – possibly help the interviewee open up as well. That’s perfectly suited for a creator of Gone Home, whose immersive and deeply relatable tale is helping to redefine what interactive media are capable of. I’ll make no secret of the fact I ‘fansquee’ all over this game.

I’ve waited a little while before writing about the next talk, because while And Bastable was engaging, frank and very revealing about the work Rare is doing on Kinect Sports Rivals – going as far as showing us an in-development build of the game’s ambitious avatar scanning tools – myself and a number of my friends (other women) were left feeling rather uncomfortable.

It’s likely a topic which warrants a separate post of its own, but in summary: Rare are keen to caricature the players it scans, blending them into the art style of their game. Sensible enough. That having been said, it seems they’ve assumed their female players all possess a rather offensive level of vanity, and so have reduced their stand-out features to the extent they look alike, while male avatars will always be more visually distinct from one another. That an otherwise fascinating game would do this so as not to fall into the ‘trap’ of a hypothetical “does my bum look big in this” causes me great concern. I felt unable to raise this during Q&A, as identity is something rather prominent in my daily life.

Ashraf Ismail on "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag"
Ashraf Ismail on “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag”

Fortunately the day ended on a very real high, as Ashraf Ismail gave us a glimpse at development on an Assassin’s Creed title. In my experience, it’s rare to see a talk which offers so much on the subject of design. Given that Black Flag was apparently developed by an 800-strong team, managing that creative vision will always sit a world apart from ‘indie’, and it’s refreshing to see a single conference offer such a broad perspective. Ismail stressed the value of prototyping, and walked us through how the core of an idea can (and should) form the pillars of the game’s entire development. It was also pretty fun to see video of early tests in Unity, playing with core mechanics like the naval combat before the AAA machine was brought to life, turning a team of 25 into 800 guardians of a franchise in need of refreshment.

Closing Thoughts

Animex Game is a unique but rather well-packed conference, with a lot to offer – particularly to students. What it lacks compared to festivals and larger conferences it makes up for in intimacy, and the chance to learn from game creators, their paths into industry, and their methods. It’s a tricky one to recommend, because that mix is not always the sort of thing one looks for in a games event – but if you have any desire to see game development in a new light then Animex is the definitive British event to look out for, and that above all else is why I’m so proud LadyCADE could be a fringe event alongside it.

LadyCADE at Animex Game 2014
LadyCADE at Animex Game 2014