The seventh annual Level Up Showcase took place last week at the Design Exchange in Toronto, and the free event once again highlighted the work of some of the brightest game design students from schools across Ontario. The 2017 edition featured young developers from as far away as Ottawa, and it was a great opportunity for more than 2000 guests to see lots of new ideas in the early phases of their development.
Third Floor Games was the biggest winner of the evening – the Sheridan College team’s Disco is Dead! swept the judged awards during the Ubisoft sponsored event – but there were plenty of other projects that point to a bright future for Ontario gaming. With that in mind, here are some of the other highlights from Level Up 2017:
Unspokin (5 Horsemen Games/Sheridan College)
In Unspokin, you play as a mute girl leading a blind bear to safety. You travel through various environments and make noise to lure the bear in your direction. He’ll trust you as long as you don’t lead him astray, and you can even encourage him by feeding him fish and petting him.
“That had to go in because of games like Far Cry Primal, where you get to do that. Everyone wanted to be able to pet the bear,” said PJ Tremblay, the Audio Lead for 5 Horsemen Games.
Unspokin also has an environmental message. Planting seeds clears up polluted areas, while the developer’s ‘business cards’ came with tea bags of filled with different kinds of seeds. Danielle Rainey, the Project Manager on Unspokin, wanted to offer something a little more memorable and (environmentally friendly) than glossy ads on thick card stock.
“We decided to go with recycled paper stock with biodegradable brown tea bags that are filled with seeds. We tried to pick herbs that are native to North America,” said Rainey.
The five person 5 Horsemen team is part of the first group of students to complete Sheridan College’s new 4-year Game Design program. If Unspokin is any indication of quality – the game won the People’s Choice Award at Level Up – the program will continue to produce talented game designers in the years to come.
MK is a walking simulator/platformer with a horror atmosphere named after the infamous MK Ultra program, in which the CIA used heavy drugs to perfect interrogation techniques. You start out in a forest, and as you progress, the world gets stranger until you start climbing over coffins to retrieve a key from a corpse. The corpse then chases you like a polygonal Phanto. You wander through the forest armed only with a flashlight as you piece together cryptic clues about what is in the forest and whether or not the forest is even real.
Unlike many of the games at Level Up, MK was not completed as a part of an official program, but is instead a side project that Livius Grosu and fellow student Tanpreet Grewal created in their spare time.
“This game took seven months to create from scratch, not knowing anything about Unity,” said Grosu, the Coder and Asset maker for MK.
The fact that two students found the time to build an entire prototype despite their existing course load shows great dedication and drive, especially with no prior experience with game development tools. It also demonstrates the passion of the current generation of students and speaks to the increasing accessibility of development software. That bodes well as those students learn from the experience and move on to even more ambitious projects.
COLHEX (Alessandro Profenna/Ryerson)
Colhex is a multiplayer party game in which all players have to keep their fingers pressed to the same iPad screen. You choose a colour and press the corresponding cubes to control the board. You win by having the most coloured squares on the board at the end of the 30 seconds. It’s simple, but it gets more competitive when you’re able to physically block your opponents.
“An interesting aspect of the game is that you are not limited by the software. There is also the physical impact of covering, or someone’s hand in the way, ” said Alessandro Profenna, the Creator of Colhex.
Profenna said that he plans to release the game during the summer, and that it was mostly complete at Level Up. It’s a fun game to have a parties because everyone can understand the idea immediately, and is a strong example of a student game that is already a fully realized idea. Such games are not uncommon at Level Up, where games like Runbow were showcased before going on to find broader commercial success.
Detective VR (SixtyForty Games/ Sheridan College)
Like everyone else in the games industry, students are experimenting with Virtual Reality and the results made for some of the most interesting work at Level Up. Detective VR is a first person crime solving game in which you collect clues and interview witnesses before heading back to the police station to interrogate the suspect and prove that they are in fact responsible for the crime. You have a health bar that represents how many mistakes you make during your investigation. As you progress, you interview more people that might not be guilty but can add information to your case. Though not a new idea given the existence of games like L.A Noire and Phoenix Wright, VR adds an interesting twist that allows you to literally search rooms and pick up evidence.
“We got actual detectives to come in. We called the Oakville police and said, ‘We got a detective game, you want to try it out?’ It was funny to see their reactions,” said Samuel R. Mortimer, the Coder for SixtyForty Games.
Mortimer also discussed the technical issues that go along with VR development. For most normal games, 40-60 frames per second is more than adequate, but for a VR game that is tricking your brain and your eyes, the human body really notices any frame drops and it can trigger a physical response.
“If things starts to lag your body is like, ‘I’ve been poisoned, I’m going to die,’” said Mortimer
“I didn’t think I would have to look into neurology as much as I did. It’s surprisingly very important when making a VR game.”
The team from Sheridan also has a detailed devlog in which they discuss the importance of teaching players the controls in a VR game, and how you make that process feel intuitive. It’s inspiring to see students innovating in VR alongside the rest of the industry. VR can be implemented poorly, as I discovered over the summer, but projects like Detective VR will create a generation of developers who will be well versed in VR from the very beginning of their careers. That alone is reason enough to pay attention.
SixtyForty hopes to put Detective VR on Steam sometime in the near future.
BattleClad (Platypus Society/Algonquin College)
BattleClad looks like something out of Steel Battalion. The game had guests sitting in an arcade-style launch pod while controlling a giant mech and shooting bug monsters. As with any good mech game, you can overheat the system if you lay down constant fire. Your mech is armed with machine guns, missiles, flamethrowers and a stomp that pushes enemies back and stuns them, and you need all of it to fend off wave after wave of giant bug creatures.
According to the developers, the PC game Sanctum was one of the main inspirations for the first person tower defense game, and it demonstrates why Level Up is exciting for both students and audiences. A game like BattleClad would be cost prohibitive for most developers, but students are free to learn and try things that might not be feasible in the open market.
“Our teacher built [the Mech Pod] two years ago for another project. We decided to innovate a little bit more” said Jonathan Gagne, the Designer of BattleClad.
The result is a very immersive game that feels like it comes from a bygone era, when arcade game were more like feats of modern engineering. It would be great to see more games like BattleClad at local arcades, and it’s cool to see students pioneering the technology that could make that possible.
Level Up was a great event where guests got to see the work of young developers and get a glimpse at the future of the industry. After going through their final years of school, the students are ready to kick off their professional careers, and it will be exciting to see what they create in the years to come!