Saturday, March 30, 2013

T22 Book Club

What is this?! Blogger suddenly changed the whole lay-out?! Jesus would turn over in his cave. And walk out.

Maybe this new look isn't so bad, but some parts are broke, and I hate coding HTML. I've been programming pretty much everything the past century, but I just never got into HTML, Javascripts, or any other webpage-building technique. Don't know why. Either I like something, or it doesn't interest me a single binary bit.

Well, the Compute Shader tutorial is finished, and let's not complain again about how difficult it is to motivate a team, make rapid progress, and show you eye candy every few weeks. No. Let's talk about something different... right? .... Hmmmm .... everything ok at work …. Nice weather ... Or actually not, my balls are still freezing off here in Holland ... yeah ….. cold ….. saw any TV yesterday? …. Pfff, really cold outside …. I’m allergic for woolen trousers ….

Nope, not much special to report from T22 either, so I just recycle this gun again.

Wait, I know something. Books!
I’m not much of a reader. Except that I read fairy tails and kids stories (“Jip en Janneke”) every day for our little girl. Which is completely awesome, so if you need a good excuse to read kids books, just make a kid somewhere. But other than that, we don’t have filled bookcases around here. Not that I don’t like reading, and sometimes I do get a nice book from friends, but I usually just don’t have time. Or don’t make time for it, whatever.

However, last Christmas Santa gave me two books (using my own wallet to pay them). First there was “Eugene Sledge: With the old Breed”, which is truly brilliant. You may remember the name from the HBO series “The Pacific”. Well, character “Sledge” really existed, he fought in the Pacific (WO2 really happened too!), and wrote a book about it. Not just a summation of 4 April 1942, Hitler shaved his moustache, 5 April 1942 Frozen beef for diner again, 6 April 1942 some Japanese made stinking Sushi in the foxhole next to us. No, the man actually had the talent for writing things down in a grim, graphical, but also neutral way. No waving American flags and hero’s, just the war as dirty as it is. A biography that shows humanity in its worst possible way. I can really recommend it, and I’ll sure get back on it here some day.

"The Why's and How's of Level Design"
But after five paragraphs I still didn’t reach the actual topic (bad habit), that other book, “The why's and how's of Level design”, by Heurences, or Sjoerd de Jong. That name sounds Dutch btw, or Belgium maybe. You don’t have to be a mastermind to figure what’s the book about. As said before, I never really red about “making games” either. Pretty much all the programming knowledge comes from internet webpages, example programs, and just by looking at the neighbors. Also, the design of a level is not exactly the terrain of a programmer. Design contains
• Picking themes
• Making realistic plans. What can be done, and what can’t be done with the time & tools
• Drawing floorplans
• Make the map suitable for the given type of gameplay (shoot, puzzle, race, platformer, …)
• Making wise use of eye catchers
• Texture & color palette
• Lighting
• Modeling it
• … And so on …

This book covers all these topics, but on a more general level. It doesn’t explain which buttons to click in Maya to create a donut. It focuses on techniques that generally work for level design, and of course, he also shows the counterparts: things that should be avoided. That may not sound very helpful, but it’s just true that many, many amateur and hobbyists make the same errors when designing a new level pack or game MOD. Really, level Design is a job on its own, and you can’t just teach it yourself by reading a book or two. Neither with this book (but neither does the author claim that).

Like developing any creative talent, becoming a good Level designer requires practice. Lots of it. But Rick, why would you want to become a Level Designer? Get back in your programmer hole! Maybe I should, but unfortunately, this project doesn’t have a level designer yet. Of course artists have nice ideas and knowledge about how to setup an interesting scene. But it’s too fragmented to create a consistent world that exactly fits the Tower22 needs. As the book explains, all different elements need to become one. A sports car may look great, but it doesn’t belong in the world of T22. Of course the artists know what the word harmony means, but then the level design still needs to meet the story and gameplay requirements. And my twisted mind about how a horror game should look like, which isn’t the same as Resident Evil or Silent Hill, to name a few.

That’s why projects have one or a few lead designers. They understand all these requirements, and coordinate the artists. Obviously, I play a part in that, as I created the ideas. And most others don’t have time to learn the game plot thoroughly, neither time to coordinate and monitor other artists. So, that makes me pretty much the Level Designer.

No Emmy award for this drawing, but at least I know how to use MS Paint a little bit to make my point clear.

Yet I lack skills when it comes to architecture, making outstanding artwork, advanced 3D geometry, or drawing textures. Not that I have to model everything myself, but it would be nice to get some better understanding, to improve the communication. One can only transfer his ideas to another if he knows how to explain, sketch, and divide the work in concrete tasks. Usually programmers (Beta’s) and artists (Alfa’s) approach things completely different, so as a programmer, I needed to dive in their world a bit to get on one line. That’s why I bought this book basically.

Back to the book. The author covers most of the design aspects you would expect. How to make geometry look interesting? How to break up boring repeating geometry (a very real problem for the T22 corridors), which lights can be used where, and the importance of respecting core gameplay features rather than just mixing random “cool” ideas. But it also tells about planning, and making realistic, feasible ideas. A mistake often made by beginners is trying to do “everything”, but soon finding out the plans are overambitious. Leading to nothing, or half-finished inconsistent results. The book uses a lot of colored pictures, comparing good & wrong situations to show you why certain techniques work, or don’t work. Hence the book title “whys and How’s”. The book finishes with some Unreal Tournament levels he did, and also nice, interviews with artists from the games industry.

My 50 cents
Cool and The Gang. But, the key question, did we learn from it? Hmmm. First, as said before and by the author as well, you don’t just learn level design. You have to try it yourself. Then this book can be used as a guideline to reach good results earlier, and to avoid pitfalls. And although I disagree on a few statements, the book makes logical sense. The advises are true, and he manages to explain it without floating away in vagueness, though a beginning artist may miss some deeper explanations here and there. Many examples are a little bit too Captain Obvious.

Then again, maybe I’m not a beginner when it comes to Level Design. Ever since Super Nintendo and Doom2, I’ve been drawing floorplans, fantasizing about game worlds, and carefully looking at other games. When I play Crysis, I don’t just get “wowed”. I try to find graphical weaknesses that reveal how the world was made. Which techniques, shaders and elements were used? When playing Halflife2, I look beyond the battle and notice the backgrounds and styles that are used to make a believable, immersive world. When thinking about puzzles, I remember how smart and complex the Zelda worlds were made. I know the contrast between nineties games that focused on simple but addictive gameplay, and the more realistic 21th century “next gen” engines (that don’t always succeed in delivering a fun game). So, that doesn’t make the advice from this book less valuable, it’s just that I wasn’t surprised by most advises.

Ok, a little bit news then; bullet holes.

Second, the showcases are obviously aimed at the Action & Shooter genre, using UDK and Unreal Tournament (Deathmatch) levels in particular. That’s fine of course, since shooters are still a popular genre and tend to search graphical limits more than any other genre. But gameplay wise, I couldn’t map it on Tower22, which has a very different, almost unique, style. For example, although I agree with the author that clichés and exaggeration works in games to compensate the lacking (hardware)capabilities to pull you in the game, I try to break with some of them. T22 should not look as if it has been done before.

Another difference. Unreal-like games are split in levels. It’s all about rapid, addictive gameplay. World one doesn’t have to do anything with world 2, just as long they are well designed when it comes to shooting another. World A can be a science fiction space station while world B has a “Capture the ketchup in McDonalds” theme. But most single player, story driven games, can’t permit this variation. Especially not a game like Tower22, where the horror atmosphere is the dominant factor (maybe even more than gameplay). A single mistake can ruin the immersion. Rooms that should be scary but feel safe, cheesy music, a laughable monster, overused predictable clichés, a wrong pacing and timing of scary events… all will reduce the horror experience to a joke. A shooter game can fall back on its core action elements if the environment makes a mistake, but T22 can’t. Of course the book explains how to make floorplans and climaxes, but not in detail. Making a complicated but satisfying puzzle, or a truly scary environment needs some more explanation.

The verdict
Well, those were my two complaints. It’s not really a mistake of the author, as he just choose to use the action genre as a demonstration. You can’t write a book about everything, for both a beginning & experienced audience. So if you want to make action game levels / MODs but don’t have a whole lot of experience yet, I’m sure the book will give you valuable advice. As for me, I need to find an Level Designer that has experience with both horror and complex interconnected puzzle worlds (such as Zelda or Metroid). But where to find those? Abduct George Trevor maybe? (fictive architect of the Resident Evil mansion)

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