Enter the Vortex
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Enter the Vortex

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Homebrew gaming goes from fun to profit. Photo by LucasM1981 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


One of the myriad press releases that made a brief and unremarkable splash in the tech feed pool this week announced the fifth anniversary of the Vortex Game Competition, an annual contest/boot camp/conference that has enjoyed varying levels of success among Toronto gaming circles since 2004. Slogging through the three pages of shiny, marketing-fresh copy may turn off many a young gamer who would otherwise be interested in such an event, but a little reading between the lines reveals that, win or fail, this year’s Vortex holds some secret networking opportunities for aspiring designers/developers hoping to gain an edge on some pretty exciting developments in the Toronto gaming industry (hint: Ubisoft! And Dragons’ Den!).
Sari Ruda, managing director of Vortex, has been involved with the concept for the five years (and various incarnations) of its existence. “We are so proud of our lineup for this year’s boot camp and competition,” she enthuses when contacted for a sound bite for this year’s event, “and that our efforts have enabled Ontario’s entrepreneurs to find success with their game concepts.”


Basically, here’s the TL;DR version of the shindig: registrants attend a two-day Boot Camp where industry bigwigs talk about how a game goes from the stoner light-bulb stage to the hallowed shelves of Best Buy. For a couple of weeks immediately following the learn-in, participants develop either prototypes or concepts and submit them for evaluation. The chosen few will then have to pitch their games to a Dragons’ Den-like panel of judges (inhabited by the most nefarious of Dragons, by the way); for the resulting semi-finalists, further berating from said judges awaits, and so on until the winners are announced at a gala of bowling-banquet-esque proportions (seriously…these things can get pretty swish) in November. To the victors go fabulous and exciting (and undisclosed) cash prizes, as well as mentoring opportunities and the success alluded to in the previous paragraph.
One example Ruda offers of said “success” is WASD Gameworks’ 2007 win at Vortex with their third-person-shooter Attrition—a Cinderella story, to be sure, except for the fact that they followed up their victory by promptly dropping off the face of the earth (it’s been two years since their website has been updated, and allegations of their continued negotiations with top studios remain unsubstantiated). Really, though, small-studio turnover is as natural as breathing, so this isolated factoid may be forgiven in this case.
On the other hand, there are happy endings that can be verified: FunForged, the lovechild of Mark Cautillo and Andrei Petrov (both previous Vortex competitors), is currently in the beta stage of development on The EMPIRE Game, a Flash-based MMO, and previous Vortices (technically, that is the plural form) have fuelled the careers of former competitors like Hamed Abbasi, now a head honcho at Vast Studios and rumoured speaker at this year’s Boot Camp.

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Sari Ruda extols the virtues of the Vortex Game Competition. Photo by Val Dooley.

Like with any industry conference, it really just boils down to potential networking opportunities, and this year’s Vortex is no exception (look at the lineup to choose your own adventure). Anyone who just wants a chance to rub elbows with the gaming elite can choose non-competition options when registering for events; in fact, we would be doing every talented geek in Toronto a disservice if we didn’t disclose the tastiest tidbit of news:
Ubisoft is coming.
And yes, we know that they’re opening a studio here in Toronto, but that’s not for a while yet; we mean that there will be a Ubisoft presence at Vortex. And we’re not just talking about some wide-eyed PR spokesmodel—we’re talking about Yannis Mallat. Indeed, the CEO of Ubisoft Montreal/Toronto is not just going to be there—he’ll be judging the entries. If you’ve ever wanted a first-class ticket to triple-A recognition (or a foot in the door for what may be the must awesome hiring blitz our city has seen in a long time), now’s your chance. Now why on earth the Vortex kids didn’t play that card in the first sentence of their press release is a bit of a head-scratcher. Come on, folks, really…Ubisoft!
Of course, for those of you who have no interest in the video-game industry and, in fact, would rather enjoy watching gamers being reduced to a gelatinous cube of tears by calculating capitalists, Vortex has arranged a special treat for you: Kevin O’Leary, the bad-boy black sheep of CBC’s Dragons’ Den (or Shark Tank, for those of you south of the border), will be joining the judges’ panel to shoot down any game idea deemed not financially viable (or whatever criteria he uses to bring on the nasty). To be a fly on the wall as your peers get their dreams shattered by such a pro is, alone, worth the price of a ticket—that guy is awesome.
Another interesting aspect of the competition that is only briefly brought up in the press release (and not terribly fleshed out in any more detail on their competition page) is that Vortex has teamed up with the City of Toronto in celebrating its 175th anniversary by allowing registrants to enter their game into a sub-contest with the chance of its being mentioned on the city’s website. But does it have to have a Toronto-based theme? Will we soon be able to go to toronto.ca and play a Flash-based first-person shooter that takes place in the food court of the Eaton Centre? (If not, we’re going to need to rethink our concept…) Again, this is a potential selling point that appears to be woefully underplayed and lacking in detail, especially with only a little more than a week to go before registration closes.
So what’s the verdict? Well, one can likely deduce that the marketing duties for the 2009 Vortex Game Competition have fallen to volunteers, which can perhaps be construed as noble and speaking to Ruda’s commitment to the development of the gaming industry in Toronto through the wonderful world of government funding (and unlimited intern potential). Despite their best efforts to stifle the good stuff, however, it still sounds like a pretty intriguing networking opportunity that, had we not had your best interests at heart, we might just have kept to ourselves. Ultimately, if you’re at all interested in the gaming industry and/or you’re unemployed and looking to segue your skills into said industry, it might be worth a gander.
The Vortex Game Competition’s Boot Camp starts October 7 and wraps up with a networking reception on October 8, reconvening November 4–5 for the competition and awards gala. Boot Camp registration closes October 5. Prices vary depending on registration options, though students can snag a pretty sweet deal by contacting the organizers through their registration page. For a complete schedule and to register, visit vortexcompetition.com. For Torontoist readers, the discount code “Torontoist” will snag a 30% discount for the first twenty-five registrants (you might want to jump on this before the organizers get a chance to read this post and change their minds).

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