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The ArtSpark Chronicles - Part Three

In this Gamasutra educational feature, Greg Wilson shares the outcome of the video game development and theatre arts themed ArtSpark Festival 2006 in Austin, Texas.

The ArtSpark Festival is a game design/theatre production competition taking place in Austin, Texas. For more information, please see The ArtSpark Chronicles, Part I and The ArtSpark Chronicles, Part II.

Previously in the ArtSpark Chronicles

Our team chose one of three sparks to develop into a game concept and demo. For our game concept, called Empires of Mars, we developed numerous marketing materials and two websites. We also planned out a story-driven demo level that would require monumental efforts to complete before the end of the festival.

Part III: The Postmortem

The games presentation for the 2006 ArtSpark Festival took place on June 7th at the Fielding Lecht Gallery in downtown Austin. Over seventy people showed up to see the two game teams present their concepts and show off their demos. Several industry professionals from local companies such as Stray Bullet Games and Edge of Reality were also present to act as judges for the competition. In addition, several members of ArtSpark’s theatre teams were present to show their support, and some even provided entertainment throughout the evening.

The audience response to both presentations was quite positive, with audience members actively participating in spirited question-and-answer sessions about the game concepts. Audience members challenged the two teams to give serious thought to aspects of each game that seemed unclear or not fully developed, and even offered some excellent suggestions for the further development of each project.

After a long week of waiting for the final results, our team was fortunate enough to walk away with the top prize in the games division. Although we won, participating in the ArtSpark Festival was, without a doubt, a humbling and nonstop learning experience for everyone on our team. Looking back, here are a few of the highs and lows of our team’s efforts.



The winning team.

What Went Right

The marketing.
Our marketing strategy was definitely cited by many as a high point for our team. Our propaganda-style posters and “draft card” invitations were especially well-received. By tying our marketing materials into our fictional game world, we were able to immerse our audience in a way that really helped sell our “alternate history” concept without having to fully explain the story beforehand.

The concept.
The concept and story for our game also received praise for originality. The game world of our project is something never quite seen before, and that alone can have a tremendous appeal to jaded gamers. Also, by creating a main character who undergoes a complete character arc over the course of the game story—instead of simply offering a static “hero” for the player to assume the role of—we were able to conceive something that provided an appropriate literary feel and tied in to some of our main sources of inspiration, like H. G. Wells and classic sci-fi pulp magazines.

The voice acting.
As mentioned briefly in The ArtSpark Chronicles, Part II, we were fortunate enough to have two honest-to-goodness actors from the theatre portion of the festival—Travis and Martin—volunteer to provide character voice-overs for our demo. Their work added a huge amount of sophistication and polish to our demo, and everyone who heard it was impressed by the quality level. One team member, upon first hearing the recordings, said, “Wow… that sounds better than a lot of commercial games!”

Resource mining.
Several members of our team showed an outstanding ability to utilize resources from their own personal lives and experiences for the benefit of the team. One of our members, Ryan, had worked for a printing company before participating in the festival; through his connections, he was able to obtain huge quantities of our marketing materials for a very handsome price (free). Similarly, another member of our team—Jamie—has close ties to the 3D art community in Austin. When our team was feeling the pinch, she recruited several 3D artists to help out with our demo level. She also got our project advertised on the website of a local business, and secured a huge banner with our game’s logo for presentation night. When our team experienced technical problems with Unreal, Toren, another team member, called upon friends with Unreal expertise to help us get back on track. All these team members provided additional resources that proved critical to our team’s success.



Martian pentapod designed for our demo by Stephen Connor.

What Went Wrong

The workflow and implementation of art assets.
From the start, we knew that our game concept would require a huge number of art assets if we wanted to provide a real sense of the game’s unique visual potential. Just prior to the start of the competition, we were lucky enough to gain a team member with both tremendous talent and professional industry experience; this team member was chosen to serve as the artistic lead for the project, and to oversee the workflow of all game art assets.

Just a few weeks into the competition, however, our artistic lead got a new job and found himself unable to continue participating in the festival. Although we still had talented concept and graphic artists on our team, we had no one to bring all the parts together in a cohesive way. In addition, we were left without an artist to create our essential 3D assets.

Luckily, we picked up an additional member who did a fantastic job fulfilling our 3D needs. Unfortunately, we were already halfway through the competition by that time; the initial setback was devastating, and left us scrambling to complete just the most important elements before the festival deadline.

Our next major stumbling block arose when it came time to implement our 3D assets. Though some members of our team had previous experience with Unreal, none of us had experience with bringing custom player meshes and animations into Unreal. This issue resulted in many frustrating hours that would have otherwise been spent refining other aspects of our demo.

The presentation.
Although many people were kind enough to compliment our presentation, the simple truth is that it was a mess. Our original plan had been to script the entire presentation, and to make use of a traditional Powerpoint-style slide show to accompany our spoken pitch; in addition to outlining the main points, the slides would also include art and screenshots from our demo level, which would then be available to play afterward.

Unfortunately, the demo level became a black hole into which all time and resources were sucked during our final week. As team captain, I made the unwise decision to concentrate my efforts on helping with the demo instead of preparing the presentation; I figured I would be able to put some slides together after we worked out the major kinks in our level. Of course, many of those kinks were never worked out, and our team was literally still trying to get our level together until the last minute before the doors opened at the gallery on presentation night. Since we had no other visual aids, we ended up having a team member play through the demo on a big display screen as we talked through our presentation; this ended up distracting some members of the audience, who weren’t sure where to focus their attention.

Despite these problems, the strength of our concept somehow managed to shine through. Still, the experience provided a valuable lesson about time management: make sure you focus on what’s really important. On the big night, seventy people willingly gave us their attention to listen to our presentation; afterward, only a handful actually sat down and played the demo level. We should have worked harder to offer something to those seventy people, instead of working so hard to offer something more to just a few.



Our trophy.

Conclusion

All in all, the ArtSpark Festival provided an excellent opportunity for our team members to showcase their individual talents, as well as show that they have the ability to work well with others as part of a project team. The lessons learned will stay with all of us, as will the relationships we’ve formed both within our team and with other festival participants. And if these chronicles have piqued your interest in the festival, here’s some good news: the ArtSpark Festival will return again in the springtime of next year. Until then, don’t miss the opportunity to take advantage of your own personal “art sparks”: those everyday glimmers of notions that flicker and flash in the depths of imagination, just waiting to feed the fires of dreamers.

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