Saturday, December 29, 2012

Overwatch: 2012

Heh, that last post wasn't scheduled but I had a real urge to write that weird dream down that morning. But what I really wanted to write, before 2012 ends (on the normal calendar, not that stupid Maya one), was sort of an overview.

Bummer, no new demo was released this year, neither any other spectacular news. Symptoms of yet another overambitious slowly dying project? No, and those demo’s sure will come in 2013. Yet I can’t say there was a lot of progress this year. And if we as a team really want to make a game, or even a playable demo prototype, we need to step on it. More manpower, more commitment, and more sweat and direction from my side. Instead of just saying “when it’s done”, I think we owe readers of this blog, and gamers that just like to see this horror game happening one day, insights in the development process. Because waiting sucks.

To be Busy, or not to be
All right, what happened. The year started good with a new demo movie, and unexpected attention from several game websites, end 2011. New people joined, and the plans for 2012 were made; doing more (conceptual) design & making yet another demo. But, this time the demo should also be part of the actual game itself, so it can be used to make a start on the maps & gameplay implementation as well. As for the technical progress, usually I just make whatever is needed for a demo. Varying from new graphical techniques to sound support or a UI interface. I’m the kind of guy that needs visual input to work with, I won’t just go coding an AI system without having a cool animated monster. An “Event-driven” workstyle.

Sounds like the good ingredients. But even good plans, skills and personnel, are still no guarantee to accomplish your goals. The magic curse word this year, and probably recognizable for any non-paid job: “(very) busy”. If you can’t help fixing the neighbor's car because you are busy, you say you’re busy. If you can’t help because you want to stay in bed, you text message you are busy. If you didn't do shit because you spend the last week on beating Fifa 2012, you mail you were busy. Or you don’t mail / call / reply at all, because you were too busy to do just that. “Busy” is like a Star Trek reflector shield to bounce off work. And obviously when working with people at the other side of the world, it’s hard to verify if the busy-argument is valid or not.

Most people I know, aren’t as busy as they say/think. And yes, with multiple jobs, a family, friends and a house I know a little bit what I’m talking about. And no, I don't consider myself very busy. “Priority management” is what’s really going on. And many people just prefer to spend their free time on watching TV, playing games, sports, get drunk, sleeping or whatsoever, rather than doing difficult stuff. Such as making game content. And of course, there is nothing wrong with that. Every person should do whatever he damn pleases in his free time. It would be different if I was paying salary, but I’m not so whether I like it or not, I’ll have to accept. At the same time though, I wonder why people offer help if they’re really that busy.
Just a sketch for one of the rooms being made (and not finished yet) this year.

Sure, making time for a project is harder than it may sound. First, the quality-bar is raised pretty high, so usually artists that join are talented… which means they also make their livings with their talent. And since artists often work on a freelance basis where the client wants his product ASAP, T22 will get on a second place as soon as things get stressy. And maybe… maybe the artist wants to touch something else than a Wacom tablet when there are some free hours finally. That brings T22 down on the priority ladder.

Another thing I have to understand, is that T22 is not their baby-girl project. In my case, T22 gets priority over TV, gaming, shaving, eating and sleeping, because it’s my favorite waste of time. But an outsider doesn’t have this bond with the project of course. Most people that offer services, would like to sharpen their 2D/3D skills, or just like horror games in general and found the T22 movie cool. But in order to work like a horse on something, you need to get triggered. A horse you can spank, but with humans it works a bit different. Any idea why your boss is asking the same “when it’s done?” questions over and over again? To remind you, to trigger you. By nature, humans are sort of lazy. If nobody guides at your work, you probably do the fun tasks first and delay the boring stuff for later. Or you just play Mine Sweeper until 5 รณ clock. In the case of T22, I can’t spank, neither threat by reducing salary or firing people. Triggering should be based on giving fun, satisfying tasks. Something the artist can learn or be proud off.

But that’s not so easy either. Like any game, much of the T22 content is made of boring barrels, furniture, wallpapers, junk and corridors. It’s not that we’re making monsters, intestines and never-seen-before scenery all the time. Besides, even so, making a game is not exactly satisfying as it requires a LOT of energy and patience. Even relative simple assets can still take hours before the mesh and textures are well done. And then you still may have to wait for others before your work can shine in a polished screenshot or movie. The audio guys made a bunch of awesome soundtracks recently, but it will take a while before they can hear them in a finished room. Not so motivating to keep doing tracks. This is why smaller (Indie) games are far more realistic to accomplish. Satisfying results are supplied faster, which is the fuel behind any charity project.

Then last but not least, I think newcomers are often disappointed after a while. Quite some people joined T22 this year, but more than half of them also left. You’re not stepping into a spectacular horror-ride. No, you got to help me pushing the car first. An ugly little car stuck in the mud on a a hill. Because the team is small and “busy”, there is little momentum. Neither are there 100%-coolness-development-kits such as UDK to start working with. And neither will you get access to the game story, or more interesting positions such as becoming a lead-artist. You will get access eventually, but first you have to prove yourself. We work with a “quarantaine” system. Sadly, many people that join just aren’t motivated, not skilled or change their minds soon. So of course, I won’t reveal all the secrets until I can “trust” someone. Which is hard enough already in a virtual relation. It would help a lot if we could meet and see each other. And I’m not talking about Skype, but working on the physical same location. All these missing factors and reasons given above, will degrade T22 further on a person’s priority ladder. Below visiting grandma on Sunday.
Though this is an UDK shot, Entrophy & Vertex Painting and a bunch of textures like these were a good addition to the engine. They allow to vary the surfaces, such as the worn brick spots here.

2013 Battle goals
Right, that’s an explanation for the slow progress. But more interesting, what we’re gonna do about it? Well, I have a bunch of plans, although it still requires cooperation. You can plan all you want, but without help it’s still worth nothing. Therefore, I try to make a few simple to understand goals that should be doable within the next 6 months. Goals like “finish the game” are too vague, especially for newcomers that have no clue what the size and plans of your project really are. Instead, try to make goals the artist sees and thinks ”Shit, I can do that!”. And also, focus on priorities. Don’t plan too much. As said, a year is shorter than you think, and due the fact that T22 will be relative low on people’s priority-ladders, it’s just not possible to finish as much as you would like. And changing plans all the time is a sign of bad management as well. Keep it real.

Below you will see the 2013 goals. Divided over sub-teams. Yet one more reason for the slow progress, is that we all have to wait on each other. So this year, I want to do things more in parallel. Put a few persons on task A, a few others on B, et cetera. Anyhow:
3D Team A - Detail (Julio, Federico, Diego, Colin):
• Finish Demo4
• Continue with props & textures for Demo3 & more

3D Team B - Mapping (Jonathan, Rick, ...? ):
• Find 1 or 2 mappers to create empty maps on a more global level
• Make (global) floor1

3D Team C - Characters (Robert, Antonio, Julio, ...? )
• Find 1 3D character modeler
• Finish Monster(s)
• Finish Player
• Animate them

2D / Design Team (Borja, Pablo, Federico, Diego, Rick, "UI" Pablo):
• Continue game design (drawing & discussion)
• Make mood drawings for each game section
• Floor 1 drawings
• Make an UI

Audio Team (David, Carsten, Cesar):
• Gun sounds / impacts
• Demo4 audio
• Monster sounds
• Player / UI sounds

Coding team (Rick):
• Upgrade Global Illumination lighting
• Upgrade (skeleton) animations system
• Enhance player controls
• Implement AI monster basics

Publishing ( Brian, Rick, others ):
• Publish Demo4
• Pascal Game Development magazine interview
• Open a WIP thread on Polycount
• Update website

2013 Prime Tactics
That's about 2 to 4 goals per person. Of course, the goals above can be split further in subtasks, but I won’t give you the exact details as it would spoil things. But let me explain some of them. Most important probably is to fix the “Chicken & Egg” issue. We need talented & devoted boys/girls to get the 3D tasks done. It’s not that our current guys can’t make a room, player model or UI, but if they keep as busy as last year, it just won’t happen. So, looking for extra people makes sense. However, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. I don’t even have peanuts. The only way to reach your people, is by making something really nice, and publish it wisely… but it requires talented people in the first place to create that “nice thing”.

What I’m saying, the current team should try to finish Demo4 (which isn’t that big, but contains a few complicated assets). When it’s done, we publish it. Sure, we did that two times before as well. It delivered some extra manpower, but not as much as I hoped for. I think we need a more aggressive strategy this time if we really want to push forward. So:
• Pitch the demo to a popular games magazine in the Benelux (Netherlands / Belgium)
• Possibly do the same thing for Spain
• Article in the Pascal Gamer Magazine
• Start a WIP thread on typical 3D gathering sites such as Polycount
• Let the artists earn a bit of money by making some of their assets sellable on 3D Webshops. Meaning they can put some of their work on Unity for example.
• Spread flyers above North Korea

Why focus on Spain and the Netherlands? Well, I’m Dutch, and 80% of the team are Spaniards. Not that we want to discriminate the rest of the world, but I think it just works better if we have “clusters”. A few of the Spaniards live in or nearby Madrid and actually meet each other. That surely helps to motivate as they can talk and help each other. A team isn’t just based on people doing the same thing. There must also be an emotional bond with your colleagues. But how to create one with people you never saw, speaking a different language? Most of us can write English pretty decently, but making a joke or having an interesting conversation other than T22, is hard. This isolates members from the team, as they only communicate with me mostly. Not exactly how a team should work.

So, creating sub-teams with geography in mind, might work better to start with. Other than that, I just feel the Netherlands might welcome a project like this, as we don’t have a booming Gamedev scene here. The other points mentioned above are also to get more attention. But again, it requires work from the artists first before we can paste interesting screenshots or drawings on forums or in a magazine.

Let’s see, what was more on the list? Making an UI. Requires an UI artist obviously. We actually found a guy who would like to help, but so far I didn’t hear much. You know… busy. I’ll give it some more time, and otherwise we may have to look for someone “less busy”. Then we had “game design” and “making maps on a more global level”. What does that mean?

Further, “Global mapping”. What the hell does that mean? We can keep making demo’s forever, but at some point we want something playable too. Not just for you, but also for ourselves, internally. It would surely boost the moral if artists can see their stuff while playing the game, instead of receiving screenshots from me. But to get something playable, you need a bunch of maps, at least 1 or 2 monsters, a player and game rules as well. Not too long ago, I started “Wiki tasks”. We have a private Wiki where I write about pretty much everything in the game. Story elements, how a certain section or room should look like, if the player can jump or not, and so on. Writing this is a dynamic process. Some elements have to be playtested first before you can confirm them, and in other situations you may want concept art first in order to decide what looks hot or not. It would be cool if artists would throw drawings and ideas in the mailbox on their own initiatives, but as said, you need to trigger them. So, each one or two weeks I point a few of the artists to a specific Wiki page. Then we discuss that thing, and eventually generate tasks out of it, such as making conceptual drawings. When done, I update the page with pictures and a final description. By basically forcing a task each 1 or 2 weeks, it keeps the discussion forum a bit alive. Although… you know, busy.
Global mapping. It looks like shit, but the goal is not to make something good looking (yet). The goal is to have a room you walk through, use for the game, and decorate later.

Making maps on a more global level means one or more guys should start making empty versions of the rooms, corridors, stairs, or whatever. In my experience, making the room itself isn’t that much work (even I can do it as long no super architectural tricks are used). What really eats time, is making the textures, decals, and props (furniture, devices, boxes, decorations, …). Even a simple room quickly generates dozens of props to make. So far I made a bunch of empty (demo) rooms, and then we tried to fill them. But filling takes so damn long, and the playground that is needed to actually play a game (= explore, get chased by a monster, solve a puzzle) keeps very small. What if we would focus a bit more on making this “playground” without beautifying them directly? It won’t produce nice screenshots for this blog, demo movies or magazines, but it does provide one of the most important ingredients for a playable game.

A nice side note I should make about that, is that making these maps isn’t so difficult… meaning that less experienced people could be “hired” for that. So far I filtered out quite a lot of offers, as I found the quality not good enough for T22. Sounds arrogant maybe, but I just don’t want ugly graphics, and many (beginning) artists fail at producing good textures. But obviously, that filters out most of the help I can get as well. Talented people have paid jobs, so they don’t notice T22, or only have very little time for it(you know… busy). Students on the other hand might be more motivated, as they want to learn a lot, and have more time. Maybe there texturing or hi-poly skills aren’t good enough yet, but those skills aren’t needed that much for making the raw maps.

2012 achievements
I feel this post is getting too long again. And maybe too negative. Let’s finish with the good stuff from 2012.
• Found several 3D guys. Unfortunately, most have left or are inactive (you know… busy) but guys like Federico and Diego are doing their best.
• Promoted Federico to a lead artist
He has skills, teaches 3D students in his daily life, and keeps in touch with me. That’s what we need.
• Found an animator, Antonio
Now I got to make a FBX file importer (mainly to get the rig & animations). If you are interested in making a FBX importer DLL or writing export scripts for Maya / Blender, please contact me. I hate writing those.
• Found an UI artist, Pablo
• Cesar offered help on the audio
• David and Cesar produced several horror tracks recently
• Borja and Pablo joined and are making 2D artwork
• Started weekly Skype meetings
• Started the Wiki design discussions with Federico, Diego, Borja and Pablo
• Which delivered some nice plans for the T22 exterior, to name one thing
• Made most of the Demo3 and Demo4 environments, as well as some surrounding areas. Still got to beautify and fill them though.
• Made assets such as floor and carpet textures, an (movable) elevator, some furniture and closets, and a gun.
• Implemented an API, and entity system. Allows to freely program interactive objects such as devices, guns, monsters, doors, or whatever you can operate.
• Improved SSAO, added RLR reflections, improved HDR coloring & eye adaption and fixed a really annoying bug that has been making the graphics slightly blurry the past years.
• Implemented AVI (video) file support to make animated textures
• Implemented Compute Shader (OpenCL) support
• Implemented sort off Voxel Cone Tracing for GI lighting
• A whole lot of other little optimizations and bug fixes

All in all, it’s not that we slept a whole year. But for the show, only finished products matter. Hopefully we can finish what we started soon in 2013, and get the extra nitro injection to lift the project further where it should be.
My personal biggest achievement for this year(and to finish in 2013): realtime GI. Spend hundreds of fucking hours on it. The GI topic went by several times already, but so far it never resulted in a technique I realy liked. Too slow, too ugly, too blehh. But this time, I think we're finally getting somewhere. To be continued...

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