The Pixel Crush

-------------------------------------------|Digital Animation & Game Criticism|-------------------------------------------

Monday, 3 December 2012

Extended Play 2012

This is one of those posts that gets half written, forgotten about, and will now be written through stubbornness.

I was extremely lucky to get a free ticket for Explay 2012 which was going spare at Aardman Digital.

Explay (short for extended play) is a games conference that, I believe, happens somewhere in the South West of the UK every year. This year the venue was the assembly rooms in Bath. This made the JS Joust tournaments all the more fitting, playing this game to Bach beneath trembling chandeliers is perfect.

There were some properly engaging talks on a range of things. From narrative in games, where a a panel mostly disagreed for 30 minutes. Still one of those subjects where just as you think you're starting to get a grasp for things three different notions are suggested that undermine your basic understanding.

Turns out the japanese games industry isn't in decline, its just migrated. It was always more handheld focused but the panel experts suggested its now almost entirely that.

A great talk was given about games just like JS Joust which involve playing games locally, together, in public spaces. Thoughts on the aspects of performance and participation were pretty interesting and there was something very healthy and community about it. Reminded me that while a loving relationship with my screen can be surprisingly fulfilling, it'd be nice to do that with a bunch of strangers face to face too. At the time I thought "wait a minute, boardgames have been doing this for ages" but its more than that, more physical, more spectacle, hence the public spaces part. Its also why they're always such a success at these kinds of events, places where people are open to play, and playing together.
Me and Roy at the conference
It was great. So thanks for facilitating that, and thanks to Dan for awesome conversation and company on the ride there.

My contract with Aardman is up, for now. Im going to be writing a blog post about each of the 5 games we worked on as part of Championsheeps but I won't be able to post them until the game's release in March! So I'll be working on those, and you'll just have to sit tight.

Pixel Propaganda

Videogame journalism can be little more that an extension of publisher's press releases often. Heres a great critique on the worst of these practices and the controversy that it sparked.

I was talking about some people who didn't share my problems with Call of Duty just last night. Heres another article that just makes me hate the damn thing that little but more. It makes some quite scary points.

Accomplished stealth game Dishonoured had two creative leads. Here is a great biographical piece on the paths through the industry before converging and finally getting the recognition they deserved.

A fantastic 10 point guide to lighting and look dev. Essential stuff.

One of the more beautiful looks at Journey and specifically designer Robin Hunicke as she plays through the game she worked on in front of an audience.

This piece is very very astute in its observation on critical game writing, some parts I can laugh at, other parts are worryingly close to home.

Continuing with the Call of Duty hate propaganda, this one felt particularly good: very very funny.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Dishonored Dissected

I was lucky enough to be granted an enthusiast press pass to the Eurogamer Expo, at which I got to see a bunch of games on the show floor before they were even released (privelaged, I know), on top of which I attended some of the developer sessions. Perhaps most notable among these was the one for the- then upcoming, original IP Dishonored. (Tragically mispelled)
When asked what it was about Dishonored that the developer felt was most important, they stated the emphasis on 'player freedom'. It being a game which has much love for the stealth genre I immediately began comparing it to its forerunners (a little prematurely considering it wasn't even released at that point). That freedom, I felt, wouldn't stand out unless there were instances of play where that freedom was taken away from the player. Without contrast it cannot can be emphasised. A magnificent example of this was the part of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory where the player could be subdued by enemies and have all their equipment removed, only to find themselves in an interrogation room. From here they had to escape questioning, reclaim their personal effects, and resume the mission goals. This break in pacing provided context for the normal style of play, giving the player a new appreciation for the tools and agency with which they had been provided.

Luckily, as it turns out, they released this game, I played it, and Dishonored does indeed have a sequence that almost exactly mirrors that of Splinter Cell's where the player must recover their equipment, before resuming the pursuit of mission objectives. Not original no, but it still serves its purpose.
Yes, I spent 25% of my time twirling my blade in front of the god rays.
Dishonored's marketing would have you believe that this game's themes revolve around revenge, specifically your revenge on the people that killed the Empress, the woman whom it is your job to protect, as her bodyguard. While I felt this was all well and good as an overarching plotline, I was skeptical over its potency as a theme that was communicated through the moment to moment gameplay. How can you successfully evoke the emotions associated with revenge: closure, satisfaction, adrenaline, anger, when 99% of the human obstacles in the game that you encounter have not wronged the player personally? Well in this instance, Dishonored does fail, it's moment to moment gameplay loops become about something else which I will describe later. But this revenge arc did surprisingly come into play for me, just not in the way I expected.
They're probably talking about government conspiracies, making jokes about me. They must die.
In order to exact revenge, you must first be wronged. So it will come as no surprise that, throughout the course of the game, someones probably going to metaphorically stab you in the back (thus leading to the contrast of freedom when recovering equipment). I believe Dishonored intended for me to want to avenge the wrongs committed against the character's closest to the protagonist, but that's not what transpired. What was more important to me as a player was a place, rather than a person. This makes sense considering the core traversal mechanics are lovely, but the social interaction is limited, so I knew the environment intimately, the people: not so.
The Hound's Pit Pub...
...home to orange fluids and English caricatures with American accents.
Upon returning to the Hound's Pit Pub, a venue of fine beverages and homely design, I found it overrun by those working for the people who utterly betrayed me. This was a place with which I had subconsciously developed a connection. A habitat for benign characters, safety, resources, and somewhere I was relieved to return to and explore, outside of the hostile constraints of a mission. Finding it overrun by traitors was the narrative trigger it took to complete that revenge arc. Now this arc would not have been at all profound or powerful had I not be doing my utmost to remain a pacifistic and stealthy force for good. I had only killed accidentally, or when I was not presented with an alternative. Now presented with my home, crawling with the enemy, I abandoned these moral restrictions and leaped from roof to ground, bending time and flesh alike until there was just smoke and silence. And it was cathartic.

So if Dishonored isn't about the people, the characters it so desperately wants you to invest in:
Then what is it about? What did it make me feel moment to moment?

The stealth genre for me, is a genre about discipline. Its about its about resisting the obvious and graceless path in favour of the cunning and beautiful path. Often this boils down to lethal and non-lethal routes to success, but there is much nuance to be had between either extreme. The reason Dishonored was so capable of supporting this revenge arc, is because it caters so well for the player when they are undisciplined. This of course means that at any time they can break from the discipline of stealth and alter any intended narrative arc, but the foundations for it are there. You could argue that its not discipline, its just a choosing one or the other rather than resisting. But Dishonored's systems and physicality are designed in such a way that it feels so consummately compelling to just move through the world, interacting with obstacles, that to choose to avoid everything is to withhold from yourself the greatest satisfaction these systems of play can offer. You are completely over-equipped to deal with these obstacles, so to refuse to deal with them requires restraint.
The non-lethal options are pretty grim, its hard to feel good about sparing a life...
...when they meet their end at the hands of the plague, regardless.
You may have noticed that I have been describing the people in this game in a borderline psychopathic manner, with non-empathetic terms. This is because Dishonored bares it's systems on it's surface, so raw and enticing, that any narrative context is flooded by the potential agency presented to the player. The obstacles in the system are people, but they are only indirectly humanised, leaving them to be mostly presented as agents with the systems. This is where the Heart comes in. The Heart is a device that the player holds in their left hand and can locate items of worth with, this is it's primary function, but it can also speak secrets to you of the environment in which you are in, or the character at which the heart is pointed. This acts to re-humanise what were once obstacles in a system- back into people, people with backstory, and that puts the player's actions into greater and more interesting context.
"There is a history of madness in his family, he is the worst".
"They are ugly people on the inside, but are kind to each other."
"She thought it was work in a factory, it was too late by the time they arrived."
"She wished she could be out there, on the whaling ships, rather than in here."
"His family was taken by the plague, he wishes he could join them."
In my left hand, the Heart, a pulsing mechanism of truth.
This made playing the game and making these moment to moment decisions richer. But it also made me into some kind of deity, passing judgement on them as if I had the right to decide their fate just because I had the power to. Dramatically compelling: yes. Sane: probably not. People have referred to this game as a culprit of the increasing "swiss armification of games"- too many powers pandering to an uninteresting power fantasy. If this is all Dishonored is, as I think someone already pointed out: its probably not going to be done much better than this, so at least we can move on to more interesting things now, right? The player is given so many supernatural powers, but the one I used the most, and by far the most overpowered? Quicksave. I feel like the developers missed a trick with the chance to actually weave gaming's most ubiquitous super power into the fabric of the fiction. The save game system is basically already an extension of the player's time bend ability. Having it as a feature already kind of breaks the flow of the game, so I imagine overtly integrating it with the other powers would only have drawn unwanted attention to a fictional problem game designers haven't been able to solve yet: that of the save system effectively giving players access to infinite parallel time lines. Yeah, hows that for an alternative interpretation?

Pixel Propaganda

Michael Abbot writes more inspiring stuff from his experience at a talk featuring exceptional game makers Amy Hennig (Uncharted) Jenova Chen (Journey) and Ian Dallas (Unfinished Swan).

Dishonored is one of several recently, or nearly released stealth games. Here their respective designers talking about the genre as a whole, relevant reading.

Laurence Nairne breaks down violence in games in a new blog post, forever coming closer to cracking the metaphorical skull of the matter open, and examining  the truth of it's messy innards. What a horrible image.

Brave's original creator Brenda Chapman talks about the importance of cartoons, when faced with a room of people who change lives on a daily basis.

This VFX breakdown is pretty nuts, some amazing CG sharks. Beware cringey shark gore.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Ultimate Indie Dev Collaboration

Hello to the like-minded and the aspiring,

I am a CG artist freelancing in the UK (currently at Aardman) working on CG assets for their Digital department. In the final year of my digital animation degree I wrote about 'meaning created in the medium of videogames' for my dissertation, I have read a lot about design, and I'm an able hardworking technical artist. The thing is, I know almost nothing about programming. As you can imagine this is more than a little problem when it comes to game development. So in order to actually begin creating something I'm looking for an inspired, organised, hard-working, motivated, and creative programmer and fellow designer. Someone who can help me craft digital experiences that provoke emotion, thought, entertainment from the player. And in roughly that order. I want to expand this completely amazing medium many of us so deeply love and have great hopes for, if you're someone who is interested in being part of a game that does that, please, get in touch.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Herosquad: Assemble!

The first project I worked on for Aardman Digital, the game dev department at Aardman, is now publicly available! And I've asked permission to upload some images for the blog, so here we are.

I was contracted to make the pre-rendered CG assets for a browser game made in Flash. The client was CBBC and the subject their new children's TV programme, Herosquad. The game has been in the press, but only really so far as acknowledging its existence, but hearing the kid's feedback from playing the game was pretty special, how they couldn't put it down, etc. You can play the game for yourself here.

So my involvement was mostly making the buildings that would populate the map that the player would navigate, a medium sized coastal town, Weymouth was often used as reference. I also modelled a couple of vehicles but a lot of this material was taken from a handy model pack used to fill out the vehicle roster and add some variety.

I started with this car  and went from there.
Using reference for things like the cars was super important as they have really specific curves to their outlines. at a distance you can get away with a lot, but they still really help getting the reflections and specular highlights looking nice as the car turns on and road and it glints in the sun etc.

Scale was really tricky on this project and its something I wasn't great at judging by eye, luckily Rich had a default posed 6' foot skeleton we could import into scene and measure things against to get the correct scale and consistency throughout. At one point the fire engine was massive next to the housing, its now tiny for gameplay reasons, so its easier to navigate the roads, but its not how we originally scaled it. Also you can scale something correctly up close, zoom out to the game camera, and it looks totally wrong. It can totally change with perspective.

Some of the buildings are super simple. This beach hut (which coincidentally doesn't appear on a single beach, and is more like a suburban shack or allotment shed now) is basically a cube with a roof extruded from a single 'poked face'. I had some nice mounds of sand piled up against the corners and a dune grass pathway to the front door, but they got cut in the end, excessive detail.
Having stuff like that around the base of the buildings to help them sit in the environment better was essential and something that was requested quite early on.
For example on this church there is a whole lawn and gravel path piece which is rendered separately in order for the vehicles to be able to be rendered on top of the ground, but underneath any tall buildings they might pass behind, like the church steeple. Thus giving the impression of depth in the scene. I spent far too long modelling ornate details on the stained glass windows which you can barely see here if you squint and don your monocle.
This is probably my favourite thing I modelled, the colours, shapes and weird asymmetrical design that I totally fluked. The reference images I both was given and found really helped in this case, a mixture of modern warehouse with skylights, industrial factory with bricked up windows, and the pipes and boxes that seem to cover every industrial building if you look closely on google maps. Also, solar panels, none of that unsustainable shit. Wish the brick shader wasn't quite so reflective though, you can't check every angle when testing shaders and this was clearly one I missed.
Throughout the project I had about about two brick textures, two roof tile textures, a couple of tarmac and concrete textures, and a grass texture that served me for 70% of the texturing I think. With a lot of scaling, mirroring, colour remapping (invaluable for creating the illusion of variety), and tiling I was able to really quickly texture stuff once it was modelled. Like on this house, the same bricks and slate roof and grass that all the other houses use, just with different colours and sizes. This helps keep a kind of art style whilst avoiding obvious repetition. I now love tileable textures. Also, when so many of the shapes are cubes and seen from a distance, you can automatic unwrap basically everything. So much time saved, so many horrible UVs.
Yep, they have a fireman's pole that goes all the way from the roof down to the ground floor. The Herosquad colours seemed to be navy blue and red so they were slapped on this fire station and the training tower below too.
This is a traffic cone. It is a subdivided 3D model with a reflective silver strip encircling its middle. WOOH! HIGH PRODUCTION VALUES!
I enjoyed creating some of the air traffic for the helicopter missions, this hang glider even has a tiny pilot made of cubes, and you can totally get away with it, which is fun. I made sure to support gender and ethnic diversity with these NPCs, or "non-player characters". Because that's important.
For the helicopter a bit more detail was needed in the model as it appeared in the menu screens closer up than they do in game, along with the fire engine and boat. I did shader work on the other two vehicles but modelling credit goes to Tom Lord and Rich Spence respectively. I used lots of coastguard photos for reference for the helicopter and having such exact reference was in this case as much a curse as a blessing, hard mechanical modelling that is very exact is not my strength. One of the reasons I was initially uncertain about the added responsibility of modelling a hero vehicle. I can happily model something vaguely organic or wonky and broken, but stuff that requires strict adherence to form, ie human anatomy or vehicular design, I really struggle with. I thought this was just a drawing thing as I have always struggled with life drawing or technical draughtsmanship, but it seems this fundamental inability to accurately replicate form and proportion has transferred to my CG modelling as well. That same proportion failure is coincidentally what I love most about my drawing, I like to mistake it for style and personality.
The rotors and helicopter were rendered separately so that the blades could continuously spin, whilst the helicopter rotated independently of them.
At this point in production buildings were getting quicker and quicker to make as I was able to steal pieces from previous models, as I had already done with some houses Rich had from an older project. Here the TV ariels, roofs, fire escapes, and pipes are all copied ... in fact I don't think anything except the "H" in the circle is unique to this model. But with significant replacement and retexturing it is almost unrecognisable as a whole.
This lighthouse originally had some rocks around the base that I quite liked, but they glistened too much and didn't look rocky at all. The lichen effect on the roof was just achieved by remapping the midtones of the slate texture to an organic green. Its what sells the image to me as a slate-clad lighthouse keeper's abode.
A nice office block with parking area delineated by some bollards.
This is one of the earlier buildings where I started breaking out the fancier reflection features to make the most of these assets being pre-rendered. It makes the roof look a bit favella with the corrugated iron, but it makes the material look so much more tactile and appealing, especially at the angles where it catches the light. It was also where I realised the you have to push the bump map values of the shader to 10 times what you might usually, because of the very distant camera angle the shader is sampled differently than it would be close up, this means detail is lost and has to be compensated for by exaggerating things like bump.
I wish I had close up renders of some of these props as they hold up quite well and its nice to see alternative angles. Though others, like this van, are much safer from a distance where you can't see the horrible lumpiness of parts of the bonnet etc. Being confined to this high angle though meant getting really inventive with keeping the roofscapes interesting, because that's by far the largest surface area on show, walls are lost in the perspective.
It was genuinely great fun to work on, I grew to love the miniturised style, that orthographic angle from old top down strategy games. And I'm now back working for Aardman Digital on more stuff which looks even shinier, so hopefully that will see the light of day eventually too.

Pixel Propaganda

Propaganda for my own writing?! Yep, I wrote some words for gaming opinion and news site Rebel Gaming! I had thoughts about the mobile gaming platform and the way it had no respect for the player's time, and how I felt about that. So time and feelings, deep stuff.

I continue to love the show Extra Credits because I feel what they have to say is really important and it also happens to fall in line with a lot of my own views which doesn't hurt. Here's a video of theirs on the role of fun in a medium.

This got linked round the CG department, and I couldn't contain my hysteria, I am in love with this GIF.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Directorial Legacy

Not long ago I was asked for some advice on making student films in the final year of university.
I thought I'd reproduce it here, with some considered editing. Here are the 8 arbitrarily chosen truths of student animated shorts.

  • First off some background rendering knowledge, I wrote a tutorial on the linear lighting workflow and specifically using final gather to light your scenes, and about setting up for it, with exposures, colourspace, and stuff. A good grounding for rendering. Also This is a brilliant blog for mental ray rendering in general, a great resource for different techniques and tricks, and there are plenty of places to find out about linear workflow elsewhere on the internet.
  • Start creating artwork soon, we were always short of design stuff, and the more you have the sooner you can start modelling, trick your artists into doing turn arounds if you can ;) Reference is so important, something I'm learning even now. If you have photographs or concepts to work to your art will shine shine shine. I'm not saying make everything photoreal, but faithfully recreating specific aspects of reality is vital- this lighting here, that material there, these shapes here, and these colours there.
  • Make sure you know your stuff and have thought about the world, the characters, the practicalities of making the film, and anticipate the questions, then you'll be covered. Your team deserves a director that knows their story and can make decisions quickly based on a world that can hold up to scrutiny. You're going to be making hundreds of decisions, and fast, so if you have nothing to inform them you will struggle to keep up.
  • No one seems to be able to avoid this but nail down the story as soon as possible, without compromising too much. People both above you and on your team will keep you making changes 'til the 11th hour and listen to what they have to say, but ignore the bits that don't feel right, or jeopardise the production. If you agree to things you don't feel comfortable with I guarantee you'll regret them later.
  • If you're directing make sure its all working at a storyboard and animatic stage, and make sure your team is on board with it then, and NOT mutinying and demanding changes later. We kind of bodged our layout phase so I cant really advise much here, by this time the animatic was out of my hands so interpreting camera angles and timing was tricky, if you can, keep the storyboard artist and layout artist the same, someone with a cinematic eye to keep things consistent, if its done well these layout scenes can become the templates for every shot, incrementally becoming more complete with each pass.
  • Finding a good file structure is essential and difficult. Breaking things down into folders of scenes and shots works, and organise props and characters separately. Nail this early. Make sure the team knows this early, and make sure they are fucking neat. Clean out scenes after they've been modelled etc, no spare shaders, textures, geometry etc, use the optimise scene tool, delete duplicate shading networks, merge texture files, cleanup meshes. Just the model alone. preferably unwrapped ;)
  • Make sure your team talks to each other when they have a problem or they'll come straight to you and you won't be able to spend time fixing everything. Texture at a high resolution, you can always downsize later, you can never upsize. We thought we could get away with some small textures and then ended up having giant pixels everywhere,texture at 4k for large props, just to be safe, 2k for small props. Be efficient with UV space, while its not essential because memory is rarely an issue it makes texuring and shading much faster to only have one texture map to refresh. Don't use tiffs, theyre enormous, pngs are good, jpegs are only acceptable when very uncompressed. No ngons (polygons with more than 4 corners), try and unwrap neatly, one, maybe two textures per model. rather than a texture for each bit of the model. I recommend roadkill, free, effective, slightly buggy. If you don't clean up things like ngons mudbox and other software will reject the mesh outright.
  • Learn nuke, it'll serve you well in the industry later. but if you don't feel confident or comfortable with it (like I didn't) after effects is still fantastic, just try and avoid the default stuff and customise the look as much as possible. While we're on look, don't just stick lamberts on everything, shaders make your look (aside from colour and form). They make it look clayey, or glossy, or fuzzy, or whatever. They define the overall feel the objects in your world have. For Kernel the key lookdev research was about translucency. See through surfaces of the green house, thin leaves absorbing light, and Leonard's skin doing the same. All those things took aaaaaaaaages of tweaking and experimenting to 'perfection'. Use the mia_material_x_passes and put fresnel on everything, even if its just a little bit.

With a good story, the most hard work you've ever done, and good people, you can make an awesome fillm, and you will never have been prouder in your life.

Here's a little nugget I found on my phone the other day, its reference for this shot.
I love my really unhelpful directing. "Now do this, and this, now this. Done." Functional I suppose.

Pixel Propaganda

A cool looking tool for designing game mechanics, quite in depth though.

Some fancy realtime(ish) rendering techniques using Maya's viewport 2.0.

A great look at the making of indie game Limbo, and its unusual development process and team.

The new Blender Foundation film incorporates live action and, as always, is extremely impressive considering its open source software.

Sunday, 23 September 2012


Kernel was recently screened at the Bristol animation festival "Animated Encounters" as part of the 'best of the south west' screenings. This is very cool, and I even attended the screening. Watching the film on a big screen again was great, it looks so good with all its revisions.

There was some drama leading up to the screening with problems surrounding the projection of the film in a special DCP (digital cinema package) file and frames being dropped, but I'm pretty sure what the projectionists were noticing was the duplicate frames that were already in Kernel to compensate for corrupted renders. The DCP format is now something I'm really interested in as the ideal way of showing a film, there are open source ways of encoding a film down from the highest quality possible (16bit TIFF 4K frames) onto special servers that stream the video into the projector. The only problem is unless you have one such fancy projector there's no way of testing what was just encoded I don't think.
I may, or may not, be working on something related to this...
I bumped into tutors Andy Wyatt and Derek Hayes at encounters, and caught up with how the course was expanding, how the London show went- which I unfortunately missed. I also saw Omari at the festival and he introduced me to some of his new producer friends, master networker that he is. Everyone seemed beyond impressed at my current position at Aardman so it was nice to revel in the incredibly humbling successes of the last few months. I'm now a graduate for god's sake, weird weird weird.

I'm missing being able to talk about my work on the blog, I'm guessing I will only be able to resume real posting once a project I've been involved with becomes complete and is finally released, then I can expose its inner workings! Everything I create at Aardman seems to be better than the last thing, I'm constantly improving with new tools and fewer technological boundaries, it feels great and I'm dying to share it. So until then, or something else of note happens, The Pixel Crush will be transitioning in and out of hibernation.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Professional Pixels

New work shirt with my super awesome access card
This post was entitled semi-professional pixels. It is now entitled professional pixels, I got employed! I'm currently freelancing at Aardman for 2 weeks, after transitioning smoothly from my work experience there. I'm working on some pre-rendered assets for a game that the "Digital" department downstairs are working on. Its more than a little exciting and I'm really enjoying the miniaturisation effect of viewing my models from an almost orthographic camera. At that kind of distance modelling almost becomes like impressionism, the model looks pretty basic up close- blocks of simple geometry here and there (lots of polygon primtives), but zoom out and the collective components come together to give the impression of lavish detail. The camera distance does mean however, that things like the bump properties of the shader have to be pushed to 10 times what theyd usually need, in order to be visible. Also the advantage of being pre-rendered is that the assets can use very fancy shaders and lighting, so many materials look much better than they would if shown running in a realtime 3D game engine. The picture above is of my access card for the building which everyone I've excitedly shown it to has beem thoroughly underwhelmed by.

The view from the drive back from work
They have a crazy workflow at Aardman, its a hybrid between linux and windows involving two workstations each running a separate OS. This means I've had to learn how to set projects and launch programs from a "shell" by typing lines of code. Clearly, buttons are for amateurs. I've been using a lot of Vray, I made sure I knew the basics before going which has been a massive help but I've continued to learn a lot more, both about that renderer specifically and shading in general. Mostly from the talented and humble Ali Dixon. For example, everything has reflectivity, and with modern raytracing its actually possible to factor this into your shaders without killing render times. It means colours reflect better between objects and details can be emphasised by controlling things like the glossiness attribute. I really, really wish I could show renders. That was always the most enjoyable part of these posts for me. I textured an old wireless radio recently and tried to give the impression it had been tuned by the greasiest fingers imaginable. By having shiny plastic with more diffuse finger smudges in the glossiness I could realistically recreate this effect. Breaking up specular highlights in this way is an almost guaranteed route to more pleasing renders that avoid looking overly CG.
My monster pasty kindly supplied by the grandparents
 Another revelation has been my old friend fresnal, now while I knew everything was slightly reflective, I did not know that every reflection is fresnel, even if only a little. Fresnel reflections are what determine the angle at which an object is moat reflective for example water and glass are most reflective when viewed at an angle, for example the sun setting on the sea, but looking straight down into water and the reflection is weaker allowing you to see below the surface. Its rim lightings best friend basically, helping to outline objects with glancing angle reflections. When metals have fresnel, its just handled differently, usually controller by the shaders reflective index. Ratchet it up to 5 or 10 and it starts to act more like chrome. In this way you can create great reflective metals that act realistically driven by reflection alone. I've also had some fun with sub surface scattering and 2 sided shaders for wax and leaves respectively.

Rendering Shiny Things: Fresnel Reflection from yeoldebrian on Vimeo.

Also, there's a recording of Wallace's voice is in the lift. And there are stop motion sets in reception. Everyone is friendly.

Pixel Propaganda

Extra Credits recently did a couple of videos on meaning and mechanics, a favourite topic of mine as most of my dissertation centered around it. One game they wanted to address it in specifically was this one, entitled Loneliness. It takes 2 minutes to play is really worth the time, all it requires is the directional keys.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Party Pixels

Sorry about the novel, and I can't even be bothered to break it up with pictures...


Which is a weird milestone to reach now that I have less stuff to post and almost all traffic has slowed to a trickle.  So here I am belatedly trying to figure out how I've managed to be so busy and have no tangible results to show for it. Since last I wrote, a number of us from Falmouth attended the Skillset event in soho. This comprised of accredited animation courses turning up, decking out their stalls with business cards and showreels, and then mingling with the members of the industry who were present at for the evening. There were also some great round tables which consisted of students asking questions of an industry professional, while a skillset representative guided the discussion. These were mostly focused on how to present yourself to industry with a view to getting employed- the purpose and theme of the entire day.

I don't know what the best practice is when it comes to naming people you've met and spoken with so I'll just give their titles. I met a guy who was a VFX supervisor at one of the big Soho VFX houses, I recognised his name because he commented on a thread I started on CG Society about lighting artists. He chaired one of the round tables, we had a good chat, and then I showed him my showreel/ got asked for my business card afterwards. It felt great to start eroding my hero worship of these people in this way, not that I have any less respect for them, just that they now seem more approachable. This is an increasing trend as our story continues.

A few days before I had made a last minute invite to my mentor from the last term at Uni, who was (extremely luckily for me) able to attend. We met and and had a wander around and he managed to get me a tour around Rushes, another post production studio in Soho. He was doing some freelance there on some commercials. The Rushes producer who met me the next day was also a skillset representative, and so was interested to hear my experience at the event the night before, which luckily was positive. The tour was great, I made attempts at interesting questions (I found them interesting) things about Nuke workflow, and incompatibilities between the motion graphics department on mac and everyone else on windows, and what using Renderman was like. Then me her and mentor sat down and talked for a bit,  I was told I "seemed to be doing the right things" in terms of my showreel and stuff and we parted, with much gratitude on my behalf, the best of friends.

In the build up to this event I'd been solidly applying for jobs, getting encouraging rejections, one call so far, zero interviews. This is to be expected I think, though I have a no doubt false feeling of constantly being on the cusp of employment, despite the rejections. I think the rejections are encouraging because they are replies none the less, its rubbish hearing nothing at all. But no one can reply to 80 applicants a day.

So, Dan suggested I get in touch with a gaming site called Rebel Gaming as they might be interesting in my writing, turns out my timing was good and I'm now a freelance writer there, though its only a volunteer position. The Fallout: New Vegas piece I wrote last week was a sample for that position. While I've been working solidly since then (what on I'll reveal in a moment) I hope to have some time to write something when I get back home, I can't wait do the writing I usually do but have that discussion exposed to a wider audience.

Right now however, I am in the middle of a 2 week work experience in the CG department of Aardman. Aardman are practically a part of British culture at this point and I say this out of awe than arrogance, I can't believe how fucking lucky I am to be there and its all thanks to a Mr Richard Spence who I actually met doing a different work experience in Bristol years ago. For those who don't know they are the creators of Wallace and Gromit as well as feature films like Chicken Run, Flushed Away, and the more recent Pirates: An Adventure With Scientists. So far its been fantastic. Though I've signed some kind of 'don't steal our work' agreement, I plan to write a post about what I've learnt there if nothing else, but hopefully I can negotiate a few renders out just of the props I've been working on texturing and shading. We shall see...

Pixel Propaganda

Tom Bissell is still writing amazing stuff about games. This one focuses on the ever discussed but not widely played Spec Ops: The Line. A game I will check out some day.

A slightly more thoughtful preview of one of the many amazing games that have been delayed until 2013, Metro: Last Light. (Yes, its another sequel with a colon in the title).

The Reset game is still looking great and this post talks about how they're taking the most important elements of photoreal CG lighting and distilling them to run at realtime, specifically in this case a sun & sky setup much like the ones that appear in Mental Ray and Vray.

This article made me feel good because I sound positively well read in comparison to the game design students that appear in the opening anecdote. Formalising theoretical definitions is important. It helps us communicate better.

As one of the many many unemployed graduates, this Guardian video painted a pretty bleak picture of how even competent graduates are struggling pretty badly. Sigh.

I drank this question and answer thread from Jonothan Blow and Chris Hecker like nectar in the desert. Two amazing game designers bringing the wisdom to the masses.

More great Rango character behind the scenes footage.

This post is so old that half these links are over a month passed their sell by date so the entire olympic trailer has now aired, but this was the teaser I caught and I just love the style. The freckles, red cheeks, scrawniness, brawniness. Its in the details, great job from passion pictures, must get round to sending them a speculative CV. Along with the rest of the industry.


Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Press Pause For Thought

The Iconic Shattered Overpass As Seen From Below

I kept wondering where the sprint button was when I first started playing Fallout: New Vegas. Firstly I checked whether there even was one, there wasn't, and secondly I relaxed into the pacing that New Vegas sets, a pace that demands you focus on your surroundings, more than your destination. Because until you've discovered a number of the New Vegas' many locations you aren't going to be fast-travelling anywhere. It's almost ritualistic. The preparation between missions, building up to the climax of the quest itself, constantly juggling the weight and inventory systems (especially on the hardcore mode that places emphasis on nutritional needs as well as giving ammo physical mass.) Its a smaller narrative arc in itself where New Vegas lets the player tell their own episodic subplot to the main narrative arc.

Off The Beaten Track

My need to adjust to the pacing New Vegas sets tells me that contemporary media has changed my expectations. I can barely read a book. I am not illiterate, or mentally challenged. There's just something missing. My first thought is that it is that my imagination has been eroded by the sensory overload of films and games, but this feels false because I still, when I do read (or more frequently listen to audiobooks) find myself hooked into daydreams that have been directly sparked by my mind- fleshing out the ideas of a given fictional world. And I don't think my problem is inherent in literature as a medium, I read a hell of a lot of non-fiction online. I've just become maladjusted to that method of fictional delivery.

The "LMB" Means I Probably Trod On Something Incendiary

Fallout: New Vegas would probably fall under the genre of the 'Western Role Playing Game'- if you asked someone. And I would agree with that someone. The RPG is a genre whose key tenets espouse the value of exploration: geographical, systemic, and ideological. The western part of 'Western RPG' tends to refer to the fact that the game will be realtime, not turn based (though New Vegas muddies these waters with its V.A.Ts system) and that there will probably be a reliance on combat. When a genre's core values propose exploring not just places but ideas, then you get a sense of the kind of pacing that is necessary for the game to work effectively. It must be slow, exploration can be methodical or spontaneous but it will always take time, and the factions and people the player meets while exploring will have issues and problems that require social navigation of a kind that- when done well, requires time to ponder. I know a quest has been designed well when the narrative context of what could have been just another bounty to collect makes me 'pause for thought'.


So perhaps the RPG can be my genre stepping stone back into the pace of other media, a digital foothold on the climb to fiction consumption rehabilitation. There are many other interesting, great, and broken parts of Fallout: New Vegas that I'd like to talk about but I think I'll keep this focused and concise. I'm on the brink of finishing the main quest, so I'll do that instead.

Light At The End of the Tunnel

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Spy Party & Smooth Jazz

Videogames do a lot of leg work for the player in terms of sensory representation.
As a kind of composite uber-medium that encompasses audio, visual, textual, and systemic content; all in digital form, it leaves very little space for the player to fill. Role play is often a major part of the immersive quality of games, and while each medium has found its niche for the audience games often excel when they put players in the procedural space. What I mean by this is that the interactivity, the procedures the player enacts, is the missing part of the game that player fills. This means that role play is decision (or choice) based, rather than imagination based. The player does not need to imagine visual locations or characters, or gaps in time due to editing, only potential outcomes of decisions.

Being involved in the Spy Party beta has been interesting in that, as a game in the process of being built, there are atmospheric elements still missing, even though the systemic content is already quite advanced. Music, for example, is missing. Only background party chatter and the clinking of drinks is heard. It has made me realise just how much of a difference can be made to a player's experience of entirely the same systems when manipulated whilst listening to music. As a result, my Spy Party sessions have been accompanied by a soundtrack of my devising, namely Chris Potter’s live sessions on shuffle. This addition has done wonders to enhance my role playing as both the spy character and the sniper.

Many elements of Spy Party's gameplay are timing based, while the rest are behavioural based. All of them are skill based, as designer Chris Hecker has emphasised. This jazz accompaniment has altered my approach to this timing by tweaking the tempo at which I play the game, as the rhythm of the music evolves I found myself developing a narrative that matched. Sometimes the sniper's laser would hover over me during a particularly syncopated section causing added tension as I strove to remain undetected. Or I would smoothly take control of my character as the brush strikes on the snare laid out a sophisticated beat, creating that ultra-cool presence of the super spy.
You may have noticed all of this applies to the spy role. I have yet to find a genre of music that matches the equally engaging sniper gameplay in quite the same way, something classical perhaps? Or some tech metal to match his/her constant and ever roaming alertness? Suggestions welcome.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Derby Crush

By, perhaps stupidly, saying yes to almost every opportunity that came my way after wrapping up the course I produced this short piece of animation for Kernow Rollers, the local roller derby league. It was to act as part of a larger instructional video, which I've also embedded below.

It was all slightly more rushed than I would have liked, I thought it was even going to render in time for the skate event at one point, but then I realised I'd turned unified sampling and motion blur on when I didn't need either. I went all out with the shaders in this one, spending a good deal of time texturing the floor and using specular and bump maps to get that glossy gym floor look as good as I could.

Kernow Rollers introduce Roller Derby from Kernow Rollers on Vimeo.

I also used a great tutorial that Jake showed me on creating satin, or velvet cloth effects using the mia_material in Maya. Using a colour ramp in the reflection colour you can get a great iridescent effect which I used on the balls and stars that feature in the animation. I wish I'd had more time to add some props to the set, and add more than the 2 lights I used. Perhaps next time.
This was a great project to try some things I'd been meaning to use for a while but still hadn't got round to learning. This one Joe showed me, and its a way in photoshop to paint along a curve you've made using the pen tool using the selected brush. So effectively you can tweak a vector, and then apply a nice looking stroke to it. I used this to get the track shape, and then paint evenly around it.
The layered shader in Maya is a great tool, but isn't compatible with the mia_material. So I found a cunning tutorial that basically embeds the final result of the shader inside a surface shader, which IS compatible with the layered shader. I was planning on using it to put the Pivot player's stripe onto specific balls, but in the end it was easier just to make a bespoke texture, than wrestle with a headache of nodes.
I kind of cheaped out on the animation by using motion paths, curves drawn in 3D space which objects can then follow, with some tweaks to timing it worked reasonable well, and then are even some fancy settings for banking into each curve's turn. Only the jammers are hand animated.
For the motion blur I broke out my friend the mental ray production shader "mip_motionblur" who creates vector based motion blur on each image after rendering, this way I can have fast motion blur without using compositing software I don't own. Though it does unfortunately mean that its baked into the image and therefore non-editable.


I've also been slowly making moves on the Kernel fixes. I think I'm going to add an opening title. Tasteless and unpopular as the idea seems, I'm effectively admitting defeat and creating some expectations for the audience so they're not completely in the dark about the story at the outset. Im also planning on adding two shots which will clarify a couple of the plot heavy props. But these need discussing with the relevant team members before I can start working on them.

Pixel Propaganda

An excellent article was written by the consistently interesting Kirk Hamilton, on writing videogame dialogue, in particular the enemy barks the player hears.