Tuesday, December 25, 2012

So this is Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone,

So this Christmas break is the longest time off I've had since the Dawnshine project began.  More specifically, it’s the longest break between meetings.  We’re not going to start meeting again until January 2013.  It gives me a chance to reorganize.  Two things here.  One, I’ve been meeting with investors lately.  And two, I've recently completed a semester of management classes.

The investors I've been talking to, I haven’t talked to them much about Dawnshine.  Why?  Because it would be a waste of time to do so at this point, this early in.  But what has been helpful is to learn the investment side of things by talking to angels, going to VC seminars, and reading as many articles on the subject as I can.  You can set up your interests through LinkedIn and read a new article or two on funding a day.

I have a completely different game project that I think would be hugely successful and highly disruptive, and I’ve now had two completely different investors tell me they’d be interested in it, but I need to set up some infrastructure and solve some technical issues for it.  But that’s something I’d also like to get started.  I just haven’t had time.

Taking management classes has been helping as well.  Want to hear something pretty embarrassing?  Not long after I graduated Sac State with a BA in Anthropology, I applied for a large tech company looking for a Culture Change Instructor.  Well, I had just gotten my Anthro degree with a Culture shift and I have over a decade professional experience as an instructor, so I applied.  Yeah, um, now that I actually understand what “culture change” means from a business stand point, I feel pretty dumb.  I bet they looked at my application and shook their heads.

A friend of mine graduated with me.  She was telling me about how her Anthro degree should help her get a marketing position because she better knew how to market products to a diverse group of people based on her better understanding of cultural values.  It made sense to me at the time, but yeah, I understand a little better how completely wrong that is.  People into marketing only spend a part of their time trying to sell stuff.  They spend the majority of their time analyzing trends, mapping out strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to individual businesses, and trying to predict changes in entire markets.  Anthropologists can't do 1/10th of what a marketer can do in the business world.

Speaking of business, I might be landing another opportunity.  I've been talking to an up and coming game company.  If I were to get involved with them, it would not deter my time spent on Stigma Games.  In fact, I think working for another game company could actually make things better.  I haven’t signed anything, so of course, it may or may not happen.  But in light of these events and some reflection, I've decided to fundamentally alter the course for Stigma Games.

Right now we’re a group of people working on a game for the fun of it, with the hope that it could one day turn into something.  Most of the people on the team are just here for experience to help them get a job elsewhere.  And that’s fine too.

While this approach has been fine in the past, I will instead start treating Stigma Games as a serious company currently bootstrapping, but moving towards a strong proof of concept with Dawnshine that would allow us to start attracting investors.  I say this due to the fact that there are people currently on the team taking Dawnshine seriously, investors taking us seriously, and other professionals from tech companies in the area that I meet a mixers and things taking us seriously.

On the other hand, there are people on our team that see this as a fun project to drop in and out of when they have time.  And I’ve thought in the past that if I start taking this too seriously, those people might quit.  Considering how extremely hard this project is to manage with people coming and going and maybe doing 10 hours worth of work this week or 3 months from now, I need to start taking a more hard line approach.  I’ve been afraid of getting the “You know you’re not paying me, right?” line if I try and push production too much and we might start losing people.  But more importantly, if I don’t start pushing the team, we’re going to start losing the top performers that get frustrated that the project isn't serious enough.

I’ll list another example.  There is a concept of a hut.  It’s an unusual concept, and one I think will be really awesome once it’s modeled.  I believe it was created back in March or April.  I first passed it off to a modeler who never finished it and faded away from the team.  I assume she’s no longer part of the team because she doesn't contact me any more.  So I passed it off to someone else, who also disappeared.  Finally, we recruited another person who wanted something simple to work on.  I passed it to him and never heard from him again.  Will the fourth person I pass it to do it in a week or will this simple hut take years before someone finally does it?

Now, if I wanted to recruit a level designer to design the capitol city for the Neg Wath and I had a whole list of assets needed first and some of them could be completed next week and others years from now(who knows?), I have no idea what to tell the level designer when he’d be able to start.  It sucks to say this, but I’m going to have to remove people from the team who are given tasks and either don’t do them by next week or don’t keep me in the loop on their progress.  Managing this project is an impossible task if I can’t rely on people to do what they tell me they’re going to do or keep me informed when they have problems.

I don’t think people on the team are flaky or bad people.  Mostly, I don’t think I've done a very good job at explaining to the team the importance of being organized or how tight our pipeline is as we start creating different specialized teams that need A done before they can start on B.  This is especially hard if A and B are done by different teams.  Why rush to finish something that’s needed by someone you haven’t even met or are aware of?

I have photographers taking pictures of things we need for the modelers to do their thing.  They've never worked on a game project.  They don’t come to the art meeting.  They don’t understand that when I need something by next week before a modeler can finish their asset, emailing me 3 months later asking if I still need it done, isn't going to fly.

But again, I don’t blame the members of my team.  I blame myself for not better communicating how interconnected everyone’s work is, even to other members of the project that they haven’t even met because they go to different production meetings.

2013 is a new year.  Hopefully each year gets better for us.  We’ll see how it goes.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Post

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  There isn't anything radical to report, just some general progress from individual teams.  I'll go through the list.

The programmers are focusing on mastering some of the more complex parts of the engine.  If we lay tons of groundwork down at this point, it will make things easier later on.  We’re going to have a fairly complex AI, and this ground work now is part of what will give us more power later on.

The art team has some completed models that I started importing in the engine.  We’re working on the assets for one of the first zones in the game—The Howling Meadows.  The architectural style is pretty boring here, but that fits in with the lore.  Lately, I’ve been wondering if the lore needs to be tweaks a little in an effort to change that.  It's really easy / lazy for designers to pick an existing Earth culture and just copy it.  If they don’t do that, they can also go in a more fantasy or sci fi direction and just make up a bunch of crazy or unrealistic things to get away from something familiar.  But, in my opinion, it takes real skill to design something that doesn’t resemble any Earth cultures and yet is realistic and functional.

We sure seem to spend a lot of time on concepts.  We had an artist who quit pretty early in the project, get frustrated because we were taking so long.  Here we are still figuring out the look of the game.  I'm ok with that though.  We’ve spent almost a year on concepts and we still haven’t finished the Neg Wath style and haven’t even started on the other 3 factions.  It will be worth it when it's all finished though.  I think it will be striking to players when they see it.

I'm hoping our character model gets done soon.  I've seen HeroEngine projects where a small team had their own character model within the first two weeks.  I can say that I’m really happy with our character model though.  Only the male is done right now.  But it’s pretty impressive.  Finishing it opens up a huge number of things we can do.  Once it's done and rigged, we can get the animation team going—who I recruited 6 months ago when I was given the impression the models were done and rigged and ready to go and they weren't.  We can also get the spawning system working so we can spawn bad guys to fight.  We can get the character creation system working.  We can test the AI system.  We can start modeling hair and clothing to the model.  Pretty much not having a finished character model has been a huge bottle neck in the project.

Now, I know there’s a lot of things I could have done.  We could have used Mixamo characters.  We could have retopologized down thousands of high quality, royalty free human models that can be downloaded numerous places.  I’ll admit, it's been really frustrating this hasn't been resolved in some way, but I’m hoping finally that will change.

In terms of design, I'm the only designer on the team, so I can tell you every detail the Design Team is up to, heh.  I think I mentioned a while back I've been working on the particle effect system.  It’s really flexible, though it takes a long time to learn.  It’s good to learn though, because it will help me refine the abilities that each class build uses and how to plan out assets needed—like sound.  I need to start getting the sound designers moving.  Particle effects can also be attached to areas and environments in the HeroEngine.  For example, I have pollen working that will slowly float in the wind and I have that FX attached to several places in the game.  But I can also create rising bubble effects and weird little floaty bits and attach that to underwater environments globally.

I’m currently working on fire particle effects.  In HE you can create the actual flames and a second emitter that emits emitters.  This will be useful to randomly throw upward an emitter that pops, shooting embers out in random directions and making a popping sound.  Then, of course, a third emitter to create the smoke would be needed.  Fire has to look awesome.  That’s just the way it is.  I’ll probably spend a lot of time trying to get it right.

In terms of world design, I started laying out the zones.  This is a strange task.  How big should the zones be?  Well, the bigger is not exactly the better.  If the zones are too big, players could spend a lot time running to places they need to get to.  They could also have a hard time finding places or getting lost.  It’s hard to make huge stretches of space look interesting without getting monotonous.  Then there’s the technical side of things.  Each meter on a height map has a Z coordinate.  That works out to 1 meg of data per square kilometer, not to mention the information that stores which texture(s) is stored on it as well as other things like dynamic details like grass(trees, rocks, water, etc, are considered nodes, so they don’t count).  That can kick it up to 10 megs per kilometer.  Consider that World of Warcraft is 25 by 30 kilometers, that’s 750 square kilometers or 7.5 gigs just on the map alone.  Keep in mind too, each area and all the areas adjacent to it, need to be loaded up into memory.  If you have too many different kinds of models, or nodes, in those areas, it will load a lot of data into the player’s client computer, which can slow it down a lot.

Having said that, since we want to go for realism where things are spread out over great distances, I currently have Dawnshine to be colossally gigantic.  Put another way, the city of Kayne alone is a little bigger than the entire World of Warcraft's Azeroth.  Yeah, just one city, but it’s a big city.  I’m hoping by the time Dawnshine comes out, everyone will have 50 Terabyte hard drives.  Come on Moore's Law.

Although this sounds insane, and there's a pretty good reason why game designers don’t make worlds this large, there might be some benefits that outweigh the hassle.  For one, the open map player housing issue.  If an infinite amount of players can join a game and there’s a finite amount of space, eventually that space will run out and players will be unable to get their own property.  This is why player housing is nearly always instanced in games.  But if the game world itself was larger than a reasonable number of players would ever be able to fill up, would that change things?  Is there any real benefit that players might find with open map housing?  Hmm, that’s possible.  What if players wanted to open up their own black smithies, inns, clothing stores, vineyards, gold mines, castles, etc?  They would need for other players to be able to see it and stop by to interact with it.  An instanced store that no one but the owner would ever see, would be pointless.  It would have to be open map in that case.

Would a world that was run by players be an interesting enough thing to strive for?  Certainly you couldn’t let players do whatever they want.  I think Sandboxes that try to do such in multiplayer games usually create a mess when they try.  Players would need to be restricted as to what they could build and where.  Community buildings would be interesting as well.  Players could spend months doing daily quests that would allow them to unlock a community building in their favorite neighborhoods.  After months of collecting stones and mortar, feeding and housing laborers, and guarding against saboteurs, let's say the players are able to build a temple that gives bonuses to other buildings near it.  Does that sound cool to anyone else?

There’s a lot about Dawnshine I haven’t talked about because I want to wait until we’re sure it's going to be in the final game.  Developers usually hone in on what the one thing in their game is that’s fun, and make the game all about that.  Games that try and make everyone happy usually make no one happy.  At least that's always been the paradigm.  The paradigm is established for big budget game studios with big budget payroll and rent to meet every month and for established Indies that are always one flop away from closing the doors for good.  For us, we have the flexibility to take huge risks.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Month 11

I hope everyone had a happy Halloween.  So recently, I started playing Skyrim.  “Playing” isn't really the right word.  More like dissecting it, modding it, and changing the artwork in it.  It seems like I always spend more time taking games apart than I do playing them.  There’s a lot of badly done things in Skyrim.  You know how the characters have such blocky faces?  It’s because the normal maps actually have those squares in them because they didn't use a high enough poly model to bake normal maps from or spend the 5 minutes in Photoshop it would have taken to smooth them.  Such a big budget project with such obvious and easily fixable mistakes.

I've been looking at mods that other Skyrimmers have been making.  There’s an interesting one that adds dialogue to the player’s otherwise mute character saying things like, “Where am I?” when a new area discovered event is triggered.  The problem with this is that you could possibly have a single voice actor tasked with creating hundreds or more sound assets for the player character.  What if you want to add something later or do an expansion pack and you can’t track that same voice actor down again?  Scary.  But I really like the idea of the player creating a character, and then that character having a specific personality separate from the player.

This is a subtle, but unusual idea for an MMORPG.  Usually players create an avatar and role play(even if only subconsciously) that this avatar is an extension of themselves.  I know a lot of players of RPGs think role playing is dumb even if they’re unwittingly doing it.  No one says, “Ah man, my character just died.”  They say, “I just died.  Damn it!”  So everyone role plays on some measureable level.  Oh, and also, not even hard core role players say “thee” and “thy” while they talk.

Sidetracked.  Anyway, having the player character either be mute or choose their dialogue(like Age of Conan and SWTOR did), makes a lot of sense.  The character is an extension of the player and how the player is actively choosing that character’s personality to be.  But what if you created the personality of your character when your character is created, and that personality comes through automatically throughout the rest of the game?  This latter example is the norm in single player games.  Mario is not the player’s avatar.  As Sheldon Cooper might say, "Mario, going after Princess Peach.  And what am I doing?  I'm just enabling you."

Mario has a set personality.  Duke Nukem has a set personality.  You don’t actively control those personalities while you play.  But you also don’t get to pick their personalities at the start of the game.  What if you could?  Since they’re single player games, it’s easy for the developer to make the player’s character stand out personality wise.  But in an MMO where players are all picking the same choices, that’s much harder to accomplish.  But what if the developer bit the bullet and made tons of personality choices, got the voice actors to do that huge task of work, and took the huge amount of time to code in all those event triggers to make it happen?  I think it would be worth it.

Ah well, speaking of Dawnshine, a lot has changed with the art team—the same sort of thing that’s happened with the programmer team earlier.  I used to recruit programmers and give them tasks at our meetings without doing anything to vet them first.  This really wrecked havoc in the early days when a programmer would have a time sensitive task and they’d stop coming to the meetings or keeping in contact with me. And I would have no idea what they were doing, if I needed to reassign the task, are they coming back, will they eventually do it?  That really, really sucks from a project management point of view.  And, a single flaky person can sap the morale of the entire team.

Eventually, I had to start giving programmers tests first.  Pass the tests, then you can start coming to our meetings.  Keep showing up at our meetings for a while, then we give people stuff to do.  I hate having to make people jump through hoops.  Why do people flake?  A lot of times people hear about us and OMG! have to be part of this because MMOs are amazing!  Then they join the team and find out that game development is actually a lot of work, the HeroEngine is pretty hard and time consuming for programmers to learn and they don’t want to ask a lot of questions right away(who does?) so they drift away.

After I changed my recruiting techniques, the programmer team has gotten a lot better.  We’re having much fewer people join the team, but those that do, tend to work out better.  But as I said, over the last couple months,we've been having a similar problem with the art team. We've lost quite a few people that, I think deep down inside, didn't want to be there in the first place, and it showed in their work.

Artists are different in that they don’t have to learn the HeroEngine at all. The problem is the same, but unlike programmers who never get past doing the tutorials, it means the less committed artists tend to do lower quality of work. Now, I’m not talking about skill level—especially about 3d art. No artist picks up Maya and puts out great work on day one. But even the absolute beginner can do great 3d artwork. It just takes them a whole lot longer.

Ok, enough ranting.  Let’s talk about what people are up to.  The programming team is currently making a pretty big transition.  To understand it, let’s talk about the HeroEngine a bit.  I was talking about engines with other game developers in the area at some meet up a few days ago.  They’re complaining about how if you want to do something in Unity, you pretty much have to use their tools or you’ll spend too much time fighting it.  There’s not much to fight in the HeroEngine, because there aren't many tools.  It means you have to build all your tools from scratch.  The good news is that you can make everything work how you want.  The bad news is that the HeroEngine is generally designed for huge budget studios with dozens of programmers working on hundreds of scripts a day.  We have none of those tools made.

Now, the HE comes with something they call the Clean Engine and the Evaluation system.  The Clean Engine is stuff like how props and cameras attach to characters, how players are first sent to the “Character Selection” area, simple AI pathing—basic stuff.  They expect a big budget studio will replace all of it, while a smaller studio will accept the defaults.  The Evaluation system is stuff like simplistic character creation, hitpoints, basic AI, and simple combat.  They expect everyone to replace the Evaluation stuff.  All we've been doing so far is modifying the combat systems from the Evaluation system to our own.  That’s cool and all, but we've been hard coding everything.  Not that we want to.  It’s just that unplugging these systems and plugging in our own, newly created ones is a scary step.  In modifying these inflexible, hard coded systems, we’re learning how they tick, what’s connected to what, and how they all fit in.  We’re getting really close to completing this very important milestone—essentially pulling the project off the grid and surviving on our own power.  We probably won’t face another similar moment until we get the source code and have to compile it and run the game on our own servers ourselves.  We’re nowhere near being able to do that.

On the art side of things, the artists have been building assets instance by instance, zone by zone.  I think I mentioned that in the last post.  Pretty soon, we should have an entire instance completed, then all the instances in an entire zone.  The first zone we’re working on is called The Howling Meadows.  All of the zones have strong stories behind them.  THM is ruled by a tribe of Neg Wath in the center of the zone.  They’re dying off, and no one seems to understand why. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I’ll say that since Dawnshine is hard fantasy, they’re not dying off due to a supernatural reason, though they think they are. It’s actually a pretty anticlimactic and mundane reason, but that’s part of what makes Hard Fantasy cool. There are other tribes in the area, each who’d like to fill the power void. The players will get pulled into the middle of the power struggle turned bloody.

Though it’s unclear why the ruling tribe is dying off and many stay away because of it, the land itself is valuable and worth fighting for.  The air is thick with the spirits of the dead, unable to pass on into the afterlife.  These spirits are impossible to detect by most.  But those that are able to drift into the spirit world can hear the howl of thousands of anguished souls.

I haven’t talked much about how the classes in the game works, how magic works or… ah hell, our website says close to nothing about the game despite there being a huge amount of stuff worked out.  One of the classes in the Neg Wath faction is the Spirit Walker.  I can’t remember, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned any of the classes on the blogs before.  I’ll talk a little about them.

The Spirit Walkers are sort of like a necromancer / cleric.  All 3 of the spell casting classes of the Neg Wath faction are different types of Necromancers.  The Spirit Walkers only deal with spirits though.  They can forcibly bind spirits to allies and enemies.  So Spirit Walkers would naturally gravitate to the Howling Meadows due to the abundance of souls.  Since Spirit Walkers can use the binding of spirits to heal people(outside of combat), you’d think the Howling Meadows would be a sort of grand hospital rather than a place that causes people to grow sick and die.  Again, it’s a confusing and conflicted place.  It’s a bummer that it’s a level 5-10 zone and that players will zip through it so fast, but there’s lots of other really interesting zones I can’t wait for players to experience after that.

Which leads me to what I’m working on. So I've been the sole environmental texture artist on the team. Lately I've also been working on the particle system. It’s perhaps the only system in the game that we’re not going to be overhauling. Though, it was meant to give developers tons of flexibility.  And it does, though anything with lots of flexibility is never user friendly or simple.

I figured out how to get blood to squirt out of enemy’s necks when you decapitate them(not that we have decapitation working yet—but the blood spurts are).  And I got it to leave blood puddles on the ground afterwards.  Now that I finally have that working, I’m realizing I need to do blood puddles with decals rather than with particle effects.  Oops.  Still, it’s good I’m figuring out this stuff now.

Something a lot more embarrassing--all this time I’ve been creating ground texture normal maps that have been upside down.  “Flip Y and X” boxes are checked on by default in my Photoshop plugin.  Who am I to argue with NVidia who made the plugin?  Ok, so I figured that out and am in the process of redoing all the normals for ground textures.  Speaking of normal maps, I always though flat grass textures were impossible to look realistic.  But one thing I noticed in playing Skyrim, not only do the normal maps highlight each blade of grass, but they also add little blobs that make the ground look really clumpy.  I was pretty amazed at how well they could get a flat grass texture to look realistic.  So I might change my mind about grass textures.  How did they do such a great job with normal maps for grass and a terrible job on people’s faces?  I’m guessing their environmental artists are really good and their character artists suck.

A really big development that will happy soon, HeroEngine is getting SpeedTree 6, which will be awesome because the “tree asset system” is currently disabled.  Having to create assets for the Neg Wath who live in trees, without being able to use trees, has kind of sucked.  But once ST 6 is working, that will be awesome.

I’m really hoping in the next couple months, we’ll be able to start posting screen shots and game play footage.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

One year ago

A year ago today, I decided to start this project.  I knew I would learn a lot in the first year as I will continue to learn as time goes on.  Here’s a look back.

When this all started, I worked really hard to try and convince people to come aboard, sending long emails to people I found on Sacramento game development sites and other places, really selling the idea of the game and why I thought it would be successful.  I learned pretty quickly, however, that nearly everyone I talked to wanted to jump in immediately no matter what the game was like.  After meeting with one programmer and talking for an hour about how the engine worked, I was struck by the fact he was ready to get started, and he never even asked me what the game was about.  I told him we were making a Hello Kitty 3rd person shooter game.  He didn't even blink an eye, which kind of worried me, to be honest.

Now, that doesn't mean everyone I recruited who were enthusiastic about joining actually stuck around.  In fact, over half the people I recruit end up quitting the team in the first week—many without even logging in to our wiki, forums, or engine to even start working or learn anything about the game.

That’s strange.  Why meet with someone, say you’re interested and excited, then get home and not even look at anything?  But I've actually done the same thing myself.  You hear about a game project and you absolutely want to be involved.  Then you get home and think, “Um, what was I thinking?  I don’t have time for this,” so you watch tv for a while, play WoW, get caught up on homework, and forget about the game project you agreed to work on.  Not to mention, building fun and exciting games is cool, but spending 10 hours trying to figure out why the importer plugin for the rock you spent the last 3 days modeling isn't working, can be a drag.  I had a teacher once say, “Live life to the fullest!” is a great slogan until you have to put gas in your car, wash the dishes, and do the less glamorous things in life.  Game development is real, actual work.  You have to love every part of it or do something else.

I've gotten a lot better at weeding out people that I think won’t last long.  It’s tough when you’re understaffed, to not take any warm body willing to volunteer.  But having people come and go really hurts morale, so it’s something that you have to resist doing as a recruiter in this situation.  I try and give people I recruit tests, not to test their skills, but to test how serious they are before I introduce them to the team.

This is even a problem in funded game companies.  One of the main reasons why game companies only want to hire people with experience is because they want to make sure that they’re hiring people that are sure they actually want to make games and have proven they want to do so by doing it for a year or more.  Hiring people that quit a month later can be really expensive for a company.  There’s a big difference between recruiting volunteers and hiring professionals, but there is some cross over.  I’m glad on some level to be learning these things while we’re not funded, and I can make mistakes without losing money.

Project Management
If recruiting is hard, project management is pretty tough too.  Making sure that 25 people all have stuff to do is a full time job in its own.  I've had to learn how to program in the HeroEngine so I can write pseudo code to give tasks to the programmers.  Then for the artists--how to take a 2d concept piece, turn it into a 3d model, sculpt it, retopologize it if needed, uv unwrap, texture it, bake normal maps from holy poly versions, and rig and animate it if needed, and how to convert all the diffuse, normal, transparencies, and specularity maps into special HeroEngine shaders.  I’m lucky in that I have a decent amount of experience as a C++ programmer, so I’m familiar with object oriented design, and I have a long time 3D art background.  I’m not all that great at either, but it’s really helpful that I at least understand both sides of things really well.

I’ll admit, I do get a little self conscious if I’m not coding or creating art assets—aka, if I don’t have something I can directly point to and say, “See?  I’m contributing too!”  I still have a little “why do I get to be in charge,” insecurity.  I really need to get over that.  I let those insecurities slip, and it’s just bad news when I do.  It gives the team the impression that maybe I can’t pull this off and maybe the project will never take off.  I read once that confidence is the greatest gift a leader can give their team.  If we can pull off everything we have planned, Dawnshine will be a huge success.  I need to stop being so insecure and remind myself that this game has the potential to be paradigm shifting.  Yep, I said it.  Now I need to act on that.

Business Development
I've learned an awful lot about how funding works.  I knew very little about it before hand, and I still have a lot more to learn.  I know I've posted about Loki’s Planet in the past.  They were a funded company, and I had a dim view of venture capitalists due to listening their CEO and to other frustrated entrepreneurs about how difficult VCs are to work with.  Part of my dismal view of investors came from my dismal view of record companies and how they screw over bands—as if investors give you a little bit of money and hope you take off with that alone.  But that’s completely the wrong idea.  In theory, investors keep giving you money as long as they think your company will take off.  And if they signed on, but figure out later that they don’t have the money to make it happen, they will sell off some of their own shares to someone that will.  Good investors are business partners and will work hard to make things happen for the company they invest in.

Aside from that, working for Loki’s Planet taught me a crap load about how game PR and marketing works.  I really enjoyed talking to marketing directors from big companies and understanding things from their perspectives.  Dawnshine is a long way from needing a business / marketing team, but I feel a lot more prepared for when we do.  I know I’ll learn a lot from that once it’s in full swing.

Game Design
Over a billion people on the planet alive today have played a video game once in their lives.  Many of them have ideas for making their own game.  Of those millions of people, many of them think their ideas are unique and interesting.  The idea of getting together a bunch of people to all work on your brilliant game idea sounds like a lot of fun.  But here on Earth, in our current dimension of existence, it doesn't really work that way.  You don’t get a bunch of people together and expect people to read your mind or make decisions on their own.  If people aren't given exact, detailed instructions, they either get frustrated and stop working or they guess at stuff and do work far removed from what the rest of the team is doing.

Game design is a huge, huge amount of work.  It’s essentially like writing book reports filled with technical details as a full time job.  If you aren't a fan of math, you’re not going to like game design.  It’s a lot of mathematical formulas, flow charts, and logic trees.  It’s a lot of asset creation lists and details.

I really had no idea when I started this a year ago, just how much work was really involved with being a game designer.  Just art assets, a detailed asset creation list for a game can include thousands of items.  World of Warcraft had over 10,000 sound files when Burning Crusade launched—that’s just audio assets.  Can you imagine writing out 10,000 descriptions for sounds that you want the audio team to go record?  If you think, "They're audio people and gamers.  They know what kind of sounds are needed in a game.  They can figure it out," then you'd be wrong.  Letting your team guess at stuff like that is a really, really bad idea.

I got smart and instead of telling the art team the lore and history and asking them to start drawing stuff, I started smaller.  We’re working on a single village and detailing out everything that would reasonably be in that one village.  We’re not even doing the whole village.  I broke it up into 5 parts.  In the end, it will be one of 25-30 villages in one of the 16 zones of one of the 4 factions.  We’re going to spend the next several months working on it.  For years, I've heard players complain about how game studios are lazy because they recycle art assets.

Well, here's to another year closer to our goal.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Middle of Month 9

Hey guys.  As I mentioned in my last post a month ago, I've been really busy, but much of that is behind me.  School has claimed a few members of the team who are struggling to handle work and class loads and the Dawnshine Project at the same time.

For some reason, I've had a pretty hard time recruiting character modelers.  At least this means we have a huge collection of armor, hair, and clothing concepts built up and ready to pass off to be modeled.  That's a good thing.

The modelers and animators we do have are currently working on the cinematic.  I especially wrote the script for it to be easy to do from a technical stand point--not a lot of environmental assets needed, mostly simple walk animations and only one line needing to be lip sync animated.  And that line is two words.  I think I mentioned in the last post that Jared took the team out to Howe Park to shoot video.  Sarah played the part of Sahka.  It's useful to have live action footage to use as an animation reference.  I don't have anyone in particular in mind to voice act it.  It's all one actor: young female.

Meanwhile, as the 3d team is doing that, the concept team is working on layouts for instances.  This is kind of tough.  I mean, level design is easy work, however, we want to make them as realistic as possible.  You know how instances are either mazes with a spawn of bad guys every 40 to whatever feet, evenly spaced out or they're a twisty, one way tunnel with evenly spaced out spawns of bad guys?  Then you go through these spawns for a while, fight a boss, repeat.  Or you get to the end and fight just one boss.  Whatever it is, it's pretty stilted.  I'm not going to completely condemn this kind of level design.  I've certainly had a lot of fun in MMOs that relied on this.  But we're going to try and make our instances seem more natural.  I want players to forget they're playing a game as they peer around corners to watch patrol movements because the enemy behavior seems natural.

Speaking of that, I've been working on our AI system.  I'm not sure how the final system will end up.  I want to make our AI as complicated as possible, but we can only send so many server calls before the game is too laggy.  Still, there will be some randomization.  Let's say you're fighting 3 Neg Wath warriors.  All three might fight differently.  I remember something Jack Emmert--lead designer for City of Heroes--once said.  He said that players all claim they want challenging AI and variety, but then they all flock to fight the easiest, dumbest AI monsters in the game.  Although that might be true, I don't think players actually want boring AI even if that's what the flock to.  The bulk of players will flock to the fastest point to a ding whether it's fun or not.  If it's not fun, they'll still put some hours in, then just drop off suddenly, tell everyone how boring the game is, and never come back.  The job of a game designer is to figure out what players will flock to, then try and make that path as fun as possible.  You don't lure people with "fun."

In terms of coding, the development team is getting some momentum.  We're starting to get some systems up and working.  Hopefully by next month we have some of the basics working.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Middle of Month 8

Wow, it's been almost 4 weeks since I've posted.  I've been incredibly busy.  I'm still not finished with Stairway to Stardom, the music education program I teach.  There've been unexpected delays at the studio.  I'm *hoping* it will be finished by Monday.  This is my 17th year teaching the program.  Obviously, I enjoy it, though it's caused me to miss two Dawnshine art meetings in a row, and I feel like that's caused the project to slow considerably.

That aside, although my back has recovered considerably, I feel like I'm in health care hell.  X-Rays of my back uncovered more, older problems.  For the last few years, I've had partial paralysis in my left leg.  I have no idea why.  I can walk without a limp, so I don't really care.  The doctors have spotted the pre-injury spinal damage so I keep having more doctor visits for that now.  Having 4 hour hospital visits every couple weeks just sucks.  I'm really close to telling the docs to just leave me alone.  I think I've gone to hospitals more in the last two months than I have my entire life before that.  It's really aggravating.

Combine that with I've been trying to get a full time job because trying to hustle up freelance work all the time stresses me out too much.  You know how they say looking for a job is a full time job?  Well, I'm doing that and I also decided to go back to school.  I'm talking a class in php, html5, and techniques of management.  I've decided to go for an AA degree in Management and, while I'm at it, brush up on my web development skills

So my classes just started this week.  And to add to the fun, I have jury duty starting tomorrow.  I really hate my life right now.  Yeah, I know.  As a student, I can postpone serving.  But my classes are in the evening and online so they don't really conflict.  Yeah, it's not like they're going to check that out.  But still, it's my civic duty and all that.  It's part of being a proud American, and it's the least I can do.

Sorry, I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining.  Everything will work out.  I just hate being distracted from the Dawnshine project and missing meetings.

Anyways, enough of that.  I recently went to a game jam.  I got teamed up with Joe Burchett, the organizer of the Sacramento Game Dev Meetups.  He did all the programming and I was the 2d artist.  I've started to get really good at UI design.  But to my point.  Working right next to him was pretty cool.  He could tell me exactly what he needed rather than me making a bunch of stuff that wouldn't get used or didn't have the right attributes for what he was doing.  It was really efficient.

It reminded me of a comment one of the artists said--instead of driving all the way out to the art meetings and talking about what we need to accomplish, I could be at home spending that time creating stuff for the game.  It made me realize that if we had the whole team in an office working on the project one day a week, we'd get a lot more accomplished.  I think that would also let people know if it was something they wanted to do for a living.  I mean, tons of people think working in the game industry would be awesome, but when you actually sit down and do it and realize how much repetitive / busy work is required, most people would change their mind.

So I'm thinking about looking into one of those shared office spaces.  There's a few of them in Sacramento.  So one office floor, but with several companies renting rooms in that office.  We would only want a weekend, and those are hard for these places to sell, so I could probably get a great deal on it.  I need a steady job for that first.

In terms of progress, one of our beginning programmers wrote a bunch of broken code for the combat system.  He's since left the team.  Instead of picking up where he left off, it made more sense for our lead programmer to rip it all out.  He'll start fresh instead.  I have the formulas written out.  It's just a matter of getting the new character system node working and writing a new combat system to work with it.  Our combat system is really unusual, but the fact that we're on month 8 and it's barely even started, is pretty discouraging.  I wanted to be alpha testing by now.  At our pace, that's not going to be for another year.  I really need to figure out a way to increase productivity somehow.  I can find good programmers like we have now, but not ones that can devote a steady amount of time per week to learn the engine and code what we need.

A big problem we're having with programmers is that the HeroEngine is such a massive system to learn.  The syntax is a breeze, but there's so many systems that work with other systems.  It's not as simple as tweaking just one thing unless you understand every single system attached to it.  So the time consuming part is memorizing what hundreds of other scripts and nodes do before you can change anything.

But that aside, I think our programming team is starting to get a little more stable.  I like the people on our team.  I wish I could recruit more like them.  At least the ball is starting to roll.

Art side of things, while I was off with my Stairways to Stardom band in the studio, the artists met at a local park and filmed two other the artists on the team acting out our first cinematic.  This will be helpful to use as a video reference for the animation team.

The storyboard is done.  All the concept work is done.  Now it's all up to the 3D team to build the assets and do the animation.  While the 3D team is busy doing that, I've been emailing the Concept team about building concepts for Instances.  I can't wait to get started on that.  finally, I'll be able to start planning out quest content with the artists.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

End of Month 7

I've worked on a lot of projects over the years.  I tend to join, then take over control of some part of the project.  I take it in directions beyond the scope and understanding of the managers above me, though they do tend to really appreciate my work.  Eventually, managers, due to their lack of understanding as to what I'm doing, will change something that fundamentally causes my work to break down.  I can remember times I've tried to explain why their overriding of my work will hurt the project.  That's when they bust out with the, "This is my project, and I want it done like this," and the discussion is over.  I leave the project and, in many cases, burn all bridges behind me thinking about what an idiot the guy was.

Now I'm the manager on a project.  The project has grown beyond the scope of what one person could be in charge of all the details for, creating a need for team leads to be in charge of sections of it.  I mean, I know what the programmers are doing, but I couldn't break it down much further than that.  For example, I thought the designation of character animation associations should go with the abilities class, not the weapon class.  The animations should be associated with the abilities since different abilities will have different animations, even if they use the same weapon.  The programmer team lead disagrees with me on this, because he feels tying animations with the weapon class(something that will be loaded in memory at all times), will send less server calls then if done my way.  I don't agree with that.  In the end, will it really matter? Is it worth making an issue out of it?  He knows the engine a thousand times better than I do.  Might he know more about the situation and he's just not articulating his reasoning well?

There was a problem that happened at the last art meeting, so I changed a policy to prevent it from happening again, and reassigned one of the artists to a different task.  Well, turns out it was a misunderstanding, and it wasn't really a problem after all.  That means my "solution" messes up something, and that artist needs to be assigned back to what she was doing originally.  I superseded what my art team leads had set up when it turned out, I should have left it alone.

Now everything I'm saying here is really, really minor.  But do you get what I'm doing?  I'm doing the same crap to my team leads as idiot project managers have done to me.  They understand what's going on in their piece of the puzzle better than I do, and I have to accept that and trust them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Middle of Month 7

This isn't as big a deal as it sounds, but I'd feel weird not mentioning it.  The day after my last post, I climbed up a ladder to get my cat off my roof when I fell off the ladder and fractured one of my vertebrae.  It's not as bad as it sounds.  It will heal on its own without surgery, and as of a couple days ago, I can even walk around without my walker.  So the injury is a lot more annoying than serious.  Still, it's slowed me down quite a bit from being able to meet and recruit people, but I'm finally out of the woods on that.  I went to the next Dawnshine production meeting, and I think it might have been a little jarring to the team to see me stumble in on a walker, on heavy pain medication, and struggling under the pain and stress just of sitting upright.  But like I said, by the next week, I was ok.

With that out of the way, I mentioned in the last post that we severed an important tie.  I was hoping a partnership with them would lead to exposure for the project and a few other things, but we're now officially on our own in that regard--and I'd say, far better off now.  So because of that, we've decided to start promoting the game and leave stealth mode.  So far, the only function of our website is to do just enough to show other game developers in town that we're a serious enough project that they might want to join us.  The site isn't meant to attract fans or investors, but that should change in the next several months.

As part of this shift, we decided to start work on a cinematic.  We'll eventually make many of these during the course of the project.  I've been writing a new script each week to see what the team likes.  In a couple more weeks, we'll take a vote.  Some of the scripts could be easily adapted to being done using gameplay footage, while others could be closer to movie quality.  The difference would come down more to how much art assets would be required for which.  We have about 5-10% the team size of most companies out there trying to make a big MMO(plus we're volunteers without a lot of industry experience) and we have no budget, so we can't outsource this to another studio like the big guys would do, so unless we can do two characters talking in a dirt field, chances are, we'll probably rely on game footage instead since we'll be using assets we're already creating for the game.

These cinematics could take a while, so it's still possible that no one (other than our friends), will hear anything about us until next year when they're ready to go.  One of the main attractions to RPGs is that you can gain accomplishments in a short time span that could take years in real life.  Unfortunately, the process of making these games isn't the same way.

Aside from that, I'm slowly building an animation team.  Dawnshine is going to require far more animations per figure than what's available in other games, so the animators will be busy for a while on more than just the cineamatics.  It seems we might have a mocap suit available--you know those motion capture suits with the ping pong balls velcro-ed on?  That will certainly speed things up, but it doesn't replace a good animator.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Recruiting II

Have you ever met someone that's had bad luck with people?  They tell you about how many times they've been burned and how they keep working with crazy people that are unreliable or drama queens.  You get to know the person a little longer and become friends and you start to realize that all the people they don't like are actually good, decent people and it's your new friend that's the crazy one?  I've been in that situation a quite a few times.

I've always been drawn to unstable, unique, and interesting people.  I was friends with a woman for about a year who suffered from Schizophrenia, and although she was stable 95% of the time, she'd tell me stories of what life was like before the meds--stories of hallucinations of monsters coming to life and trying to kill her and her running through public streets screaming for help from them.  I've been friends with quite a few crazy people, now that I think about it.  I'm fascinated by alternative interpretations of reality.  Such associations with people I've had generally ends pretty badly.  Now, here I am complaining about all the crazy, unreliable people I've met and how I've been burned.  Uh oh.  *looks around*

That's my segue into saying that Loki's Planet and myself have parted ways.  I have a lot to say about that, but it's probably best if I don't.

I've certainly worked on quite a few large projects run by poor and incompetent leaders in the past.  It makes me question my own leadership style.  Is there someone on our team thinking, "Man, Brian's an idiot.  It's stupid that we're doing things this way"?  No one on the team challenges anything I say.  That really makes me nervous.  I thrive on negative criticism.

I've admitted before that I'm not doing a very good job leading the programming team.  But I've been wondering if the issue is more that I haven't been doing a good job recruiting programmers.  I keep recruiting programmers that don't really want to be game programmers, but rather are just looking for something to put on their resume and get by doing the least amount of work for us that they can.  I need to start weeding those people out.  I've found, it's always better to have a small, dedicated team than a large unmotivated one.  Unmotivated people sap the morale from motivated people.  So even with an unfunded project like ours, recruiting "hanger on-ers" can do damage.  I'm learning this stuff as I go along.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Week 23

So much to talk about.  So our programming team has all but collapsed.  We have one strong programmer on the team, a few that show up to the meetings every now and then but don't do much, and the occasional person that really, really wants to join the team, finds out it's actual work, and quits.  I think I'm going to start going to colleges and talking to deans / career counselors to recruit people.  With all the people that want to get experience in the game industry, recruiting shouldn't be this hard.

On the art side of things, we're doing really well.  We have about 20 artists, some of which have experience working at AAA game studios, which is always nice.  Only about half the team tends to make the meetings on a regular basis though, but Jared and Micaela are doing a good job keeping everything organized behind the scenes with the people that can't always make the meetings.  So I'm pretty happy with the direction things are going in.  I'm also really happy with with the look of the Neg Wath in terms of clothing, weapons, and hair styles as well as their building styles.  We're close to uploading some of it.

Now, I'd said since the beginning that funding would be a long shot.  I'm going to officially change that to "likely."  I'm not going to get into too much details as to that publicly here, just to say that E3 had some unexpected surprises.  In case anyone wonders why I have people sign NDAs before they can join the team--this is why.  We're not going to be talking about it until it happens or it could spoil things.  It's also likely it completely falls apart on its own.  The skeptic in me is leaning towards the latter, but hopefully I'm wrong about it.  I'll celebrate when the check clears.  Until then we're just going to keep focusing on making a great game in our free time.

I've been pushing the team to send me their time sheets for the work they complete.  I've had some interest from other studios about having work out sourced to us, so it might be very likely I can at least get the team some money doing work outside the Dawnshine project.  This is tricky, because not everyone would be working on the out sourced project, so it will be a little weird when some people are getting paid and some aren't.  The team doesn't seem to stress out about stuff like that, though I do.

Aside from all that, let's talk about E3 for a bit.  So plans got changed.  I was lining up interviews with game companies so I could cover their games in articles I would then write about, but Loki's Planet wanted me to interview game developers on their separate list on camera at our booth, so I had to stop booking interviews on my own.  We set up an interview location at our booth with lights and a video camera.  All that work and it only got used once, and not by me.  That was a little disappointing since I could have lined up more off camera interviews had I known I'd have more time.  I call this "Loki Planning."  To be fair, Loki is the God of Chaos, so I've gotten pretty used to plans radically changing with them.

I did get to interview quite a few people there and I'll be writing articles on that soon.  Right now, I'm stalling because next on my list is an article about a kids game that I'm not the least bit interested in talking about.  But not everything I'm going to cover as a game journalist is something I find interesting.  It goes with the territory.

Some of the stand outs: I got to ask the lead designer of Ninja Theory and Lead Producer of Capcom some questions about the new DmC coming out.  Myself and the other journalists sat down in a press room to have it unveiled to us.  It's a pretty cool looking game.  I like the idea that you don't have to spasticly spam attack buttons to kill stuff.  It's a rhythm game.  You can relax and time your button pushes evenly and generate more stylistic attacks that way.  I'll be finishing a full article on it for Loki's Planet in a little bit.

But before that, I need to get back to writing that kiddie game article.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

End of Week 21

I've had a really busy week so far.  Next week is going to be even more hectic.  First, let's talk about the project.  So I've added a few more artists to the team this week and one more programmer.  First time this has ever happened, but I met with a guy that decided not to sign our NDA.  He wanted me to give him access to all our game design information before he would decide to join the project or not.  Obviously, I'm not going to do that.  Maybe he's just one of those people that's spooked about signing things.  I've signed quite a few NDAs, so it doesn't phase me.  But maybe it's for the best.

So I'm going to start bringing in printed out design document stuff in to the programmer meetings so we can all look at things and discuss them.  I've laid out the numbers and formulas on how our strange combat system will work.  It's going to need a lot of testing and rebalancing.  I think our combat system is going to really throw people off at first.  We give people far more freedom than any fighting game has ever given a player, but I know players are going to die a lot until they get used to it.  It's not arcade skill based.  It's more fast paced strategy based.  So more thinking and less button twitching.  You will not be able to casually hit buttons while watching tv like you can in every other MMO on the planet.  There's not a name for Dawnshine combat, because it doesn't exist yet, so it's hard to describe without laying it all out.  But maybe we can start doing that a year from now when we might have game play footage to go with it.

I completely redesigned one of the classes: the Neg Wath Necromancers.  They do summon zombies, but they're not exactly a pet class.  They're closer to Elemental Shamans from WoW, only with death magic instead of natural.  They have a lot more interactions with their zombies than WoW shamans have with their totems, but it's otherwise the closest in similarities.

We might be close to having the combat system working in the engine, which would mean we'd be able to start alpha testing soon.  We'll fix the most obvious things first, then start letting our friends test.  We have a huge number of people wanting to test, so that will come in helpful.

Aside from that, I'm going to be at E3 all next week with Loki's Planet.  I've got some pretty big interviews booked.  I'll admit, I'm not very familiar with console games, so I'll be interviewing developers that make games I've never played.  That has me a little nervous.  When I'm not doing that, I'll be hanging out at our booth interviewing people on camera.  I've interviewed bands before, but not on camera.  So this will be the first time I've ever interviewed game developers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Middle of Week 20

So I cancelled my SWTOR account about a month or two ago.  There was so much I liked and didn't like about that game.  For one, I'm a completionist.  So I might be doing a story quest chain, but by the time I did the next quest in the chain after doing all the other side quests along the way, it could be two-three hours later.  I think BioWare did a great job on the story lines, but the game play is so tedious, boring, and long, that by the time I got to the next quest, I didn't even remember what was going on.

I'm very happy for Blizzard that they found in WoW, a successful game play model.  But if I wanted to play a game that had the same combat as WoW, I'd play WoW.  I really do enjoy the story lines in SWTOR, and I normally just skip that in MMOs.  I actually want to play just to find out if my low level Smuggler character ever gets her ship back, if my Trooper meets up with the former Havok Squad, if my Bounty Hunter finally wins the Great Hunt, and if my Agent... does whatever thing she was doing.  I don't know.  I got the Darth title on my Inquisitor, and found that quest line pretty enjoyable.

Oh, and I got Diablo III, played it for about 4 hours and pretty much had my fill.  Pretty much every game I joined ended up being me running around killing everything while the one other person stayed AFK in town.  In Beta, everyone was teaming up and knocking stuff out.  Once the game launched, it was like all the good players got replaced by semi conscious people wandering around aimlessly.  And for some reason, if you left that game to try and join another, it would keep putting you back with the same losers.  There's something seriously wrong with that.

So, I played the Secret World beta this weekend.  I can't say I found it all that fun.  It's certainly a very, very cool game with an original "X-Files" theme that I really enjoyed.  Funcom is a European game company.  And I know many Europeans seem to think poorly of us Americans.  So I was a little disappointed when the first quest area in the game was Kingsmouth, an American town where all the voice actors talk like over the top rejects from Deliverance.  Maybe I'm taking that too seriously though.  It's only a tiny part of the game so far.

The quests were either way too easy if other people were doing them too in the same area, or too hard, like when about a billion zombies jump out of the police car and kill that dog you're escorting and you're the only one around.  Combat is the same boring WoW model.  The animations aren't very good and you only start off with two attacks.  There are no levels in the game, which I didn't like.  I didn't know if I was supposed to be in one area or another, if the monsters were too tough or not, or if I missed something.  I think the story line was probably good, but I didn't really understand what it was.  I was sent there for some forgettable reason that made no sense, then told once I got there that fog came and turned the town into zombies... ok... alright... and then I had to escort a dog around without being told why.  After getting killed twice trying to escort a dog with the only instructions being "follow Tango," I just gave up.

Aside from that, I'm not counting this game out.  The graphics were a little inconsistent, but in many areas in the game, they were so good, I was stunned.  Kingsmouth looks fantastic in most areas.  It's very possible with some polish, the Secret World could end up being a great game.

I've been pretty busy on Dawnshine.  We're recruited about five or six new modelers.  I started this thing that I'll do each week where I write descriptions about unique characters and locations in the game to pass off to the concept team to run with.  Something else I decided to do--not rely on characters from my novels.  I think their stories might be interesting and complicated, but they don't lend themselves well to quest givers, villains, allies, or general NPCs.  They have their own stories.  Many might make brief cameos or be referenced, but otherwise, they won't be central characters in the game.

One of the mistakes that I think Lord of the Rings Online made is that they wrapped the game too much around the main characters from the novels.  I really didn't care to escort Strider around or to learn about where they were taking the Hobbits.  I cared about *my* character.  What was my character doing?  What was my character's story?  So I'm going to be creating a brand new, and incredibly numerous, cast of characters that will revolve around what the players are doing.  The whole point of an MMO is the story revolves around the player.

What else?  I'm going to be heading to E3 in a week or two with Loki's Planet.  I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing.  Last year, I just kind of wandered around aimlessly.  This year, I'm press, so I'll be trying to get into press events and to cover as much stuff and meet as many people as I possibly can.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Middle of Week 18

You know those Facebook reminders when your friend has a birthday?  I must be getting old.  One of my friends wished me a happy birthday and I thought, "Huh, I'm pretty sure my birthday is next week," but he was right.  That's the first time I forgot my own birthday.  Anyway...

So now that we have some concepts ready to model, I'm finding it more and more difficult to communicate with each person on the team to make sure they're where they need to be.  We have 20 people on the team, and we're about to massively increase that as we add a 3D team: modelers, texture artists, and animators.  Imagine if the team doubled in size.  Trying to make sure 40 people have what they need, have clear tasks catered to their strengths, and are collaborating to make a cohesive effort rather than a jumbled mess--it's a lot harder than you would think.  It's not like I had an idea for a game and got together a bunch of people and said, "Behold the plan I have constructed!  Now carry forth!" and it just comes together.  Yeah, not even close.  And really, I wouldn't want it to work that way anyways.  I like that everyone adds their little twist and that we work as a team.  Still, having all decisions run through me is going to slow the project down a lot.

There's one programmer on the team that long passed me up in learning the engine code wise.  I'm always asking him which tasks I think who can handle, how long things should take, his advice on how we should tackle certain systems.  It just made more sense for him to coordinate all that and keep me in the loop.

Our two technical artists have been doing really well.  One of them is more focused on environments and the other on characters, so I split them up and made them in charge of ensuring a smooth pipeline for their area.  Technical artists are a good fit for this since they understand a little bit of every part of the pipeline.

I think this will work out well.  I know one of our technical artists wants to open up his own animation studio, so this is a good opportunity for him to organize an art team.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Middle of Week 15

There's not a lot of news this week. Basically, we're a little further than last week and close to recruiting 3D Modelers now that we just about have concepts for them. We should have the male and female character model done and rigged soon, which means recruiting animators next.

There's a few other things I've been wanting to talk about. One, the Valve Employee handbook has been circulating around a bit on the internet. Valve is probably best known for Steam (a game portal), Team Fortress 1 and 2, and the Half Life series. What's interesting about the handbook for new employees is that it makes clear that there are no managers, no bosses, and no leadership in the company. Everyone is equal. They started as a small company and now employ hundreds, but they still let their employees do whatever they want. It makes a point about how each desk has wheels on it, so employees can pick where to move their desk to based on where they should be to do the most good, what needs to be done, and who they need to work with to accomplish it.

This is a bizarre way to run a traditional company. Most people hate their jobs and do the least amount of work they can unless they want a promotion. Most people have no idea how to do the job they're hired for and have to be trained and molded. Employers often complain about the enormous cost and loss of production it takes to train people and how they need that employee to make that money back for the company within a certain time frame.

But the game industry is different. It's an extremely competitive industry where finding very experienced and skilled people are much easier. And despite the fact that people in the game industry often earn less money for comparable work, game developers are often self motivated and driven to make the best product they possibly can. Because of these unusual characteristics, a game company need not operate the way others do. Though as a side note, breaking into the incredibly competitive game industry against people far more experienced and skilled, is a scary thought. How do you get experience if no one will hire you? You do exactly what we're doing.

Of course, I can't really develop Stigma Games into the next Valve right now. We don't have any funding, nor do we have a physical studio yet. So people stress out about their day jobs, paying off student loans, and all that. But we are getting close to that idea.

What else? This isn't really Stigma Games related, but I'm finishing up the game lore for another game studio--one that's actually paying me. And I'm going to pitch a game idea to Loki's Planet that I think will bring in a lot of traffic. I have no idea if Loki's Planet will pay me for developing it for the site. But again, I'm one of those self motivated people that just wants to make games so that's not as important to me.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Middle of Week 14

I tend to write these posts when I get some spare time. That seems to be happening less and less these days. Things are going to get worse. Cutting into sleep, kind of worse soon. But busy is always better than not busy.

The art team has been doing much better. I know we've spent three months on concepts, but it's really important we get this down so tight that players will instantly be able to recognize a Neg Wath building from a Sherite one. I want that sense of dread when a Kaynish player is exploring the forest and they round a corner, and see a Neg Wath building close by and know they might be in trouble.

The character concept artists still have a lot of clothing styles to design, but I think it makes more sense for them to move around faction wise. They work on pretty much what ever they want. What I like about that is they're able to build contrast. After all, it's hard to establish what something is without establishing what it isn't.

As for character models, we're still working that out. Our options are to take a low poly model, map it, smooth it into a high poly mesh and use that to get a normal map for the low poly, game friendly version, or start with a high poly model and retopologize it down to low poly. In either case, I'm hoping to get done with that in a month. I'd like to be able to start recruiting animators and replace the default characters the HeroEngine comes with.

Also in art news, I've been tinkering around a lot with the flora in the game. I went on a field trip a couple days ago to a nature reserve and took a lot of pictures of stones, sand, grasses, and flowers. Since a "green screen" wouldn't have made sense, I took a pink sheet of paper with me. For flowers and blades of grass, I'd put the sheet behind it, then take the picture. Once I got home, it was easy to go into Photoshop, select for the color pink and delete it. That's essentially how a green screen works. Now I have 2d pictures of plants cut out from a background. That makes it much easier to put in the engine to give a photo realistic look to the terrain. I'm still playing with compression types for .dds files and bump maps, but it's coming along.

Not much to report on the programming front. There's some things brewing on the business side of things, though it's hard to predict how it will all pan out. Lot's going on with Loki's Planet, but again, hard to see how that's all going to go.

I'm still looking to expand the writer team for Loki's Planet. I think it's a little frustrating. The game industry is incredibly difficult for writers to break into. I'm offering a way for writers to get some publishing credits and a journalism portfolio, plus have the opportunity to make contacts--what better way to get game companies to know who you are than to give them free publicity by reviewing their games--and it's still a struggle recruiting people. Game journalism is one of the best ways into the industry for writers.

Ah, speaking of writing, I got a little side job. No big deal. It's only about a day and a half of work, but it pays well. A new start up company is making an RPG in the Unity engine and they hired me to write the lore and back story for the world. Anthropologist / game writers are pretty rare. Most people don't care about writing lore that's the least bit realistic. So I was inspired by the fact here's a group of professional game developers with AAA titles under their belts that don't really know me, but wanted to hire me to write up a lore design document for their game to get the story off to a proper start. Is this part of a trend of game companies starting to care more about having stories that aren't stupid? I hope so.

I'm still uncomfortable with the "So, what do you charge?" question. The more you ask for, the better they think you are and more they want to hire you. I don't care about that though. I just like creating worlds. I'm happy to charge whatever the bare minimum I need to be able to scrape by as long as I can keep tinkering on game lore and story.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Middle of Week 12

I know how to work with writers and musicians really well, but I don't have much experience directing artists. I've noticed a consistent pattern with artists. When I interview a programmer to join the team, they want to know all about the lore, the history, what game mechanics we're using--pretty much everything there is to know. The few musicians I've talked to, I can talk music theory with, talk about instruments, and compositions. I can talk to 3D artists really well. I have 4 years professional experience as a modeler and texture artist working as a conceptual modeler at an architectural company. But when it comes to talking to conceptual artists(the kind that draw stuff), I don't have the hang of it. Artists keep wanting to see something. I can't draw for crap nor am I all that visually creative. My meetings with artists tends to go really fast.

We have a private wiki we use with a lot of information on lore, but unless the artists are actually looking at visuals, it's not clicking for them. So for me to say, "Hey, read through the wiki and start drawing stuff," hasn't been super productive. It makes sense to me, as a writer. To me, the visuals are cool, but they're window dressing. I need to read character backgrounds, histories, conflicts, etc, to really get the meat of what's going on. So I've provided all that for the artists. But I've been making the mistake of communicating to the art team like I would want to be communicated to, and this has bogged us down.

I'm starting to learn why writers never end up in charge of big game projects. But, I'm nothing if not adaptable. So we're changing tactics a little. I'm going to have the artists start doing lots of fast sketches on specific things just to get a rapid flow of visual ideas out there. This is what we should have been doing all along.

We have a lot of great concepts right now. There are some really talented artists on the team. I'm just a little frustrated that we're three months in and just barely starting to do some modeling. But again, I take blame for that. Still, I took about a dozen volunteer artists who didn't know each other, put them in one group, and told them to start working together as a team. That's not an easy thing to do. And I've had a few people (and I'm not naming names) who have experience working at AAA level studios who've told me there's no way I can pull off what I'm trying to do without hiring people with industry experience. I've had similar people tell me I shouldn't let my team know that projects like this one have a very high failure rate--even professional studios with experienced people, have a high failure rate. If I listened to people that told me I can't do things, I'd never get out of bed.

But speaking communicating with my team, I've worked on unfunded projects where we were told almost weekly that funding was right around the corner, and of course, it never came. I've done the opposite. I've made it pretty clear we're not going to get funding any time soon.

I can name a few groups of hobbyists that got together, made a prototype, pitched it to another game company or got some funding, and made it big. The Diablo series is one of the most successful game series of all time. But most people don't know that Blizzard didn't create it. It was pitched to them and they took it over. The "company" that made World of Tanks made their MMO on the side while working for another company, and they got bought out by some big company I can't remember right now. Zynga has bought out several studios started by hobbyists.

But there's the other side of things too. Cheyenne Mountain is a big example of a studio that had a big IP--Star Gate. They went two years without any funding at all after they ran out of money and eventually had to close shop. Simutronics kept going to GDC each year trying to get funding for Hero's Journey, before they gave up and now just focuses on selling their custom made engine--the HeroEngine. I met the HeroEngine people at GDC. They sounded like pretty sharp people. It's a little intimidating to say we're going to succeed where they failed.

But I can say that I really believe in the Dawnshine project. It's radically different from what's out there, and I know people are going to really like it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Middle of Week 11

We've been getting a tiny bit of press. It's not really a big deal, but it's a start. I wrote a short Dawnshine bio for Loki's Planet, they included it in one of their press releases, and a couple game news sites did stories on us. There's quite a bit of wrong information in the stories, but that's pretty normal. I've seen quite a few sites refer to the "Underground Alliance" as "The Allienz." I don't know if that's supposed to be short for "alliance" or be pronounced like "aliens." Who knows?

Our site isn't very friendly towards people trying to get information on the game, so I can't really blame them. That's for no other reason other than we're not marketing the game to players at this point, so it doesn't really matter to me. The site really only exists for people on the developer side of things. Still, there's going to come a time where we're going to have to start hitting deadlines. Game media people are going to start wanting content from us. Stuff like, "If you can get 45 seconds of solid gameplay footage by such and such date, we can feature your reel at such and such."

But speaking of Loki's Planet, I'm now on the press release list of a lot of major game companies. It just seems so lazy doing it this way. A big game company puts out a press release, and lazy journalists reword the press release and post it to what ever site they write for. I miss the days when I used to work as a music journalist and I was out there trying to discover new talent before anyone else had heard of them. Now, as a game journalist, I feel more like just another step in some big corporation's marketing campaign. Ah well. The more I understand about how the game marketing biz works, the easier it will be for me to plan a marketing strategy for Dawnshine. So all and all, this is a good thing. Plus, I like talking about games anyways. I might as well get something out of it.

But aside from that, things are moving a little on the slow side. The programmers are rebuilding what we lost after having our engine replaced. And I think the artists are still recovering from taking 2 weeks off. I think the time off and GDC in general broke up the flow for some on the team. I dunno. But we have building concepts I'm happy with. I think the rest of the team is happy with them. So we're going to start modeling things and finally start putting art assets in the game.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post GDC

From counting business cards, I'd say I met with and talked to about 60 people at GDC. It was a very different experience from last year. Last year I was looking for work and spent a lot of time in the career pavilion and hanging out with other people looking for work. This year, I never even saw the career pavilion and spent most my time talking to investors, middleware developers, and other game companies. Since Loki's Planet was the only company there with a booth that reviewed other games, coupled with the fact we were surrounded by game companies, you can imagine a lot of companies wanted to meet with us. Since I'm the Editor in Chief at Loki's Planet, that means they wanted to meet with me.

Several companies let me know they'd be sending me codes so I could get early access to their games in development so I'd be able to review them. To be honest, I really don't have time to play games all day long so luckily we have about a dozen writers on the Loki's Planet team to be able to cover them, then I'll be organizing that team. This is why it's good to be the Editor in Chief.

I'm a very good journalist, and through writer critique groups I've been part of for nearly 20 years, I'm highly qualified to be an editor. Since I know a lot about game development, this makes me fairly unique. By game development, I mean programming wise, I know the difference between passing by reference and passing by value and on the art side, I know the difference between a bump map and a displacement map. How many game journalists do you think can say the same? Anyway, I'm not technically a game journalist. I know far more about which game companies are doing what than the average gamer does, but I still feel like I should know more. For example, BigPoint Games is a big and important game studio. But when they asked me if I was familiar with other Bigpoint games aside from Game of Thrones in development, I had no idea. It was a little embarrassing. But you know, you have to be honest. If you don't know something, be honest about it.

My average day at GDC went like this: wake up around 7am to get to spend an hour getting ready then meet with the Loki crew to talk about what we were doing for the day. At 9am, we'd walk or take a taxi to GDC. It was usually faster to just walk than to wait 30+ mins for a taxi. I'd get there at 10am and pretty much have meetings all day until 6pm. At 6pm, we'd go out and get something to eat which was sometimes the only meal I would get that day(due to time constraints, not budget). We would then go out to a networking party that would end at 9 or 10pm, then go to another that would end at 2am. I'm not really sure why so many clubs in SF would kick a huge crowd of drinkers out of their club at 9pm and then close down for the night. It made no sense to me, but it meant we usually ended up hitting at least two different parties that night. A couple times, we would get something to eat then, and get back to the hotel around 3am. I had a really hard time sleeping at the hotel, so I'd average about an hour of sleep. I'm usually not a drinker, but I certainly got pretty intoxicated each night.

I'm not going to talk about how things went on the business side of things for Loki's Planet, though I would love to go on and on about that. It's not my place to do so, so I will leave it be. I can say that I found it very encouraging. I can also say that I have a much better understanding of what exactly Loki's Planet is trying to accomplish, and I think it's a really good idea. I went in thinking this week would be one big party. It was, but it was so much more. We got a lot of business done as well. The lack of sleep never slowed me down. I don't drink coffee and I avoid caffeine. I was running on pure adrenaline and excitement all week. Talking business and games with representatives of multimillion dollar companies and big time investors made me feel like I was home. This is exactly where I was supposed to be.

Hmm, a few other highlights. So I talked to this huge company. I don't want to say who. But they cover credit card transactions and related customer service. They took me out to lunch to a pretty nice place to talk about Stigma Games. Their account manager was telling me about how he used to work for EA Games and how it was his job to find game studios for EA to acquire. When I told him I started Stigma Games so I could ensure my place as a writer for our products, he thought that was a little weird. He told me he'd never heard of a full time writer, that when he hired writers at game companies, it was for short term, contract positions. He went on to say that he didn't think establishing the story first before the artwork was a good idea. He said it would bog down production and cause the design phase to take too long.

I mention this because I want people to understand how radically different the Dawnshine Project is. Writers, story... that's all after thought stuff to the other 99.9% of game studios out there. The term "story driven" gets thrown around so much by people that don't even know what that means, that it no longer means anything.

BioWare is one of the few exceptions to this rule. They tend to have excellent story elements in their games, and are an inspiration to the rest of us writers in the industry of what the future of RPGs can be like.

So our engine is working again. At GDC, I talked to Cooper and Herb from the company that makes the HeroEngine, and they explained the issue. I won't say exactly what it was because it's a little on the scary side. Someone on our team accidentally uploaded some Windows System files. I know I accidentally did this in late 2011 when I was trying to sync the asset library with my C drive so I could upload art assets. I created a virtual drive so it would only upload from a specific folder, but it reverted to my C drive for some reason and started uploading my Windows files. I deleted the files that got uploaded, but somehow they got restored. So either I inadvertently caused the problem when my deleted files accidentally got restored, or someone else did the same thing.

I don't want to give too much information out there to the public on this in case this is a persistent security risk, but from here, we were affecting servers related to our virtual server, which, had we been hacking on purpose, we could have done some damage to their network. I swear, we're not master hackers.

When I walked up to Herb and told him I was from Stigma Games, he told me that over 6k people have HeroEngine accounts, so he didn't know who I was. I told him I used to work on an MMO that gets a lot of press and who's screen shots from the game are still on HeroEngine's website. He told me he had nothing to do with marketing or their own website, so he still had no idea who I was. I said that our HE account was crashing one of their servers, and he said, "Oh, you guys!" and started telling me about how they've been scrambling to figure out how we did what we did.

Cooper, who's the Project Manager for the HeroEngine, spent a good amount of time talking to us. He seemed pretty flexible with some of the licensing agreements we'd like to work out with him. All and all, I was pretty happy with my meetings with them both. It's nice to be able to meet the people behind the engine we're using and know they're good people.

So GDC was a blast, and I hope I'll be able to announce big plans from the Loki's Planet camp that might affect Stigma Games soon. But aside from that, it's time to get back to work on Dawnshine.

Friday, March 2, 2012

End of Week 8

Hey guys,

GDC is upon us and everyone's freaking out. I have lots of meetings planned. I'll mostly be doing stuff for Loki's Planet and doing a little recruiting for another game I'm working on called Tower22 ( www.tower22game.com ). There's not a lot for me to do for Dawnshine right now. No company will invest in us this early on, and those that will would offer too little seed money and want a massive chunk of our profits to make up for the risk. Not a good deal for us.

I don't think a lot will come out of GDC for Dawnshine other than to make some in roads connection wise, get some figure quotes for me to put in my business plan, and check out the latest in middleware on the market. I've been looking at a few other engines aside from HeroEngine. Though in terms of what all HE does, and the fact that the license is cheaper than what the other guys are doing, I don't know if we're going to switch. I had to sign an NDA to find out how much BigWorld charges for their engine. Wow, is all I can say. It's worth it, but wow.

There's a few things about HE I'm not happy about. The water is really limited. If you play SWTOR, you can see what I mean. It's not very realistic. It also does cube mapping for dynamically created shadows. Every time I play SWTOR, that really stands out to me ( aka, notice how the shadows are in squares ). I keep thinking, "This game cost over $300 mil to make and they're using the default cube mapping from the engine?" Ironically, the HeroEngine development team is planning on upgrading the shadow mapping rendering system, so future MMOs using the engine will have better graphics. So Dawnshine will have smooth shadows, while SWTOR will probably still have shadow squares.

Let's see. The artists are taking two weeks off from meeting. About half our team is going to GDC and they're going to be showing off their portfolios. So I didn't want them skimping on their portfolios because they're working on Dawnshine, nor did I want them feeling guilty about not working on Dawnshine because of GDC, so yeah.

No rest for the programmers. This brings up another issue. The engine is broken again. We're building a zone just for character selection / creation. You probably don't realize this when you play World of Warcraft or most MMOs out there that if you click on your character, it instantly moves you to a camera in a little room that has art assets that symbolize your character's race and/or faction. Click on a different character, and the engine moves you again. It happens so fast that you don't know the camera is switching around.

Well, this is what one of our programmers is creating right now. The other programmers are working on other things, but this is the area that's broken.... I think. All I know is there's an error with the camera systems and it causes the engine to crash. None of us seem to know how to fix it, and I'm so busy doing everything else on the project. For me to squeeze in time to do a crash course in the camera systems to try and figure out how to fix things, yeah, pretty frustrating. But we'll figure it out, just like we've figured out the last two game stoppers. Eventually we'll break the engine in every way possible and find new, impossible ways to break it. In the end, we'll be masters as fixing it and pushing it to the limit and throwing in our own curves to extend that limit. So I'm not freaking out about it. Still, I don't like that the programmers have been at a dead stop for a week now because of it.

Aside from that, we're starting to work on marketing. Several business related people outside the team are trying to work with me on how to pitch Dawnshine. Now, the finished game will be awesome, but what do we say about our game now while we're still working on art and game play features and don't yet have anything to show people? There's a few options here. Calling this the first hard fantasy MMO ever made is really awesome.... to me... and the 12 other people that know / care what Hard Fantasy is. Um, ok, so that's not really going to wow anyone. Hmm, in a male dominated game industry, half of our art team is female. That doing anything for anyone? Girl power? I think that's sort of interesting to some people. Not bad, but not enough. Well, the graphics will be amazing... just like every next gen game out there, so that doesn't stand out. But our awesome graphics aren't going to be ready for some time. We're going to focus on multiplayer content and strong community. That's cool, but still doesn't really strike people as something awesome. Our combat system is really, really cool. Our class system is really, really cool. A lot of other game features we have planned, I feel, will revolutionize the industry. But none of that is stuff we can talk about any time soon. So what do we have left?

Then there's another angle, though I'm not sure if this is a selling point or something we should down play. We're all inexperienced. Um, that can be a good thing... sorta. Well, I've worked on some game projects making a splash, one of which is an MMO, but I did so as a writer. This is the first time I've worked as a Project Manager or a designer. It's not a whole lot of industry experience, but it's all we have on the entire team. Well, one of our modelers interns at BioWare. I'm not sure what she does there since that particular studio doesn't use 3d models in their games, but it's still pretty cool. Otherwise, our team is essentially recent graduates or current college students with game related majors. Two of our programmers have game programming degrees from DeVry. Our sound guy has a degree from Pinnacle College, which is an audio school. And then most of our art team is from The Art Institute.

What's cool about this is the fact that, in a world of MMO clones, we can put something together that's really unique. We don't have to bow to publisher demands to put out a flavor of the month game. We can truly do what we want. And I can tell you, a lot of what we're doing has never been done before. Usually when something's never been done before, it's because it's not a very good idea. Time will tell on that. But the bad thing, of course, if big studios full of experienced programmers have tons of bugs in their games, what's going to happen with a studio filled with inexperienced game programmers? That doesn't sound promising, does it? Do gamers respect underdogs or do they respect studios with proven track records of quality products? I think it's the latter.

But one thing I can tell you, we're not going to let a deck stacked against us win. Dawnshine is going to be an amazing game, and we're not going to release it until it really shines.