Monday, 23 April 2012

Personal review of the second year

Let's pretend to be smart and use some Latin. The word university comes from the Latin words universitas magistrorum et scholarium (and here I was thinking universitas said it all), which pretty much means 'community of teachers and scholars.' Which, well for me personally helped me understand the word a lot. Pretty obvious when you think about it but that's what a university is: a place where people with massive heads come to commune with their kind.

Originally, universities were created so smart people could come together and later on a certain agreement was brought in that they were open to all scholars, allowing them full access to all archives. Essentially, this hasn't changed. Apart from the fact that universities are now more business orientated and require heaps of money. Quite sad really, money is spent only when they'll see it again. Still, due to programs like 'Aim Higher' the prospect of higher education has opened up to pretty much everyone, the sad part is that everyone will have a degree and that this is actually the case now causing degrees to lose their worth. Where once a BA was required, now an MA is; and a PhD from there.

What do you expect from your University education?
Personally, I don't think education is the right word. I see university as a three year space for me to practice my craft without the burden of a job. That said however, the tutoring allows me to focus more on what's important. I expect these three years will be where I learn the most as I doubt I'll have time to make a lot of mistakes within the industry. That's it, actually; University is a controlled environment where I can try to make as many mistakes as possible so that I don't make them when I get a job. Get it all out of my system. As the saying goes, you have one thousand bad paintings in you before you get to the good ones, best take this time to get 'em out.

What am I going to get out of three years at University?
A good idea of what's expected of me, heaps of practice, learning skills that matter and not bogging myself down with those that don't. Being up to date on current software as well.
On the whole I hope to feel vastly enlightened to not just drawing (which was the reason I joined) but to the entire process of creating a game. I never realised how interesting the actual design part of the game would be, whereby you write the characters, environments the whys and hows. It's also made me far more critical and aware of various media; films, games and even books. What I thought was a bad film before uni I can now see merit in, as well as what I may have thought to be good I now can see as tack.

As for my thoughts on the past year:
It really was a massive shock to me, and quite stressful at times because in the first year I worked enough, or so I thought at the time, and then at the start of this year I decreed I would work much harder... and I did. Twice as hard if not three times and yet I found myself getting behind in the work. I realise this is because I took on more for my projects as oppose to the standard twelve thumbnails and one final for VD or the one and only attempt for GP I would instead do pages upon pages of sketches and idea generation finally coming to a digital painting and for 3D I'd try new things instead of sticking to the basics – which didn't work out so well on the projects themselves but I feel I brought myself up to a satisfactory standard whereas before it was piss poor.

Whereas at the start of the second year I wasn't confident in VD or GP I now feel quite confident and comfortable in where I'm at for my paintings and drawings, realising that when I put my mind and passion into it I can produce something relatively good and as for 3D I'm still one of the weakest in the year but I'm learning. I got behind massively in the first year and in the second semester, certain that I really didn’t like 3D so that wasn't helping my motivation with the program however now I feel I can approach a project with confidence; especially after the group project.
Whenever I heard someone talk about the group project it was often negative. Several people fell out with one another and in a previous year a few had to be split up because it was getting ridiculous. So when it came to the second semester I was dreading it, luckily however I was grouped with some pretty chilled out people, and aside from one group member going AWOL we had a smooth run. What struck me the most during this project was the feeling that our group was one of the weakest, and I hate to think of it as a competition but I guess I'm just competitive. Yet at the end when it had all come together after three months of gruelling and drudging on we had something that was ours; and that felt good. The level as a whole blew me away when I saw it with lighting and sound along with scripted events with the manikins and some such. Having only seen it static up to that point made me wonder if it was going to be that good, I should never have doubted the people in Sneaky Milkshake.

All in all I feel this year has been a kick up the arse (first years have it easy) and I fully realise the amount of work and time I'm to commit to projects. Aside from massive time management issues in the first semester leading to me getting so far behind I was working my ass off right up until we got the group project (and so didn't get a breather) I felt fatigued throughout the year, never getting a moment to just step away and breath. It's not that I worked all day every day but that I couldn't just chill out and play a game because my mind was always stressing with the need to do finish work, because I was behind. So next year I'd like to be able to just take a day off here and there, and the only way I'll achieve that is if I get ahead on work which will require roughly eight hours a day throughout the week. I'd love to be able to say I have time to kill.

Creativity, the talent myth and craft

The process of creating original ideas that have value; more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.” - Sir Ken Robinson

This quote was taken from a TEDtalk that Sir Ken Robinson did on whther or not schools kills creativity. Which is quite a statement to make seeing as schools are meant to be, and indeed have been assumed, to nurture a childs mind. Yet, I can't help but agree with Sir Robinson's logic, bringing up the case that we are all born creative, and that as children we ARE creative but going through schooling and being taught that making mistakes is the worst thing we can do actually harms our creativity in a near fatal way. We don't grow out of creativity, we're educated out of it.

He goes on to say that 'if you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original'. And that was the most profound thing I've heard in a long time. It really made me think back to being a kid and that how I would have done whatever regardless of whether it would work out in the end, doing it solely for the point of doing. However after having gone through schooling I became less and less creative, I would take fewer risks, weigh up whether something was worth my time and rarely being adventurous. On top of this I'm quite a cynical person, not necessarily pessimistic, more realistic... and how odd that feels to realise that is probably holding me back. Is there a link between being creative and being stupid? By that I mean making silly decisions with the 'give anything a go' attitude.

On top of this I might be narcissistic to a degree, and a narcissist will rarely (if ever) admit to being wrong and will do whatever they can to make themselves never fail in the eyes of others because self-image is so important. I say to a degree because a true narcissist would deny being one altogether. Naturally, they will take fewer chances and thus taking into account what Robinson said about not being prepared to be wrong, would that mean narcissists as a whole are generally uncreative?

Of late I've also been doubting my imagination, not the quality of the drawings I do but the overall substance within them. I look at truly creative people's drawings of, say characters and am always befuddled as to how they come up with this stuff. My designs look simple by comparison. However, for a while now I've been aware of how important risk taking is in art, that it is a big part of learning the medium and that it is even encouraged so I've taken it upon myself to really drive it home every time I pick up a pencil. The results so far have boosted my confidence, doubled, if not tripled the amount of work I produce and the improvement in just the last year has been drastically larger then the last three combined. All because I take more risks. From small things like a mere brush-stroke to larger endeavours such as an entire painting. Before where I might have cut my losses and started something else, now I continue and see where it takes me, always appreciating the fact that ideas can come from the most mundane of places.

Back to the creativity of children. The reason they are generally creative is because they're not frightened of being wrong; too young to know of consequences they continue doing what they want. Picasso once said that 'All children are born artists; the problem is to remain artists as we grow up.” To which I can agree. What is being an artist if not the constant pursuit of creativity? To which children do this day in day out without realising. It just comes easy to them.

When we grow up we often lose that capacity and end up becoming frightened of being wrong.”

Can you argue against this? Companies and education systems scorn those who make mistakes, especially in companies where it could cause you to be unable to provide for your family. Noone wrong for not taking risks, if anything that's smart but the fact remains that it kills our creative capacity.

Yet with all this said it's odd that to a lot of companies, talent is more important then experience to the point where people who are perceived to be talented can get promoted faster and are groomed for the high spots where those who just have experience in the field are either left there or pushed out. I feel odd even wondering this but why is talent so highly regarded over experience? Surely an experienced person will know what decisions to make and be generally a safer bet. Low risk, low reward? I understand why talent is sought after, that's obvious, but it just seems weird that companies go on crazy recruitment drives getting people right out of universities, putting them above their preconceived payroll and neglecting those who lack creativity but have been solid workers. Is it the need to be the best, to be seen as the most innovative company around?

The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart. More often than not, it's the other way around.” -anon

It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.” A final statement towards a company that died because it put too much stock in the talent myth, hiring anyone who was talented, because they were talented. Not for their experience (often lack thereof). I feel that it is quite a profound statement as it makes me wonder whether or not people who lack talent, or rather have less than what deems them talented, are essential to a business or teams success, as much as talented people, due to the way they work.

So with all this said about people 'growing out of creativity' and how I myself have tried to become more creative after realising I just wasn't by forcing myself to make mistakes and accept them I believe that like any skill; be it art, humour, chess etc, that we all have it within our power to become creative.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? 

The Talent Myth

Narcissism, Self Actualism, and Patrick Bateman


The Hills (working title)

The cool morning air was fresh out on the deck, though that was to be expected five-hundred feet up above the sands, hundreds of miles from the nearest town or harbour where often times the stench of industry permeated for leagues. Nazim turned to lean atop the starboard side, gazing off into the far horizon with longing. The hills of Azai were gorgeous during the summer, a large open expanse of sand and rock crowned by an ever blue sky. The 'hills' were in fact dunes in a desert, but so large the traveling merchants named them more appropriately.

Something took his eye, small at first but getting larger, a glint in the air. White, or was it yellow? Flapping atop of black half circle. The realisation caused the blood to run from his face. Wasting no time he rushed back into the captains cabin forgetting even to knock.
They've found us. Those bastard slavers have found us!”

The Hills is an epic adventure that lies somewhere between law and crime. As you take on jobs the player is presented with many choices opting to be more lawful or criminal. However it is not so simple, more often than not you may need to take a job you don't want solely because you need it. This principle echoes the struggle in real life that we don't always get what we want, and when times are hard we do what needs to be done. As a smuggler yourself, the choice is yours, however so are the consequences.

Here are some of the perks of this game:

  • First-person RPG for PS3/Xbox and PC allows for a more immersing experience coupled with next-gen capabilities that will be sure to leave players breathless.

  • Unique characters - Throughout the course of your journey you will meet many interesting characters, some of which will play pivotal roles in your story if you choose to pursue it. What makes these characters more interesting is the ability to play as them after a time. Going through and reliving some of the stories they told you with abilities and visuals unique only to these characters. For example, The Lady, an agent of a mysterious organisation, works more on talking to people and reading body language, therefore an enchaned UI supports this literally allowing the player to read the character.

  • Visuals – Very few games have set their games high up in the air, despite a lot of The Hills being down and inside dungeons and/or open environments a large aspect of the game evolves around being in the air. To expand on this there are 'floating' towns and air battles akin to that of a naval warfare.

  • Story – The Hills is no fairy tale, a lot of what happens is harsh and unrelenting as best to reflect the life of a pirate whereby jobs are few and far between and needs must want you do them. What seperates this from most stories is it's dark and true to life nature where there are no heroes, only people doing what they think is best.

The Hills is a dark, thought provoking tale of hardship and morality where you always feel like death is but a day away, leaving players in a state of deep thought constantly battling with their own ideals and the helplessness of certain situations.

Playable Character
Allowing for a fully immersing experience and what better way to kick that off then by allowing the customisation of your own character? Given that the game will be in first person you won't see the face while experiencing the combat and exploration phases of the game. However you will see your character many times through cut scenes, different perspectives and through menus which are accessible anytime.

Many of the options you will be able to customise include: gender, voice, complete creative control of the head such as hair (as well as facial), eyes and proportions as well as body size, skin colour and accessories. The voice is very important as we want players to feel like they're playing someone with character, not an emotionless void who merely stares at those who talk to them.

On top of the main story arch there are sub-stories along the way. Nothing dull like collecting twenty bear asses but actual stories whereby the player shouldn’t feel like they're being ripped away from the main story. More importantly these stories are seamless within the main arch and so transitioning is subtle.

The Hunter-Seeker
These hunter-killers are rarely seen so far from the seas yet stories are shared around of their ruthless predatory nature. Rumour has it they are sent forth from the sea with a simple goal: Seek. Kill. Noone knows who hires them or who they bow to, all is known that when one is sent out, it finds the mark and completes the mission before returning.
A perfect balance of assassin and warrior, the strange, and seemingly indestructible, coral armor combined with naturally thick skin and skullplate provide the Hunter-Killer with enough protection for general land-dweller weaponry while not restricting movement of the upper body allowing for free movement when unleashing a flurry of attacks with their coral arm-blade, spiked leg armor for puncturing those who are not careful and if it comes to it, a maw of needle-like teeth. Great strength, speed, endurance with some known to have been cunning make this a creature you really don't want coming after you.

The vessel you are a member of the crew on, a dodgy looking ship but it flies well enough and gets you from A to B with only your average heap of maintenance required. One of the main parts of this game is being upon your aircraft going over landscapes and witnessing the views. To keep the player occupied in this the ship is always in need of repairs, things need to be taken from the hold and moved around as well as general handiwork and navigation. In the start you are but a crew member, as the game progresses you become a first mate and then the captain. Whether or not it's of the Firefly depends on how you play, you could get something better, but there could well be sentimental attachment to this ship as it has a character of its own and with all the maintenance and running around on it the aim is to get the player attached. If they don’t, there are other ships.
Ships can be upgraded, with customizable interiors. Upgrades include speed, defense and offenses like cannons and hooks. Why? Because the sky is filled with those that would see you fail and/or take your cargo if that is their inclination. Rumours from the East tell of giant winged beasts being sighted.

Temple ruins
An integral part of this game are the locations you go to, not random dungeons but story integral parts, there's always a reason to be in a place and these temple ruins are one such place. Abandoned long ago by an ancient civilization these ruins are merely a shadow of their former greatness. While in these ruins the player is in a game of cat and mouse with the hunter-seeker.

Based on the zone you're in within The Hills the player will be exposed to completely different atmospheres, to help invigorate this sense of place the setting. To help this props such as merchant stalls, barrels, monuments and houses will populate the towns to give a cluttered market feel that makes the player want to get through to their purpose in town and get out, ever keeping a hand on their purse and keeping tabs on the exits as you never know when merchant princes will require you.

Life Changing or Career Building

For a long time now the main goal amongst educators seems to be to teach students how to pass an exam as oppose to actually teaching them the subject itself. With this said, the option to develop learning attributes and soft skills seems to take a back seat which I find somewhat odd. The phrase 'give a man a fish' comes to mind here as developing a keen sense of autonomy towards learning as well as things like people skills, which are highly important especially in an industry such as the games where there really is no “I”, are incredibly beneficial in the long run.
I myself have pretty poor people skills and my angle on learning has always been half-hearted. During school I was never taught how to learn but how to memorize a text so that I can throw it back up during the exam.

Although it is important to teach the subject, it's also important to teach a student how to go about learning for themselves, proactive study etc. With that said a mix of the two is always best, I mean why not? Teaching a subject but stepping back a bit to let them discover for themselves is first of all rewarding, as it makes you feel smart and secondly it's less boring. More often than not being taught is dull, it just is. Rarely will someone inject fun into it that gives a lasting impression.
For me, a good example of this is Sir Ken Robinsons talk on whether or not 'schools kill creativity'. It was funny, enlightening and filled with food for thought yet I dare say none of that would've sunk in if it wasn't funny. I've watched plenty TEDtalks and the majority I was dipping in and out because they just didn't grasp me.

Someone once said that 'while their mouths are open for laughter, you can shove in some food for thought' and I agree wholly. Who doesn’t prefer humorous lectures over the dull and monotonous ones where they just drone on. Is it the students fault then for not taking it in or the tutors? Would that then affect the students grades to which would the tutor be held responsible for that as well?
I feel it's easy to place blame for such things however as usual it's rarely one reason, but many. Nevertheless, it is the tutors responsibility to engage their students and not to blame them for being unresponsive and seemingly disinterested. Make them care, if you make them laugh then their attention is yours. Food for thought.

Seeing as it's impossible to tell the future the only thing you can do is prepare them for it, just like parents prepare their children for the big wide world that's always evolving so to do tutors prepare students for the rat race; arming them with all the knowledge and problem-solving capabilities they can take, or want to take. However by way of preparing there's no point in teaching any random part of a subject, a certain amount of guesswork would be required yet seeing as the tutor is not alone in their vocation there is often some sort of committee that decides what to teach based on both past and present requirements within industry.

“Should we simply concentrate on meeting the current demand for specific technical skills, as the government (and probably most students and employers) would prefer?” I don't see why not. Seeing as the majority prefer it this way it would be the lowest risk, and seeing how the current economy is looking, risks aren't preferable. However, maybe that dwindles possibilities for learning a subject in depth. Looking back to the initial comment about how we're often being taught how to pass an exam as oppose to actually being taught the subject as a whole, pertaining to a specific skillset seems akin to this way of teaching. Which is a shame as although companies would benefit from it the individual might not. I'd rather learn all about drawing and 3D, widening my skill set rather than focusing on one specific part and be good at it. As artists, we should relish the chance to explore new tools and then be able to apply them later down the road.

“Some game companies want highly trained graduate artists and programmers. Some claim they really prefer creative individuals with a good Liberal Arts background. They can't both be right can they?” As with most cases I'd say a mix of the two is preferable. You need creative talent to create something of value however experience is always of value. So as to that it would seem teaching students a bit of both would be beneficial; the subject must be taught, as that is why they're there however giving them opportunities to increase experience with applying what they've learnt is also of great value.

A grim example of this would be a soldier, for this example a swordsmen (applicable even now): They may train in the yard for hours each day and they may be amazing, a natural, some sort of prodigy however the day they come to an actual fight to the death they sorely lack the experience of taking someone’s life, so despite whipping their foes ass and disarming them, leaving them kneeling cut and bruised, that moments hesitation for not delivering a final blow is all the other needs to slip the dagger from it's sheath and kill them. The man with the dagger had experience with killing, the prodigy did not and so all his raw talent was useless at that moment. What I'm trying to say is that we need to be exposed to what is required of us. For game art this would be creating a level. For up till that point we had been making assets and it was pretty straight forward, nothing big here, still challenging yet when it came to making a level (of which we will be doing some day) it knocks you through a loop as to just how much more work is required and all the extra things you need to know.
Now we know, and the next time it happens we won't hesitate.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

From Generalist to Specialist

We need a team...
Creating a game takes a lot of time, money and people depending on the size. Two years is about standard however some titles take longer for a variety of reasons, be it team size, sheer size of the undertaking or being put on hold. In order for a game to be seen from beginning to end, a team is required. A team of specialised craftsmen that have their own respective area to work under.

For game design, these roles might include:
Lead Designer
Art Director
Various artists such as environment and concept
3D modellers
Sound such as Musicians, Composers and SFX.

This is not a full list instead just a brief one of the more art based areas. Of course for a game to get anywhere it needs more than just the ones who construct it; areas such as quality assurance, accounts and licensing and the all important publisher are all working in the background to make sure it even stands a chance.
This is speaking in general, naturally this is not the only way to make a game. Take Minecraft for example, started in a Scandinavian's bedroom went through a few years of a long and grueling (for the fans) beta until finally coming out for retail whereby the creator was already a millionaire and used the funds to open his own studio. Goes without saying he had help along the way however.

Blizzard Entertainment, or Activision Blizzard (not to my taste) is one of the largest and most successful gaming companies currently out there, largely due to the success of their reinventing of the MMORPG genre (accessible to a wider audience than just die-hard no-lifers) have quite an inspiring story, at least I thought so. You rarely think of how a company started, or how it was ten years before you knew them and every time it's often a surprise to me. Blizzard, the unstoppable behemoth of the game world started out as Silicon and Synapse. With just three people and one goal: Make good games. Simple yet the passion these three had was unwavering.
Now look at them! Raking it in. They went from just twenty people in their first two games (both won game of the year for their respective genre) to

Left to right: Frank Pierce, Mike Morheim, Allen Adham
After watching the Blizzard Retrospective (above) I feel saddened that I may never have those experiences that those guys did. My idol, Samwise Didier, was their first artist. The thing that really gets me, for the reason that I'll never get that chance, is that he found the job... in a newspaper. God sake, a newspaper? As if the local cornershop needed a paperboy. A freaking newspaper stating 'artist needed.' So he rolls on down to their tiny office in nothing but his finest pair of cut-off jean-shorts, a portfolio thrown together in a box and then proceeds to get the job. I wonder how many people applied to that role? Makes me cry in my sleep at the thought that now you have to compete with artists by the hundreds now. Yet at the same time it's a bittersweet feeling. Sad because the odds of getting a job are extremely low yet good as it shows just where the games industry has gone. Twenty years ago, when Didier applied to Silicon and Synapse, games were a thing to be shunned; seen as time-wasting brain drains to the now colossal household entertainment that if you don't play them, especially given the vast variety, you're probably an emotionless void devoted solely to a life of consistent mediocrity.

The problem with gaming becoming hugely successful, or rather the problem it presents, is that everyone and their dog wants to work in the industry and there just aren't enough jobs going even more so due to the current economic climate. Bad times.

Could be worse, at least I have one year's grace before being shoved out into the rat race. I'm not holding my breath for a job when I leave the course but I'll keep going. At least I'm on the right course as well. I realised a while ago that the projects aren't arbitrarily devised. When I joined the course I thought I'd be drawing vikings and modeling elfen women however when I got here it was all about the wheelie bins and transit vans! Aaaawwww yeah buddy now we're talking! Bullshit aside, these projects were dull when I was doing them however in hindsight they made perfect sense. In my own time I can go and do whatever I like but it's these projects that are designed solely to get you up to speed that really improve your skills. In the first year, after the fundamentals, it goes House, Van, Gladiator, Weapon; which translates to environment(kinda), vehicle, character, prop.

Well how about that? In the first year we're given a taste of the different 3D artist roles within a company which also helps us decide what to specialise in. Visual design starts off at the basics (and I mean BASICS, colleges don't teach you shit) like perspective, rendering and life drawing whereas the critical studies aspect bolsters your knowledge of game theory, what really goes into making a game before you've even done your first concept.

Whether a job is waiting for me or not, I feel what I've been learning here is turning me into a keen game artist as well as, excuse any arrogance here, a game designer.

Come at me, life!

Monday, 16 April 2012

Interaction Design

Let's talk about how we play games and how that experience can have an (almost dire) affect on what we think of it. From consoles, controllers and keyboards to tutorials, menus and walls of text that can potentially destroy your motivation: Interaction design.

One of the main points of getting people to carry on playing is to keeping it as simple as possible; this goes from ingame, to menus to the actual console itself. If you were presented with a console that had twenty different buttons on it, you wouldnt know what to do save for reading the instruction manual instead they're very simple: There's an on/off switch. Similarly if you decided to make SHIFT reload instead of R then that'd just aggravate veteran players and new ones when they go off and play another similar game forcing them to remember various button layouts. Fortunately it seems there was a meeting one day where game designers got together and decided upon a general consensus towards what buttons do what. Yay.

CurrentGen consoles are all good, so let's talk about one that was bad:
Wannabe Transformer
A good example of how NOT to make a console is the SEGA Genesis, or more specifically the 32X. Consoles back then were about as intuitive as a Chinese keyboard, fiddly as hell causing you to spend the good part of an hour just plugging everything in. Plug and Play was not a term known back then. Plug, plug, plug, find an extension cable and plug some more then get pissed off and play would be more accurate. The reason why this one particularly gets a mention is due to how they upgraded the console. Every other company just created a brand new console entirely whereas SEGA thought it best to just add on heaps of shit turning it into some twisted orgy of plastic and wires.

I could go on but if you're interested in what a massive pile of ass this was its well worth watching this video review by the Angry Video Game Nerd.

When it comes to menus we've all been there, we all have a game that whenever we press the 'I' key our blood level rises just a little bit. The one that sticks out for me has to be The Witcher, they had a menu for EVERYTHING, there's nothing quite like bombarding me with a heap of lists to get me into a game, oh yeah! In fact its not just the menus that were aweful, but the entire gameplay; Swapping between sword fighting styles, pausing the game midfight, click-to-move and even click-to-fight by which I mean you had to click on the bastards just to attack! What era were they in when they designed this artifact? Seemless is not a word I'd use to describe The Witcher. I didn't so much enjoy the game but endure it, all because of how unnecessarily complicated it was.

Intimidating? Na, I love me a headache.
It is pivotal that you get the interaction right. The Witcher's story was great, it was engrossing, but did I enjoy the game? Fuck no! Eighty hours of my rockstar life went into struggling with that game because I can't quit on a game I've spent more than five hours on. God it was awful; handled like a walrus with ice-skates and that's the sad part; it would have been a great game if they had a simple-yet-modern 3rd person/over the shoulder camera angle that when you clicked the mouse it swung the sword, none of that cursor nonsense. Star Wars: Jedi Outcast 2 had three different sword styles, just like The Witcher but because it was a 3rd person click-to-slash game it was fun, easy, intuitive. It came out five years BEFORE The Witcher. Facepalm

Many game has made mistakes like this, early gaming was riddled with it but could you blame them? Noone had written a book on game design in fact the most common way to learn how to play would be for someone to teach you. Like card games, board games, chess; How intuitive is chess? I mean really? I still don't know all the rules. Whenever I played against my friend as a kid he always had to remind me what did what, the same with poker – I learn the rules, and then my brain farts them out the next day deeming it useless information.
So how do you actually play chess?
You cant pick up a deck of cards and go 'ah ok, so the queen of hearts does this' whereas, thanks to consoles largely being the same these days, you can pick up the controller and have a good idea of what you're doing based on the style of game. i.e. right trigger/R2 is fire, if it's not that then it's gona be right-back/R1. Nice and simple, if it's not one button it'll be the next. It's almost instinctive when playing a new game just to jam the controller to see what does what unlike ten years ago you always turned to your buddy to ask: 'So what are the controls?'

Failing that, the designers take it upon themselves to grab you by the scruff of your neck, throw you down and say 'HERE'S A TUTORIAL LEVEL!' Whereby you either skip and wing it through the next few levels or patiently experience what is usually a boring ass segment of the game where they often tell you the obvious: 'Yeah, so use the mouse to look around.' Yeah, no fucking shit. The fact that they deem it necessary to include that in a tutorial is either them being anal or a testament to the much speculated fuck-wittery of your average player.
Though I'm a skip kind of guy I don't mean to knock tutorials. Most games its a waste of time but sometimes you get something new, like haring across buildings in Assassin's Creed or how to survive in certain horror games and so I'd deem it worthy of my time.

Yeah, I will not remember any of that in 5 seconds time.
But does anyone enjoy a tutorial whereby they pause the game, tell you what to do or you have to read (heaven forbid) a wall of text? And then there are these bastards!(Right) Does ANYONE find these enjoyable? My mind looks at them, shits with woe and I'm left there jumping my eyes around the screen as if I'm on crack trying as hard as I can to remember the controls because these are ALWAYS on a fucking loading screen! Like, shit, I didn't know they'd be testing my memory.

The best tutorials are the ones when you don't even realise they're telling you how to play or where to go. They do this threw subtle yet cunning level design that when you find out how to do it you get a sense of satisfaction that YOU did and not the computer just spoon-feeding you.
That's not to say being told what button is what is necessarily a bad thing, its just a case of how they do it as an example a lot of games have whatever button you need to press on the screen when you need to press it like when you go to a door there's an 'E' hovering right there. It's not exactly creative but it's also not intrusive unlike Burnout: Paradise where they have DJ. Atomika pausing the game just to let you know you can do shit;

Got it, now on your bike I was having fun driving.
...pause my game you prick.

What made that particularly silly is that the guy is constantly on the radio anyway so why not just have him tell you it at those moments? Why take you out of the game?

A recent game that had a great tutorial level was Skyrim: (que rose-tinted goggles)

You're on a cart with three prisoners, you then find out one is the leader of a rebel group and is about to have his head cut off by the Imperial Legion. Bang! There's a rebellion against the empire and you're about to get the chop as well. This sets up the Stormcloaks (rebels) as the good guys and the Legion (empire) as the bad. That changes somewhat as you progress through the game but there's one part of the thesis. Next, as your head is on the block a dragon attacks. BOOM! Dragons are in this game too, and judging by how people around you act it's a big deal. Whalla, within the first five minutes of the game you're up to speed on current events.

...and then the game-play starts.

After the initial fleeing to a building you find yourself on the top floor of a building and need to jump across to another building. You now know you can jump in this game – it didn't just tell you in an oh yeah, you can do this too kind of way, instead it said you can do this... NOW DO IT BEFORE THE DRAGON GETS YOU FUCK!!!
Finally you escape the dragon's wrath into a stonewalled keep. Depending on who you chose to follow, the stormcloak or imperial (already letting you get a taste of choosing a side) the NPC will tell you to come over to them so they can undo the binds around your wrists; you go over, press E and there you go, you now know you can talk to people in this game. Moments later you come across the corpse of some poor bastard and are told to loot their gear and equip it; you now know that you can loot corpses and equip gear. Having just gotten some sweet loot you probably want to give it a test, handily, some enemies are coming your way; and now you know you can attack and block. 
Behind you! Yeah I'm not fooling for that one buddy...
 The rest of the sequence has you doing like things with magic, sneak (passed a sleeping bear, hinting that if you don't want to engage, there are ways to avoid it) and being told you have a map whereby the person you were with points you in the direction of the next area should you want to carry on OR he tells you if you'd rather do your own thing then that's fine. How good is that? Instead of wondering should I get on with the quest? Will it matter if I wait too long or can I even go wondering yet? He just flat out tells you that if you want to go walkies, then by all means go walkies but the dragon thing was a big deal, driving home that you've just began your epic journey.

Not once did they pause the game, make you read shit or do a boring ass tutorial level. They don't even tell you it's a tutorial level not that you'd realise as it's so action packed and engrossing you become completely immersed. Brilliant start to a brilliant game.

So we've looked at how games like The Witcher were bad solely because of unintuitve gameplay, whereas games like Skyrim started out on a strong leg due to an informative yet fun introduction and how generally being taken out of the game (breaking immersion) is not only dull in most cases, but really irritating and unrewarding. The point of rewarding players for being smart really needs to be driven home to game designers. There's really no sense of achievement when being told how to do something.

That last point brings me to consoles again, but this time the motion sensitive ones: Wii, Move and Kinect. I myself NEVER had an interest in this, I'm quite happy to continue sitting down while playing with a controller. Nevertheless in the spirit of talking about intuitive play, it really can't get simpler then one of these. You want to swing your sword? Swing the remote. Done. Well, that's what I thought anyway. You can't just make any old movement and it'll do it, you have to swing that sword in a particular way so don't go thinking your Obi-Wan Kenobi and start spinning around the place 'cus that ain't gona cut it. This really destroyed any hopes I already didn’t have with motion sensor play. Technology just isn't at that point yet where you really feel like you're in the game, instead you're left with what I can only describe as a step back for gaming.
For games like Wii Sports yeah of course it makes sense as the whole point is to be active yet for a game like Resident Evil 4 why would you play it with an awkward motion sensor and not a reliable controller? Surely it's just more frustrating and in the end you'll probably end up sitting down anyway. The irony is Nintendo brought out a controller for the Wii.

Went on a bit of a tangent there but the point remains, if not now then sometime in the future we'll have (I hope) games where you actually play the game as if you're in it, just think about that for a second! Like the Matrix or some shee-it as this current motion sensor stuff is for kids... or parties. Really.

As for 3D? When I can play it without having to wear glasses on my glasses or having to sit exactly perpendicular to the screen – then we'll talk.

Talk about irritating.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Sound is often overlooked by many gamers, baring down to merely that stuff in the background. However the sound within a game is an absolutely crucial component of creating that immersive environment. Would a horror game be as scary without an eerie soundtrack or the sudden bangs that make you jump? Would a fantasy game be that epic without a sympthony orchestra and choir? Even down to the small pieces like boss battles or that jaunty tune playing in the background of a tavern.

Music within games seems to fall into two categories to my understanding. There's the music that just fades into the background, nothing innately wrong with it, maybe helps set the scene yet ultimately forgotten as soon as you leave the game. Then there is the memorable music; not just in an 'Oh yeah, I remember that' sense but in a unanimous anyone who played that game will remember it kind of way.
For example, anyone who played morrowind would remember the title music. This was such a fan favourite among gaming that they redid it for Skyrim. The music of Oblivion was also so well liked that they included a lot of it (untouched as far as I could tell) within Skyrim as well.

Musical score however, is not the only sound within a game. Equipment sounds(guns, spells etc), ambience, voice acting and lets not forget the little things like menu browsing and footsteps are among the things all help to enrich the gaming experience. The best part for me is when sound plays a direct part in the game-play like the aforementioned footsteps in games like Thief and SplinterCell. I love me a stealth game.

Voice acting is a fervent interest of mine, I just love it when a character is brought to life with a well suited voice. I put a few of my favourite examples in the Characters blog several months back but I like voice acting so much I'm gona put some more up alongside my favourite voice actors.

Kel'Thuzad – Warcraft 3 Reign of Chaos, voiced by Michael Mcconnohie
Excuse the dodgy fan art.
War never looked so terrifying...

War – Darksiders, voiced by Liam O'Brien
What I find great (and sometimes disturbing) is hearing a voice on a character and then seeing the guy who did it to then go 'Wait, what? This dude did that voice?' 'Cus they never look how you'd expect. Liam O'Brien is a perfect example of this, if you skip to 1:00 in this video you'll see him and more importantly, hear their normal everyday voice.

I suppose it would be bad to bring the voices of Darksiders into this blog without mentioning Mark Hamill. Ever wonder where this guy went after Luke Skywalker? Fuck knows, but in the last few years he's done some pretty bad ass voices for some pretty evil characters, you'd never have known this was him unless someone told you.
The Watcher – Darksiders; Joker – Batman.

Nathan Drake – Uncharted, voiced by Nolan North
This guy also did the voice for Desmond Miles in Assassin's Creed among many others including the Penguin in Batman: Arkhum City. Although it's the same voice for both Desmond and Drake, I really feel like North was perfect for Nathan, he got the humour across without making me want to throttle the character (Hawk – Dragon Age 2) as well as making the more serious scenes believable proving to me he wasn't a one-dimensional character. On top of that he's a funny fucker and does an amazing Christopher Walken impression... 

Going back to the musical scores, or more specifically, the composers, I think it's fucking faboo that some big-time composers are taking an interest in the games industry. My favourite of all is Danny Elfman pretty much because he did the music for Fable which is, out of all the games I've ever played, my absolute favourite. The reason for that can wait for another time but about the music.
To sum up Fable in one sentence: A colourful and often times playful exterior with an interior of misery and sadness. Kind of like a 1960's household.
The visual for fable were all vibrantly coloured and highly saturated, the characters were somewhat out of proportion with funky movements and you often went around doing silly little things like kicking chickens or sneering at children. The game was so light-hearted and fairytale-like that when it got into the darker stuff, dealing with treachery, death and fear it in a weird way became quite serious. As if while playing this game you, yourself, started as a child and as it progressed you had to mature and realise life isn't all fun and games. From happy and easy to pain and hardship.

So Scott, what about the music?

Well, funny you should ask, voice-in-my-head. Danny Elfman does the music for many a Tim Burton movie, probably most renowned for A Nightmare Before Christmas. The relevance of this being that Tim Burton's movies are gothic fairytales, essentially. Boy meets girl, little adventure etc So this complimented Fable perfectly and, I gotta say, Elfman delivered. Maybe it's the rose-tinted goggles but I remember every tune from the different zones, they all just worked so perfectly to make the atmosphere while not being so varied it just seemed almost garish in an audible sense.

I'll leave you with the theme from Bowerstone South, the town you first arrive in. It's a standard little medieval town with wooden houses, merchant stools, a tavern where people drink and play games. Combined with the sunny day, green grass on the ground and chirpy townsfolk it was a really welcoming experience. For probably the first time ever in gaming, I felt like I could spend ages in a town whereas usually I cant wait to get out of those dreary quest-hubs and get on with the killin'.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Game Engines

Game engines are used to bring games to life via functions such as physics, rendering, collision and sound as well as animation. Other game engines require a little extra, for example an MMO-RPG would require networking.

Here are some examples of game engines and games they've been employed in the making of:
CryEngine - Crysis, Far Cry, Aion
Crystal Tools - Final Fantasy XIII
Gamebryo - The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3
Source - Half-life 2, Team Fortress 2, Portal 1 and 2, Left 4 Dead etc
Unreal - Mass Effect, Gears of War, Borderland

Types of Engines
According to Jeff Ward, a co-founder and lead programmer at Orbus Gameworks, there are three types of game engine, from lowest to highest level he describes them as: Roll-your-own, Mostly-ready and Point-and-click.

Roll-your-own: These are when companies make their own engine from the ground up however they can still use publicly available applications help by obtaining middleware (explained later) for such functions such as physics and sound. Havok, for example.
The good thing with this is that you can pick and choose what you want for your engine, so the programmer has a lot of control and flexibility. However, because outsourced libraries may not work together it is required to build the engine up from scratch meaning these often take the largest amount of time and are less attractive to a lot of game developers.

Mostly-ready game engines: Already pre-packed with most of the goodies you'd expect in an engine like renderers, GUI, physics etc and even tools so there's very little programming required (if any at all). However these are a tad more restrictive than Roll-your-own engines due to being optimized for general application. That said, these engines have been made professionally and long hours have been spent fine-tuning them.
Examples of Mostly-ready engines: OGRE, Unreal and id Tech.

Point-and-click engines: Designed to be as user friendly as possible these engines come equipped with a full array of tools and require very little coding. Unfortunately, they are severely limiting, allowing for only a couple genres or one or two graphics modes. To their credit they allow you to work quick and play quick so it's not all bad.
Unity3D, Torque and GameMaker are three examples of this style of engine.

For many years game developers created their own engines and updated them when necessary, keeping them in house. However, the cost of creating your own engine has increased considerably and so companies have opted to make only specific parts of an engine, like physics for example, and then outsource the rest. These smaller packages are called middleware. These engines often do a particular job more convincingly than general purpose engines like Unreal.
For example: Speedtree was used in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for more realistic trees and vegetation whereas Havok provides a concentrated phsyics simulation system accompanied with a plethora of animation and behaviour solutions. Assassins Creed, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls and Fear are but a few of the big titles Havok has been used on.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Level Design

Level Design is the data entry and layout portion of the game development cycle. A level is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a mission, stage, map or other venue of player interaction.” - Tim Ryan, Gamasutra

From the title screen onwards, nothing should remind them they are in the real world. The player must attain a level of escapism for immersion to take effect, which is only achieved by making sure nothing reminds them that they are sat at a computer, jamming with a keyboard.
Immersion can be broken by a variety of common mistakes: Graphical glitches, bugs.
In terms of design, something like a car going over a bridge in the background of a medieval setting. Things like being told to 'press R to reload' or 'right-click while pressing W' can break immersion as it reminds the consumer that they are playing a game.

Though some would not admit, we all love a challenge, and games deliver us these challenges frequently. Though there is indeed the overarching challenge of merely beating the game there are also mini, sub challenges throughout most games that constantly keep a player on their toes like; Do x in y amount of time, or get from a to b while y does z etc.
Challenges within levels can range from traversing a hedge to surviving a room full of elite soldiers complete with rocket launchers.
The tough part with making a game challenging is not making it too challenging so that the majority find it more frustrating than fun. Emphasis on 'majority' here, as that is your main audience thus you need to find that medium difficulty that does not neglect most player only leaving the most skilful satisfied. This can be seen as unfair towards people of higher (or indeed, lower) capability, however not all is lost as games frequently have extra content to challenge skilled players and those who perhaps have already completed the game, and maybe might like to try something a little harder.
To clarify somewhat; if your game is a FPS, you should challenge your players aiming skills, from how accurate to how fast they are. If a real-time strategy game, challenge the players ability to manage his or her defence and offence while maintaining a steady economy within their base.
Challenges are essentially training, so its a good idea to constantly challenge your player as to get them up to snuff as games generally get harder as they go on.

Games, as do films and books and any other medium within the entertainment industry need to be... entertaining. If a player gets bored they could well go do something else. As a game designer this is death, you want people to play this game so for one to just turn it off should feel like a knife in the heart, and for the most part (psychological issues aside) it is the designers fault.
This reminds me of a game called Mass Effect, you may have heard of it. I did, and I also heard all the hype behind it, about how it is such a great story, completely immersing etc. So I finally bought it and began playing. Didn't think it bad by any means, in fact, I'd go as far to say I was rather enjoying it. Then the Citadel part came. Just one hour earlier I was fighting robots with my laser gun, throwing grenades at some resurrected blue buggers and unravelling a tale of struggle, impending doom and treachery but now... I am running around for three fucking hours on this massive ass 'town' going through loading screen after loading screen and talking to people I really could not give a damn about who have this problem or that problem and could I perhaps find it in my heart to do this or that for them and... you know what? I quit.
Assuredly I have a personal preference for combat unending over prolonged amounts of banter yet still this caused me to stop playing. Begrudgingly I picked the game back up a month or two later with the promise that it got better after the Citadel, and it did. Yet that doesn't forgive the game for it's massive flaw. Barely two hours into the game and I want to quit and let me tell you, I love narrative, I love story but do I give a shit about Joe Predicament? NO!
Robots are attacking human colonies and one of the Citadel's finest agents has betrayed us and I've had a vision of some evil big bastards coming to gobble up our galaxy so I'm now on my way to talk to the high council on what our next move will be, because it could well determine the fate of not just humans, but all other life in the cosmos... no, I'm not going to hand over your love letter.

Back on track.

We've talked about games needing to be immersive, challenging and entertaining. These are pretty much the building blocks a game is made from. A little further reading however.

A game should invigorate a players senses; when they go into an area their mind should race with ooh's and aah's, they should WANT to progress through the level, if they see something interesting, they will go to it. A nice trick with this technique for a complete level is to show the player where they will end up later. For example: looking out a window to the street below and then ending up down there in a few minutes, or showing a massive radiant light emitting structure a mile away only to end up there soon enough. Another good one is showing something like this throughout the level so the player not only can see where they are headed, and await it with anticipation, but also to give the player a sort of triangulation point so they know where they are in relation to where they've been, or possible in relation to somewhere else they have seen.
Other ways to subtley lead players through a level include lighting, or something as simple as where your enemies are. Don't know where to go? Follow the gun shots. Simple, subtle, works every time.

Players also require freedom. This is their game, they've bought it, it is theirs to do with what they want. Telling them they must go down this alley, although a simple command to follow, is somewhat condescending. Like the big arrow in the old Streets of Rage games telling you to go forward... yeah no shit buddy.
Presenting the player with options is always a great idea. All you need to do is set the playing field and just let them work it out, kind of like a monkey with a children’s puzzle box. You don't tell them how to put the shapes in the holes, you leave them to it, trying to ram a circle into the triangle slot doesn't work so they try something else. Not only does this add a lot of variety to the areas, it also gives the player a quick sense of accomplishment, which is very powerful motivator.
Giving a player the option of two routes that end up at the same destination is another great piece of level design, the power is in their hands. Do they take the stealthy route through the vents or the balls to the wall front door approach? It's their decision to make and makes them feel like they're playing the game the way they want to, you're not penalising a stealthy player by making him go through the door. It all adds to the immersion.

With all this said, however, the main thing to keep in mind is that you must make the player care. Story plays a big part in that motivation however if the levels are poor (Citadel from Mass Effect) they will stop caring about the game. Make them exciting, make them want to progress, to explore and reward them for doing so and you'll find them squeezing in that extra level before bedtime.