Monday, December 24, 2007

My Work: CMC Ad Web Video

This gives me an excuse to try out uploading videos to the blog. Here's the ads in their squint-o-vision glory (links to HD video and soundtrack downloads are in the previous post).

Edit: I started using Vimeo, so now you can click on the links below the ad to watch it streamed in HD from their web site. Enjoy!

>> Watch this video streamed in HD (720p)

>> Watch this video streamed in HD (720p)

Friday, December 21, 2007

My Work: CMC Ad Process

Here are the links to the Computer Medical Center Ad we just finished.

CMC Ad 1: 720p, MP4/H264/AAC, 23.8 MB
CMC Ad 2: 720p, MP4/H264/AAC, 24.3 MB
Music Track: MP3, 192kbit
Music Track: OGG, 192kbit

All content is copyrighted by Computer Medical Center.

Studio: Lumaglyph
Creative Director and Designer: Glen Moyes
Storyboard Artist: Shaun Williams
Animation: Adam Weber, Glen Moyes
Photography: Meggan Hayes
Music: Glen Moyes (composition and engineering), Aaron Pike (composition), Shane Hunt (guitar)

Design Process
The goal for the TV spot was to create an ad on a tight budget that didn't look local. The ad is going to be shown in movie theaters locally and on cable TV, so we wanted to create an ad that is entertaining, communicates what Computer Medical Center does and sets it apart from the competition. The game piece concept worked very well to achieve this, and all within budget.

For the second half of the ad, we decided to use photography in motion as opposed to video footage because of the cost and visual quality. The photography actually wasn't taken inside of a studio; it was at their Rexburg location. With photography it's easier to create studio quality imagery; removing a doorway here, changing the lighting there, as well as touching up other imperfections. For example, the final photo with the woman holding her laptop was taken outside while it was snowing. I used Photoshop to clean it up so it looked like a studio shot.

Production Process
We used Blender for the game pieces and After Effects for compositing and motion graphics. Each 3D shot was actually rendered in 3-5 layers. We used Photoshop's batch processing to add a thicker outline around the characters for the close up shots.

Rendering in passes let us make a lot of last minute changes to each shot. For example, the greedy character in the second ad was actually painted white, and had a orange background. There wasn't enough of a distinct connection between the character as he appeared in the first scene and the last, so we made the background black, painted him gold, added sparkles, and gave him a gold tooth all within After Effects.

The music was created using Cubasis for MIDI sequencing, Cool Edit Pro 2 for everything else, my Alesis QS6 as the instruments and Shane Hunt's mad electric guitar skills. The quality of the music was actually one of the big concerns that the client had, and it was one of my concerns because it's been so long since I've composed music, and never in this style (if you listen to my old music it's mostly electronica). We hired Aaron Pike to assist us in the composition process, which really helped us create a score with the right feel for the ad.

All of the sound effects are original. The explosion sound was actually me blowing into the mic. The computer crashing sound was created with real computer parts being dropped down onto a piece of leftover plywood from the Touch the Table project. If you listen closely, you can actually hear the tapping of the characters as they walk by. The tapping sound was created by using the same rotary lead pointer that we used a prop to illustrate how the characters would walk.

This was our first completed animation project as a studio, so we learned quite a bit about working with Blender.

The part of production that took the most time was the animation. We spent a lot of time making sure that the walk cycles were perfect. It did take us some time to get used to the walk cycle tools in Blender, but we eventually got it down.

We also learned some interesting things about using Blender in a collaborative environment. Linking always seemed to be an issue (typically user error by me), especially with the sequence editor where none of the links are relative. Fortunately I was the only one working on the compositing so that wouldn't have been an issue, but I decided to use After Effects for that task anyway because compositing was more direct. Note to Blender Foundation: make all links relative by default; that will solve a lot of problems. Also, being able to control the thickness of the lines in edge rendering would have been helpful. In 720p those lines are really thin, but we used Photoshop's batch processing to fix that.

Despite those small things, Blender was more than sufficient for this project, and we were able to render the entire ad very quickly on just one computer.

The music was actually my favorite part of the whole project. This was the first time I've used Cubasis as part of my process and had an electric guitar in my music, which I've always wanted to do. The final music is fantastic. That gave us a lot of confidence in our ability to produce soundtracks in the future. It made me remember what I liked about music in the first place, so I'm definitely going to pick up music composition as a hobby again.

In short, the ad was very successful, and we can't wait to see it in the theaters and on TV.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The CMC Ad is Finished

It's 1:57 a.m. and I just finished making some last minute changes to the Computer Medical Center ad. The last frame has been rendered; it is finished. The ad is awesome. The visuals are awesome. Even the original soundtrack is awesome.

I'll do a postmortem on the project as well as post links to the ad because it's awesome. But for now I can sleep and life can return to normal—wait, I have to move day after tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cintiq 12WX

I just checked one of my junk mail accounts, and received a pleasant announcement from Wacom. They just released something called the Cintiq 12WX. It's a smaller, and much cheaper model of in the Cintiq family.

Now, it's been my illustrator fantasy to own a Cintiq, or at least be able to play with one. Fortunately at Siggraph 2007 I got that opportunity.

The Cintiq 21UX I played around with was a US$2499 piece of equipment. That's a lot of value for the bastard child of an LCD screen and a tablet to live up to. After I used it for about an hour, it almost lived up to my expectations. Yes, drawing with it is much easier, is way more natural, and the pen tilt is easier to visualize (which is really handy because I use a lot of calligraphy brushes).

However, I'm not used to having my arm cover the image I'm working on. This makes right-clicking unusual at first because the menu appears directly underneath your hand. Also, when I'm using something that resembles pen and paper, I'm expecting the ink to come directly from the stylus. If you calibrate your screen and never move your head (or the Cintiq), then that's not a problem. But you always move your head and tilt the Cintiq, so registration always seems a little off. Adding small details was a bit trickier with the Cintiq, as opposed to using my tablet, because of registration problems and my hand covering the image. After a while I learned to look at the cursor instead of the tip of the stylus, and that helped. The latency is also more apparent. There would be times where the stylus tip would be an inch ahead of the Photoshop brush. But that was only when I was drawing quickly.

Everything I just listed are all very minor problems that I quickly got adjusted to. Comparing the adjustments that I had to make when I first started using the Wacom tablets, I'd say it would be worth the US$2499, and especially the Cintiq 20WXSX at US$1999, provided that you could afford it. But those are not the only problems and they are not as trivial.

The Cintiq is huge! Even rotating the thing, which is really nice to be able to do when you are drawing, is difficult. There are two cables that plug into the back (DVI and power) that get in the way if you rotate it at a certain angle. And there isn't much room for a keyboard on the desk. Yes, no room for a keyboard if you want to work comfortably. You could set the Cintiq upright and use it like drawing on an upright monitor, but your arms get tired, and I like having the drawing surface a lower and a closer. It's also way too big to have in your lap comfortably. If I didn't use keyboard shortcuts this wouldn't be a problem, but it is.

So that was my big issue with it; it was too big. Too big for easy rotation and lap comfort, and no room for a keyboard, which I can't work as quickly without.

Then I received the email about this Cintiq 12WX. It's only 4.4 pounds, as thin as the tablets, has a 1280x800 wide screen display, and the tablet/stylus is just as feature-full as the other Cintiqs. The only difference I can tell is that the model number for the stylus is ZP-501ESE. Notice the appended SE. I'm not sure if that's a better or worse model than the ZP-501E that the other Cintiqs have, but it has the same technical specifications.

Because of the size, it doesn't have the same problems I had with the 21UX. To top it off, it's only $999.

The only foreseeable downside with the 12WX is also the size. Not because it's too big, but--as the same suggests--it's a 12" screen. That puts it at the size of the Intuos3 6x11. Basically I'd be upgrading my current Intuos2 6x8 to a Cintiq 6x11. A difference of $700. This is the part where I ask myself if it's worth it.

So just before I finish proofreading this blog post and go to bed, I pick up my Intous2, put it in my lap, and imagine that I'm drawing on a tablet that's 3 inches wider and has a screen that I can draw directly onto. My hand sits comfortable on the home row of the keyboard, performing shortcuts with ease. Then I realize that I could totally move this thing over to my drafting table and start using it. Or, I could even lay down in bed and draw ideas out as if it was a sketch book. I wouldn't even need a book light. Hey, this thing could totally fit in my backpack too.

$999 isn't so bad.

Update: When we went to SIGGRAPH 2008 we spoke with the guys at the Wacom booth regarding the problem with cables getting in the way and not having enough desk space, he said that many artists attach their Cintiq to a desk mount arm. He recommended the Ergotron brand. I know someone who now owns a Cintiq 12WX and a desk mount arm and he loves it.

Blender's Fur Simulation

Wow. The Peach Project has done some amazing work adding features to Blender in just about every area: Python constraints, mesh deform modifiers, and fur simulation.

This morning before I went to the gym, Adam (our lead Blender guy) showed me an SVN build he compiled that had the new hair/fur rendering and grooming features in Blender. The grooming features were pretty cool, but I was most impressed over sheer speed that the hair strands were rendered.

Later this morning I checked the Peach blog and they showed their work-in-progress of the new hair simulation for their characters. I was floored. This is Pixar quality stuff!

This image is a screenshot from a test video (OGG Theora) they put together showing the character in motion with the fur simulation. The Peach team reported that Blender can now "render 2 million hairs in HD resolution in about one minute." Gamera, the chinchilla character shown in the image, has 1.5 million hairs.

I can't wait to get my hands on this newest version of Blender. Hats off to the Peach developers. Read the rest of their blog post for more information.

Friday, December 7, 2007

"Design Reboot"

This came out on November 29, and it's one of the best lectures on game design I've listened to. It's called "Design Reboot" and it was given by Jonathan Blow at the Montreal International Game Summit 2007. If you go to the page on his blog about the lecture, there's a link to the Zip file that contains the MP3 and the PowerPoint presentation.

He talks about what games really are, what they can teach you, why game designers lack discernment, and architecting vs. exploring in game design. I highly recommend this talk because it's a surprisingly truthful analysis of game design. Jonathan said everything that I've been wanting to tell the industry over the past 6 months, was in a position to do so, and told me some things that I didn't know.

I'll do a summary of his talk and interject a few things of my own towards the end of this very long post, but first I should start this out with some of research I've been gathering on the subject prior to when Jonathan's talk was given.

I've been doing a lot of research on game design over the past year. Recently I've been very careful about my sources of research once I realized how many lectures at GDC and similar conferences are simply the ego strokings of the developers; no fundamental principles or laws of game design, just a bunch of, "Here are some of the cool design decisions that made our game so very successful." Unfortunately, they often don't explain their reasoning for those design decisions, just that it was cool and it worked. No theory. No teaching. Just showing off.

Even when the lecturer is trying their best to teach actual principles of game design, it's usually just a regurgitated list of game mechanics from previous games that have worked in the past and have proven to be fun. I believe this is largely due to how young the medium is. We really don't know what games are capable of yet, much like the film makers in the first 30 years of motion pictures when cinematography was barely in it's infancy.

However, I know that video games are going to turn into something significant to our culture in the same way other media have before it. So what are video games really and what are they capable of?

From my own personal observations, I've learned this: games are instructional design.

While working with the Academic Technology department I studied instructional design as part of my job, and one day it dawned on me that video games are in fact instructional design. A good game teaches you a series of tasks that you'll need to be good at in order to beat the boss at the end of the dungeon (look at the Zelda series for very obvious examples of this). It's surprisingly similar to the instructional design process of organizing complex tasks into simple tasks and then teaching those tasks with some kind of reward system to encourage the learner.

The great thing about games is that they are surprisingly good at doing this, and you don't even realize that you are learning something. All you know is that you are being challenged and entertained.

Playing games like Dance Dance Revolution and Trauma Center (all very non-conventional video games), and seeing how fun and easy it was to convince myself to put the time into being good at them, I can't help but wonder if the skills that I learned could actually transfer over to more constructive areas. What if Dance Dance Revolution actually had dance patterns that resembled swing? What if Trauma Center taught first aid? Sure, I can defeat all 8 strains of the GUILT virus, but all that game has done for me is made me really really good at the pointing portions of most Wii games (it's an ongoing joke with my friends that my prowess with the Wii Remote is because of all those "surgery games" I've been playing).

And then you have games like Guitar Hero. What if by playing that game you could actually get better at playing a real guitar?

Because games are instructional design, what are we teaching people, either consciously or subconsciously? If you think about how literature entertains as well as teaches us some kind of truth about the world we live in, what can video games, a wonderfully interactive medium, do for humanity if used it in much the same way?

Valve's Cabal Process
I was really impressed with Half-Life 2. After playing every single game in the Orange Box this past October, I was stunned that every single new game that Valve put in there was golden. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 was amazing, Team Fortress 2 is hilariously fun to play, and Portal was just--wow, the best game I've played in a long time. The dialog was witty and funny, the puzzles were mind-bending and very rewarding, and I learned that "the cake is a lie." Seriously, you need to play that game if you haven't already (it's only $20 on Steam).

How did Valve manage to pull off a hat-trick of stunningly innovative games?

I was determined to reverse engineer Valve's design process. I played through the developer commentary, took notes, read their articles, and actually bought the audio recording of "Valve's Design Process for Creating Half-Life 2," given at GDC 2006, where I learned a lot more about this thing called the Cabal Process.

What was interesting is that myself and a few others are working on starting an design and entertainment studio that is run more like a graphic design studio (as opposed to a production studio), which stimulates cross pollination of creative ideas amongst different trades of design. This was patterned after IDEO's methods, but applied to entertainment in addition to design. IDEO uses small teams comprising of one person from each discipline. Usually that means there's a graphic designer, an engineer, a psychologist or interaction designer, fine artist, architect, or whatever else the projects requires.

I didn't know this until recently, but what Valve refers to as the Cabal Process is exactly what I just described. That's why their games are so good. Now, depending on the size of the project, they'll have three of these agile teams working on the same game.

In addition to this, they also prototype and play test the game with outsiders during the entire process, not just alpha stage at the end. According to Valve, the problem with making fun games is that you don't know if a concept is actually going to be fun or not until you've prototype it and tested it. Play testing helps the game designers see how people are going to play their game and spot problems early. It also helps them decide which problems are the most important, and prevent heated discussions about which idea is the best due to personal preference, because the play testing as already verified what idea works better with real people playing it.

Compare that kind of process to that of colossal production studios, and you'll see the difference in both the kinds of work created and the quality.

Valve uses an engineering approach to game design: "Define your goals and constraints, come up with an idea of how to meet them, perform an experiment to test the idea, evaluate the quality of the experiment, evaluate the quality of the idea, evaluate the quality of your goals, repeat." The way they quantify the quality of their product, in this case the video game, is on the reaction of their play testers. They said that the game is ready when the play testing sessions are not painful to watch.

When I realized that Valve ran like a design studio by using the Cabal Process and had the production philosophy of an engineering firm, a lot of what they do makes sense. Half-Life 2 was really well done, but it was just a shooter. It wasn't until Valve hired a new team of graduates to work on the spiritual successor of their student project Narbacular Drop, that another truly innovative gave came out of Valve. Portal.

So, Valve has a great method for making games, in particular the gameplay aspects of it. So, what do they know about the principles and elements of gameplay that the rest of us don't? Honestly, I haven't found much about that in my research with Valve.

Listening to their talks and their audio commentaries, it seems that any design principle they have for visual design, writing, and interactive design are taken directly from their respective fields.

However, for level design they use terms such as vistas, gates and arenas to describe areas in each level and their function (this appears to only be useful terms when describing areas in a linear story game, which all Valve games are, even Portal). However, for the interactive parts of the game they don't seem to have any firm understanding of what will make a gameplay mechanic work, or established theories as to why. No one in the industry knows what will be fun in a game if it hasn't already been done before. That is why they test gameplay concepts before adding all the art because they don't know if an idea will be fun or not.

It's very possible that using the engineering process is the only successful way to come up with successful gameplay mechanics. We do have a field called interaction design, which is based mostly on human observation, not so much principles and laws. The whole point of interaction design is to come up with ways to decrease the learning curve of complex devices. Something that does this well we refer to as being intuitive. Interaction designers will talk about things such as visual metaphors, affordance, and human psychology to anticipate how a human will interact with a new object, but it really boils down to testing it to see if it works.

So that might be the answer to gameplay design. You just have to test it out.

Games Are Wish Fulfillment
Another part of the design process that I believe exists in game design is deciding on what type of game you want to make. Tim Schaefer (creator of The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Psychonauts) says that games are wish fulfillment. You want to be able to do things that you can't do in real life. So that seems like a good place to start when coming up with the concept for a game. My favorite games have been the Descent and Freespace series because I'd love to be able to pilot vehicles in zero gravity. That's wish fulfillment.

Tim Schaefer's process is to create a world that you'd love to explore and is interesting enough to spend some good vacation time in, then create the coolest character in that world; that is going to be the person you are going to play. This is really great for world creation and developing interesting characters, but that idea also lends itself well to come up with gameplay ideas that people would be interested in.

Unfortunately, even though Tim Schafer's games are very well written, have a wonderful milieu and great art direction, they often don't play very well. He started out doing adventure games and moved on to platformers like Psychonauts, but his games are just not as playable as Valve's. That's what made Portal so important is because it had the wittiness of a Tim Schafer game with the gameplay polish of a Valve game. Interestingly, the co-writer for Psychonauts actually wrote the dialog for Portal.

That's where a large part of my focus of research has been in; coming up with creative and potentially successful ideas for games. Tim Schafer's lectures on the subject helped me develop a process for coming up with new game ideas--and just about everything else entertainment related--by answering the question, "What do people want to do in real life but can't."

So, at this point I know a lot about how to make games, as least as far as the Cabal Process is concerned, I know how to create interesting worlds and characters, I've come up with a designerly method of coming up with creative game concepts. But what about the elements and principles of game design theory?

Do we have ways to describe that kind of thing, or are we just going to have to experiment with different ideas and test it to see if it's successful? Do we have ways to describe pacing in a game? How about controlling the difficulty curve effectively or even dynamically? What about NPC interaction, effectively telling stories with games (people do have a lot of conflicting theories about this one), visual information hierarchy and why do certain control schemes work better than others?

"Design Reboot"
That's where this talk came in because it helped answer some of my questions. He had a really good explanation as to what a video game actually is:

You are trying to achieve a goal, with some rules governing your actions and the game-world's response.

Games create a meaning of life in a temporary, low-stakes subdomain.
He said that when he started thinking of games in these terms, the medium of video games made more sense. It's a world with it's own set of rules that you can experiment and live in for a while, and has no real affects outside of the game.

But that's what's interesting; it does have an affect outside of the game, like all forms of entertainment do. As you play the game, watch the movie, or read a book, you learn something about those fictional characters and the world they live in: what they've done, how they live, what choices they've make and what they believe in.

Then he talks about what games can provide:
1. Entertainment / Fantasy / Escapism
2. Meaningful Artistic Expression
3. A means of exploring the universe
He expresses his frustration with games in that they focus mostly on the first point: entertainment. There's more to life than entertainment, and he's starving for games that offer more than that.

He then talks about how game designers lack discernment, that they only care about whether a lot of people play their game. They don't care what makes people want to play the game, just so long as people play it because the success of a game these days is measured by how many people buy the game. They do this at the expense of the player's quality of life.

Video games provide scheduled rewards to keep you playing. These include collectibles, unlockables, advancing the story and achievement awards. In MMOs, he says that these rewards are fake. The rewards are lies. In an MMO you work hard to get a better weapon to give you an advantage over the monsters you are currently fighting. After you've achieved that edge, they are no longer worth the experience points, and you have to fight stronger monsters that are matched to your current level. You never get an edge. It's like playing Heroin Hero, where all you do is shoot up on simulated heroin and chase a dragon. "Catch me! Common. This way! Shoot up more, then you can catch me." But you never catch the dragon, you just keep on chasing it.

Funny allusions aside, this is exactly what MMOs are like. The reward system is a trick to get you hooked on the game, chasing a reward that you can never catch.

Jonathan then makes the challenge that if you removed all of those scheduled rewards, would people still want to play your game? In the case of current-generation MMOs, I don't think anyone would.

What I found interesting is that releasing games for Xbox LIVE encourages the use of achievements, collectibles, and unlockables. Also, you sometimes have to pay additional money to unlock certain things in the game through the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. When I first watched the Microsoft keynote address at E3 about the Xbox LIVE Marketplace a few years ago, I actually felt sick because I knew what the goal was. Making micropayments to get additional content for a game isn't designed to improve the quality of a gamer's life.

He categorizing game rewards into two categories: food (naturally beneficial) and drugs (artificial stumuli), he says that game designers focus too much on using drugs in their game designs because they don't understand food. What rewards can we get that are naturally beneficial? Remember my comments earlier about Dance Dance Revolution and Trauma Center?

He later uses Portal as a good example for natural rewards, quoting Manveer Heir:
The brilliance in Portal lies not only in its simplicity (and excellent humor),
but also in the moments of realization when you figure out a puzzle.

No puzzle stumped me for more than five minutes in that game,
yet I went from being completely dumbfounded one moment
to feeling like a genius the next, as I realized what I was supposed to do.
One of my favorite parts of his talk is when he takes a jab at World of Warcraft. The rewards are fake in World of Warcraft as well.

He didn't discuss this, but it's part of my personal experience with the game that the gameplay changes the longer you play it. The focus of the game slowly changes from being a casual game of exploration and quest completion, to having to join a guild in order to progress in the game. Once you have joined an active guild the game has begun to be a commitment. Now you have to be sure that you are playing at 7pm every Tuesday and Thursday night so you can be present at scheduled raids with your guildmates.

What does Jonathan say World of Warcraft teaches people?
You are a schlub who has nothing better to do than sit around performing repetitive, mindless actions.

Skill and shrewdness do not count for much; what matters is how much time you sink in.

You don't need to do anything exceptional, because to feel good you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.
That's what frustrated me about World of Warcraft. I was getting killed by players who only had an edge over me because they had played the game more and had less of a life than I did. I played it because I liked the exploration, but the game wasn't about that anymore after level 30. At that point the game was about survival. All of the quests at that point are in contested territory, and the opposing faction on that server, played by real people, can kill you at any time without notice or consent to a duel.

At level 36 I stopped playing. When I canceled my account they asked why I decided to cancel my subscription. I had no doubt that it was so they could find ways to keep people hooked. So I wrote, "The game is just no substitute for real life." What I really meant to say was, "The Alliance is constantly ganking me because their faction outnumbers us 3 to 1, and they have nothing else better to do an level 60. Give the Horde some hot races so those testosterone-poisoned teenagers can run around in their Horde panties. Then they'll play on our side and I'll have a chance of survival after level 30."

Well, they took my advice.

Jonathan then talks about architecting the game design as opposed to exploration it. He uses Bioshock as an example of poorly-architeched design. The designers wanted to give the player moral choice so they implemented a mechanic where you can kill--sorry, harvest--Little Sisters to obtain a mutagen that gives you special abilities in the game. You can either be merciful or obtain power to give you an edge in the game.

However, since they believed that First Person Shooters need to be well-balanced, no matter what your choices are, the game still has a steady difficulty curve. That idea conflicted with the moral choice in the game. It didn't really matter what you did in the game universe. The moral dilemma of altruism over power was fake. In addition, the game still encouraged you to shoot anything that moved without warning, including the Big Daddies (the Little Sisters protectors who are actually the most caring and protective characters in the game).

He says Bioshock is a weird game and can't be used an example to the rest of the world of teaching moral choice in games. The designers were trying to manipulate your feelings in a very clumsy way.

Comparing Bioshock to Portal, where the development of the game was explorational using the Cabal Process, there's a big difference in the designers decision in Portal to include the same themes in the game.

In Portal, there's this stage where you have to carry a metal crate with you to deflect plasma balls, activate switches, and step on to reach high places. You had to carry it with you throughout the entire stage. In play testing, they realized that players had a certain fondness for the crate, which I'll remind you is an inanimate object, asking of they really had to leave their crate behind.

So, they decided to play on that idea. With a little bit of supplemental architecting, they painted a heart on the crate, had the AI computer that is putting you through all of these puzzles call it the "Weighted Companion Cube," and at the end of the stage the AI then makes the player "euthanize" their Weighted Companion Cube (dumping it into an incinerator) in order to continue on to the next stage.

At the end of the game the AI accuses you of murdering the Weighted Companion Cube, your best friend.

Similar theme, but the choice to include it was done by exploration, being a careful observer to what their playtesters were experiencing, and accentuating it. The focus of the game was to solve portal-based puzzles, but noticing an opportunity and then adding that theme using cleverly written dialog and a little texture work made the game better, and in turn made the Weighted Companion Cube an Internet phenomenon.

Jonathan continues with architecture vs. exploration, and what he refers to as listening skills. "It's hard to listen if you are shouting all the time," he says. Architected games, where you are imposing your original vision of the game on the gameplay design process, means you are shouting. You need to be able to listen. Try out new ideas, pay attention to how people play your game, and let the design of the game evolve. Most modern big-budget games are architected. They have the concept art, the story and the gameplay figured out well in advance. That doesn't give you many opportunities to explore.

Anything Else?
That's about it for now. I'm going to encourage people to write comments about this article, so please leave yours.

I've been keeping lots of notes on this topic, and I didn't cover all of it here. Although writing about it has been very therapeutic, so I'll write more on it later.

Also, if you listen to Jonathan Blow's talk he mentions two books on games-as-teaching called "A Theory of Fun for Game Design," and "Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames." I haven't read those books, but I might at some point.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

I Need More Free Time

Speaking of video games, This is proof that I need more free time.

This is entirely due to a television ad that I'm working on. The visuals should be done tomorrow and I'll get the audio done a couple of days after that. It's been neat taking part in the entire process of creating an ad, and being able to see a design project of this magnitude from beginning to end. I've had a lot of help from the rest of us in our little 5-man studio: critiquing, concept art, and animation (lots of animation). I'll likely post the ad up here when it's done.

I wish that's all I had to do before Christmas, but I have to move and job hunt too. Oh well. Until then, I miss you Team Fortress 2.

Here's the link to my Steam profile so you can see what dirty rotten games I've been playing and for how long. There's also a picture of a scary possessed evil satanic squirrel there too (the spawn of a graphic designer when he did have too much time on his hands). So that's reason enough to go check it out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gerstmanngate: GameSpot's Side of the Story

Update: Here's a great article on 1UP called "GameSpot's Sad State of Affairs" that covers the history and the repercussions of the firing of Jeff Gerstmann, former Editorial Director of GameSpot.

The gaming community has assumed for a while that big video game publishers pay game journalists for positive coverage, hyped articles, and skewed reviews. Of course, we've had no proof of this kind of activity--up until November 28, which has now been called Gerstmanngate. Since then there's been a huge uproar in the gaming community, a flood of conspiracy theories and gamers have even been organizing GameSpot and Eidos boycotts. It wasn't until today that GameSpot finally released their official explanation about the firing of Jeff Gerstmann after an unfavorable review of a game that GameSpot received large sums of money to advertise.

When I say "advertised," I mean that the entire site was skinned so that it was a giant site-wide ad, paid for by Eidos Interactive, to promote their new game Kane & Lynch (PEGI 18+, ESRB-M). Jeff Gerstmann gave the game a 6/10 and a harsh video review. The next day the video was taken down. About 2 weeks later, while the site still had the Kane & Lynch skin, Gerstmann was fired.

The official statement and FAQ is part of the GameSpot article called Spot On: GameSpot on Gerstmann.

From the statement, "the video was taken down due to concerns of quality. Specifically, its audio was deemed inferior due to a faulty microphone."

After checking a few of the other video reviews on GameSpot, that claim checks out. The audio is pretty bad. So there's a point for GameSpot. Also, apparently the video footage from the game was only from the first level, so that's another reason why it got taken down.

As for why the written review was edited after it was made public on the site, "Jeff's supervisors and select members of the edit team felt the review's negativity did not match its 'fair' 6.0 rating. The copy was adjusted several days after its publication so that it better meshed with its score, which remained unchanged."

A 6/10 is "fair", one step above a 5 which is "mediocre", and the review I read was a bash fest. However, that's what 6/10 games usually get. Modifying his review so that it "better meshed with its score" didn't make a lot of sense. The written review seemed spot on.

GameSpot did confirm that Eidos was unhappy with the review, but followed up by saying publishers are unhappy all the time about game reviews, and there's nothing unusual about that. GameSpot also said that Eidos had absolutely nothing to do with him being fired.

So, what do I think about all this? Is there really a conspiracy? Did Jeff stand up for game reviewing ethics?

Seeing the gaming community put Jeff on the hero pedestal and knowing what I know about his reviews, I think the gaming community is giving Jeff too much credit. I don't know if sites like IGN and GameSpot tell their reviewers to "praise Game X or else," because we certainly would have heard about it; there's just too many game journalists out there. Although, I do believe there is an invisible influence. I have seen plenty of games that have been overrated. I can tell that some of those are overrated because of personal preference, for example IGN's Halo 2 rating of 9.8.

Game reviewers know how much power their reviews have on people's buying decisions, and what the backlash of fans will be if the reviewer rates their favorite game lower that they believe it deserved. I've heard game reviewers say that it's better to overrate a game than underrate it, and they do practice that. They really don't want to give a game, especially a hyped game that's actually good, anything lower than superb rating for that reason.

And then you have people like Jeff Gerstmann who is very open about the faults of a game and holds no reservations for rating it poorly if he feels the need to. So despite the huge amounts of hype and advertising over Kane & Lynch, he went ahead and rated it poorly because it was a poor game. And, according to his coworkers at GameSpot, he says bad things about games all the time. The Kane & Lynch review was no different.

The big problem is that the circumstances of his firing were totally wrong, and it was handled poorly. It was a perfect storm of terrible coincidences: the massive Kane & Lynch advertising, the video review being taken down, the written review being edited, and after Jeff's firing GameSpot had to keep quiet for legal reasons amidst all the conspiracy theories that where being reinforced--and in most people's eyes completely validated--by GameSpot's actions. The whole thing exploded and GameSpot and Eidos were seen as the villainous corporations trying to manipulate video game journalism as part of their mass marketing campaign.

I do still believe that video game publishers have a significant influence over game ratings and gaming news, because they know how the system works and they play the system really well. They work closely with companies like IGN and GameSpot to give them exclusive coverage on their next releases. And with that relationship they can influence the public view of their products.

Being a graphic designer I know that advertising works; that's why there's so much money in it. I also know that positive news coverage is better than any ad campaign. They know how the system works, they use the system, and it has an affect on gaming journalism. How GameSpot handled Jeff's departure created a lot of bad press for themselves as well as Eidos, so it'll be interesting to see how that is going to affect their business relationship, as well as the rest of the publishers in the industry. One thing's for sure, they are going to be a lot more careful about how and when they fire their employees.

Edit: There's a really good commentary on the incident over at Level Up on the Newsweek site about the Fundamental Contempt In Which the Enthusiast Press Is Held By Publishers.

Also, Joystiq has a comparison of the original and the edited article. Certainly an interesting read.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Camtasia 3 for Free (Official TechSmith Promotion)

I've been making video tutorials for Blender since August 2004, and in those years I've found TechSmith's Camtasia Studio to be the best solution, simply because of the quality of the TechSmith Capture Codec (TSCC). The other alternative is CamStudio, an open source app that works really well, but the CamStudio Codec is not as fast as TSCC. On my new system I get 22 fps with CamStudio in a 1024x576 region, whereas with TSCC I can get a solid 30 fps, and it's easier to get the audio and video to sync up properly.

After using their 30-day trial, experiencing the performance boost was enough to convince myself to buy Camtasia Studio, until I realized it cost US$300.

To my joy, I read today that TechSmith is doing a promotion where you can download their old Camtasia 3, get a software key for free, and later upgrade to Camtasia 5 for US$150 (this is for a limited time).

Just download the software:

Then fill out the information to get your free software key:

That's it. I've already installed it and it's working great.

So, is it worth it to get a 2-version-old copy of Camtasia? Yes. I just wanted it for the codec, but it does have quite a few useful editing features so I don't have to use VirtualDub anymore.

Unfortunately, I still haven't found a really good solution for Linux that's super easy to set up and works really well. The easiest Linux screencasting program I found was Istanbul, a program that spit out OGG Theora files—in theory anyway; I was using Ubuntu and it would crash every time. I'm not a big fan of Theora anyway, especially after falling in love with h.264. But Theora is patent safe and for that it has merit.

If you want to learn more about screencasting, ShowMeDo has some great resources on their wiki for Windows, Mac, and Linux screencasting tools.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Orson Scott Card at University Forum

Even though I'm not a student at the university anymore and have now reached the status of alumnus, I'll sneak into the art seminars and and university forums if I fell there's going to be a really worthwhile presentation.

A few days ago I was told that Orson Scott Card was going to be speaking at University Forum.

It didn't take much to convince myself and a few of my friends to attend the forum. We all wanted to hear him speak, and two of us—myself included—really wanted to ask him some questions. We've both been working our own large projects for a few years or more and even though we've never published a story or finished a film yet, we're both insistent that when the time comes that our studio has the resources to start production on one of these two projects, that we'll already have the story perfected. Neither of us are formally trained in story telling but we talk about it every day, read a lot on the subject, and discuss movies and shows that do it well (like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has really impressed us recently) and shows that don't (most big-budget films).

For that reason we definitely wanted to hear him speak. We went to the forum yesterday 20 minutes early to get good seats, and he was already answering questions for people in the audience. The forum started at 2:00, and the question and answers session didn't end until around 4:30. During almost 3 hours of listening to him speak we didn't ask a single question; everything we wanted to know he had been answered throughout his talk and in answering other's questions: What do you want changed in the industry? What do you need to do to write believable and interesting characters? What makes a good hero? What is your creative process? And so on.

We walked away feeling very encouraged. Apparently we had the right idea of what stories should be and we were taking ours in the right direction, and that our studio is going in the right direction. He also gave us some great insight into heroism and the intellectual elite of America, which gave me some great stuff to put into my story because the intellectual elite is one of the latter topics of my show.

Now, we are both visual arts people, and if we planned on writing novels we would still have a lot to learn about language, but for building characters and story we were on the right track. We just need to keep doing what we are doing and learn as much as we can.

His 1 hour talk was on what it means and takes to be a hero. What does it take to overcome your will to survive as a creature and sacrifice yourself for the community?

"I write heroes," Card said, "in fact I think that's one of the main functions of fiction is to show us people who's lives are models for what our society needs from people. And it's a tough one to figure out what it is that makes a character both believable and admirable at the same time."

He said that the thing that makes us able to do these courageous things, as opposed to other animals, is that we have language, and therefore are capable of having stories of honor for dieing for your country. We live in a society that has taught us these things, and we believe it as truth. That is why terrorism occurs; courageous people carrying out cowardly attacks. Their society tells them a different story of what will happen if you kill enough of the enemy.

He later talked about being a hero in cases that don't require losing your life, cases where you have to put your reputation or job on the line for truth and ethics. "We do have the story that you act boldly and bravely to do the right thing. We have the idea that the community that you belong to is worth saving from danger." This led into my favorite part of his talk on the intellectual elite, or people who fall into the intellectual trap:

Here's the trap: You're really smart. People who aren't like you are really dumb. [audience laughs] You are better than those people, and the smarter you are the better you are. But secretly you know that you don't actually qualify, so you spend your time pretending to be smarter than you are, and surrounding yourself with people who will accept your smartitude [sic] and treat you as if you were really clever.

That's what we have as America's intellectual elite today.

When I look at the state of science, education, of—well, practically everything—in a world where actual scientific thinking is valued, no one would be talking about global warming. [audience laughs]. It's a non issue. It happens. It doesn't happen. There's global warming. There's global cooling. There's cycles in the history of the earth. It's an uninteresting question until we have more data. But we are not even trying to gather the data. What we have is a lot of people trying to twist the existing data, or shut everyone up in order to believe it. Because if you are an intellectual in America today you believe in global warming and it's really vital that we do something about it.

You also simultaneously believe that homosexuals are homosexuals because of genetic change in them—which is not a bad thing—and which cannot possibly be resisted or altered in any way; the only sexual beings among the human race whose sexuality cannot even be repressed. They alone, can do whatever they want, and they cannot help it. At the same time, women, with the attributes of femininity, are completely socially driven. There is no genetic component in them whatsoever, and if you just change society enough the differences between men and women will be erased.

Those are so obviously intellectually incompatible, that one wonders how anyone capable of speech can believe both at the same time.
He then goes on to talk about how scientists that he knows cannot say anything against global warming because they are still on their tenure track and they don't want to loose their job. "And I have friends who have lost their jobs," he says, "because they did heroically speak up for truth against error. But right now in America if you want to have secure credentials as an intellectual, here's how you get them: parrot what other people say, and never have a thought of your own that questions it. Somehow that's how we define intellectuality in America today."

He says that asking questions is a good thing. We need to be able to ask questions and teach our kids that it's okay to have doubts and that we need to search and find the answers to them. "Errors happen. Mistakes are made. People do it wrong. People make wrong guesses. People believe for many years in incorrect things. But the society that will survive, the community that will last is the one that will be able to embrace the questions, keep asking, keep testing, keep trying and holding fast to that which is good and true."

After his talk he answered questions regarding the Ender's Game movie, how he writes for characters and what questions he asks himself about them and the world they live in, what his creative process is—which was "I don't know," because each idea had it's own process—he gave advice for new writers, films and books that have inspired him, and so on.

There were many other things he said during the Q&A session, and everything we wanted to know was somehow answered or he said things that just reaffirmed what we already believed about story telling. He said he was fed up with the antihero cliché in the arts that has been going on for the past 70 years, and the fact that what people really want are stories about good but believable people doing good things. There will always be a large market for that kind of story, no matter what huge media corporations will say and do to the contrary.

It was interesting having him tell us his bad experiences working with the publishing and movie industries. We were able to get a pretty good idea about what he didn't like about the industry because he was so vocal about it throughout his talk and the Q&A session. He also said that new writers don't need an agent, even though the publishing industry says they do. I got the feeling that he had been burned plenty of times by agents, and how publishing companies will try and do the same dirty things that agents will do (retaining rights to your work, excessive percentages from profits, and so on). He said that you can do just as well (or better) without an agent than with one, with the exception of foreign sales. Realize that you can say no to contracts even if they pressure you and say there is no other choice. He also talked about working with editors and copywriters, and what to expect.

Independence seemed to be important to him, especially when he talked about his concerns about getting the Ender's Game film in production and keeping the movie from being garbage, because when you sign the papers they can do whatever they want with the story, even without you if they don't want to. He asked if anyone in the audience knew someone that has 75 million dollars laying around so they can fund the movie. Again, independence from a big studio is a good thing. We've seen too many good stories get ruined and good shows get axed. Orson Scott Card, as a fellow browncoat, understands that well I'm sure.

It was refreshing to have someone that is so honest about the topics of the intellectual elite, and he expressed how refreshing it was for him to be in a place where he can speak about it and have a positive reaction from the audience.

Listening to him speak really made my day, and gave all of us in our little studio some hope that we are making the right decisions as we move forward to create stories and experiences that people will want to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hooray for Blogs!

I decided to start a personal blog since I haven't updated my site in 18 months, and I won't update it until I launch my new site. I don't know when that will be exactly, but it will be after I design the logo for our new studio, create the web design for it, and then use that template for my new site (my new web site will essentially be what the studio employee pages look like).

This is also going to be a nice place to put my unofficial (read unprofessional) commentary. It's for friends and family, so enjoy.