Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Tuesday, June 28, 2005
 
Original or Licensed IP?
The argument rages on. Original IP (Intellectual Property) or licensed IP? And how much is your IP worth?

Stuart Roch just made an argument that "Original IP doesn't sell." Maybe so, maybe not. But there are some great counterpoints.

Scott Miller has made SEVERAL posts about the value of owning your own IP.

Game Developer magazine this month has an article about licensed versus original IP. Interestingly enough, 34 of the 40 top games of the past decade (1994-2004) were ORIGINAL TITLES. 17 of the top 20 were original titles. GoldenEye 007 was the sole licensed IP to break the top ten.

Warren Spector gave a speech at GDC last year that was somewhat controversial about his desire to crank out licensed games (You can see some post-GDC crossfire between Greg Costikyan and Warren Spector if you hunt a little bit at http://www.costik.com/weblog/2003_03_01_blogchive.html )

Does this apply to indies? Sure thing. We may not be in the position to work with A-list properties, but there are still opportunities. A few months ago Orson Scott Card signed a deal with eGenesis (indies responsible for the MMORPG "A Tale In the Desert) for a game based on his Alvin Maker series. 731 Studios recently obtained the rights to make a computer game based on the cult classic RPG "Macho Women With Guns." When I asked how he scored the license, Mario Bonassin answered, "I asked." Licensing existing IP is about marketing - its a brand that can bring you customers, make you stand out from similar but generic titles, and act as a "seal of approval" from the IP owner on your product. There are some great opportunities out there.

But switching it around - what value is there to being an IP holder? Especially as in indie when your sales are an order of magnitude below what the big boys would consider a flop. Is that even worth anything? There was a point where if someone turned around and offered me $5,000 to buy Void War - code, IP, and all - I'd have only asked where I should sign. Split it up with the team, have a pizza party, and call it good. And while the jury is still out, I think that would have been a terrible decision.

The game was not (and still isn't) a huge moneymaker. But there are a surprising number of opportunities that have come up because my company has successfully completed and sold a title, and because we own the game (and can control the fact that our company name is on it, along with everyone's name in the credits). Not all of these pan out, of course - but I'm floored by how many doors this opened, both for Rampant Games and for some of the indivuduals who worked on this project. Talking with other indies who have released games out there, I discovered I'm hardly unique. Even if you can't fully exploit the possibilities of your properties yourself - there are people out there who CAN, and by retaining those rights you are in a position to work with them, and hopefully make a little more money for everyone involved.

I think part of the reason the game development biz has started sucking so bad lately is that many professional studios undervalue their IP rights (a myth which publishers are oh-so-happy to promote and capitalize on). Likewise, a lot of beginners tend to overestimate the value of their own IP, expecting the world to beat a path to their door because they have some concept art and a blog.

In the last two years, I've had my eyes opened a bit concerning the opportunities that are out there for small, independent studios. No, they aren't easy paths to fame and wealth. It's a lot of hard work that I'm not always certain is worth it. But the potential is there. But a lot of it hinges upon you going out there and making it happen, thinking outside the box, networking with others - and seeing your projects through to completion.

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Saturday, June 25, 2005
 
Serenity Advanced Screening
Thursday night, I had the chance to go see the advanced screening of "Serenity," Joss Whedon's upcoming movie based on the Firefly TV series. The long and short of it is this: I loved it!

I have never been to an advanced screening of a major motion picture before. We got to the theater about 45 minutes before the show was supposed to begin, but by that time the only halfway decent seats were singles. In order to sit together, we had to sit third-row-back and on-the-far-left. The audience was mostly fans or guests. We found ourself sitting next to a group of people who had travelled all the way from Reno, Nevada to watch the showing in Salt Lake. The atmosphere was "charged," I guess is the best way to describe it, as we waited for the movie to begin. People sang the Firefly theme song (Can you GET much geekier? And YES my wife and I joined in! Why not? It was all in good fun). People chatted about Firefly. The folks from Reno explained how they brought friends who'd never seen the show before, who watched on DVD on the way up to see the movie.

We had some studio representatives there, but none of the cast or principle crew. They explained that the film was about 90% complete. It wasn't the final edit, nor were all the special effects done. The music was still mainly stand-in stuff. They finished their explanation, told us they had swag to give out after the film, pointed out a representative from the fan site in the audience who'd be getting interviews from people later, and then sat down.

We were first treated to a five-minute pre-recorded introductory video by Joss Whedon. He introduced the movie with his usual sense of humor. The show was about a group of folks who lost the war but continued to keep the dream alive - the browncoats - and Joss drew the parallels to the real-life story of Firefly and the making of Serenity. He explained how the show was produced by a dedicated group of people who fell in love with the show, and was watched by dedicated fans (roughly the same number of people), and how it really started taking off AFTER it had been cancelled. The sales of the Firefly DVD have been amazing, and that and the fan support has been why this movie was able to be made. "So," he explained, "in a very real way this is YOUR movie. So if it sucks, it's all YOUR fault, and you really let me down!"

He went on to explain why they were doing these advanced screenings. Mainly, it's for publicity. Joss Whedon explained that he's doing his blogging and other stuff to promote the movie, and Universal will of course be doing their thing this year to promote it. But Firefly's success was based on fan support, so he encouraged everyone who enjoyed the movie to tell everyone about it. "If you don't enjoy the movie," he quipped, "then this should be a time of QUIET reflection and SILENT contemplation..."

Anyway - I really hope the intro makes it as a special feature on the DVD of Serenity next year. I commented to my wife that the humorous intro was almost worth the price of admission.

Onto the movie. I won't go into spoilerific details, but I will cover some basics (so cover your eyes now if you want to know NOTHING about the movie at ALL and have even been avoiding the trailer!)

Basically, the movie is a rogue - versus - the - Samurai story. Malcom Reynolds is very much the same character as he was in the TV show - except a little bit more hardened. He's a down-on-his-luck starship captain with a small crew trying to find work on the outer rim of civilized space. He's a former rebel who lost the war against the Alliance, so went to the frontier where the Alliance has only minimal control. He harbors two fugitives of the Alliance - a girl named River who was subject to horrible experimentation by Alliance scientists, and her brother (who spent his entire, considerable fortune rescuing her and becoming an outlaw). Malcom and his crew takes whatever jobs they can to keep their ship flying and keep food on the table - and not all of those jobs are legal. But freedom from the Alliance, and the ability to make one's own way in the universe are far more important to Mal. Even when committing crimes, he goes out of his way to try to prevent innocent people from getting hurt - but ultimately his focus is on his crew (his family) - and nothing comes between him and their well-being.

"The Operative" is an Alliance super-agent, and represents the Alliance ideal. He is fiercely loyal to the government and its professed ideals, freely admitting that his loyalty is blind, because he simply doesn't need to know the reasons why. He is devastatingly competent and ruthless in his exercise of his orders. His greatest dream is to see the Utopia that the Alliance promises - even though he knows that like Moses, he can only lead the people to the promised land, but cannot have a place within it. He knows that the girl - River - possesses Alliance secrets that must remain hidden, and he will stop at nothing to make sure she is forever silenced.

As anyone who watched the TV series knows, River is brilliant, insane, and extremely dangerous as well. And we learn during the movie that she's even more dangerous than she was during the show. (Remember when she slashed Jayne with the knife, or scared Kaylee half to death by killing three men with her eyes closed? "Don't look, don't look!")

The movie seemed to be pretty fast-action, with lots of violence (though not particularly gruesome - there was a lot more implied violence that occurs off-camera: I think they are aiming for a PG-13 rating), chase scenes, and a climactic "last stand" that is reminiscent of Aliens. Malcom and Zoe (his second-in-command) end up going into full-on wartime mode, and Mal finds something else worth sacrificing not only himself, but his entire "family" (crew) for. There's also plenty of trademark Whedon humor --- and Whedon's willingness to take the gloves completely off when dealing punishment onto his characters.

The film needed a bit tighter editing and some polishing of "rough edges", which I hope will be there for the final version. I didn't notice any clearly missing special effects, but there was a bit of "telling" instead of "showing" in the story, which I *hope* will be resolved in the final version with additional footage or special effects. It's mostly just references to things that the characters see but the audience doesn't (or at least can't notice).

A flaw in the movie that probably won't be resolved in the final version: Inarra. I mean, she's beautiful as ever, and she's Mal's greatest foil. She's able to bring out a different aspect of his character. But aside from that, she really doesn' t have much of a purpose in the film. She was mainly there for completeness for the sake of the fans, I guess. We would have complained if she WASN'T in the show. And Joss is definitely playing for the fans. But aside from occasionally exchanging banter with Mal, she doesn't have much to do.

The exposition at the beginning of the film was pretty lame, too. They managed to wrap it into a dramatic scene in a flashback, but it's still about two minutes of exposition explaining how the Firefly / Serenity universe works, and the role of the Alliance. I doubt that will be fixed - that's a tough one.

However, those flaws aside, it was a great movie, and a lot of fun. I'm really looking forward to seeing the final version. Perhaps multiple times. And I really hope this isn't the final voyage of Serenity - while they answer a few of the long-standing questions (like the origin of the Reavers), there are still plenty of plot threads left from the TV series that have yet to be resolved, and plenty of stories about these characters left to tell.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
 
Utah Indie Developer Meet
Last night we had a “Utah Indie Game Developers” get-together. The NinjaBee / Wahoo guys graciously opened up their office (and arcade machines) to us, and we got a chance to meet fellow indies, chat, mingle, and consume mass quantities of pizza and chips.

We had fourteen people show. The night began a little slowly, with everyone going around the room, introducing themselves, what they’d worked on, and their current projects. One interesting thing was how many of the group had experience working in publisher-contract-based game studios prior (or concurrently) to “going indie.” We also had Russell Carroll there, the man behind Game Tunnel (http://www.gametunnel.com/), who knows a lot about indie games, building a web presence, and kicking developer’s butts at the Super Sprint arcade game the Ninjabee guys had in their breakroom.

After the intros, we ended up eating pizza and breaking up informally into smaller groups and discussing current projects, tools, rumors, and ideas. We also spent some time looking over current projects and providing feedback. I had nothing to show this time around --- my current project is only a month old and not very far along due to the day job clobbering me.

One of the coolest things about the night was being able to be in a room with very bright people, and being able to pool the collective knowledge held there a little bit. Beyond that, I was able to pick up a few contacts, put faces to names, get some advice on running an indie game shop successfully, and share thoughts and ideas with people. Inspiration, Motivation, and Education!

Hopefully we’ll do it again soon. Maybe then I’ll have something worth showing to the group :). And maybe I'll remember to bring a camera for pics. Many thanks to Greg Squire for getting the ball rolling on this, NinjaBee for hosting, and Eric Peterson for contributing to the munchables! And to everyone else who showed up for a great time and great conversations!

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005
 
Another evening of development.
Continuation from Monday’s entry… Jay continues his explanation of why he has to take the short bus to Torque School.

Having gotten the female model to sit in the passenger’s side politely, I now need to do the same for the male character. This is much easier – I create a copy of the female character, delete the polygon mesh leaving just the skeleton and animation data, and then import it on top of the male’s polygon mesh. Then I have to muck around with assigning the vertices to the correct bones, and then I’m good to go.

I do a lot of cutting and pasting to get the male character to sit in the car, but it works perfectly on the first try. Except part of his midsection is up around his nose level. It actually looks kinda cool, like Auron’s high-collared coat in Final Fantasy X, but it’s not what I want. I’m getting to be pretty proficient with fixing vertices by now, so it only takes me a couple of minutes to fix them and re-export the model. He looks good enough in the car by now, so now it’s time to get the car to move.

The built-in Torque “Wheeled Vehicle” object already has most of the functionality I want – it’s just waiting for some controls to tell it what to do. Now there’s a couple of different approaches I can take. I can do what Torque did for players and create a subclass of Wheeled Vehicle called an “AIWheeledVehicle.” I actually start down this path, and then stop. I am not actually planning on having many moving cars in this game – just in the cutscenes – and I definitely do not plan on having any human controllable cars. Since my needs are so simple, I decide to simply add some functionality to the existing Vehicle / Wheeled Vehicle classes.

First, I add a function called “GetIsAI()” – it returns a false for base vehicles, and access a new variable for wheeled vehicles called isAI (a Boolean). Next, I need to add a function that calculates the AI move – called creatively enough “GetAIMove”. Then I go into the ProcessTick function, and find the point where it checks for a null move. I add some logic that says if it’s not a client object and GetIsAI() returns true, to get the move from GetAIMove().

I end up adding a couple more variables, initialize all of said variables in an object’s constructor, and create a few Console functions so these can be accessed via TorqueScript. Very simple changes, all told. The get AI Move simply pushes the car forward.



The couple drives down an (oversized) deserted country road at night - eventually.

So I try it. The car immediately flies backwards down the road, crashing into the side of the mountain in the distance, headlight beams cocked at a weird angle.

Three problems:
#1: I’m working on a somewhat smaller scale than the base car datablock from the demo.
#2: This is a cutscene, not interactive gameplay, so the car’s movement appears very fast from a static viewpoint.
#3: The car is starting its movement before the client is actually admitted into the game, so by the time I see it it’s already halfway gone
#4: I uh… cheated. Remember last blog where I said the car was modeled backwards? I never fixed that. It’s still modeled backwards. That’s why it went backwards – relatively speaking, it went forwards.

I make the necessary modifications. Now what happens? The car starts, drives forward at a good clip, then smashes into the man in the white suit who is standing in front of the car down the road. He doesn’t budge, but the car spins off to the side, keeps driving, and goes over the cliff. Ah, the rigid-body physics system!

I find this bug so horribly amusing I have to watch it a few more times before fixing it. Who ever thought the “step on the gas,” “step off the gas” controls for AI could be so entertaining?
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
 
The Glory Days
Heh - seems I'm not the only one musing about the glory days. I got a kick out of Dave Jaffe's blog today:

http://davidjaffe.modblog.com/?show=blogview&blog_id=649693

I didn't get QUITE the level of fame or notoriety. For one thing, I had very little to do with Twisted Metal 2 - I was mostly working on Jet Moto at the time, and I think only my code from the first Twisted Metal made it in. Secondly, I wasn't in a leadership position in any of those games - just one of the team. Thirdly, the fan base that would go gah over the fact I had worked on those games were all 14-year-old boys. If it had been 18-year-old girls, I would have been considerably more appreciative of the attention (though my wife would have been FAR less amused). So while I didn't really bask in limited fame very much, it was fun to see so much attention heaped upon a a creative work I'd had a hand in. Maybe it was like being a cameraman or a bit role in Star Wars ("Dude, I was that guy who warned the rebels over the radio that there were enemy fighters heading their way!".

But it's sad seeing old "classics" getting forgotten - games, movies, rock bands, whatever. When that marketing drive dies down and the hubub is over, people move on to the next new thing. It's the way of things. I'm moving on to the next new things too, though I make an effort not to limit myself - and I try to expose my kids to some of these great old games (and movies, etc) where possible. As they get older they may get rebellious and reject them... But my oldest daughter recently discovered a website that has web-playable (Java applet?) remakes of classic arcade games. She's been having a blast playing these old games, and telling me about them as if I'd never seen them before. I had nothing to do with it.

Fun is still fun. So long as we can keep the channels open for players to discover and enjoy the old classics (and the less-than-classics) , they'll remain a small part of the entertainment landscape, long after they have ceased to be a "current event."

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Monday, June 20, 2005
 
A couple of evenings in the life of a part-time indie. Continued.
So this is kind of a continuation / sequel / update on a couple of previous blog entries. The "new" project is not as new, but it's still very early and experimental. I'm very much in learning mode with Torque and with the content tools.

I'm still playing with Blender, but I'm not using it as a development tool CURRENTLY. It looks like it has all the power I need, but it's still a little over my head. I'm still much faster working with MilkShape + CharacterFX for now.

Anyway - here's a little sample of how my learning progress has gone. I'm not the kind of person who reads up on all the instructions first, understanding exactly what he is to do beforehand and then executing on his plan a step at a time. My methodology is more along the lines of creating a "to do" list of objectives, then diving in with both feet and making mistakes as I go. I just try and be careful so my mistakes don't lead to disaster (I wouldn't do this if I were writing a hard-drive formatting tool or a credit-card processor).

So here's my goal: I am working on a cut-scene. The cut scene has two characters driving in a car at night, stopping in front of a man in a white suit. Dialog ensues, and it ends with a murder. Good stuff. Or at least I hope so. In my mind it kicks serious butt, but something is always lost in translation to screen. Oh well. Maybe when Steven Spielburg turns it all into a movie, it'll be done right. (Sometime after "Tetris: The Movie!" is made, I'm guessing).

Now this is all "rough draft" stuff at this point - I'm not going to pretend ANYTHING that I'm doing right now is final work. But it should be enough to get the ball rolling. I already had the man in the white suit and the car (with the volumetric lights and so on) . Now I have a female and male model, already textured, but I need to put them in the car, and have the car drive forward, stopping at the man in the white suit. And I need to have some level of animation, so they don't look like statically posed Barbie and Ken dolls, and I need to have the camera move, zoom, pan, etc. in a scripted fashion.

I create a skeleton for the girl - I'm starting to get the hang of this. . I’ve been making extensive use of Psionic’s Lowpoly Tutorials (http://www.psionic3d.co.uk/tutorials.html ) - so rather than explain what I’m doing (which is as likely wrong as right) I’ll let him do it. My first attempt at doing a sitting animation for the girl come out really horribly - her arm is bent like it's broken. This is because my vertices aren't attached to the correct bones. I figured that much out all by myself. Another fifteen minutes or so, and while she's not PERFECT, she's not noticeably twisting about like ElastiGirl from The Incredibles, either. So I have one sitting animation frame that looks okay. I copy it and paste it ten frames later. Too few frames, I discover later, but oh, well. Then I copy it to an intermediate frame, make some minor changes to it, and now the animation cycle has the girl fidgeting slightly in her seat. Not perfect, but good enough for my purposes.

I export the file into Torque's format, and create a new datablock for the girl. I create a new instance of a player (not AIPlayer, though it really should be), put it next to the man in the white suit so I can see that it came into the game correctly. This is mostly a cut & paste effort from the Man in the White Suit's datablock. I run it.

It fails. No girl.

A few minutes of debugging leads me to discover that Torque couldn't find the girl's model - it was looking for the right model in the wrong directory. Cut & Paste - the source of so much productivity and so many errors. I clean this up and run again, and now the girl is standing there on the street, arms outstretched. No sitting animation yet. That's fine. Now I need to get her inside the car.

Misunderstanding the documentation and reading a bad example, I try and have the girl position herself in the car's passenger-side mount point. I try this:

%this.Charlotte.mountObject(%this.car,1);

No dice. Nothing happens. More reading of docs and not-so-bad example code, and I realize that the person doesn't mount the car - the car mounts the person inside it. I had it reversed. So I try this:

%this.car.mountObject(%this.Charlotte,1);

Much better. Now she's pretty much standing up on top of the seat in the car, her knees in the middle of the root. Facing backwards. Uh-huh. I modeled the car backwards, I have the mount points too high, and I'm not firing the girl's sitting animation.

I tear at it for most of the night. I get her to sit, lower the mount point, tweak the car a few times, and finally get her to face forward inside the car, right where she should be. Then I realize my scale is slightly off and that the car is a little too big. Changing the car's size is no big deal, but MilkShape doesn't give great controls for changing the joint (bone) positions automagically (if it does, PLEASE let me know!), so it's a little time intensive.

That little experience of adding a skeleton, creating the animation, and getting the girl inside the car facing the right way took a whole evening. If development always proceeded at that speed, I'd be seriously hosed. Fortunately, it speeds up. (To be continued...)
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
 
The never-ending stream of viruses.
If nothing else, virus emails do provide me with some amount of amusement as I see their titles. I keep getting a bunch of emails from various official-sounding RampantGames.com return-to fields that are warning me that my account is about to expire, or has expired, or been terminated because I'd done naughty things on their website. Of course, if any of those official-sounding email addresses even existed, they'd be ME. And the attached documents have been "authenticated by the Rampantgames antivirus check - no viruses found." (Every other virus checker in the known universe sends up BIG hairy warnings, so I guess my company had better stick to doing games instead of virus scanners....)

Man. If only we'd been more paranoid back in the day when the email protocol was standardized.

By the way, if you get any of those emails - we're not sending 'em out, it's not from our server, we have no control over them. And we're not suspending anyone's account. Nobody at Rampant Games is actually the deposed prince of Nigeria in hiding, either. Though if you really DO want to send me a few thousand ANYWAY, I wouldn't say no.
Monday, June 13, 2005
 
Star Wars, Whedon, and Facial Animation
I got to go see Star Wars episode III: Revenge of the Sith again this weekend. That opening sequence still blows me away. If I do a sequel to Void War, I'm going to have big ol' fleet battles going on like that. Those always thrill me, be it the big space battle in Return of the Jedi, or the big fleet battle(s) against the Borg in Star Trek, or Babylon 5's amazingly close-quarters capital ship combat, or the fleet battles in Freespace 2 (with those wonderful ship-killer beam weapons). It's just too cool visually to be a gnat dodging around in the midst of a battle of titans.

Anyway - I decided I really do like the movie. I expected the dialog to grate more the second time, or to have more trouble buying Anakin's descent to the dark side (I did, but I still found it forgiveable). But I still felt it kicked my butt enough stand proudly alongside the original trilogy.

In other news, my wifed managed to score tickets for the single showing of the preview of Joss Whedon's "Serenity" next week! Assuming we can find a babysitter for that late at night, I will be one happy camper. Assuming it does not dissapoint. From the trailer, it looks like it's got a big ol' Giant Fleet Battle in space, too. With the firefly hurtling Millenium Falcon-style amidst other ships. Man, o, man. I hope the movie is good. I know that the special effects and music won't be done for this version, but I'm anxious to see the characters again. I've missed them, and the thirteen - or - so episodes on DVD just wasn't enough time to spend with 'em.

This weekend I got to spend more time on the new game. There will be NO big space-fleet battles in it, I'm afraid. My focus this weekend was on animation - learning the tools, getting them imported into Torque, and calling them from inside Torque. My big focus this week is on facial animation. I'm not going to try and go beyond cartoon-style emoting in this game, but facial animation and having something vaguely resembling lip-synching for the few cutscenes with voice-overs would be nice. (No, I still can't afford union talent for the voice-overs... not that I was one to worry about the game selling over 400,000 units...) I'm basically needing to wire up a head with controls for eyelids (or use texture-swapping to do them wide-open, half-closed, and closed), eyebrow movement, and mouth control. Maybe making the eyes move and dart around a bit. If anyone has a link to some tutorials / articles about how to do good facial animation for real-time games, please let me know.

In my little quest for knowledge I've looked at some professional models from other games. It's amazing to me how good the pros can make a model look with so few polygons. Perfectly created polygons, just exactly the right texturing. Wow. You guys amaze me. We programmers have to work so hard sometimes to make such incremental improvements in the visual quality of our games. The real heroes are the artists (all the guys doing visual content), who can make it all come alive and make it LOOK easy.

Aside from pretending to be an artist, I got to do some programmer stuff, which isn't nearly as sexy. Mainly I'm just scripting in some behaviors, creation and destruction of dynamic objects, linking in the Advanced Camera code, playing around with light behaviors, etc. Nothing much to write home about, and kind of embarassingly little progress for three weeks of development (hey, when you work a fourteen hour day at the day job, it's hard to find time or motivation to get cracking on code when you get home). But it's all little pieces that will hopefully fit together nicely in the near future.
Thursday, June 09, 2005
 
Learning Art
The day job is killing me right now. So game-dev time has been at a premium. Two-and-a-half weeks into development on a new game, and I don’t have much to show for it yet. I’ve managed to create a very small, tight, from-scratch set of scripts for the game (with help from Ken Finney’s book), and bring in the absolutely MAHVALOUS Synapse Lighting Pack.

I re-wrote some code dealing with fxLight’s AttachToObject so that attached lights will properly revolve around their objects. This isn’t applying to volume lights yet, so their cast angle is still the same as the original. I haven’t had a huge need of it yet, so I haven’t mucked with it. By adding an additional point-light source near the point where the volume lights intersect the ground, I’ve been able to simulate headlights on a moving car. It’s not as good as having truly dynamic spotlights, but the results have been kinda cool:

Besides playing around with moody lighting, this project is forcing me to diversify my game development abilities. My modeling skills could only be considered “beginner” if you are feeling charitable. My ability to skin, bone, and create animation for a model is even worse. The last time I did anything approaching serious level design was for homebrewed Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption mods. I thought the results were pretty cool for a tyro, but a lot of the work was done by the excellent pre-lighting and professional textures. But it gave me some confidence (okay, you experienced level designers can laugh now).

So as a modeler, animator, artist, or level designer I figure I’m a pretty good programmer. But the thing about being an indie is that you really can’t afford to be too much of a specialist. Besides this, it’s a lot of fun to develop new skills. So while I don’t harbor any illusions about being able to produce any of the major final content myself, I figure I can generate some halfway decent stand-in content with a bit of practice, as well as some of the less important final elements.

Right now I'm doing a little bit of dinking around with the latest release of Blender, and getting a little more advanced with MilkShape and doing actual character models (I got pretty good at modeling cubes and cylinders and spheres, so this seemed like the next logical step... *grin*). Besides this, last night I started working on boning and animating MilkShape models in CharacterFX (because Milkshape's bone / animation capabilities - well, they suck. But at least they are there). I'm hoping to be able to export the animation data back to MilkShape from CharacterFX, and then use the MilkShape to export the whole thing into Torque. Someone suggested in the GarageGames forums that this was possible, but I don't know if anyone is actually doing it.

I also don't know enough about Blender's animation capabilities to know if I should bypass that stuff altogether and just start doing everything in Blender.
Monday, June 06, 2005
 
Voice Actors, Wil Wheaton, and Game Development
Well, I've recently (in the last couple of years) become a little bit of a fan of Wil Wheaton. He's a geek, a D&D'er, and pretty much an up-front guy (and has to live down the whole "Wesley Crusher" thing from Star Trek: The Next Generation - something I wouldn't really want to wish on ANYONE).

I still like him, but I'm kind of annoyed at him right now, as it sounds like he's one of the driving forces between the whole SAG/AFTRA plan to strike on doing voice-overs for games:
http://www.wired.com/news/games/0,2101,67707,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_2

I have a lot of empathy for "working class" actors. One of my favorite nonfiction books is Bruce Campbell's Autobiography, "If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor." The truth is 99% of actors out there are struggling - living from audition to commercial shoot to being an extra on the set of various TV shows. Even the ones who are only mildly successful end up feeling pressure to live well beyond their means, just so that they can APPEAR more successful and thus negotiate better deals. It's not an easy career path. So I can't blame them for looking at the HUGE rise in cost of AAA game development (costs which EA is bragging about, because it creates a barrier to entry that allows the people with the deepest pockets - like them - to monopolize the market), and wanting to get a piece of the action. I'm sure Wil, in particular, is eyeing the sales numbers of GTA: San Andreas (which he did voice-over work for) and thinking of what he could do with a fraction of the obvious profits from that game.

But I still oppose this voice-actor strike thing. Now I am most definitely NOT OPPOSED to giving royalties to people providing content for a game in exchange for a lower up-front costs. Not in the least. As an indie, it's a particularly attractive alternative to skyrocketing costs of development. And if I'm providing my talents on a contractual basis for a game that I feel has a good chance of succeeding, you'd better believe I'd be jockeying for a piece of that action. I'd rather see that revenue stream if I can swing it. A vast majority of games today LOSE money rather than make money - so in general it's far better off to take the up-front cash than gamble on risiduals, anyway.

But what I feel is going on here is that the guilds are attempting to treat the game industry like Hollywood, and the model just isn't going to work. More importantly, they will be enforcing one-size-fits-all requirements that target the deep-pocketed mega-publishers but for the most part has them robbing the poor. It will limit the bargaining options for both the actors and the game developers, and will be yet another contributing factor in broadening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in what is still far from being a mature industry.

The game business is fundamentally different from Hollywood - in spite of how much it fantasizes otherwise. I have felt that the attempt of the games industry to try and mimic Hollywood has been dangerous and counterproductive. From an artistic perspective, I feel that there's a fundamental difference in 'storytelling' media and games. This has been something that has stuck in Chris Crawford's craw bad enough that he eventually called it quits on gaming altogether (much to the loss of the medium of computer gaming, although the game industry couldn't care less.) But aside from that, the effort that goes into a game is in my mind is quite different from the work that goes on in movies and TV (noting that I haven't worked in television or moviemaking, so my comparison is based on second- and third-hand knowledge of that business). I don't see that changing. Nor do I see such a change being a good thing (the games industry NEEDS changing - don't get me wrong - but the right kind of changes).

The whole Storytelling vs Games thing has been done to death (and one day I'll probably take my turn whipping that dead horse). But the point I'd like to make is that while in movies and television, the presentation of the story is the product, in games it only represents a small fraction of the amount of effort that goes into the game's development... and only a small fraction of the player's experience (at least in those games that don't suck). It already represents a disproportionate amount of the budget that gets spent on the development. And of that small fraction, usually far more time goes into every other aspect of integrating that voice-over into the game than gets spent on the "traditional" activities of script-writing, recording, and sound editing. It's like the the girl who did the voice recording that says "Please stay seated, and keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times" on the roller-coaster. Sure, it's important, but are most people riding the roller coaster to hear her voice? Does that represent a significant portion of your roller-coaster experience? (Well, okay, if you assume that everybody would DIE from the ride if that voice wasn't reminding them to behave themselves, then I guess it is...)

Nevermind the fact that royalties are almost a joke these days and most development studios never see a DIME of back-end royalties beyond their advance. The whole comment in the above article about the "the industry's skyrocketing profits" may be erroneous. I know that profits for big publishers are certainly up there right now, but the main thing skyrocketing these days is COSTS. Publishers rely on successes like GTA: San Andreas to cover the costs of nine other games that lost money. At least that's what they tell US. I don't know how this all fits into the SAG's and AFTRA's equations... because on the surface of things, it seems like this might just close off avenues to Voice Actors when only the top publishers & "sure-hit" titles can afford their mandatory terms anymore.

If anyone representing these groups wishes to chime in, I'm glad to hear it. I'm on the receiving end of FUD (and happily sharing it) right now. But of course, I'm a small-time operation these days, and I have to carefully budget even a little $50.00 content pack or tool. So maybe I shouldn't have much of a voice here. But when has that stopped me in the past?
Saturday, June 04, 2005
 
More Bad Game Design Decisions
Okay - now after my lame counter earlier this week to that manifesto, here's a link to Earnest Adam's ever popular "Bad Game Designer: No Twinkie" series at GamaSutra (free registration required):

http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20050603/adams_01.shtml

Earnest Adams has probably forgotten more about game design than I've ever known, so even though these "Twinkie Denial Situations" were recommended by others, they come with his recommendation.

The one about crates in particular caused me to smile. I hadn't actually THOUGHT about that, but anyone who's ever worked in a warehouse would probably get very annoyed by this. That's another one of those "game conventions" that just appear because they are really convenient - mainly because they allow level designers to clutter up a level and make them interesting without taking extreme liberties with how human architecture. We don't usually build our office buildings with lots of cover in the hallways for battling terrorists or alien invaders.

So ... I'm working on a game right now that's not an FPS, but it is a modern-era game. So I am gonna state right now that I'm going to try to have NO CRATES in my game. Destroyable or otherwise. This is painful to me personally, because my modeling skills are pretty crappy, but I know crates are one of those few things I can actually do a decent job on...

But by the completely UNBIASED Old Man Murray rating system, my game should be a critical masterpiece!

The "Easy Mode" thing - man. That falls into the same category as the "Save Point" issue - frankly, game developers don't want their game to be finished too quickly. It's the equivalent to the "filler" inside of hot dogs, I guess. High-quality content takes a lot of time and effort (and money), especially if you want to look like anything remotely resembling current-generation. As a result, games really HAVE become much smaller on consoles. But if you don't want your game to be played through in a single rental period, you need to figure out a way to make sure the game LASTS more than five hours. So what do you do?

You can add more content, or you can reduce the rate that the player consumes content.

The latter can be done a few different ways. You can make the game replayable (like the popular '90's standby - the fighting game), you can add variations to the same content (like make the player race the same track backwards and at night...), or you can simply slow their progression. The higher difficulty and forced repitition (through limited game saves) is a popular way to do it.

I've been guilty of going overboard on final bosses at times. The final boss in "Outwars" was just so insanely nasty that I think I only beat him three or four times without cheats - and I was the one in charge of writing the AI and balancing the level. I definitely deserved to have my twinkie taken away for that one.

Of all of the Twinkie Denial Conditions in the recent installment, the camera-angle thing is probably my greatest frustration as a gamer. One of the saddest things about the advent of 3D gaming is how horribly the camera ruins the action in so many games. Third-person shooters are the worst. Nothing kills my enjoyment of a game as quickly as suddenly not being able to see my targets (or accurately hit them) because the camera bumped into a wall and decided to pan around to give me a close-up of my character's crotch while I'm desperately trying to fight and dodge sixteen opponents with rocket launchers. Beautiful cinematic cameras to show off your pixel-shaded levels and brilliant lighting effects are great and everything - but when it prevents me from playing and enjoying your game, you have FAILED.

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