Sunday, 26 April 2009

Top Secret Project...

With the trauma of my coursework overload on its way to end (believe me, I still don't know if I can really see the light...) I thought it'd be the right time to bring up a special project I've been playing close to my chest for some time.

Next Level Dundee, will be my attempt at organising a creative games 'jam' type event in the Dundee area. The concept behind this is that many students won't have secured industry work for their summer time, and others will not have either entered Dare to be Digital for whatever reasons, or may not have been accepted to the competition. With this in mind, Next Level Dundee will offer these people a chance to create something in their summer.

At its core, Next Level will simply be a get-together, but the uniqueness of the project is that it allows a number of people who would have otherwise not met over the summer to collaborate, and bring their varying skills to the fore. Furthermore, with some careful planning, the idea is to enlist the help of industry figures to spend some time with each group.

The format is in its infancy, but the basic premise is a very quick turnaround week long project to produce a game. As many people as are interested in the project will be invited to a team creation session the week prior to launch, and teams of between three and five will be made. The team then has all of the following week to create something brilliant. During that week, hopefully the teams will have access to some know-how from industry figures.

Anyone is welcome, but I think in its first iteration, Next Level will mainly be for Abertay students. The only strict exclusion is people who already have games industry jobs.

More news to come, launch is still a while off!

http://nextleveldundee.ning.com/

Big Gaming Night Out!

What? Games Production Management Class Night Out
Where? Abertay Union
When? 8-9pm, Wednesday 29th March

As the class rep for the third year Abertay GPM class, I've arranged a night out for this Wednesday. I've also contacted the other GPM (and GDPM) class reps to fill their classmates in. Hopefully should be a very good night, on account of completion of all of our coursework!

In addition, Bert Wednesdays gaming chums night out will be taking place this Wednesday as usual. So the two things may overlap in some way. The idea is that their night out will begin at the Olympia pool on account of its forthcoming demolission! Either way, it'd be great to see some people out. All lecturers and non-GPM or Abertay students are welcome too!

Saturday, 25 April 2009

The Route to Success (or Road to Ruin)

I previously addressed how the games industry lacks conduits for good management technique, and managerially trained job candidates into the industry; but with that aside I'd like to take a look at some of things that really help anyone get a head start on applying for a games industry job.

It’s been said far too many times, but the most difficult step in the creative industries is the first one. Without relevant experience in the industry you want to be a part of, how can you impress upon your prospective employer that you have what it takes?

Well, initially I'd say it’s most important to take your time to research properly. This includes a number of elements; both the practical- such as writing a covering letter and CV effectively and having a clear way to show your portfolio of work, and the more industry-based research, such as knowing the post that’s available, and knowing the right people to speak to about it.

Stupid mistakes in a job application are always frowned upon, but I think some people make too much of a meal out of problems like this. A strong application will still be looked upon favourably, but try to eliminate silly errors with proof reading. Know the formal approach and don't cut corners.

Tailor your CV to the job you're applying to and know the required look and approach for your position, and whether it’s a good idea to try to go against the grain, or if simple is better. I would even suggest getting in touch with people in the industry to ask their opinion of your CV. I refined mine by speaking to Colin MacDonald of Realtime Worlds, Iain Donald of BBC Prototype, Neil Thompson at SCEE Europe and Frank Arnot of 4J Games. Just bear in mind that you should be critical of any feedback you get, don't change everything because one person says so. Try to use your own judgement. It’s also a great way to approach people within the industry and have your CV passed around without actually formerly applying.

This leads me to my next point, which is to network. If you are equally matched to others applying for a job, getting to know the people involved in the company could help you get the position. It won't make up for a dodgy resume and lacking experience or qualifications, but knowing where and when to find games industry people is a good way to advertise yourself, and build trust with that person. Not to over-analyse too much, but if the person can happily chat to you over a beer, then they gain a good impression of your overall character. Don't go in selling yourself wildly and embarrassing yourself, but make sure you say enough for them to judge your skills and assertiveness. Attend anything like game expos or conventions, or more informal game nights out. These things are all happening you just need to look to find them.

This brings me to my wrap up. Getting these industry contacts is hard without a first job. But another thing you can be doing to boost your chances at a job is creating palpable, immediate work that can truly show off your skills. A good CV is one thing, and a good manner in person is another, but having an actual artefact to show- a creative piece that lets them see your vision in action- gives them a far better idea of what you can offer them. For artists this is a little different, but for designers and producers: get stuck in and make that game idea you're planning.

One, very final note: When you approach an employer, don't just take it for granted that jobs happen through the HR department. Want to be a designer? Find out who their designers are, find their email address and get in touch with them. Ask a question of them, and then propose your position and ask for help and input. Sometimes you'll get nothing in reply, sometimes you'll get forwarded to the HR department, but when it works, you benefit greatly.

Rotoscope Project

I've been harbouring the idea of a rotoscope animation for a long time. Initially I was stopped in my tracks because of technical issues, but finally with the right software and hardware I've got to work organising the shots for it.

My main aim at the moment is to create a test piece of about 30-45 seconds based on the time constraints of rotoscoping footage. The final plan would be to develop this further to accomodate a short story I have in mind, but obviously I'd need more time and possibly more man-power to complete it.

The storyboard requires a little more work, including adding a shot of smoking by the window, and a shot of putting shoes on.

So this is basically my personal-time project for the summer. Hopefully I'll get something completed!

NEW STORYBOARD IMAGE COMING SOON.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Outsourcing

In the past it has been commonly perceived that outsourcing in the games industry leads to messy processes and unpredictable asset quality. However, with the current generation of consoles pushing graphics and processing power far beyond the previous hardware iteration and the pure mass of quality assets required by a triple-A game project increasing significantly, turning to outsourcers is beginning to look appealing to developers.


In a purely economic sense, outsourcing to a specialist third-party company is a time-tested, money-saving endeavour that companies in some industries would be foolish to overlook. There would be a vast diseconomy in spreading your skills finely and approaching these processes all on your own when you can outsource from established specialists. The difference with a game studio, however, is that until now the specialisation of each of the game production cycle’s processes has been in its infancy.


Only in the past fifteen or so years has there been suitable specialisation of skills within a game studio, because previously many members of once- small teams would’ve learnt to work cross-disciplined. Over time this structure has become more sophisticated, and today it’d be impossible to complete a high quality console or PC title without specialist know-how in programming, 3D art creation and audio engineering. Recently we have started to see entirely ‘process- specialised’ studios which are geared towards only one of game development’s areas of expertise.

These specialists are responding to a demand from developers who are seeing third-party outsourcing as a more viable option, when there were once reservations about authorship and artistic pride. Developers are beginning to see the usefulness of having an entirely separate company do ports of games to other platforms, perform tedious asset creation or QA testing, which frees the developers to create.


One of the primary reasons to look to outsourcing is to make staffing more cost-effective. Using third-party contractors means that the hiring process is skipped. Money and existing staff time is not spent sourcing candidates, short-listing, interviewing and then hiring; instead it is replaced with the one-time task of finding a good outsourcing studio. There are further attached costs that can be dealt with by the outsourcer- such as staff pension schemes, bonuses and healthcare plans if they are in place. Finally, and importantly for the games industry, are overtime costs. The developer will pay the one-time fee, and given that they fulfil their end of the bargain, then they don’t have to think about the overtime crunch period the outsourcer may have to payroll staff for.


Furthermore, outsourcing avoids the attached overheads and staff resources of training new starts. The team in the external company should already all be specialist-trained; any work-specific knowledge can be passed on with ease:


“Once the ideal asset is complete (by "ideal" we mean the item every artist, internal or external, looks to emulate when similar assets are produced) then a detailed how-to tutorial is assembled to go along with it. Whereas word docs were the norm during Rise of Legends, these days detailed step-by-step videos are our tutorial documentation tool of choice. Videos of the actual software process along with artist narration provide an easy-to-follow template.”- Dave Inscore, Big Huge Games.


Despite its successes, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls of outsourcing. "Low quality delivery, and lack of due diligence and poor briefing by clients" are a few of the issues that Screen Digest suggest as problem areas. Questionable quality is hard to remedy with one swoop of the magic wand. There’s no clear solution, but one approach would be to spend a little bit more time and money initially to find a good firm. Browsing portfolios, liaising with the company heads and getting a hands-on view of how they operate will obviously help. Involving the outsourcers in pre-production to fully illustrate the vision and setting up pipeline’s early can aid the quality of assets later. The extra time and funds spent at this stage could make the rest of the process much more profitable in the long run.

“You get what you pay for in the trade-off between price and quality, but the real costs of outsourcing are often below the line. This is forcing the industry to undergo a fundamental shift towards stronger project management skills, which have been lacking in many organizations," Rick Gibson- Screen Digest.


Like Gibson suggests, sometimes the problems with the outsourcing process lie in poor preparation and management from the developer themselves. It is therefore important that the developer is clear, concise and well primed to deal with outsourcing studios. Before any work is undertaken, there needs to be clear asset requirements and the specific creation process for these should be made apparent to the outsourcer. Even apparently small details like file-types should be clarified. At GDC09’s Outsourcing Summit Rajesh Rao of Dhruva Interactive spoke in depth about some client-based problems he encountered:


“There were several disconnects between the central team and the actual game team. This had a multiplier effect on production issues by the time it reached us”


He adds;


“A game with non-realistic art-style looked great…but had no art direction document.”- Rajesh Rao, Dhruva Interactive.


These are just two of his examples of poor client preparation and communication. In practice, the outsourcers are often well-prepared, and toil with poor planning from the developer. Feature creep and changing specs could be avoided with a real partnership between in-house and third-party in planning.

It’d be easy to say ‘outsourcing done the right way works’:


“Provided there are clear deliverables defined at the start, both in terms of expected quality level, quantity and time scales and the process is managed correctly then using an outsourced resource can be beneficial.”- Bert Henning, TAG Games


But you have to pinpoint where it can and can't work.Within the realm of sport-simulations for example, many projects necessitate huge art demands for similar assets that could be more cheaply and less laboriously completed by specialists elsewhere than by talented artists at the primary developer. QA and testing is another element which would work well as an outsourced process. Given that there is no language barrier and if things are managed well, this is possible with modern bug-reporting software. Whilst working with Rockstar North, I saw this hands-on; their bug system allowed other Rockstar studios in Leeds and New York to see bugs logged in Edinburgh. The potential is worldwide and definitely a favourable use of ‘out-of-house’.


Code is the only area of production I would suggest to avoid going out of house with. Even with the best version management software and a clear pipeline, programming tasks are made complex by the individual’s style and nuances. Even well annotated code can cause problems which are best discussed in person. That’s why if coding tasks are to be outsourced, then its best to work with a localised firm who can commit time to checking in on the work.

The stigma of allowing others ‘in on the act’ of their creative process is slowly being removed, but there’s a sense that industry-wide, it could take some time before the method is fully embraced. By nature creation is very much about authoring pieces of work, so many developers still have trouble letting go of the artistic process. For this reason, perhaps outsourcing is, at the moment, best suited to certain types of ‘production-line’ games.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

SoundTank Video

Just a quick post to show a very rough video of the BBC Prototype project I just finished working on. I worked as the Producer and Director on this project. It shows a few of the features of the game, including adding sounds real-time to an 'audio tank' and morphing the object and tank size to change volume and reverb etc.
video

General Round Up

I thought it was sensible to post a round-up of all the projects I'm working on right now.

Currently I'm doing a trapeze balancing act of attempting to complete coursework (including my Peronal Project disseration) whilst keeping up to date with work for Whitespace Solutions.

My Whitespace Solutions work is fairly under wraps for the meantime, but as soon as the project is over I'll be able to post up links to the Science Sensation site to show some work we've done on educational games. Some of them look pretty neato!

My coursework is piling up, but I just keep telling myself that I'll be done by the start of May, my personal project work for BBC Prototype is complete though, and with luck I'll be able to post a nice video of the game we just completed for them sometime very soon.

One final game-related snippet is that I have plans for a fairly cool project for over my summer time. I can't give too much away quite yet, but all shall be revealed fairly soon. Check back here to find out more...!

Educating David Braben

Essentially the following article is grounded on a wholesale personal distaste for one David Braben- ‘living industry legend’ and pompous fart. Scandalous you say? Well my initial gut response to Braben was based purely on how he acted in person at the 2008 Edinburgh Interactive Festival. Braben was part of a panel of the 4Talent showcase, which were brought together to discuss ‘Publishing’. The day had been broken up into various sections to appeal to all, but with specific areas of interest for artists, coders, management etc.

I touched upon this on my review of the event closer to the time on my other blog. The panel was in dire need of a chairperson to restrict the ego-fest that ensued. Two members of the panel for the most part kept schtum until questioned, whilst Braben and Gordon Ross, a previous employer of mine went at it. I like Gordie Ross a lot, but don’t let my affiliation fool you; I wasn’t just gunning for his side of arguments. In fact, at times Gordon Ross sounded pretty tongue tied, but I’d like to imagine this was on account of Braben pulling every subject towards himself for the sake of putting his full stop on it. It was cringey to watch, as wide questions were pulled to and fro from one person’s personal experience or example to another. By about forty minutes in, the panel had managed to swerve the subject of PUBLISHING completely, and somehow were still finding things to yap about between themselves, rather than to the increasingly agitated audience.

At this point, because I was there specifically to hear about the subject, I asked a publishing related question. I started it with “It’d be good if you could all talk a bit more about publishing”. I was particularly satisfied with myself, and I relaxed back in my chair to hear the brilliant answer. Within a few minutes, the whole subject had changed again, and our dear Mr. Industry Legend Braben was correcting the rest of the panel again on anally specific details of nothing much at all.

Which brings us up to date on the Braben front- I didn’t like him much in the first place. However, I think what I have to say now is far more encompassing than just getting back at him personally. Education is vital to the games industry right now; not only because the industry is expanding its production techniques, processes and theories to match film studio professionalism or because the industry can truly prove itself through the tough economic conditions, but instead because there needs to be a sea change in thinking about how games are produced and how studios are managed.

"One of the things that is very worrying is there are over 80 games courses in Britain and the sad thing is they aren't really teaching what we need for games at the moment, which is a frightening thing," David Braben. Reported on gamesindustry.biz

"There are something like 81 courses in the UK dedicated to computer games," he added, "but universities get paid for putting bums on seats and they're turning out students who know all about the history of games, but they can't make them."- Ian Livingstone. Reported on gamesindustry.biz

It is sweeping statements like this from the industry’s oldies that are causing concern for me. They punctuate an already growing anxiety I have for how the industry is going to change very soon. I highlighted recently in an essay for my own university course in Abertay, how the elders in the games industry are not forward thinking enough about the next generation of management and development. On the contrary to what Braben has said about education materials being up to five or ten years behind what’s needed within the industry, recognition of Agile development methods in institutions like Abertay has been met with surprise and awe from some studios. Whilst game companies are obviously aware of such theories, all too often I think the management in a studio is for the longest serving member of the team. The old-school method of shunting a brilliant programmer into a management role isn’t working to align the professionalism of a game studio with that of a film studio, or any other corporate company. Brilliant programmers should be allowed to thrive upon newer more exciting programming challenges, not moved into a role which they are not theoretically trained for.

There are two separate issues here. One is that I think a lot of comments like these are made without full knowledge of what is really being taught in the ’80 plus’ institutions across Britain. The second is that there needs to be a willingness from the elder statesmen of the industry to accept that there are academically proven, and talented young individuals raring to step up to the plate. This willingness needs to also stretch to the acceptance of some of the new input that could really project our industry- business and management skills within a studio or publisher. The days of ‘crunch’ should be numbered. Instead, in 2009, it’s still an accepted fact of the production process.

To further illustrate the point that at least one UK University is doing the right stuff (I’m not biased, I simply know more about Abertay!), the amount of team project work I’ve done in the past year is astounding. The courses across the School of Computing are all shaped to accommodate large team projects, where students get a real-life, hands on experience of what making games and software is actually like. Coupled with projects like Dare to be Digital, what more education does a scholar need? Well, industry experience. That’s the problem.

How can the ‘new school’ knowledge infiltrate the industry? Simple- game companies need to recognise the worth of the courses. The film industry is different to the games industry for a number of reasons; (Don’t mistake my use the film industry as an example for me thinking these sectors of ‘entertainment’ are the same- it is simply that the film industry is a number of years ahead of gaming in terms of creating a structure for itself) but one of the most important reasons is that it has recognised film studies courses to draw on for talent. The sooner games companies get acquainted with what universities are teaching, the better.

I spoke to Colin MacDonald, Studio Manager of Realtime Worlds, Dundee, about the possibility of a placement with them in a production type role. I also asked for his take on my CV as it was, and it was telling that he asked me to include more information about what my course- Game Production Management- actually entailed. Furthermore, I quizzed him about ‘runner’ roles or ‘shadowing’ roles for a non-graduate like myself to gain experience in production. I’m somewhat paraphrasing here, but he essentially said that there really isn’t such a role in the games industry- it’s a bit of a gap. And that’s where some of our biggest troubles lie. Oversights like this might mean the difference between a great producer getting the placement he needs to kick off his career, or not.

I think you’ll see that the Braben- hate was probably more light-hearted than I suggested at the start. I am, however, passionately against the element of the industry that I think Braben stands for.

One particular article thats worth a read if you're interested enough is found here

Friday, 10 April 2009

Level Video

video
The concept behind the level is that the player is in the shoes of a kidnapped character, injected with a poison, and waking in a horrible, grotty house. This is their prison, until they can find their way out, or find their cure.

I hope to be able to get a bot in at the end of the level, but I'll have to see how my bot pathing skills are. Other than that, I'm fairly happy with all my work!

Final Level






































Populating the Room with Assets


Living Room Area Early











Living room plus Maya models


Portfolio


Mount Dash - Producer on 10 week UDK prototype project with a team of 14

Next Level Dundee 2010 Teaser

Worked as producer on Trap Inc. by the Guinea Pixels team



Worked as producer of MProf Games Development project NJA from the Digital Native Team


Created and organised Next Level Dundee 2009 from Iain Smith Next Level Dundee.



Produced and designed two educational games for Science Sensation

Produced and designed BBC SoundTank for ProtoType project (Video to come!)


Unreal Editor narrative level design

UDK work and development of a rotoscope animation to come this summer!