Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Charlie, check that manhole

Late late. Access to internet is limited due medieval techniques in this house. Internet only works in a dark corner since the wireless connection decided to give me a midfinger. And I'm too lazy to fix it.

How's the demo? Easy, it's planned somewhere in July for now. 3D content is made as we speak, but don't forget it takes some extra time now. 3D models will get more detail, and all the textures are made by ourselves. And... probably those guys have something better to do than spending 4 or 5 hours a day on T22 like me :p

To make it worse, artist Jesse lost his drawing-arm for a while. While biking, Apache Indians took him under fire, he hit a car-door, crashed into a ravine, the leaking fuel out of his bike exploded, and wild vultures attacked him. No, but that car-door really did hurt. So, his arm has to rest before he can put something on canvas again. Too bad, I really like to show you some art-teasers here once in a while. Oh well, at least he didn't explode or got eaten by vultures. Always look on the bright side of life. Anyway, sorry for the lack of fresh screenshots lately, we have to be a little bit patient.

Ok, 1 shot then. Realtime ambient lighting in progress. Normally this scene would be completely black, except for the spotlight in the corner. Now light from this source and the outside is bounced several times. Runs pretty damn fast (with 5 bounces) and at least it’s far more accurate than the previous “solution”, at a lower memory cost as well. However, the visual errors (due low resolution 3D textures) are still too big to accept. To be continued.

The good news then. "We" (still need a team-name but can’t come further than Doodle-Soft or Ape-Avalanche studio) are getting help from three extra men from yLAn Studios (Milan, Italy). Uh men... actually two of them are women. Yeah I didn't know that either, but game-producing girls do exists. Hey, seems that this nameless team is getting quite diverse! Americans, women, black & white, moms, dads, Mediterian.... Though, we still need a transsexual Viking in a wheelchair with Arab & Chinese parents to get this party complete :)

But seriously. I closed the "help-needed" doors a month ago. The only thing the team still needs at the moment, is a really-really good environment modeler. But before asking again, I guess it's wise to first finish a second demo, to use as fishing bait & filter. Really, before asking help, make sure you have something to show. So what are the boys & girls from Milan suddenly doing here then? Positive discrimination? No; to be honest I thought I was talking with a guy until Julio explained her name "Giulia" is pronounced the same as my own daughter's name "Julia". Doh! Like I said, you don't expect the other side to be responding on game-thingies. But probably I'm just old-fashioned.

Anyway, whenever someone offers help, it's always hard to make a verdict. Can they help you, based on just a few images or video's in their portfolio? And can you help them? Inviting everyone is easy, but if you don't have interesting tasks that would fit with their skills & interest, the motivation will be gone soon. Initially I had my doubts here. For one thing, three extra people on a relative small demo is like hiring 60 carpenters to construct a dog kennel in the front yard. Giulia, head of yLAn, explained they we're looking for another challenge. You know, sharpening skills and such. So I thought again about the offer, and suddenly an idea popped up... Prototyping! Say what?

T22 is an ambitious project, and we're full of ideas. Charles Dickens "Great Expectations". But deep in my heart I know it's impossible to release such a game, unless a full battalion of Russian Spetnaz is going to help. Luckily time is on our side, as no one is pushing to release this game within a few years. The worst thing that can happen is that I get hit by a dumptruck, or that I'll have to rebuild parts of the engine because the graphics are outdated again. But even so, we need more manpower (or girl-power for that matter) when it comes to environment mapping to start with.

The problem with making maps, levels, stages, environments or whatever you like to call it, is not just the amount of work to model & draw them. Each game has a set of requirements that a new piece of map has to meet. Examples:

* Halflife -->
Science-fiction, slightly horror, HL settings (City 17, Area 51, labs, prisons, factories, ...), linear gameplay, combat scenes (crates and pillars to take cover, flanking routes, plenty of stuff to destroy).

* Hidden & Dangerous (huh? Yes, the BEST and most BUGGY tactical WOII game ever. Period) -->
Multiple approaches to solve mission X (from Rambo to Stealth), Ze Germans, WOII style, sniping positions, enemy patrol routes to study, something to blow up.

* Zelda -->
Big outdoor map, secret locations (grotto’s, paths, dungeons, backdoor entrances), has to fit in the map section theme (town, dungeon, farm, forest, lake, desert, …). Occupied by either (simple) enemies or friendly creatures to talk with. Covers a couple of puzzles or items to find. Maybe a “vista” like a giant castle, big bridge, or floating structure. Fits in the overall Zelda fantasy theme; cartoonish, fun, yet a little bit scary sometimes = Fairy tales.

* Super Mario -->
Difficult jumps / climbing / swimming / ape stunts, 1 important theme for each level (giant boss, something huge to climb, King Buduba's missing key, pirate ship, ...), overall Mario fantasy setting (mushroom kingdom, snow, water, forest, castle), kid-friendly, nice colors.

Just feeled like posting a pic of this misunderstood ugly duck game. Played Operation Flashpoint, Arma, Rainbow Six, and several other tactical action games. But honestly, I found them pretty boring and empty. Hidden & Dangerous on the other hand was even though all its bugs and clumsy characters a brilliant game. Because every inch of those maps was thought about. Spend hours and hours crawling to reach the perfect sniping positions, felt one with the ground. Every little bump, wall or obstacle had its function; they weren’t just thrown in the maps as decoration.

And so has Tower22 its wish list. I dare to say the requirements are even more difficult than the average game here, as the “horror-vibe” is an extremely fragile thing. Most “scary” movies make me yawn. How to give an skyscraper varying interesting environments, but with respect to the main theme (horror, building, old, Soviet)? And even more difficult: how to guarantee that "horror-vibe"? The game has to shock or at least make a player feel uncomfortable for hours in a row. A horror game is considered as a success when the Ph value of someone’s underpants is -2 or lower after 2 hours of playing. But doing so is extremely difficult. One wrong enemy, music tune or bad chosen environment can change "scariness" into "laughter" or just "boredom". Humans adapt quickly to situations, so having a spooky dusty flat-corridor or a couple of intestines here and there isn't going to work forever.

* T22 -->
Overall unsafe feeling, here and there disgusting or bizarre things to keep varying, proper climax-speed, main theme (Soviet, building, old, strange), maze-like structure, hidden area’s. Make the environments suitable for puzzles and caretaker jobs. Environment has to suit the storyline. Maps support the type of enemy interaction (having multiple escape routes, hiding spots, ...).

So besides being awful, the environment also has to deliver support for puzzles and the type of enemy A.I. Kinda like Zelda or Metroid maps. But how to know if something will work out or not? Don't know about you, but my ideas usually start with some random thoughts, then I try to pour them into a few locations. With that in mind, I start drawing a 2D map. You know, the kind of floor plan you'll find in Resident Evil. But I'm always afraid the extra rooms/halls between the main locations do not support the type of game, or are just boring once visualized in a real 3D model. And the big problem with puzzle games is that you may need to make adjustments on location B, 200 kilometer away, when event A changes. Tower22 doesn't work with isolated levels that can be easily replaced if the Beta-Test team thinks it's shit. It is one huge map, connected with each other as one big happy inbreed family.

So, back on track, that's why concept art is important. The more "proven"(visualized) ideas, the more ammunition to fill a game. And that's also why Prototyping could work very well. Before wasting lots of time with putting your 3D/drawing guru's on a map section, first check if it works out at all. Maybe the map simply doesn't play very well. Maybe the chosen style just isn't scary or misplaced in the overall setting. Maybe puzzle X just doesn't make sense. Maybe the environment doesn't lend itself for a good old chase-scene. It's hard to judge anyway, since as a developer you'll be biased and stunned after seeing the same maps for about 3 billion times. Therefore passing ideas between separated “departments” can prevent tunnel-vision.

With people that can work "ahead", you can make pilots, try out ideas. Then show it to someone else who wasn't involved in the design process for a preview. If it has potential, the Prototype team can add more stuff and adjust the points of critique. Once the second version is approved, it can shoved to the Guru department. The 2D/3D experts will tune or rebuild the maps in full detail. Since Guru's are scarce, it's wise to let them focus on the most important tasks that are most likely going to be used in the game. So, in short, the flow would be:

Isn't that a nice cup-a-soup manager-model? On school we had millions of these meaningless models, so here's my legacy. Seems like an awful amount of steps, but keep in mind that the “departments” can work parallel pretty much here. While the experts are working out previous approved ideas, the prototypes can work out new ideas made by the creative minds (Dolphin’s with balls in an aquarium ;) ). Also, this flow isn’t applied for a single toilet-map, but bigger game sections.

It's like sketching. I red somewhere that the movie Star Wars had thousands and thousands of (quick) drawings for the creatures, spaceships, planet architecture and whatsoever in the Star Wars universe. 95% of those drawings probably never saw daylight, but in the end it's all about the "approved" five percent. This is what will make your movie or game. Sounds logical, but doing so requires time and patience. People quickly get in love with their own work, or just don't want to throw away all those hours of work. Meaning that their creation MUST be implemented somehow... even if it does suck. Part of prototyping work is accepting that your ideas are likely to get criticized, killed or adjusted. It only works well though if the Prototypers walk ahead, scouting the route. The whole purpose is to speed up the process by avoiding putting your experts on a wrong mission. Well, yLAn studio's is 3 men strong (Giulia, Mara, Jacob), so they can move a large amount of work, relatively.

Well, let's hope we can help each other out. yLAn by scouting the environments, we by giving them nice assignments to work on, a chance to gain some game-design experience.

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