Monday, 7 December 2009

Art Direction: How important it really is.

Art Direction is a demanding skill, having to not only guide the style and feel of how the game is viewed, but also lead everyone else who is working on a project and lead them to achieve clear and coherent work that ties seamlessly together as if only one person had been working on the way the art looks.

Communication is a vital and necessary skill to survive in the world of being an Art Director. The team of artists needs to be able to work together and produce strong pieces all the time and can’t have different conflicting ideas around them about the direction the game is going take. The art director doesn’t just lead the artists on the floor but also has to be able to liaise with Creative Directors, Art Managers as well as the oversee production or concept team and has to be able to communicate the vision of the game to high members of staff such as Executives, Licensor’s and possibly any 3rd parties who are involved.

Now a lot of what I have stated sounds like it is more of a managerial role than a creative one and the job title does include the word “ART” in it so where does that come in? Well if we were to place someone in the games industry working a major title and had no knowledge of art or how it’s made everything would look disjointed and just wrong. Yes they may be able to get the art department working well, but sacrifice the polish a game needs to stand out from the crowd. Good art direction is vital in keeping the visuals and style of the game clear and coherent throughout so you don’t end with a part of level having a very stylised look and other parts not matching the same standard.

Art direction is very orientated around being focussed on an artistic goal and having to manage that visual look, whilst at the same time and keeping tabs on all the people doing the work and occasionally nudging them in the right direction. Without art director’s games would always be behind schedule, oh wait they are…well most of the time (cough Too Human = rubbish/ why did they bother?)  In all to become a good art director you need: - A high knowledge of art practice, Leadership, the ability to communicate and good organisational skills. Without these the creative flow would come to a stand still and slowly kill the game and become a money pit. Luckily there people out there keeping the industry going or so I hope or I will be without a job when I finish Uni!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Tate: Turner and the Masters

I took a trip to the Turner and the Masters exhibition at the Tate Britain recently and think it’s definitely worth checking out while it’s on. I found the emphasis that Turner put into trying to emulate other great artists of his time really fascinating. It almost became a competition between him and the works he was copying in his own style. He constantly tried to improve on making them more dynamic and hold a greater sense of movement than proving his own technical ability. With his paintings directly next to the ones he had taken inspiration from it was clear he was trying to get his audience to feel what was going on and give a real depiction rather than just try and make something aesthetically pleasing. I found the importance of looking at other artists always useful and a way of expanding my own ideas and techniques, what was interesting to see is even the masters were learning from each other and using the works of those before them to improve their own techniques.

I found how Turner had taken a composition and focussed attention detail in often only a few places and had the rest of the piece covered by his expressive movements an effective way of leading the viewer through his piece, creating dramatic effects and creating a greater sense of depth and a less lifeless mood. Another thing I noticed was that Turner never really complicates his compositions and only focuses on the main aspects he was trying to practice. Through each piece the one element he wants to capture specifically if it was lighting, perspective or texture is certainly clear and shows his development in the pieces that follow.

I found the visit really insightful in how to start taking new ideas and techniques and applying them to my own work and not just relying on a few places for inspiration. I also learnt to try anything and everything even if it doesn’t really work as something good might come of it that I wasn’t even looking for.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Game Design: The key to Game Play

In the dark ages of video games, where game play was a relatively new concept to the programmers who had control of the game play and had very little creativity of their own and never really thought that the same challenges and puzzles would get boring. This lack of creativity quickly spawned a job for someone who actually knew how to interact with people (sort of) and give them something enjoyable about a game. As the word GAME suggests it’s something to do for fun and being killed by the same flashing monster because the difficulty curve suddenly shoots higher than Hubble space telescope would often lead to gamers being disgruntled and moving on to the next headache inducing game that came along and never return to it.

Game play is vital in making a successful game that will sell and not be slated in every review article under the sun. Also players have become more sophisticated and want more for their money. If the game designers trap a player at a point in the game and make it impossible to get past and causes the gamer to want to throw their controller and punch a hole in the wall it ruins the fun element of a game and they have failed. Of course you don’t want to go to far the other way and hold the players hand through a game to the point where they can press the win button on the controller to complete the game such as the recent game WET where the boss is just a couple of quick time events and slow repetitive button pressing until you see a small cut scene where dies in a sort of disatisfying pathetic way.

Ultimately what I’m getting at is that good game design is all about balance. Most early games went for the steady climb in difficulty through levels, but today the advancements in games has lead to a more progressive up and down difficulty throughout each level, unless of course we mention the lovely Psychonauts where the difficulty goes up and down all over the place and matches its wacky psychedelic look. There is no perfect formula for creating a goldilocks game where its not too hard or too difficult as some players are smarter or quicker than others making the experience completely different for everyone.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Games Writing Today

Games writing and reviews are just as common as the Film and TV reviews that have been around so long. On the shelves today there is a magazine devoted to every console, handheld and PC gamer and in some cases more than one magazine. Some are obviously more biased than others due to the funding of a specific platform creating ‘The Official’ titled magazines. Reviewers today are hard pushed to make the deadlines for their demanding 19-day schedule in which they have to fill nearly 150 pages of game related material. Not only the writing has to take place in this time but they also have to play the games they are reviewing and keep their ears pinned to the ground to try and give us the readers something new to keep us wanting to buy the magazine and read more news about the games.

What makes writing for games so interesting is that its usually quite subjective having the term “New Games Journalism” coined for this style. The opinion of one person can make the difference between a game selling or ending up like the E.T game produced by Atari, where most of the copies are said to be hidden deep underground somewhere in the Nevada desert. Kieron Gillan possibly the most renowned games writer leading the way with his manifesto has seen this in motion many a time and when the scores for a game are written and developers are keen to get a sneak peek at them to try and bump the score up by a few points by flying a developer down to play the game in front of them for half a day to show them how good it is. This being said it clearly shows how influential this type of subjective reviewing has become, with developers trying to sweet talk the reviewers into swaying the opinion in their favour.

Game reviews can be sugar coated with lovely words and phrases and make you want to rush out and buy it, but I have found more often than not the writers are stuck in one mind and like one particular style of game which is a shame. You get the same excited can’t wait for it attitude even to the point where the reviewers have written (and if I remember correctly) were actually sad enough to weld a copy of ‘GTA: San Andreas’ inside their PS2 because they thought it was that good.

I get easily bored and frustrated with the same subjective attitudes towards games that get totally the wrong scores because of the corrupt nature of money grabbing games publishers, whilst other great games are just over shadowed by the 72 page long waffle of how good a game is going to be. I would much prefer to see a games reviewer demonstrate a balance where they can review a smash hit blockbusting game and rate it with a 9 and then have a smaller game get an equally good score for its originality or play again factor. I mean isn’t there only so many times they can write like this before the writers get boring and jaded?

Monday, 2 November 2009

Video Games: Where to Next?

The “Next Generation” of consoles has brought us further than we thought in terms of what we can now create for video games. Explorations into player interactivity led by the Nintendo Wii and titles like Guitar Hero, Rockband and the recent DJ Hero. Online play has transformed the way we can interact and play games with and against each other. The main benefit is the expansion games can have through the ease of downloadable extras either being in the form of maps, costumes, bug fixes and in the case of the recent GTA, expansions of storyline that occur during the game world that feature groups seen and heard of in numerous missions throughout the main story and in some cases even tie bits up.

This is all great for the consumer, but what of the poor developers? They are forced to produce games of this great high definition quality in very tight deadlines and budget costs. This has slowed the real innovation of the games industry as where a small amount of profit for developers used to be good and creating the best looking and original title was the main goal this has almost disappeared. Publishes have become more demanding, wanting to focus more on large profits, film tie-ins and big title releases that can be roll over and over again into sequels that will usually generate what they want. This means the same sorts of games could eventually end up saturating the market, making gaming very dull.

The outlook for up and coming game developers and the like looks somewhat bleak, though there is hope. The battle between the Next Gen consoles has kept developers on their toes especially on the side of the PS3, who have stepped up their exclusive titles with games such as Infamous and Uncharted 2 with amazing graphics; the slickest movement and game play seen for a long time. Developments will keep coming from people like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo as long as demanding gamers are present. Personally I would like to see a bit more customisation in games to make it feel more personal and also have an interactive story so the you can decide what should happen, which has been seen in games such as Fable1/2 and the stunning Mass Effect where your decisions from the first game will carry over into the sequel. I would like Call of Duty to either stop creating the same game with different weapons and maps and come up with something a bit more original or at least drop the price! More innovative games are a definite must to keep the progression going especially to stop the industry becoming stale and corporate and allow real creativity be rewarded.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Video Games: 80's The Golden Age

The explosion of Video Games to the masses with “coin op’s” was here, PONG had started it and now “Space Invaders” had come to take over the throne. When Space Invaders was released in Japan riots are nearly caused as well as being responsible for a nation wide coin shortage. Shop owners clear out their stock and turn their stores into Space Invader arcades overnight. Creators “Midway” find themselves with the biggest arcade video game to hit America since videogames had been created, with their game being played in department stores, restaurants and other popular social attractions.

A domino effect occurred from the success of Space Invaders and lead to the fast spread and progression of video games. Along came everyone’s favourite yellow, sort of circular friend “Pac-Man” from creators “Namco”. This game brought more colour and new exciting bleeps and buzzes instead of the scary droning march of Space Invaders. The brains behind it all Moru Iwatani wanted to produce a game that was appealing to men and women as well as being more cartoon like, as he was bored of the generic “shoot-em-ups” that started to litter the arcades. Pac-man was an instant success in Japan and created another coin shortage! It’s also the first videogame to cash in with merchandising from lunchboxes to t-shirts and even cereal. In ’82 Midway get hands on with a sequel to Pac-Man, which obviously wanted to attract women to the games world by introducing ‘Ms. Pac-Man’. Not forgetting to mention “Defender” and in ‘81 “Donkey Kong” created by Nintendo, which spawned the birth of “Mario” and the first simultaneous co-operative videogame “Super Mario Bros.” in 1983.

Fast-forward to 1986 and famous games such as “Metroid” and “The Legend of Zelda” series are leading the modern expansion of the games industry. Then “Capcom” created the still popular “Street Fighter” in ’87. It’s up to the 4th in the series, though numerous versions have come in between with ridiculously long titles such as something like ‘Street Fighter: Super Mega Gold Turbo 3D Ultimate Hyper HD Edition’, ok I exaggerate a little, but still its popular. Hideo Kojima bursts on to the scene with his ongoing “Metal Gear” series in 1987 introducing the first stealth game within an action adventure framework. 

Finally one of the last games to end an era in 1989 was the first cinematic platformer “Prince of Persia” originally released on the “Apple 2”. It was the first game where a developer had looked at real life movements and tried to emulate them in a game, this or me is where games started to become a higher level of entertainment instead of the purely fun button mashing and joystick twiddling games that had come before.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Video Games: Where it all Began...

Now when I think of the first video game my mind jumps straight to “PONG” and I’m sure many people out there would believe me. However, with a bit of digging through the vast accounts of the first computer game, I discovered games history is divided for who created the first game, as Ralph Baer (a TV engineer) had the idea for playing games on a television set in 1951 though didn’t physically create one until 1966, but we will get to him later.  A.S. Douglas created the first in 1952 on an EDSAC vacuum tube computer with a cathode ray tube display. The game he produced was a product of him writing his PhD at the University of Cambridge on Human and Computer interaction. The game was a digital interpretation of the classic game “Tic-Tac-Toe”. A player would try and beat the computer which would use algorithms to win whenever possible.

I’ll leave you to make your own opinion about who came first because it seems to come down to technicalities of does an idea count as being a sign of creating something first or someone physically producing it? From here on out is where video games history becomes more clear and decisive.

The progress and development of video games started to gain momentum, as in 1958 William Higginbotham created  “Tennis for Two” on a Brookhaven National Laboratory Oscilloscope. Later in 1962 Steve Russell created the first game intended for computer use “SPACEWAR!” which was built on a PDP-1 computer and though not technically a “video game” it was a precursor to the explosion of games to come in 1972. Slowly but surely more games started to make there way out into the developing world of technology such as Ralph Baer’s game “Chase” in 1967. This and other of his ideas got him a deal with “Magnavox” and gave birth to the first home video game system in 1972 the “Magnavox Odyssey”.  This event led to the creation of the arcade version of “PONG” created by Nolan Bushnell with help from Al Alcorn who together started Atari computers that same year and in 1975 re-released “PONG” as a home video game.

For me games don’t go back all the way to 1952 but older generations reminisce telling me how new games are so confusing to the one joystick and two buttons they spent hours on at the arcade. The first game I ever played was “Sonic the Hedgehog” on the Sega Megadrive with its 16 bit cartridges and played many of the other classics such as “Golden Axe” and “Altered Beast”. I remember being infuriated that there was no ability to save my progress on any of the games especially sonic and having to replay the Green Hill Zone every time the console was switched off arghhh! I moved onto the Playstation and started with “Crash Bandicoot” and my personal favourite “Tony Hawk Pro Skater” perhaps one of, if not thee most addictive game for the Playstation.  

I naturally progressed to the Playstation 2 and played on the vast catalogue games. I picked up the “Ratchet and Clank” games and got lost in them for hours. “Prince of Persia the Sands of Time” (and the others in the series) opened my eyes to a game having a film like quality in the story telling and caring what happened to the characters. It was a really attention grabbing game as well as being visually stylised and unique for a PS2 adventure title.

I’m currently the owner of an Xbox 360 and yes I’ve had the Red Ring of Death! There has only been two games for me visually that stand out from the crowd and that “Mirror’s Edge” and “Bioshock”. Mirror’s Edge was the only first person shooter I have ever played, which rewarded you not to shoot anyone!? The visuals are crisp and sleek and the use of colour is careful and precise and becomes a tool to help the player through the environment. Bioshock is the ONLY game I have ever been in awe of, in fact when I first started to play I found myself just wandering around the art deco underwater base and taking it all in. The downside to this however is the fact that some random guy on fire would appear from nowhere and kill me and I suddenly remember I’m meant to be surviving and not admiring the work of 2K games.

I can’t wait to see what the future will hold for video games, but I can see that the demand for bigger, better, more realistic, more interactive games will push the boundaries to somewhere people would never expect them to go. I mean look at how far they’ve developed from the 50’s, if anything the new film “GAMER” which has been released may not seem so science fiction but perhaps become science fact in the years to come.