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March 29, 2009

GDC 2009 Art Sessions

Having no actual artistic abilities myself, I rarely attend art sessions at GDC. As I mentioned in the last post, I pretty much confine myself to design sessions. But having attended a couple this year, I think I'll try to at least get to one each year in the future.

The Brütal Art of Brütal Legend


Double Fine Art Director Lee Petty gave an absolutely terrific talk about the development of three aspects of Brütal Legend's look -- its epic characters, epic skies, and epic terrain. He discussed some particular influences and inspirations for the game, such as heavy metal album covers and a specific artist (you'll have to look this one up, I'm not too up on my painters). From that, he addressed problems they encountered along the way with each of those areas and how they solved them. In a way, this was a fairly engineering-focused talk, if you consider (as I do) engineering to be a problem-solving discipline. Petty described how the characters' original look left them feeling detached from the world, in part due to low pixel density (and a lack of heft to their materials), and how they addressed that within the constraints they faced for the game -- simply throwing more textures at the problem wouldn't work, since they had the potential for far too many types of characters to be on-screen at any one time, so techniques like UV mirroring, low-frequency and high-frequency noise textures came in, with vertex coloring contributing blending information.

Petty spent a significant time describing their lighting models for time-of-day, and how that worked with characters. The big take-away for me in this area of the talk was that a simpler, if less realistic model, is a big win if it gives the artists better control and faster iteration. The original lighting model was highly complex, and difficult to control, and was scrapped in favor of better control for the artists. A sped-up time of day clip showed the results, and they were spectacular.

I won't go into any detail on the terrain issues -- primarily, they were interested in using a fairly simple height map, but addressing the lack of overhangs, and how to match models with the environment to make it closer to seamless.

This was definitely my favorite talk this year; although I'm a huge Double Fine fanboy, the game under discussion was just a bonus. What I specifically enjoyed was the application of craft to solve specific problems in the look of the game.

The Illustrative Rendering of Prince of Persia

This art talk actually straddled art and engineering in a slightly different way; rather than talking about how they solved problems with art, the presenters described the goal for the environments and the characters, and then separately discussed how different rendering techniques were used to achieve those goals. There were discussions of specific techniques (such as rendering characters' slightly bigger and only the back faces to achieve outlines), and providing bias information to artists to control when it was applied. A big take-away from both of these talks was to provide different lighting solutions for your characters, distinct from the environment.

When I'm back in Maryland, I'll be sure to finish this up with the technical talks I attended.

Posted by Brett Douville at 01:28 PM | Comments (2)

March 28, 2009

GDC Post 1: Design Sessions

Rather than do an enormous post about all the things I saw at GDC (like last year's post), I thought I'd break this up into a few talks basically by discipline. First up, the design sessions I attended.

It's interesting to note that in the past, for the most part I attended no programming or art sessions whatsoever, but this year I actually mixed it up quite a bit. Last year I think I may have been more interested in design simply because I was doing some of my own design, though it has been a trend for years. Programming talks tend to be less interesting to me simply because I'm in the trenches with that stuff all the time -- and art stuff is just out of my area.

Satoru Iwata's Nintendo Keynote

There were a lot of great things in Nintendo President Iwata's talk, but for me the most interesting thing was the distinction he made between the "downward spiral" many game companies face and the "upward spiral" Miyamoto's process brings. In the downward spiral, financial pressure leads to shipping early, which leads to poorer quality, which leads to poorer scores and lowered revenue. Miyamoto, instead, sees ideas everywhere and keeps teams very very small while he prototypes: this relieves financial pressure, giving them time to find the fun, which leads to better reviews and better results.

There were some announcements of new games and improvements with the latest system software, but for me the biggest insight was that above. There were a couple of announcements of games (including a new Zelda title, which I will of course buy), and attendees got a free copy of Rhythm Heaven.

East Meets West

Unfortunately, this year I had to skip out on Clint Hocking's talk, which I always really enjoy, and attended instead a panel with an American designer (Emil Pagliarulo, of Bethesda Softworks, where I now work), and two Japanese designers (Suda51, of Killer 7 and No More Heroes fame, and Fumito Ueda, of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus). These were all designers whose games I've played a ton, consuming everything each has contributed to, so this was a great talk to see.

Despite some translation issues (although they make an effort, I think perhaps development talk is too specialized for the translators we have at GDC to be particularly effective), I picked up a few observations from listening to the speakers. Culturally, Japanese developers seem to follow more of an auteur theory, with the primacy of a single designer, who tends to follow his instincts and promote a shared vision of the game that starts with him, whereas Westerners tend to value feedback and individual contribution, with more of a tension between the designer's instincts and back-and-forth with the team as a whole.

Another minor note: Ueda pointed out that he tends not to use conversation or dialogue in his games because it requires repetition to convey information to the player, which breaks the realism of the conversation itself. Since these two can't be brought into harmony, he just designs conversation out.

Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money

Last year, I particularly enjoyed Margaret Robertson's talk Treat Me Like a Lover. Apparently she must have gotten quite a lot of good feedback, because this year, she got a prime spot mid-Thursday rather than Friday morning at 9 am. This year, Robertson talked about big stories in games and how we don't need them. Progressing from the most compressed story ever written (Hemingway's six word story) to little stories in art (in the Tate Museum) and audio, she talked about how smaller ways of telling stories are a good production solution because they are far more flexible -- if your mission structure has to change, you don't have to record a bunch of new voice lines to cover the bits of stories that were taken out. She also railed against "save the world" stories -- we have saved the world hundreds of times, perhaps we can focus on something else now? On the whole, a thought-provoking topic, reinforcing just how hard it is to do a good story, as well as lots of little ways you can tell little stories well -- and making me hold our own story guys at Bethesda in very high regard indeed.

My First Time

Well, not my first time, but a Game Design Challenge presented by Eric Zimmerman that focused on sex and autobiography as themes. The big surprise was that Kim Swift of Portal fame was not permitted to participate by Valve (which I think they'll come to regret -- it's never good to censor your people). But a couple of latecomers actually managed not only to come up with a design in 36 hours, but to win! Of the three, I think Haro's was my favorite, since he actually implemented something and since it appeared to work very well, but all three presented interesting designs. I love this part of the conference every year, because it tends to showcase real games that you could actually make that are far off the beaten path. Terrific stuff.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions

Jon Blow's Experimental Gameplay Sessions are always interesting and intriguing; regrettably, I was only able to stay for the first hour this year. The first hour focused mostly on different ways of looking at spaces, with a first person game in which the user can paint a white environment with black paint to reveal the world beneath, a platformer which ran around on shadows, and a crazy four-dimensional exploration game. There were a lot of interesting games here, some really thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the lots of little games presented by the designer of Fate. Look for notes online on this talk and make sure you play them, these guys are really pushing innovation, and gamers who enjoy something new should get a look at their efforts.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:09 AM | Comments (1)