miércoles, 17 de julio de 2013

Gamepolis: Sunday and Final Conclusions

Welcome to the last day at Gamepolis. If you missed the earlier posts, you can take a look at Friday and Saturday summaries. 

Unfortunately, due to personal reasons, I couldn't turn up in the morning and I arrived by 2.00 p.m, and as usual, first thing I did was lining up to participate in the XBox 360 raffle. I promised you to tell you in this post if I'd won anything. I'll do it. 

The first presentation was '3D Character Design: from Drafts to the Engine'. The speakers, Jesús del Pozo and Sergio Castro, started the talk by stating the greatest panic that every artist faces: 'the blank page'. 

Once you, as an artist, are requested to perform a character design, first thing you must do is organizing all the information that is sent along with the request. This is a tough, boring task and nobody likes it, but it is necessary and you have to do it. Then, you should note down every idea (no matter how stupid turns out to be) because this process creates a snow ball effect where new ideas comes straight. 

Figure 1.- Drafting many versions of kind robot.

Many people would sketch the physical characteristics of the character now, but they should be delayed until the end, because you, as an artist, want these characteristics to define the character rather than the character to define the characteristics. This is to assure that any pre-defined image of the character doesn't stand up against your creativity. For example, if you start sketching a pirate from the very beginning, it's natural that you'll end up drawing Jack Sparrow or similar, without adding a personal touch. 

After noting down all your ideas, you should document yourself in order for the final character to have some 'traces of reality'. Then it's when the first drafts should be drawn and color tests (many of them) should be performed. 

Figure 2.- Colouring the final chosen robot.

The modeler will then take that conceptual design (which should be precisely drawn in different angles) and will create a model using some modeling software such as Blender or 3DS Max. As a curiosity, it's important to model the character at different level of details, because depending on the proximity of the camera, different models will be used for performance reasons.

The next talk was actually a panel discussion named 'Women and the videogame', where the speakers, all of them women, discussed the status of videogames and their often sexist design orientation.

Miguel Ángel Carrillo, from Tragnarion Studios, gave the next talk: 'Tools for creating graphics resources and work pipelines'. The presentation began by giving a helicopter view of how an art department is organized: character design department, level design department, technical artists, illustrations department, etc. Of course, this organization depends on the size of the company. Something interesting that he pointed out is how important the figure of the technical artist has become in the last years. Technical artists are people that bridge the gap between artists and programmers, who know what each of them needs and can collaborate with them. So you know, if you have artistic skills and are good at programming, this is an interesting professional path to explore...

During the rest of the talk, Carrillo listed different tools for different processes: UV Mapping for texturing, shaders creation, etc. And during the round of questions, I asked him whether other tools were used in order to organize the work among people and departments. The answer was obviously yes. That's very important, as in a big company, you have to wait for some input that is provided by a colleague who you may not know, and vice versa. 

Figure 3.- Graph that represents all the effects (shaders) that will be applied to a pixel prior to being drawn on screen. Artists obviously prefer these graphical tools so they don't have to program the shaders.

Last talk of the day was a presentation of a game called 'Embrion', a survival horror made by a new Andalusian studio that uses a sensor to measure the heart beating of the player in order to create more immersive environments and to influence on the gameplay. I think that the idea is brilliant and I can think of myriad of ways to exploit this idea so as to fill the player with authentic horror. I really wish them the very best of luck.

Final conclusions

It's amazing that Malaga has been the cot for a videogames event with such a great success, and I want to personally thank all the organization staff for the invested effort. There are some issues, however, that I'd like to comment as constructive criticism. 

First, talks should be more controlled in time as all of them were too delayed. There should be a moderator who controls the time and who starts the round of questions. Second, there should be some more technical workshops or meetings where developers and artists could interact in order to open the possibilities of forming potential development teams. Third, next-gen consoles should be in any videogames conference, with some recent titles. Fourth, please, free WiFi! I would've loved to comment the talks on this blog with my laptop while being there, but I could only do it by Twitter using my data plan. 

In any case, it's been a fantastic event that I've really enjoyed, and I'm looking forward to the next edition, the organization of which has already began! 

See you!

P.S.: No, I didn't win anything... :( Let's try next year!!

martes, 16 de julio de 2013

Gamepolis: Saturday

Hi all!

Let's continue with the next day in Gamepolis. If you missed the earlier post about my Friday in this event, look it here

The day started as usual: lining up to participate in the XBox 360 raffle (in the last post I'll tell you whether I won anything). And then, I went into the first conference, which consisted of the presentation of a game: Decadence, by Revolution System Games. The speakers, part of the development team, showed some images and videos, and explained that their main goal was to mix up several genres such as survival horror and RPG. This way we find quite dark, suffocating scenarios full with enemies and where characters can evolve. At the graphics level, the truth is that the result is pretty awesome if we consider that they developed the engine from scratch. Their main motivation for this is that they don't want to depend on external companies and want to decide on which platform to launch their games. 

Figure 1 and 2.- The guys from RSG showing videos of their game Decadence.

Next talk was named 'Evolution of graphics in videogames', by Miguel Ángel Carrillo. At this point, the conference hall was completely full. I guess there was a high expectation for this talk, and I think that in general it didn't let the audience down. Beginning with Pong, and finishing with some of the most impressive last AAA's games, the speaker reviewed the most important milestones in graphics for videogames. Curiously, as the talk was coming to an end with the last games, I had an increasing feeling of seeing the same game once and once again, namely Call of Duty, BattleField or Medal of Honor. This is something that I had already reflected previously and was the motivation to ask the speaker during the minutes devoted to questions. My question was whether he had the same impression as me that, as the graphics improve, the gameplay usually gets worst. As I see it, the big firms in the industry are usually so competitive in the graphics corner that they forget putting the effort where this effort should actually be made: in the game experience, in the mechanics and the interaction with the player. I have the feeling that AAA's companies don't worry any more about creating original titles and gameplays, but they simply want to realistically reproduce how a building collapse in the middle of a battle. The speaker, in the end, admitted that this is true and that we must seek new ways of engaging the player. Fortunately, this is where indie developers have their piece of the cake.  

Figure 3.- Graphics basically started with Pong. 
I still remember how fun it was in spite of its simple mechanics!

Figure 4.- Mario's born in Donkey Kong. For those of you who don't know, this game was supposed to be based on Popeye's the Sailor, but they didn't get the license in the end and had to make up these characters. Thanks God they didn't get that license!!

Figure 5.- The audience burst into applauses when Doom arrived.
 A great milestone in game graphics, no doubt!

Figure 6.- What can we say about Monkey Island? The speaker joked about how the movie 
'Pirates of the Caribbean' should have been called...

Figure 7.- Very nice artistic work with Spanish stamp: Commandos 2, a tactical game that every person  in love with strategy and tactics should try once in their life. 

Figure 8.- Last games were in the direction of Call of Duty or this amazing Crysis: 
graphics raised to their maximum power.

The next talk was 'Videogames graphics: art and profession' by Guillermo Tostón from U-Tad. I really liked this talk because the speaker gave the main idea that being an artist for a game only requires eagerness, motivation and, above all, getting down to work! 

As the speaker said, you can decide whether you want to be part of this creation process or not, whether you prefer to stay in your place sleeping or going to a bar with your friends. Both are very valid options (and necessary from time to time). But in the end, you have to understand that becoming an artist for a videogame (or a programmer) requires making efforts and above all, enjoying the process rather than the result. This is a very important lesson: don't hope to enjoy the goal, but enjoy the path towards this goal. If you don't enjoy the path, if it only brings you suffering, then it's likely that you shouldn't be doing this. The speaker also made clear, in a funny tone, three things that every artist should include in his portfolio: a Dinosaur, an Audi and a terraced house. So you know... start  by watching Jurassic Park again.

Figure 9.- 'A computer and a brush are the same thing'. The picture shows a beautiful analogy between a scene in the game Bioshock and the Sistine Chapel.

After this talk, I decided to walk around the place and visit some of the stands and shops that had been set up, where you could find some very nice and geeky table games, accessories, T-shirts, etc. The stands offered the possibility of playtesting some of the games presented during the event, such as Decadence

The environment that you could breath was pretty interesting for any videogame lover: people gathering around players who participated in tournaments and enjoying the retro area. Regarding the tournaments, there were for different games: FIFA, NBA2K, League of Legends (LoL) or Call of Duty (CoD), to name just a few. As for the retro area, it was one of the most interesting area of the event, as you could play any of the old-time consoles, such as MSX, Amstrad, Amiga, etc. 

Figure 10.- Gollum didn't want to miss the event in one of the shops.

Figure 11.- People could play some of the games presented during the event, 
and talk to the developers while playing.

Figure 12 and 13.- The tournaments drew lots of attention from the audience. 
Specially those of CoD (in the bottom picture) and LoL.

Figure 14, 15 and 16.- The retro area was amazing, with many old platforms that you could play with. 

Precisely, the title of the next talk was: 'Daddy, why are we part of MSX?', a homage to this 8-bit system in its 30th anniversary. The speaker, Gaby López, talked about the history of this platform and conveyed a big passion in each of his words. 

Next talk was a workshop on 'PixelArt', where the speakers, Toni Gálvez and Marco Antonio del Campo, explained what this technique was about and explained some software that was used in Spectrum times in order to design graphics. Pixel art is a technique to draw images in a pixel-by-pixel basis. Even when it's a very old technique, it's used nowadays by games to show a retro look, with some fantastic results as in the case of the highly acclaimed Fez. The end of the talk consisted of creating a floppy disk using the software Pro Motion, which also allows some basic animations. 

Figure 17.- A floppy disk with Pixel Art.

Next talk was 'Artificial Intelligence Programming for Videogames', by Diego Garcés from Crocodile Entertainment. First part of the talk was devoted to explain how a game studio is organized and the different departments that exist in it: design, art, production, quality assurance, programming, etc. After that, the speaker explained that the role of the AI programmer is to create the behaviour of the Non-Playable Characters, and elaborated on how he must interact with other departments to achieve this goal: physics department for retrieving collision information, animation department to retrieve the characters animation, etc. 

There are some important considerations to achieve a good AI: first, the player must always be able to win; second, the AI should be a fair challenge to the player, that is, the AI should never cheat (or at least, it should give that impression). As for the future, the speaker stated that something interesting would be to build player models in order to automatically test the game with different players profiles. 

Among the techniques presented, we could briefly see that there were decision trees, A* for pathfinding or finite state machines. I will elaborate on some of these techniques in future posts, as I'll have to use them for the game I'm making. 

After his talk, I made a question (yes, I made lots of questions during the event...). My question was about his opinion on the application of more academic AI research, such as Machine Learning or evolution algorithms, to the world of games. I also referred in this question to this earlier post on this blog, where I explained that the game Colin McRae Rally 2.0 used Neural Networks to train the enemies. His answer was that whereas they are interesting approaches, they're also dangerous because enemies can learn both good and bad things in terms of gameplay. However, he thinks we'll see more of these techniques in future games. As a curiosity, the speaker mentioned that the game Black and White used evolution algorithms. 

The last talk of the day was given by Moritz Wundke, from Tragnarion Studios, and it was about 'Game analytics'. I really enjoyed this talk because I barely knew anything about this. The idea is that we can collect real-time information while the players are playing in order to improve the gameplay, correct design flaws and bugs or implement more precise matchmaking algorithms.

Figure 18.- The architecture of a Game Analytics system.

Technically, we basically introduce some instructions at some points in the game code in order to send certain data to a server. It's important this data to be raw, without any prior processing. The server will then process this data to extract some behaviour patterns of the players or for other purposes. Example of data are: number of items collected, number of deaths, the paths that players usually take in a particular scenario for producing heat maps, or whatever you want. 

The speaker explained a particular case where thanks to these techniques a level design flaw was discovered. In the game Assassin's Creed, the player was supposed to follow a 2 hours path to climb up a tower and to use a zip-line before reaching the end of the level. However, analysing heatmaps of many testers, developers discovered that it was possible for one of them to use a shortcut and reach the end of the level in 5 minutes. This was due to a collision detection error in one of the walls. 

The algorithms executed in the server side to classify and to make data significant are a bit more complex and they involve covariance matrices to detect correlations, Principal Component Analysis to reduce dimensionality and other maths mechanisms.  

The talk finished by explaining how you could set up a free game analytics system by using open source software, such as Openshift to host servers in the Cloud and MongoDB as flexible database system, among others.

That's all for now. I want to finish with the following video where you'll be able to take a look at what I mentioned in this post.

I'll try to write the Sunday summary by this evening or by tomorrow. Hope you've enjoyed this long post and see you soon!

Edit: you can take a look at the Sunday summary here

lunes, 15 de julio de 2013

Gamepolis: Friday

Hi all!

As I told you, this weekend I attended Gamepolis, a videogames event organized in Malaga, and I want to share my experiences during my presence there. In this post, I'll share my impression during the first day: Friday the 12th.

 Figure 1. As soon as I arrived, I lined up to participate in a XBox 360 raffle

Even though the first presentations took place during the Friday morning, due to work I could only attend from 4.00 p.m. The first presentation was named 'Proprietary vs. Commercial Engines' by Gonzalo de Santos from Bravo Games Studio. The talk was basically an analysis of the pros and cons of using a proprietary, in-house made engine vs. using a commercial engine (e.g. Unity3D or UDK). This is an interesting issue and has to do with some stuff I already discussed in one of my first posts: how much abstraction do you need? I'll always advocate to use a high abstraction for those who are beginning or has a poor programming background. In these cases, going for a commercial, already-built engine seems to be the most reasonable approach. Creating a game engine from scratch is a daunting task that can keep people away from trying to make their first games, which is a very bad scenario. It can be a rich experience in terms of learning, but in general, I'd never suggest anyone to try it if there's no prior experience in making several games. Also, the level of abstraction that you may feel comfortable with might be different from the level of abstraction I feel comfortable with. You have to find the adequate balance. As I already commented in my case, I feel confident enough to go for a C++ programming environment even though I prefer to abstract away from lower-level technologies for the moment, such as OpenGL. This is why I use a multimedia library such as SFML. However, if you don't have programming experience, GameMaker will be a better (and as valid) idea for you to start off.

Coming back to the talk, a proprietary engine boosts the machine you're developing for, achieving the maximum possible optimization and performance for that specific platform. Also, you're in control as you don't depend on another company to fix bugs or to add new features. On the downside, as I just mentioned, it is a complex task where testing and debugging are specially hard, as you must make sure that any new feature added doesn't interfere with existing features. Also, one advantage of commercial engines is that they're usually well documented and have a community that supports it and willing to help you out.

The next talk was given by Paco Pérez, an experienced person in the industry, and the name of it was 'Games industry: present and future'. This talk was really nice, because the speaker yielded many objective and crossed numbers which provide insight on the workings of this industry. Among other issues, we saw with numbers that the biggest markets (with a huge difference) are EE.UU and Japan, and within the European ones, the UK. Also, the speaker envisions that the next-gen battle will be won by XBox One, as Microsoft has been growing faster than Sony in the console world thanks to XBox360, and also because Microsoft is a bigger and more consolidated company than Sony.

Figure 2. Games market data for different countries. C'mon Spain, you have to rise up!

More interesting data. The net income for every sold game for a company is around 18 € (out of 65 € that costs that game) if we subtract taxes, distributor discounts, platform royalties (what you have to pay to develop for a platform like PS4), and marketing costs. In his opinion, the business model is too expensive and must be changed.

Figure 3. More nice data about the evolution of each platform. XBox has been a great winner as it has grown really fast compared to PS3

The average player is 35 years old and can afford between two and three games a year. 55% of gamers are men, and there has been (especially thanks to Wii and NintendoDS) a growing market around women. In Europe, the countries where people play the most are UK, Sweden and Finland, whereas Spain and Portugal lead the countries with less players.

Relating this talk with previous one, Paco Pérez firmly stated how important is for a company to have a product, a technology (e.g. an engine), because this provides an added value that is highly appreciated, specially outside Spain.

The last talk I attended was called: 'Express Game Development', by two guys from Melee Studios (one of them is called Juan Francisco Campo; the other one I don't remember right now, sorry). They basically showed how quickly you can create a full-fledged 3D game using Unity3D, a game engine that provides support for most of the phases in the game creation: level editing, physics, audio and music, etc. Coming back to our initial discussion, it seems to be a promising option for those who are starting. However, if you want to create more interesting effects and gameplay, coding is still required. However, as I could see, the coding is made simple by means of scripts that are attached to each object in the screen. Basically, each object has an associated script with several methods you have to override, such as start() or update() methods that are called when the object is created and when is updated respectively.

The outcome of the talk, as you can see in Figure 4, was a quite fun 2 players war tank game.

Figure 4. A 2-players war tank game made in 1 hour more or less (yes, the assets such as the tank or the terrain were already built)

In this post I have summarized the first day in Gamepolis. I don't have more time right now, but in the next post I'll cover the rest of days of the event with more nice pictures.

See you!

Edit: in this post, you can check the summary of Saturday at Gamepolis.

viernes, 12 de julio de 2013

Gamepolis has come!

At last Gamepolis has started.

For those of you who don't know it, it's an event about independent game development organized in Malaga that will take place from today until Sunday. The program is shown next:

Unfortunately, as it seems that the scope is basically national, everything is in Spanish. However, I'll try to bring the most interesting events and conferences to this blog. Due to work, I'm going to miss some of the earliest conferences, but from 4.00 p.m. I expect to be there. Today, I'm particularly interested in the 7.00 p.m. session on Quick Game Development, a workshop where we'll learn to use Unity in order to create games as quick as possible.

I'll keep you posted on my impressions. Keep connected!

Yes, first games are horrible!

Hi all!

Remember when I said in one my first posts that first games could be shitty games? Ok, that's true, but I had not any tangible proof. This video will clarify, in a quite hilarious way, what I meant with that. 

Remember again: scope down and start with very simple games! I think it's one of the best pieces of advice any newcomer to the games world could be given. 

See you!