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Neverest green light

In the midst of being a home-schooling dad, playing architect to design the barn/studio, as well as designing and building big barn doors myself, I’ve been finding time here and there to work on my video game and other art work. I fit it in almost anywhere I can, sitting in outside a class my sons are taking, or late night when we are on vacation. I also was gifted a three day weekend in a cabin retreat in the rockies to push on my game by my loving wife Sheryl.

The real trick now is getting past the self doubt that says a lone developer cannot put out a game with the goals I have, that it’s just not good enough.

Self doubt is insidious. It says no matter how hard you work at something, it’s not good enough yet. Of course there is the part that says an Indie developer can be like an author/artist and create interactive worlds the way an author writes a novel. This is more true in these times when using off the shelf game software like Unreal and Unity allow the artist to create in ways they couldn’t without huge support teams previously. To me so much of this is obeying the urge to create and following inspiration when it comes.

Now, as the new year starts, I feel my game is in a good place to submit to Steam Greenlight. So that’s my goal this week, to cast my lot and see if I can make some traction with Steam, (aside from my goal of hanging four massive and heavy barn doors), both tasks are daunting in their own ways.

All the parts are ready for my steam upload, it’s just a matter of uploading and committing myself to hitting that button. Some images below, but the world of course is much larger than these images can capture, and so many things I just want to keep secret and will not reveal.

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Neverest sketches and render update

It was a year ago that I jumpstarted this game idea having shelved it. I partly lost momentum in game development when I switched to Unreal 4, trying to keep up the momentum now. Some of these ships will appear in game, but not everything I design or even build does.

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No, not all these sketches are good, the point is that as an indie developer there really isn’t time for me to sit down and just design for months, but rather it’s sketch, design, test, model, texture, light, game program, test, repeat.

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Dyslexic confessions of a Dad

I have a confession to make, it’s time that i told a little bit more of my story, which is really our story and what I’m tinkering with in my art studio this past year. Almost a year ago I dropped everything I was doing in my studio, the paintings, the children’s books and focused on one thing, a game I’m making to help my son (and others like him) with his dyslexia.

This is not a super easy subject to talk about, although dyslexia is somewhat common there is still a lot of judgement of both the child who has dyslexia and even the parents. The child is often judged as not being smart at all, unteachable is a word used, and the parents are judged as neglectful.

What people often fail to realize with dyslexia is that we have people who have brains that clearly work differently than others, and dyslexia is just one example of this. This doesn’t mean dyslexics are not smart, often they have ways of contributing beyond what others can because of a unique way of thinking.

One example is Jack Horner, the noted Paleontologist who has been the inspiration for the paleontologist in Jurassic Park, he graduated high school he says, with a D–. You may not be able to see that correctly, that is a D-minus-minus. In his words his teacher said that he “Failed, but I never want to see you again.”

Alongside the dyslexia is the fact that my wife and I homeschool our sons. We left Los Angeles, now almost ten years past, so that I wouldn’t spend countless hours working on film visual effects and have no relationship with my family. Over the years we have learned to juggle and share family life, and work life.

I moved from putting all my time in the entertainment industry and more time with my sons exploring museums and doing art with them. This is when I began to see the way we educate our children in museums differently, and started to come up with creative ideas for educating them visually, and interactively. I began sketching out ideas of how to use my visual effects skills in this way.

Like my son, I’m a very visual thinker and a tinkerer. Right now I like to think of more dynamic ways to get information across to people, especially when a museum display or some other form is failing to make people see it, and as a visual thinker I do think people have a failure of imagination when it comes to visualization what the world, and universe around us looks like. Listen to this veritasium video to get an idea of how the education system can fail to really inform us about just how vast our universe is for instance.

My family started out on a sometimes frustrating journey with my son’s dyslexia, which makes his own interaction with the world sometimes difficult, and can make even the smartest kids, feel like failures. It can lead to loving family members or friends being shaming and judgmental. It can lead to parents pushing their kids and asking why they “aren’t trying?”

Dyslexia is not related to the intelligence of a person, as we see with many very prominent dyslexics like Jack Horner and Richard Branson. Branson talks about his Dyslexia in the video below, and he like many see it as a positive, not a negative. I want to make it clear, I see my son as gifted, super creative, and his dyslexia as the most obvious unfortunate label that often gifted and creative people receive, making them feel unteachable and like they aren’t smart. Labels like this can undermine a person and make them give up. This is because we live in a world that only has one metric for determining intelligence (generic tests that squash creativity).

As an artist, I am well aware that the world has one metric for judging intelligence, and leaves out wide swathes of others whose brain works vastly differently.

Imagine for a second an alternate universe where instead of children being tested in school for math, memorization, and punctuation, they are encouraged to be creative, open, explore and be funny. They get to do art, build things, play music, and play and there is no test because you can’t test the best way to bring an individual’s gifts out. When you graduate you have to show your gift, a demonstration or sharing without judgement.

Perhaps in an extreme version of this alternate universe if you can’t draw, or play an instrument, make an invention out of a pile of stuff, or do an improv play then you fail. In this universe math, punctuation and memorization are not used as the metric to determine your intelligence, there is a celebration of many kinds of intelligence over memorization of facts.

Perhaps in some way in education we squash that internal education that may have been passed down over many generations. What if we are going against the very nature of a child and family that specializes in something over generations. The family of musicians, or the family that loves to study nature by scuba-diving. What if for every graduate we suppress another Mozart, another Cousteau. This isn’t about saying that we have a “genius” among us, or putting people who think differently on that specialty pedestal, but honoring something deeper in them, a specialty that their brain and spirit are working towards.

My point is that we often test people and give them the feeling that they are less than others based on tests that favor a particular brain type, a particular calling.

Before someone jumps in to suggest the many teaching approaches to “resolve” dyslexia let me say that we have tried several different approaches with professional tutoring that are very involved and take a lot of dedication from all of us, as well as mind/body exercises that are supposed to help balance the brain etc. I’m not saying that all these techniques shouldn’t be used, but so far for us, some have resulted in more frustration, and others in tears being shed. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of great information out there, and a lot of good techniques that have resulted in very good results for children with dyslexia, or that we have stopped trying. I however am very skeptical when I hear that someone thinks they have the cure for dyslexia.

While trying these tutoring programs for my son, I began to tinker in my studio with a video game idea to help kids who struggle. This wouldn’t be a game like “reader rabbit” but a game more like Myst, that i hoped would be something a child would just want to play, and that in a way I could hack their brain by just getting their interest.

I dummied up a test of the game, in software I was just learning (Unreal 4) and showed it to my wife and son. I didn’t show too much, and although I felt I was on to something, I dropped it and returned to writing, while we tried yet another approach for the dyslexia.

After another round that was frustrating for all, my wife asked me one day, what about that game idea I had. I dusted off the game and dove into it fully putting all my energy into learning the software, and trying to bring my visual effects skills up to speed in this new arena.

I’ve worked hard on this game, and I test it with both of my sons, who enjoy playing it. There is still much I’m not saying about my approach except to say this, the idea is that I want my son to have an experience that is fun, that is enjoyable.

I am trying to build an entire world in support of his struggle, but also to celebrate him and other dyslexics like him.

I personally see my son. I see him as smart, I see him as gifted, amazingly creative. If I have problems thinking through programming problems sometimes I talk to him about it to get his insight into other ways of thinking. My son is endlessly creating, he is always learning, he is not afraid to try new things, I see his intelligence each day, and I know there is no way this is going to hold him back in life.

I don’t see my game as an end all to approaches for dyslexia, i’m hoping it can be used as another tool, hopefully a fun one, to engage a child’s brain and creativity rather than pushing them to memorize and work through frustration. I’m not even judging the various approaches to working with dyslexia, but like the variation in personalities and brains, they don’t work for everyone and I just want to tinker with this a little.

There is a lot I’m not saying in this opening confession, what else I’m doing in the game, what some of the goals are. I’m hoping to make something that is artistic, and helpful, but it’s a long slog, especially when you are creating alone. I work daily with sometimes self imposed goals, like how can i make this beautiful, but also have it playable even on not very good computers? How can I make this enjoyable and keep drawing the child in for the ride?

I still have much work to do, but I realize at this point it might be the time to begin talking about this game, and how a visual thinker is trying to work with something I perceive as a visual thinker problem.

Unreal 4 : Save Game & Peer Support

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Having prototyped my “edutainment” game a couple months ago, I had to pull back and make sure it was still running at a good speed, it wasn’t so this had me reconsider how much of the game I was streaming at one time as well as remodeling whole buildings and reducing textures. After that I had to work on my Save Game system.

A save game system is a very key part of the making a video game. To me it’s a big part of what breathes life into a video game. I like to think of ways to breathe life into a game, like the floating lanterns above, the subtle sounds and movement that adds to a game.

However, there is something magical that happens that most don’t think of when you can return to this virtual world and find things where you last left them. More importantly though, no one wants to play a game that they can’t save out if it takes more than an hour to play.

Unfortunately with all the tutorials and documentation about making video games, it is somewhat neglected and confusing area. Because I think the save game system can influence how the game is made (and how much time it takes to make it) I feel it is something that shouldn’t be neglected. If i had my way it would be the first thing that works right out of the package.

While at places like Rhythm and Hues I enjoyed manipulating lists of objects in ways on the computer, and over many years I got very comfortable doing this.

I found very quickly that as I generated lists of objects in my game that can be moved, that I had issues to surmount and that it is not quite as straight forward as at R&H. In particular, and as far as I can tell, to save out the positional information of objects they need to be classes. So a chair for instance would be it’s own class. I have a game that uses the alphabet, in several different iterations, so I had many classes that I had to identify and save out. That means if there are thirty of the same class of chair, one function will save all thirty but I need another function to find the other classes, like the boxes, the letters, the doors etc so I can save their states. My still somewhat clumsy skills in scripting in UE4’s Blueprint package, means that I had to laboriously put together smaller functions that scan my game for the different classes. I had to do this many many times, and I’m sure in the future I will learn quicker ways to put this together, but for now its’ about moving forward with what works as long as it doesn’t impact game play.

Not working in the industry with lots of people around me to pepper with questions about something that i know should be an easy data manipulation can feel daunting with new software. It took a great deal of digging on the web and lots of experimenting. I would probably still be struggling if not for the video above by Joel George who responded to my request to him to help me with a save game function for object positions. Here’s Joel’s response when peppered with questions by me a few weeks ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLqypbTyZG8

Much of what I find on the web is more about saving high scores, and what level the player is on, which are simple variables. Often what people demonstrate is very specific to their game play, and often may take a lot of wrestling with to get to work with what you need. What i’m doing is more like an adventure game, where I want to know where the player is, what she has moved and what puzzles they have solved. Joel demonstrated something though that many people demonstrate on the Unreal forums and on youtube and other places, a willingness to grapple with the issues others have, and offer their help in resolving them.

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So often we hear about the people who snipe on the web, and those who bully people, but Joel and others abound on the web. The community that shares in these videos help to create a sort of virtual game company, that shares information making a small team feel robust.

Of course it is no small thing what Epic Games has done with UE4, so that the might of the Epic team is behind little indie games.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo0SuStzZSPoti7STK4JWCg
https://www.youtube.com/user/TeslaUE4/videos
http://romeroblueprints.blogspot.com/2015/01/save-and-load-in-blueprints.html

https://www.unrealengine.com

So I’m grateful to this community, Joel, Tracey, Tesla and others who give me loads of information or sometimes one small clue that makes me crack something bigger that I’m working on.

Gaming Around in Edutainment, er um... Edugamement?

Studio time for me is always limited for a stay at home dad who home schools, so I always have to pick my battles. For the last couple years some of that battle has been chosen for me by nature, due to Colorado Floods and lately the threat of more floods. Right now I am just finishing up my barn designs (in Sketchup, actually my blueprints should be ready to pick up today), that means part of my brain and time are freeing up to return to other personal projects like my video games.

A view from my currently untitled edutainment adventure.

A view from my currently untitled edutainment adventure.

Untitled Edutainment game by Daev.  In progress using Unreal 4.

Untitled Edutainment game by Daev. In progress using Unreal 4.

I hit a technical wall with Unreal 4 previously, having decided to use this instead of UDK which was littered with unresolvable issues related to save game, shadowing large scenes that included landscapes and foliage and other problems related to streaming levels (and shadows). When I took up Unreal 4, the word was that it was far easier to make games than UDK, but the problem is the learning curve is much higher to digest much of the new ways to do this, and I just didn’t have the time to devote to it.

It was really my visit to Los Angeles that gave me the inspiration to dive back in again, having spent time with friend Michael Conelly at Black Thorn Media. http://blackthorn-media.com

I found keen minds to discuss video games, game engines and new tech like the Oculus. The enthusiasm of Michael in particular left me with that desire to dust off my games.

Some of the reasons I wanted to dive back in surround the interest I have always had in using games in education, or maybe closer to Edutainment, ( boy I hate that term, can we think of something better?). This desire came about in the wake of leaving the VFX industry and Hollywood, to spend more of my time as a dad instead of someone doing overtime crunching on films, or time on L.A. freeways commuting ( a part time job in itself).

Splitting work time/family time with my wife, I tend to visit a lot of museums with my sons on my days out with them. I can’t help but look at museums and my visual thinking mind kicks in and wants to come up with improvements in giving information to the people visiting. My visual effects mind kicks in and starts dissecting what would be a better way to produce the graphics, and my latent scientist kicks in and wants to simply make this stuff more interesting to kids rather than reading a dry placard packed with facts. I want to see their imagination kick in, and get them to use their hands to interact.

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Part of the ongoing issue I have with the museums we love so much, is that so little of the tech changes. Aside from being expensive investments, the main reason for this is that museum displays are often built by people who build entire displays that are resilient to lots of abuse, but the software to me is not overly impressive, it is typically far less interesting than anything you could possibly do in video games, and this is important considering most children play sophisticated video games, that often look far more engaging than museum work. (Excluding Planetarium work here which is another subject entirely). Here’s an example; to give my sons an idea of what ancient Italy looked like I took them into Assassin’s Creed just to climb around the city and explore. To them it’s like going back in time. Aside from all the killing involved in titles like these (which I do none of with my sons), they have the potential to be great edutainment portals instead of games of mayhem and death.

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My sons asked me recently what happens to the environments for games like Assassin’s Creed and I told them that they all go into a digital land fill, like Atari’s ET went into a real landfill. Sensitive souls, they mourn this loss like me, because to me these would just be great places to explore minus the killing and adventure. This is not a commentary on the video games themselves, or their value, but that there is another intrinsic value beneath this, that I don’t think is getting tapped. That sounds lofty I know, but consider how Google uses satellite imagery and models from Sketchup to make a very full experience in Google Earth. The possibility expanded when they allowed us to view cities back in time, albeit in a limited blurry Sketchup quality way.

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Part of the problem with software at museums is that I don’t feel that it gives a real sense of grandeur and inspiration that can come from visuals, so in effect it feels like so much of this software is being developed by people who are technical, but not necessarily visual. Children are very visual, and since I have child like brain dammit, I think I can take some of that child-like expertise into this realm.

Progress is picking up for me in my studio again, but I’m still digesting some of the new ways that Unreal is using blueprints in their engine to create things. It is NOT entirely logical to a visual thinker. The engine is more impressive than ever, the visuals are stunning and I see the potential speedup after I get through some technical hurdles. There are freebies such as calculating large areas for A.I. to navigate about which was a huge time strain in UDK. Reflections and other subtle effects are improved and not for the first time Unreal’s Render reminds me of my Alma mater in visual effects, Rhythm & Hues who had a stunning renderer that I often miss.

Untitled Edutainment or um, Edugament.. by Daev. In progress using Unreal 4

Untitled Edutainment or um, Edugamement.. by Daev. In progress using Unreal 4

I’m hoping to have my test game level dummied up in the next few weeks. Dummied for me of course means that I try to get pretty far with the models, textures and lighting. I’m not trying to take this to Assassin’s Creed levels visually, but there definitely is that possibility, although it’s a lot to put on a sole Indie developer and I have other edugamement game to work on, okay, I can’t think of a better word, edutainment ideas in my notebooks that I’d like to get to as well, sorting through NASA imagery right now for some of those.