Monday, 11 March 2013

The Group Project; Week Two

Pudding Lane Productions Group Photo on the British Library visit

In week two the groups, including ours, had the opportunity to visit the British Library for the day. During the visit we were given a fantastic tour of the building learning about the history of the building and how it operates today in a modern society. One of the things I was most fascinated by was the Kings Library tower at the heart of the library. Immediately upon entering the building the tall glass tower which houses books collected by King George III made a huge impression on me and during the tour I had plenty of questions to ask and was fascinated by the pure volume of books kept within the tower, the age of the material and the potentially infinite value of what I found in front of me.

Our group were then given the pleasure to be led to the 'Map Room' within the library to look at originals of the digital copies of various historical maps courtesy of Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Tom Harper (Curator of Antiquarian Mapping). It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to see a selection of maps and other reference material first hand and right up close. The whole group spent a good length of time pouring over the maps and it was a great opportunity to discuss more ideas of what we would all like to achieve from the project. The group/ team were coming up with lots of new inspiring ideas and it was awesome to be able to demonstrate these ideas using the actual maps in front of us.

As we discussed I noticed that one of the larger maps in the room was actually of a much later date than we were hoping to recreate in the project but the smaller map at the corner of the table which was London after the Great Fire by John Leake, 1667 which seemed like the closest we were going to to get to the date of the time we were hoping to construct which we agreed was going to be 'the latest point in time before the great fire'. This was decided as we all wanted to accurately recreate the London streets of the time with no effect of damage or destruction from the fire. It was agreed that this is the map we would work from throughout the project so that we could ensure that there would be a consistency throughout from the whole group.

One of the things I was mostly interested in when surveying the maps was the actual scale of things, something I would take upon myself to look into further in the next week in order to begin to give the group a real idea of things such as the width's of the individual streets to further enhance the accuracy of the project. To quote from the group blog, during our discussions at the British Library, we had gathered some general ideas about what we wanted to create for the project; a gloomy, depressed City of London at the latest point before the Great Fire started, ridden with plague and filth in a sheet of mist and smog. The plan for the following week then was to begin elaborate on our initial ideas and concepts with more in depth concepting and mood boards so that we could begin to establish more definite and detailed plans for a consistent art style. I myself was given the daunting task of concepting for our main focal area, Pudding Lane for week three!

Below are a selection of Photographs I took during the visit to the British Library.

The Kings Library Tower

The Kings Library Tower

These images also show some of the photographs I was able to take of the maps showing great detail.

London after the Great Fire by John Leake 1667, copperplate engraving (the map we wil be using throughout our project)

Key on the map of London after the Great Fire by John Leake 1667

A little more information on the map we decided to use as the main reference point during the construction of our 17th Century London Streets (as shown in the photographs above), taken from the Crytek Off the Map student handbook;
London after the Great Fire by John Leake, 1667, Cpperplate engraving. A map of London drawn after the Great Fire of London (1666) had destroyed most of the land within the city walls. The area which has been destroyed is shown as shaded, with the buildings still standing in profile around the edge. A large percentage of the buildings of London were made of wood, and therefore would not have stood a chance. This map shows the plan for the rebuilding of London, superimposed on top of the shaded area. It also has dotted lines showing the boundaries of the various jurisdictions because, with everything razed to the ground, who could have known where one boundary stopped and another started? St Paul's Cathedral, in the middle, would not be rebuilt for another 50 years.

Below is a clearer image taken from the internet of the whole map;

The Group Project; Week One

Week one is always a challenge, the group had a few weeks to begin working before having to give a presentation on our initial ideas in front of the other students and the tutors and for myself week one included gathering as much reference, mainly from the internet and books, and then to get pencil to paper as quickly as possible.

The search for reference material was as much looking into historical documentation from the age as well as visual reference. As I found it is extremely difficult to find any accurate visual reference from the 17th century other than in paintings and old maps. I had to consider the fact that the project is titled 'Off the Map' so I tried to gather as much reference material from the maps I could find as possible. Although the maps gave me great ideas on the actual layouts of the streets, it was hard to gather an idea on what the streets of 17th Century London would actually look like from the ground. Some of the maps I came across did have hand drawn or engraved cityscapes of London on them such as James de la Feuille's map of London c. 1690 and the engraved panorama of London by Visccher 1616. I also gathered as much imagery I could of old 'tudor' style buildings to help aid with the concepting.

In our first weeks meeting we were all full of ideas from the reference collected by each of us. It was great to be able to share each others ideas and talk about the individual pieces of information we had gathered and we began to accumulate all of this giving us a glimpse of the direction in which we thought we might want to take this project. We then discussed where we would take our initial ideas and continue to develop them further into the next week.

Below is one of the first maps I added to my reference, James de la Feuille's map of London c. 1690.

Below is a selection of reference images collected in week one.

Below is some of my initial sketches developed from week one's reference, some I kept quite serious but I also experimented with the 'wonkiness' of the buildings.

The Group Project

I've been quite busy for a few weeks now since starting the group project and I've neglected posting the progress and the work I've been doing for the project. That being said, I thought I better get a post up and show some of what I and the rest of the group have been up to before we've accumulated too much work to fit on one post!

So, before we jump in, I should say that there was slight confusion before starting the group project as to what we were actually going to be doing! For many years, the second year group projects on the Game Art Design course has always been to recreate one of the university buildings in the survival horror theme. There had been lots of rumours leading up to this years project that this was all going to change, there was excitement and plenty of apprehension to say the least. A few weeks before the project was due to start the rumours were put to rest and the new project was revealed, we were going to be given the opportunity to take part in a project/ competition operated by Crytek in collaboration with the British Library and GameCity.

The project challenges students to draw inspiration from maps provided by the British Library and then to turn the inspiration into interactive environments using Crytek's free CryENGINE 3 SDK game engine. Specifically we were told that we would be focusing on 17th century maps of London provided by the British Library and re-creating a scene from the city of London in that era. Oddly, and truthfully there were mixed reactions, myself included. I'm not entirely sure why, but from my own perspective I can say that the main reason is that I was fairly certain we would be doing the survival horror project so I had already started to process a few ideas as horror is one of, if not my favourite genre in games, films and books, so I was slightly disappointed that I wouldn't get the opportunity to take things further. This also took everyone a little by surprise, and I know initially I was struggling to try and visualise things and I was a little worried about having to learn a new engine after a short time with the Unreal Engine. Apart from those things though, and as well as not being alone with my thoughts, the project outlined by Crytek seemed very interesting and something fresh for the second year.

A week or so before the project was due to begin the groups were decided by our Game production tutor Heather and outlined on Blackboard. I was pleased to find myself in a group with five other hard-working, talented and like-minded students so the project was immediately off to a good start! Unfortunately things took a bit of a turn when arriving for lectures the morning group projects were due to start. A few students apparently had some issues with the groups they had been put in and out tutor was what you might say, pissed off. Because of this all of us second years were told to decide our own groups as well as being told that we could also chose between the Crytek project and the Survival Horror project from past years, all sorts of balls up in the air! Now, it needs to be said we were all aware, or at least should of been that when were put into groups by the tutor we weren’t going to be with our closest friends and that, that would be hugely beneficial for our future careers within the industry. So when we were told too pick our own groups, despite other students quickly jumping at the chance to change groups, it was immediately obvious that myself and the other students from the initial outlined groups wanted to stick with our tutors decision to place us in that group.

Once we had decided on the team we were going to be in for the next 15 weeks the next decision was which project we were going to do. The team was split and we actually had a good, lengthy discussion on the merits of each project. I personally felt 50/50 between the Survival Horror Project and the Off the Map project, more so that I was happy to do either on depending on what the group decided. It soon became clear though, despite having to change a few minds that we all thought that the Off the Map project, which we were all initially meant to be doing anyway, had lots of potential, as we began to edge towards a final decision we discussed the elements involved within old, dirty narrow 17th century streets of London and the imagery finally began to compose itself inside my mind. We also discussed the potential, not only within the project itself, but that fact that it is also an industry run competition meant that if we were able to complete the project at a good standard there was a possibility of having our work assessed and shared by members of the games industry as selected Off the Map entrants would have their work chosen by a panel of judges and showcased at events worldwide, including GameCity8 in Nottingham.. The last thing we felt we needed before cementing our decision was to discuss the options with our tutors but it soon became clear that there really was no option, our tutors were all confident that our group could construct a successful and interesting Off the Map project, so it was final.

So now you know what the group project is about I will go on and discuss the work I have completed as part of the project week by week up until this week, week six, and continue with feedback on a weekly basis.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Game Engines

Errr, right okay, when I started this course I really had no real idea how video games were made and put together. I'm even jumping ahead already, before I had chosen to study on this course I was going to go and study Physical Geography at Edge Hill University. This was all my fault, I have loved playing video games for a very long time and from a young age video games have been a very big part of my life, but who knew you could take a course on 'how to make them' at university?! I didn't! Like I said, it was my fault, I really had no idea of the vast diversity of available courses to chose from at universities across the country, until I met my partner Sophia. It was actually her who put the idea of studying video game art at university in my head, but that’s another long story for another time. Where I'm going with this is, despite my fondness for video games, and the enjoyment I've had from my experiences of learning how to create video game art on this course, unlike many other students on the course, when I first started this course, I had literally no idea how video game art, or any other 3D content was created. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I've always been a bit of a tech geek, I liked to find out about how many poly's a Gran Turismo car used, or how many gigaflops or whatever the PS3 could kick out when it was released! But I really had no idea how 3D content was manufactured, what programs were used to create 3D content, I'd never heard of 3DS Max or ZBrush, I never knew who created the 3D content or the specific roles available within the games industry. I didn't even no any 3D or 2D video game artists or any with relevance to the area. I'd always focused my interest, possibly due to the direction I was led within school and college, on traditional and historically predominant artists and it was only until I knew I was going to study on the Game Art and Design course at DMU that I began to look at a variety of video game and concept artists and their work, and even then I only looked at the bigger names within the industry such as Daniel Dociu and Andrew Jones. 

So from starting the course and still even now, perhaps not everything, but a lot of it has been entirely new to me, which in many ways has made it harder than it could have been, or may be for other students. I have thought for a while now that a big part of this has been because I have always taken interest in lots and lots of things from a very young age, were as a lot of people I have met since joining the Game Art course have had very dedicated interests in the surrounding fields such as the games themselves, concept art, comic book art etc. I suppose its slightly weird, I've not actually met anyone else on the course yet with such a strong interest, maybe even more of an interest in something else video game unrelated such as myself. Like I've said, video games have always been a very big part of my life but I’ve always focused more on what games are coming out and the reviews etc not on the art involved in the games. Again I've always been interested in art, and, hopefully, good at it! But as mentioned I’ve always taken interest in as may things as I could and tried my best to be good at those things too! I’ve taken part in many sports and athletic activities, I’ve always enjoyed reading, watching films, listening to music and I really enjoyed most if not all of the different subjects at school. Still to this day I find myself taking interest in lots of things, I enjoy as I always have learning new things and being open to new discoveries, which is possibly one of the reasons life has led me down the path of 'artist', but, like I've mentioned, unlike many other students on the course, video games aren't what I'd define as my main interest. I'd actually say that motor sport, in particular motorcycle racing is my main following/ hobby/ interest, but maybe this is a healthy thing as a video games artist? Being able to detach myself from games to pursue other interests keeps the creation of video game content on the course feeling much fresher for me. Perhaps only time will tell if this will eventually have a positive effect.

Back to the main point of the article, which is my opportunity to talk about video game engines. Oh dear! I really have no idea about game engines in all honesty apart from my brief experiences with the Unreal Development Kit earlier in the year and most recently a very brief try of CryENGINE 3 to begin familiarising myself with it for the group project. That being said I feel I'm in no place to give information on the variety of available game engines as there are much more appropriate places to go for that information, such as the internet! I would strongly advise, if you're in a similar situation to myself that you do as I have, and if you have a particular interest in game engines, even to find out what they are! I strongly recommend you get on Google and begin to research what engines are available and what they offer to artists, programmers, developers etc.

So what I will talk about instead is my initial opinion of game engines from my very recent introduction to them. I have touched previously on game engines in one of my previous blogs about Level Design when talking about pre-programmed software which makes the creation of video game content much more accessible with individual skills relating to game creation to take a much more active role within the design process and a games creation, so, I will try my best not to repeat myself. What I was talking about here was Game Engines. Game Engines are effectively middleware software that enables professionals and hobbyists alike to manifest their ideas and concepts into fully fledged and even releasable games. Not so long ago, every video game was made individually, by the individual companies and developers from scratch every time. A technique which has been around much longer in other industries to create content quicker, more efficiently, easier and by more people, such as the music industry, where music creation computer software has enabled hobbyists to create professionally sounding music from their own homes is now becoming increasingly more common within the games industry. And this is also true for large established developers too, and it is to use and most importantly, reuse existing game engines.

There are negative and positive points for using game engines. I'd personally say from the information I have at my dispense that they seem mostly positive. The complexity and difficulty involved in making current generation video games in always increasing and the industry itself is constantly becoming much more competitive and a demanding industry to work than it has in the past and this in itself is creating numerous problems for the industry. Budgets are becoming smaller, and production times shorter, with the increased time and in particular the expertise needed to develop today’s games many people have turned to readily available game engines such as Unreal Development Kit or CryENGINE.

Typically creating a video game would involve the extensive knowledge of underlying code and programming to ensure that thinks work how they should within said game, such as how objects or characters behave within a game world. Basically writing the rules of the way a game world will work from scratch. This would usually be very expensive and time consuming and easy to say very difficult and complicated making it even harder for other roles, especially artists to have a bigger say in the final outcome of a game, at least making the whole design process potentially very restrictive. With a game engine this 'leg work' has already been done and effectively the rules are already in place and with engines such as CryENGINE the actual use of the engine is made much more user friendly due to a well thought out, clean user interface. Most people are probably used to using Windows or OS X, and probably never even realise that these things aren't 'the computer' or how the computer works, they are, in their simplest forms, pieces of software or graphical interfaces designed to let the general public use a computer easily without which I assume 99.9% wouldn't have a clue! Microsoft spend billions developing the Windows platform, consistently striving to make it more user friendly (some might say they're not doing the best of jobs!), but without most people even realising we find this everywhere and everyday in our lives. You couldn't operate your television without the user friendly designed menu system, and even 60 years ago, your grandparents couldn't of tuned their wireless into the correct radio channel without some sort of radio receiver dial. This is basically what a game engine delivers to people like myself, it offers the chance to create video game content quickly, to iterate on that content and to finalise it without leaving the comfort of the engine.

Game engines, such as the CryENGINE haven’t just appeared overnight and have also taken many millions of pounds to create, CryENGINE itself having taken over ten years to develop and is still constantly undergoing improvements and changes. I think its important to realise though that although it may appear that there is a danger that because game engines can make it extremely accessible to begin creating video game content that there is potential for too many bad, un-thought-out games being released willy-nilly, that is, in the most part not yet the case. As I’ve mentioned, current generation video games are extremely complex and difficult to make and a game engine offers the individual roles within the games industry, i.e. artist, the opportunity to have much more important and much less restrictions on the content they are able to create, the individual will still need to have, at least a solid knowledge of their individual area of expertise. A game engine then allows these areas to come together and create professional looking content on a much smaller scale in much smaller teams that would usually take an entire development studio to accomplish.

Finally then, I would like to think that game engines are a positive thing. Its really not worth getting into an argument but creativity can be lost quickly and easily for many reasons, and the opportunity for anyone to be able to start creating easily, and most importantly to enjoy that can only be a good thing. I think that no matter what, it will still take dedicated professionals to create AAA game titles for the public to enjoy which should be good for me! And that if developers are willing to share their engines for teams of professionals to use to create content then we should see the continuing sophistication and unbelievable creations of dedicated and passionate game developers, and if this creation can filter through to the general public however basic, whether it be creating levels in Little Big Planet or building a community in The Sims then the spread of creation is a good thing and there will hopefully be a continued respect for the professional and a willing to pay for that privilege to experience somebody else’s creations. Is it also worth noting that it cost around $1.2million for a commercial license to use CryENGINE 3?! So, you know, this gives some kind of idea how much it would cost for a developer to develop a game from scratch if most are finding it cheaper to publish using these existing engines. I think that there will always be room for higher budget developments, fingers crossed, but engines mean that developers can focus more on the content creation and hopefully continue to deliver us with fantastic looking video games.