Capital Games Personal Post-Mortem

The Fall 2012 semester at the Entertainment Technology Center is over:  Food Quest has been handed off to the client as well as into the ETC archives, and the Capital Games team is officially disbanded.

The team achieved a great deal this semester and I’m very happy to have been their producer.  My team really stepped up to every challenge and obstacle we encountered along the way.  I hope they’ve learned a lot, and as for myself, I feel like I learned a few things about producing as well:

From my advisors:

I met with my faculty advisors twice over the course of the semester for individual performance grades and evaluation, and they told me a good number of insightful things about me as a producer.  There are there main things I need to work on:

Leading the team:
I’ve normally got a passive personality, and that’s pretty apparent to anyone who meets me.  While the faculty sees me as doing extremely well with the administrative and clerical duties of producing, I’m not yet a figurehead.  This is something that I need to work on and I believe I can; I came to graduate school to improve what I’m not good at, not to continue to do only what I am good at.

Growing the team:
I’ve got personality quirk that isn’t a problem for me, but is detrimental to those around me.  That personality quirk is that I’m pessimistically optimistic:  I like to talk about how bad things might be so that we can make it turn out better; this is how I internally motivate myself to work harder.   Turns out that constantly lamenting how terrible the project is going to turn out is not the best way to motivate a team  and help them get in the mood to work hard.  It’s fine if I keep the pessimistic optimism for myself, but externally, I need to show more optimistic optimism.

Pushing the team to achieve:
My normally passive personality towards others makes it simple for others to get away with the “easy way out” in their work, and I need to recognize that and know not only when to retreat from challenges that are too big, but push my team towards challenges that they can overcome.  For Capital Games, the team took a bit of time to hit our stride at the beginning and could have arguably hit it a little sooner if we hadn’t let ourselves be so daunted by our project initially.

From Anthony Hildebrand:

Anthony was our Writer and Sound Designer on the team, but he plans to be a producer as well.    For our project, he wanted to be able to look at the producer from an external role so that he could learn from me and I could learn from him, and it worked.  As the producer on a team, I’m the “go-to guy” but it helped for me to sometimes have someone else I could “go-to;” moreover, having someone else to help evaluate and criticism my actions and decisions really helped me to grow and develop.

One thing that Anthony helped me with was my communication.  In my circles, I’ve never been the social leader-type, but around the time I started graduate school, I realized that most skills aren’t innate, they’re practiced, and so my communication is something that I’m actively trying to improve during my time here at the ETC.  Anthony helped point out a lot of my shortcomings and how to solve them:

  1. One thing was to be aware of falling back on certain words too much and “cheapening” them.  For myself, I too often use the word “definitely” when I want to sound confident: “X will definitely happen” OR “I will definitely do that.”  While being confident is important, I was using this speech tick too much as a crutch.
  2. The biggest thing, though was my lack of control in a conversation.  My default personality is the passive nice guy and I can be afraid of controlling a conversation because it feels selfish; Anthony explained that as a producer, it is important to let others have their say, but to then bring it back into the larger picture to show that you always know what’s going on.  One particular thing he suggested I practice as well is to end conversations on “a button” – when I know a conversation is ending, I should take control and leave an important takeaway that I want everyone to remember as well as finish with a definitive phrase that ends the conversation.

The biggest thing he helped with was helping to facilitate communication with the client.  On Project Xense, the client was more hands-off than here on Capital Games, but Anthony had dealt with a more responsive client on his own previous project at the ETC, Pixel Pushers.  He gave a lot of great pointers about how to help the client understand what the team was and wasn’t capable of, but moreover on how to make sure to address the client’s concerns while suggesting alternatives.  It can often be easy to push back aggressively against unexpected client demands, but one really needs to dissect the meaning of those demands.  If you understand what the client needs relative to what they want, you can come to a compromise that is acceptable to their values and your own schedule.

And of course, he kept my confidence up and made being on the team a fun time, and that’s an even more important characteristic of a good producer.

ETC 3rd Semester

I’m now starting my third semester here at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center – the first semester of my second year.  There will be lots of fun things to talk about:  In particular, I hope to publish some thoughts out of my journal about experiences this semester in:

A) Being a Producer on my client project about educational games.

B) My elective, Entertainment Design Studio, in which I plan to study Fight Choreography and Filmography.

Look for posts about these during the semester (hopefully), or definitely by the end of the semester.

GDC 2012

This was my first time at a conference, let alone such a big one like the Game Developer’s Conference.  While I wasn’t as outgoing as I probably should have been, I still really appreciated being able to hangout with all my ETC friends in a setting outside of class and the ETC building.

As to the conference:  It was quite something.  The amount of expertise being crammed into a two-block radius was palpable, and I can’t wait until the GDC Vault opens and I can watch all the great talks that I had to miss to listen to other great talks.

Now, I’ve made great improvements in learning the names of people I see everyday, but I’m still terrible at the names of “well-known” people so I won’t drop any here, but they certainly said a good number of things that other people and sites have taken note of.

I will say that I did learn quite a bit about producing, which has encouraged me to be more proactive with my project this semester, as well as about animation and portfolios, which has discouraged me from thinking that my knack for 3D art last semester is such a big deal.  I also met a considerable number of random people, though I found that many of them did not seem so interested in talking (trying to network with the big wigs? or perhaps that’s the characteristic of game developers?  OR maybe I’m really not that interesting?!?)

Visual Story Assignment 5

Final presentations for our fifth and final assignment have ended.  This assignment was about creating a music video given a color, object, and theme.

You can see the film that my team produced in my portfolio under “Film: Visual Story.”

Our team’s theme was daring yellows, a necklace, and romance.  The process was extremely rough and difficult at times, but this was a really, really fun assignment.

You can see right away that despite what seems to be a really, really simple set of guidelines, our team did something very ambitious.  This is due to my influence:  I had wanted to do a “fight” scene in Visual Story since the start of the semester.  The brainstorming process was still difficult though because we had to figure out how to integrate fight with romance.   Originally, we had thought about having two guys fight over a girl while both dancing with her at the same time.  While this idea was actually pretty cool, the amount of practice and choreography that would have been required was beyond us so we scaled back to just a girl and a guy.  The fight/romance was still difficult to resolve and our pitch went over rather sour, especially with Anthony Daniels as a visiting professor that day.

Eventually, with a bit of focus, we boiled our story and our goals down to the essence of what we wanted, which was this playful fight between the girl and guy.  We got really lucky with Jing as our actress since not only did we not have to outsource to the drama department but she is really great.

I had fun acting as well, and the choreography was also fun and fresh:  I helped come up with some of the gags and pacing, but a lot of it was improvised on the spot depending on what Jing and I did that seemed fun or funny.

I hope you enjoy this video; for me it really is the culmination of a great and fun semester of film-making for non-film-makers.

Building Virtual Worlds Round 5

Final presentations for our Round 5 projects have ended.  The theme this round was to make something for the BVW Show.

You can see the game that my team produced in my portfolio under “Games: Building Virtual Worlds.”

My team from Round 1 got back together again for this round, looking to capture some of our previous magic.  This time, we made an ambitious choice to combine multi-player strategy gaming with a show element, and struggled through quite a few iterations of the game but the final product is pretty solid.

Luckily we decided to approach this round with a “lightening round” idea and polish it as much as possible; unfortunately, though, our choice in mechanic slowed us down a lot.  Coming up with a compelling strategy game takes a lot of balancing between control, random elements, and interest curve.  Moreover, multiplayer meant that there was a lot more implementation that would have to be done.  In fact, we changed our idea a multitude of times between interims and didn’t have our final design until after the last interim before finals today.  We went through ideas such as a silent auction to see-saws to scales and pulleys before settling on a simple tug-of-war style mechanic.  In regards to implementation, we started with Unity Phone, which still wasn’t ideal for having a lot of players connected reliably so over the course of the first few weeks, Zero spent most of his time with the help of Emmanuel developing a new web-browser based interface that people could use through their smartphones.  Turns out that this worked much more reliably than using the phone servers.

As to my contribution; I really did get a lot of opportunity to polish this project the way that I wanted to.  At the beginning while we were still finalizing the mechanic and aesthetic style, I took the initiative to model a whole multitude of low-poly prizes (cars, blenders, TVs, sofas, etc.).  Though these did not end up taking a main role as I had hoped, I did get to include them in the background of the final build.  The final tug-of-war mechanic did allow me to have a lot of fun animating our little characters, and they have a variety of different animations for each emotion.  What I am most proud about though is the subtle fact that they wave and acknowledge the guest when they receive a new command.  As to the overall environment, most every subtle detail that I wanted are there:  There are cameramen around the set that just rotate slowly and even a lighting grid on top of the ceiling  where little simulated spotlights are hanging from.

I had a lot of fun polishing this project, and the team was great.

EDIT:  This world made it into the Final Show!

Visual Story Assignment 4

Final presentations for our fourth assignment have ended.  This time our team had to produce a game trailer based off of the pre-production that another team did.

You can see the film that my team produced in my portfolio under “Film: Visual Story.”

We got the “Mario Paint” pre-production that Ninja Babies did, and did pre-production for “Windows 3D Pinball” ourselves.  This was a strange assignment and I think we did the best with what we had to work with.

The pre-production took a bit of brainstorming as usual.  I forwarded the idea of doing Windows 3D Pinball because we had watched the CollegeHumor Minesweeper trailer and thought it’d be funny to do something with a classic Windows operating system game.

As to production, the Ninja Babies pre-production for Mario Paint wasn’t that complex and we basically followed it exactly, adding some slight creative flair with the background as well as Dicky’s exaggerative acting.  Also, the voice-over came together towards the end as well, and I think it filled a palpable gap in the whole aesthetic.

Building Virtual Worlds Round 4

Final presentations for our Round 4 projects have ended.  This round we had to make a game that “told a story,” and my team decided to use Kinect as the platform.

You can see the game that my team produced in my portfolio under “Games: Building Virtual Worlds.”

My team decided to address a more serious topic with our game this round I think the result turned out well.

The brainstorm process was a bit slow again, but this time because we had too much to work with.  Daniel Aum had a great idea for a complex and very cinematic story but we didn’t have the resources to execute the whole thing.  Many thanks to Chris Klug who helped us streamline the story down to what it is now.  We ended up capturing the essence of the story we wanted to tell, and Daniel did a great job too in choosing a subject that was well-known enough that we didn’t have to waste time in-game setting up any of the back-story.

I really pushed myself this round, and I really enjoyed it.  This was the first time that I had modeled and rigged humans, and they turned out really well.   I even had a go at putting bones in the faces and animating the mouths and eyelids.  The buildings were really ambitious, too.  I didn’t have CityEngine or any other procedural city-generating software so I just made 3 different types of floors, 3 different types of roofs, and a generic door, and mixed and matched building heights, orientations and texture colors.  The amount of scene work I had to do gave me a lot more exposure to Unity3D than any previous round as well.

I have to thank and apologize to my texture artist, Dan-Ah.  I made so many models that she became back-logged I had to UVW unwrap most of them for her especially since she had to spend so much time texturing our two human characters.  This was an enlightening experience though and I found that certain ways of modeling are not as UVW unwrap friendly.  I think 3D modelers and texture artist should coordinate to understand the difficulty of each other’s roles and pipeline better between themselves.  Something that I know some other teams in the class have had difficulty with.

Visual Story Assignment 3

Final presentations for our third assignment have ended.

This assignment was about analyzing one of a set of pre-selected movie clips and be able to plan and recreate it shot-for-shot. You can see the film that my team produced in my portfolio under “Film: Visual Story”.

My team chose a clip from Tenacious D. This was a rather simple assignment and I had a lot of fun working on details. Our team didn’t know how much creative freedoms we would have (turns out a lot as a bunch of other teams “reinterpreted” scenes) so we played it safe and tried to match the clip as exactly as possible.

I had a lot of fun with this because this is the first time we had shot inside of someone’s house (Eric) and we really had complete control over the set. I had a lot of fun throwing stuff around on the floor and rearranging things to make our room look just as unkempt as the one in the Tenacious D clip. Moreover, we actually shot different shots in different parts of the house to get the effect of a whole “solid” room. The couch and TV were moved appropriately, and I myself am really impressed with the illusion we created. Also, this was the first and only time my team used a boom mic  and I had a lot of fun positioning it and finding out which directions around our actors the sound carried the best.

Building Virtual Worlds Round 3

Final presentations for our Round 3 projects have ended. This round was a one week lightning round, where the theme was to make something “fun to do.” My team picked Kinect as the platform this time around.

You can see the game that my team produced in my portfolio under “Games: Building Virtual Worlds”.

This was a fun concept and we put together a scalable game rather quickly. Brainstorming was rather slow at first but I think most of the team latched on to the “ball pit” idea I had when we were able to prototype it quickly. Emmanuel added the “match three” mechanic and we had a game.

Brian did an amazing job creating a unified aesthetic this round; this was the first round where I had sketches from the texture artist of what the characters should look like and that I didn’t have to design them myself.

What most of the time was spent on was supporting our programmer Xing and getting our slightly more complicated than expected “match three” mechanic to work. Many thanks to Emmanuel in that area as well; he is a programmer, too, but had the role of sound designer for BVW, and really had an opportunity to shine this round.

Building Virtual Worlds Round 2

Final presentations for our Round 2 projects have ended.  The theme this time was to design a game that even a naive guest could understand and use, and the platform my team got assigned was Kinect.

You can see the game that my team produced in my portfolio under “Games: Building Virtual Worlds.”

This was a very difficult round in terms of finalizing our game concept, but I really liked the result in the end.

Our group ran through multiple iterations of this game.  At first we made a music-creation game with pentatonic scale notes at various Kinect arm angles, and though it worked, we discovered quickly that it was still very hard to create a compelling piece of music unless one was a composer.  We also tried to have the various positions and gestures control random sounds on top of a base soundtrack, but we found that to be even more chaotic and dissonant at times.  All during this time, we were also trying to get random light and particle effects to occur with each of the different positions and gestures and this was just as difficult to read.

AT this point, we came away with a few key realizations:  We needed more game-like elements rather than simply “toy”-like effects; secondly, we needed to take the music out of the player’s control (being a musician is much harder than Guitar Hero had us believe); thirdly, we needed to unify the aesthetic/theme and scale back on all the excess nonsense.

What we finally settled on turned out particularly elegant.  You can see from the demo that it’s simply a “keep-it-up” game that encourages movement with “dance” and music as the background aesthetic.  In fact, the Kinect code tracks joint rotations without discriminating between dancing or spastic twitching.  It’s clean, it’s simple, and it works.

As to my contributions as 3D modeler. I had the dancer silhouette done very early.  I really liked the subtle personality that the disco-clothes flares gave our avatar.  The band members in the back did not come to be until we finally settled on our third and last iteration of the game.  We already had the abstract texture bars but realized that we needed a little more to give the player some emotional attachment to keeping the bars up and I decided that band members might just help.  I really had a lot of fun giving them different and crazier animations as the levels went up and I think everyone else who watches the game enjoys them as well.

All-in-all, one of the best games all semester.  Arnold Blinn from Microsoft’s Kinect Fun Labs liked it a lot when he stopped by as well.  Great work, team!