Thursday, 26 April 2012

Personal review of the first year

Okay, so it’s the end of my first year!... well almost. There’s still the whole ‘get into second year’ part but as far as teaching and assignments are concerned, it has finished, and I’m still alive, which is always good. I learned so much this year I think its best I pick a few things which are most important to me. Having a weekly deadline, every week for both semesters is very difficult to keep up with, because at any point if you become lazy or distracted you find yourself with much more weight on your shoulders and this leads to rushed work. I learnt this the hard way and even towards the end of the year I found myself with too much work and too little time. Now that it’s all over I am thankful that it’s like this from the first year because it forces us to be consistent early on, a very important value for any artist in the games industry.

I think as far as art skills go, I have developed quite a bit and drawing assignments every week is the reason. Whether we like it or not were going to a different location or a brief is being passed to us every Tuesday for us to decipher in our own way. Also Critical Studies every Wednesday are definitely what I enjoy, (not just because it’s an hour lecture where you just sit, watch and listen...aha) but most of Mike’s talks are motivational.  We get given glimpses of the industry in all of them so every week were reminded what were aiming for and where were going. I think the course structure is very solid, no flaws on the timetable and teaching hours because I think there’s only so much someone can teach you 1 on 1 before you HAVE to go away and do something yourself thus learning to make your own decisions. The tutors also always seem to be available in their offices or can be contacted through email so it’s never a case where they set work and disappear for the rest of the week.  

Considering work ethic I have realised that when you get into the games industry as any kind of artist 2d or 3d there becomes no such thing as free time. If you have finished one assignment, another is waiting or right round the corner and this is where I self reflect most due to my notorious ways of leaving work last minute. I think this was my last time doing this and of course like most procrastinating students I have said this before. But it seems that I been leaving things late so long even before this degree that I’m genuinely getting bored of doing all nighters and pumping out work I hate because I gave myself so little time to do it. What I actually mean is my state of mind is becoming more professional about everything, so organisation and taking time to do everything is slowly winning me over. After all, I want to produce work to the best of my ability with the maximum time utilized.

Every year it seems I end up having the most ‘productive’ year of my life and this definitely has set a high mark even though I am not 100% satisfied with everything I did. Just by browsing through some of the second year’s artwork I can already see that next year will be filled with new challenges and it also raises the bar on productivity. At the level I am at now I know before I arrive there, I’ll have to put some hard work in to keep up with all those briefs during the summer. Now to dig deep into building some personal work!   

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Elements of game design, part four: environment

Environment Design is something I have a great interest in, I find the ability to create and explore new worlds very challenging. In video games the environment can be the key selling point because it’s the very thing players will interact with at all times. Environment and level design has to be made with large reference and a strong thought process of how the player will interact; however the environment can also convey the story, setting and timeline with props or assets. 

Games such as L.A. Noire have to be detailed with substantial props and references that communicate the time period. Its open world Grand Theft Auto style game play gives little space for error. Though most players will not have a dedicated eye to identify with every single asset, getting everything right will immerse the player into the game very quickly adding to the developer’s credibility. Other games such as Uncharted 2 (only one I’ve played myself) have nailed the ability to create exciting and highly interactive level design. As the game is built with powerful chemistry that bonds characters, narrative and environments you genuinely feel like you are a part of an interactive movie. Its Indiana-Jones style treasure chasing story lets you embark on many different environments across the planet, from ancient temples in deep unexplored jungles to snowy ice caves that contain ancient ruins and artefacts. The main character (Drake) is able to climb, crawl and jump over almost any obstacle with his acrobatic skills, although this isn’t very realistic it’s the line video games can successfully cross to present an idea that is realistic but of course, still a video game. Although if you do slip or fall by not pressing a button quickly enough you will fall to your death, so it’s not all bad. 

Stylisation in designing environments is important because if you go for a 100% realism look, you can lose the sense of a fun or interesting setting without tons of detail or highly referenced of something that’s from the real world. For example, Mario 64 was one of the first platform games I had ever played, the difficulty with this was to turn the 2D scrolling Mario we were all familiar with into an actual 3D space and I think they achieved it very successfully. Infact, Nintendo have the tendency to develop solid games that thrive in environments you could only compare to what you would assume a child’s dream looks like. With stylisation comes individuality so it’s never a bad idea to develop games off themes that don’t necessarily fit into a believable world but this is where it gets slightly strange. If you claim to have ‘realistic environments’ such as Call of Duty or Crysis but then fail to communicate that back to your audience then it’s different from telling the audience straight away, this environment is not real or realistic but in fact it’s stylised. This should never be the basis of any game in my opinion, if you build a whole game around a ‘style’, you have to make sure it offers interactive and captivating game play as well as interesting characters and narratives.

For me, the environment has to be aesthetically pleasing no matter what genre or setting it is. If it is boring or repetitive I will find myself losing interest very quickly which will lead to disengagement of other factors like story and interaction. Games like Batman Arkham Asylum and the Assassins Creed series have clearly done great research into what they were developing so the outcomes are very unique and interesting levels and due to the attention to aesthetic appeal I find I can easily escape into the game and embrace what it offers.    

Elements of game design, part three: character

Character design, one of the few things that can bring great interest to a narrative or completely destroy it. Taking a quick journey to my past some of the first characters I was hooked on as a kid from cartoons and video games don’t seem to be greatly defined, have an amazing back-story. For example, Ryu from Street Fighter; whilst button bashing my SNES for weeks on end as a kid I knew very little about this character at all, I guess he just ‘seemed cool’. Same goes for Bomberman, this pixelated robot that had a digital screen for a face, but again the way he fit so perfectly in the world he was in it’s just all very cool but hard to explain. Although is that all Character Design is? Cool stuff? I’m not quite sure myself. Another all time favourite character of mine is Goku from the Dragon Ball/Z/GT cartoon that I used to love as a kid, a humorous hero that would pretty much always win in the battle to save earth as this super good guy. 

I think scriptwriters use strong techniques to make their demographics identify with the characters, through humour, morals & values and distinctiveness. Although let’s not forget about the visual importance of communicating the caricature. What I mean is a good design should be instantly recognised within less than 3 seconds, many iconic Disney or video game characters such as Mickey Mouse or Sonic the Hedgehog can be spotted straight from their silhouette. It seems visual design comes first but at the same time you could argue the back-story and/or details about the character is needed to develop the designs in the first place. Although if you are making a Hollywood blockbuster like Fight Club or a in depth sci-fi role playing video game like Mass Effect then your characters need history, dreams, secrets, and motives plus more. It all depends on the game or story you wish to create. Some games have found a very good balance between the depth and visual design of the character for example, Kratos from the God of War series is very unique because he can be easily identified with his battle ready markings/tattoo’s and oversized god like weapons.  SCE Santa Monica Studio have built the character up very uniquely and I think Kratos is a great example of an overall well rounded character. His story is highly significant in the game and isn’t brushed off as something on the side; his back-story has great value towards the narrative and game play. Acting also can play an important role because any fan boy will spot bad acting a mile away so the developers have to make sure the game is on track, I guess this is far more noteworthy when discussing sequels or prequels and I think Hollywood share this with the games industry. 

Genre is a big deal when it comes to character design, for example Call of Duty MW2, a FPS holds little character design, more so online giving only stereotypical players to choose from and very little customisation. Of course such games don’t rely fundamentally on characters because of a little thing called gameplay. Though the details and believability has to always be their otherwise it could take away from the game. It also more difficult to represent multiple characters in the same environment because the focal point has to shift and a equilibrium has to be achieved, you cannot have one intense character with a huge back-story and another that has nothing to go on. For me characters have to bring identity, I don’t enjoy it when games stick to societies stereotypes as it presents inconsistency on the developer’s part.   

Elements of game design, part two: art direction for games

Art direction is something I think as game artists me and every other student on my course are greatly interested in.  The creative process of video games comes across as a very unique environment that branches into other mediums such as film and traditional artistry but again holds an exclusive outcome. Concepts are churned out by the art team following a brief or description that is given through the Art Directors who keep the team on the right path. Artists will typically do tons of work that will never make the final cut, thumbnails and designs that are simply used to push a concept as far as possible may never be seen again once a focal point is chosen.

The role of an Art Director is someone that takes a managerial stance upon the art team, in charge of how the content produced visually communicates to the audience. This involves colour theory, stylisation, environment moods, atmosphere, variations of concepts and it his his/her role to get this out of the team as efficiently as possible. Art Directors will typically keep everything moving so no time is wasted on work that could be irrelevant and it stops the team going through ideas in a circular or looping fashion. During the Wednesday lecture on art direction we were shown a behind the scenes of the film Black Hawk Down to get us thinking in terms of industry and to get an idea on the working process behind films. Ridley Scott being an artist himself has clearly perfected this role of directing his art teams through to exactly what he wants and this becomes more obvious when you watch his films, the attention to detail, heavy referencing and environment set ups merge into a very captivating atmosphere and narrative. This applies directly to games, if the art director does not do a consistent job of housing everything from the early concepts to marketing the finished product then it could be harmful to the later success of the game. 

Looking at what companies want in an art director is actually quite overwhelming. It seems most people that land these jobs have previously worked as artists for a great deal of time or even had previous jobs as art directors; definitely not something you should be aiming for straight out of your degree. This great deal of responsibility has to come from experience, sometimes decades of it. The level of leadership in ensuring stability in content creation is very high and this role holds all responsibility for hitting deadlines, making decisions and networking for the company or project. This means presentation and communication skills have to be highly developed and demanding the best from your team must take confidence as well as belief in the work itself. In other words, if you are lazy or have little personal attachment to making some amazing stuff by pushing the talent of your team to its limits, then you should stick to modelling rocks and bins. 

Having a quick look at Naughtydogs art department section of their website, I browsed the requirements for employing an Art Director and the results are quite overwhelming. Straight off the bat you must ‘fundamental knowledge of art history, art styles, and artistic principles, as well as an intimate knowledge of photography, film and cinematic principles.’ For someone to claim to understand all this has to take some hands on experience, some of the responsibilities include ‘Acting as a bridge between the technical staff and art staff’, ‘Providing technical and aesthetic guidance to artists and programmers throughout the product development process’ and ‘Reviewing work and make informed decisions regarding priorities based on current milestones’. All this takes someone who is able to articulate themselves very confidently, not sure if this would be something I would go for myself but it does seem like a career expanding challenge for any artist. Finally, even though the Art Director does not do much of the artwork here are some of the Requirements and Skills needed, ‘At least 3 years experience as a Lead Artist or Art Director’, ‘Working knowledge of 3DStudioMax, Maya or an equivalent 3D package’ and ‘At least one published game holding the role of Lead Artist or Art Director’. I knew it!! This role clearly is one for the experienced ‘been there and done that’ artist who is confident enough to lead a team of talented artists through the content creation process and beyond.       

Elements of game design, part one: from Pong to next-gen

The ultimate factor every video game is centred around is design. This defines a variation of things such as art direction, gameplay, genre, demographics, and platform; although as technology evolves it seems multi-platform gaming has swept the industry. Factors like narrative, artificial intelligence, level design and player motivations are also specific elements that are born through the design process. When comparing the games of the past that are thought as classics such as Tetris, Pong and Centipede to console classics like Street Fighter, Sonic and Mario 64 you can clearly see very different games utilising various technology, at least on the surface. However on closer inspection you can see that each one has a scoring system, rewarding system and a means of punishing the player. You can identify these attributes throughout almost any video game regardless of its time period, genre, platform or technology. I believe getting the mechanics behind a scoring, rewarding and punishing system is most important as it defines difficulty and general interest for example, if a game is too difficult and does not gratify the player it is normal to reject the game. On the contrary if a game is too easy and smothers the player with rewards it is also rejected. 

Gameplay also plays a prominent aspect of a successful game especially as whole worlds are created through the art direction process, to ensure a competitively engaging environment the game must articulate itself very effectively. Considering genre, it is very important for anything that explores content such as a level or open world to communicate the environment very fluently. Giving freedom to the player is key to explore and engage themselves in the content without feeling too forced to do so. The solidity of interaction between the player and the game should also be high priority for example; challenges that need to be overcome should not be too repetitive. The very popular MMO called World of Warcraft presents this quite well. Though the game has a huge fanbase it is known that the quests in the game become very tedious early on whilst playing solo and the game holds itself together with various instance runs with other players (player versus environment) alongside PvP (player versus player). However after playing the game for a decent period of time you find yourself in a never ending grind fest that is time consuming and tiresome. Furthermore, the narrative is a very dominant factor when keeping players interested; this is far more important in games that are not centred on multiplayer or online modes such as Batman Arkham Asylum and the Uncharted series. Both games provide very in-depth and thought out story that connects the player into a web of unsolved problems, providing new rewards, unpredictable twists and gratifying outcomes. On this level video games can be easily compared to movies because storyboarding, scripting and acting are found in both media.

Personally I think game design highly significant because it is the basis of any good game, a kind of life force that allows for innovative gameplay, original story and believability that take the player on a unique journey. For me a game has to be captivating enough to allow escapism to occur because you know a game is not doing its job if you become bored or not interested. In an industry that churns out project after project that is repetitive, temporary or a direct clone of something else it is difficult to produce something that stands out. I think a well all rounded game that is approaching release is Guild Wars 2, though I have not played its prequel I hear there is no direct connection between the two and beta versions show a well all round MMO that could bring new ideas to the well known genre. 

Game Review #2 - Gran Turismo 5

Gran Turismo 5 has to be for me, one of the best driving simulation games I have ever played. I must say its graphics are very attractive and its variety of car selection outmatches any other driving simulator out there. It encompasses Rally, Endurance/F1, NASCAR, Karting, and so many other unique events for car specifics making the player experience tons of different vehicles before anywhere near completing all the challenges. The series ‘Gran Turismo’ is something I came across on PS2 with GT3, and of course GT4 and fan boy’s were going crazy as it took Polyphony some six years to release GT5 on the PS3, delaying release date after release date. 

It had been a long time coming and I must say it was more than worth the wait. This game is huge in variations with over 1000 cars to choose, 26 different locations and 71 different track layouts. It segregates the cars from ‘standard’ (used cars you can either win from racing or buy from the used car lot) and ‘premium cars’ (brand new cars you must purchase from dealers but can also be won in certain races). It focuses primarily on simulation so driving is very realistic. Alongside this the game also contains driving assists such as a driving line, traction control, ABS, active steering and a new feature called ‘skid force recovery’ which helps you keep control in corners at high speeds. However as a veteran you get the most fun out of the game turning all these off and throwing it into manual. 

You find early on how much content this game has been rammed with as it requires long installation times, and even gives an option for further data installation to speed up the loading time of the races. With its variety in car selection you find yourself building a very personal garage as you progress through the game, GT5 is a game where you can win races with the cars you enjoy driving and the game mechanics try hard to give you that individuality. Two main modes grasp the player, A-spec races where you do all the racing, and B-spec; where you train a driver to level up and race whilst you watch, some could say ‘what’s the point’ but you still get money (credits) so why not?? It can be quite boring pressing a button every 30 seconds as this driver races in a robotic fashion, the same races you do yourself early on so the cars are shared between you. This I thought was a not so strong factor because it just becomes déjà vu. 

Another big question with this game was ‘will it have damage’. None of the prequels have this so with games such as Grid and the Dirt series both with strong damage mechanics the pressure was always on. GT5 has not embodied this system like the other driving games out there, you can have scratches and dents to your car but it’s very basic and hardly impressive. I think the goal was to produce the best driving simulator, which I think they have achieved so damage was not the focus from the start. Another thing you realise about GT5 is that it’s like a suited up new next gen version of the prequels, so nothing really ‘new’ catches your eye if you have been playing it since the first one. That being said things like the online system also have their pros and con’s, for example there are no filters so you’re racing any car your opponents want to choose. Cars are something I will always enjoy so this is definitely my type of game, its realistic, has tons of different cars to drive, and endless challenges where the A.I is not forgiving. Overall for a racing game I think Gran Turismo 5 is one of the best, the fact it is PS3 exclusive is also a bonus and this is why it is probably overloaded with content.