Trapped between Eye Candy and Motivation

There’s this really big problem when it comes to working on games (or really any sort of project that lies at the intersection of engineering and design). It has nothing to do with programming or design or testing or art or sound or anything else like that.

The problem is staying motivated. This is especially bad when you are working alone, but it can even happen in groups of 2 or 3 people. Beyond that, you can always find motivation in the stuff that other people are doing, because it comes from outside of your personal drive and creativity. But in small groups or solo projects, the game becomes your baby, and then you get tired of your baby.

Sometimes this happens when you work so long on one subset of features that they sort of blur together and become the totality of the project to you. You quickly get tired of this smaller sub-problem (especially tweaking and tweaking and tweaking), then get tired of the game without realizing there is other interesting work to be done.

Or maybe you realize that there is a lot of stuff to do on the project, but you’ve been working on it so long without much visible or marked improvement that you begin to despair. Maybe the project will never flower, you think. Maybe your efforts will never be used to the full extent they were designed for.

Wherever this loss of motivation comes from, there is one piece of advice I heard that really helps me. It boils down to this: if you keep wishing your game was awesome, make it awesome. Add in that feature you keep thinking about, but keep putting off because there is more important framework-laying to do. Or take some time off and mess around with that one technical gimmick (shader, hardware stuff, multi-threading, proc-gen, or what have you). When you feel yourself losing motivation, give yourself permission to go off and get it back. Don’t soldier on, because your project will inevitably end up on the dump heap with all the other projects you abandoned.

The only problem is, everyone (including myself) always says that adding eye-candy and little trinkets to your project prematurely is a Bad Idea. If you make your game cool by adding eye-candy, the wisdom goes, then your game is no longer cool because of the gameplay (you know, the point of a game). Arguments about whether gameplay is important not-withstanding, if adding a few bits of visual indulgence saves your game from succumbing to ennui, then by all means, add the cool things!


The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

Source Filmmaker: First Impressions

Meet the Pyro

Meet the Pyro

As you may have heard, the Source Filmmaker was released two weeks ago at the conclusion of the Pyromania Update for Team Fortress 2. To get it at first, everybody was required to submit a survey form that included basic hardware and software specs about your computer, including whether or not a microphone was attached. The idea was that a limited, graded release would help give a taste of what the tool is like without flooding the Internet with videos. However, after three weeks of semi-open beta, the SFM team has gone public. You can download it here. Here are my first impressions of the tool (there is a TL;DR at the bottom).

The Source Filmmaker is a tool that allows “players” to set up scenes within any Source game, and then edit the resulting clips as if they were in an video editing program. This hybrid system passes over a lot of the conventional paradigms in film making. You can simultaneously modify how you want a shot to look AND change how the sequence is cut together. Scenes still have props, actors, lights, and cameras. However, if you decide while editing that you want a shot of the same scene from a different angle, you can create a new shot from a new angle in seconds.

This is definitely the direction that movies are headed as a medium. Computer graphics have reached a level of visual fidelity that allows filmmakers to create entire new elements and mix that with live footage. For instance, Sky Captain (an awesome movie, by the way) was shot entirely on blue-screen in some guys basement. All the environments and non-human actors were computer generated. This allowed the maker to move the actors around as he pleased. If he didn’t like the direction they were facing or their position on-screen, he could simply move them around like another 3D asset.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

So far I’ve used the Source Filmmaker for a little over one week, on and off (I made this). From what I hear, experts at the program can deftly make complex scenes in minutes. However, I have yet to figure out all the hotkeys and efficient methods, so it takes me a long time to even sketch out a rudimentary scene. My speed is hampered, in some part, by the strange choice of hotkeys; The lower left part of the keyboard seems to have shortcuts distributed at random. Yes, every program has such a learning period in which shortcuts are committed to muscle memory. The SFM, though, for all its similarities to 3D programs, seems to have flipped the traditional hotkey set.

I digress, however. The primary aspect of SFM that impedes my work in the program is the tool’s concept of time and animation. To illustrate, let me explain the structure of the program: Each file is called a “session”; a self-contained clip. A single map is associated with each session. A session contains a strip of “film” which is composed of different shots.

Shots are independent scenes within the same map. Each shot has a scene camera and various elements that expand upon the base map set. Each shot also has an independent concept of time. You can move a shot “fowards” or “backwards” in time, which doesn’t move the clip in relation to other clips, but changes which segment of time the shot is showing within its universe. You can also change the time scale, which slows down or speeds up the clip.

If you move a shot to be before another shot, it will not change the shot, only the sequence in which the shots are displayed. This can be confusing and/or annoying. For instance, if you have a shot of someone talking, and you want to have a close-up shot or a different angle inside of that clip, there are two ways to do so. You could go into the motion editor and move the camera within the specific segment of time within the shot. The easier way, however, is to split the shot into three clips. The end clips remain the same, and inherit the elements from the single parent shot (which doesn’t exist anymore). In the middle clip, however, you change the camera to show a close-up angle. Both of these methods look the same; until you change your mind.

After you split a clip up into different shots, you can’t (to the best of my knowledge) add in a common element that spans all three shots, even though the elements that were there beforehand were inherited by all three. If you move a prop in one shot, it doesn’t translate over. This problem lends itself to a strange workflow, in which you set up the entire scene from one camera view, and only when you are satisfied do you split it up into different clips.

But how about the other method I mentioned? The motion editor allows you to select “portions of time” within a shot’s universe. You can make changes to objects and their properties, but the changes will only be visible within that time segment. For smooth transitions, it allows you to “partially” select time, and blend between two different settings. This feature can be extremely useful and powerful, but it is also a pain in the ass. While trying to hand-animate actors, I often find myself getting annoyed because I want to go back to the same time selection and add in something, or smooth over multiple curves. Since each entity stores its animation separately (each bone in a actor’s skeleton, for instance), I often find myself annoyed because I change an animation, but forgot about a bone. The animation ends up completely screwed, and its easier to start over than fix it.

Yes, a lot of this pain is due to my inexperience with the workflow. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of working with the strange animation system. But for any filmmaker or animation starting out, it will be quite a jump from the traditional keyframe methodology. In the Valve-made tutorials the guy talks about the graph editor, which seems to liken itself to a keyframed timelines. However, I have yet to glean success from the obtuse interface, and in any case the “bookmarking” system seems unnecessarily complex.

I want to cover one more thing before wrapping up. What can you put in a scene? Any model from any source game can be added in and animated. There are also new high-res versions of the TF2 characters. Lights, particle systems, and cameras are also available. For each of these elements, you need to create and Animation Set, which defines how the properties of the elements change over time. IK rigs can be added to some skeletons, and any property of any object in the session can be edited in real time via the Element Viewer. Another huge aspect of the program is the ability to record gameplay. At any time, you can jump into the game and run around like you are playing. All the elements of the current shot are visible as seen by a scene camera. You can even run around while the sequence is playing. You can also capture your character’s motion in “takes”. This is great for generic running around that doesn’t need gestures or facial animations. If you need to change something, you can convert the take into an animation set, which can be edited.

On the note of character animation, lip syncing is extremely easy. Gone are the pains of the phoneme editor in Face Poser. You can pop in a sound clip, run auto-detect for phonemes, apply to a character, and then go in with the motion editor and manually change facial animation and mouth movements.

TL;DR: To summarize my feelings, any person who admires the Meet the Team clips or the Left 4 Dead 2 intro trailer should definitely check out the Source Filmmaker. It’s free, and the current tutorials let you jump into making cool short clips; every clip looks really nice after rendering. The program does require a lot of memory and processing power though, so you will be unable to work efficiently if your computer doesn’t get decent framerates in TF2.

Map Design

I’ve always been highly interested in creating levels for games. Computer games enchant people with their story, gameplay, and graphics. Some designer created everything I see in it. It would be incredibly fun and rewarding to wield the same power as the game designers.

Ever since I was a little kid, level design has occupied me as much, if not more than, the game itself.
I started out with games that came with easily accessible editors. Strategy games such as the Age of Empires (and Age of Mythology) have drag and drop editors accessible from within the game. Command and Conquer: Generals has an easy-to-use editor, accessible through its root directory. As I grew older I began to experiment with triggers more, crafting a crude story or giving a gratifying gameplay experience.

Most of these maps were for single-player games, with one exception. I would often hang out at my friend’s house and invite he and his siblings to compete in map-making competitions. We would take the turns crafting Super Smash Bros. Brawl maps, with a rather short time limit. The we would play a quick match on it. The best would get saved and played often. I made quite a few enticing designs in those sessions. My levels created unique gameplay situations that weren’t achieved in the default maps.

My attention slowly fixed on a new game. While I had been familiar with Halo: Combat Evolved for a while, it suddenly occurred to me that I could create single-player levels with story as interesting as the game’s campaign. I looked into it and discovered Halo: Custom Edition. I got involved in the community, and tried my hand at non-drag-and-drop map creators. While I didn’t know it at the time, Halo’s utilities are extremely obtuse. I never had much success in creating my own levels, although I experimented with new kinds of enemy formations and scripting on pre-existing custom multiplayer levels, although I met with little success in the latter. I had an entire 5-part campaign planned out, including overhead sketches, concept art, the beginnings of a 3D model (although I was still a newbie at modeling), and enticing characters. Needless to say, it never got off the ground. To this day, I dream about how cool it would have been.

A step up from Brawl, but a step down from Halo, came Halo 3 Forge. Although it was purely multi-player and was not very powerful, Forge let me create a blend of the epic Brawl maps I had forged and the Halo campaign I had brawled with. I would Forge until my friends got tired with me (I am a PC gamer to the heart, and don’t own any consoles). The recent Halo: Reach called me back to that, although the Reach Forge was so much more powerful that I never had the time to truly explore it.

After Halo, I discovered the Orange Box. Boy, did that open up a whole new world to me. I soon after discovered the Source SDK and began to explore the glorious world of Source map-making. To this day I have a campaign planned out for Half-Life 2 that follows a rebel operative as he subverts Combine operations in the American heartland. The only thing that disappointed me about HL2 was the limited capacity for storytelling (no first-person dialogue, cutscenes, or interaction). TF2, on the other hand, tells a great story, despite being purely multi-player. I am in the starting stages of figuring out how to bring a single-player story experience to TF2.

In addition to Source, Steam let me find Crysis. The Sandbox2 editor truly lives up to its name. I spent hours in that editor, sculpting tropical islands and scripting helicopter fights, beach assaults, and stealth insertions. The great thing about Sandbox2 is that it was extremely to pick up, requiring only a few tutorials from someone like Xanthochori. Crysis 2 with Sandbox3 was disappointingly more complex.

To check out some videos of maps I’ve made and other videos (I’m also into video production), see my YouTube channel. I have released any videos recently, but hey, maybe I’ll promise a weekly video next month (gulp!).

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