Game ‘architect’ comes to campus

For Jason MacIsaac, the complex procedure of creating a video game usually starts with the simple process of scribbling a pen on a napkin.

Centennial College’s East York campus concluded its fall guest artist series on Oct. 21 with MacIsaac, a 14-year veteran in game design and co-founder of the St. Catharines-based company Cerebral Vortex Games. MacIsaac used Centennial’s “Creative Fusion” forum to talk about how creating video games starts with a crude vision, which is then fine-tuned and brought to life by game artists.

As design director, he compares himself to an architect. He can envision the grand scheme of a game, but when it comes down to building it, he relies on those within the artistic and mathematical trades.

 “Artists take my crude mock-ups for a game and turn them into something beautiful,” he said.

“Something that happens a lot is design by cocktail napkin,” he said. Artists then take his drawings and “the rest is up to them.”

 “The weird thing is that I work with people who can do things that I can’t,” MacIsaac said. “I’m a horrible, horrible artist and I’m also not a programmer. I identify myself as a writer by trade. So it’s really weird that people… actually have to take orders from me.”

MacIsaac, 37, who is now the executive editor for the Canadian video game and entertainment television show Electric Playground, was the design director of many games while at Cerebral Vortex Games.

One of the notable ones is Ghost Breaker, a ghost-hunting game for the iPhone which integrates the camera as a game-play feature. MacIsaac demonstrated Ghost Breaker as part of his presentation, showing students how the room they were in became a spectral hunting ground.

 “This is pretty sweet,” said 19-year-old student Shauna Hacouette as she panned the iPhone across the room, shooting orbs of light at the ghost appearing on the screen.

While creating Ghost Breaker is one of his proudest accomplishments, he said a memorable career moment for him was when he got Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to admit he likes the violent shooting game Max Payne.

MacIsaac recalled how, coming out of school, he thought he would get to make his “dream game” — but he soon faced a different reality.

He said artists new to the industry often get frustrated because they seek more creative freedom. However, while they still have to follow the direction of a lead designer, there is still room for interpretation.

 “Artists can sneak things in where they can,” he said. “Even though they are essentially just a cog in the machine.”

A way around these restrictions is innovation. He says adding nifty lighting effects to a game interface is one way an artist can personalize their work.

MacIsaac also talked about job prospects now that acclaimed video game developer Ubisoft is opening a flagship studio here in Toronto at the end of the year.

 “Over three years, they (Ubisoft) will grow to over 800 people,” he said, “and I happen to know… how they hire people.

 “If you go in with a killer portfolio, an awesome resume and you nail the interview, they will hire you at a junior level position,” he said. “That’s actually fairly impressive.”