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The Surreptitious Midnight Exploits of Clyde Blackravyn, 11th Generation Toreador

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’ve been playing through Vampire: Bloodlines, which I purchased for the meager sum of $10 on Steam a good while ago. It’s been a real treat, as this is the most Deus Ex-like non-Deus Ex game I’ve played — including Invisible War. You’re skulking around modern-day LA, hacking into computers and lock picking your way into places you shouldn’t be. Like Deus Ex, it’s ultimately a flawed little masterpiece though. The game lacks a great deal of polish, with plenty of resultant awkward cutscenes and gameplay moments.

Fortunately though, what reportedly shipped as a soupy morass of bugs and instability has been transformed into a darn solid game, thanks in large part to the game’s loyal fanbase. This is something I’ll always love about PC gaming. There are two strains of player-made patches, the “TRUE” patch (warning, link is NSFW, as the patch author likes to create nude skins), which only fixes bugs and implements a few pieces of content that were clearly meant to be implemented, and a second one that fixes bugs as well as sort of refining and remixing the content. I’ve opted for the fixes-only patch for now. If I play through a second time, I’ll likely check out the other.

Here is a helpful post on the Something Awful forums, for anyone who might read this and feel inclined to check the game out.

Click here for a disparate jumble of thoughts and observations about my experience with Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

Waaaaaaaaagh.

As much as I may want to portray myself as some enlightened connoisseur of interactive digital entertainment (like every other geek with a blog on the net), I can still be a sucker for shameless consumerism in the form of HOT DEALS or DELUXE EDITIONS. So when I saw the Collector’s Edition for Warhammer Online, I was overcome with a minor bout of nerd lust.

I’m not a particular fan of the Warhammer universe (I simply don’t know much about it), but man, that’s some swanky packaging. It includes a graphic novel and a miniature (for the Warhammer tabletop game), but the one physical item I’m particularly interested in is the snazzy hardcover art book — if nothing else, Warhammer is an IP with some killer art. In a move that no doubt stirred up copious controversy on fansite message boards, the Collector’s Edition also includes some in-game perks, such as exclusive quests, exclusive character heads, and a consumable item that will give you a temporary experience-gain bonus.

I lack the disposable income to put money down on it right now, but pre-order or not, I mean to check this game out when it goes live. In the public mind, it still seems to suffer from WoW comparisons, but, taking the developers at their word, the two games diverge in that WAR’s focus and endgame is in its competitive, team-based PvP and territorial conquest. It’s funny, because I generally don’t consider myself a competitive, aggressive player, but there’s something very compelling about casually dropping into a big, epic battle between two player armies.

The ideal I have in my mind is that WAR will be a blend of the strengths of WoW and TF2. The quick gratification and ad-hoc strategizing of TF2, rolled into the persistent RPG systems and communal metagame of WoW. I have no idea if my little dream will be delivered upon (I’m not in beta!), but I certainly look forward to finding out.

Yeah, but don’t gaming PCs cost $8000?!

Wow. Check out this ridiculously exhaustive list of 2008 PC games.

I’ve not heard of the majority of these; many of them are clearly smaller indie titles, which is itself very exciting. Are we quickly approaching the point where indie studios can really cultivate an audience, stay profitable, and become a significant, entrenched force in the industry?

Look at all of those Adventure games. My love for the adventure genre has tapered off over the years, but still, it’s somehow very comforting to know that somewhere out there, somebody is still making adventure games, and there is an audience that pays for them. God bless you, you creative weirdos. . . probably all a bunch of Scandinavians, I bet.

Anyway. I want to know more about Eduardo the Samurai Toaster.

Content, assets, and the infinite hole at the center of the universe

I saw this article on Game Career Guide yesterday: “Which Artists Will Game Companies Hire?” Quite relevant to my interests.

To give the quick run-down, games are damn expensive to make, so outsourcing art assets is becoming increasingly common. To stay in-demand then, the article subject, Carey Chico, executive art director at Pandemic Studios, recommends being versatile and multi-disciplined, meaning anything from being competent with both character and environment art, to knowing scripting or programming, or even having experience in management.

It sounds good to me. I mean, the outsourcing bit is never good to hear, but the part about versatility is encouraging. As much as I love the process of art creation, my interest in game development has always been fairly holistic, and expanding my skillset laterally is something I mean to focus on in the future. I may never quite be able to quite grok programming, and may never progress past the stage of making a cheap little Tetris clone, but I mean to try, at any rate. It’s one of my 2008 resolutions, in fact: at least start to learn some programming.


I wanted to come back to the outsourcing thing too though — or at least the root problem of assets and content. It’s sort of the giant, looming issue du jour, for the entire industry, the main reason for ballooning development costs. I don’t want to dig into that entire can of worms though, so I’ll just cut to my little complaint: disposable content. What I mean by “disposable content” is game assets that the player will be exposed to for perhaps 2 seconds and never see again. Completely forgettable, arguably unnecessary, but an artist may have spent hours or days producing it. I’m very sensitive to this when I play through games, keeping my eye out for underutilized or superfluous art assets. In fact, I’ve probably worked on projects that were guilty of this offense.

To offer up a concrete example from a game I’m currently playing through, in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (which I’ll talk more about in a future post), there’s a side-quest in which you venture into a prosthetic limb workshop. There are crates of the guy’s handiwork (haha, punny) sitting around on shelves, and as intended, it’s pretty creepy. Unfortunately, you’re in and out of there in only a few minutes, barely a speed bump in the game experience as a whole. I imagine a handful of artists spent at least a few days producing the necessary assets, not to mention the designer time in laying the area out, so one can’t help but think there might have been a better use of those resources.

Portal and Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, are fine examples of effective use of art assets. Granted, it may be unfair to compare these to big, epic, AAA adventurey games, but there are lessons to be learned nonetheless. Both games take a pretty lean set of art assets — textures, props, etc — and manage to make them work, largely through focused, consistent art direction. Portal’s sterile, uncluttered environments obviously made a lot of sense for the game, and TF2 managed to use unique map layouts and centerpiece props/features to differentiate environments. For example, the radar tower in Gravelpit, the train station in Well, and the bridge area of 2fort all serve as memorable focal points, to make maps that otherwise share the same art assets distinctive.

I’ll leave it there. I of course don’t mean to say that it’s easy work, ensuring that art assets will have the content and gameplay to make them worthwhile (and vice versa). It’s merely something I notice a lot, and it sticks out more than ever in this age of skyrocketing costs and outsourcing.

Mantis dude COMPLETION MIRACLE SUCCESS

My Dark Sun / Mantis dude portfolio page is now updated, and barring any further issues, it’s done. Now I can proceed with Operation J.O.B. G.E.T. (an acronym, incidentally, for “Jerome, Outlook Bleak? Gain Employment Terrific!”).

Some links to share:

Feet of Clay
Once upon a time, I very much enjoyed the blog of game designer Dave Rickey, until I went to visit one day and found it mysteriously VANISHED. Now he’s back though, and I would not hesitate for a second to recommend his blog to anybody interested in MMO theory. He is a VERY SMART MAN.

Not Addicted.com
Also returned from the nether, after a long period of having no front page. It’s sort of a comedic digest for the MMO space, from a Flowers of Happiness pedigree. Glad to see them back up and around.

Lots of Valve stuff on the latest episode of Game Trailers TV
I don’t know if any of it is new and exclusive, but I suspect a great many of us are interested in hearing all we can from these developers who can currently do no wrong. There’s good footage of Left 4 Dead, as well as a very brief fly-through of Gold Rush, the next official Team Fortress 2 map.

Warning though: there are some Portal spoilers in Part 2.

Speaking of TF2, I’ve barely played it at all for the past couple weeks, and I really ought to rectify that.

Something about “happy endings”

If you’re like me — emphatically not one of the cool kids — you didn’t get invited to the hottest, latest cool kids’ party, the Game Developers Conference. I guess we could crash the party, but let’s face it: we’d probably just get pantsed and pushed into the swimming pool, AGAIN. Rather than face such a humiliating possibility, let’s just stay home, sulk, and live vicariously through internet news reports.

Let me personally recommend 1Up’s awesome podcast coverage. For every day this week, both Games For Windows Radio and 1Up Yours are producing full-length podcasts, wherein they chat up big industry names. For just day one, GFW landed WARREN SPECTOR, and the lesser-known but very entertaining Paul Wedgwood, of Splash Damage. 1Up Yours featured Amy Hennig of Naughty Dog and Lorne Lanning of the Oddworld series. I wasn’t looking forward to this one quite so much, but it shouldn’t be surprising that it turned out to be a very interesting discussion.

I don’t know if this is directly related to GDC, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this . . . stunning music video produced by Insomniac Games. I always love to see the human faces and personalities behind the studio names.

Move out of my parent’s house, you say? Come to Southern California? Golly, I’m sold! Where do I sign up?

. . . Only to check their website, browse to the Careers > Artists section and find “We currently have no positions available in our Art Department. Please check back in the future.” O Insomniac, cruel temptress! It’s enough to make me redouble my sulking efforts, but how can my heart remain cold after viewing this?

Deus Ex, you always know just the right thing to say.

Mantis dude WIP

As proof that I am pretty rubbish at this blog thing, here is a post I meant to write well over a week ago.

So, only a few days after my second post in this blog, in which I proudly declared my portfolio site to be complete, I decided that this was not, in fact, the case. Specifically, I’ve decided to go back and complete the Thri-kreen mantis guy, which previously only existed as a high-poly model. That portfolio page was, I felt, amongst my weakest entries, and this should give me the opportunity to turn it into what may be among my stronger pieces.

I will take it as far as the rigging stage, but will not animate or implement it. Other 3d game artists often do the same — producing work simply as an exercise, with no specific game engine in mind. The reason is that, well, animation and implementation are difficult, time-consuming, and not always as rewarding as the initial creative process can be.

In my case though, it’s a time issue. As I complete this piece, I have put my job hunt on hiatus, and this is very personally frustrating. I’ve been waiting years to go professional — to finally gain the legitimacy of earning real compensation for what I’ve poured so many hours of my life into (my family will be happy to learn that, no, this game development thing is not just one big scam that never pays out). At the same time, there’s a voice saying, “hey, you’ve waited this long, what’s another couple weeks?” You only get that one first impression after all, and perhaps having another completed character model in place of a page of unfinished assets will tip the odds in my favor just that necessary amount.

I’m trying something a little different with the diffuse map. First, I am specifically avoiding photo overlays, and shooting for a more hand-crafted look. Blending in photographs are a quick and easy way to achieve that high-contrast grungy look, perhaps best displayed in my Gatehouse textures, but I don’t necessarily want to make games that look grungy. In fact, games may even be tending away from that classic gritty photorealism, towards a more gameplay-driven visual design. Rather than simply making each art asset as detailed and true-to-life as possible, artists would be required to ask, “what must it communicate to the player? what is the visual goal of this asset?” For characters models, it’s to be distinctive, memorable, and emotive. For background clutter objects, it’s to enrich the environments without distracting the player’s eye from what’s important, gameplay-wise. Etcetera etcetera.

Getting back to the thri-kreen texture, the second thing I’m trying differently is to seperate the light/darkness shading layers from the coloration. As you can see from the render above, he’s got mottled brown stripes, significantly darker than the rest of his flesh. To achieve this without interfering with the diffuse map’s implication of form, they’ve been seperated into different layers, and this is actually working better than I expected. Here is a look at the grayscale light/darkness layer (ignore the palette and bright orange eye).

The diffuse map, as a whole, is still a bit plain and boring, and I hope to introduce some implied texture without going overboard (he also has a normal map, mind you), as well as greater richness in the coloration. The goal is for the texture to remain smooth and creamy; visually interesting without being visually busy.

This New Generation of Virtual Combat

With the fourth iterations of both the Street Fighter and Soul Calibur franchises approaching, gamers may be asking themselves, “which Japanese fighting game is for me?” Well, you’ve really got to ask yourself one question:

Am I a chest guy. . .

Or a hips/thighs man?

SF4 shots via famitsu.com

Now, you may ask, “what if I am female, or otherwise prefer men?” Why, in that case — HA HA, trick question! You don’t play fighting games.

Naw, just foolin’. I guess it depends on whether you find Voldo or Zangeif sexier.

Me? I think I’ll just pick up Smash Bros. Brawl, as traditional fighters don’t appeal to me a lot anymore. My take is that too much of the meat of the game is tucked away behind a wall of skill and memorization. I’d liken them to a real-time strategy game. Yes, you can go through the single-player campaign, and see what all the little units do, and that’s all fairly fun. To truly experience the core of the game though, you’re going to have to learn the dominant build orders, strategies, and counters, and then try your hand against human opponents.

In contrast, Smash Bros. still has a skill wall, but the majority of the meat is in front of it, not behind it. A beginner player can pick up a controller and perform all of a character’s attacks, though they may not know how to best utilize them. Easy to learn, difficult to master.

Whereas traditional fighters are just plain difficult to learn.

Dwarves should never be dainty of fist, okay?

Hello blog. First applications have been sent off. It’s nice to have the website more or less off my shoulders, and no current obligations looming over me. I should enjoy it, as I’m sure it won’t last long.

I have been:

Researching.
Preliminary budgeting. Car research. Keeping an eye on the job boards.

Tying up some loose ends in my NWN2 work.
There is a large handful of character clothing and items that are unreleased or need to be updated, so I’ve gone back and done some of that. Unfortunately, it’s total drudgery. Small, manual tweaks, and then export. Ho-hum.

The distinguished dwarf gentleman from Northumbershire.

Not unrelated, here is a dwarf in a top hat and a gnome with eyeglasses. Incidentally —and a total aside— the gnome is the best proportioned character model in NWN2. Click for a higher res shot, and compare him to the dwarf, who has strangely small hands and feet. His limbs appear tapered-off, making him look awkward and kind of wimpy. Several other base models, including the human, have this problem too.

Anyway, I’m about ready to move on from NWN2, as far as personal projects are concerned. Not because the dwarves have small hands, but because I can’t muster much excitement for it, as a game or a modding platform at this point in time. I’m hungering for something a little more creatively indulgent.

Installed and played through Portal. Finally.
Pretty incredible little game. I’m sure I have nothing new to say about it, but I’ll say a few words regardless. Its greatest attribute is probably its austerity. There are countless points at which a lesser developer might have wanted to add more —perhaps a health meter, or more guns/tools, or mobile enemies— but would have only served to dilute the overall experience.

Oh, and this blog…
I made some minor tweaks to the layout, and added some favored links on the side, because that’s an easy thing to do. There remains much to do though, like add a link back to my portfolio page, since most people will probably come through that way. Php is tricky to figure out though — what can I say?

Ye Olde Grande Opening

Ladies and germs, welcome, welcome to this humble internet abode. You’ll have to forgive that I’ve not tidied up yet. Don’t you worry though — as soon as I’m able, I’ll strip out the unnecessary side links and replace them with obnoxious embedded flash widgets. If at all possible, they’ll also play startling ‘beep’, ‘bloop’, and ‘click’ noises on mouseover. It’s called Web 2.0, get used to it.

So, I’ve decided to finally make an update here. My portfolio website is complete, barring any errors or minor rewrites I may want to do. I implemented the fourth and final embedded video earlier, on the Clay Golem page. This one demonstrates some of the model’s combat animations. I had wanted to use in-game footage for the combat video, but decided against it. The game refuses to use the supplied animation “event” tag file, so combat hits don’t quite register correctly. Instead I just did a bunch of renders in Max and stitched them together as well as I could.

My resume is effectively complete (though I should perhaps provide a .doc version), so wow, now I just need to compose cover letters.

Oh, I also wanted to touch on what this blog is ABOUT in this here first post. My goal is to stay informal and succinct, because if I let the tone become too formal, I’ll spend too much time composing my thoughts and probably never end up actually updating.

It’s unavoidable that I’ll be making posts about games, so another goal is to confine any criticism to a constructive and respectful tone. There’s nothing to be gained from dismissing other peoples’ hard work, especially if I’m going to be making a career in this industry.

Aside from commentary, I’ll use this space to occasionally dissect and explore my own ideas and thoughts. Or maybe I’ll just post funny YouTube videos. We’ll see.