2014 East Coast Game Conference, Day 1

April 23, 2014, Durham, NC: Thanks to a generous last-minute press pass, I had a chance to stop by day one of ECGC – the East Coast Game Conference – this morning at the Raleigh Convention Center. I’ve been to a half-dozen? conventions of various kinds (science fiction, health and fitness, anime, etc.) at this venue and each has taken advantage of the space in different ways. Here, the ECGC is well-laid-out, with branding stickers on the (many!) glass-surfaced entrances into the convention space and plenty of room and people to handle registration without fuss or backups.

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After registering I headed straight for the Expo, which starts as an in-hallway affair before expanding into the Expo Hall Proper. Here, schools pitch their programs and specialties and game companies pitch both their projects and open positions as well as their engines and platforms. In the hall, the two which most caught my eye — though “swag of the day” goes to the Magic 8-ball from Insomniac Games — were Wake Tech’s Simulation and Game Development program as well as a “Goat Simulator” game showcasing Epic Games‘ Unreal Engine. Getting hands-on with the goat simulator, I was encouraged to perform a backflip, but instead got carried away with running my goat forward for a hard stop to force a pretty nice “skid stop” animation; this eventually led to darting my goat out of an alley and into a street just in time to be killed and thump-thump-thump run-over by a very large truck. (I think I earned some bonus points, somehow, for this spectacular method of demise.)

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I had a chance to talk to Alan Noon (below, far right), a recent addition to the Raleigh-based Epic Games developer relations staff, about Epic’s goals with the expo booth. “We simply want to reach out to the community here, especially the indie developers and students, let them know about our tools, pricing, and let them get hands-on with Unreal.”

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Once inside the expo hall proper, there’s a chance to see ever larger demonstrations and room for things such as East Carolina University’s Innovation Design Lab booth with a 3D-printing MakerBot (below, left) and a Phantom haptic feedback input device, used here by a student to carve away at a virtual sphere to produce a new 3D model. Sitting in the MakerBot is a 3D-printed bust of Abraham Lincoln, specifically a “death mask fulled from the Smithsonian” according to Innovation Design Lab director Wayne Godwin. (Unfortunately due to the placement of an air conditioner handler right above the booth, the temperature was far too low to demonstrate the MakerBot in action.)

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Western Piedmont Community College’s booth was dominated by a pair of Oculus Rift setups, with displays showing onlookers what the user was seeing inside his or her goggles.

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I’m always eager to see what Red Storm is up to, and as usual find out that they’ve been up to far more than I (in my limited purvey into the gaming world these days) had any idea about. Of course, Tom Clancy’s The Division is on my radar, but somehow I’ve missed noting South Park: The Stick of Truth already being out and the fact that the Rocksmith guitar teaching software is also done by Ubisoft/Red Storm. I had my eye on one of the South Park game posters, but didn’t want to interrupt ECGC first-timer Ruben Henares of Red Storm in mid-conversation with a prospective technical artist intern, so! I snagged a few Rocksmith-branded guitar picks instead. (Runner up, best swag, IMHO.)

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What stole the show for me was the OptiTrack exhibition space for their “Bite Sized” motion capture system. A pair of freelance dancers, including Anna Maynard, pictured, were outfitted with motion capture body suits and moved gracefully around the space, with a large monitor providing real-time tracking of her body position and motion.

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I’d been to see Icarus Studios’ motion capture space quite a few years ago now, and the (small) size, flexibility, speed, and cost of this kind of technology is approaching astonishing. It’s easy to see how conferences like this, bringing together disparate hardware and software and educational approaches, generate such an internal buzz of energy and ideas. Something like: “What if I motion capture myself over here, plug it into the Unreal Engine, and then play it using the Oculus Rift?”

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Finally, though with a few snack-size candy bars in hand of course, I headed over to the area which brought me to the conference in the first place: the programming tracks. Specifically the narrative programming track put together by Red Storm senior game writer Richard Dansky, which includes Will Hindmarch, Heather Albano Jackson, Jill Murray, Jonathon Myers, Alex Kain, and Mur Lafferty (among others). In its sixth year, the ECGC has grown and matured, not just in terms of the expo hall but the programming as well. “It’s very gratifying to see the growth of the narrative track here,” Dansky said, “which I think you can attribute to two things: the fantastic speakers who’ve presented and the growing and serious interest in our audience in this kind of material.” (The back of Dansky’s head is above the back of his blue chair, below right. One does not interrupt game writers mid-narrative. It simply isn’t done!)

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One of those narrative panelists is Chicago-based freelance writer and designer Will Hindmarch (below, right). I’d met Hindmarch before (as part of a SharedWorlds group reading last year; SharedWorlds is a teen writing summer camp which is currently taking applications, by the way, and at which Hindmarch taught last year and will again this year) and he was clearly invigorated after having given the first narrative talk of the conference earlier, entitled “Everything is Words”. Hindmarch said that his panel went well: “I get pretty nervous right before these things happen, and I went a little off-book. But the room really responded.”

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Although this is Hindmarch’s first ECGC, he’s aware that the conference has been growing. “It looks like it’s expansion in a good way, not simply bigger for bigger’s sake.” At the time, while “torn between the design and narrative tracks — I want to do both!” he was looking forward to a multi-speaker panel on character writing and development with (among others) fellow 2014 SharedWorlds instructor Mur Lafferty. “There will be many perspectives there, making for a panel which is multi-faceted in the best sense rather than argumentative,” he explained, adding that ECGC offers “a mix of professional and students at the same time, which I dig; it’s a more comfortable questioning environment, curious as opposed to challenging or clique-ish.”

Day one of the ECGC is almost done, with The Elder Scrolls‘ Ken Rolston’s keynote long over. Still, later today there’s a “Booth Beer Crawl with DJ April” through the expo hall among other after-hours events, and tomorrow is another full day of programming. Expo passes are $50 at the door or online, though access to programming and tomorrow’s keynote, from Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s Mary DeMarle, requires a full conference pass.

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