Video Games Design as an Art Form: Choices and Their Consequences

This dissertation assignment was submitted as part of my final year studies at Gateshead College, where it earned me a Distinction grade mark towards my H.N.D. Creative Media Production qualification.

The module was a special subject investigation on a subject of our choice. For which I chose to explore the subject by examining the role of game design and the consequences a developer’s choices have for the industry and society.

Continue reading “Video Games Design as an Art Form: Choices and Their Consequences”

Animation – Dev Log #1

Our tutor had prepared us a set of rigs for us to begin creating test animations within Maya.

Using the Graph Editor in Maya to fine tune the timing and spacing of the golden poses in the walk cycle

We examined how to break down and visualise the key points of human male locomotion. We study each keyframe and apply what we’d learnt to the model. Doing it this way worked out much better for me and I was able to get to grips with the task quite quickly, once I had orientated myself with the program interface. By apply improvements based upon feedback, I was able to smooth out jerky motions in the animation, by interpolating between keyframes. This added acceleration and deceleration to the velocity of the motions between keyframes and produced a much more realistic movement.

Animated GIF created from still images derived from the walk cycle animation.

Gone Till November

I ended up getting really busy towards the end of November and have subsequently fallen behind on my blog entries. I do plan to stay on top of them in future, aiming to get each entry published on the same day as the classes. Here are updates for progress made in the past two weeks for all my lessons.


Engines:

We are continuing to develop our platformer game in UDK and have included the use of; the LightMassImportanceVolume, for illumination; ReverbVolume (or ‘Ambient Zones’), to deal with localised sounds; creating traps and moveable platforms, by converting a static mesh and animating them using the Matinee function through Kismet.

I found the ReverbVolume made sense and there wasn’t really much I wanted to do with them other than get them in place and test them out, but I’m pretty confident that I could use them well in the future. Creating a crushing trap was also simple, but I wanted to work on getting the fan blade to rotate too, which Tobe explained how to do but we ran out of time before I could implement the solution we discussed.

Despite a few technical problems with my workstation I managed to get a basic environmental trap working, using Tobe’s instructions.

With this new knowledge, I should be able to construct a demonstration level, using the built-in assets. I plan to get this done over the break from university we have in December, so I can spend a solid amount of time on it in one go, which I find works best for me. When I finish it I will upload a video of me playing through the level, along with commentary on how I used my skills to achieve this. That will also give me an opportunity to get up to speed on video and audio editing, which I would like to know more about.

Tobe also addressed my earlier concern about scripting in UDK and stated that we will not be looking at learning this aspect of the engine, in light of the move to C++ in Unreal Engine 4, which was a concern I’d voiced previously. Phew!


Digital Art:

Martin tasked us with creating a turret from our own research/imagination, which we would use in our animation class. Since we would be animating the model, he asked us to make sure we include moving parts into its design.

I went for a mini-gun inspired design with a rotating stand, barrel and shell ejection mechanism.

Every time we use 3ds Max I find myself getting confused over the user interface. Though this task went a lot smoother than earlier ones, I still feel I am missing some critical knowledge on how to manipulate the objects; such as, splitting and deforming individual polygons; or ‘baking’ the objects into a whole. These are things I feel I know how to do in Maya but seem unintuitive or hidden in 3ds Max.

I had followed some tutorials online previously but I feel I may have missed some important ones out, so I’m going to go back over these and practice making simple objects until I am happy with the level of detail I can achieve.

We have now begun working on another unit with Martin, which is titled ‘2D Digital Graphics for Computer Games’. In the lesson, we discussed and then done some research on the use of visual styles in video games.

Collection of examples and opinions on different visual styles and approaches used to render game graphics.

The three styles we looked at in class were photorealistic, cel-shaded and anime. we still have to present to the class, but here is a little of what I wrote.

On photorealism in Battlefield, Crysis and Far Cry:
F.P.S. games have always been in a technological arms race when it comes to graphics, which I guess is a good thing when your crossing the uncanny valley. All of these have been really good looking games since the first versions and the technical expertise of the developers (DICE, Crytek and Ubisoft) really shows, with some of the best cinematic effects, the highest quality models and the most detailed environments. One problem I have with these games is the cinematic effects themselves, which are often exaggerated and can detract from realism in certain situations in favour of epic looking screenshots; i.e. is that sun/light really that glary to a human eye; water doesn’t trickle or stick to my eyes like it does a camera; is that motion blur or is my character crying uncontrollably?

I’ll present this to the class next week and then I can use the feedback I get to update my opinions and put the presentation up here in its entirety when I’m finished.


Animation:

We spent some time revisiting and refining our walking animation which we first made earlier in the month.

Revised walking animation with a more robotic, marching motion.

I am convinced that the revised animation is superior and am happy that we got to revisit this, as I felt I had gotten it well the first time but it’s always good to go back and rework things to get better at them.

We also got to animate our turret, after importing it into Maya from 3ds Max. I can’t provide a sample as I must have saved the file to a temporary location on the college network. More fool me!


Contextual Studies:

I am having lots of fun in Lucy’s lessons, where we have continued to look at semiotics and representation in games.

Slides from the semiotics lecture, examining the difference between signs and signifiers, plus iconic, symbolic and indexical meanings.

In class, we discussed how different parts of life are represented in games, such as; war, communism, consumerism, capitalism, sexuality, gender, race and ethnic groups, among others. This led to two short tasks, which had us create presentations on two subjects of our choice.

Slides from the representation lecture, where we discussed the portrayal of different subjects in video games.

My first choice in class was to write about capitalism. Lucy explained she’d like us to examine three games and how our chosen topic is represented in each. I did a little research online and created a slideshow and commentary on three games; Greed Corp, The Sims (series) and Capitalism II.

I had positive feedback from the tutor at the end of the class but I do want to spend some more time getting my notes into order before I put this up for you to read.

Lucy had also asked us to go in depth on a specific video game character, using what we had learnt from analysing movie posters. I chose the Big Daddy, from one of my favourite games, Bioshock.

Given the combination of the underwater setting, their distinctly deep sound and dominant stature, it’s possible for me to imagine that the Big Daddy is the figurative ‘whale’ of the Rapture ecosystem. Whales have few natural predators, which is also true of the Big Daddy, and they can be described as serene creatures, which is how I would describe the Big Daddy when one is alone and unchallenged. I can’t draw a lot of parallels but I do find this idea still comes to mind again when characters call the protagonist “little fish” and the Big Daddy “Mr. Bubbles”.

– from my Semiotics of the Big Daddy article.

I really enjoyed doing this and I put a lot of hours into getting the wording and structure of the document correct. This has been a good exercise for me to practice my English writing skills, as I felt I had been having problems in class with explaining my opinions with enough clarity and writing in a structured and sensical manner.


Life Art:

We continue to look at drawing techniques and practising drawing from a live model. It’s been a great experience and I have been really trying to improve my work based on Dave’s feedback and my own critical analysis.

At the start of the last lesson I was told to find a picture, of anything, and to work the picture creatively into my drawing, to make something Dave described as “half human half whatever”. So this piece was a combination of the live model and a picture of a bonsai tree. I aimed to make the tree appear as if it was like growth from the body, coming out of the collar of the model.

The image I worked from was found online.

The task was difficult as I had no reference of scale against the model, nor any real feel for the physicality of the plant itself. For example, I decided to scale the tree to fit around the forehead of the model, which to me seemed to throw off the proportions of the model. I would change if I was to re-do this piece, but perhaps it is just a product of translating the object from a photograph.

My drawing near completion – I remember to take a picture this time!

Dave pointed out that the face became too rigid and two dimensional from the bold strokes I had used, which I agreed with. He suggested to instead apply lighter, more suggestive lines instead of drawing the full features of the face and this worked out brilliantly. I will certainly try to avoid getting into too much detail, especially because I do prefer that minimalist style myself.

We where told there were pastels available so we could add some colour to the scene if we liked but to avoid getting overzealous with them. I did go for the pastels as you can see, but since I am not familiar with them I quickly made the mistake of applying them too heavily. I did manage to effectively disperse the colour by smudging the pastel enough to give it a more washed out look. Hopefully, I will get another chance to develop some skill in this area, perhaps I may buy some pastels to practice with after the new year.

UDK Platformer & UV Mapping

This weeks lesson on game engines covered building a platformer in UDK and using Kismet to add scripts to a level.

Programming events and such in Kismet was made easier to understand as we went through the logic step-by-step.

Before we got to building the level we had to make some additions to the scripts which run the program, which Tobe had thankfully prepared for us. If you are interested in how to do this then you can follow the instructions which are available from the Unreal Development Network website.

Once we had the changes in place we began by adding a few geometry elements and a player and enemy spawn location. Then we moved into Kismet, where we began creating custom actions for events; such as, giving the player and the enemy a weapon and adding behaviours for the enemy. This took us through past the end of the lesson but it gives me a solid ground to add more elements and really flesh this piece out to become a full level, which I will do sometime in the future.

I am getting to grips with UDK more and I don’t really find myself getting stuck or falling behind like I did in the first lesson, which is a great feeling.


Martin had us dive straight into texturing this week, using ‘Multi/Sub-Object Textures’ and ‘UV Mapping’.

A textured version of the bridge we made last week, using what we learnt in the lesson today.

I must admit; I’m still struggling to work with 3DS MAX. The program interface is not as familiar or intuitive to me as Maya so I find myself falling behind, often having to catch up when I should be practising or playing around with the tools.

We started out by creating a multi/sub-object texture and then we selected the different surfaces on the bridge and applied the corresponding textures which we had chosen from CGTextures. With these in place, we needed to resize, rotate and reshape them to look correct on our model. We achieved this by using the UV editor function, which I found was a lot more intuitive than using the texture editor.

Though I couldn’t get a perfect set of textures for my bridge, I know I will have plenty of time soon to practice these skills over the Christmas break. Which is when I plan to bring together everything I’ve learnt so far, to produce my own environment along with props.

New Classes & Semiotics

Yesterday was a bit of a surprise for me because the two lessons with Len which were rescheduled from Tuesday are now two sessions of Life Art with a tutor called Dave Gord.

He had popped up on Monday and asked us to bring some props, which I thought was unusual but made sense once we got to the lesson. Dave has an interesting plan, which is to get us to cover more traditional art techniques, to help us with our work in animation and modelling.

The selection of items my girlfriend put together for me.

In the session, we drew a series of different poses from a live model in creative and challenging ways. Dave kept us on our toes by getting the model to change stances at ever-shortening intervals and encouraged us to critically assess and adjust our drawings often. I found this helped me understand where I was going wrong and Dave was at all times giving advice on how we can improve our work.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take any pictures of my work but trust me, I didn’t discover any hidden talent. I did, however, find that I can still throw down some good lines and shading, even if I hadn’t done any drawing for the past ten years. This single lesson was a lot more fun than the whole of what I remember doing for art class back in college, that’s for sure!

It was also refreshing to get out from behind a computer and I am looking forward very much to next weeks session; which will require us to take a carrot and a stick.


Today’s final lesson was with Lucy, where we went through some more work which I also covered in Media Studies, ten years ago at college; semiotics.

We did a brief discussion about encoders and decoders then used what we had learnt to analyse film posters. As a class we broke down posters for The Dark Knight and The Truman Show, then we went on to choosing our own poster to analyse on our own.

The first movie poster that sprung to mind was this one for American Beauty.

I found it difficult to find the words I needed to express the thoughts I had about this poster and with the end of the lesson approaching I found myself with little written. We did have time to go through one example, an analysis of the poster for the film 300. Though there was some disagreement between the class most people did manage to justify their points well enough and the lesson was successful.

I do still feel the problem with semiotics lies in the interpretation of the different elements and I believe a lot of the meanings people read into are just circumstantial or where not intended by the author. Probably best to act intellectual and waffle on anyway, heh.

Experimental Video Games

Yesterday we only ended up having one lesson – in the morning with Lucie – because Len is now the course leader and his two lessons have been moved to Friday, with another tutor.

Shaving can be hard enough, never mind deliberating over feelings about your job!

Lucie had us first research interesting historical facts about the city, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. She then asked us to think up and write down a brief explanation of a game idea, based on the information we had collected. Here is a little of what I wrote;

“As you build the city over time you encounter problems outside of the daily management of the city, so you may have plague outbreaks, invading forces and socio-economic issues among others. The aim of the game is to build the city to a better standard of living than is possible today; though you can play beyond the current day to build into the future.”

We then read out our ideas and Lucie wrote them down on the board. She then asked us to play some of the games found on the Molle Industria website and explained that these games are the work of Paulo Pedercini, an experimental games maker. After playing Unmanned we where asked to think of how we can reduce the scope and ambition of our original game idea, to turn into something similar to what we have played. Immediately I began writing and here is what I came up with;

“Tyne bridge builder with 2D sprites which involves simple physics simulation, resource management (people, materials, etc.) and dealing with the environment (tides, landslides, etc.) to successfully build a working bridge. Each level has you build bigger and more expansive bridges using more complex materials and with more frequent environmental problems.”

This was an interesting lesson and it made me think of how I can make smaller games, where before I had always written my idea’s as something I would look to do with the help of at least a programmer and an artist. I may even look into making the ‘Tyne Bridge game’ someday, as I think it’s a cool little premise for a small game.

Oh LOD!

Yesterday’s final lesson was with Martin, where we looked level of detail and how it affects props in video games. I understood what Martin meant, having noticed and read about this before.

Oh LOD have mercy on this child!

Basically, a prop or model may have a few different versions of itself, each designed to be viewed at different distances by the player. So while the highest detail model will be used when the player is near the object, as they move away the model is replaced by the reduced quality one, to free up computing power for the rest of the scene.

Martin tasked us to create a bridge, using 200 polygons. He then asked us to create the same bridge three more times, each time reducing the polygon count by half.

Lowest to highest detail from left to right.

I feel that I achieved the target of reducing the level of detail on the bridge, by removing some unseen polygons, the handrail supports and supports under the bridge at the lowest levels. I also feel that, if I was more familiar with 3DS MAX, that I could have achieved a much better-looking result in this exercise because the player would see pop-in of the supports when approaching the bridge. Though I have seen this in games, I often feel it can be forgiven when it does not affect gameplay directly, as you’re trading off visual fidelity at a distance for the benefit of the overall graphics.

I am happy that we are given challenging tasks like this in Martin’s lessons and I respect that he is being honest with us, about how this works into the role of a modeller in the industry.

“Riiidge Racer!” & Giant Enemy Retail

I came in late to the start of today’s first lesson, where we learnt about the history of video games. It was a fun lesson and I especially liked going over the video below, after seeing it last year and it reminded me how Sony can drop the ball like the best of them.

Sony’s E3 2006 conference wasn’t just perceived by many as a flop, it enriched gaming culture with so many great meme’s.

Later into the lesson, the tutor expressed two opinions which I disagree with, on the XBOX One’s game sharing feature and the role of retailers in the industry. Continue reading ““Riiidge Racer!” & Giant Enemy Retail”