Monday, 19 March 2012

game design: art direction

Creating a good game isn’t just a case of having the right people. Large production teams mean you can get out more content, but the more people you have working on the same thing, the harder it is to coordinate. Many game series rely on an easily recognisable style to sell copies, and so there needs to tight quality control to make sure that work produced by different individuals fits into the larger picture. An art director has to has to set the style for a game, and throughout the production process, they’re responsible for making sure the work produced will come together in the final product.

In some ways, games are a much more unforgiving medium than film. You can’t hide things with careful camera angles or cropping; everything in the virtual environment you’re creating is laid bare for the player to scrutinize. In film you can direct the viewers’ attention to a certain subject, and if they miss something, once the camera moves on it’s gone. Games have to anticipate the player moving at their own pace, and there’s no knowing or controlling what a particular person will choose to look at; at most you can try to draw their attention with visual clues.

Somewhere you have to compromise between quality and quantity, between artistic realism and practicality. There’s a limit to what can realistically be achieved within a given timeframe, and not having a clear stylistic aim once the actually work begins is a sure way to waste valuable time. This is where concept art plays a valuable role, but even that is usually produced by people, who will all have their own visual style and ideas, and will all have a different take on the same subject. 

Luckily, there are tools that can be used to maintain artistic consistency. Reference libraries are invaluable for sharing ideas and quickly establishing a theme. These will probably include photographs, textures, colour palettes, a variety of artwork and even screenshots of previous games if the project is trying to emulate a pre-existing style. Modelling a few test assets prior to starting production allows a more accurate estimate of production time, and also can be used as reference for further assets.
A clearly defined pipeline for modelling assets means inconsistencies can be addressed before they become excessively costly to correct. Checklists for stylisation and overall quality can help to make sure all assessts meet the same standard.

For efficiency, it’s likely that many assets, such as textures and meshes, will be reused. Working out where and how these assets will be used requires planning in advance. 

Ultimately, the role of an Art Director is a creative one. Even if they don’t directly contribute to any individual detail, their influence is seen thought the final product, in the visual style of the game as a whole. An art director will need to be able to make informed artistic choices, and therefore it is essential that they have a solid knowledge of the basics of art, such as composition and colour  theory.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Visual design: Guildhall

I had a lot of fun with this, although at times it was frustrating. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt from this project is that not only are excessively large image sizes unnecessary, my computer hates them, especially once you bring in multiple layers. Most of the grief this gave me was because my PC had to deal with a 10000 by 7000 image with about 30 layers. Sorry computer! I promise I’ll never to do that to you again! (Spoiler: I probably will.)

Other than that, some parts – specifically the stairs and banisters in the foreground -would have benefited from me using 3-point perspective, instead of shoehorning everything into 2-point. Maybe next time.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

elements of game design

I’ve always thought that the best way to divide games into categories is to look at why we play them. I’m a bit of a Solitaire addict, but I’m still surprised that, on reflection, since Christmas the amount of time I’ve spent playing Klondike on my phone is probably comparable to the total hours I’ve spent hiking around Skyrim.

Surprising? I’ve been eager for the fifth Elder Scrolls game ever since it was nothing more than speculation and vague, cryptic comments hidden in Bethesda interviews. I suppose it’s because of how quickly I can get into the game. I won’t play a PC game like Skyrim unless I know I’ve got at least an hour to spare, and if I have that much free time, I’ll often have some other outstanding task that I can’t justify ignoring for that long.

It’s not just a matter of the time it takes to start up my computer and the game itself – there’s a certain amount of mental involvement too. If I haven’t touched the game for a few days, I’ve probably completely forgotten what I was doing, and it’ll take a while to get my bearings. Neither do I want to play for a short time. I’ll say this now; Skyrim does not have the best quests I’ve come across, or the best controls – but the huge world and gorgeous graphics make it extremely immersive nonetheless, and to get the best experience you need to play for a long stretch of time. 

Solitaire, on the other hand, is just something I play at two in the morning when I can’t sleep. It’s kind of addictive, true, but I can sum up everything I have to say about it in a few sentences. It’s hard to objectively describe a card game in terms of video game mechanics, but the controls themselves are so simple I could pick it up and start playing almost immediately. While there’s’ definitely quite a lot that could be said about the strategy, the basic mechanics is just the absolute minimum of what is needed to be playable.

I don’t play games because I like the combat mechanics (although they have a direct impact on my enjoyment of the game) or even because of the graphics – although the art direction often has a direct impact on whether I’d play the game in the first place. 

It’s about the story.

I don’t mean the long overarching plot of the game, either. I’ve played games with elaborate plotlines and fully fleshed out backstories for every area in game, and then I’ve completely ignored every cut-scene and lengthy charactermonologue because they haven’t contributed anything to my enjoyment of the game. Sometimes all I really want from a game is enemies to kill and puzzles to solve, and I don’t care why other than that the former are attacking me, the latter gives me better items, and overall there’s a general sense of progression.
In a game demo I played years ago, one character option starts the game in a dungeon. The first thing you have to do is kick down a loose part of the wall, sneak through the sewer and kill the sleeping guard to get a key. This whole series of steps is just a way of teaching you the basic game mechanics – targeting objects, kicking, killing enemies, picking up objects. It’s just a series of buttons. There’s no choice in what you have to do – escaping that cell is the only way to progress the game. 
Yet it’s immersive; the only prompt that you get to start off of how to aim and kick, you have to work out that the wall is loose. The only way you know that is that one of the blocks on the wall looks wonky. The controls and graphics work together to tell that small story of how you get out of the cell, and there’s a great sense of achievement the first time you get it, because the character didn’t work out how to escape – you did.

However, that one experience is hardly enough to base an entire game on. It’s the final product of gameplay, and – like CGI in movies - if the person in front of the screen is constantly aware of the mechanics behind it you’ve probably screwed up.

 Explaining how a game will work, while also conveying the experience of playing it is not an easy task, but that’s what design documents have to do. Most of us have probably played a game where there’s been some quirk of the controls we’ve hated, that if we had designed the game we would have done differently. After you’ve played a game for a few hours these things seem obvious, but if you’re just reading the mechanics of the controls, it would be near impossible to pick these things out.
This is an example of why game design should not be a one way process; the design document needs to evolve to overcome problems. However experiments of any kind are expensive and time consuming. That’s why, I suspect, most games seem to have nearly identical controls (speaking as a PC gamer); game producers know what works and seldom stray from it.

That’s one of the reasons I applaud assassin’s creed. When I was following the production of the first game, my enthusiasm was for the setting and the character design, and my only interest in the game mechanics was that there would be platforming, somewhat similar to that in Prince of Persia. The first time I played Assassins creed was actually on a playstation while at a friend’s house. I played it for… maybe an hour or two. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t used a controller for at least a few years, it’s amazing how quickly the controls became second nature, even if I was zigzagging all over the place because I can’t get the hang of aiming with the thumb joystick thingies. 

The point is, even though the mechanics the game uses – having different “modes” of movement – was something relativley new, it quickly became instinctual, to the point where I still occasionally try to sprint with the mouse button in other games. If I see a piece of a building ingame, expect to be able to grab onto it, and find that I can, then as far as I’m concerned the game has successfully created an immersive experience.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

game review: Dear Esther

It’s probably not the best idea for my first review to be of a game that is only debatably a game, but after playing Dear Ester, I felt the strong need to talk about it.  

Dear Esther does have game mechanics, but they are the extremely basic WASD controls used walk around and progress in the game. This small level of interactiveness is pretty much the only thing that separates it from being a computer generated movie. In some ways, Dear Esther reminds me of the 2D point and click adventures you find all over the internet, only there are no puzzles, and the mouse controls only affect the camera. 

It’s the nature of first person games to project into the character. You see from their eyes, and for the duration of the game you are them. In Dear Esther, it is left ambiguous as to who you are actually playing as. You can project yourself into their shoes and imagine the quiet footsteps of the protagonist are your own, but then you still have no choice in what you do. 

All you can do is walk, and ultimately there is only one way to go. You cannot lose and you cannot die, nothing you do makes any difference in the end. It is an uncomfortable feeling, being so powerless in a medium that is all about control.
In a way it shows that there such a thing as too much story versus effort. Having to work to find out what happens next – be it through combat, puzzles or platforming – makes the narrative reward seem so much better.

I understand what the makers of Dear Esther were trying to do. There are small details, like the paper boats in the underground stream and the bread and fish in the caves, that give you an idea of the kind of depth the game was aiming for, but it wasn’t strong enough to make the experience stand up on its own.

You can play through the whole thing in little more than an hour, and although there are some parts I did go back and examine in more detail, the majority of the walking around is too tedious and uneventful to sit through a second time. The whole thing feels unfinished and unresolved, as though it’s a prelude or a demo. 

I was hoping there would be some underlying plot to uncover, but there isn’t.
The graphics, at least are solid. They’re not my any means ground-breaking, but the island does feel like a lonely, deserted island. The caves are beautiful, and there’s no doubt that whoever created the visual aspect of dear Esther took a lot of care over crafting the virtual world.

It’s just a shame they chose such a boring premise. I get the feeling that had they chosen a more interesting idea, or even rewritten the story to have a solid plot, the game would have had a more widely positive reception. This kind of thing is obviously never going to appeal to people who play games solely for the action, but I went in expecting a good story, and was left disappointed.

Is it worth buying? For such a small amount of content, the price is rather steep, but if you enjoy natural scenery, and don’t mind the extent of the gameplay being a virtual tour, it can be a nice break from more intensive gaming experiences. Just don’t be surprised if, at the end, you come away with a strong sense on unfulfillment.