Thursday, 31 March 2011

Valve - turning Mods into Games (an interesting strategy)

Don't get me wrong, I like Valve as a developer. But there's always been one thing that bugged me about them, and it's that most of their stuff came from an already existing idea (Half-Life and Left4Dead are the exceptions). It's a good thing, I think, because there are loads of mods, and only a handful get it right. Valve pluck those ones and polish them, taking a amateur attempt and making it into a professional game.

The only thing I don't like is how everyone forgets the roots of games like Team Fortress and Portal. I think some people believe that Valve are this goldmine of originality - and while they are to a degree, they had the base already made for them. They took the original idea and added to it - a quarter of the work was already done for them.

For example, Team Fortress - the Quake mod;

Granted it doesn't share much with Team Fortress 2 aside from the core mechanics, but it's still the original Team Fortress. Look at those beautiful Quake graphics, how square is his head?

Oh, and I'm not sure if this was the first game to incorporate 'Headshots', but it's quite an early example. It came before Unreal, which was the earliest I previously knew of.

Counter-Strike the Half-Life mod;

Counter-Strike is insanely popular, and spawned a community of pro-gamers and dirty cheaters. It started as a Half-Life mod, and later got a rewrite on Valve's Source engine.

Day of Defeat; 

Day of Defeat also started life as a Half-Life mod, and also got a Source makeover.

Portal:

Everyone knows Portal, but not many people know it started as a student project at DigiPen Institute of Technology. The original was called Narbacular Drop - the odd name was picked to ensure that typing 'Narbacular' into Google brought the game up. The students were snapped up by Valve and went on to work on Portal. So, Portal is like the spiritual sucessor to Narbacular Drop.

Alien Swarm, Available free on Steam, was originally a Unreal Tournament 2004 mod;

I played Alien Swarm when it was a UT2004 mod, and was eagerly waiting to play it's followup. Sadly, you need Steam to play it, and I don't have Steam because I'm old fashioned and prefer buying the games physically. But, from what I've seen, the Valve remake was pretty cool. For a start, it didn't copy Aliens in theme and design like the mod did, and added in environmental stuff like Aliens being able to crush you under a door. Nice.

Like I said earlier, I aint hating on Valve - just summing up some background research I've been doing over a few weeks. It was triggered by my memories of playing the original Xbox port of the Counter-Strike mod, and seeing the Alien Swarm remake. They've got a sweet deal going on, and it's mutually beneficial. I suppose the original creators kinda forfeit the credits for the games when they join Valve - because they become Valve. Creepy thought, sort of like something from Doctor Who

Next-Next-Next-Next-Gen Graphics - Constantly redundant

Why are graphics so important for so many people? It seems that every time I view a game-related video on YouTube someone's taking a crack at the games graphics.

It's a ridiculous thing to say, especially for an aspiring Game Artist, but the graphics mean nothing if the game isn't good. You can have the prettiest looking game -- but if it plays like E.T no-one would buy it. Graphics are important, but they're not the whole package. That's why it completely boggles me when people complain about graphics and completely overlook the fact that the game itself was crap.

It's not just restricted to the game itself, people regularly complain if they can't watch it in 1080p and see every last eyelash. I've seen people compare games purely on graphics. Where most people brag about being good at a game, some people brag about being able to run a game on stupid resolutions like 1900x1600.

Don't get me wrong, I really like it when a game has good graphics. To me, good graphics are defined by well-built models, subtle textures and good lighting. Not ridiculous screen resolutions. I'd go as far as to say that Unreal Championship 2 (2005 - a six year old game) still has great graphics:
Unreal Championship 2 (Released only on the Original Xbox), Unreal Championship was the console version of Unreal Tournament, essentially.
To me, graphics are defined by quality of construction and believability -- not by how cutting edge they are. I don't remember a game because of it's graphics (art style is a different thing), I remember it because it had something unique or just played well. Besides, all of these cutting-edge technologies will be redundant in about 3 years, so graphics will change anyway. Anyone remember how cutting edge Unreal was back in the day?


According to these article scansUnreal has "extremely high-resolution textures, high polygon count enemies" and "the game's scenery is utterly breathtaking". 
If you read those article scans, the magazine essentially brown-noses about how cutting edge the game is and how amazing the graphics are. Unreal was released in 1998, Unreal Championship 2 in 2005 and Unreal Tournament 3 in 2007. UT3 was a major step up from UC2 (which was a major step up from Unreal). Give it 5 years and we'll be laughing at the facial animation in Mass Effect and giggling about how low-tech the destruction in Red Faction: Guerilla was. So, essentially, graphics serve a practical purpose and only stay 'beautiful' for a few years before we find something more impressive.

Funnily, they were moaning about how run-of-the-mill FPS's were back in '98. Sadly everyone stopped copying Quake's sci-fi setting and went for the boring and drab counter-terrorism approach.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Censorship & Controversy

Whenever I'm near the internet, there's always a chance that I'll wander onto Wikipedia and be lost within its walls for hours. That happened again last night, but I ended up looking at the Chinese censorship criteria for foreign import games.

It got me thinking about the whole concept of censoring video games and films. One the one hand, I agree with the whole process and believe that sometimes games need to be told they can't do stuff that's too extreme. One  the other hand, it seriously hampers creative freedom and is just generally annoying.

There were games like Manhunt and GTA that sparked controversy, but to my knowledge they were never banned in the UK (I played both games, Manhunt could have been banned after I played it). Similarly, Gears of War allows you to literally saw bad guys in half using a chainsaw attached to your gun. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age (both BioWare titles) are producing more graphic semi-sex scenes. And, of course, there's that JFK: Reloaded game that was centred around assassinating President Kennedy.

I wasn't offended by the graphic decapitation in Gears of War. While I thought it was excessive, I went into the game expecting it and so wasn't surprised. On the other hand, the suggestive scenes in Dragon Age: Origins had me and my older brother cringing and wondering "why did anyone think we actually wanted to see that?". They didn't add to the gameplay like the chainsaw in Gears of War did - if anything they felt like a failed attempt to make games feel more "mature". In my opinion, trying to make a game 'mature' will either make the game feel immature or it will feel like the game takes itself way too seriously.

While some good could come from censoring games like these, the negative effect Censorship would have isn't worth the trade-off. These 'controversial' qualities usually sky-rocket the popularity of a title through word-of-mouth - Manhunt was the best example of this. And games like Gears of War and GTA - while controversial and excessive - are quite fun, and wouldn't be available if Censorship got extreme. While Censorship would remove extreme elements from games, it defeats the entire point of visual & audio media - to express creativity freely.

This article highlights a few of the more well-known controversial games and some less-known ones. One in particular - KZ Manager - is just wrong: http://www.bit-tech.net/gaming/2006/07/04/Get_real_-_gaming_real_world/3

Saturday, 26 March 2011

A Ponder - Modern RPG's?

FarCry 2 : Not an RPG, but an example of a nice Modern Environment
It's fair to say I'm not a massive RPG person. I've skipped over most of the definitive examples, and generally stuck to action/shooter games. There's good reason for it, however.

Back in my childhood, I was a fan of the whole medieval-fantasy thing. As I got a little older, I got sick of it due to repetition. Sure, games like Morrowind were a refreshing break from the formula - and Fable's take on the theme was refreshingly colourful. In general, though, the whole thing muddied together.

Fantasy is the staple of the RPG genre. With the exception of the Final Fantasy series, most popular RPG's have been set in this medieval-fantasy or similar setting. And, to me, it's gotten really boring. Now, while the Final Fantasy series takes a rather unique approach to the genre, it's too 'Japanese' for me. That might seem a little Racist, but I generally don't have any love for Japanese culture. It's just too silly and cartoony.

Anyone that knows me knows that I've become a little bit of a Fallout nerd. Of course, the whole Post-Nuclear thing has become a massive cliché now, but back when Fallout 3 came out it was completely new to me. After I'd squeezed the life out of Fallout 3 I went in search of another modern/sci-fi RPG...

...and they're few and far between. I know there's Mass Effect and a few MMORPG's - but space doesn't appeal to me and MMO's are a little too hardcore. It's ridiculous, I ended up just buying the Fallout classics bundle. And I've been on the lookout ever since for a modern, single-player RPG.

I got down to thinking about it, and ended up making a short-list of what I would consider to be the general "RPG Formula";

  • Vast, Open Wilderness
  • Ruins, Dungeons and Settlements - reasons to explore, and plunder
  • Variety of creatures/monsters/bad-guys - things you're legally allowed to kill
  • Lack of serious Law - for example, the player is allowed to buy weapons and kill things
  • Lots of equipment - incentive to reach the next level or to explore, player always wants better gear
The classical idea of "Dungeons" applies to modern settings as well as fantasy ones.

The medieval-fantasy setting fills those boots perfectly, and so does the post-apocalyptic setting. Both are generally lawless outside of the major settlements, and both have open worlds filled with plunder and loot. Where you have castle ruins and dungeons in the fantasy setting, you have building ruins and metro systems in the apocalyptic setting.

With a little imagination, you could create a non-apocalyptic modern setting for an RPG, which still adheres to those points. For example, I think the African Savanna setting of Far Cry 2 could work for an RPG, with some work. It's open, lawless and filled with hostile militia and gangs. Instead of horses, you've got motorcycles and buggies. You'd have to go into sci-fi to fill the other points, but nothing is stopping you. A near-future Africa setting would actually be nice. 

I'm not even going to start on staple RPG mechanics and how they seem to treat 'levelling up' as just 'becoming generally better'. That's a separate, personal issue.

I can't help but feel that the wealth of unique settings available aren't being explored. Then again, part of me is thinking that I'm not looking hard enough.

Edit + Addition:


I got a little distracted from my work, and started surfing the web regarding the comment I made earlier about the mechanics of RPG's and how I just don't like them. This guys blog pretty much covers why I loved the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system used in the Fallout series. Here's a quote, as I can guarantee you wont be as enthusiastic about Fallout-related nerdism as I am.


"Of all the (computer) RPG’s I’ve played over the years, my favorite character progression system is still the one found in the 1997 classic Fallout. Why I love this system:


It’s a classless system. You can be a “rogue” or a “melee fighter” or a “gunslinger”, but the particulars of doing so are up to you. You aren’t locked into choices where being good at fighting makes you bad at conversation, or being good at stealth implies you want to steal stuff. Being classless means it’s skill-based. When you level up, your skills improve, not the base attributes. I never liked games where you can become “smarter” or “more charismatic” by fighting and leveling up. Leveling up shouldn’t change your core attributes, (or at least, not by much) it should simply allow you to better use what you were born with. "




Friday, 25 March 2011

Work Update 25-3-11


Completed my Flamethrower for the 'Weapon of Choice' project and handed it in today. Yesterday was just spent making sure everything worked and that I had the design document up to scratch. I ended up painting all of the textures for the weapon, as we got kicked out of B&Q before we could take photos. Honestly, what harm would we be doing taking photographs?

I literally used a ton of layers of Render Clouds/Fibers in Photoshop to create the metallic texture I used for the weapon. For rusty bits/colour variation I used the magic wand tool to cut out entire shades, leaving behind  only the lightest parts of the clouds.

Anyway, I just about managed to stay under tri limit on this one - 6 under. It was really difficult trying to define shape and detail with such a small budget, but I feel I got it right. I had to remove some parts, namely the indent by the fuel canister on the concept - but this allowed me to better define the shape. 

A small group of us went down to Castle Gardens again today, got some drawings done and enjoyed a lovely summer day. I think we were all just savouring the time in the sun, as the next time we go out drawing with Chris (Year 2) it's going to be Winter again. 

Painted my reef character sculpture, going to paint my interesting character one tomorrow too. My awful sleeping pattern has finally caught up with me today, so I get the feeling that I'm not going to get much done tonight. 

I've only got to do the final for the Castle Gardens and then I'm all ready for my review on Monday. As far as I can remember, I'm all ready for it now.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

First Year, a look back.

As I anticipated, my first year here at De Montfort went surprisingly fast. Through the 20+ weeks I've been here, I feel I've learned a great deal - not only about the techniques of 2D & 3D art, but of the lifestyle and mindset of a professional digital artist. 

As a whole, the course has been fantastic for me. College was annoyingly patronising - lecturers were constantly over my shoulder checking I was keeping on time with my projects and that I was hitting all of the criteria. Here, I've had to discipline myself to manage my time efficiently and to experiment with different techniques - without someone there trying to push me back on the rails. And where I'd been pushed right up to the last minute with the work at College, I found myself finishing tasks on time or even early here. 

Like everyone else, I had impossible dreams of becoming a concept artist when I first arrived. I can still understand why that appealed to me - it's like your drawing cool stuff for a living. Through the projects and tasks we've been set; I've seen the different approaches you can take to digital/game art. I've had the chance to experiment with different mediums and methods, which have helped broaden my aspirations. I've given interface art a serious consideration; I've played around with it in my spare time and had fun making silly little HUD's and menus.

We’ve taken each part of 2D & 3D art one step at a time, in bite size chunks, which really helped to understand the process and have given us time to experiment with the techniques. Compared to the teaching methods of school & college – which would be to stuff it all into two weeks – this way allowed us to actually understand what we’re being taught.

Blackboard & Facebook have been really helpful throughout. The feedback I get from other students on Facebook is exactly what I need, as towards the end of a project I tend to overlook the tiny details, and these get pointed out. Blackboard contains all of our 3D tutorials as well as many documents which are just food for the mind. The postmortems and design documents, for example, are interesting because you can see how the professionals deal with massive projects. It’s also reassuring to read about their failures too, it shows that everyone makes mistakes and needs to learn from them.

This year has been refreshing for me, mainly because I’m surrounded by like-minded people and because I’ve had to take responsibility for my work. I’m not the greatest at 2D or 3D in our group, but I’ve certainly noticed a progression. I’ve only ever done 2 character models – one at college and one here – but the difference is severe. I think the key factor there is teaching, like I said, I was taught poorly at college.

So far, we’ve work on our own for all the tasks. If I were to make a suggestion, I think it’d be interesting to see how a paired project would play out - maybe making a pair of assets with consistent style. My concern is that, while we’re all good at working solo, the group project in Year 2 might be a sudden step up in terms of responsibility.

Reading this back, it sounds a little like I’m worshipping the course. I am. I love to show people what we do, and see their reaction. A lot of people think we just sit around saying “I want to make the next Halo!!!1!”, so it’s brilliant to show them what we really do and break the stigma that Game related subjects isn’t serious. 


Environments and Atmosphere within Games

The Environment is undoubtedly one of the most – if not the most -important parts of a Game’s design. Fancy character animation and special effects can carry a game so far, but a superb world space will leave the player in awe.

The purpose of the Environment stretches beyond visuals – it can help guide a player around a level or inform them of a change in circumstance. Environments are carefully constructed to provide a world that the player can become absorbed into. When pulled off correctly, Environments can be visually dazzling and technically superb. Done wrong, and Environments can be dull, confusing and uninspiring.

Level designers can use detailed assets to add flourishes to the games environment or to provide points-of-interest to the player. Laying a ‘candy trail’ of points-of-interest can direct the player around a level in a specific path, if that was the aim. The Gears of War used triggered cinematic events that specifically drew the players view to a location. Examples include crumbling buildings, passing aircraft or exploding things.

These special events are usually layered onto of the most important feature of an environment – the atmosphere. A crumbling skyscraper in Gears of War would be totally unconvincing if it was placed amongst a tropical paradise or pristine city. The gritty, dirty and ruined look of Gears of War is enhanced with this type of event, which outlines the fragility of the world space.

BioShock
For example, games like BioShock, Morrowind and Soul Reaver all had different atmospheres within their level design. The retro-futuristic look of BioShocks architecture - combined with the almost apocalyptic decay – created a dark, damp and eerie atmosphere that left the player on edge.



TESIII: Morrowind
 Morrowind had a unique art style which really brought out the cultural identity of its native species. The classic human Imperials wore typical fantasy clothing and lived in thatched housing; while the native Dunmer wore armour made of bone and lived in the hollowed shells of gigantic insects. The swamp and Ashland settings were foreboding and unwelcoming, and felt like a series of badlands you were reluctant to cross unprepared. This was a direct contrast to the games sequel, Oblivion, which returned to the classic fantasy setting and atmosphere.




Legacy of Kain : Soul Reaver
Soul Reaver was set in a fantasy universe, but one I have not seen repeated to this date. Most of the strongholds and fortresses you traversed were either long abandoned or barely maintained by their associated decaying vampire clan. As I played Soul Reaver, it felt as if the world around me was slowly dying. The residual fog and muted colour palette made you feel like the world surrounding you was empty and hollow. Even the human stronghold was cold and haunting, made of colossal uniform stone structures.

With all three examples, stylisation was a big factor in their atmosphere. But they weren’t completely made up; they had their roots in real life scenarios and situations. BioShock was immersed in the 1950’s culture, Morrowind borrowed from Eastern culture, and Soul Reaver had influences from traditional dark fantasy and gothic settings. ‘Realistic’ textures, convincing lighting and believable level setup all helped contribute to the immersion as they gave the impression that these game worlds were real.

In my childhood and peak of gaming I probably discovered a wealth of cool environments, but in my youth I would have overlooked them in favour of chewing up the next enemy. In recent gaming history, many games have stood out, but the one universe that really drew me in was the world of Fallout 3.

It’s not the most unusual or interesting choice out there, but it’s the one that’s drew me in the longest. I remember the first time I stepped outside of the vault at the beginning of the game and took my first look at the ruined horizon – I looked for a fairly long time. When Fallout 3 came out I’d never heard of ‘post-apocalyptic’ – though now it’s become something of a cliché. I was enthralled by this apocalyptic vision of America in an alternate universe.

In particular, the 1950’s retro futuristic style – a style continued from the original 1997 Fallout game - drew me in. It was present in the clothing style, weaponry, architecture and culture. It was a welcome distraction from the ever-serious nature of the wasteland. No matter what hardship you had just endured, you could always look at your Pip-Boy wrist computer and smile at the little icons.

Unfortunately, this atmosphere was completely changed in the games sequel, Fallout New Vegas – to a more of a wild west theme. For better or worse, you decide.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

One Week Left

It's scary, I didn't realise that there's only one week left until our first assessment - and the end of our projects (I think). We've then got a few weeks to polish everything up for our final assessment.

I've handed everything in on time as far as I can remember, so that's not a problem. I've just got to wait and see if I've done enough (and well enough) to be worth keeping. But I wont dwell on that here, this is a happy blog.

Quick, rough early model of my weapon.
 I created a rough work-in-progress model this week of my weapon, based on an old design of mine. I decided to do a Flamethrower for several reasons - I didn't want to do a melee weapon, I didn't want to a SMG/Rifle, and I wanted to design something I wouldn't usually design.
Coloured concept idea for the flame-thrower.









I went through a few designs before I came to this one. I decided to scrap a "stock" since Flamethrowers don't have any recoil. I was initially going to add a separate front handle before I realised that it's just fuel that passes through the front barrel bit, not fire. 





Doodle inspired by the film 28 Weeks Later
I went into Photoshop and doodled for a while, trying to create an idea of what sort of situation this flamethrower would be used in. Instantly I thought of 28 Weeks Later and the creepy soldiers that incinerated everything. There was something cold and methodic about their appearance, something distinctively non-human. 











And finally, my Reef character sculpture is getting on now. He needs smoothing off, a bit more forming, and baking/painting before I call him done - but the base is all there. 

He looks so dopey.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Work Update, March 14th

After a fair bit of tweaking, I completed my Gladiator for the corresponding 3d project. Stuck to my usual plan of making sure I'm ready to walk in and hand in on the final day, without having to sit around finishing the project that day. I don't like working on a project literally to the last minute, I like to have it done before the hand in so I can take a good look at it and make sure it's all right.


Also, finished up the 'Reef' character project. Here's the final painting I did for the character, which was attempt #4 at a final painting. Sometimes I forget that painting from your head (using orthographic drawings) is far harder than painting from life because you don't have the colour/lighting information in front of you.














Another thing we did was the self-portrait in the style of another artist. I chose to look at Heather Horton, specifically this painting;


http://artandcritique.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/bed_head_self-portrait_heather-horton-en-face.jpg


I think it came out quite alright, but like I said before, it's much easier painting from life than out of imagination. My understanding of lighting/colour isn't all there yet, so I'm better off sticking to life drawing. No ninja-boob-girl speed painting for me, but then again I wouldn't paint that shit even if I could. 




Oh, yeah, and just for giggles I emulated the style of Clifford Harper, who is an illustrator, with slightly funny results. I don't think it went all too bad. 


Note the subtle swapping of scenic "blank wall" with lovely rolling hills. My room's pretty awful to include in paintings, especially as I haven't got any glorious film posters.




I did fall a week behind on the work, but now I'm back up to speed I feel great. We've started the weapon project now in Game Production, so I'm thinking of unusual and interesting weapons to design. Probably gonna end up doing a chunky flamethrower or something like the "Angry Gun" from Dune, I'm not that into swords and pointy sticks. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Characters within Storytelling and Visual media

Often, Video Games are remembered for their gameplay or unusual art direction. A handful of games are remembered for having particularly good stories. But in the end - in the centre of all these segments - it's the characters that really bring a game together and give it that personal, emotional connection.

The reasons why a character is memorable vary from person to person, but usually a character is memorable for a specific trait or action.Duke Nukem is remembered for his loud-mouth attitude and macho appearance. Captain Ash from Timesplitters was a loveable stereotype. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider was mainly remembered for her appearance.

Characters that I find memorable are usually the ones that weren't perfect, righteous heroes. Bourbon from Metro 2033 stuck with me because he was an arrogant, loud-mouthed idiot who got himself into trouble just by being himself. Raziel from Legacy of Kain was easily manipulated no matter how hard he tried to understand and influence his own destiny - he was forever playing by someone else's rules. The mysterious and mentally unstable Gray Fox from Metal Gear Solid would spend his first few moments on screen bashing his head off the metal floor.

I think it's those flaws that make characters believable and memorable. Raziel was easily misled into doing the wrong things for the right reasons. After each mistake he made, you could feel his torment and frustration at being helpless against the will of his tormentor. It was the first time within a game I'd played that being the 'good guy' just wasn't enough to succeed. In Metro 2033, all of Bourbons problems are hidden from you, but they soon catch up with him and reveal the cracks behind his cocky and arrogant exterior. You see a desperate, helpless side to Bourbon that he has covered up. In Metal Gear Solid you are shown that this crazy, unstable mess of a man actually had a past, but the mystery is maintained as you never learn of what happened to him. 

When it comes down to creating a convincing and believable character, the script can only do so much. No amount of interesting dialogue can replace a powerful delivery. If the character is present in both the speech and the physical actor itself, it becomes very believable. While I love the game, Fallout 3's characters suffer from a rather bland delivery. The voice acting has no power or emotion behind it, and characters are always static while talking.

Nowadays, for a story to truly grip me, it needs to trigger an emotion. I've sat through Black Hawk Down many times now and every time I feel disgusted and angry at the scene where the dead American pilot is being paraded around by the Somalian mob. And everyone I've watched the film with has had a similar response.  I recently watched District 9 and started off hating the main character Vickers, though towards the end of the film I began to sympathise with him and come to feel sorry for him.

It's those emotional triggers that I feel make a good story. They're what turn an otherwise straight forward plot into one that invites thought and criticism. Stories that make you think and question established beliefs and stereotypes hold much more weight than those that simply serve as a backdrop for an elaborate battle scene.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Guild Hall, Masters Study and a new set of projects

Once again, I've completely forgotten to keep the blog updated for a week. A fair amount has happened since my last update -- we've started the Gladiator project in 3DS Max, and we've done the guild hall and masters study in our Visual Design lessons. I'll try and get a decent render of my gladiator for my next entry, but I want to make some changes beforehand as I've had some feedback on the current version.
Masters study - "Beach scene with wrecked ship", John Callow, 1868

I did attempt a watercolour painting for the masters study, but it didn't quite work out as I'm very rusty. When I've finally taken a photo of it, I'll upload it up here.

Guild Hall Final painting. There were so many chests on that one floor of the building, it felt like I was in Oblivion or something.

We've now started the 'Reef' character project, so I'm keeping my eyes peeled for nearby aquariums and the like for research. 

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