Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Storytelling in Games

In my opinion, storytelling is one of mankinds greatest assets and probably one of the oldest. I love stories and from a young age I have always wanted to construct my own stories, listen to others stories, watch films and above all else i have loved to read. I believe that for a very long time now people have been extremley lucky in that we can access an almost infinite amount of stories through the miracle of books. I find books so amazing and i believe that they have and always will be among some of mankinds most cherished items. I find books so much more immersive than any film, and a book dosn't restrict us visualy unlike a film and we are allowed to let our imaginations run wild! I will put my rant about 'the miracle of books' asside for another day (or blog) though and focus more on storytelling in games.

Before i move on i just want to talk about what i feel makes a good story and, just as important what i feel makes us good storytellers. I feel that most importantly a good story must involve its auidience even if its just within thier imagination, it should move the audience. A good story for me should also have direction and purpose. These next two i feel have the most strong connection with a game, and they are that a good story should always have a strong character or characters and a good story should always create vivid imagery which couldn't be more true than with a video game!

So what makes us good storytellers? Well obviously the human brain is quite a marvelous thing, and is the engine, the power behind our 'imagination'. "The faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses." What saddens me though is that as we grow older, i feel that we are forced out of our storytelling abilities and that we have to struggle to keep our minds as open as they are when we are young. I feel that as we grow older our minds close and we begin to find it harder to look beyond 'the real', but i feel that we should cherish our vivid imaginations, it is a great gift to have!

So finally, does storytelling make a good game? Well obvcourse it does. To me the whole point of a video game is to immerse the audience in an interactive experience. I think video games (some atleast) have taken storytelling to a whole new level, they have proven the point of how valuable a strong character is, and through control, the ever growing vividness of the imagery, and the immense interaction provided, like I have said, video games have taken storytelling to a whole new level and i feel, like i have mentioned in one of my earlier blogs that they may one day replace films as the more common medium to experience and immersive and vivid story.

Oh and by the way, a good story should always leave an imprint, make us remember it and leave us wanting more!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Why the Art Director is so important?

Video game art directors are responsible for the quality of art incorporated in the video games produced under their supervision, a games visual style, and is the driving force behind the whole visual development of a game. They need to have a background in fine arts, so that they are knowledgeable about the technical aspects of drawing, texturing, and colouring. They need to have a good amount of creativity, as they are often required to visualize how a particular section of a game would look once it is finished, a video game art director must also have good knowledge of computer operation and also of software used in graphic designing.

They usually manage a team composed of both amateur and experienced designers, and as such, having management skills is always advantageous. They are often required to work closely with people having different skill levels, so being able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the different artists on the team and assign the right task to the right people is a key role. Video game art directors also need to be open towards suggestions from other team members. In a large team, every member is likely to have a unique opinion regarding how a particular level should be designed, or how a texture should be incorporated in the game environment. It is the job of the art director to take all these suggestions into account, select the best one, and develop it further with personal inputs. Obviously in industry it is highly important to value the opinions of your co-workers no matter what their position.

The Art Director will work with the illustrators, modellers, textures and animators to achieve the objectives set forth by the Game Director in a timely and thorough manner. The Art Director will report to the Game Director. He or she will also have to keep track of outstanding tasks, make sure stuff gets turned in on time, watch out for kinks in the production pipeline, and resolve any problems that come up.

In the initial stages of a games design the art director will also help to budget and schedule the art production; for example one task would be to weigh the pros and cons of using expensive art resources that are very good or cheap ones that are not as reliable.

Clearly a high level of skill is needed in the technical aspects of drawing as well as knowledge of materials and a broad knowledge of artistic styles; I also feel that even some non-artistic fields focusing in the art direction may be required such as project management. Most importantly I feel that passion is the key quality in this line of work.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Game Design

Focusing on video games, a game can be designed in a number of different ways. In modern day terms a game is usually designed via a document, often called a games design document, which describes the games design for use during development. This is more effective today, as games studios often have fairly large development teams were as with early video games the programmer was often also the designer and designs were much more constrained by technology. A good design document would typically cover ideas such as story, setting, level and character designs etc but due to the whole outline of the idea being theorized on paper unforeseen issues often do arise which need to be dealt with through a modification of the paper design, so even a design document can easily undergo some kind of change during the development of a game.

Design documents need to be clear, concise and well ordered. A well managed document should give other members of the design team (artists, animators, level designers etc) useful information on how the game should look, feel and play but mustn’t be too fussy and overly controlling on all details as often the artists and animators etc should be able to break down the information given to them and translate this better than the designer can. So, primarily, design documents are reference materials or instruction manuals for the other team members, and like any instruction manual, if it cannot be easily read the reader is often going to give up or make things up.

Games consistently involve activities in which the game player engages and these activities usually define the genre of the game i.e. racing, shooting, action/adventure etc. As we now have this set of ‘defined’ genres on which to base a game, the design of a game can often become quite general and this can affect the final outcome of the game from the very begging at the design document. Some games that spring to mind here are Gears of War, although it looks amazing and plays amazing the actual story behind the game seems pretty lacklustre to be honest and the characters pretty stereotypical. Halo also, although the games have been highly successful and even expanded into novels why bother? The game just seems like a mask pulled over the same generic bullshit that we see time and time again with a few minor details changed. Halo is a ‘first person shooter‘, ‘set in the future’, where you ‘fight aliens’ to ‘complete objectives’ in control of a ‘cybernetic -enhanced human super-soldier’........sweet Jesus you get the point!

Basically what I am saying is that originality is an extremely important factor in the design of a video game for me. I believe that as we head into the future we are already starting to see some fantastic games that completely take things to a whole new level in terms of originality as well as some games defining whole new genres for themselves. Great examples of this would be Little Big Planet for the Playstation 3, which really was a genre defining game. I also see interactivity becoming a major factor in the design of new video games, already we see amazing examples such as guitar hero and eye pet which take interactivity and the whole ‘experience’ to a new level. Finally I see more games reaching for that movie standard storyline, through its narrative, levels and characters. Great examples of this would be Uncharted 2, were playing the game really gives you a feeling of being immersed within this whole ‘Hollywood movie’ experience and in the future, games such as Heavy Rain, I feel may even surpass movie standard storytelling, leaving a gamer to not just witness but to actually believe heavily in viewpoints and make moral choices.

Overall I see a major shift in gameplay in the future, new rules that will change the interactive aspects of a game, and distinguish games and set them apart from non-interactive mediums such as films and books and for many people may even replace them as a more satisfying experience.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Previews, reviews and comment - Writing about Games

Any type of press will face issues, whether that is strict deadlines, budget cuts or even nothing interesting to write about and it is no different for the gaming press. The games press has certain needs and limitations just like any other press. Games reviewers face extremely strict deadlines in which they would need to research (Q and A’s, game demos etc) and have to write at least 60,000 words to fill a 150 page magazine each month. And, each month, there is a rush from review to review to be ready for the next which obviously leaves no time for serious contemplation, therefore a reviewer is basically ‘forced’ to make a decision on what he or she feels are the strong and weak points of a game. How the reviewer feels to have the right to share their review with the world when they might not even receive a full game, might only receive a copy of a ‘review game’, and probably won’t have time to play through the whole thing anyway baffles me. But, I have to accept that this is their job, and they will no longer have that job if they can’t review a game within their set deadline.

So, how do I feel most reviews, whether it come from a magazine or on the internet, combat these issues, particularly the time issue? Personally I see that the majority of reviews are based on some certain set of generic rules or guidelines, i.e. a score is given on the games graphics, gameplay, sound, presentation etc and at the end an average total score is calculated which the game then receives along with some sort of block of writing, which is more of a commentary on the games graphics, gameplay, sound, you get the point. So, my argument is, if these rules do work, with which scale do the reviewers use to apply these scores to the games that is exactly the same for every other game? Or is it just a case that no such objective scale could be applied to all games reviews? A metre will always be a meter anywhere in the world, same goes for temperature, speed, a decibel, but, will a 9/10 for a game in one review written by one reviewer be the same for another review written by another reviewer? No. It isn’t possible, quite simply the thing that dictates the scale for a game is ‘opinion’, a review is at the end of the day an opinion, and although a journalist may have been trained to give some level of objectivity in what he or she is writing, as long as you have any amount of interest in something you will have an opinion on it. It will always be an opinion.

So, what do I feel could be done to combat this issue of generic reviews? I feel that the majority of games reviews in magazines or on the internet are designed to cater for idiots who have no knowledge of how a game is put together or how it works technically. Now that I have become a little familiar with how a game could be put together on 3DS Max I realise how much time and effort can go into a game to make it technically perfect, where as some games look amazing (so receive a high score in the graphics part of the review) yet have used cheap tricks, such as skimping on points where the gamer won’t notice as much. For example, I read this article on Forza 3 recently (http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/digitalfoundry-forza3-evolution-article ), which, make of it what you will highlights some of Turn10’s techniques to make Forza 3 visually better that Forza 2. Some of the things that are highlighted include, artistic decisions are much improved, lighting is no longer inconsistent, specular maps on roads, better reflection textures, less crowds (saves fill-rate and polygons), no anisotropic filtering (saves texture processing and bandwidth), so, although the game looks better to play, its only technically the same just that some areas have been neglected to focus on others. One main thing I picked up on was that Forza 3 has a warped camera perspective. While GT5 uses a realistic field of view, Forza 3 artificially warps it so that distant objects appear even farther away than they really are. The benefit of this from a performance standpoint is that you can use lower detail models for much of the environment until the car is closer to them. Just like Gears of War 2 the way they got improvements in lighting and textures was by cutting back where they felt people will notice it the least. You could argue that this is all part of a refining process, but to me a next gen game should be technically and graphically advanced in all areas, not withheld in some. So I am asking should Forza 3 receive the high scores it has been getting for its graphics when, because of limited capabilities, they have only improved over Forza 2 because some aspects of the game have worsened?

Maybe then, for us more technically minded people, they should make a games magazine which reviews games based on its specs, which for anything, is the only real way to determine how good or bad something is regardless of opinion. For example a 1.6 Ford Focus and a 1.6 Volkswagen Golf would probably have similar specs, so, would receive a similar review. But personally I would prefer a Focus because that is my opinion.

Hmmm, reviews based on the technical specifications of a game....... if it ever happens I’ve decided it will be called ‘The Tech Evolution’!
NGJ may be heading in the right direction, which is odd as the attention is more focused on the subjective experience of the person playing the game. To me this works in some areas but not in others. It works because creative analyses are used to explore game design, play, culture and other personal experiences and anecdotes which create a unique story that doesn’t seem to be restricted by any scoring system. On the other hand, there is no doubt that these qualities can and will lead to some highly opinionated views from untrained eyes, they are after all ‘personal experiences’.

Maybe the only fair and completely unbiased review, where you could obtain complete subjectivity, would be from somebody who knows a lot about the production, development and workings of a video game but didn’t really give a shit about playing them and “whose exclusive game is better than others!” I doubt this will ever happen, so for now I’ll probably have to stick with Edge Magazine. Only, bollocks to getting ripped off and paying £5 for some guy’s opinion, who is probably a complete nob anyway!

Monday, 2 November 2009

A History of Computer Games; 2000 - the future...

Many games have been set in the 21st century (Metal Gear Solid, Duke Nukem 3D and the great war of the Fallout universe started on October 23, 2077), but now we are in the 21st century and playing 21st century games, so , how have games developed over the last few years? And, more importantly, where are they going?

I suppose in some sense games have taken a significant shift from being set in the distant future to being set either in the past, based on historic events i.e.; WWII or being set in the here and now, the present. We mustn’t forget also that games set in these other worldly, non-existent environments i.e.; Mario or Sonic have stuck around and we now see either updated versions of these ideas or new ones such as Ratchet and Clank or Little Big Planet.

I feel that from the begining of the 21st century we have seen a number of significant developments including a rapid growth of more powerful technology, which, continues to grow exponentially, an increased amount of interaction with games i.e.; force feedback, six-axis motion controllers and natural user interfaces provided by peripherals such as the Playstation Eye which uses gesture recognition technologies. As well as this I feel we have seen a growth of video games based on films, music and real life events such as sports events.

Businesses in every corner of the world have and always will be bombarded with constant pressure and there is no exception for the video games industry. Over the last few years the biggest fear for the games industry has been the ever increasing development and manufacturing costs and, partnered with the recent credit crunch has resulted in some huge financial losses as well as the loss of some publishers such as Free Radical and Midway. But, despite these economic pressures the games industry remains innovative and vibrant and gamers in the UK spent £2.7bn on gaming in the past year giving the games industry a huge boost in confidence.

So, where do we go from here? Well, for the moment I can’t see any radical changes for gaming in the next 10, 20 maybe even 30 years that aren’t obvious. Obviously the technology behind the games we play is going to continue to advance at a crazy rate; games will continue to grow in realism and for definite, in size. I feel that some radical changes we’ll begin to see is an ever increasing interaction between the game and the gamer (if you didn’t catch the Gadget Show episode on the future of gaming try and watch it, I think its series 12 episode 9) and in the near future I see games increasing into ever more realism as the technology behind our televisions begins to expand with the release of Sony’s OLED televisions as well as a shift into 3D video games.


Monday, 19 October 2009

A History Of Computer Games; Continued (The 1980's)

By the beginning of the 80’s the video game industry was in full swing. On the back of the PC revolution the games industry had begun to shift from arcades and into the home. Atari was established leader in the home gaming market with the launch of their VCS 2600 console in 1977 and Taito had released Space invaders in 1978 into arcades.

So as we move into the 80’s we begin to see the rapid growth of technology with the introduction of more powerful home computer systems and video game consoles, as well as this we start to see the introduction of many technically innovative, genre-defining and some iconic games which we can still access on some of the latest video game consoles today.

As the 1980’s begin we already start to see competition and rivalry between platforms as the Atari VCS 2600 and the Intellivision are released within just a couple of years of each other, and aesthetically they were both quintessential 80’s. (I don’t want to cause any flame wars but, according to my research, the Intellivision games had significantly better graphics!).

As we move on a couple of years we begin to see the introduction of some of the most iconic games in gaming history, Pac-Man in 1980, Donkey kong 81, Galaxian, Galaga, Frogger and Mario Bros in 1983 to name just a few. We also the introduction of ‘game ports’ as Pac-Man is ported to the Atari VCS 2600 from the arcades in 1982. Unfortunately the ports quality was widely criticized, which, is frighteningly similar to the criticism a lot of modern day ports between the Xbox 360 and PS3 receive for example, possibly this shows how different hardware’s are hard to work with at the same time? Also, having manufactured 12 million cartridges of Pac-Man with the expectation that the game would increase sales of the 2600, Atari incurred large financial losses from unsold game cartridges (one of the catalysts leading to the North American Video game crash of 1983.

Fortunately, nothing could now stop the rapid growth of the games industry after we had already seen the introduction of companies such as Nintendo and Konami, even with the sad loss of Atari. Although, it was again home computers that gave the video games industry a good kick up the arse as it began to grow in popularity, especially in Europe where the Commodore 64 ad the ZX Spectrum would far outclass any competition.

Away from Europe, Japan began to develop their own entries for the home video games industry with Sega releasing the SG-1000 and Nintendo the Famicom of Family Computer, a console which would turn the global game industry’s fortunes around.

As we move into the second half of the decade I believe we really begin to see the new era of gaming as well as many familiarities to how we experience and interact with games today. In 1985 Nintendo’s Famicom was remodelled and, as it is and always has been widely known, renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for its world wide release and it was accompanied by one of the greatest games of the decade in not of all time. Super Mario Bros.

Over the next years the success of the NES saw the home video game console market explode and out of this came some of the best and most memorable games ever including Metal Gear in 87, The Legend Of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Also by 1987 the Sega Master System had been released and was a great competitor to the NES, again similar to today with the PS3 and Xbox3fixme!

I feel that this period of the decade was extremely important and highly influential on the future of gaming, technology begun to advance rapidly and with the introduction of the NES we were finally introduced to the Game Pad. Joysticks, paddles and Keypads become redundant and game pads with the familiar D Pad become standard.

As we reach the final year of the decade Nintendo release the first ever portable console, the original Gameboy (my first console!) and the world stepped into 16-bit technology as Sega release the Megadrive in Japan and the SNES is waiting just around the corner. Due to this radical advancement in technology available for home use, the rivalry became too strong for video arcades and they sadly begun to close, but, time moves on for anything and everything unfortunately and the world was about to become stuck to their couches....................forever?! dum dum dummmm!

But, to me, it is clear why so many people consider the 80’s to be the golden age of gaming history.

I didn’t join the home console market till later on, as, for a while I was obsessed withhandhelds after owning the Gameboy. I stuck with Gameboy owning the colour, advance, advance SP and a special edition advance SP. I also owned, somewhere in-between a Sega Game Gear, which, although it was meant to be, wasn’t really a ‘portable’ games console as the battery would last for all of four seconds so you had to sit near a socket with it plugged in anyway, it was a ‘handheld’ though at least. I then owned a NES, and, for a good few years was also kept busy with new PC’s as the internet (dial-up) was discovered in the early 90’s and somewhere around then I adopted the Playstation family (Playstation One 95) with which I have stuck with since. More detail to follow.............................. if anyone is remotely interested! or?

Monday, 12 October 2009

A History Of Computer Games (Brief!)

Apparently a Mr A.S. Douglas was the first person to create the first graphical computer game- a version of tic-tac-toe. What a nerd! The first which I believe is recognizable to a video game is ‘Tennis For Two’, a game developed in 1958 on an analogue computer which simulates a game of tennis or ping-pong on an oscilloscope.

The reason that Tennis For Two stands out from the other earlier graphical computer games is that it displays motion and it has the graphics contained within the system. Also one reason is stands out for me personally is that Pong, the first commercially available video game, available on Atari, which was introduced 15 years after Tennis For Two has a very similar concept in its gameplay to Tennis For Two. This is significant to me because, as we can derive later games from Pongs gameplay, I feel Pongs gameplay can be derived from Tennis for Two.

The first game I ever remember playing was Tetris on the original Game Boy, which was also the first console I owned (even though it was a handheld!). As everyone probably knows it is an immensely addictive game, but to me, the thing which made it most iconic was the music. Music A in the original Game Boy edition has become very widely known, and, in case you were wondering, it is an instrumental arrangement of a Russian folk tune called “"Korobeinki”.

The most recent game I have played is Gran Turismo on my new PSP GO! How far things have come to be able to achieve graphics so good on something i can fit in my pocket!

Plenty has happened in between including an array of consoles that I couldn’t possibly fit it all into this one post! But for me there a number of reasons why I have carried on gaming. One, playing a video game has always been a great substitution for school work! Two, I feel that as game developers strive for greater interaction between the game and a gamer, the games become better and more playable and is probably why a lot of people have stuck with gaming. And three, because its cool!