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Life is what happens

I’ve spent three weeks now on dusty detours away from my studio. Between trying to restore gardens, barn cleanup, installing the new pump system and designing the barn restoration post flood, my plate has been more than full.

Untitled

While working on the barn this week I came to the realization that there is more damage to the floor than I cared to admit, and that means I’m likely the contractor who will be rebuilding the barn, because I won’t be receiving enough money to hire someone with the insurance money, just enough to buy materials. This was quite a blow to me to realize this as I had basically finished the barn just before the flood and now I’m not only looking at rebuilding it, but doing the somewhat daunting task of demolition to parts I’ve constructed.

I realize now that it won’t be days or weeks before I can get back to personal work, but likely months with little dives here and there into my work. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and has made me grouchy and depressed as I try to press through the work at hand.

With my wife Sheryl’s help, I realize I need to slow down, this is all going to take more recovery time, and I need to embrace it more, resent it less.

Untitled

sigh. I’m not good at this I admit.

I want this thing to be done so I can get on with doing my “real” work, or you know, figuring out what my real work is supposed to be. So I work on the yard, and the designs and then try getting work done starting at midnight on illustrating books or creating games.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything restored, while figuring out what I’m going to be when I grow up, and it’s taking it’s toll on me.

So where does this leave me? The last couple weeks I decided to abandon using Sketchup as a means to design the barn changes, and use Maya instead which has made me much happier, but there are still some challenges left as I get orthos and perspective images ready to print.

original view of open stable.

original view of open stable.

It’s hard to let go of expectations as days, weeks and then months trickle by dustily. I’m trying to let go today, or rather embrace, and in doing so wanted to share my drawings of the project I try to keep at arms length, the stable workshop renovation.

This is what I’m working on right now, maybe I should be more proud of it.

Dusty Detours From my Studio

Layout for "A Little Space". Trying to get a feel for the story and what can be cut.

Layout for “A Little Space”. Trying to get a feel for the story and what can be cut.

worked hard this past weekend to get ahead on my book layout for A Little Space. My in progress work posted on the wall in my studio where I can study the flow of the story. Having worked until late into the night Saturday to get the work up, I knew that I would have to again divert efforts back to our flood damaged home.

I’ve spent the rest of this week setting up a new pump for our sprinkler system,building prototype fence sections, and doing some prep work on the barn to get it ready for it’s overhaul post flood.

Everest likes to help me think through problems. The problem with these pumps being they have to be "primed" which is shorthand for saying they need to be air tight, and filled with water down to the water source to get any suction.

Everest likes to help me think through problems. The problem with these pumps being they have to be “primed” which is shorthand for saying they need to be air tight, and filled with water down to the water source to get any suction.

Like many hit by the flood, our well is currently filled with silt and stone, it’s invisible, but the tube itself is still down there below the debris. I am pulling water temporarily from the creek just to get the system up and running. Mostly I haven’t drawn anything from the creek yet, it’s all about testing my fittings to make sure they are air and water tight to keep the suction, and to make sure the pump is working. My goal is to try and push some water through the old sprinkler system before my well is emptied of debris on Monday.

I don’t imagine any of the old sprinkler system will work, this is a last ditch effort to just see if anything pops up, but having had a lot of heavy equipment (the heaviest weighing in at 37,000 pounds) on our property and scraping away silt, I doubt there is much of anything worthwhile under the soil from the old system. It’s just about due diligence though and seeing what I can restore.

Asher plays in a makeshift treehouse while I work on the pump system.  A dusty area devoid of greenery now, I try to find ways for the boys to play or be involved while I'm working.

Asher plays in a makeshift treehouse while I work on the pump system. A dusty area devoid of greenery now, I try to find ways for the boys to play or be involved while I’m working.

In the meantime I’ve been designing my own flood fences, and flood gates for doorways should the creek jump it’s boundaries again. Everest joins me in designing making suggestions for how to make things easier to handle during any flood. I like that he takes an active role in helping me think through problems, that I have been obsessed with since I found myself in the rain and flood waters September 12th trying to save our house. With no warning, and no preparation, everything in the barn was lost, and it sustained heavy damage. My goal is to prevent a similar event from running through everything again.

So much of my time has been spent on the yard in the last weeks. The new tractor reports about 12 hours of use hauling dirt for two weeks work, but that doesn’t count the hours I’ve spent off the tractor which is easily four to five times that.

I’m hoping with solid work done on the pump and fence layout that by next week I’ll be able to start spending time in my studio again, although even then some of that will go into barn designs for permits, something I’m hoping to receive before full on summer hits with it’s promise of mosquitoes, more snow melt, and hot days hauling heavy stuff through a dusty yard.

I still try to get a little work done late at night, but usually a day in the sun doing work leaves me somewhat listless as I head back to work on my game work or illustrations.

It's not about the money

As tax day has come and gone this year, I have time to reflect on my earnings, and what I feel is some of the most honest money I’ve earned during my career. My income from publishing my first interactive book in 2013, was a very modest $36.00, or something close to that. I haven’t even added it up actually.

scooby-journey

I’m not ashamed of that salary for the year, I look at that as possibly the first honest money I’ve made. I’m not saying I’ve cheated or stolen. I’m saying that sometimes I feel my salary was for questionable causes. I worked for architects with questionable ethics, movies that are intended as crack for children and make hundreds of millions of dollars so that studio execs can get bigger homes and better cars. More than once that kind of work had me questioning what I was doing at the end of the day, and why I was dedicating so much energy to it. There were a string of furry creatures, car commercials, mediocre Arnold Schwartzenegger films, hyper active animated films.

I struggled with this idea at times. My value, my voice had been replaced with a monetary value. My paycheck and status at visual effects companies replacing my own personal ideas over the years. To me, a poor kid from New Jersey, the money was dependable and enticing and that felt good, that incentive superseded my own personal goals.

SixthDay-journey

Gradually over the years I’ve shifted out of visual effects, the last real work being for the Discovery channel in 2009 (thanks Joel!). It’s probably little coincidence that my last visual effects project happened when my wife was giving birth to my second son, Asher. As we shifted into a larger family, I was shifting more into a role of spending more time with my family.

Since then we committed to home-schooling our sons. My wife and I both work at home, and split our time, neither of us putting in your standard work week. Our life looks much different than it could have, if I stayed the course in Los Angeles. It would have trapped us into one mode of life that didn’t agree with our life choices, and in the end the industry collapsed which would have left us few options.

Over the years, I’ve also shifted more into video game work, as well as teaching and writing again, at least I tried to do my own work while teaching, but teaching as many people know takes a lot of dedication for very little compensation.

aslan-journey

A little over a year ago I left my Head of Game Art position, to focus on family and my own illustrating, writing, and still tinkering with personal games. I enjoyed teaching students, but in the end the message I got from the college was that they wanted more, and still more of my time. I wasn’t valued for the expertise and dedication I brought to the college, but was seen as someone who needed to sit in an office, and at meetings for more hours.

I did something that I should have done many times before in my career, when working with the architect with questionable ethics, and on the movies sucking my life away, and now the college with questionable practices.

I quit.

Two months later, I published my first interactive book Ten Monkey Marbles on the iPad, and since then I have been working on game ideas, my own books, and spending more time with my family.

My earnings are small, modest, inconsequential I hear you say.

Laugh heartily, it’s okay. I feel proud of what I am doing, and spend much of my time on personal projects, which I hope to steadily release over time, on a time-table that agrees with living my life and being available to my family. The bottom line is that I’m feeling like life is more about the journey now, not the destination, not the paycheck. Yes there are definitely days I struggle. I often spend many hours still recovering from the Colorado flood, which is still exhausting work, but eventually that work will be over.

In the end I still believe that there is something valuable in what I’m creating, that isn’t reflected in how much it is or is not earning right now, and has more to do with the value of contributing art that is personal in some way.

The choice that many indie artists, indie game creators, and children’s book writers have is between despair, and perseverance. So many despair and give up. If we persevere, we can take time to enjoy the journey, keeping in mind that often the most important things we do in our lives, are not about making money.

Studies for: A Little Space

The first study is a replacement for the stuffed bear, which I sketched, then sculpted in sculpey, and use in various poses while i’m drawing. My bear drawings were looking too much like trademarked bears. So I decided to make the bear a raccoon.

racoon 1

I did more color studies on my print paper this week, not all shown here, my hand mixed pigments are working well and drying well. I’ll continue to improve my mixing technique to get rid of granules that come with certain colors, but I feel satisfied moving forward.

a-little-space

I did a study of one of the outer space scenes from the book, since much of the book occurs in space, I wanted to make sure my approach would carry throughout. I’m still not sure on all details, but feel good moving forward. I’ll make more decisions as I finish more drawings and pin them onto the wall in sequence like a storyboard to make sure it all flows well.

marsStudy

In the next weeks I’ll be focusing more on only drawings and layout all the pages before continuing on paintings.

struggles with paint

It’s strange to be an artist, who loves to paint and is allergic to paint. I find myself constantly battling the smell of chemicals that can overwhelm me and bring on an asthma attack, alternately I’ll paint with acrylic which I find give me the the worst results. I’m not saying acrylic is bad for everyone, but it doesn’t have the feel of painting with oils, that allow you to blend, take a break and mix a new color, and then come back and work more.

Today's oil study, made from hand mixed oil and Earth Pigments.  Non toxic - non-smelly. Non-Acryclic.

Today’s oil study, made from hand mixed oil and Earth Pigments. Non toxic – non-smelly. Non-Acryclic.

There is loss, knowing that my oil paints are gone, all of them destroyed by the flood (they were stored on the floor). Struggling against acrylic the last weeks, I went searching for my oils, like a crack addict I searched my entire studio trying to deny the fact, that I had thrown them all out after the flood swept through my studio.

In the end, I opened up my box of dry Earth Pigments again. I’ve mixed my own paints before, and talked about it, but I still haven’t been satisfied with the body of the paint, and sometimes various dry pigments don’t grind easily into paste. However I kept at it the last couple days mixing my own paints, so that I can make another stab with oils.

Hours of grinding and mixing to yield six colors of my Earth Pigments.  Will it be worth the trouble?

Hours of grinding and mixing to yield six colors of my Earth Pigments. Will it be worth the trouble?

The oils I’m speaking of course are chemical free, vegetable based oils. There is no chemical smell as I work, and my pigment is toxin free.

Today’s test is a modest test, and to the naked eye there may not be much of a difference between other small tests and this. The paint blends far better though, and gives me the spontaneity that is so lacking in acrylic, it’s fast food like plastic sensation, is so grating to work with.

In the end I am encouraged, and only have to wait for my new blend to dry, and see whether it bleeds, oozes, cracks or just dries well in the next week or so.

Color study : A Little Space

In a recent post I mentioned that I am moving back to more traditional techniques, away from the computer. So the studies I had done for the book about a little boy who loses his gravity were done on the computer, now I’m approaching them again with traditional media.

littleSpaceColorStudy

I don’t much like using illustration board, one of the things I’ve moved towards over the years is printmaking paper. It’s a thick paper, that absorbs paint quickly. I have some different techniques for working with it. I can gesso the paper with clear gesso. This gives me a nice gesso surface for painting so that paint doesn’t get absorbed, and lends itself to the texture of paint.

This study tonight is done without gesso on the paper. There are two reasons, one is that the gesso stunts my drawing, because the pencil loses any delicacy it had on the paper before.

Another reason is that I want my paintings to feel live and fluid. I’ve probably blogged before about being able to see a painting in progress, “non-finito”. It allows me to keep some of my drawing intact, and work with the drawing, and the paper, rather than covering it all with thick layers of paint. I don’t always work like this, but it’s something I return to again and again, and I’ve returned to here tonight doing a study for the book I’m currently working on.

Skimming Stones

This past week I’ve been in Los Angeles, while my wife Sheryl has been recording some video courses for MindBodyGreen. While she tapes, or prepares, the boys and I have been out and about exploring the city, or even exploring together Marina Del Rey where I once lived while working at Rhythm And Hues for many years.

skimming

I think I appreciate the Marina area more now as I experience it through the eyes of my sons. They experience everything with a curiosity and joyfulness, and a willingness to try new things. So we go for walks in the marina, and over the channel bridge to the beach and run from waves every day.

everAsh1

The idea for Monkey Marbles came spontaneously, as I was walking that same beach and skimming some stones at sunset. The first draft popped into my head, a spontaneous recitation, and when I got home I wrote it down. It began;

Innocently me, skimming stones int the sea, when I heard a sound far off it seemed, innocently me.

The cadence influenced in part listening to Bob Dylan at that time period, started me off, and later I dropped the repetition of words at the beginning and ending of each stanza. The reason is that every page was forced into this cadence and repetition, and it became difficult to sustain in a meaningful way.

Not long after, I had my first sabbatical from Rhythm and Hues, and I dedicated myself to writing and illustrating Monkey Marbles. After hundreds of drawings I thought I had found a style and I began some paintings. I later showed my book in New York and Los Angeles at the SCBWI conventions, and although I had some nice comments and an offer to illustrate a series of textbooks in India (which i turned down), I didn’t see any real interest in publishing it. I’ve written a lot of other stories since that story, and now I’ve come back around to see if I can start finishing up Monkey Marbles as well.

When working on Monkey Marbles I worked hard not just trying to find the style of drawing that I wanted to create the book with, but I did a lot of prep work. I drove to distant towns in California just to take hundreds of photos of quaint buildings that I wanted to be my location. I worked my childhood home into the book, and the lighthouse nearby to where I grew up in New Jersey. The bridge in Marina Del Rey appeared in the book too, the one my sons now call Monkey Marble bridge.

I did many drawings in pencil and then inked them. I did type layout and copied it onto transparencies so that I could overlay my illustrations and then color photocopy them as pages and make working dummies of my book as it progressed. I also tested various mediums doing test illustrations in an effort to find the look I liked best. I tried color pencil on paper, and then progressed to full painting on illustration board.

monkeyCover

One of the most difficult things I found with Monkey Marbles was that drawing a marble, especially gigantic as they were in the book, was difficult to pull off. A marble relies heavily on reflection and refraction, so I set up a tiny light box, bottom lit with a light bulb, and a back drop of white to photograph marbles in detail. I then would paint a page of illustration minus the marble, and would shrink the painting down using photocopies to a size more in proportion to the marbles and put it in my home-made marble light box. Once the miniature of my page was set up, I’d photograph again, and see what kind of reflections and refractions I got on the marble. Which you can see in the full painting with the griffin, boy and marble.

BlueMarble

Now coming back to the book I am looking at my images and I am struck by two things of course. I wrote Monkey Marbles when I was single. Yet here I am years later on the same beach playing with my sons who bear some resemblance to the boy in Monkey Marbles. It’s the same beach where the story sparked to life, and where the photographs were taken for the seascapes, and I wonder what that says about the unconscious.

I also admit that after all this time my painting and drawing style, and ability has evolved and I look at my paintings from that period with some dissatisfaction, and I’m not sure if the original style will stay intact when I pick up paint brush again.

I had originally thought I would simply finish up my paintings on my ipad, but I’m not sure that I feel satisfied with this approach right now. I’m considering transferring drawings back to illustration board again and doing the work with real brushes, in the real world.

Of real interest to me as an artist, and spending time with my sons is that I not only get to immerse myself in a child’s vision of the world (which I only too easily allow myself to do) but I get to photograph my sons in their play and explorations and file these things away for stories that I am working on now, or may come up with in the future. This week I’ve photographed them with space ships, on deck of the Queen Mary and inside a Russian submarine. We took photos at the beach, and at the Petersen Museum, alongside old cars, and those city streets at the Petersen set in other time periods. I don’t pose my children, but rather try to catch them being who they are in the moment, spontaneous.

In essence I get to spend time with my sons and explore, and play and teach them, and part of me is “working” on drawing and painting and writing at the same time.

The idea for Monkey Marbles was spontaneous, something that popped into my head, and that took a lot of effort to put into a book form and the work is ongoing. The recent flood in Colorado has convinced me that I need to stop sitting on my books and finish them up though. Many of my original drawings were destroyed during the flood, as well as some more finished illustrations like the one above. I’m hoping when I get back to my studio, to make some progress on work like these and get them out of my filing cabinets and into the world for what it’s worth.

Unready to publish Monkey Marbles, I did self publish a smaller version, Ten Monkey Marbles, an interactive counting book for the ipad in 2013, which can be found on the Apple App store.

Procreate to Illustrate

TEN_MM_COVER

It’s been one year since I released my first interactive book, Ten Monkey Marbles, to the Apple app store. Not a huge selling product by far, there is still something satisfying in just finishing something creative and putting it “out there”. Out there is basically anywhere that isn’t my stacks of drawings, art filing cabinets, or in some cases boxes of drawings destroyed by flood waters.

Although I spend a lot of time talking about creating games on this site, it doesn’t reflect that I split my time in my studio between developing my games, and writing/illustrating and painting.

Aside from trying to expand my repertoire into writing chapter books in the last year, I still work on my picture books and have been dusting off some work in the hopes of finishing them up lately, especially post-flood where I heaped a great deal of my artwork and illustrations into the trash.

My first attempt at writing, Monkey Marbles, was written when I was on my first sabbatical from Rhythm and Hues Studios. Sabbatical from visual effects was something that was unique and highly valued at R&H, and it was this time off, that gave me time to consider other directions for myself.

My writing has taken a back seat to the practical needs of jobs over the years, or raising children, or digging out mud from floods more recently. Now as I try to dive back in again more deeply, I pulled out one story that I was having difficulty finding a look for. I’ve done some sketches, thumbnails that are usually pretty small to get a feel for my book and the past couple weeks I decided to scan my thumbnails and bring them into Procreate, a painting program on the iPad that cost me a whopping $5.99.

Having digitized all my illustrations, I'm finishing them up in Procreate.

Having digitized all my illustrations, I’m currently finishing them up in Procreate on the iPad.

Procreate has some limitations, and yet I find myself enjoying it, enjoying being unchained from my workstation.

One limitation is the number of brushes, but yet the brushes all feel useful and they work well, making the software far more useful. The thing I enjoy about Procreate is that when painting with it, the brushes behave as I would expect them. I can paint, blend, and use brushes that give realistic textures. I feel like I can be spontaneous, which I have never felt in Photoshop (not a painter’s program at all) or even Corel Painter, which for all it’s bang is somewhat overbloated and easily gets slowed down. With Corel all intuition goes out the door for me, which is not a loss I can bare well. When I have to scratch my head too much about what’s happening in a program, I tend to avoid it because it gets in the way of spontaneity and the real creativity in service of technical hurdles. I don’t like technical hurdles because I don’t want to spend my time thinking about the software, I want to think about the story and illustrations and get into the zone.

“A Little Space” is another book I wrote awhile back, not as far as Monkey Marbles. I’ve sat with it and every once in awhile I try to illustrate a page. I haven’t been able to get the look that I want. This is my first dabbling at an illustration for the book in Procreate, and I feel like possibly I’m on the right track so far, and that maybe I might get to what I want. I’ve stopped now as I look into sizes of children’s books that might be printed digitally to an e-reader (other than the iPad) so that I can rethink formatting before I get too far.

aLittleSpace

Exploring more loosely with Procreate, to see if i can find a style I want to express a story about a little boy who wakes us to find he’s lost his gravity.

They are two different style of illustrations, one that took a lot of more meticulous preparation and another that is very loose and based on quick thumbnails I made to capture the story (thumbnails I scanned).

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to bypass thumbnails on paper for my next illustrations and see if I can do more of this on my ipad. I’m not opposed to doing work on paper and canvas. I feel most fluid with pen/pencil and paper, but I know that my meticulous nature in preparing illustrations means I’ll get lost in prepping boards, transferring drawings and those are the things that I’m trying to eliminate so that I can illustrate and write more, and prep less.

If it works out, it would mean that changing my software, not the computer tablet or the pen, but the painting software really ends up paying off.

The real goal though is to simply get back to creating books again, writing stories, and finishing what i’ve started.

UDK Static Shadows on terrain

One of my pet peeves with UDK is the surprising quality of shadows as a default on terrain. Seen here is a sequence of images that simply goes over the process of shadows in UDK. I’m sure this is not a mystery to the folk at Epic games, after all the demo games that come with UDK are typically built with BSP brushes and meshes rather than relying on the overhead that comes with complex terrains, and it’s something to take note of.

Some starter info : I’m using a moonlit night, but I have turned down some defaults in UDK.

Under World Settings : I like to turn my Environment color way down, there is simply too much light bouncing around for me. So I set the color dark, and then I set the Environment Intensity down as well. This makes it much more shadowy in my worlds.

shadowWORLD_PROPS

For this test environment I’ve also turned off the default exponentialHeightFog, to keep the scene clear. The only thing I am altering in these renders are the lighting attributes on the Terrain.

NOTE : Although I will crank up the resolution of the shadow it is not recommended to do this for your game. This is A SIMPLE scene and merely to DEMONSTRATE the change in shadow quality, but real world tests of your game will show that this will not only be costly in time to bake your shadows, but also will create overhead in your maps that are loaded into memory.

FIRST RENDER : I set up a quick environment to show what shadows of my trees will look like on the default UDK ground. It’s passable, we have shadows out of the gate.

treeShadows_1

SECOND RENDER : I added a 16×16 terrain to my environment, and added a quick grass texture. There is no height change in this render, so it should be pretty clean. Now, to the new user of UDK this will look pretty promising. This is a render from the Editor window, but it’s deceptive and disappointing. When in editor mode our shadows are dynamic shadows, because they haven’t yet been rendered. To use dynamic shadows throughout our game would be very heavy in UE3 (we’re promised real time shadows in UE4).

treeShadows_EditorWin_1

Confusing to many who setup a scene in UDK and are seeing great shadows, is the surprise of going into game mode, and seeing your shadows evaporate. The reason can be found in the terrain’s settings. You can see the Static Lighting Resolution is super low, this line and the entry below it are what we want to focus on.

treeShadows_onTERRAIN_Default-SETTINGS

THIRD RENDER : Static Lighting 2 :
This is what the shadows look like after we bake out our lighting. There is simply not enough resolution someplace, so we lose any fidelity in our shadow renders. If we double click on the Terrain, our terrain Attributes will come up, and we can see the default static lighting Resolution is set to 2, and that Override is turned off. (Actually this is a mistake, the default is actually a more discouraging 1 – and that number can not exceed 4 without hitting Overriding Light Resolution. If overriding that number doesn’t make you nervous it should. You have reached a dilemma, and will face quality vs speed issues after that number goes up.)

treeShadows_onTERRAIN_Default

Now we can start doubling that number to 4 and 8, but our progress making better shadows will be slow. So we jump to Default Static Lighting : 16 However, before you type that in, make sure Overriding Light Resolution : is ON ! Otherwise it will bounce back to 4.

treeShadows_onTERRAIN_set16-SETTINGS

FOURTH RENDER : Static Lighting : 16
In this render we can see a great improvement in our shadows. Remember at this point to Play your game and make sure the shadows are the same as in the editor window.

treeShadows_onTERRAIN_set16

FIFTH RENDER : Static Lighting : 32
For this demonstration I’m doubling my numbers and keeping them power of two, but this will not be our end game, this is more about demonstration. We are seeing a much higher quality and I could live with this render and get back to other tasks. Still, I want to push it one more notch and see what I get.

treeShadows_onTERRAIN_set32

LAST RENDER : Static Lighting : 64
A thing to note is that I also turned on specular highlights on my terrain in the attributes, but here we can see a higher quality. It looks good. The trade off will be how much time I am willing to wait for shadows to bake to get better results.

treeShadows_onTERRAIN_set64

This tutorial was not meant to be an end all on the subject of shadows but I hope it gives guidance to the issue of what happens to terrain shadows, so that someone making a UDK game can consider some of the hidden things about UDK before proceeding too far in design. Shadows themselves are a complicated area, the information will vary for different types of objects. Terrain, static mesh, dynamic mesh all have different requirements. There is also a zone around the player which has dynamic shadows, and may be seen at times as it follows the player through the game, this is because you will have a near area in game you interact with in terms of lighting, casting your own shadow, or using a light that is carried in game).

One thing that is clear, for now in UE3 if you set your shadows to dynamic your game will not likely be able to handle shadows for long, although it will be tempting to use, you need to think smart about how to bake shadows, set up lighting UVs on objects and break your game up to make sure the lighting can still bake. Be careful how much you crank up that number for static shadows while you’re testing.

For the record : I am currently using a Static Lighting value of 10 in my game, but the results in overhead will vary depending on the size of your terrain, and the number of materials you use to paint your terrain. These numbers make my lighting too heavy to bake out daily while developing. I test small areas of my game by keeping my game areas as streaming levels, so that I can test parts of the whole and consider how to make my work, and game more efficient, while still trying to make the game look good.

UDK can be a very intuitive software to use, but shadows are a sticky point in UE3, that will challenge your patience as you wait for scene lighting to bake out. To me the end result is one of the most rewarding but lack of computer power for an Indie developer makes it one of the most challenging to deal with.

Uncorporating.

Can I coin the word, Un-Corporate, instead of Incorporate?

Incorporate carries so much pressure in this world, you must incorporate to create a business, and businesses are typically about getting bigger, making more profit each year, and getting the goose to lay as many golden eggs as possible. Corporations are usually interested in the bottom line, not the individuals in a company and many companies are guilty of not treating artists well (I’m referring here to the visual effects and gaming industry but the same can be said about many corporations I’m sure. The bottom line is workers at most companies are not part owner of the company, they fill a role and as one manager told me, everyone is replaceable).

I’m not a big supporter of the must grow model. As an artist, the idea that corporations can drive art never seems like a good plan to begin with. The idea that companies think that they can just grow infinitely seems beyond flawed, after all we live in a world with limited resources, yet we have this paradigm that everything must get more profitable (i.e. sell more stuff) every year. Can we really?

Let’s look at the latest criticism of a company like EA games, who won the award two years in a row for worst company. Their focus was on releasing games on time, and making sure no one could hack their games, is how the story goes online and it’s likely true. I’m not saying that they aren’t doing amazing things, but there is a clear focus on deadlines and profitability over all else.

Then there are companies like Mojang, who created the ever-popular Minecraft and have until now resisted the pressure to go public with their company, and I applaud them for not falling into this trap. Go bigger, let someone else own you, and then watch yourself implode when your investors are disappointed with their returns. The day Mojang opens up to the stock market, I’m thinking their days are numbered, or at the very least their creativity will suffer for profitability as the company becomes a true Corporation.

As an independent artist, that likes to make games, write books, and paint I’ve been more about keeping things small and getting more and more personal at this point in my life. For big companies efficiency also means the opposite of what I find I need in my life. Artists perform smaller and smaller pieces of production.

When working at Rhythm & Hues I once proposed we go the opposite way, and put scanners at artists stations, give technical directors zbrush, photoshop and anything else to make us creative. This was not one of my most well received ideas.

I realized over the years, that I’m an artist who likes to work in his studio and have all those things at my finger tips so I can do just that; explore, create, make mistakes and try again. I like being an artist who learns different thing, so yes, I enjoy using game engines, and sculpting in Zbrush and painting in various painting packages. To me the more experience I have, the more effectively I should be able to wield my preferred mediums, but in the corporate art world, this is not a paradigm that typically exists. Artists see one small part of the beast, and as you gain experience you are encouraged to stop practicing the trade to manage teams of artists, until eventually you are cut off completely from the thing that you once did as a creative endeavor, in favor of a pay raise and a title.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I hate to be pigeon holed. I love to paint, and I love to create on the computer, and write, etc, and yet there are some things I miss about working for a big company which is what brings me to the wish to Uncorporate.

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What’s missing, in working independently in my studio is my daily interaction with friends and colleagues, creative people.

It’s true, I have sort of a paleo-lifestyle. Not only do I work from home, but we try to foster a lifestyle where we are with our kids, so we home-school, my wife works from her office and this all makes things more complicated I admit. It means working for myself I don’t just have unlimited time in my studio, for now it means my time is somewhat limited, but then again the time I spend in my studio is of my own choosing right now, and that’s a pretty big gift which is in no small way due to the my wife now supporting us as I dabble in various arts, since I quit teaching a year ago.

Once I’m working in my studio though I feel that loss of community that I had at corporations and even teaching. I want to be able to share my ideas, or get feedback on why a particular piece of programming isn’t working. Instead I find myself going to facebook to see what people are up to, and I end up reading five little articles and get completely sidetracked for an evening from my goals.

Now it’s true there are forums I can go to and sign up for. There are Indie gaming communities, there are places like Unity forum and the Unreal Game Forum. These places though are not exactly communities in the manner that I’m hoping for. For starters, I don’t really know who people like “Snake-Man” are. People hide behind Avatars. Hiding behind Avatars means you don’t have to actually connect with people as humans, and it makes it easy to troll sites and knock people down. There’s a lot of trolling on sites, essentially you’ll ask for help on a tricky bit of code, and get a vague and condescending answer which is the equivalent of “fuck off” but not in so few words.

I have just found a writing community here in Boulder. They are real people and not avatars. They get together every two weeks, and this has lead me to my idea of Uncorporating as an Indie game developer.

The idea in essence is to get some like-minded indie game developers together and start my own private forum. It would be a forum by invite only to allow some isolated indie game developers to have a place to find critique and support, and where their work would stay private, not get exposed to the entire web but to a select few that choose to Uncorporate.

The idea of Uncorporating is to share in a way that is not competitive but supportive. I feel that there is some loss working in a vacuum and that independent teams who band together can be more than the sum of their parts, and have a better chance at making creative pieces.

That’s the theory anyway. Look at film-makers such as Guillermo Del Toro. He credits part of his success to bouncing ideas off of people like Alfonso Cuaron. His small group of independent film directors would critique each other, and support each other and I believe it made for a strong group of like-minded directors doing unique works as seen in works like Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Gravity.

So that’s where I am. I’m on the fence, trying to decide if I’ll launch my small forum, to Uncorporate as it were and find some like minded indie developers to form a small community. I’m not sure what’s stopping me at this point, self doubt, fear or rejection surely (why won’t Guillermo Del Toro return my emails?).

My web developer tells me, “If I build it they will come” but I feel skeptical and yet longing for some of that community that I once had around my work.

UDK Strategies in Rendering Shadows

I want to start off this blog today by saying I’m hoping to work with Render Rocket with the goal of opening up it’s render farm to game companies big and small, using the UDK swarm renderer. I’m wondering if there are others out there who think that would be a good idea, to have a farm to render those big ugly game scenes across hundreds of processors.

levelSTREAM_sample1

Here’s why this is on my mind today; Anyone developing video games using UDK software is probably used to seeing the error during gameplay stamped in red in the upper left corner of their screen. “Lighting needs to be rebuilt”. It’s a painful reminder that your ever changing scene has impacted the shadows and as it grows, that render time keeps escalating.

The reason this comes up, is that in order to keep your game from bogging down, you don’t want to simply flick the switch on for all your objects to use dynamic realtime shadows (although it sometimes is cool). Instead, we bake out shadow information, based on a second set of UVs for each game object. It’s complex, and World of Level Design has the best tutorial on setting up those secondary UVs for objects that I’ve seen.

http://worldofleveldesign.com/categories/udk/udk-lightmaps-03-how-to-fix-light-shadow-lightmap-bleeds-and-seams.php

As I get into refining my game and trying to lock down lighting and remove any errors, I’m a the point now where I need to clean up errors like the “Lighting needs to be Rebuilt”. My goal now, to see if I could circumvent my long render times by baking out lighting in packets of information rather than trying to ram the entire game level down my quad-core’s throat at once. I’ve done this, but once my render times shot past five hours, I didn’t want to leave my little laptop heating up that long without breaks.

This lighting error I’ve mentioned will pop up (irritatingly) whenever you move a mesh in your game, move an existing light or add a new one. It demands that your lighting be perfect, if you want to do a final bake out of your game. For many people this may not be an issue. The tactic is to create contained game levels that are typically interiors. On paper the game level design often looks like a map taken right out of a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s playbook. There are a series of rooms illogically connected together in terms of architecture, but that are constructed in order to minimize engine overhead in gameplay, and just because, hey, it’s cool.

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As games get more sophisticated this becomes a problem. By sophisticated I mean that games actually have exteriors and interiors. So a game like Dear Esther for instance, if it was baked out on the UDK game engine would have required baking out the island, and all the foliage on the island would be potential light breaking errors. For us indie developers this can be a problem.

In the games I’ve always gravitated to creating, the environments are a mix of exteriors and interiors. To make this more complicated often the interiors are integrated with the exteriors, in that, part of the game play is that you can see outside (that’s part of the suspense). If you want to avoid super long render times, you could start by not doing this altogether. Your game would be closer to something like Silent Hill: Homecoming, where there is a pause as new game levels are loaded, and unused ones are unloaded. In that scenario seeing outside is often masked either by fake scenery out a window, or by the old foggy window trick.

Increasingly games are not doing this, a game level will be a mix of interiors and exteriors all loaded up together, a good example being Resident Evil 5, where the exteriors help give the flavor of the environment, and the environments (sometimes a small row of shanty houses) are perforated to the exterior and too small to make a separate game level by themselves.

ARCHITECTURE ELEMENTS:

To get around loading up the game all at once I like to Stream Levels in game based on distance (and visibility). So a building will not be held by the engine when you are a certain distance. The strategy I came up with is to build most of my lighting and kismet programming in my “landscape” level, which in UDK is known as the “Persistent Game level” and is the automatic level you get when you start building in UDK. This also solves the problem of holding game information between levels in your game. So if you need to know you picked up the “gold key”, the persistent level holds that information, and the persistent level is always loaded.

For lighting I then break everything out. For instance I have an area of my game called, “the Village” and in order to keep things organized on my computer, I name things like this : Stream_Village_A. I always use a letter at the end, in case I add more parts to the village, numbers are confusing because they mean iterations, letters identify this as being part of the village but just a separate level to stream in.

levelSTREAM_sample3

My strategy for rendering shadows is this at the moment : I unload all my streaming levels in the game. I turn off dynamic objects that I don’t want to cast shadows (those are in streaming levels that are prefixed, DYN_Village_A for instance). I have a separate breakout of game parts for doors which I want to turn off when baking out my Navigation paths for AI. The doors will be prefixed, DOOR_village_A.

Once everything is off or unloaded, I start loading in things I need one at a time. I do this for the reason that I want to identify errors and because I want to render parts of my game as quickly as possible. This strategy works really well for baking the architectural elements in my game. I turn on the village, with the persistent level and five to ten minutes later my lighting is up to date. Then I bring in the mysterious building level, and turn off the village (I can unload it from game if I saved out and reload it later if I like). I basically bake only what I need to keep this moving.

Later on, if I update STREAM_VILLAGE level, and want to rebake the lighting, I need to reload it into my main game, and render with the Persistent level on. The baseline thing to know, Persistent level is always on when I render a streaming level and whatever lights are in game are present.

TREES :

When it comes to trees, my game is ambitiously filled with hundreds of trees. In order to keep the rendering lower, I have broken them up into areas, I try to max out at 50 trees. When streaming by distance I try to locate the tree central to that mass, and use that as my fixed point. Then with Persistent level and trees on, I bake lighting again.

While this strategy becomes more difficult in regards to rendering with trees it is still doable. I keep my processor from overheating and rendering for nineteen straight hours by rendering in chunks like this.

FOLIAGE :

Admittedly, Foliage is still a problem for me. I am using the newer Landscape feature with UDK, and as such I so far have not been able to separate my foliage by LEVELs. This is problematic, because I see the foliage as providing much of the character of my game. To date I have in my persistent level 86,000 meshes for the grass that I cannot bake out separately, and i’m contemplating what is next in problem solving this issue. Note : I don’t even need my foliage to cast shadows, but the goal is to also have the game engine okay with that strategy and not stamp me with the dreaded, “Lighting needs to be rebuilt” error. Even if I can repress that error (Not sure I can) to have it there makes me suspicious that something I want rendered correctly is wrong, if something I don’t care about (grass) is misbehaving.

Note though : In order to work, any lights that are in other LEVELS of your game, need to stay in the game. This is because in their absence lighting gets rebaked and that changes the lighting if you remove them. This is a little more complicated than it sounds. So if my STREAM_MYSTERIOUS_BLDG has several lights, once I bake it, I need to keep that lighting in the game. My tactic right now is to NOT have separate lights in my streaming areas, but to keep them in the persistent level only.

RENDER FARMS

Back to render farms. UDK has something called swarm rendering, (Not smarmy rendering although there is something smarmy about it). Swarm rendering will send out your game to multiple machines on your network. My network of computers is two, remember, Indie game developer. It’s hardly worth the time to setup, and not likely to cut much off my render times. Instead, when rendering I typically switch machines and do something else on my other computer that I need to do.

So I’m stuck with the limitations of the game engine, and my computer power.

While writing this, this morning I have heard back from Render Rocket that they are interested and would like to work with me to see if we can UDK to work on their render farm. No promises, but we’ll see where this leads.

Hallow's Way : UDK workflow for an Indie Game.

Making games for me, is like writing short stories as I’ve said before. I can be spinning several ideas at once. Recently I changed directions and focused on a short story game, working title, Hallow’s Way. I had been hoping to get it done by Halloween, but flood waters and rebuilding have slowed progress to a grinding halt at first, but I’ve been steadily getting more time to finish the game.

The main inspiration for the game began with a familiar urban legend, the “Green Light Cemetery” in New Jersey. It’s not the first time I have visited allegedly haunted places from my childhood and won’t be the last, but the real inspiration here is the fascination and fear associated with seeing the green light in the woods above the cemetery (which I do believe my younger brother Ron, and I tried to find with our intrepid childhood friend Michael Weimer). The question is, can I capture some of that fear and fascination in game play? Additionally when I’m testing a game, I try to make actions surprising enough that I too can be surprised. If I don’t have a surprise moment, or sudden fear as something unexpected happens, then I don’t feel i’m developing the game correctly. I want to be immersed in the game myself when “writing” it.

creepy doll, from my scary game... whose details I'm keeping purposefully vague.

creepy doll, from my Hallow’s Way… whose details I’m keeping purposefully vague – except to say the original concept was inspired by a Dave McKean illustration, and although the model has changed drastically from the original inspiration, I have considered putting Dave McKean in my game in some way as an incidental character – because he’s awesome.

One reason I want to work on a very short story game, which is the way I think of Hallow’s way, is that I’m still getting used to the UDK game engine. I can put together a game level fairly quickly, but completing a game from A to Z, is a different matter. Aside from testing a game, there are menus, writing artificial intelligence, and then of course creating all the assets for the game.

Since my time is limited in my studio and working on my games, one of the things I try to do is to be pretty quick and nimble. I try to accomplish things swiftly so I can move on. The creepy-doll as seen above is only a couple hours worth of work, and then another couple hours of testing the AI and getting him to work properly in game when needed. Thankfully tools like zremesher in Zbrush allow me to cut off additional time that I have previously spent making low res models for games. I’m showing this one creature of course, but he is a small part of the game. The reason I’m vague about this is not because I’m trying to hold back on what I share, but because I want to hold back if I intend to scare.

Aside from creating a list of creatures (there are fourteen others for my game) my unfamiliarity with UDK means I’m still building up a resource library of various types of AI and many other game elements. One of the things that people like to brag about UDK is how quickly you can basically create a game using resources from UDK, like their bots, or soldiers, and their environments. Additionally, people like to use the BSP brushes in UDK to create game levels quickly. A BSP brush is a brush where you can come in, create a rectangle quickly, and essentially “model” within the game package. It’s a pretty good way to test things out, however, the problem is that these are not real models. You are generating procedural models within the game engine, and to alter them you have to add or subtract. You can’t make a complex building like the Sistine chapel, and then decide to move it ten units to the left. Most people use BSP brushes to make fighting games, or Tournament games. These are fast paced (and rather pointless) games about kill or be killed. I’m not saying people don’t do amazing things with game environments and that there isn’t a lot to learn there, but it is a direction that I prefer not to go in. It’s also a type of game that I’m not interested in creating. There are no guns in my games.

My method of working is to work with modular pieces to create environments, and to do that I have had to build up my own modular library of buildings, including trees, creatures, and effects like smoke, rain and fog.

Test area for game.

Test area for game.

When I’m working in my game testing is often one of the more labor intensive parts. There is a large game level to test, and I explore it and poke at it, and try to engage the AI. The image above is a snapshot, not of my game actually but of a test area when I’m developing tricky things in my game. The reason I work in a test area is to do fast tests. I don’t want to spend twenty minutes waiting to engage my AI all the time, I want to write code, and then get into a small test area to see if it works as expected. The game area above shows a few things that might look odd to someone who isn’t familiar with engines, or UDK. There is an overlay for instance for the NavMesh. I was testing this level to with NavMesh to see how to fluidly get AI to go up stairs, and slopes to higher places than the ground plane. In the Unity game engine, I can generate a NavMesh (which stands for navigation mesh that the AI use) and it will take in the area I have in mind in three dimensions. In UDK it is limited in how high it goes in z to about the height of the player, which is odd to me. So I test this to figure out solutions in this small space quickly and to see how my AI navigates problems that I put in it’s way.

One of the things you can see are things that look like large alphabet blocks. These are models I’ve turned into rigidBody objects, or KActors in UDK. KActors obey physics. I can program my AI to interact with the rigidbodies, and I can also scatter rigidbodies in the air, and have them become live at game play to randomly scatter their location. It’s one of the things that I do to randomize a game, which I love to do. One thing I question in games, is the locked down world that you enter. Many games people present an environment where you solve a puzzle, and the puzzle is always the same. So you try and retry the puzzle until you solve it. People often replay games, and the puzzles presented are in the same exact pacing and location, nothing changes. One of the things I try to create in my games is the sense that this world is shifting when you start a new game. Another concept I’m trying to explore is the possibility of the game shifting during gameplay, which I’m going to stay vague about so again, I can maintain the element of surprise in the future.

One note about rigidbodies is that I put rigidbodies in a different game level, that is on when game play starts, but off when I generate my NavMesh because the idea is that they will be movable. If the NavMesh generates a wall around them, the assumption is that they will stay static. When I talk about different levels, I’m talking about chunks of the game that I can turn off, not “leveling up” as it were, although this could apply too. I can have a game level, where different chunks of the level go on and off, depending on your location. This can save in how much data the engine has to crunch while you’re playing, and it allows me to also separate some things out for other reasons, like for keeping my NavMesh clean as stated. I’ll give you a solid example. I created a navMesh and forgot to turn off my rigidBody level. When my AI moved through the game, they stopped on the stairs because the random objects were in the stairwell and generated a navigation mesh that saw them as permanent obstacles.

Yes, I jump back and forth between talking about generating art and story and the technical side of games. I try to understand the technical side, yet my goal is to get the technical things out of my way so that it becomes second nature, and quick to execute. I believe that more and more as I create “small” games, the library of pieces I have should allow me to write more short story games, without the huge delay involved with creating a whole new system. I’m not saying that each game doesn’t have new elements you want to add, different AI, more involved story as you get better, but you keep building a library and refine your approach rather than re-create the entire engine you made.

I think it was Stephen King, who talks about writing stories, and how there is a perfect storm that happens with an idea. You have an idea and put it aside, and then over time. You collect those ideas and don’t necessarily force it out, you can’t. At some point though the idea comes out by itself. It could be something small that happens and creates that perfect storm and makes your idea clear. The problem with trying to come up with short story game ideas is the delay in developing games. The solution for me is to continue to build a library, so that when lightning strikes and the game idea comes, I’m ready to create something more fluidly.

Actual shot from my vague creepy indie game.

Actual shot from my vague creepy indie game.

When the technical and artistic prep work is done, the short story comes in creating the gameplay. Elements like my fog and rain effects are important to me in my game stories for creating mood and movement. The same is true for sounds and music, which of course is where my games suffer the most since I am not a musician who composes music.

All of these things though can come together as part of a composition. There are million things you can do when creating any story, and the question always is, what do you need to do to tell your tale, and what can you leave out?

Other locations from my childhood appear.

Other locations from my childhood appear as incidental characters in game.

Frictional Games

I have been sitting on some technical/art books for awhile now, compilations of things I was teaching and running the Game Art department at RMCAD. However, in the last few weeks a favorite game company of mine, Frictional Games, has released a new title : Amnesia : A Machine for Pigs.

amnesia-1

So since my brain has been elsewhere lately, and because I feel it is timely to discuss Frictional Games right now, I thought I’d put my chapter about Frictional out into the world, because honestly I have no idea when i’m going to finish my books. The goal of the book of course was to be a companion to programs at art schools where students were studying making video games. The idea was to talk about budgets, stories, design, all based on the program I created at RMCAD. In the book I also planned interviews, the first one I did was with Jens Nilsson of Frictional Games.

It isn’t just for students of video games that I have this in mind, but for friends who are in transition in the wake of the collapse of VFX/Animation around the world. You see, one reason I’m a fan of Frictional is that their games are awesome and scary. Another is because I believe that the paradigm of big companies is not the only paradigm, and that indeed more interesting stuff is being done by small creative teams like Frictional. Additionally Frictional does something that I used to do, they telecommute. Something that places like R&H were one of the first to try, but later became hesitant about. However smaller teams can do this because it keeps overhead low.

I’m all about keeping overhead low, and creativity the priority.

Okay, here is the chapter thus far.

I wrote to Jens Nilsson at Frictional Games, the game company behind the Penumbra series and Amnesia to get some quotes for this book but Jens’ responses were so grounded and open I decided to print the interview completely here in a chapter by itself.

Frictional in my opinion are one of the most creative and insightful companies regarding games and well worth listening to for any indie developer, and probably worth paying attention to if you are one of the big companies burning piles of money.

Daev : Is it true that you all went to school together and developed a game engine in school ?

Jens : More or less, to not go into too much of the details: I studied at one university and a friend in my class came in contact with Thomas over the Internet. Thomas was then studying at another university.

A year later the three of us did a thesis and game together called Energetic, the first version of the engine was created by Thomas for this game (I think he used some parts from an earlier project of his). The next year Thomas and I were part of a group that studied over the Internet and part of those studies were to do a game modification, instead of doing a modification, a second version of the engine was developed by Thomas and was used to what would eventually become the penumbra tech demo.

Three people from that group continued working with a new game, Penumbra Overture and this is when the engine was updated once again and finally became the HPL engine that was used to create the three Penumbra games.

Daev : Assuming you went to school for programming what lead you to video games?

Jens : It is the other way around I would say. While I am not a programmer, rather one of the things I do is scripting (or perhaps gameplay programing some might call it?). My interest in video game development was there long before I did any studies related to it. The same is true for Thomas. Both of us have experienced the urge to create something of our own when playing various games growing up. In Thomas case it meant that he started programing and doing projects on his own with a tad help from others. In my case it was doing modifications to games and eventually sound and music for games in collaboration with others that eventually created the know-how and interest for all sides of game development.

Daev : The story goes that three of you worked remotely and met everyday online for meetings and to review progress.   Is this true?

Jens : Yes, we were three people that worked full-time on Penumbra Overture. We did this from our homes and communicated mainly through text on, I think it was, MSN. We used a SVN server (still do) for the development process, so we could easily work together on the project and constantly experience the progress.

We were not only three people, we had help from contributors that did for example music, story writing and audio programming on the promise that if we got the game completed and managed to earn any money on it they would get paid (as we had no money except our own saved money we lived on while working). We did manage to get the game completed and we did manage to make deals with the game, but unfortunately not all of those deals were with serious companies, so we had problems earning money on it. We did eventually pay everyone the promised amounts but it took almost a year after the game was released, while not an ideal situation we did manage to keep the company going.

Daev :  How big is Frictional now, does the same paradigm still hold?  Three guys working remotely?  Six?   25?

Jens : We are now 10 people that work full time at the company, but it is the same structure of remote work from our homes. We also have outsource people like in the past and work with larger outsourcing companies for certain bits (such as producing lots of filler objects for levels). We have often talked about getting an office, but the problem is that the 10 of us are spread out over Sweden, Spain and the UK. We are quite happy were we are and not too eager on having to move all to the same city…

Daev : How long did it take you to develop Penumbra, and was it just the three of you?

Jens : We began on Penumbra Overture at the end of the summer in 2006 and it was released in February 2007 (if memory is correct), we started planning Penumbra Black Plague during the development of Overture. Due to the publisher problems we had Black Plague development stalled, but eventually picked up again and I think it was released in March 2008. Then we quite directly had a plan for Penumbra Requiem and got started on that right away and that eventually got released in August 2008.

After that we were back to publisher problems, but we managed to keep going (thanks to not putting all eggs in the same basket, we controlled Linux and Mac versions and always had a secure income from them and we had the online rights to Penumbra Overture so had some security there as well). In 2009 it looked very bad, we even had told the employees this was the last month we could manage to pay salaries.

Then there was a Steam sale of the Penumbra Collection and thanks to us having the online rights to Overture we shortly there after got the biggest single payment we had ever received before, with more coming later through the publisher and the Black Plague/Requiem sales going through them. We saw an opportunity and took it, we asked everyone to work for as little as possible and to work as fast as possible and that lead to the release of Amnesia in September 2010, under total control by us to avoid any further publisher fiddlings.

We were 3 to 4 full-time people for all the Penumbra games + the outsources who’s combined work hours would equal to about one more person.

Daev : How long did it take you to program your engine and come up with the game mechanics?

Jens : I think I covered the engine aspect in the previous answers (First engine in end of 2004, beginning of 2005. Then reworked during 2005-2006 and engine used for first proper game pretty much developed during the whole development up to the release in Feb 2007. Then from there the engine has been in an constant continued development) . The game mechanics has been a constant development and tweaking process that is continuing even today. If we look at the physics interaction it is still something we discuss, test and try to improve for each game. If we look at what we think we should occupy the player with in the games that difference heavily from game to game as we examine and rethink previous attempts and try new things. We are quite set on trying to change how story driven games are experienced, yet as everyone else, we struggle with the past of growing up with games being games.

Daev : How successful have you been?  I don’t need to know how much money your games have made but can you estimate how many games you’ve sold since you began making games?

Jens : We spent four years being very unsuccessful. Or rather we did pretty good games, at least unique games and we managed to get quite good coverage and reputation with those games. The publishers did a good job making the game available for purchase in stores as well as through digital download. But even so it was very difficult to earn enough to support even a small company like ours with very modest demands for what a monthly salary had to be.

I think these years are those that are the most important to consider if you are an aspiring developer, to keep costs low, to avoid time and resource hungry events (don’t visit shows to “make connections”, it is not worth the cost) and to think about how you can reach the potential customers with as few middle hands as possible. There are lots of unknowns and if you keep it all as simple, small and effective as possible you increase the chance of being able to follow through.

It is also important to not forget about marketing your game while you are making it, lots of lots of games are released by developers and publishers that do surprisingly little to get the word out. If you do get a publisher, don’t rely on them doing all the marketing, do your own marketing as well. By marketing I am not thinking of anything that costs anything other than time, so all ideas you can think of to spread the word.

Since the release of Amnesia we have been very successful. With the history we have had we know the fortunate situation we are in now and so have concentrated on making sure we have a financial stable company. This has meant that we can assure the employees they have solid jobs, as well as being able to do projects like the new Amnesia game, where we fund the development made in collaboration with another company.

If we add in all bundles and such were Amnesia was bought as part of a package, I think Amnesia has sold about 1.5 million copies.

Penumbra series have over time sold quite well, but we have sales we have never seen properly reported or paid for so the actual number is hard to know. But probably around 200 000 copies, not counting the humble indie bundle sales of Penumbra Overture.

Daev : A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations :  I often quote Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry to my students and say they have to know their limitations.  They can’t come up with ideas to create MMO games or games with co-operative AI if they can’t themselves actually do that programming.  So I have them consider what they are capable of and what do they really want to show off as art students (they are not programming students).

The question is, If Clint Eastwood asked you what your Limitations are, could you answer us and you don’t have to imagine he’s holding a gun or calling you “punk”.

Jens : The art department has always been our number one limitation. It is the most resource demanding part of game development and it is not possible to compete in that field with the large companies. This limitation has led us to always try and come up with alternative ways of describing an event, which could be through sound or text instead, in an effort to build up a base for the player’s mind to kick in and do a nice job imagining how it would look like visually. It is also the cause for the physics interaction that has been more or less unique to our games through the years. We could not afford creating animations and specific models for all objects to be found in desk drawers etc, so the idea to use physics as a replacement was born from this limitation.

Daev : What made you think that you could start up a small Indie game company and compete with the likes of games that have millions to tens of million dollar budgets as well as deep marketing budgets?

Jens : This was never a driving factor for us. We simply wanted to create our own games and make a living out of it. I think it might be important to realize the effort behind it. We did not study and then got into making games and running a company. We spent a life time of interest in doing game development and running small companies and freelancing. Then as we were in our twenties we studied at the university, while at the same time continuing doing game development projects in our spare time and finally when we were around 24-26 years old we started Frictional Games. So we came in with a lot of experience and know-how, with work experience doing projects for some larger companies and even then we had four years of struggle before having anything that remotely had a base to support us as an actual company with OK, but modest, salaries.

So in short, what made us start a small game company was our long interest in doing game development, not working in the game industry. I don’t think we would have worked with games today if we had not started our own company.

Daev :  Do you have a budget for marketing or do you rely on Word of Mouth, the internet, and sheer luck?

Jens : We have not really had any budget for marketing. We have spent time doing the marketing the old fashion way, sending our PR, videos, demos and so on. Then contacting all sort of media asking for interest in previews/reviews, then keeping track of their replies (or no replies) and repeated the inquiry if needed and finally been able to secure most of them doing articles on the games. With Amnesia we also burnt simple DVDs, printed out a cover letter and sent the snail mail way to publications we could not find any online contacts to. For example  Game Informer was one of these we managed to get a review from by doing this and their very positive review I believe helped spark the interest in the beginning.

We hoped to get some sort of viral thing going, but any attempt to artificially create that does not really work, but as time passed after release more and more reddit posts and youtube clips appeared. We have tried to keep track and do fun things with them and be very open to sending review copies to anyone that asked for it.

I don’t believe in sheer luck, but I do believe in being able to create as many opportunities as possible for being in the right spot at the right time.

Daev :  Where do you see the Indie game market evolving to over the next decade?

Jens : Probably that there will not be an indie game market, rather it is simply how you do digital game distribution. If you look at smartphones, I’m not sure you think much in terms of this is an indie game and this is a publisher game, the difference in quality or type of game does not seem to be linked to a specific type of company where you as a user have to define it as indie or not. So the majority of all games will just be plain “games” and then there will be a specific label for the big budget games instead, rather than the other way around as we have today.

Post Production : Re-calibrating after a career in Visual Effects

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My family and I spent the last five days or so in Wyoming, at the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, where there is no cell phone reception, no email, or computers, hardly a single luxury. Well, I did have my iPad and would read the pile of stories at night that I’ve been promising myself I’d make time for.

Being in Wyoming is such a timeless experience, it reminds me not just of what it means to slow down, but there are stark reminders in the environment of what global warming is doing. The glaciers are shrinking, the reservoirs which supply water to distant cities are very low. It is both breath taking and heart-wrenching knowing that our own government is doing so little to alleviate the problems of global warming.

All of this of course is a reminder of choices we make in our lives, and how we can make better choices. For me, I spent many years choosing the pace of Post Production.

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Post Production is a term in the film industry that is about the work that comes after the shooting schedule. It is the editing, the musical score, the visual effects which is an increasingly large part of tent-pole films each year.

To me though, at forty-seven, Post Production is now about what do we do when we gravitate away from the world of film production, and try to find that other pace in our life, a slower pace. It isn’t always easy. For me it also involves the choice that my wife and I have committed to that involves home schooling our children, yes very homesteading of us. I think that sometimes the place has helped us make decisions like this, rather than making them completely by ourselves. Had we stayed in Los Angeles I am sure our lives would have unfolded very differently, but here we make choices that sometimes feel driven by the choice we made to leave Hollywood behind. Doing this move mentally has been more difficult at times though.

For those who are used to production, there is a lack of patience in the pacing and unfolding of a different way of life. I know this, I live it. As I move into working on my own artwork, indie games, and writing books and children’s books, I feel the ever present yearning to see production through and get my products out quickly, much like I might in post production work. However that was a world of rapid turn-around fueled by caffeine and sugar. That was a world of seven day work weeks, long pushes in the summer months when I would barely see my family.

Now I don’t drink coffee or sugary beverages anymore. Not to say that this transition has been easy, like trying to pull myself out of Post-production mentality, it has been a hard battle fueled by my sense of self preservation and wish to be healthier as I get older. In short, I try to treat my body with better regard than I ever did when working in post production. I try to figure out this new pacing and it isn’t always easy.

Part of me still feels the pressure to stay “current” in CG technology, even though I am no longer taking on freelance work in VFX (although this is waning). I like others probably at my point in my career, are looking towards new avenues and trying to float new things, perhaps it’s furniture making, or writing, or animating short stories with macaroni noodles.

There is the ever present hope that with each small work of art, with each story that wells up, or illustration, that I’ll do something more personal. It doesn’t have to be great, I just want to do dedicate my personal time in my studio to personal projects.

The frustration for me in this stage is that the path is not as clear as it was in Post Production. In the visual effects or game industry I could apply for a job, and within some weeks I would know whether I had it or not. Now in this stage in life I find myself traveling down the path many indie artists choose over VFX, the longer play, the slower path that may take many years before the shape is clear. Take for example writing. I send out short stories, which are often months in the process before the inevitable rejection letter arrives. There is a process of approaching agents, and publishers that I am simply not used to, and that my psyche doesn’t quite understand.

When staying in the Grand Tetons we stayed at the Signal Mountain Lodge, which was a fantastic place to stay for us. Talking to the young people who worked there you could see their approach to life was so very different from the hectic city pacing of post-production work mentality. These young people were leading hikers into mountains, or working out in the open not because they would bolster their resume, but because they loved what they were doing.

The reward for them was in the doing, and in being in those incredible locations like Lake Jackson, and Yellowstone National Park, or even working at one of the lodges in the area. They are a reminder to me, that there are other choices in life that can be made and that the once seemingly indestructible field of visual effects was anything but that, it was self destructing all along in small ways if not big ones along the way. It’s so easy to get caught up in that, and I had for many years.

When in my twenties I never said no, to the demands of production as I tried to build my experience, and I wish I did. What has lead me back to my studio was exactly that, a series of saying no to production, and the demands of cubicle type environments until I have eventually found myself on the outside of that lifestyle, and happy for it.

I know, I can’t blame all this on the job demands. I have been a very demanding bossy person to myself as well over the years, often skipping vacations, or working around the clock when the demand wasn’t even there. All I can say is that I am working hard at uncovering this other life, that perhaps an alternate version of myself, in a parallel universe has been living all along. I feel like I’ve been uncovering that person I should be one small step at a time like an archeologist uncovering that alternate life. I know that it is going to take time, and that the speed of this alternate reality I’m breaking into moves at a far different pace than the post-production work I used to do. I’m hoping with some practice I can slow down and find myself moving at this pace more and more and being at ease with the slow unfolding, the non-production level of work, and the fact that every day life gets in the way, just as it did for the homesteaders who first came to Wyoming and Colorado.

Dreaming Out Loud

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Having taken some time away from making games to focus on only writing, I am back to splitting my time between creating games and writing in my studio. So, I begin with a short story concept and then try to figure out how to deliver it, in indie fashion, without the huge over head that most “gamers” are so used to now due to the Triple A game titles that have ballooned now like the tent-pole movies that are made in Hollywood. Essentially, the belief that bigger is always better.

Being a fan of short stories (and not of endless games that go on forever) I approach the game as a place to bring people into a story. The images you see on this page are just some recent explorations in creating environments like a painter rather than treating the game world like pixels. To me there is a story even if the player isn’t aware of all of it, and a painted world, the style of the artist behind the brush. This is hopefully one difference that can occur in Indie games, and we see it clearly in games like Fez and Super Meatboy. Personally, If I don’t feel compelled by the painted world or the writing, then it all fizzles out for me as I imagine it does for many.

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Aside from my goal of making a “short story format game” I am trying to enjoy the process of creating. In other words if the enjoyment of the process fizzles, then I’m going to let go and do something creative that will let me create without the technical road blocks.

As an artist and writer, I want to treat the game environment as a canvas that I’m painting on, and trying to bring my audience into that canvas. What I’m saying is that as an artist I’m far more comfortable with writing and visual arts rather than the technical side.

I can do it, but it isn’t where I thrive, and I feel that the game engines are still road blocks to more creative games because individual artists and writers cannot sit down like a pianist at a piano and just create from that unconscious place without the technology getting in the way. Imagine if every note a musician wrote had to be programmed, and they couldn’t actually touch a piano, but rather a robot played it in another room, with a glass barrier between artist and medium.

That is partly what making games is currently like to me and likely many who steer clear of it entirely.

This means trying to find my comfort level in this medium where I can created un-impeded by the technical constraints of the medium. It’s a tough nut to crack because in the end even with powerful game engines it’s still highly complex, and the promise even of engines like Unity and Unreal have their flaws which I won’t get into analyzing right now.

Part of the production process that I always talked about with students when teaching is building up a library of assets so that when it comes to the game, you can create environments and explore. I have hundreds of assets that I’ve made for games over the years and I’m trying to mix and match them to create this world. Making games is so complex compared to the act of designing a game or writing a game. To make an environment it often takes thousands of assets.

The approach I’m taking as an Indie artist is to NOT emulate triple A games, but rather to know my limitations. If I chose to have assets along the lines of Bioshock Infinite then I would need to realize I’m competing with hundreds of artists who have labored for years creating those worlds.

Having worked in production for years on animated films, visual effects and video games, I know what it takes to produce a big game and I’m trying to produce something with that knowledge so that I don’t fall into the trap that many do, which is to say biting off too much.

To me, knowing how to trim down your game as an Indie developer should be like writing short stories. Let’s say you want to publish in a Sci-fi magazine, so you have to obey the limitations of that publication. If a publication demands that you keep your writing to 3000 words or less, then that is the limitation.

Putting boundaries around the format of a game can be liberating. Putting some time structure around it can allow for an Indie artist to be more like the short story writer. Short story writers write many stories and submit them all over the place in hopes one will land. If you spend two years working on your Indie game, and it doesn’t fly, then you are stuck with beginning again.

I’m not even saying it won’t take me two years to finish an indie game, but my goal is to eventually make it happen like that creative flowing process that partly comes from that unconscious place while you do it. To do it in small groups or individually so that the work becomes more personal and more akin to literature rather than action movies with guns and gratuitous half naked women shots (think both recent Star Trek films or Transformers). Everyone comments all the time that video games are not an art form yet, but with the millions of dollars and talent going into them they aren’t likely to get there because there is too much riding on their financial success and because they are taking their beat from Hollywood films. Not to say that films can’t be art, but who among us thinks of Transformers as art? (Note this is not a critique of the artistry that goes into those productions – two different subjects).

Making indie games is daunting. This is why you’ll hear people like Jonathan Blow, who made the popular game Braid, talk about all the games he began, but never finished. Even for indie games there is typically a huge investment in time involved with making a game, which is why so many games with months of development end up in a scrap heap as people move on.

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I’m not claiming to be the only person interested in this. At some point I should probably write about some of the short games I have played that I feel do fit the short story format. You can play the games in under an hour and feel like there is artistry and creativity unimpeded by delusions of being “triple-A”. These games I find far more compelling than the huge triple A must have games, which in the end feel like they are designed to suck up my life and keep me from doing creative work, sleeping or spending time of with my family all of which are priorities in my life, not “finishing” Halo 4.

In the end I’m not trying to talk about what people should do, in creating games. I’m just talking about how I’m trying to approach this, and why I feel compelled to bang on what I think is a visual medium still in it’s infancy, and despite the fact that I made my first game in the 80’s using Basic programming on a Timex Sinclair, I still find it technically challenging to bend this medium in a way that expresses what it is I wish to say.

If I can’t find my comfort level with the medium then it will be like other mediums that are not a fit for me, pastels or charcoal, things that litter the bottom of my art bin while I move on to things that resonate for me and allow me to continue living an active and creative life.