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Educational Feature: The ArtSpark Chronicles - Part One: The Spark

There’s something very special taking place in Austin right now, and you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s called the ArtSpark Festival, and it brings together creative people from different disciplines to develop team projects in a workshop environment. In part one of this three-part series, author Greg Wilson takes us through the introductory process of the festival.

ArtSpark There’s something very special taking place in Austin right now, and you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s called the ArtSpark Festival, and it brings together creative people from different disciplines to develop team projects in a workshop environment. The annual festival began on March 20th and continues through mid-June, when teams will present their projects to the public. The two disciplines showcased this year are video game development and theatre arts, though other creative fields may be added in future festivals.

Anyone 18 years or older, regardless of experience level, is free to submit a team application for the ArtSpark Festival during its application period; it is not a program limited to students, nor is it off-limits to those who have already worked in game development or theatre. After the application deadline, participating teams are then carefully selected through an essay and interview process. Other than a small application fee for each team -- and a willingness to invest substantial amounts of time, effort and creativity -- there is no cost to participate. The ArtSpark Festival is sponsored by the HBMG Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose official mission is “to promote the creative process and explore synergies among the Arts, Technology, and Industry.” As HBMG founder Manuel Zarate said at our first meeting, “Here is an opportunity where all we are asking you to do—the only thing we are asking you to do—is create. How many opportunities are you going to get like that?”

Participating teams are given twelve weeks to create an original work inspired by a creative “spark” they are provided at the start of the festival. This year’s festival consists of five theatre teams and two game development teams; during the festival, each team is given a private office space, as well as computer equipment and a rehearsal area. Each team also receives a modest budget to spend on whatever they might need to develop their project, such as promotional materials. By the end of the festival, each game team is expected to have a detailed game concept with some kind of playable demo (created using either Unreal Tournament 2004 or Neverwinter Nights), as well as a preliminary design document and a strategy for marketing the game.

The game teams will present their projects at the Fielding-Lecht Gallery in downtown Austin on Wednesday, June 7th. The projects will be judged in various categories, including gameplay, visual design and creativity. One game team will be chosen to receive a $2000 award; in addition, $4000 will be awarded to the one team (game or theatre) that best embodies the ideals of the festival. However, it’s important to note that the ArtSpark Festival is more of a showcase than a traditional competition; teams are encouraged to work together and interact across their respective disciplines.

I first heard about the ArtSpark Festival through a link in Gamasutra’s Upcoming Events section. Although the festival is designed around project teams, interested individuals were invited to attend a “talent pool” meeting in case existing teams needed additional members. I decided to attend one of these meetings, just to see if there was a game team still in need of a designer or a writer. In actuality, the ArtSpark folks -- in keeping with their goals of fostering creative synergies -- had another plan in mind for the talent pool. They wanted to see if a group of complete strangers, their only common trait a desire to create something special, could be brought together and “click” well enough to form their own team from scratch. As a matter of fact, we did. Our team consists of nine members with varying levels of experience: a few of us have worked professionally in the industry, one is a former Guildhall student, some are looking to break into the gaming biz, and still others are just looking to have some fun. Embracing our unique last-minute formation, we named ourselves Team Impromptu; we were thrilled when we heard less than a week later that we’d been selected to participate in the festival.

By contrast, the other game team, known as Quantum Torpor, consists of a group of longtime friends who have always had the desire to work together on a creative project. According to John, the team captain, “A lot of us have ties to Louisiana, and when Katrina hit, that just threw our whole social network out of whack. People got pushed all over the country.” The ArtSpark Festival has provided the perfect reason for them to reestablish those connections.

The kickoff meeting for the 2006 ArtSpark Festival took place on March 20th. Before we began work on our projects in earnest, we were randomly divided into new teams for a sort of “practice challenge” in the same vein as the festival; each new team was given an object and asked to create a game using that object as inspiration. One team received a Harry Potter piggy bank; another received a single cheerleader’s pompom. We were given just over an hour to come up with a concept and create a five-minute presentation explaining our game to the other groups.

 


moo
What game would YOU make?

 

The object my team received was a stuffed bull covered in Fauvist paintings, cleverly named “Moo-tisse.” After toying with the idea of a pun-based game, we eventually settled on a board game themed around the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Players would race to be the first to make it from the stables (start) to the arena (finish) while trying to avoid hazards placed by their opponents.

It was amazing to see what each team came up with in such a short amount of time. Sometimes the spark items were used literally: the team that was given a pompom developed an improvisational game where players had to create a cheer based on randomly drawn words. In some cases, the sparks led to something completely different; the team that received the Harry Potter bank ended up with a game similar to Fortress, where players built towers out of blocks and attempted to knock down each other’s creations.

After our games were presented, the festival teams received their “sparks” in sealed manila envelopes. In addition to providing inspiration for the teams, the sparks also served to prevent teams from beginning work on their projects before the official start of the festival. (This was not a problem for our team, since we had all been perfect strangers the week before.) There was much speculation about what the “spark” envelopes would contain: pictures? Phrases? Objects? Did each team get a different spark? At the end of the meeting, we went back to our team office to open the envelope.

What we found inside was totally unexpected.

[What could it be? Find out next month in The ArtSpark Chronicles: Part Two]

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