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About the end of 2014 we had just submitted our game to the IGF competition.  It took place in this wild looking tubular hell environment with glowing crystal shards, fire spewing geysers, and eerie looking rock formations.  The characters was this outrageous demon inhabited by hundreds of little demon minions that made up the bulk of his physique, it looked cool but the game sucked, it just wasn’t fun.

We had spent the previous several weeks polishing and polishing this thing in a frantic effort to get something halfway presentable off to IGF.  But we were polishing a lack luster game.  We had never prototyped the game to see if it was fun, in fact we had done it all backwards, we expended a bunch of effort to make a nice looking game and THEN we tested it to see if it was fun, kinda stupid, but when your back is up against an implacable deadline, teams tend to do stupid things.

So after a bunch of very blunt conversations, I strongly suggested that we chuck what we had done and start over.  We kept a few fundamental mechanics but that was it, we started over again almost from scratch.  But come hell or high water I was not going to expend one more second or calorie making an ever shinier un-fun game.
I called a team meeting, explained the situation and said that anybody who might be interested in coming up with a version of our game that incorporated our fundamental mechanics was welcome to pitch their idea to the team.  If memory serves three ideas were pitched and all three seemed to have merit so all were selected, then we white-boxed, which is what we should have done initially, but better late then never I always say (as well as better out then in.)

We divided into small dev teams with the game idea person teamed up with one programmer, we gave ourselves a deadline to have completed and functional prototypes, after which we would again present the prototypes to the team and decide which one of the three had the most merit.

I paired up with Skip and we worked on an idea I had, basically take the tube wall walking mechanic we had originally envisioned for our game and mash that up with the tile removal mechanic of the fun little board game; “Hey That’s My Fish!”  I’ve always harbored this crazy notion that many board games demonstrated novel mechanics that could successfully be migrated to the video game space, which would provide the benefit of offer video game consumers novel and interesting new game mechanics, the tile removal mechanic of “Hey That’s My Fish!” seemed to me to be one of those.

Long story short… this is the prototype that became what Hostile Territory is today.  I would have liked to have gone through this process like three months earlier and skipped the whole IGF thing or at least have done the white box prototype exercise before IGF rather than after.  This would have given us precious time to elaborate on our fundamental and now demonstrably fun mechanic with new levels and new supplemental mechanics.  But I’m gratified with what we did… we proved that white boxing not only works but is essential, and must happen and happen at the right time if a dev team hopes to deliver a proven fun game on time…

 

Concept artist above all else must first suspend the disbelief of the viewer.  Often the world that the concept artist is asked to visualize is completely fantastic and made up.  Even if the world does lean heavily on realism, there are still many visual references that and not faithful to real life and thus must be invented by the concept artist.

In order for the concept artist is to succeed in creating an utterly believable world she must be careful to infuse her designs with enough of the visually familiar so that the viewer readily accepts her invitation to participate in her fantastic universe.  There is this technique first utilized in the world of movie visual effects called kit-bashing that has real value for the concept artist.  Briefly the traditional form of kit bashing is when a model builder takes pieces and parts from a variety of commercial model kits and assembles them in such a way so as to create a completely novel and new model, in other words they take an existing model “kit” and “bash” it by taking parts from the kit.

Because the modeler is using visually recognizable components that are familiar to the viewer, the amalgamation of these desperate but familiar components help the viewer believe that the new creation is actually “real.”

For the concept artist the process is almost the same, rather than using actual physical model components, the concept artist finds appropriate reference from varied sources and then brings these familiar visual components together in novel ways to create an image that is completely fantastic yet imminently believable.

 

Concept artists are often asked to create things that are utterly fantastic, that live in a completely imaginary world and yet must be believable.  When I teach my concept art students I typically introduce them to three very important vocabulary words; authentic, contrived and absurd.  Used in a sentence; Concept art, in order to suspend the disbelief of the viewer, must be authentic and cannot be contrived and/or absurd.

The definitions for these words are-

Authentic: Entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy

Contrived:  Obviously planned or forced; artificial; strained

Absurd:  Utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false

Of all the things a concept artist must be good at in order to make successful concept art, making some completely fantastic and made up thing absolutely believable, is one of the toughest things for a concept artist to master.

 

Thesis Game work log # 20,0152

Well to be honest I haven’t done a whole bunch of art except for a few UI menus and like three particle system effects and some concept art for the redesign of the player’s avatar but I have not be idle at all.  Since we are so close to the end of the semester I’ve jumped in feet first into fixing game play problems, really I’ve put on two hats game designer and producer.  So the main thing we just got fixed today is what the player sees.  So our game is all about control of the environment, you claim tiles as your own and then at the right moment you blow up the tiles causing your opponent to fall thru the floor to his or her oblivion!  Of course you opponent is running around all over the place trying to do the same to you so its vitally important for you to see where your opponent is if you are to have any hope of taking out the tiles beneath her.  Welllll have the time our camera was doing a close up of the avatars buttocks.  and the other half of the time was looking somewhere where the opponent was not.  Seems like a pretty straightforward fix right?  Just pull the camera back so you can see more of the playspace.  Welllll we did fix it today YAY!  I directed the changes and the very amazing and super talented dynamic duo Skip Fowler and Rob Guest got it DONE!  I’m happy 🙂  Now on to targeting accuracy, when that gets fixed we will be golden or gold:)

game poster

These past few weeks I’ve picked up the particle system baton again.  Particle systems are important to games since they can provide a whole bunch of juice.  I made a bunch of particle system effects for the Spy vs. Spy and Robotech invasion games I worked on for Vicious Cycle Software back in the day, I also contributed some explosions and muzzle flashes for Snoopy Flying Ace.

I have to say that the craziest request I ever got for an effect, although not strictly a particle effect was to make the Aurora Borealis for one of the levels for Robotech… the level was wanting in a lot of ways but I have to say that the Aurora Borealis effect looked decent.

Anyway I’m digging into particles again for the game my college buddies and I are working on.  We are making our game in Unity and I have to say that making particle systems is a bit like learning to ride a bike.  I’ve now worked in three particle system editors, VCS, SBI and now Unity and they are pretty much the same editors.  The buttons and text fields are in different positions, but all the functionality is pretty much the same.  So I’m back on the bike making virtual explosions and other wondrous effects and I have to say I’m rather enjoying it.

 

playfield mockup playfield mockup02 playfield mockup03

I’m and old dog, I’m long in the tooth a hardened veteran of many a game project both published and otherwise (probably 18+ serious projects) and even I can learn a few new tricks.  Stepping back into the world of academia as a student after years and years in the industry is frankly, weird.  I’ve got at least 20 years or more on all my fellow students, I feel rather like the wizened uncle, reaching into my trove of industry knowledge to dispense a few choice gems to my younger counterparts.  As for my “younger counterparts” well they are cool to a fault, and have taken me into their group with no prejudice whatever for my age…. frankly they are just the best and I love coming to class, it may not be the fountain of youth, but its pretty darn close.  For my part, even though I’ve seen a lot, there is still much to learn.  I’m gaining a depth of fundamental game design theory that I never got while siloed in the “industry.”  When I’ve graduated I’m tempted to slough off my artistic persona, and try to re-invent myself as a bona fide game designer…. it’s a dream, a scary, very risky dream, but hey a guy can dream.  Anyway, even though I am an old dog, I have learned a few tricks, or resurrected old ones, like….. particle systems.  I haven’t made an effect in well since 2003.  We have, in point of fact, a microscopic art team.  Just me and my stalwart companion Rob, so all the art tasks that one must complete to make a game falls to just us two…. I like new tricks, I like to learn… so its particle systems in Unity, YEE HAW!

Often in the course of making a game the idea you THOUGHT was going to work often doesn’t.  The thing you thought was going to add player value to your game proves that it does not.  When I was a rookie I hated seeing my hard work discarded, I suppose this is true for a lot of devs.  However as I matured in my career I became less and less enamored of my little babies, and could shoot them with abandon.  Now that I know a thing or two about making video games, I don’t get uptight about discarding work, I get uptight about when work is discarded.

Making a game should be in the service, always and at all times, of the player experience, whatever that might be.  The shorthand way of saying that is “find the fun.”  If the game fails to achieve this objective then the game will fail, nobody will want to buy it…. nobody except maybe your mom.

Its important to test your assumptions then, to figure out if the things you think are going to add fun to your game actually do that.  These assumptions can be tested at any point in the dev cycle, but its cheapest and most efficient to do it as close to the beginning of the project as possible.  The reason being is that if your idea is crap it will need to be discarded.  If you have spent just the bare minimum of resources necessary to determine the value of some component, and that component is determined to be crappy and will be chucked, then you are throwing away very little money…. IF however, you’ve expending a whole bunch of resources on a portion of your game and THEN discover its lousy, you will be throwing out a lot more money… plus the later in the dev cycle this happens the less time you have to figure out a better solution….

So feel free to kill your babies, just do it early.