A group of classmates gathers for a game of Minesweeper. Revealing each tile, as always, is an exercise of mystery and danger. When a tile is revealed as empty, they sigh in relief. When it’s a bomb, they gasp and shake their heads in shame.
But this isn’t your everyday game of Minesweeper. These four students are gathered around a table, rolling dice and removing cardboard playing pieces from a grid. It’s Minesweeper: The Board Game.
It’s just one of several “analogue” versions of computer and video games, created by the students in OCAD’s Game Design: Conceptual and Visual Approaches class. Their instructor Benjamin Rivers is with the crowd, alongside other indie game developers and fans at the Bento Miso collaborative workspace in downtown Toronto.
Rivers has been part of OCAD’s growing game development program for the past three years, and teaching for six. This is his first term teaching the class, assisting previous instructor Emma Westecott in years prior. “She’s been spearheading this campaign to get great game learning at OCAD,” he explains.
If the idea of turning a video game into a board game, or “analogue” version of itself, seems counter-intuitive, you wouldn’t be alone. But it’s part of Rivers’ intention to make his students look at games from a designer’s perspective rather than a player’s.
“[At the beginning of the class] I took them through some examples, such as games like Street Fighter and Monopoly, and explained moment-to-moment what’s going on, and how behind the scenes you can see the mechanics that are involved in the game,” explains Rivers.
“We basically… ruin all the fun and make them look at it as all the hard work that went into it.” The next assignment is to create a complete video game – computer and all this time – using the lessons from the analogue version assignment.
INTO THE WILD
The students’ presentation at Bento Miso is the first time the prototypes have been publicly shown. The collaborative space holds sessions every two weeks, called Games with Friends, to allow game designers to critique and try out their peers’ work.
“Part of being a game designer is the scary part of bringing your game out to a whole bunch of people who don’t like or may not know you or like you,” says Rivers. “And having them actually play and see what happens, so they get real, reliable feedback and valuable information. That’s a huge part of making games.”
Ryan Dalicandro’s game attracted a lot of attention, taking the full length of a large wooden table. Pyramids of drink cups and table tennis balls are aligned at either end. It’s his idea for Call of Duty Beer Pong (or CoD Pong for short).
“I suggested Call of Duty as one of the games to convert, and beer pong kind of works with the demographic that plays it,” he explains.
Not simply a commentary on the dude-bro scene the series is known for, he included event cards each player draws before making a shot. A land mine, for instance, protects a single cup from an enemy shot. A “no scope” card requires the player to throw the ball from three paces farther away from normal.
And while several other teams worked on translating the games into a workable board game format, like the students behind Minesweeper, CoD Pong proved that you don’t need to translate the entire gameplay experience of a game to ensure that it’s recognizable. Rivers notes two separate groups of students who each made different games based on Super Mario Kart.
“They both made two completely different versions as a board game: one that relied more on cards and items, and required some skill rolls, and one that was more about creating a track that was transformable so you could redesign the level and give yourself a bit of variation,” says Rivers.
TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION OF GAME DEVELOPERS
With several games already under his belt, including the critical hit Home, Rivers knows as well as many other developers in Toronto how crucial it is to develop game design programs in colleges and universities. While relatively young, the game scene in Toronto is growing at a surprising pace.
“One thing about Toronto, and the gaming industry in general, is it’s quite young, and there are a lot of companies that are small, and still growing with lots of room to grow and hopefully this will be going on for a long time,” says Rivers.
It’s a better way to get started than how he did it, he admits. He started in game development at the age of nine, when his grade school class was tasked with creating a board game. “That was the first time I ever created anything by myself. And because of that I realized, ‘this is hard work.’ There are all these weird things you have to account for like time, chance, making sure players have fun.”
OCAD’s video game development program, which Rivers says is slowly growing in the few years since Westecott launched the first design course, is already teaching students the fundamentals in mere weeks what took him and designers his age years to learn.
“They have resources and are thinking about this, and not just sitting around thinking, ‘Well, I guess I want to make a game, but I don’t know how to, and there’s no one to talk to for more advice.’”
Dalicandro took the feedback for CoD Pong in stride. While many players loved the concept, the pacing and high score requirement for victory (750 points, or roughly two sets of cups each) can be too demanding on the player, especially for a newcomer to beer pong. But it’s balanced by the cheers of adulation he received for the social commentary behind the game’s very concept.
The Minesweeper team has been tweaking several elements of its board game for quite some time. Earlier editions had far too many bombs and players could lose their health points with only a handful of unlucky choices. This time around players get several rounds before their health points teeter at the brink.
Feedback has been positive. Ideas for a new artistic take on the board, and the game pieces arose out of the session as well: replacing all the mines with cats.
Patch Notes: What’s Ben Rivers been playing?
– Dear Esther: “If anyone’s been playing Home you could probably see why I’d like that. That was a huge vindication about everything I like about games.”
– Mass Effect 3: He’s playing through the entire trilogy for the first time. “It’s been pretty interesting, especially doing it all at once. It’s a little overwhelming at times.”
– Looking forward to Halo 4: “I’m the guy who, when Halo 2 came out, followed the entire ARG. While I was supposed to be at work I pieced together MP3 clips piece by piece, and created the entire radio drama out of the narrative. I had sketches on paper, and did it all for myself, because I was so interested in the lore.”
– What’s on Ben’s Dork Shelf? “I have a little Muny, Dark Knight Rises Batman, and I have a plush Yoda and he’s guarding my Jack Kirby biography, King of Comics.”
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