Making Sweet Beats

One of the things that we’ve learned while learning to do our indie game jobs is that doing our jobs is not enough. I mean, once you have the basic jobs covered, you’ve got to make sure that you have everything else covered. We have dev, story, art, and business. But there’s so much more to be done.

Some of these tasks are little things that are not “fun” but should probably be done assuming we want to run a semi-respectable operation — filing legal paperwork, figuring out how business checking accounts work, archiving Dropbox files etc.

But some of these tasks are big things, which on a sane team should be roles in and of themselves — things like soundtrack, design and QA. Well, the good news is we decided to solve the problem with some novel strategery — simply have Rich and Austin do more than one job!

We’ll probably spend some time in the future talking about each of these things. Design and QA will fall under Austin’s purview after he finishes writing the story. So, there is definitely much more to come on that front. However, for now, I want to give a bit of love to what is perhaps one of the most fun areas of extra work —  the soundtrack department.

Fortunately for our team, it turns out that our developer also loves music. In another age, I lived in a house with Rich, Austin, and a bunch of dudes (it was super clean and not gross at all). No matter what was happening in that house, one constant was that Rich would be making or playing some kind of music. In fact, you really couldn’t walk to the kitchen without him yelling at you about his latest hipster electronic rock group discovery and pulling you into his room to listen. In retrospect, this was a good thing because our kitchen was occasionally a public health hazard and was probably not a place anyone should have been walking.

For real though, Rich is talented at this stuff, and he’ll be doing the entire soundtrack for our game. While it’s not the first priority at the moment, we all think that a good soundtrack can actually add a ton of depth to a game. So, of all the “other things” that need to happen, soundtrack is one of the most important. Most of it is still under wraps, but Rich has put up a few samples of some of his early soundtrack work which hopefully you saw on our SoundCloud. Overall, the sound so far is dark an drum driven. That said, we want to have a good variety of music to fit the mood of different planetary settings, combat situations, and plot points.

For fun, we also spent some time in our last meeting talking about some of our biggest gaming and science fiction soundtrack inspirations. The most popular contenders were soundtracks from Halo, Battlestar Galactica, and Deus Ex. I think some thematic similarities with music from these soundtracks will become apparent as more of our soundtrack is released. However, I know already that as I sat and listened to this music, I could see AOTW unfolding. That was a really cool, really powerful feeling.

If you’ll permit me a slight digression, I feel that I should note I also owe a special debt of gratitude toward the original Halo soundtrack for another reason. This might be weird but I often listen to it at work while doing important corporate finance things. It’s inspiring, energizing, and haunting. Plus, I just like to picture Master Chief walking around the office and stepping into meetings from time to time.

Long story short — there’s an army of tasks to battle if we are going to finish this game. Headphones and bad ass music will be our weapons of choice.

Stay tuned for more sample tracks in the coming months!

All Hail the Master Feature List

Perhaps certainly we are young and naïve, but we never thought our lives could be this controlled by a single Excel sheet. And by “our lives” I mostly mean Rich’s life. About a month ago in an attempt to improve our organization, we formalized our dev master feature list into a series of Bitbucket tickets along with an Excel tracking sheet. We then semi-strategically selected several of those features and declared that these features to be our dev production target for the next month.

Well, that month has come and gone, so I want to give you a brief update on what we accomplished. We will be continuing with this monthly internal release strategy – we like having solid shorter term goals in order to make consistent progress. I plan to write an update blog post after every one of these internal releases going forward. While these releases are obviously very dev-centric, I will provide a brief update about where everyone on the team is at in their own work.

Dev Update (Rich)

Most of the dev features that Rich completed in this release were focused on fleshing out AOTW’s RPG system. He completed a lot of essential foundational features. The game now supports tank customization prior to each level and also allows you to add equippable parts that modify player stats. Beyond that, Rich added a feature that every good RPG needs – a mission timer. Rich also completed a more specific custom tank ability. I’ve heard that you’re supposed to build suspense for things like this – so I’m not going to go into too much detail, but let’s just say it involves things with weapons hovering in the air. Boom, suspense built.

I know what you’re thinking – “man, sounds like things are going awesome and super easily for Rich and he encountered no problems whatsoever in this dev iteration.” Sadly, this is not quite the case. While I do think Rich has made great progress on the dev front, it would be remiss of me not to mention a bit about his suffering. While working on this release, Rich encountered one of his first major AOTW bugs. My eyes may have glassed over a bit while he explained the finer points, but long story short – this bug causes all tank stats to re-set to default at random times. While this does lead to some amusing hypotheticals (imagine your stats re-setting to default in the middle of a battle), it is definitely something that needs to be fixed before dev progresses much further. So, fixing this bug will be one of Rich’s first priorities in next month’s internal release. After that, he’s got all kinds of crazy sci-fi tank weaponry to create.

Story (Austin)

It’s hard to provide really in depth story updates without throwing up spoilers left and right. So, for now this update section will be short. But trust me, Austin has been working – a lot. The story of AOTW takes place in three acts, and Austin is nearly done with Act II. Besides the sheer volume of writing required of him, the biggest challenge for Austin right now is that the character development arcs of many of the main characters are about to reach climactic points. So, basically, this next week of writing is going to be a very emotionally stressful time for Austin. He needs to unleash some heart wrenching fate on these carefully crafted characters, and he needs to do it in a believable way. I don’t envy that task.

Art (Wu-Gene)

You’ve heard a lot about things on the art front recently, but Wu-Gene continues to work away. He’s finished up concept tank art for most of the primary factions. He’s also experimented with some sweet character concept art. The next big step for Wu-Gene is going to be figuring out how to efficiently convert concept art to 2-D sprites that can actually be used in game. We need the sprites because by the time of our next internal release, we want to have real screenshots so that we can start giving people a sense of what things are going to look like in game. I don’t think the conversion process itself will be very challenging, but the real trick will be to set it up in an efficient, scalable way because there will be a ton of sprites to create once we are in the art production phase

Business Stuff (Mike)

Most of my time has been spent dreaming of being an international businessman. I have also done a few things related to AOTW though. Outside of meetings and helping with our long term planning, most of my time in the last month has been devoted to writing blog posts and improving our website. I recently made some pretty big changes to the site, and I definitely think it is improved. However, there is still a lot to do. I have a long list of site features that I want to add. WordPress has been very helpful with pre-built themes and a lot of editing features. However, to really take things to the next level I’m going to need to do some of the CSS editing myself. This week, I learned what CSS stands for, so I think I’m off to a strong start.

The Future

In conclusion, we are kicking ass and taking names. I think we are starting to hit our stride and enter that project phase where you really start cranking things out – “steamrolling” as Austin puts it.

However, there is a long long long long way to go. It’s always a bit overwhelming to think about the big picture. So, after posting this, I’m going to put my head down and start working on next month’s tasks. Cascading Style Sheets, here I come.

The Man Behind the Tanks

If you’ve read some of our past posts or checked out our Twitter feed recently, you’ve probably heard about our artist Wu-Gene and seen some of the great work he is doing. I’ve ranted about trying to find an artist, and I’ve raved about actually getting Wu-Gene on the team. However, we thought it would be good for people to hear a bit more directly from his perspective. In our most recent weekly meeting I asked Wu-Gene some questions about his artistic inspirations, motivations and tools of choice. What follows are his (lightly edited) responses in italics, interspersed with sequential images of one of his previous art projects, the Taipan Assault Vehicle.

part 1

Taipan Assault Vehicle – Phase 1 Sketch

What inspired you to get into art?

I wouldn’t say that I got inspired to do art. It has simply been with me since my earliest memories. I can still remember my preschool and kindergarten days when I would constantly draw illustrations of Star Wars and Titanic. It was around that time that I really started to realize that doing art was my passion. As the years went on I began to wonder what specific field of art I wanted to pursue. My first decision was to be a graphic novel/comic artist because I loved reading DC,Marvel, manga and Sunday comics (Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side). I was really serious about this interest, even going so far as to transfer from my college to SVA (School of Visual Arts) to become a Cartoonist major.

part 2

Taipan Assault Vehicle – Phase 2 (Initial 3rd rendering in Autodesk Maya)

How have your artistic interests evolved over time?

Well, by the second half of my junior year, I began to lose interest in the reason I came to SVA as my interest in cartooning began to dwindle. Pretty soon after that, I was back at square one, which is a stressful place to be as you head into your senior year.

As I reflected on my future, I knew that my strength was in creativity and design but not so much in story writing (not a good combination for being a graphic novelist). Fortunately, I ended up taking a concept art elective class and realized that this field was the perfect match for me. This change in direction was a bit like career goal “shock therapy,” but it has been completely worth it. Since finding this new interest, I have not relented or experienced any second thoughts on my decision. 

Instead, I have slowly but surely advanced my skills to levels of which I did not previously think I was capable. As Confucius once said, “Get a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.” Don’t get me wrong, I went through my share of not so metaphorical blood, sweat and tears to get to the level I am at now. Yet, it didn’t feel like work at all because I really enjoyed this tough training. I now know that this is the field I have the most passion for and look to continuing to pursue a path as a conceptual artist in the entertainment industry.

You like tanks. And we like that about you. What are some of your tank design inspirations?

Well, please don’t read this next phrase too literally, but I would describe myself as a “war fanatic.” One of my favorite topics to study and research is World War II vehicles, specifically those built by Nazi Germany. Quick disclaimer, I in no way support the ideologies of the Third Reich. From an artistic perspective though, I have found that some German vehicles from this era offer unique and challenging design elements. One particular vehicle that caught my attention was the Sd.Kfz. 251 halftrack troop carrier. I wanted to attempt to come up with a more futuristic iteration of this halftrack design that could be used both as an assault vehicle and a troop carrier.

part 3

Taipan Assault Vehicle – Phase 3 (3d rendering with initial painting)

What’s your fuel of choice when working? And I mean fuel in a loose sense – coffee, tea, fear of failure and eternal obscurity…you get the idea. 

Motivation to achieve new heights in my skills is the foremost reason, but I must admit that there is something else that has helped out quite a bit—Eclipse breath mints. I’m talking about those ones that are in pill format in metal cans. Trying to come up with designs can put a lot of stress on my mind, but whenever I take an eclipse mint, my mind is refreshed and relaxed with that cool peppermint taste. And let’s be clear, I don’t just take one for each project. I take one every 10-20 minutes. So in some cases, I’ll kill an entire can on one project.

Let’s get project specific for a minute. What did you originally create the Taipan Assault Vehicle for?

Actually, it was originally a school final exam project for my 3D modeling class. We had the option to create what we wanted but still had to follow some basic rules and guidelines. To give myself extra motivation, I imagined myself as an artist for a game company working on a mechanical warfare game. Once I assumed that mindset, I took on this project as if it was a real life project scenario in the gaming industry.

I know it’s probably difficult to remember because your senses were overwhelmed by cool peppermint taste, but about how long did this project take in total?

That is quite difficult to tell because there were 3 distinct stages in this project: 1) sketch 2) 3D model 3) Painting. However, I do remember that I worked on this project over the span of about a week.

Do you find that you’ve gotten faster at producing concept art over time?

Absolutely. The more I practice, the more shortcuts I find. And I don’t mean cheap shortcuts that lessen the value of the project. The real trick is to find new methods that are shortcuts but still produce the same high quality finished product.

part 4

Taipan Assault Vehicle – Phase 4 (Final Product)

I’m glad to hear that you’ve been improving your craft. To that end, what’s the most challenging thing so far about working on AOTW as opposed to doing art in school? (Please don’t say “the people”).

The most challenging aspect is thinking outside the box. More specifically, the challenge is to think outside of my box. Like any artist, I have a preferred style and comfort zone with my designs. AOTW is tough because it often pushes me out of these comfort zones. For example, as I touched on earlier, WWII weaponry is my specialty. In contrast, AOTW is much more futuristic and sci-fi oriented.

What’s more, the large number of distinct factions in AOTW means that there are many distinct artistic styles that I need to develop. I think that if you ask any other artist, he or she would agree that leaving your artistic comfort zone can be a bit scary. Nevertheless, it’s definitely interesting, and it is a great opportunity to expand my skills.

Besides doing stellar work for AOTW, what are some of your long term artistic career goals?

My overall career goal is to work in the entertainment business (games or film) as a conceptual artist. I hope to stay on the West Coast, preferably in the greater Seattle area. If I have the opportunity down the road, I would love to work for and learn from a team at a major company such as Microsoft, Bungie or Valve.

 

There you have it folks – the first ever exclusive interview from artist Wu-Gene Hong. You can expect to see a lot more awesome work from him as AOTW progresses. And if there are any game industry executives out there reading this, please keep an eye on this guy. He’s going to be great. I believe in him, and I’ll do as many hardcore breath mints as I need to in order to help him succeed.

Remembering Where I Started

Seeing as the library over-due notices are starting to pile up, I figured this week would be a good time to write my third and final post reflecting on my experience reading Jim Rossignol’s auto-biographical industry analysis tome This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. As you may recall, in this book he discusses his experiences with the gaming culture in London, Seoul, and Reykjavik.

This week I vicariously explored Reykjavik though as you will see I ended up a long way from Iceland.

Reykjavik

Rossignol focuses the Icelandic portion of his narrative around his investigation of Eve Online, the innovative, eclectic and sometimes esoteric space MMORPG developed in Iceland. His descriptions of the game itself and his analysis of its implications for the future direction of games were interesting in and of themselves. As a space and business nerd (yay markets), I found his descriptions of emergent game play via in-game corporation building particularly fascinating.

However, for me the best thing about reading this section was not the knowledge I gained. Instead, I found myself surprisingly inspired even though I don’t have any particular connection to Eve Online beyond a basic appreciation for its monstrous complexity. This feeling of inspiration all started with Rossignol’s explanation of games as mental models. He states that games “model things born of imagination” (146). Game creators may have a certain vision in mind when they create a game. However, anyone who plays it will have something slightly different in mind when he or she plays it. In this way, everyone gets something slightly different out of the game.

Reading this talk of games as models made me wonder exactly what it is that I get out of games. Reading this book, I had found myself feeling a bit alienated from gamers at large. While I have always thought of gaming as a big part of my formative years, I did not feel as connected now when compared to the passionate people Rossignol described. In truth I’ve even found this hesitancy creeping into my work on AOTW from time to time as I’ve found myself feeling like I’m not as into gaming as our potential fans and customers likely are.

Fortunately, the last section of this book came to the rescue. It may seem like a self-evident point, but in discussing some of the implications of Eve Online’s  innovations, Rossignol notes that gaming is an essentially experiential pursuit. He quotes an article from Wired: “Imagine that all you knew about movies was gleaned through observing the audience in a theatre—but that you had never watched a film. You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk food binges. That may be true, but you’re missing the big picture” (146).

This phrase really struck me. I realized that if I am going to be promoting a game, I need to actually play games again. At some level I’ve been telling myself that having a history of gaming is enough and that I don’t have time to game. But I think I’ve been wrong. If gaming is in part a mental model unique to the player, then that model changes along with the player. I need to experience that model again now in my current state of life rather than just thinking about “back in the day.”

Shortly after this realization, I got on Steam. First, I looked at Portal and contemplated buying and playing through it. After all, it’s a very highly regarded game in most circles. I may still do this, but it didn’t feel right. Not for my first foray back into gaming. Instead, I went back to my first love – Age of Empires II.

Words cannot express how much joy I felt. You might even say that it felt like the very first time.

I grew up with this medieval RTS. It defined my notions of what PC games should be for years and taught me everything I needed to know for World History class. But more importantly, I just always had a lot of fun playing this game. I threw myself back into the action and opened up a two front war against some AI-controlled Saracen  and Aztec warriors. As I watched my Byzantine Cataphract cavalry lay waste to one opponent’s barracks whilst Aztec priests harassed my villagers on the opposite side of the map, I knew I was back into gaming – at least in my own way. It was 1 am and I had to be at work for an early call the next day, but I couldn’t have been happier.

On a side note, it was interesting returning via Steam to a game that I had to purchase in person in a retail store back when I first played it in third grade. I know Steam is controversial in some circles, but I can’t help but be amused at the thought of my third grade self, equipped with “modern day” Steam access and a credit card: “You’re telling me that I don’t need to convince mom to take me to Gamestop anymore?! You’re saying that I can just click a button and play the game I want RIGHT NOW?! THIS IS AMAZING!”

Anyway, the medieval battlefields of Age of Empires are a long way from Iceland and even further away from the space realms of Eve Online. However, inspiration seems to come in unexpected ways, and I’m extremely grateful for the dose of inspiration I’ve received from reading This Gaming Life. It’s an honest, insightful and ultimately uplifting book. It has helped me get in touch with my gaming roots and remember why I love gaming in the first place. I sincerely hope that AOTW will one day provide some players with the same sense of joy that I have recently re-discovered.