Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Elements of game design, part four: environment

This week’s topic is environment design and it’s my final blog entry covering the elements of game design. The environment is one of the most important things in any game film or book. It sets the scene. My previous blog speaks about the importance of characters in games and my love for character design; however that does not mean that environment design isn’t important, in fact they need each other to create even more drama in a scene. They serve as beacons to inform the viewer on the atmosphere of a place, the people who reside there, then the viewer makes connections to what he/she is seeing and makes the judgment on whether or not it is a comfortable place to be in.
Just a pretty picture i came accros in my research.
I will try to explain this through 2 different game environments, dead space and Halo 4. Level designers use environments to influence the atmosphere of a game. They can do this by changing things like the lighting, the space and the colour palette. Similar to a interior designer those three things can drastically alter any given room for example, take Dead Space (Dead Space 1 that is), as it is a horror game the lighting for the levels is usually dark, there isn’t much room to move when been attacked by a horde of the undead, and finally the colour palettes are unsaturated dark tones. Immediately this is not a welcoming place and the fear factor is huge.
A look at some dead space enviroments.
Contrast this with Halo 4 which is set mostly on a forerunner planet. The planet consists of areas full of plant life, mixed with desserts and unknown metals. Despite the war and guns the environment designers have deliberate moments where you see the beauty of the planet; this in turn makes the player wonder about the race that lived there before extinction. As a player you aren’t fearing for your life instead the background acts as reinforcement for the story. When you are awakened from cryo-stasis the wake up is unwarranted so the chief (the player) is in disarray he wants to know what is going on, to reflect this the ship is in disarray its under attack and there are pieces flying left right and centre , but they are at peace with the covenant so who is attacking them ? You find that out further in the story but there are multiple instances along the way where the environment is used in to that effect.
Damn you. Damn you all to hell.
As with all good design it needs to be believable so a balance has to be struck between realism and stylisation. The reason I say this is because design should not be so bogged down in realism that it looks like something that you can see on a regular basis; equally it should not be so stylised that it makes no logical sense. Even when a game is stylisation it stretches the elements of realism to its furthest reach it doesn’t ignore them, this is shown in Dead Space. The fact that you are on a ship that was once teething is life is shown in eerie ways, for example litter found about, coke cans, vending machines all things that humans see on a regular basis and take for granted. To stylise this designers changed the brands of the coke the shapes of the objects just enough to make them out of the ordinary but not enough to ignore the roots of realism.
The scene tells a story.
It is the same in Halo 4. Despite the Forerunners having the ability to defy gravity that does not mean that when u see metallic material they use it looks like cardboard. Its presence in the environment is just as solid as it is in the real world. Having said that, the degree of realism that it takes to make sense from person to person changes. I know people that completely disregard anything sci-fi because it’s too fake or unbelievable; they then proceed to play Call of Duty claiming it is realistic. Last time I checked if I were to shoot them for such blasphemy they would not re-spawn? Therefore I think it is slightly down to what you believe in, if you can relate what you are seeing to something you see as believable the response you get from the environment or entire game for that matter is far greater.
Halo 4's Forunner installation
Now I have mention Dead Space and Halo 4 but of the two I like the environments in halo more. This is because the beauty in halo is far more appealing to me. Dead Space is eerie but there aren’t as many moments were I say “now that’s pretty!” 
There are many different scenes like that from even the earliest parts of Halo 4’s campaign. There is one particular scene where you’re just leaving this dark tunnel and the skylight breaks through to reveal this beautiful piece of Foreunner architecture. I stood and looked at it for a good few minutes before moving on. I definitely think 343 nailed that sense of awe over the scene, the angelic light streaks flow across the sky and as you look over you get a sense of scale, I really like it and I think it’s a nice image to close this blog off to, thanks for reading.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Elements of game design, part three: character

Design in games is something I love, when a game delivers design work that is both visually stunning but technically intuitive always impresses me. The area of design I like the most is the character design, don’t get me wrong I find vehicle, environment and weapon/prop design brilliant as well but something about that interaction with characters is important. Characters in any book, game or film are the faces we grow accustomed to or despise, we form emotional attachments and that can only happen if they are believable.

Now I am a sucker for sci-fi, I was raised on Star Wars and love future tech, design and concepts. I’m going to explain the importance of characters in game by breaking down the elements of one of the coolest sci-fi characters to be created.

Thane Krios.
The last face some will ever see.
Thane is a drell assassin in Mass Effect 2. Being an assassin instantly brings the idea of cool to people’s minds. But why? Well I think that it’s because assassins have long held the mantle as death dealers from the shadows, individuals to be feared and respected.  That’s not how it is officially known but I think that’s a good summary. This kind of association like does not necessarily happen overnight. Semantics is the study of cognitive responses humans give when shown signifiers such as words or signs, it’s like word association, when a person see’s said thing the associate things with it. Ice is associated with cold, fire with heat etc. etc. my point is for any character design an element of semantics must be conducted. For thane to be the cool assassin that he is the designers needed he to portray the traits that most people think of as cool.
He appears in the light from the shadow, it adds drama and mood to this scene

In an assassin’s case they are seen as cool because they do things that the average human cannot, they are illusive, shrouded in mystery and skilled in the art of killing. That’s not to say   Assassins are not mindless killing machines they are surgeons with a precise craft. The reason I say this is because to kill a man in the minimum amount of moves, raising the minimum amount of awareness, in the minimum amount of time requires intelligence. Like a mathematical equation of death squared.  
>>He shouldnt be mistaken for a common soldier<<

To show this element of civility amongst chaos I like how Bioware portray Thane as a spiritual man, routinely saying prayers for those he killed. I think this is a nice way to add depth to a character, it give him a personality and shows that he isn’t proud about bringing death, but it is the fate they have been dealt for their transgressions. His personality goes beyond saying prayers because a personality in itself is not a one dimensional aspect one does not simply have a personality, it is a collection of traits habits and characteristics that make up a person’s personality. This turns him from a bunch of polygons to an individual being.

Something games or film directors do to create involvement with their product is to create emotional attachment. I have mentioned this earlier in the blog but I didn’t say how. Script writers have the important job of creating believable stories but the best ones are the ones which engage the audience with what they are seeing. In the case of Thane there are two distinct relationships you can have with him, each with emotional repercussions.

One of those relationships, the one I had when playing, is the friendship relationship. You meet thane in mass effect 2 he is introduced with a slick scene of martial arts combat and you are immediately impressed and intrigued. You slowly grow comfortable with his presence but it is revealed that he is actually dying of an incurable disease. Now for me this experience was like just getting to know a good friend only to have them tell you that they are dying, immediately I want to help them in any way possible. That is the response the script writers want, they want the action to evoke a response and it did. The fact that he is infected with a disease makes you a concerned friend, but to know that the disease it both fatal and incurable changes him to a valued friend, you only have a limited time with him so you add value to it.
"I love you bro!" , "I love you too man"

Contrast this to the romantic relationship you can pursue with him and things are much different. This relationship option is only available if you play as female commander Shepard and as with any romantic venture love is the key element. The emotion love is a complicated one. I know that is an age old statement but the reason for that is because there are multiple ways of loving someone. You can love them as a friend, a family member and of course a romantic partner. When I played the game I saw thane as a friend but let’s imagine he was a woman for a second and I had feeling for him, they are very different. If she told me she was dying and there is nothing you can do about it makes you heartbroken. This isn’t to say you aren’t upset as a friend but what it does to you, your perception of things changes when in love. To reflect this dialog options you can have with thane change, your character takes an active interest in thanes past, you get to know him as a person. You learn that his wife was murdered as a result of his profession and that he has a son, the player feels his pain and the emotional attachment is far greater. You have this option as a friend but the way it is scripted the emotion in the voices changes.

This nicely brings me on to the voice acting and animation. Seeing as how the actors aren’t actually in the game, unless we are talking mo cap, they have to reflect the movement and emotion of their digital counterpart through their voice. This is important because no matter how badass thane was and how well he was animated, if his voice is ten octaves high no one would take him seriously. That is not to say voice acting is the most important, creating a believable character in a believable scene is all about balance, everything must fit well together.

Elements of game design, part two: art direction for games

Why is art direction so important in games? Well i think its important because it defines all the visual elements to a game. Human beings have 5 senses, hearing, sight , smell, taste, and touch. When you play video games only two of those senses are triggered, hearing and sight; unless of course you smell yourself after realising you haven’t left your seat for the last week playing Skyrim. I could include the vibration function on controllers but they are a poor substitute over the ability to actually hold a M-96 mattock.

You feeling lucky punk?

Now the thing about hearing and sight is that they apply to the sound and visual design of a game. Despite the two having a symbiotic relationship i find that most humans respond more to visual rather than audio stimuli. I think this is because humans are generaly lazy and lacking imagination so they have to “see it to believe it”. 
Life with no imagination , so dull.

Therefore to make something both beautiful and believable requires a lot of work. That’s probably why there are so many art departments, from concept artist to 3d modeller there is a lot to do when it comes to the visuals. That in my opinion makes it an crucial area, simply because a company would not invest so much many to pay for roles in an area which does not need it.

Now the art director’s job must entail countless different responsibilities as they are in charge of the entire art department. To get a sense of what they have to do i looked at the job posting for an art director at EA. The first responsibility bullet point read as follows:

“Explores UI Visual Style for new projects by working with the other Artists to research, develop mood boards and exploratory sketches, and pre-visualization comps.  Review options for UI Visual Style with Art Director and Production and incorporate feedback, owning responsibility for a single, clear visual style that can be documented and communicated to other members of the game team.”

Now that sound nice and simple doesn’t it...

At first glance i could feel confusion moving across my face, the amount of text for one bullet point baffled me to say the least. However when reading it again i realised a few thing,. Nowhere in that first sentence does it speak about creation. It seems more like a managerial post with things like reviewing and research as opposed to doing much arty stuff. Secondly i noticed that it says that the Art Director needs to “Review options for UI Visual Style with Art Director”. Right, review the art director’s work with the art director. Nice one EA, check before you copy and paste things.
Ea's official response : "we didint copy and paste anything?"


Anyway reading further into the job description it seems that the role of an art director isn’t as creative as i had anticipated. Sure it still has creative elements and it is in the art department but it sounds more formal, less creativity more politics. For years as a kid growing up that was the ultimate high point of my creative career, being an art director. I guess i didn’t really think of it like a military hierarchy, the fresh recruits start on the field but at some point you leave to field for deskwork. I don’t really want to leave the field work, i want to be the guy still coming up with those wicked ideas, instead of making a couple of wicked ideas and ensuring the rest of the department don’t fuck it up.

Having said that i think that its a natural progression, you put in the hours, you learn the ropes, you get good until some point you are in charge of the next set of hopefuls. Besides maybe in 40 years I’ll be old and that fresh energetic flame of imagination will have dimmed into smouldering wick.

40 years is still a long time away though, if i think what i need between here and an art director i think there is a still a lot to learn, but that why I’m on this course. After that I think the majority of work to get there will just be gaining experience and improving my knowledge of the world.

Elements of game design, part one: from Pong to next-gen…

I’m back again and this week’s blog is all about game design. Come to think about it though could I really sum up game design in one blog?

Wikipedia defines it as “the process of designing the content, background and rules of a game.”


But what does that actually mean, to me that sounds like a little bit of everything crammed into one. That surely can’t be one person’s job or can it. I mean to come up with a game in the first place needs an idea and I have ton’s of ideas but I don’t know the first thing about game design.


So allow me to analyse some research I conducted.


Struggling to understand what I’m supposed to do I turned to Google, “what is game design?” scrolling through useless links I came across a recent article of an interview with Paul Barnett , the senior creative director at Bioware/Mythic.
Mr Paul Barnett himself.

It opens with the best quote ever, describing exactly how I feel when presented with this same question...

What is game design?

“Oh, dear, crikey. If I knew that, then I’d be rich. I’m with Stephen King. It’s probably telepathy. I thought that was the greatest answer to what is story writing is telepathy. Game design is probably telepathy.”

                                                    I see.... a .. game.. no a video?
So if an industry specialist finds it difficult to put his thumb on it how can I, a first year game art student, tackle the task? Well simple really it must mean that game design isn’t any one thing it is an amalgamation of things. The process of design is decision making, I know that from my teachings in graphic design. So for a game to be designed it must mean that decisions have to be made on what goes into a game. If I were to think off the top of my head what goes into an average game then I would automatically cover a number of job fields within the industry. There’s the story the art and the music for a game, now I can’t speak much on story writing and music production but I do know any piece of art/design work I do has a starting point. The brief. Not the idea the brief; I can dream up ideas in seconds but those idea’s arent all neccesarily coherent, I am doing them for the sake. The brief is more refinined and structured. It dictates the constraints of my decision making for a specific purpose i.e. a side scrolling game.

                                            This is a small dot of what my imagination looks like

The interesting thing is though a brief in itself is a decision the decision to take an idea or concept from one’s mind to paper. If I were to think about the briefs I have been given in the past they all have similar structures. The main idea is outlined then the time constraints and  budget estimates. That’s how its written but in my opinion it more like “this is a wicked idea, how do we make it, that will take time, time is money, money makes the world go round so we need to get a return on investment”, the reason I say that is because in my opinion the budget is the biggest constraint of all. When the decision is made to write the brief the size of the budget comes into the thought process, when that brief is then distributed to the artists it dictates what the artists can and cannot come up with, that in turn shapes the very existence of the game and assuming there are no setbacks what the final product is.

                                     Where every company wants to see their game end up.

If we look back at what I just said it shows that game design doesn’t really stop at any stage. When I design something there’s a decision what that decision shapes dictates the final outcome. That is exactly the same in the pipeline for the game itself; the brief (decides), the art (shapes), the production (dictates) and the game on the shelf (the final outcome).

That means although a game designer may write the brief that does not mean the process of the games design stops, it continued though to shipment as an important part of any game.
                                                                      The design pyramid
Based on my understanding of design pipelines and backed with research one could actually say it is the most important part of a game, regardless of its genre. I say this because the very genre itself is outlined in its design. An fps is an fps because it follows certain design traits, just like a chair is called a chair because it has the traits of a chair. Yes you can inter mix genres in various ways to different effect but that is still done as a consequence of the brief’s conception. Picture a tree , the root of the tree is its starting point the tree then grows from that until it is the tree everyone see’s, that does not mean the roots are gone in fact the roots dictate how high a tree can grow. It is the beginning. The brief, the design document starts the ball rolling.
                                                             The tree of inspiration.
Now these are the internal aspects that shape a games design, but there are some external ones like user interactivity. Its one thing to say multiplayer game play in the design document but what the users want may sway favour in certain areas. Beta testing is one example it allows the developer to iron out bugs and glitches but also get feedback and thoughts on game play. I say game play like its one particular thing but like game design it’s a lot of different things that attribute to one aspect, of the many aspects of a game; nice and simple right. What I am trying to say is it takes many create and thus affect gameplay. In its basic sense a game is one user, one task, one reward. This is why one could see Pac man, as the same as halo, and halo the same a monopoly the principle of a game remains the same, those characteristics define it.
                                                                    Gott'a love Halo 4

However that is a slightly dull way to describe such a wondrous industry. There are many ways in which people have experimented with that formula to create some unique games, yeah there may be saturated genres or a lot of product imitations but the gameplay , the game design , the sound quality are one. Each game has a different mix despite their basal similarities; to me this determines if I find a game a good game.
                   Hexagon is an ingenious little puzzle game on the Ios that i'd reccomend anyne give a go.

Yeah I have areas I like the most like visual design but I have experienced great looking games that had a lack of success due to the way the game played. The way a game makes me feel is what I find important, not that that’s an easy task, but to trigger bravado or just plain enjoyment is what I think gaming is all about.