Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mod released

I have spent a very significant proportion of my free time over the past year working in a modding team of a dozen or so people. We’ve been recreating a portion of an old game called Baldur’s Gate 2 inside another game engine; that of Dragon Age: Origins, a newer title. The module has around 2 hours of gameplay. I am reminded of the Honda advert where vehicle components knock into one another in sequence. $6,500,000 and 3 months of work by engineers and a film crew for 90 seconds of entertainment.

 I first saw the opening room from Baldur’s Gate 2 modelled out, ready to be converted into Dragon Age some 11 months ago. As probably my favourite game of all time, the overwhelming nostalgia it evoked made it impossible to resist getting involved. The project was simple: remake a 10-year-old game in a new engine. A game that happened to have over 100 hours of gameplay.

I did not anticipate taking a major part in the project, but I’m not somebody who will stand by as dreams and hard work fall apart to bad co-ordination. Before long I was responsible for the organisation of the project as well as creating much of the content. It was a great opportunity to improve my modelling and texturing before starting this course and I’m very pleased with the look of the levels, which were my main focus (besides doing bits of everything else!)

But the task was not straightforward - the scope of the project was immense. Those involved were scattered around the world with varying levels of experience, availability and commitment. This industry is renowned for failing to meet deadlines despite having control over all of the above factors. Some even get abandoned, usually due to over-ambition or inexperience. Here are a handful of amateurs who have never met one another plotting to recreate an enormous game… for no pay… in our spare time. What chance did we have?

With a manoeuvre straight out of high school, setting achievable targets was crucial. Releasing the project in short modules meant that the end was always in sight, interest could be built and more people could get involved. After almost a year of development, I am pleased to report out first module has just been released.

It has been a great project to work on, and it ticks pretty well all the boxes employers like to see in an application - working in a team, meeting deadlines, accepting and delegating responsibility, I could go on. I have been extremely fortunate that the people I have been working with have been so dedicated and enthusiastic. I look forward to continuing to work with them in future modules.

Despite being released for less than 24 hours, the feedback so far has been extremely positive: 
 Insanely Great! 
 Best DA-mod so far
Far above any DA mod I had ever tried
Easily one of the top mods ever produced
This mod should be on TOP OF dragonagenexus forum as THE MOST DOWNLOADED MOD IN HISTORY!!
A little sensationalist but they seem to like it! 

I like to think the people at Honda are proud of their advertisement. I love that ad.

You can read more about the mod and player’s comments on the project page. If you have Dragon Age Origins, you can also download it from there and have a go.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Update 1

I am pleased to report that in these first two weeks I have produced a significant amount of work! Especially pleased since a certain someone I know typically spends much too long doing much too little! But all of that is going to have to change…

I have never been more jealous of my sister's time management. Not because she has a fully packed schedule and does a million things; but because she does the million things without fully packing her schedule. I'll be sure to ask her how she pulls it off, since now that I am at university, too many things are pulling at my time in different directions.

So, in no particular order, in my first two weeks of term I have mostly been doing:

Visual Design (the drawing/painting bit)

We have been looking at single-point perspective. Its a topic I'm fairly comfortable with. For one, my former art teachers managed to drill this into me many years ago (thank you!). Also I think I've always had a very mechanical eye as far as art has been concerned. I mean that metaphorically - any artistic flair is always constrained by a need for a technically "tight" drawing - not that i have some sort of cybernetic ocular receptor in the sockets of my skull.

Our first subject was the canal near the university. I have completed my preparatory sketches for our second assignment - an old stone archway on a cobbled street, but have not yet finished.

Game Production (the modelling/texturing bit)

Our first assignment was to create a Dalek - a tall order for the students on the course who had never done any 3d modelling before! Fortunately, I do have some experience and was able to help out some of the other guys. I find explaining stuff to others actually fleshes out my own understanding of the topic, so it has been helpful for me too. Working to a technical brief really made me rethink how I could model more efficiently. On the advice of a third-year, I redid my first attempt with what I had learnt and am pleased with the final result.
The second assignment was to model a wheelie bin. I chose one of the bins from my building's bin store, though later regretted the decision upon seeing all the interestingly grimy bins my fellow game artists had dredged up. So then, my disappointingly clean paper bin...
The Mod I have been working on for the past 9 months

Its finally drawing to a close. Or at least, the first chapter of it. I am working in a small team to remake an old role-playing game called Baldur’s Gate 2 in a new game engine - Dragon Age. Although I took on the project with a sentence something like “I don’t want to take a major role in this mod”, before long I found most of my free time was sinking into this mod, and I ended up being the guy organizing it.

I can’t say I regret doing so - it has been thoroughly enjoyable and I have learnt a great many skills from it. I will let you know how it is received after the first chapter releases this Friday.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


You know what’s hard? Starting things is hard. Continuing things? That only requires momentum to be sustained. Ending things? Easiest of all, it usually requires doing nothing whatsoever. But starting things - like a blog? That requires things - like a title.

An introduction is in order. I’m Mike Pickton, a first-year Game Art student at De Montfort University in Leicester. I made the decision a couple of years ago to abandon my Economics and Management university course and attempt entry into the games industry - something which I have a genuine passion for. I haven’t looked back!

Working in Quality Assurance for Codemasters allowed me to see that I really wanted to visualise ideas and worlds into something tangible. For years I have modded and created my own games in my spare time. Retraining myself on an art foundation, and joining a three year course in Games Art, I hope to improve my self-taught skills to industry standard.

I would love to work as an environment artist initially, and move on to lead artist or producer. While my interest lies in the fantasy and science fiction genres, I enjoy the technical challenges of photorealistic production values and would be thrilled to work on any triple-A title for PC or consoles.

I have recently been very active in a team of modders looking to reproduce the roleplaying classic Baldur’s Gate 2 using the Dragon Age toolset; our first release is imminent. As part of this community, I also co-host a fortnightly podcast, record modding video tutorials and organise regular sponsored modding contests.

I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to convert my work on Dragon Age into a summer placement at Bioware, and have an open dialogue with a couple of the developers there. I will be applying for a 3 month placement as an environment artist, hoping to demonstrate the desirable skills they list for this position:
  • An ability to think in 3D
  • Drawings/sketches that display basic skills as well as any modelling and texture work related to objects, buildings, natural terrain, etc.
  • Excellent sense of form, weight (mass), and volume
  • Good use of light and shadow- Breadth of artistic styles
  • An understanding of optimization
  • Excellent sense of scale and level of finish

While I can currently demonstrate most of these abilities to some extent, building a professional portfolio in my first couple of weeks will be challenging. Fortunately, by the time I come to apply for a fulltime job, I plan to have developed many of my weaker areas. I intend to focus strongly on improving upon my breadth of artistic styles and sense of form, weight and volume as well as continually pushing myself outside of my comfort zone to become a better games artist. 

Outside of games, I regularly play tennis and volleyball. While I really enjoy watching films of most genres, I struggle to find time to watch everything I’d like to! I love to travel, and have toured Southern Africa and Europe by road. I hope to travel to South-East Asia one summer, finances allowing!

I have been looking forward to this course for 18 months now, and am extremely excited to be here. I anticipate thoroughly enjoying my time and hope to really excel in a subject that I am so passionate about! 

Starting this course? Easiest decision I have ever made. Continuing it? I have never wanted anything to be more difficult. Ending the course? I only hope I can!