Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Level design

Level design incorporates a wide variety of elements into a final, working product. It is definitely not limited to the appearance of the map, such as from the textures alone, but also involves the underlying architecture that keeps all of those shiny texture maps together. The way that the level is designed visually is important in itself, but the core of the design is the playability and depth.

In modern day games, you can’t just make a nice looking level with great textures, but nothing more; there has to be functionality behind it. It’s like a beautiful girl but without the ability to talk or move; in the end, it’s just a model. A level should have some sort of interaction to it, and there are various ways to do this, no matter how big or small they may seem. Even from the beginning of 3d games there is some level of interaction with the environment. Let’s take DOOM for an example. Its one of the oldest 3d games, yet still the levels have interactible objects like elevators, trap doors, portals and other secrets. There are games like Call of Duty in which level design is all about strategically placed items on the map, so it’s not only a huge sandbox where everybody can spot you and shoot you down. There is minimal interaction with the level in this case.

However, there are games like Portal, where the level itself is the game. Everything is placed effectively, and made to look good without sacrificing functionality. It also managed to use fewer polys, and maintain the texture budget. In the game you have to basically travel through the level with the portals so you can achieve your goal. It’s more based on the love of the characters and the fan-base then on actual interesting gameplay. I’m not saying it’s not fun, but it’s more like an interesting comic for me than a game. In others, like the Half-Life franchise, there are a lot of tasks you must complete to continue your epic journey, like open a secret door or move an object so you can carry on. In others like the Assassins Creed franchise, the level is one of the most interactible imaginable. You can climb, jump on, and hide in almost any building you see. I’m still amazed at the brilliant work they did on how he moves around the level so fluently.

Looking at first person shooter the level is made to be playable in a way that you can, or cannot get a good shot at someone. To me, it’s really not that difficult to do, as all that is done is placing obstacles around the map. However, games such as the Battlefield franchise make the level dynamic, by allowing everything to be destroyed, thus altering gameplay on the fly.

When I think about it we give much love to the levels in games without knowing it. For instance, we love some levels in specific games, and just hate others. Like in Half Life 2, when you are in Ravenholm, I hated it because it scared the crap out of me and I always had no ammo then.

Overall level design is a huge part of the game experience. A game isn’t a game when it consists only of one straight corridor. The textures may be nice, and the character design may be pulled off flawlessly, but simply having enemies pop out at you with no depth to the game is extremely boring. You must immerse the player into a world that will look good and have something interactive and interesting about it.

Planning and concepting

Planning and Concepting

Planning and concepting are one of the lead hands that pull the strings in the development of a game. No matter where a project ends up, it always starts with an idea, and that idea is expanded upon with planning. Organizing and distributing the work that has to be done is also a major factor for a successful game. Concepting is the visualization of the whole project. But what exactly occurs with planning and concepting?

Planning the whole process of work takes quite a lot of time, and it’s not only in the beginning, but continues through the whole process because not everything will end up the way you planned. But the initial organization is of most importance.

On the other hand, we have concepting, which is as important as planning. Basically, it’s the visualization of the whole game, the feel that it will have overall, and the characters that will give even more life to the surroundings. The planning of the game gives rise to the concept; what type of game is it going to be? If it’s a war game, the concept of it is going to be more realistic, and a lot more references will be used than, for instance, a game that takes place 200 years in the future, in which the artist’s imagination can go wild. However, the concept must still be restricted to the overall idea of the game. There is more freedom, but the initial planning must still be followed to keep the basic design constant.

Another example is if the game takes place in a specific time era, let’s say the 1930s or the 1950s in America. They have to make it feel like it’s actually 1930. When I think about those times I imagine warm, but at the same time very cold colors, because they were difficult times. Imagine an old-school jazz bar with live music and cigar smoke everywhere, beautiful ladies in fancy dresses, and real men in costumes. Mobsters come across my mind as well. They were famous times for bank robberies and alcohol and drug traffic, which the mob was heavily into. Basically what I want to say when you make a game you have to know what it will bring to the eye and soul of the player. That’s why concepting is so important.

It also is a factor that can continue over the whole project but yet again there must be a solid initial idea for the whole thing. Overall, planning and concepting are the first step into the making of a video game. One on hand you have to have a visual and plot design of the whole idea, and on the other a plan how all of that work will be processed, done for the period of time there is.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Personal review of the first year

Looking back on year one, I realize that it wasn’t so much of a struggle as I thought it would be, especially in comparison to this year so far. It might be that I’m saying that because it has already passed and over with, but it’s difficulties were still somewhat easier to handle than several of the changes so far this year.

The biggest issues I faced during the first year were getting used to the course, and its programs, such as 3Ds Max, which I had never used beforehand. As well, being a foreign student required a lot of adjustment. Personally, I feel I’ve matured to some extend since the first year, and I am able to better realize the weight that I have to carry on my shoulders. Still, there is much I have to get used to.

In hindsight, I realize there are many things that I could have done better, one of which was my time management. This is an issue I’ve tried to get better at for years, with little progress. Essentially, I get everything done at the last moment, perhaps because of the fear of failing or not reaching the deadlines makes me go into work-overdrive, at which point I get everything done in one go. This year, however, I’m starting projects near the beginning, and working on them little by little until completion. Still, I tend to complete a large part of the work near the end. Overall, I think I did well during the first year – not great, of course – but I intend to improve. From my experience, I found that the time and effort I thought I put into a project simply wasn’t enough sometimes.

As of now, I can’t really describe what my expectations are for this year, as I’m uncertain of what is to come. However, there are several things I’d like to achieve. First, I’d like to show some improvement in my art. Secondly, my 3Ds Max skills could stand to improve, though I’m really not looking forward to it. I plan to spend as much extra time as I can with drawing, and developing myself as an artist. So far, I can say I’ve travelled a long road since my beginnings, and I plan to continue down that road to improvement. Sometimes the goal of getting there drives me mad, especially when looking at the art of those better than me; still, I strive to get better, and eventually surpass them. It’s a long and difficult road, but I take it in stride; I may want to take the easier paths, but something inside me urges me to take the rougher path.

Having seen what our current projects are, I’m quite confident that I can do them. Now, though, we’re a little bit more stressed out about our work, as we’ve got to put forth our best effort in order to pass on to year three. At point I find it quite difficult to manage the workload, and I have to try and balance that with developing my drawing skills. Another issue I’ve been facing that is having an effect on my work is my eyes. I’ve had medical issues with them for years; mainly, they’re photosensitive. After staring at a screen for some time, they hurt quite a bit for the rest of the day. Managing this requires taking breaks every now and then, where I just have to stop looking at anything in order to let them recover.

Overall, year one wasn’t quite as difficult as I expected it to be. This year however, I know I have to put forth a greater effort, and balance my own issues at the same time, in order to succeed.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Personal review of the first year

The year I spent in university had a big impact on my life. The things I learned and parts of life I understood made me more mature and responsible in the end. The fact that I was thousands of miles away from home helped me to grow more independently as a person. The university taught me that the best education is self education, although some help form time to time is appreciated. I learned a great deal from my many lessons and lectures, and I feel they are the roots for something bigger to grow in the future.

Even before I arrived in Leicester and at university, I was imagining what it was going to belike; fun, though hard, or ridiculous, but not knowing it would be all of them. Being so far away from home, from my family and friends, certainly changed me. The fact that it was my first time flying to a distant country all alone, and not knowing anybody did make me panic a little bit in the beginning. But all I could do is man up and deal with it.

When the studies in the university started, I imagined it was going to be really fun and easy, though I was certainly wrong about that. At the beginning, yes, it was quite easy, as we began with fairly simple work, and thus had a lot of free time. But after a while the real work set in. The very first steps I took in the 3D area were both difficult and painful. But little by little I got the hang of it, though my progress was slow at first, but everything takes time. Overall, I think I improved a great deal in 3D modeling for the time I had, even though I knew nothing of it beforehand.

The visual design parts of the studies were quite enjoyable. Having an artistic background, it was quite easy for me to catch up on drawings, although I’m more of the type produce less work with higher quality, than a plethora of low quality work. Most enjoyable were the life drawing we had, although sometimes it was quite awkward having 48 guys in one small, hot room drawing a naked dude…but all in the days work I guess.

I enjoyed the lectures we had which dealt with discussing and brainstorming the basics of a movie or video game, how it was composed and created. Knowing the very basics of them, getting inside the art of the creation of a game or a movie, is a very important consideration for an artist. The movie lectures in which we just gathered around and watch some good movies were also quite interesting. The essay writing part wasn’t the best for me, English not being my mother language, and the fact that I’m not very good at their structure is kind of a bummer.

I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to study far away from home. I knew it was going to be hard, but at moments I wasn’t prepared for the problems I had. Dealing with them, projects for the university, balancing with money, and several other things were quite a burden from time to time. Maybe they were one of the reasons I couldn’t concentrate on my projects at some points, but the work I gave every time I was quite happy with. It wasn’t the best, but I tried to the best I could. Knowing that I could do more, I have the urge to improve myself in everything I do, it’s in my blood. But the lazy factor is in my blood too…kind of an oxymoron.

Overall, the year spent at the university had a big impact on my life, in that it forced me to grow more mature as an individual, and take more responsibilities. The work I produced was hard but at the end enjoyable. I have no idea what’s going to come in the year to follow, whether it will be more difficult or somewhat easier, but I guess I’ll just have to deal with it as it comes.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Elements of game design, part four: environment

The element that brings everything else together, story and character, and makes them truly come alive, is the environment. It is the one factor that brings out the full mood of the game entirely.

Let’s further discuss environments, and not only in games, but also in books and movies. Environments can be absolutely anything, and look like anything the person puts their mind to, with any number of variations. So long as there is imagination, the environment can only grow. It is one of the elements that put the main character in place. The environment can be simple, and contrast the character, or reflect the current mood of the character.

Early on, the environment in games was no more than very simple, textured shapes and corridors meant only to guide the player in a path through the world, while providing minimal setting. But, as technology progressed, the environment became one of the most important and integral parts of any game, and serves several purposes. Again, the most basic use of the environment is to guide the player, to make it obvious where and where not to travel. A simplistic example of this is found in DOOM 3, and Halo: CE. DOOM 3 consisted mostly of small, rooms and corridors, leaving no freedom on where to travel, and generally guiding you to the final but. But, it served its purpose extremely well. The level of detail in the environment allowed it to work. The tight corridors make you feel claustrophobic, and because of its detailed design, could allow a demon to attack you from almost anywhere.

In Halo, the environment was beautifully sculpted and detail, and gave the illusion that the level was vast and open, when it was merely guiding you in the same manner as DOOM. The lovely backgrounds and sky-boxes, of forest and mountains, gave the environment the feeling of being completely open. This is one example where the scale of the environment affects the gameplay. It may be a linear game, but you have much more space to maneuver and strategize.

A game that broke these boundaries in a good way was Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. This massive sandbox-style game presented the player with the opportunity to go almost anywhere they wanted, in any order, and complete missions as they desired, while being able to use the environment to their advantage. The setting was huge, and portrayed the post-apocalyptic feel almost perfectly, and captured the Chernobyl meltdown quite well.

Environments are there to set up the mood and atmosphere for the game. They can bring out emotions of power, feebleness, fear, or happiness. For instance, in Dead Space, the environments in most of the game worked against the player, to keep them on edge, feeling uncomfortable, and scared. The amazing sound and lighting effects bring out the mood even more. Walking down a corridor with the lights flickering, going out, and then suddenly coming back to life with a monstrous growl makes the player ready their weapon to defend themselves. In the end, though, it turns out to merely be the environment playing mind games with the player, to keep them constantly alert.

As stated before, environments aren’t only important in games. They’re an even bigger factor in movies. And so, let’s discuss some of my favorite environments. As a big fan of old western movies, I love the way in which Sergio Leone captured the Wild West, something classic, but not new or fantastic. However, the overall feeling it creates is incredible. George Lucas’ Star Wars (4, 5, and 6) captured so many different environments wonderfully, that your eyes were always pleased with the result. As you watch, you don’t realize it, but everything in the environment, the character, the lighting, and the mood, are all connected in a great way.

Color is a major key to movies and games, specifically with the emotions they evoke. For instance, black and red are commonly signs of evil, but they can also represent passion and love. White and blue are signs of goodness and freedom, but they can also be cold, and represent a sterile environment, such as a hospital. A good director that captures these elements is Ridley Scott. In his famous Alien, the environment is mainly white corridors, almost like a hospital. The level of sterility gives you an uncomfortable feeling in your gut. In Blade Runner - by far one of my favorite settings – Syd Mead creates an epic city that captures both old and new with a lovely dark, noire feeling to it. The overall decay and darkness enhances the mood of the story.

As an artist myself, I love capturing a combination of old and new elements when I design an environment. Looking at the past, I see that everything that I need to make a future design is already being influenced by the older designs, and all I need to do is reach out and grab it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Elements of game design, part three: character

The greatest focus of any game, aside from the plot itself, is that of the characters within them. Without dynamic characters, you are left with a simulated world, though beautifully designed in itself, with very little more. Static characters are just as bad, as they lack definition, emotion, and any tie to the character. For any game to succeed, the characters have to be memorable and dynamic, and thus a great deal of work and care is put into them.

Main characters are the figures within the game whose boots you step into for the journey ahead. The story most likely heavily involves them, and what happens around them during the course of their great adventure. But what exactly is the role of the main character in a game, book, or movie? Are they meant to be the most important individual? Do they alone dominate the focus of the game? A main character is usually the figure given the most attention, no matter if they are in a movie, book, or game.

A main character can be either protagonist or antagonist, depending on the type of game, and what the creators want out of them. Throughout the story, you are given perspective of the character in various ways. You can see what they look like, how they dress, and this grants an idea of their personality. Through their actions you find more about their ethics and morals, whether they are loved or hated, or even neutral. However, it is difficult to truly define a main character alone.

In any game, movie, or book, there are certainly secondary characters which compliment the main character, build their characteristics, and tell a much deeper story about them based on their interactions. These secondary characters are most likely dynamic characters as well, with their own histories and individual personalities. This grants a much greater variety in your cast. You don’t always have to adore the main character, as aspects of a secondary might be far more interesting, given the individual.

What elements make the characters, whether they are primary or secondary, most appealing to the reader/player? Mainly, I will discuss characters from games. There are many ways with which to accomplish this. On one hand, the character can be the most amazing and profound individual in the game; a hero or otherwise, but with their own faults to grant a balance and dynamism. Or, they can be a very simplistic character; a normal person with which the reader/player can envision themselves as that character, mixed in with the action, and taking part of the adventure firsthand. Some games can fulfill both of these tasks quite well. Two examples which I will focus on are the Half-Life series, and Dead Space games. The characters within these games have left the greatest impression on me.

In Half-Life, your character, Gordon Freeman, is a silent protagonist. He started as a mere scientist who is drawn into a terrible situation, which he alone is left to resolve despite all odds. Despite lacking many features, the player can impose their own characteristics upon Gordon, which makes him all the more dynamic. Silent characters tend to have this effect, much like RPG’s where you can define your character immensely. Another factor that allowed me to put myself in Gordon’s boots was the setting of the game, Half Life 2 specifically. The game takes place within Eastern Europe, and the setting reminded me a great deal of my home city. As with Half Life, Dead Space as well features a silent protagonist – at least in the first game – which allows you to step into his heavy, body-dismembering boots. These are the types of stories which I find irresistible, as they create an emotional tie with the player.

One of the most basic techniques a writer can use to draw a player to their character is sympathy. If you can become sympathetic of the character’s situation, you have all the more reason to play the game, and form a more emotional bond with the character. A more dynamic character requires emotions, which in itself takes good writing, designing, and animating to make the character real. The way the character moves, gestures, appears, talks, and interacts with their environment and other characters makes them truly appealing and dynamic. Many developers will hire celebrities to voice their characters in an attempt to make them more popular, which is sometimes unnecessary. Your character should be unique by themselves, without needing a famous voice to draw attention to them.

In the end, there are many ways to make a character successful. But essentially, their has to be a balance between realistic and supernatural qualities. The character, above all else, has to be believable, so that the player can bond further with them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

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

Game design is a massive team effort, and while there are many leads for each aspect of design, the final decisions rest mainly on the art director. The art director is the person tasked with coordinating the flow of art in any game. Essentially, they decide what type of art should be implemented into the game, how the characters look, and how the environment blends with the overall style. The responsibilities of the art director are huge, since in the end, every approval or disapproval falls to the director, giving them control over the final product.

But what exactly is an art director? What kind of influence does he have on the game? And is he the person responsible for the whole game? The role of the art director is quite important, and though their decisions hold a great deal of weight, they must still rely on a team to make final decisions. Developing the art of a game is a process that requires a lot of people, power, and time. The first task for the art director and his crew is to brainstorm ideas for the overall art style. All of their ideas have to be incorporated in such a way that they will fit with the story and genre, and not look out of place.

A very important factor in modern games is the environment. Without a well developed environment, you end up with a potentially well-designed character that simply feels out of place in the surroundings. Deciding on a working environment concept sets the overall mood and feeling of the game, and thus a great deal of emphasis must be placed on it.

The art director for a game is quite similar to an art director for a movie. Both of them have to make important decisions about the look of a set/game level, and characters. With an art director in a film, they must coordinate with set builders, wardrobe teams, and the actors themselves, much the way a game art director deals with the lead artist, writers, and animators.

The job of the art director can be quite difficult at times. They have many responsibilities they have to keep up with, and are constantly moving about getting feedback from the various teams under them, and planning for the project’s future. Personally, I think the role of art director is amazing. There are times that I would probably hate it and the stress that comes with it, as well as the massive responsibility, but in the end, I would hold a great deal on influence over the concepts in the game. Having my own design ideas incorporated into a game is a thrilling idea.

As far as the creativity of the job goes, I’m honestly not certain how much actual designing the art director does on their own accord, since many of those tasks fall to the lead artist and their team. Simply giving orders to other artists doesn’t appeal much to me, as I’d much rather draw what I have in mind myself, instead of tasking someone else to do it. It’s much more effective than giving another designer a vague idea of what you want done. They can be creative in that they guide the other artists

In effect, the art director has many roles. They guide their team, keeping them on track with the overall style. They manage ideas, giving their input, getting feedback, and making final decisions for the product at hand. And most importantly, they ensure that every member works together and blends ideas, so that no aspect of the end product conflicts heavily with another.

Friday, January 28, 2011

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

There are many aspects of game design; writers, world designers, level designers, concept artists, and many other individuals building their creation around the central concept of gameplay. One of the key elements of the game from the very beginning is the gameplay, and it is the fiber that keeps the game alive and interesting. Before a plot or concept can be made, the designer first has to decide what type of game they’re interested in making, whether it be FPS, RPG, or even MMORPG. Gameplay is basically the interaction of the player with the game; the mechanics of that interaction make it rich and intriguing for the consumer.

We’ve traveled a long way in game design and development, but has the gameplay really changed that much from that of games in the beginning? And why is gameplay so important for the gamer? An entire team of designers is required for any game, and each individual has their own purpose. There are the writers, the concept artists, and so on. Normally they work as a team under a lead designer, giving some direction to their work. Art Direction is usually dependant on the genre of the game. Obviously, a fantasy game will look extremely different from a sci-fi. Thus, the art has to fit the overall genre. As such, so does the gameplay. In the end, if the team doesn’t work together, and compare their ideas, the final product is going to be a jumbled mess of mixed ideas.

Every game has a task or goal to meet. On one hand, it could be simply to make the highest score. In another, it could be to save the princess from the castle, only to find she’s always in another castle. And again, it could be to kill the evil boss at the end. But, are they all so different? The concepts haven’t evolved much, only the way in which we interact with the game. In the beginning, you had Pong, Pac-man, Space Invaders, and so on. The goals of these games were high scores, advancing to the next level, and defeating the enemy. Games today are exactly the same, only their gameplay is more evolved.

Sooner or later, you’ll either get to the end of the game, or get bored along the way. The main goal of gameplay, though, is to keep your interest in the game for long enough so that this doesn’t happen. To meet that goal, developers have to have an understanding of what their consumer wants. A more recent way of keeping the player’s interest is to reward them for their efforts. Almost every platform has thus evolved an achievement system, or item drop system. Examples of these can be seen everywhere: Achievements in Halo and other games, item drops in Team Fortress 2, and a combination of both in WoW.

Most modern games have the same principal today as they did many years ago; run and collect as many points/kills as possible so you could get to the next level, or else the bad guys will kill you. It changed in a way that is more complex in structure and the way it looks. The RPG genre has had an effect on other game types and gameplay. Now you have options that give you the chance to complete a task that is given to you, or not to, in various ways. Then there are plot choices, in which your decision will have an influence later in the game. This influence could either have a dramatic affect on the plot, or be negligible. BioWare is well known for this element, with games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. This is also an example of genres overlapping; both RPG and Shooter, among others, combined in one game. The game masks the linear experience perfectly, making you think that it’s a vast world and you can do whatever you want.

Gameplay has become one of the most important elements a consumer recognizes before purchasing a game. Years ago, most consumers were amazed by the pretty colors, and the thought of a new game. But now we dissect it before it has even hit the market to determine if it’s any good. Graphics are certainly high on the list as well, but that’s a topic for another time. If gameplay has changed in any real way, it is mainly that interactivity has greatly increased, and that the line between genres has been blurred and even mixed significantly, leaving each game somehow unique from another.