Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review of First Year

Many of these blog posts are mandatory tasks set for my course, Game Art Design at De Montfort University, and this post is one such example. I am to write a review of the first year of the course as a means of providing constructive feedback for my tutors. I warn you, it’s pretty big and doesn't have pictures, so regular readers (mum!) may want to give this one a miss. Without further ado, my thoughts on the course so far…

Game Production (the 3D stuff)

Curiously, I never get much of my own work done in Game Production lessons, but that’s as much my choosing as anything. After the tutorial which usually opens the session, I wander around to see what other students are doing; helping and learning from them in any way I can. It seems clear to me that there is a direct correlation between engagement with other classmates and improvement over the year. The guru project, where third-year students set first-years a task and assisted in its completion, is a great example of this being encouraged. The third years were able to give immediate feedback which was extremely valuable. More on feedback later.

I have found that all projects given have been suitably challenging and have targeted new skills in each case. Expectations for each project are made clear with one exception: the design document. I would have found it helpful for a template to be suggested, and the expected content, audience and the purpose of the document to be identified.

The tutorials given are generally clear and well-planned, though I sometimes struggle to keep up. Many students have not known or forgotten how to do things which have been covered in tutorials. So reducing the pace some might help out all around. Some tutorials have not had written documents. Other documents have yielded additional gems of knowledge which had not been verbally communicated.

I’m a fan of video tutorials, and am somewhat surprised by the reluctance to record the tutorials and make them available during the lesson. I understand the hesitation over quality, accuracy or conciseness, but I do feel that many students would benefit from such videos.

It might also be helpful and rewarding to maintain a “skills checklist”, where students mark off when they have demonstrated a technique in an assessed project. This might encourage students to push themselves a little further in trying things a little out of their comfort zone. Examples of these skills might be “created a normal map from a handpainted height map”, “retopologised a high-poly model”, “used a sculpting package”, “handpainted a texture” and so on.

Visual Design (the 2D stuff)

I very much enjoyed the little day trips spent off-campus sketching in the first term.  They certainly gave me a good attitude to drawing: it need not be confined by a studio, and there are fantastic sources of inspiration everywhere. I am sure this practice will continue next year as it should. Some trips were cut rather short by spending a fair amount of time travelling to the destination, notably Bradgate park. I wonder whether DMU has access to a minibus or similar that could be hired for the day to take students down?

I am sure almost every student in their feedback will mention the inadequacy of the life drawing facilities. I won’t dwell – it’s really far too crowded in there for the large first year cohort. I’m not one to enjoy doing the same thing twice, and have therefore been glad to try different media for life drawing, but the technique of blind contour drawing has become somewhat tiresome for me personally. I feel I have learned what I can from it, and would prefer to choose my own warm-up exercise. Next year I will do just this, consequences be damned!

The handbook is a valuable resource with some good stuff in, but it isn’t mentioned often and is easily forgotten. Having seen Photoshop paintings at open days and in final presentations, I was surprised to learn that no Photoshop tutorials were given, but putting on DVDs with this sort of tutorial has offset my disappointment somewhat. Given the strong negativity towards certain artists, art styles and methods, might I suggest a “reading list” of approved Photoshop tutorials be provided? Students could then be responsible for finding these and could watch them at their own pace without using up valuable lesson time.

Oh and a little housekeeping: how about asking next year’s intake to name their Facebook account Dmuga11 so we know which year they started?

Critical Game Studies (the blagging... err blogging... stuff)

Writing the blogs has become less of a chore – enjoyable, even – of late. A few of the links provided were broken, but quite frankly after I’d seen what were acceptable sources of research, I was pretty content to hunt down and read up on topics without the links. I see no links are provided for second-years, which is suitable.

I was disappointed that the “review a game” presentation was dropped this year. Not only do I like giving presentations, I think they are a valuable skill to nurture. From the presentations given after the first term, it seems clear to me that some people could really use the practice and confidence. The end of year presentation has also been dropped, reducing our total from a planned three presentations to just one this year.

I will now unfairly and selectively quote the Critical Game Studies handbook: “A key goal of this syllabus… is to develop… presentation skills”. Sure, it’s not the first thing mentioned, but it is mentioned, and I was very a little upset (offended?) that the two tutors who attended were entirely occupied assessing our work on Facebook and the shared network. No feedback on presentation skills have been given this year.

The F word

The F word is a bad word. It instantly launches all of the tutors into defensive mode. Indeed, I have witnessed pre-emptive defence of the F word, which is as telling as anything. I’m talking about feedback. With some trepidation, a heap of anxiety and a small amount of fear, I will launch – not my attack – but my constructive suggestions. No defence necessary, please.

It is entirely possible with enough initiative and commitment for aspiring game artists to teach themselves the subject without attending university by reading tutorials and books. I have met several very talented 2d and 3d artists who have done just that. So with such cost (and take note: next year’s intake will be more sensitive to this), why would a student subscribe to this course? Course reputation, structured learning, peer support – these are fringe benefits for sure, but the one thing no book can ever provide is that of professional-grade criticism. Identifying areas of weakness and targets for improvement; I cannot stress enough how important these factors are to my attendance of this course.

Let me begin with the marking, an important part of feedback. We are told that no mark may be given to students until the marks are moderated at the end of the year. This is simultaneously surprising, disappointing and frustrating. I am sceptical that nothing can be done. I find the argument that “giving Johnny his mark may make him complacent” to be patronising: Johnny has nobody to blame but himself in this case. If Johnny is prone to this attitude, better that his complacency stings him during first year than allow the same to happen next year when the mark forms part of his final grade. Giving Johnny his mark could equally give him the kick up his arse that he needs. And students perfectly well understand that marks could be moderated up or down, there is no need to cushion us from that eventuality by leaving us completely in the dark.

We are, however, given performance indications twice a year at our formative assessments, which last around 5 minutes. These are not entirely ineffective, since high-level discussion of performance is useful. It is not, however, sufficient time to discuss any singular piece, and in this regard I have found feedback in all modules to be severely lacking.

While it is easy to fall back on the “a student can ask us for feedback at any time” staple, I do not believe this is entirely fair. There is rarely an opportune moment to do this, and not all students possess the initiative in any case. If they did, would the tutors’ temperaments bear the continual informal office drop-ins?

Solutions, not problems 

Extending formative assessments would be impractical (and imperfect – it is possibly the slowest feedback loop I can think of). However, other solutions could be considered to attempt to address the topic of feedback.

Solution 1: Lunchtime feedback sessions.
Tutors would allocate a 15 minute lunchtime slot per term per student. They would bring their work – both in progress and completed – and the tutor would be able to give proper feedback while they eat their lunch.

Solution 2: Use web 2.0 to give feedback.
Visual Design: I’m unsure why tutor critiquing on Facebook has died down to a trickle. It is very good when it arrives. I have not had the privilege of receiving any this year on Facebook.

Game Production: Facebook can be used to leave feedback as the tutor makes their assessment after hand-in. After all, why wait until formative assessment to give the notes made at assessment to the student? Giving them sooner allows the student to put the advice given into practice in their next assignment.

Critical Studies: Blogs (generally) allow visitors to leave comments. From the handbook: “Web 2.0 tools support learning and teaching, including tutor and peer critique”. I concede peer critique is as lacking as tutor critique, but why not leave a comment after reading a blog post, while it is still fresh?

Solution 3: support peer feedback
Peer feedback is relied upon extremely heavily right now. It would be good to acknowledge it and support it better. Visual Design is pretty well catered for on Facebook, but the few tend to feed back to the many. To get more people involved in providing feedback, some words of encouragement could be given by the tutor, and the odd “Like” on a good piece of feedback would go a long way.

For Game Production, to ensure inclusiveness and quality, one could formalise peer feedback by asking students to complete short forms. These would be placed by the student on the K drive with their work and each student would be expected to examine and assess maybe two other students’ work. I would be very happy to mock up something suitable.

Closing comments

I have left what I feel is the most positive thing about the course until last. I am delighted to report that enthusiasm is alive and strong among students on the course. One can never understate its importance - all endeavours benefit from enthusiasm.  It is contagious and spirals positively upwards and outwards. But it is not indefinitely self-sustaining – complacency, apathy and negativity can kill enthusiasm and one must be ever vigilant against these threats. Enthusiasm is a flame which is difficult to rekindle once lost. It would be deeply regrettable if recent developments in the UK Education sector snuffed the one thing that funding never bought.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Triple-A Problem

A coursemate recently  pointed me in the direction of an article on which reported that smartphone and tablet gaming now secured 8% of the US Games market. The abstract read

“The traditional home console business is quickly losing revenue share to the smartphone market” 

Will Rovio's Angry Birds be toppling the
console games industry?
At this, my face screwed up. For revenue share to be lost, the two must be comparison goods: the purchase of one directly reduces consumption of the other. Is this true? Are people NOT buying console/PC games because they’ve got Angry Birds? I’m not convinced. One could argue smartphone games are a gateway drug drawing in new gamers to console games, particularly casual-focussed consoles like Wii and (3)DS. This would in fact make them complimentary goods, where the growth of one would positively, not negatively, impact the growth of the other. Mobile games might represent a widening of the gaming market, rather than a new rival muscling out console and PC gaming.
The discussion continued and it became apparent that examining demand alone was short-sighted – supply for console and PC games is also being affected as waning developers switch to making mobile games. No longer competing with increasingly expensive Triple-A titles (a loose term given to games which have a high level of investment and are expected to sell well) is a move I can sympathise with. For the last two generations of consoles (notably since the PS2), we have witnessed a lot of developers strive for the success of genre-leading developers by imitation. These games often follow a very well-established template for a game and tend to mingle aspects of two or more successful games but rarely bring anything new to the table. But this honey-trap has claws – the level of investment is necessarily high (anything less would be creating an inferior and uncompetitive product), and with high investment comes high sunk costs. It has spelt the downfall of many developers who have failed to anticipate the oversaturation of their chosen genre. Too little, too late.

Ninja Blade was unoriginal with substandard
gameplay, imitating the likes of Ninja Gaiden 2,
and paling by comparison.
But the investors never seem to learn, and have continued to fund these cripplingly expensive projects for years, hoping with each iteration that they might spawn the next big thing. But instead of offering the developer freedom to do as they wish (and probably the only real chance at making the aforementioned big thing), they insist on “low-risk” projects whose subject matter and genre have been proven to sell. But with such similarity, only the best of the bunch gets bought, making massive profits while its competitors lose a fortune. High trade-in rates drop retail prices drastically. A good example of the market adjusting the price to its correct amount?

As the saying goes, he who dares wins, and there have been a lot of losing developers. The fact of the matter is, the higher the investment cost, the greater the need to try and appeal to a very wide audience, leading to very bland, undaring titles. So is moving to mobile gaming the answer? Perhaps, but it’s not the only one.

Step forward, Single-A title! A relatively new term that I first saw discussed in a GamesTM article to describe medium-investment titles. Costs can be less than a quarter of the production cost of typical triple-A games and instead of being shackled by investors’ risk-aversion to unproven formulae, these games have the opportunity to fill the niche gaps between the triple-A titles. This position encourages innovation and uniqueness. Naturally, lower investment represents lower production values, so the quality-inferior single-A titles must choose their battles carefully. Some qualities are cheaper than others, and some qualities don’t matter to certain audiences.

Simulator games appeal to a niche, and
several developers have been operating a
low-cost business model successfully for years.
Few single-A titles make their way onto high-street retail shelves, but they’re thriving on digital distribution platforms like Steam which offers its customers PC games for instantaneous download and continued support. On Steam, developers can be independent of a publisher. These indie studios are often self-funded and their games typically retail between £5 to £25 (or less in Steam’s habitual sales)

For PC gaming, it seems to be working. And it seems to be taking off in a very small way on consoles via their respective download marketplaces. But it will take a shift in shopping styles before download-only games hit the console mainstream.

So will we see single-A titles frequenting the shelves of high street games retailers at £20? With retailers getting such a small cut of any new game sale, it seems unlikely that they’d swap out the shelf space of higher-margin products. And with this attitude, its unlikely publishers will be supporting single-A releases for some time. But there’s nothing to hold back the indies from winning out in the inevitable creep of download-only popularity. Watch this (digital) space.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Environment Design

In a recent Escapist article, game journalist Shamus Young resented the rising cost of development due to money spent on graphics. It’s a view that, as a soon-to-be-jobhunting game artist, I shouldn’t support; that budget is the buoy keeping the employment of fresh game artists afloat. But I can’t help but agree with him – from a visual standpoint, fidelity is not the thing holding back gaming experiences. In fact, it’s becoming one of the obstacles preventing truly imaginative and enchanting game worlds from becoming realised.

Allow me to explain. People need problems. If they don’t have any, they make them… to keep themselves busy. It’s what we do, or else we’d probably still be hurling rocks at animals for dinner. If technology continually moves forward, artists face technical problems: how can I get the most out of this new graphics engine, this new hardware? But hold back the relentless advance of graphical fidelity, and the artists GIVE themselves new problems: stylisation problems, not technical ones. They say: “how can we make our current tech more visually effective? How can we make our levels interesting to look at and play in, not just technically impressive?” They innovate, not in spite of, but because nobody else is doing it for them.

This is exemplified by Shamus’ surprise that with all the new technical complications that come with a new engine, Crysis 2 developer Crytek has taken care to make something that’s stylistically pleasant to look at. All it took to stand out was some colour in the palette. It’s embarrassing that something as fundamental as this has become exceptional. But the developers which think beyond the fidelity problems tend to make the most memorable and enjoyable environments to play in.

This Baldur's Gate 2 level is unique - just like every other level
It will come as little surprise, then, that some of my favourite levels are from games long past their prime, forged in a time when developers weren’t making the same games as one another. I’ve mentioned before that I really adore the hand-painted isometric environments in Baldur’s Gate 2 (2001). One of the benefits of the 2D medium is that there is far less pressure to re-use assets and practically nothing stopping the artist from painting in unique details wherever they see fit. It becomes style-driven. This allowed for massive visual diversity and some really unique environments that made so many levels truly fantastic and magical.

Crooked, twisting trees claw skward from pestulent waters as
winged demons swarm in skies overhead. just lovely.
But in recent games development, competing on a fidelity level is only a distraction; it doesn’t prevent good and interesting environment design. Dante’s Inferno (2010) sports some great environment design. Although very linear, the sheer grandeur of the environments is extremely refreshing and something which could not be accomplished in a two-dimensional setup. Hellish landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. The sense of scale is astonishing, making the player’s journey truly epic. These environments are populated with all sorts of nightmarish features: impaled corpses twitch on the player’s approach, walls of trapped souls scream and claw to escape, and plenty of set-piece animations really make the levels feel truly alive (in an “everybody’s dead” sort of way).

Lighting is used both to direct the player through the levels and to match the heavy-handed moods of each of the levels. Putrid greens reek of desperation, fiery reds evoke agonising pain, icy blues portray deceit; with a whole gamut of colours to match levels in-between. The game owes much of its inspiration from the source material, The Divine Comedy, but also from other accounts of hell in Christian literature. The benefit of these materials is that their authors were not bound by anything except their imagination, and further, only interpretation can transform them into something visual and real, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get creative, and that’s just what developer Visceral Games has done.

These references to visual impairment are as
ham-fisted as many developers' approach to
visual stylisation
So do I resent technological improvements in game graphics? Yes – I fear they are the blinkers on many developers, blinding their originality and preventing them from taking that step back from their pixel-perfect shaders to see the big picture: you’ve made another brown wall for your brown environment.

It has affected too many developers. But not all. And for those few that open their eyes enough to get it right, it’s worth the suffering.