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What's in a Game?

Product: Red Stick Animation Festival

Like many other cities in the United States, Baton Rouge is looking to grow. Though, the growth theyíre looking for isnít in terms of population (Katrina seems to have provided that), but economically. Unlike most cities, however, Baton Rouge is looking for more non-traditional venues for growth, one of which is the growing video game industry.

As part of the Red Stick International Animation Festival, the CCT hosted a workshop put on by Clint Ourso, Project Manager at Volition Games, a company best known for games like Red Faction, The Punisher and the upcoming Saintís Row. Among other topics, Ourso touched on what actually goes on between developing a concept and getting a game on the shelf, as well as sharing his ideas on how Baton Rouge could attract the industry and tips for start up companies and people looking to get into the industry. He also shared his insight on the challenges of developing an open-ended game like Saintís Row, as well as giving attendees a glimpse of what goes on when developing for Next-Generation consoles like the Xbox 360.

So what would it take for Baton Rouge to get "into the game" so to speak? Ourso stopped short of saying what needs to happen to bring companies here or announcing Volitionís new Baton Rouge offices, but he did seem encouraged that Baton Rouge could support the industry. Chiming in with what other members of the Baton Rouge community have said, setting up a games studio isnít something that is constrained by region. Unlike some industries that require certain natural resources, all that's needed to make games are people, computers and ideas. A little bit of money doesn't hurt either, since game development can quickly skyrocket into multi-billion dollar projects Ė so Louisiana's tax incentives, which are compared to those that have attracted Hollywood to the state, should help to entice possible companies. Ourso also pointed out that Champaign, Illinois, home of Volition Games, isnít much different than Baton Rouge as both are smaller market towns anchored by a major University.

Getting into what goes into making a game, it is no easy process. Ourso pointed out that games take a lot of time to develop, some taking as long as 2 years. Ourso mentioned that his company's game, Saintís Row, has been in development for longer than that. He explained that development of Saint's Row took somewhat longer than normal because the company had to develop pretty much everything from scratch (this being their first open-world title, not to mention their first game on the 360), but once the basic engine is in place, the company should be able to develop next gen titles with a bit more efficiency.

To illustrate the amount of time and energy that goes into making games, Ourso shared his experiences from making Volitionís games. He discussed how important timing is when releasing a game, mentioning that games like Red Faction 2 and Summoner 2, both from Volition, were good games that sold poorly due to other, bigger names that released at the same time.

On the topic of Saintís Row, Ourso mentioned that it is a different approach than Volitionís other games, which are straight-forward shooters, a genre that is the company's forte. Instead, Saintís Row is an open-ended game in the vein of Grand Theft Auto. Rather than show the "serious" side of urban gang life, Saintís Row takes a tongue-in-cheek approach. However, this doesnít mean that the game isnít without its more mature themes, leading to the hot-button debate surrounding content and the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board).

The discussion focused mainly on how the board, which is supported by the video game industry, goes through rating games. Once again relating his experiences, Ourso discussed how the company worked with the ESRB when getting The Punisher through the process and how the company was sure to not burn bridges when trying to work in one of the gameís more "creative" scenes involving a wood chipper.

A good bit of the workshop also covered how console games get approved by the first-party companies. Ourso explained that before the games hit the shelves, they have to be submitted to Sony, Microsoft and/or Nintendo and placed under hard scrutiny and kicked back to the developers many times before they are given the final go-ahead. Ourso also talked about the problems involved in releasing a game outside of the US and how each country has their own set of censors. For instance, German games cannot show people on fire, so in one Volition title, the developers replaced a fire-grenade with a bee-grenade. What could have been a highly involved rework became a somewhat simple texture switch.

Since Saint's Row is Volition's first jog into the open-world game market, the company is having to learn new ways to test the world. In linear games like Red Faction and The Punisher, it is a far easier task to predict what the player can and will do, but when you have an open-world, emergent behavior takes over and users can possibly find rather unusual bugs.

Ourso also had some advice to give those people in the audience hoping to break into the game development industry. He said that taking a job as a QA tester is probably the easiest in, and once there, the company will get to know you and your skill sets and possibly eventually move you into other fields. In fact, he talked about how the Saint's Row's dialogue writer came from the company's QA department.

Time will tell if Baton Rouge has what it takes to become a major player in the world of video games, but based on the number of people in attendance, the interest is there.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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