Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Interaction Design

     The way we see games has changed a lot over the years- and by “see” I mean in the most literal sense. The consoles that lounge seductively across our floors and TV stands with air of aloofness are a very different creature to the black and grey boxes that once squatted under our TVs and delivered silent, motionless nods of encouragement as Airman beat the living crap out of us.

     It’s no surprise, though- these days, everything has to be streamlined to sell. Electronics now have as much pressure to stay in fashion as the clothes we wear; just look at each new iPod. Actually, bad example, iPods are old-fashioned now, it’s all iPhones instead. Who still has two separate devices to play music and call someone in this day and age? (Me.)

     I don’t think this is as new for games consoles as it is for other technology, however. Let’s look back to only the late 90s- remember those cream boxes with curved glass screens and their matching cream towers? I’m pretty sure that even in the 90s, magnolia wasn’t exactly the height of aesthetic genius. And it was a disaster for keyboards and mice (mouses? Mice just doesn’t sound right for the electronic kind), which showed up every tiny build-up of general skankery your greasy human hands left behind, so that after about a month they appeared to have collected years’ worth of filth.

     My point is, PCs looked dorky.

     Games consoles, on the other hand, were quite a few steps ahead. This was the ages of the Dreamcast, the Playstation, and the Nintendo 64. The former two were still in the grey ages, but the Dreamcasts controller not only looked a bit like the Millennium Falcon, but had a space for the little screen on the memory cards in the middle. The screen had about 20 pixels and didn’t do a lot but who cares it was a controller with a screen on it and that was mind-blowing. The N64 was way ahead, though- the standard colour was a sexy teal-ish green because haters gonna hate and it was semi-transparent. You could see through it because it had nothing to hide since it was awesome all the way through. And the controller had three prongs because there just wasn’t enough room on two for all the win the N64 had to offer.

     The last part is slightly subjective, but seriously, anyone that complains about the three prongs has obviously never played an N64 game ever- every game just picks either the D-pad or the control stick and sticks with it and never expects you to switch between them like everyone is terrified might happen.

     Basically, my point is that games consoles had to look cool (or as we said in the 90s, “wicked”. That was a bad move, I will never say that word again) even back then. This was based on the generation of consoles before it- at that point, gaming wasn’t just for nerds, gaming was cool, and if you had cool consoles you were cool. The N64 might look like a squashed block of jelly now, but in its day it was…still a squashed block of jelly, but the jelly tasted like rainbows.

     Now let’s look at the generations before and after that. The SNES and the Saturn had radically different designs- while the SNES was still a grey box of grey buttons and grey panels and general greyness, at least it had a bunch of “neato” (I’ll stop soon) add-ons, such as the Power Glove and R.O.B. the robot (how well they actually worked was irrelevant, I suppose). Meanwhile, the Saturn looks a bit like Knight Rider. In the next generation, consoles hit some kind of gawky teenager phase. I mean just look, seriously. The PS2 and Xbox are a pair of big black monoliths that look like they had the ten commandments written on them once, and the Gamecube just looks like a handbag. I honestly have no explanation for this, they’re all ugly now and they were all ugly then. Bad examples.

     Back to the point I was trying to make. Look at the Atari 2600- see that wooden panel and unsightly black grill design? Look at some TVs from the 70s. Yeah, everything looked like that. Which is why it kind of stands out- the Atari was one of the first home consoles, and so bringing games from the arcade to the living room was still a novel thing. And yet it fits in nicely with your tacky 70s d├ęcor- this shows that Atari cared about the appearance of their console, even way back near the dawn of home gaming itself.

     Which brings us to today, and into the streamlined age. The PS3 is still a hulking black monolith, but now it has smooth curves across the top. The Xbox360 is now a hulking grey monolith with curved edges and some nuclear jacket potato logo, and the Wii is a shiny, slimline white box with a neon blue light in the disc slot. Well, at least Nintendo got it right. Everyone knows that all machinery in the future is made of white plastic with neon lights, after all. The Wiimote (possibly named by Jonathan Ross) is innovative- the idea of “being” the controller was huge at the time, even if the idea has been milked dry by now. The huge problem with it was the way it was exploited by third-party companies for party games and spin-offs, and how unresponsive it could be. I still prefer the 360 controller, purely on the grounds that it’s an actual classic controller. As for the PS3, Sony haven’t changed the Playstation controller ever. And it’s probably the worst controller since those crappy toaster-things attached to the Odyssey. I mean, pick up something with both hands. It doesn’t matter what it is, just pick up anything. Where are your thumbs? Are they craning down toward the bottom of the object? Or are they pointed upward at a roughly 45 degree angle, about level with the first joint of your index finger? That’s where the left analogue stick should be. That’s how people hold things, it’s where people have always held things, and it’s where the main directional control, which has been the analogue stick ever since 360 degree control was possible, has always been. It’s like people have been building submarines out of steel for decades, and then Sony came along and said “Nah, let’s make them out of bread”.

Sound in Games

     To be honest, although I’m still an artist rather than a musician, I’m definitely more of a music nerd than an art nerd. As such, I see music in games as being actually pretty important to the game- just as much as the visuals, sometimes more so (definitely more as far as graphics’ quality goes). The audio is what changes the entire feel of an area or specific moment.

     I think I’ve already ranted about Majoras Mask enough in past posts, specifically the ‘Last Day’ track, so I should really shut up about Majoras Mask this time…

     Instead, this is an opportunity to babble about the Shin Megami Tensei games’ music, composed by Shoji Meguro, starting with Digital Devil Saga. Something many games do often is create a rendition of the same track but with a different feel to it- this ambiently creates an association without using words. For example, by using a sad version of a character’s leitmotif to convey their importance, or more often, a battle rendition, ballad version, etc. of the games theme song. Meguro uses this to great effect- take the main theme of DDS, ‘Pray’. You hear this throughout the game a lot, each rendition conveying a different emotion, from the overworld menu theme, ‘Junkyard’; an energetic, fast-paced track that gives the player the feeling of important events about to unfold, to the mournful ‘Aurora’; the track that plays in the first (of many) heart-rending deaths, to ‘Surely Again…’ (skip to 2:15); a brief track that plays during the ending. It starts out calm and serene, until the climax, when suddenly a much happier melody than would appear to fit the scene kicks in- this hints that it isn’t over yet, foreshadowing the sequel. The same technique is used to even greater effect in the sequel, in which you hear the main battle theme ofthe first DDS in one particularly epic boss fight.

     Another game series that uses sound interestingly is the .hack// series, using audio almost as part of the narrative, supporting the players suspension of disbelief. The series in a nutshell is about an online game called ‘The World’ which becomes the source of a virus that spreads across the internet worldwide, putting players who encounter monsters in the game infected with the virus into a coma in real life. Throughout the course of the series, the player visits entire areas infected with the virus, along with areas of The World that were never put there by the creators, and the game does incredibly well in driving home the feeling that you really shouldn’t be here.

     The music in most of the game is pretty standard RPG music (and pretty good listening in its own right). When the player visits a restricted or corrupted area, aside from the broken graphics, the music is interrupted frequently by blasts of static, and in some areas there is no music at all. But the biggest change is when fighting one of the main bosses of the game, responsible for putting players in comas; here, the music takes on a completely different tone, suddenly turning to some kind of industrial/techno music, ranging from having no co-ordination or rhythm to some kind of dirge or hymn and back again in the same song. This style of music is used in all illegal areas of The World, even in the leitmotifof one character who is later revealed to be part of the virus herself, and droves home the feeling that you’re not in Kansas anymore. The whole effect is just haunting.

Visual Composition

     Visual composition is rather different in games to any other media; in 3D games, this is complicated by the third dimension, but the same problems can occur in 2D games, too. This is because the environment, and what the player sees, isn’t entirely under the creators control; the player moves the character, changing the viewpoint completely. This could be likened to stage design; however, the game does not play out on a set script- scripted events must be triggered by the player, and the player cannot be relied on to flawlessly play their role, otherwise there would be no ‘game’ at all.

     For a pretty literal example, check out this video of someone reaching the border of an area in Ocarina of Time using glitches; you can immediately see the huge gap between where the cliff just cuts off and the flat plane of trees hovers behind it, creating the illusion of the area being surrounded by out-of-reach forest. Needless to say, creators use tricks like this all the time (although they are significantly more refined with todays graphics) to create illusions that there is no reason the player should ever see through. However, that was a simple example- much more complicated is the art of direction via composition. A few posts ago I talked about the level design in Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy- this is exactly what I mean. After all, the difficulty in a game should always be what to do, and how to do it; never where to go. To go back to the stage metaphor, the game needs the player to ‘play their role’ in order to progress, but the player doesn’t know their lines, and cannot receive stage directions because the game itself is about figuring them out for oneself- furthermore, the game has to maintain a delicate balance between crediting the player with enough intelligence to figure out where to go and making the path obvious enough so as not to hinder exploration. A pretty good example of this done both right and wrong is actually, once again, Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Actually, almost all Zelda games suffer from this; the only way the player knows where to go next is through cutscenes. This was incredibly common in games of its time, but Zelda (not just OoT, but all Zelda games) has no excuse, being brought down by what it boasts: a huge, lush world to explore. In many games (although this method of direction is fairly lazy) the player can usually assume that they should go to the place they haven’t been yet, or the only way that isn’t blocked off. But in OoT you step out into Hyrule Field and the only way you know to head to the castle is because you’re told to. And if you’re the type to skip through the text dumps (in which case, to be fair, Zelda probably isn’t for you), you’re on your own. There’s so much to explore and so many things to do that trial and error just doesn’t really work here. And then the game delivers a HUGE “screw you” in the form of making it near-impossible (that is, an experienced player who knows the trick might just about make it in time) to reach the castle before nightfall, when the drawbridge goes up and you’re surrounded by endless hoardes of skeletons. The very first Zelda was the worst; not only is there absolutely no way of knowing where the next dungeon is, you don’t even have to go into the cave on the very first screen. If you were to simply walk in any other direction, deciding to explore the cave later, you would be wandering around completely defenceless.

     However, in contrast to the overworld, dungeons in Zelda games have always been ingenious in their construction. As soon as the player finds the new piece of equipment in the dungeon, everything falls into place; puzzles suddenly make sense, new doors are opened, and the way to the boss gradually becomes clear. As soon as you get the bow, you know you’re headed through the door with the shootable eye above it, once you have the mirror shield and discover how to bounce light at certain symbols, the rooms with symbols and beams of light suddenly make sense.

     And so, to finish, let’s take a look at how leading the player on can be used to hilariouseffect (skip to about 4:30 to 5:30 to see what I mean).

Planning and Concepting

Honestly? I’ve never been good at planning out my ideas.

     It’s not even something I’m new to. I’ve just never had the patience- when I’m given a project to do, nine times out of ten I immediately have a bunch of relatively fully-formed images in my head of what I want to do and I just want to get them down and out there, working into them as I go. But what I see in my head changes much faster than I can draw- a new and better design may appear before I finish an initial sketch, as well as a way of taking the parts from other ideas that I liked an incorporating them into one final design, be it a character, an environment, or a scene. Hence, the first sketch I draw of an idea can sometimes be technically the fourth or fifth draft. This kind of method of working means not a lot to show short of three or four versions of a final product. I use some visual notes now and then, but by notes I mean literally notes. As in the visual equivalent of shorthand. Crappy doodles that are probably indecipherable to anyone else, but I can tell it’s a rough sketch of what the sleeves of that jacket are supposed to look like from behind.

     It’s fairly rare that I draw a complete mental blank (unless the subject is vehicles, in which case it’s nearly inevitable) and am forced to do things the old fashioned way and come up with a logical plan to come up with ideas. It’s even rarer that I actually have a substantial amount of ideas that are radically different enough to create a coherent train of thought on paper.

     The bottom line is, I fail hard at planning my work. If I took the time to think about some kind of structure before jumping straight into design, maybe I’d come up with more developed ideas- technically I am, after all, running with pretty much the first idea I get. I’ll probably try to expand my visual library more in future and refer to it, as well as add to it, before laying down designs.

Monday, 23 April 2012

First Year Review

I have to say, I’ve enjoyed this year-it was even more work than I expected, but I’ve also learned a lot more than I expected, and I think I’ve improved way faster this year than I would have otherwise. I had never done any 3D modelling in my life before this year, for example. But, as a result, I found it kind of hard to keep up with sometimes- fitting in the practice to get better around sketching (and eating and sleeping haha) is difficult sometimes. I’m still pretty hopeless at texturing (hopefully I can fix this over the summer).

     Anyway, I can’t really think of anything I’d change about the curriculum. I suppose it would be handy to learn other methods of creating things in 3DS Max, such as alternate methods to building characters and unwrapping.

     It would be cool to have projects that overlap between Game Production and Visual Design, too. Having a project that incorporates both equally now and then would be pretty awesome, as there’s a pretty deep moat between the two at the moment. By which I mean, having the concept art for a 3D model go toward the final mark, or finishing a character design project and then making it in both clay and in 3D.

Gaming Environments and their effect on gameplay

Characters may be the heart of any game, but any narrative or depth would be pointless were it floating in a void of nothing- the environment where the events take place is just as important as the events themselves, and this is more true for video games than any other media or art form. Your vision isn’t directed- you are free to explore everything the area has to offer.

     However, free as you are, the environment needs to have some kind of route through it. If you are in a hub between levels this isn’t so important, but if you are supposed to get to the next area through a door that blends right in with the rest of the scenery, you hit a dead end, unsure of where to go next. The creators need to place indicators of where you are supposed to go- sometimes the designers do this, by placing a line of collectibles, ammo, health, etc leading to the door. But usually, it’s the art teams job to make that door, or the path to that door, stand out somehow, be it using colour to make the area around the door catch the eye straight away, or by placing obstacles that lead the player in a route around the room in a way that leads them to a position from which they can’t really miss the door.

     The cult classic game Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy has many perfect examples; the game is absolutely full of some of the most beautiful and immersive environments- chances are, by the time you finish the game, you still haven’t seen all Abydos has to offer, and frustrating as the fetch-quest near the beginning can be, the chance to explore the secret passages and the dungeons of the royal palace alone was motivation enough. But the absolute perfect example here has to be Heliopolis, both from a visual and a design point of view. When you first arrive at Heliopolis, you see a temple, lots of sand, and some small huts and a huge wall off in the distance. The latter two are unreachable, however, guarded by the laser-shooting Eye of Ra statues. So naturally, your first stop is the temple, in which you find nothing useful- but upon exiting the temple, you find yourself facing a huge cave you may never have noticed otherwise, leading you to the dungeon. Later, when you can destroy the Eye of Ra statues and progress to the other side of the wall, you find a huge expanse of desert containing the next dungeon, a small village, and many places and items significant in the games various sidequests. The way the game leads you to where you need to go is simple, yet clever.

     The Krazoa Palace in Starfox Adventures worked similarly. Each time you enter, you are dropped off at a different location, and are heading somewhere in the palace you haven’t been to before. To make things worse, the room you must pass through with each visit, your centre of navigation, is a maze of fans and air currents, meaning it would be easy to get lost. This time, you are directed by design rather than visually; each door is activated differently. You can’t go the wrong way because you either don’t have the item or ability needed to open the wrong routes yet, and the places you have already been are easily recognisable because it’s easy to spot how a door is supposed to be opened or how the route is to be navigated (a pair of dinosaur footprints in front of a locked door mean it’s opened by standing on it wearing the SharpClaw Disguise, while a door with a symbol on the wall nearby means it’s opened by shooting the symbol). Each floor of the central room is also distinguishable by the enemies, placed on each floor in varying number and type.

Art Direction, and what it entails...

The art director for a game is essentially the one who decides what the game you’re playing will look like, in a nutshell. But this means being responsible in some way for each and every element in a scene, how they come together, which elements to use, and what those elements are in the first place.

     Of course, this requires a lot of interaction with the rest of the team, and the ones who will be actually making the items and scenery in question. The art director is basically the one who takes the ideas of the game designer, and organises them into something visual; he or she has the final say in everything visual that goes into the final product. If the designer says s/he wants the first level to be a rainforest full of life and energy, the job of the art director is to see the designers vision as clearly as possible, translate that rainforest into visual form, and ask themselves firstly, ‘What does a rainforest look like? What types of trees and plantlife would one find? What is the ground like?’, and secondly, ‘How can we put that life and energy into the level?’ Maybe they will decide to fill the area with movement from every direction; ‘Rainforests are full of insects and animals, so the background needs to be full of…?’ And so they do the research to find out exactly what insects and animals one would expect to find in a rainforest. ‘So, this rainforest needs tropical butterflies, hummingbirds, treesnakes, etc. But will they be static or animated? Sprites or 3D models? Maybe if the player leaves their character standing still for too long, insects will gather around him. Aha, maybe if this happens, the character swats them away.’ So already, the art director is telling the lead artist s/he needs x number of different models for Cacao Trees, Cecropia Trees, and Canopy Trees, at least one static model for an iguana, several hummingbird models (fully animated), a treesnake model (also animated), an animated sprite of insects, and a new idle animation for the main character.

     However, the designer may well say s/he wants to scrap the rainforest and go with a desert instead, but it still needs to keep the feeling of life. This is a more difficult; ‘How do I put life into a desert?’. Firstly, they consider what can be reused from the original scene. ‘Maybe that model of a snake could be retextured to make it a rattlesnake? Perhaps some of the more ambiguous shrubbery could be reused around an oasis?’.
     The art director is responsible for how the final result turns out. Once a task is completed, it’s run by the art director, who must give the go-ahead for it to be used in-game. So if the wrong trees are used, or if the texture of the ground mismatches the environment, or even if the plantlife is too green for the designers vision, the art director is the one who takes responsibility.