Untold Entertainment - Kahoots

Interview with
Ryan Creighton
of Untold Entertainment

Ryan Creighton - Untold Entertainment
Ryan Creighton of Untold Entertainment realizing there may be something on his head.

Anyone familiar with the Toronto video game scene probably knows the name Ryan Creighton. As the president of Untold Entertainment, his speciality is online games designed for kids and teens. However, Creighton is also one of the most outspoken and passionate voices in the Toronto game development community. He is the kind of person who is as likely to make you think as he is to make you laugh. His industry knowledge and quick wit are immediately apparent, whether he’s speaking on panel, socializing at gatherings like TOJam and Hand Eye, or writing on his always entertaining blog.

Will: If you could just start by telling us about your background: how you got into the game development industry and a little bit about Untold Entertainment.

Ryan: I’ve been trying to make video games all my life, but always failed at it.  I tried programming some simple text adventure games on the Commodore 64, and again on the Amiga 500, but that stuff was way over my head and I was sorely in need of a mentor.  If there were any mistakes in the programming books I was using (and there often were), troubleshooting the errors with no help was way over my head as an 8-12-year-old.  The only real success I had was building paper versions of the graphic adventure games I desperately wanted to make.

When I graduated high school, there weren’t really any schools teaching game development like there are today.  I knew that to get into the industry, I’d have to specialize in either programming or art. I had failed miserably at programming, so I tried art.  I enrolled at Sheridan in their Illustration program, and … failed miserably.  At the time, I had a copy of 3D Studio MAX version 1 (!!), and was very interested in computer animation, but the Sheridan course was for post-grads only.  So I enrolled at another Ontario community college and finished their 1.5 year “technical illustration” program … this stuff was still so new, it wasn’t even called “computer animation and multimedia” yet.

My demo reel was terrible and I couldn’t land a job. I wound up teaching game development and computer graphics in elementary schools. I went back to school to get a degree in Cultural Studies at Trent.

Just after my intro year there, I saw a job posting for a game developer at Corus Entertainment/YTV. They liked my personality, and the (VERY) small multimedia project I completed in college, which I re-wrote for Flash just for the job interview.  A number of things went very right for me in that interview (luck had a lot to do with it), and I was hired on as a game developer.  I worked at Corus for over seven years, was promoted to Sr. Game Developer, and won the company’s inaugural Creative Spark Award.  While at Corus, I developed over 50 games, most of them solo.

I left Corus in 2007 and started Untold Entertainment Inc.  We naturally fell into developing games and activities in Flash for kids, teens, tweens and preschoolers.  Our clientele was mostly teevee production companies.  With the economy in the tank, we’ve found ourselves developing a diverse slate of projects for various clients – a website for the Bank of Montreal, a contest site for Sony VAIO, a site for Toronto-based Yowza Animation, and even some comedy writing for the West 49 clothing store.  This year I published my first book, Unity 3D Game Development by Example.

It’s really difficult to get an original game project off the ground. On our website, we have some small games that I built at TOJam (the Toronto Independent Game Jam).  We’re struggling to finish and launch three larger original games: Interrupting Cow Trivia, a real-time multiplayer online trivia game; Kahoots, a fun crime-themed puzzle game modeled entirely in clay; and Spellirium, a post-apocalyptic puzzle/adventure game.

Kahoots - Untold Entertainment
Untold Entertainment's Kahoots is a Monty Python flavoured mystery game made using plasticine.

Will: Do you think that new programs like the Canadian Media Fund – which require TV productions that receive funding to include interactive components – will help or hurt the fledgling game industry in the city?
It may be a boon to the local industry in the short term, but is there a possiblity that it could stifle original content from local developers in the long run?

Ryan: It’s a great idea in theory, and I’m glad the funding is there.  The problem I currently see is that a lot of teevee folks, and “convergent” media companies (essentially middle-men trying to bridge the gap between teevee and interactive, without providing much of a useful service beyond message relaying and project management), don’t have very much experience playing or creating interactive content … but they don’t act that way.  As the next CMF deadline approaches, I’ve had more and more clueless people calling me up saying “we want to make a Facebook game.  How much does that type of thing cost?”  They’re just looking to drop a budget line item on their CMF application, and they want an easy answer.

Here’s how they see it working: I say “why, that will cost x dollars!”  Then they put “x dollars” on the app, get the money, and knock on my door a few months later and say “here’s your x dollars and our game idea.  Make this game please.”  And then a few months later, I hand them the finished product, made to order.  It’s an incredibly naive and uninformed approach, and I don’t like that teevee people are the initiators of these fund applications, and that they don’t seem the least bit interested in actual collaboration with me or my colleagues.

My two complaints are that 1. The video games industry – specifically the games industry, not “interactive” (websites, apps, interactive art installations and sundry other elements of bullshit) –  is not being seen by these teevee companies as its own industry, but rather a natural “evolution” of teevee (and therefore, teevee people feel somehow qualified to design their own games and interactive experiences – how hard can it be? It’s like clickable teevee), and 2. Game companies are not being seen or treated as experts in their field (because according to teevee people, there is no field.)

I’d really like to see true collaboration on these CMF projects, instead of teevee and convergent people coming to companies like mine the week before the application deadline with a very bad idea for a game, concocted without benefit of any game design experience or understanding, and a request to just estimate and vouch for a price, and sign my name on their application. Forget it!  The right time to start thinking about interactive is at the very beginning, and the right people to get involved are the experts in their fields – teevee experts for teevee, and game experts for games.

State of the Video Game Industry in Canada Panel
Creighton and other Toronto developers on the 'State of the Video Game Industry in Canada' Panel at Fan Expo 2010 (Photo by Jonathan Ore)

Will: The Toronto video game scene has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, what role do you think events like Gamercamp, the Hand Eye Society Socials and TOJam are playing in the development of the community?

Ryan: I hope that these events, the more folks like you publicize them, will help to increase the profile of Toronto, and to help establish Ontario as a hotbed of video game development.  It would be nice to be seen as the world’s finest indie game dev hub … from what I gather, I think we’re well on the way.  And Canada recently overtook the UK as the world’s third most active country for game development, after Japan and the USA.

One problem I see is that there are a lot of people coming out to these events who want to make games, but I’m not sure that a lot of them are actually being successful.  I like what HES founder Jim Munroe is doing with the Artsy Games Incubator, where a bunch of non-programmers get together and make games regardless. I think as a community, we need to put a greater emphasis on finishing projects, instead of just hanging out at these events, meeting people, and trying to look all cool and indie.  I’m trying to figure out ways that I can contribute to getting our community to produce more great work (my own company included!)

Will: Ubisoft recently set up shop in Toronto, do you think their presence of a huge publisher/developer will help or hinder the indie game development scene in the city?

Ryan: Lo, Ubisoft will tear all men asunder with her terrifying teeth and fierce fiery breath, and their bones will be scattered as ashes across the devastated landscape. Woe to he who is caught in her piercing gaze, for he will surely be turned to a smouldering column of detritus in the wake of her punishing stare. Flee now, for the time of her ruinous reign is upon us.  She will rule for seven years and seven days, and from her fourteen mouths and twenty-three anuses will issue a foul proclamation, which will render whoever hears it completely retarded.

Will: What advice can you offer to people interested in getting into the game industry or who are looking to start up their own development company?

Ryan: I wouldn’t recommend starting your own company without having industry experience first.  Some have succeeded at it, but you only ever hear of the success stories because those people are still around.  I don’t have any hard stats, but I’d be willing to wager that industry veterans are more successful than people with zero experience.

If you want to get into the industry, I’d be wary of the current community college offerings.  All of the video game programs in Ontario are very new, and most are very broken.  The schools don’t typically pay their instructors what they could be earning in the industry, so you end up with instructors who can’t hack it in the “real world” and fall back on the safety of academia. (Game development isn’t unique in that – I think you find that in many college programs.) These folks may or may not be decent teachers, but they lack the current experience necessary to keep up with a dizzyingly fast-paced and rapidly changing industry. They wind up teaching students the wrong things, badly.  As an employer, I haven’t had much use for the students I’ve seen coming out of these programs.  I’ve seen the situation from inside the schools, and it’s grim.

I think you can save yourself a lot of time and money by buying a computer and some software, devouring as much free material (online tutorials, etc) as your brain can handle, and then producing cool shit.  I’ll take one person with cool shit to show me over the hundreds (and soon-to-be thousands) of graduates of these lame duck college programs who have produced zero cool shit.

Will: Where do you see the Toronto game community in five years?

Ryan: I think we’ll see a real separation of the wheat from the chaff – of companies and people who prove they can produce finished products rising above companies and individuals who can’t.  The tools are going to get easier and easier to work with (see Unity), but at the end of the day, there’s no “Make Game” button. Making games is hard, and people with a strong work ethic and who persevere will succeed.

I think that Toronto is poised to overtake Montreal as Canada’s games industry nexus within 5 years, and I think we’ll accomplish that by collaborating, tooting our horn loudly, speaking English, and producing great games that earn critical and player acclaim.
Do you have a favourite local indie studio?

The DrinkBox guys I’ve met are super-nice, and About a Blob looks great.  Capybara is right across the hall from the Untold Entertainment offices;  I’m in awe of the amount of polish they put on their games like Critter Crunch.  Miguel and Andrew from Spooky Squid Software are terrific, and I really want to see them succeed with their game, Guerrilla Gardening.  Little Guy Games, Metanet, HitGrab … there are just so many great little companies here working on cool projects that I can’t pick just one, and I’m beginning to worry I’ll offend people by not mentioning them!

Will: What game are you enjoying these days?

Ryan: I have very different taste in games than the majority of the gaming public. Plus, I’m a father of two tiny little girls, so my time is extremely limited.  I favour pick-up-and-play games where I can get something accomplished in five minutes, like during a poo.  Here’s what I’m digging:  Pocket Frogs and Trainyard (by Mississauga dev Matt Rix) on my iPod, Rock Band 2 on the Xbox 360 (I’m getting RB3 for my birthday next month – and no, I don’t poo on the couch while I play).  I’ve been revisiting Zack and Wiki with my oldest daughter on the Wii. I play Nelson Tethers : Puzzle Agent and World of Goo on the PC.

Will: The name of our site is DorkShelf.com, so we always want to know what people have on their dork shelf (or shelves, rooms, etc.) at home or at work. What would we find on your dork shelf?

Ryan: I have the complete collection of Muppets action figures and playsets on three separate shelves in my living room, courtesy of my very dork-tolerant wife.