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Feb 12

Animex Game 2012

And so Animex 2012 has come to a close. With the attedance at an all time high, filling two of the biggest lecture halls across the entire uni, Gabrielle Kent managed to set up 10 awesome speakers for the game side of Animex, from the likes of Valve, Naughty Dog, Guerilla and a few Animex favourites like Alex Trowers and Ken Wong. Plus they managed to raise £1240 in the charity auction for Butterwick Hospice, so to everyone who bidded there I’m sure they can’t thank you enough.

What follows now is a taster of what happened at each of the 10 talks across Monday and Tuesday, but there’s only so much I can relay, so if you didn’t come along stay tuned to the Animex site over the next year for news on how the 10th Animex Game will be the best one yet, and how you can be a part of it.

Teagan Morrison, Lead Technical Artist, Naughty Dog – Real Time Enviroment Creation for Games

Starting us off was the guy behind the enviroments of Uncharted 3, Teegan Morrison. Having previously made models on Turbosquid for a living, he was hired by Naughty Dog and worked his way up starting on the original Uncharted. Talking about what goes into making the enviroments we play in, he talked about how photo references are good but need to be adapted to work in the context of your game, and how you should make a world which is “realistically immersive, unrealistically awesome”. Ways to achieve this include avoiding having flat or repeated surfaces, via “movemods” and altered mesh instances, as well as ensuring simple things like roads have bumps and curbs.

He also spoke about concept art, saying that its “not a product, its a tool”, and as such it should be from a relevant perspective for the game to make it useful for the rest of the team, and that for portfolios, you should have two or more superb high-res enviroment images, with both organic and inorganic elements, showing off both interior and exterior locations if possible, along with showcasing any textures or wireframes you made for them, if they’re brilliant. But he left with a reminder that your portfolio is only as good as your worst piece, so keep the standard high and you’ll be going places.

Want to know more? A more detailed version of his talk can be found here, or you can e-mail him, at teegan.morrison@gmail.com or teegan_morrison@naughtydog.com

Ed Hooks – Empathy in Games

In this brilliant talk, Ed Hooks spent the hour speaking about empathy (which isn’t the same as sympathy), and better ways at evoking it. Splitting it down into the 7 basic emotions everyone has (happy, sad, angry, disgust, contempt, fear and surprise) and showing those emotions lead to actions, while thinking leads to conclusions, he went on to talk about how you can use empathy and emotions to improve game characters, but also how you can’t. You have no direct control over empathy, as it requires distance (the player will never empathise over his own character), and different players of different ages and mindsets will have different levels of empathy (a young child won’t even be able to exhibit the entire emotional spectrum, for example), and how this means there is no such thing as “for all the family”, so movies split it up instead (Up being a good example, compare the start to the rest of the movie). Ultimately though, he pointed out to understand empathy, you just have to look around you and observe it.

Get in touch with Ed at edhooks@edhooks.com to ask questions or sign up for his monthly newsletter on animation. He also recommends you visit Culture of Empathy for more information on what he talked about.

Vaggellis Livatidis, Game Designer, Guerilla – Designer Zen

Talking about his journey from AI Programmer to Zen Games Designer, Vaggellis Livatidis (don’t ask me to pronounce that) raised many good yet oft forgotten points about being a designer. For starters, you need to not only love design, but also the game you’re desigining, and to be aware that there are different types of designer all who have their own specialities. Everybody on your team is important, so learn to respect them, ask for their opinions, and most importantly listen to what they have to say.

He also pointed out that a lot of your ideas, your level set-pieces and other content you will work on, will inevitably get cut, for a variety of reasons (time and resources, it was crap, not doable, wrong direction etc), so be prepared to let them go and move on, as a Zen Designer is a better designer.  And that carries through to your portfolio to, in that your personality is just as important, so if you want to get hired and remain hired, don’t be a jackass.

Karen Traviss, Freelance Writer – Story is Gameplay is Story

Next up was the lead writer behind the Gears of War 3 story, among other, Karen Traviss. Being often looked down upon or forgotten by the industry, she gave a talk proving her role was no less important. Bringing it down to the raw basics, she showed how just a few screens, tiny details or even just a character in a room can lead to ideas which lead to stories, it just takes a bit of curiosity and intrigue.

She also spoke about the pacing challenges games provide, with no player acting the same or taking the same length of time, so to ensure you can sum up the story in one line, and that the game creators should leave stuff blank for the writers to expand and develop upon, as well as remembering that the characters in the game are real people, and its their story, both personally and the world they inhabit, so it should feel alive, even when you switch off the game.

Wyeth Johnson, Lead Artist, Epic – Gears of War 3: Destroyed Beauty

The second of the Epic talks and wrapping up the first day, 15 year artist and 12 year vetran of gaming, Wyeth Johnson did another games enviroment talk regarding the challenges Gears 3 made and how they were solved. Going in depth on the different colour palette choices across the Gears trilogy, and how they’ve become more colourful as the Unreal tech has improved and allows it  to better contrast or parallel the increasingly desperate story. Speaking about how its better to echo the theme on your designs rather than reinvent the wheel every time, he also showed how you often need to artificially brighten the textures because of Gamma vs Linear Space (way beyond me, I program, I don’t even know what a “zBrush” is), and how startling a different it makes to the lighting in the enviroment.

Moving on to the different between the “infrastructure” of the enviroment (background pieces like building and girders), and the “hero” pieces (a giant airship or statue), and that you should allocate most of your time to said hero pieces, while refining and reducing the resources used by the infrastructure. But even if time is tight, you should focus on the clarity rather than just rushing the work.

During the Q&A, he revealed that verts are far more important to worry about than triangles, and that you will never, ever be fully satisfied with your work, even when it ships, before talking about how the industry is moving to real-time over pre-made stuff, but how thats a good thing as it allows for more time, which allows for more polish, which ultimately results in a better game.

Alex Trowers, Project Manager, Remode – Making Games Great

Kicking off the second day in style, Animex veteran Alex Trowers once again eschewed PowerPoint, this time making his presentation in Unity (in under a week, no less). Pointing out that you can’t be bad at listening to music or watching a film, but that you can be at playing a game, he talked about numerous ways to make games fun. One of the key points being its not the Designer vs Player, as your role is to enable the player to have fun in your game, and how this comes from challenge, which comes from  having a satisfying villan to beat (be that the levels themselves or a more normal bad guy).

He also showed you need to keep your eyes on the bigger picture, that the interface is one of the most important aspects of a game (compare Minecraft to Dwarf Fortress) and that you should never balance the game for yourself or for any one user, so let the testers showcase the difficulty problems and don’t interfere with them. Despite that, you still need a lead to make the tough A or B choices, but he should still listen to others.

And of course, most important of all, you should always be enthusiastic about your game. Because if you aren’t, who else will be?

Ken Wong, Art Director, Spicy Horse – Art Direction in Wonderland

Another Animex veteran, Ken Wong has been speaking for years on the art stylings of Alice: Madness Returns, and with the game finally coming out last year he could go into much more detail this time around. As “Art Director”, his job was to improve the user experience through the visuals, develop the overall look of the game, and to lead each of the art departments, as well as doing hands-on work. Staying close to the art style of the original American McGee’s Alice, but revamped for the next-gen platforms, the entire game used a hand-crafted aesthetic, with no straight edges and everything being rough or rounded or crude, and exaggerated scales amongst other touches.

Reiterating that concept art should be useful, not just art for the sake of art (although fan artists do sometimes get hired, Ken himself being an example), he talked more about some of the art choices made, like with the changing dresses Alice wears and how they were altered to fit in with the delusionality of the game better, and how despite all the time and effort wasted, the art style was well recieved in the game (from personal experience, I’ll tell you, its brilliant), and that art can always be deeper than just then visuals, through its meaning and its interactivity with the player.

Follow Ken on Twitter, on Facebook, or check out his site for more of his work and contact info.

Alastar McIlwain, Straandlooper – More Beginnings than Endings

Speaking about his experience with television and then becoming involved in developing iPhone apps and taking them transmedia, and how this is the way foward. He showed how everyone will devour free content, but introducing any sort of price, even if under a pound, is a much harder sell. His solution was to make a much more involved game, creating The Hector Files, a non-linear point and click style game. The first game was released to great acclaim, garnering a bunch of awards for mobile games, so much so that Telltale Games took over publishing for the next two installements.

He recommended that you should keep the plot points within a game fairly clear and accessible, but to also second guess the player throughout the game, while making them feel like they’re the one creating the solutions, as opposed to jumping through the hoops pre-defined.

Jeep Barnett, Programmer, Valve – Co-Opting Portal 2’s Cooperative Testing Initative

Part of the original team that made Narbacular Drop, the uni project that Valve snapped up and evolved into the award winning Portal, Jeep talked about his journey through Valve, working on Left 4 Dead, Alien Swarm and then the co-op campaign of Portal 2.

Speaking about Valve’s unusual development process, he explained how each Valve project has a number of “cabals”, mixed skill teams of half a dozen or so people who all work on an element of the game and bounce ideas off each other, with no specified leader or titles. They work in a constant cycle of setting goals, then generating ideas to solve them, then building and playtesting the most viable solution, before gathering feedback and beginning the cycle again.

Moving on to the specific challenges and solutions in developing co-op for Portal, he spoke about the problems of players identifying which portal belongs to them, mechanics that didn’t work in single player but were in their element in co-op (like the infinifling), the evolution of gestures, and the visual communication of the game to allow the player’s to speak to each other freely.

And he then briefly spoke about the future, including the new improved level editor, while reminding everyone that shipping the game is just the beginning, not the end.

You can give Jeep an e-mail at jeep@valvesoftware.com, and he recommends to check out this site if you want more info on Portal 2’s development.

Karen Prell, Animator, Valve – The Animated Adventures of Portal 2

A veteran animator, having worked on the Muppets, then at Pixar and finally at Valve over the last 16 years,  Karen was the main animator for Wheatley in Portal 2, and she spoke about the challenges in not just bringing him to life, but the other Portal characters, especially when they already had such a strong fanbase from the original.

To animate Wheatley, a standard base idle animation was applied to him throughout the duration of the game, with scene specific animations overriding that as and when needed, with nuances in the voice acting of Stephen Merchant influencing the animations further. She also explained how the model had to be tweaked to work, so that the “eyelids” of Wheatley didn’t stick out of his body all the time, and so that when the player grabs onto him at the end of the game he doesn’t reveal his actual size (which is a lot bigger than how he appears).

She also talked about GLaDOS a bit, and how the original model was just a head on a rope, asking for help in retrieving her cores. Except because she was the perfect villain in the original, players didn’t believe her and assumed she was lying, so had no desire to help her. She was also going to force the player to jump into the incinerator of their own free will, but it broke the flow, so it was altered to just a straight drop.

However, she also reminded everyone that you always need to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Afterall, many of Portal 2’s greatest characters, like Cave Johnson and POTaTOS, didn’t have any animation,

Get in contact with Karen by e-mailing karen@valvesoftware.com.

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Once again, I can’t thank all of these awesome people enough for coming along to talk at Animex Game, and Gabrielle Kent, for getting all these awesome people to talk. This has easily been one of the greatest Animex’s ever so far, and there’s still Animex Talk to come, with speakers from Dreamworks, Framestore and Double Negative, and there’ll be a blog post on how that went later in the week.

Feeling like you missed out? You did! So make sure to come along in February 2013 for the 10th Animex Game, which Gabby has promised will be the best one yet. How she’ll manage that after this years lineup however, I have no idea. Take care y’all.