Fun and games in China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am

Emerging talent in the mainland is providing a platform for a specialised visual art revolution

China is a gold mine of talent for the specialised field of visual art in gaming, according to Justin Dowdeswell, a developer who brought the Mario arcade series to the soccer field in the latest generation of a popular console.

Mr Dowdeswell, 37, is general manager of a growing team at Next Level Games' year-old Beijing office. He said future offerings from the Vancouver-based company, which lists Sega, Nintendo and Activision among its clients, would feature the traditional hand-skills and digital know-how of young Beijing artists.

'It's so exciting that Next Level is in China because we have access to all this talent, said Mr Dowdeswell, a Canadian. 'Making games is about the people and not anything else [such as cost saving].'

Gaming giant Nintendo looked beyond Japan to produce a Mario game for the first time when it awarded Next Level, a leading third-party developer, the challenge of introducing the world's most loved sport to gaming's popular character set with 2004's Super Mario Strikers for the GameCube.

It was a major commercial hit and, with this year's Mario Strikers Charged for the new Nintendo Wii console, the company has proved innovation is its speciality.

The five-year-old organisation is regarded as a Triple A developer, meaning it delivers a high standard of games. It specialises in something called 'twitch' based game play, which means when you move the wireless controls in your hand you see a corresponding action on the screen, measured a fraction of a second later.

Mr Dowdeswell said Next Level prided itself on being a specialist in making such game play responsive 'and the publishers know this'. 'We've spent a lot of time working on technology to make the animation blending fast and fluid on the screen. [For Mario] the Japanese wanted something different, to break the mould, and they saw western producers as having a different perspective from the entrenched concept of Mario that exists in Japan.

'We proved we could do it in the prototype phase. They didn't want to babysit anyone and wanted to ensure quality. They gave us that first project [Super Mario Strikers] and it did well commercially, and that led to the second project [Mario Strikers Charged].'

The operation in Beijing is small and the team of 15 focuses purely on the art for game development, while game code and animation is produced in Vancouver.

'Day to day for me is about operations and finances, but the real work is managing growth,' said Mr Dowdeswell, who studied economics and history at Queen's University in Ontario.

'We are coaching at all levels, and often have meetings which can feature a lot of constructive conflict. It's human nature to get defensive when criticised, but the idea is for us all to be working towards the same goal. We try to create an environment where people can deal with criticism and use it to improve. It takes time to establish this kind of culture, especially when you are growing fast. So we are trying to expand at a measured pace, keep that culture that was established in Vancouver and grow new staff.'

The industry was notorious for long hours, but Mr Dowdeswell said Next Level brought a new management style to the industry, with a work philosophy focused on improving creativity and quality, working hard, but also encouraging a life outside the office.

Getting into the industry required base talent, which could quickly be developed with the right attitude, Mr Dowdeswell said.

'You need good communications skills, which I know is a cliche, but if you can explain ideas clearly and not get defensive in meetings, you won't put your colleagues on edge. I think if you are willing to learn new things you will be successful.'

Training skills in the video game industry is a long process, but Mr Dowdeswell is optimistic that staff in the mainland can overcome the challenges quickly.

'The industry in North America struggled to find people who could make games at first. So what happens is you look for people who are close to the level required and train them in-house. Then after five or 10 years that information spins back to universities and colleges. After another 15 to 20 years suddenly the colleges are producing the people. But it won't take as long in China because of the rapid growth and interest in video gaming here.'

With self-taught computer skills he landed his first job in 1996 with a small start-up producing software for factories.

'It was on the technical side, supervising staff and building knowledge of the process, and project management. I saw a lot of cool things and learned a lot about process. It gave me a lot of ideas.' He then joined a dotcom company and managed teams and artists designing software for sharing DJ music on the internet. That led to a position with renowned Electronic Arts, a leading third-party publisher, managing projects and teams for sports games. He joined Next Level three years ago. 'I liked their philosophy of not wanting to burn people out and their priority of making good games without excessive overtime, which is very tricky.'

Developing the two Mario projects with Nintendo was a thrilling challenge he said. '[Super Mario Strikers] was a different world from the traditional Mario games, with much more explosions, aggression and style.'

For a creative and ambitious person the job was very rewarding, he added.

'I work with creative talent every day, see art every day, and we are surrounded by cutting-edge technology. It's an artistic world and we have some cool toys. My career has never been stagnant so I never thought about what else I could have done. But, of course, sometimes you feel challenged and overwhelmed. You might think 'can I do this'? Then you do, you pull it off, and you're ready for the next one. It's good to know you'll always be challenged.'

Opportunities in the mainland were going to increase as more western companies recognised the talent available in the country, he said.

'Some companies have been here 10 years, others have just arrived and some are still thinking about it. A lot of companies are getting ready to do it, invest in outsourcing here, or open an office. The domestic market is growing too. Someone will soon develop games here based on what's different about the arts in China, and this will capture the imagination of the west.'

The future of games will see users influencing the design of game play, with developers simply providing technologically advanced platforms on which imaginations can run wild.

'Ideas come from mashing ideas and genres together, and the graphics will improve and consoles too,' he said.

'But I think you can already see how innovation is coming from the user. You can play online, but there is not yet a big online feature set such as big tournaments or big online worlds.

'With Mario, people were already building online clans in the days before the launch. I think publishers will develop games that tap into that trend.'

In a nutshell

General manager of Next Level Games' Beijing office, Justin Dowdeswell has initiated several innovative production processes to improve creativity.

Aims to establish a culture of interaction at the office and achieve sustainable growth with a training model based on the Vancouver operation.

Believes the right reason to set up an office in China is to tap the huge talent available, not to save on costs.

Says now is an exciting time in the industry with new consoles out, and many online aspects not yet explored.

With faster internet and affordable tools available, he says smaller operations have an opportunity to develop prototype games.

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