Truth and games events: two things the cynic might say seldom skip hand in hand through our augmented reality meadows. It’s not necessarily that speakers or organisers set out to avoid shedding light on the darker corners of our industry, where development wrong turns and regrettable design decisions lurk; it’s just that gatherings of games folk typically provide platforms to showcase best practice, to swap commercial insights, and for excellent networking opportunities. Any home truths are usually reserved for the lunch queue or the well-lubricated small hours. Well, usually.
Animex: International Festival of Animation and Computer Games, to give it its full title, is now in its 14th year, and will once again host speakers briefed to be frank about the challenges of working at the dev coalface. The event, hosted by Teesside University between February 18 and 22, will bring together world-class animation talent, industry professionals and students for a series of sessions delivered by game development stalwarts and well-known names from other disciplines.
This year’s conference will chalk off a couple of significant landmarks too: it’s the tenth Animex to feature a major games strand, and the first to include a series of talks on comics. Though, in the transmedia age, such distinctions between media become less relevant – a fact embodied in the event’s star turn, ex-Marvel Comics editor in chief and DC Comics senior editor Marv Wolfman. As well as his work in print, he helped to pen the script for games such as Superman Returns and Epic Mickey 2.
It’s also the first conference being organised entirely by Gabrielle Kent, deputy head of computer games at Teesside Uni, who previously took care of the games side of things. It’s an opportunity to bring together game developers who will give an honest view of the production process – one which she is keenly looking forward to. Speakers are encouraged to explore practical issues which will provide students and festival-goers with the inside track on major studio projects – and it’s not a bad place to network if you’re looking for a game industry job, either.
Among the speakers is Teesside graduate Janus Kirkegaard, a senior environment artist at Copenhagen-based IO Interactive. He’s in town to discuss the ups and downs of developing Hitman: Absolution.
“There were problems with the production process and he wants to give an accurate portrayal of that,” says Kent. “Most talks cover development problems, but they also introduce new techniques and tools being used. Valve are really interesting, for example, as they develop so much interesting stuff in-house and give staff so much time to build tools outside the normal development process.”
This year Valve will be represented by Bay Raitt who previously worked as the lead facial animator on the Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy, a brief which included bringing to life the tortured expressions of Gollum.
“People will get to look behind the scenes of their favourite games and see the real work behind them,” says Kent. “Rather than the PR people in the company you get developers who have been working on the games intimately and can shed light on the production process.”
One such speaker is Lionhead Studios producer Jennifer Clixby, one of the new breed of rising development stars to emerge from the long shadow cast by game industry giant Peter Molyneux. Clixby has worked on every Fable game to date and took the lead on XBLA spin-off Fable Heroes.
That scrolling beat-em-up was born at a Lionhead Creative Day – an annual two-day event when developers are taken off their timetables and invited to play around with ideas. Built in eight months rather than the usual two-year Lionhead cycle, it received a mixed reception from critics, a fact from which Clixby does not intend to shy away.
“I’d be lying if I said the development of the Fable games had always been smooth, but with each iteration we are getting a lot better,” he tells us. “I’m doing the talk at Animex with Mike West, lead designer, and we’re going to discuss the challenges of production and design.
“We’ll look at the problems in Fable I, II and III and perhaps we’ll provide more insight into where we felt our failings were, as well as triumphs. We don’t want to stand there and talk about how brilliant we are and that’s not what people want to hear.”
For Clixby, Fable Heroes will be the most personal game up for discussion. “There was a lot of criticism in the reviews and that was an interesting learning process. Some of the criticisms were very valid and hit home.
“The Fable name was a blessing and a curse because it brought a lot of expectations. Perhaps I was a little naive and if I went back I would have focused less on the smaller things we added that we thought would be great fun and more on the core of the game.”
Clixby is appearing twice during the festival. A long roster of other speakers includes Tomb Raider reboot writer Rhianna Pratchett, Naughty Dog lead animator Eric Baldwin and representatives from Ubisoft Reflections, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Aardman. Actors, musicians and an array of other specialists will also be taking part. Animex 2013 tickets are still available from the festival website.
“It is a hell of a lot of work, but it’s completely worth it,” says Kent. “Personally, it’s amazing for me and my teaching. I get to meet all these people, hear what’s coming and make sure all the content is fresh. But there’s so much going on. I’m just looking forward to everything.”