Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Task 15: Visual composition

Composition, as a general term, can extend to cover every aspect of an image, including the use of colour and tonal values. More specifically, it describes how things are arranged within a picture, relative to each other and relative to the edges of the images.

Depending on how you define them, there’s any number of different elements to consider when composing an image, but one way the key components can be broken down is into line, shape, colour texture, form, value and space.

Line is an illusion created by the edges of objects. Many drawings styles use lines to define the boundaries of objects within an image, as even though lines don’t actually exist it’s the easiest way to convey form. Whether the lines within an composition are actual lines or merely the edges of contrasting tones or hues, they’ll be one of the most easily identifiable features.

Shape is self-explanatory, and refers to both individual objects and combined objects. Colour is deceptively difficult to use properly, it does little to define objects, rather creates mood, warmth or cool. It can be used to bring attention to certain areas of an image, but not as well as tonal value.

Tonal value describes how light or dark a part of an image is. Tonal value is arguably the most important part of an image, since it’s the most visible part. Form describes the 3-dimensional qualities of an element, which is expressed through shading and perspective.

Texture is similar to form in that it can describe 3-dimentional qualities within an image, except instead of describing the overall structure it describes the tactile qualities. Texture is the difference between a reflective surface and a matte surface or a smooth surface and a grainy surface. Mostly texture adds detail and realism to an image.

Space is the proportion of an image that objects occupy; conversely, negative space is the portion of the image surrounding them or between them. Usually the focus of an image with be the positive space – the object or person the picture is focusing on – but sometimes the negative space can be the subject, for instance if the image is focusing on a piece of sky between trees or buildings. 

So, how do these all work within an image?

There are eight elements of composition to consider: unity, balance, movement, rhythm, focus contrast, pattern and proportion.

There are established principles for composition; some things work and some things just look ‘wrong’. The easiest principle to follow is the rule of thirds. Elements within an image will look best placed a third of the way up an image, or a third of the way along. By dividing an image into nine equal sections, you can identify the four focal points.

Focal points are places in an image where you intend the viewer to spend the most time looking. There are certain things people’s eyes will naturally gravitate towards, such as faces and hands. More detailed areas will also draw more attention, as will bright colours and contrasting hues.

If there is more than one focal point, they need to be arranged so that they are balanced. To some extent, symmetry in an image makes the composition feel grounded, but can also make it look unnatural.  

 Asymmetrical balance, which uses elements which are equal, but different, looks much more natural.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Task 19: Sound for Games

Sound has been present in games from the very beginning of their history, and in some ways has evolved parallel to the graphics as the capabilities of the systems have improved. The ability to synthesise sounds has been around for quite a while longer than video games, but for a long time was primarily stored in an analogue format, which required delicate physical components and was therefore greatly limited by practicality. Digital sound was much more affordably, but for early handheld game devices, sound was limited to synthesised music with very few notes and subsequently basic tunes. PC games were also limited, because producing sound took a significant amount of processing power, and even in modern games audio is demanding.

However, better technology does not equate to better music. In fact, sometimes the simpler tunes are the most memorable. Plenty of basic tunes have accompanied game along their development, becoming synonymous with the games themselves. They evolved alongside the graphics into theme tunes which in some cases are still used in those games. Theme tunes are an easy shorthand to represent a game even if it goes through major graphics reinventions, and create some amount of nostalgia for long-time players.

My own gaming experience has been solely limited to PC games, which for some don’t seem to produce the same scope of memorable theme tunes. The nearest thing I’ve probably experienced is hearing the Elder Scrolls theme song in the Skyrim teaser trailer and thinking “well, about time”. The main theme music for Skyrim purposely uses the same melodies as the previous games. Subsequently, the lack of the TES theme music in the recent Elder Scrolls Online cinematic trailer has been one of the most common complaints – as people have rightly pointed out, without the signature music it could be advertising any generic fantasy game.

While sound for games is still system-intensive, the main limitations for quality are mainly down to skill and budget. This is part of the development of games into a large industry, with increasingly large budgets and production teams. There’s been a demand for the quality of the music to increase alongside the graphics, to a point where it’s no longer feasible for a single person to produce sound for an entire game.

Sometimes it’s not just ingame music or theme tunes that get associated with a game title. The Assassin’s creed: Revelations cinematic trailer featured a vocalised song by a group called Woodkid, which has become irrevocably associated with that particular game. You also get songs written specifically for the game, such as the songs during the end credits of the Portal games, which were written specially for the games.

Composing for video games is now not all that different from film, and some composers working in games, such as Michael Giacchino, also work in multiple other genres such as film and TV.
Music for games is increasingly gaining the recognition it deserves. In 2012, for the first time, the Grammy awards included video game music as contender for Visual Media awards,
For a large part, sound in games is used much the same way it is in film; to convey mood and to create tension. This happens right the way from the title screen – action games have heroic or upbeat title music, horror games will play something creepy to set the mood.

This works within the game too, on a more specific basis. Thematic or more neutral music might play when the player is just travelling around the map, but when the player meets an enemy more fast-paced ‘combat music’ will start playing, drawing them into the action. As in films, the choice of music and sound has a huge effect on players’ experience of the games, and really shouldn’t be underestimated. Amnesia, for example, is much less scary without the player character’s rapid breathing, but with the sound on that alone can get your heart racing, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of. 

Sounds can be used to convey information to the player much more quickly than visual information can, especially during situations where the player has to focus on multiple things at once. The combat music mentioned above also serves to alert the player to the prescience of enemies that the character would have noticed, even if the player did not. During combat, there will be different sounds for the player getting hit, and for the player landing a hit on an enemy, and even for different types of attacks. Having different sounds leaves the player free to focus on aiming and moving around, and only checking their stats when prompted.

Sounds might also inform the player about things happening in their environment, such as telling them a gate has opened, whether a lever or button has worked or not. Footsteps of enemies alert the player to enemies they can’t see, especially in first person games. Sometimes musical cues are also used to tell the player they’ve completed a task or finished a level.

Voice acting in games is a fairly recent development, although it’s quickly become expected in any large-budget title. It’s not particularly vital, since there’s little that can’t be conveyed through text, but it adds another level of realism and depth to the game. On the negative side, it limits the amount of dialogue and greatly adds to production costs. If done badly, it can be worse than having no voice acting at all. This is more a problem in games with dialogue options than in linear games where voice acting is scripted. It’s very difficult to make conversation seem natural, and if you play a game for 40+ hours anything the characters say more than once will become noticeably repetitive unless it’s only said once.

One way games get around this is to create a made up language, since if the player doesn’t understand what’s being said it doesn’t become repetitive. The most well-known example is The Sims, where all the characters speak ‘Simlish’ –  which has since been coined as a general term for any conlang used in games for the purpose of remaining ambiguous.

Other examples of this include Magicka, where – unlike in The Sims - the (mostly) nonsense words are accompanied by English subtitles. In this game, the use of simlish is mainly a way to reduce voice acting costs and to make the game easier to translate into other languages, although it also adds a certain charm.

Task 17: Documentation (part 1)

Overview – Space-themed Platforming Game

This brief details the creation of assets for a game with a ‘retrofuturistic’ theme. Retrofuturism is 20th century aesthetics applied to science fiction; it creates a style that looks both space-age and old-fashioned, and is instantly recognisable.

The game will be for PC, and be aimed as casual gamers and younger players. It will primarily be a platforming game with an emphasis on puzzle solving. The gameplay will involve interacting with the environment via various tools such as grappling hooks, magnetic boots and jet-packs.

The overall look of the game should be clean and bright, with emphasis on primary colours to emulate the ‘pop art’ feel of retrofuturism artwork.  It should aim for a simplified ‘cartoony’ look rather than gritty realism, but retain realistic character and environment proportions. To create and maintain a unified stylised appearance, all textures will be primarily digitally hand painted. The game will take place in a variety of different themed levels, so assets that will be present throughout the game - such as reoccurring characters, need to be versatile enough that they are suitable across several different colour palettes.

The game will be produced for the Unreal Engine, using the Unreal Development Kit. The models with be produced primarily in 3Ds Max, with Z-brush or similar software used to produce normal maps.  The textures will mainly be produced in Photoshop.

 Lead Character – Space Explorer

The lead character is a female space explorer. She will be wearing a space-suit with helmet that obscures the face. The space suit doesn’t have to look realistic by modern standards – in fact it is preferable that it is obviously influenced by science fantasy. The suit can show minor wear and tear, but should for the most part look clean and new.

The character model should value readability over detail, and be realistically proportioned - although some exaggeration is allowed to aid readability - with a primarily blue or grey colour theme and plus a highlighting colour such as orange if needed.

Since the character will be in the foreground of the screen consistently during gameplay, only one Level of Detail is needed.

The character mesh should be under 20k tris, and the mesh should prioritise the silhouette and use appropriate polygon density. Since the character will be very visible and will constantly be moving, the topology needs to be built so that it deforms smoothly when the model is rigged.

The mesh should be textured using the following maps:

2 1024x1024 diffuse map with alphas

2 1024x1024 colour specular map

2 1024 normal maps

The diffuse map should be hand painted in Photoshop, with photo references used sparingly to convey the different textures of the materials such as metal and plastic. Mirroring the textures should be avoided as should obvious symmetry, except in areas where it will not be noticed. 

NPC – Robot Helper

This character will be present in various levels, to be directed by the player. It will be mostly humanoid, although not necessarily with accurate proportions, and has to be visibly mechanical. Most importantly, the character needs to look like it could realistically move, with jointed segments where the limb bend.

The character mesh should be under 15k tris, and the mesh should prioritise the silhouette and use appropriate polygon density. Since the character is mainly made out of metal, the majority of the mesh will not deform when moving, so the topology should take into account where extra geometry will be needed for it to deform cleanly and where it will not.

The mesh should be textured using the following maps:

2 1024x1024 diffuse map with alphas

2 1024x1024 colour specular map

2 1024 normal maps

The diffuse map should be hand painted in Photoshop, and the normal and specular maps need to realistically display the different materials – metal, plastic, rubber, etc – that the character is made of.