Thursday, February 7, 2013

BioHarmonious- Entry IV: Art Post Mortem

 Introduction: Creative Solutions

              When starting to plan out the artistic vision for a game, the most important principle is not becoming too attached to a specific vision. Sometimes it just doesn't work. While other times the process of pre-production ends up providing unexpected twists and shifts in direction. Stumbling upon ways create a unique visual experiences is a good attribute for an art team, but it only comes if a team is open and accepting of this kind of organic evolution.
             A good example from BioHarmonious is found in early concepts of the planets. The original vision we set out for was more of a illustrative, cartoon like style (which still influenced the end product). We started, like many early concepts, with simple silhouettes. As the silhouettes went through a few iterations, they started getting splashes of colors here and there so certain details read more clearly. This created a real nice contrast.

 (The addition to the giant wheel to the planet was what really clicked with the team. It really emphasizes the planet having morphed into more of a mechanical object, further differentiating itself from the open, lush natural planet.)

              At the time I did not see them as anything but rough concepts. Lead Designer Amanda Dittami and Producer Randy Rosenberg both noted they really liked the contrast created with the splash of color against the black silhouette. They suggested following through with the feel of the rough silhouettes. The team reviewed it and we decided we wanted to figure out how to flesh out more detail but still maintain the harsh contrast that made the images pop. So we moved forward keeping the inner planets dark and building around the mass.

(The team was drawn to the silhouette featuring the naturally split mass. It was a characteristic that gave it intrigue. It helps create a sense of wilderness and chaotic growth. Furthermore, it visually reinforces the idea of nature having the means to hold a world together in a healthy way.)

             This also lead to a nice sense of weight. Additionally, we began to abandon the initial idea of a cartoon style, with outlines and hand crafted detail, for more of a painted and photo bashed technique. This gave our visuals a great amount of detail, without as much production time. We simply painted in the hue and light values, then blended in high res photo textures.
             The evolution of the planets showed that sometimes, the flexible development of art direction provides ideas that shift around in an unexpected, but pleasant way. The result was a successful approach to creating a planet that felt alive, cramped and active within a limited amount of screen space. The use of high contrast color scheme helped reinforce important details when necessary. It lead us to a pair of planets that felt connected, but maintained a unique identity.

(Unpopulated Natural and Manufactured planets. The high contrast of the inner planet helps push the eye toward the outer ring of surface details. The idea is to naturally draw the eye around the planet.)

           As a production artist it is a crippling mentality to wall off sources of inspiration or ignore constraints dictated by other aspects of the game design process. In other words, there are aspects of not only the design, but the venue, production time and audience that will impact what you can and can't do. Rather than seeing camera angles or visible detail limitations do to the gameplay framing as restrictions, they need to be seen as challenges. These challenges have many creative solutions that sometimes improve on initial designs. Having only a 7 month span to create and ship the title, it would call for many more collaborative, creative solutions.

Odd Plants Out

             Now that the game is finished it is interesting to look back and see just how crazy we were to think we could pull off some of the initial ideas. I ran away with the art a bit, thinking I could populate the world with numerous interactive plants, rocks and creatures. Partially due to inexperience (Although I can't help but feel I should have known better), I spent a little too much time in pre-production working on plants, rocks and smaller details along side more important concepts. My mistake also comes with a lapse in trust with anyone outside of art, as I was warned by Lead Designer Amanda Dittami to rethink my approach. That is not to say we neglected the creatures or citizens, it would have just been better to save the rocks and plants for later as extra polish if the time allowed.

(Blair Kuhlman's rough sketches featured a wonky elegance that influenced an early shift in art direction for the better. For the plants however, I had a hard time translating that quality when progressing the concepts closer to their 2D Asset forms.)

(Although certain qualities were appealing, the near final vegetation never came along like the creatures or buildings. They were visually off, hard to fit on the planet and lacking in quality transformative properties. The result was concepts that had a hard time finding a home on the twin planets.)

        We ultimately had to quickly define rocks and vegetation on the fly. We did so with the use of photo textures and brand new, quick block outs. In some ways the result was better than what we had developed, which speaks to deadlines helping focus. However, I feel we would have benefited in overall visual design with a bit of better time management and trust on my part. Luckily, we worked together to develop an art style and pipeline that allowed us to make adjustments and additions to the art without too much hassle.

Cornerstones of the Game's Atmosphere

          A lot can go wrong during the final stretch, it can go even worse if the pressure is not handled properly. This is one area that was exciting to experience. Not that we weren't without our stress, but I felt we handled the pressure well and worked at high level. During some projects the final hour can feel stressful and by the time you are done, you are just happy to see the project kicking up dust as it rides into the sunset. While in the final crunch, I felt an excitement due to being able to look ahead and see we were on our way to finishing with something we could take pride in. Designing the interactive experience required the same careful balance we requested of players. When the pressure of final crunch was on; the art, programming, sound and design delivered. Although simple, we were able to deliver a pretty good amount of polish and achieve a nice sense of atmosphere.
          The aspects of the game that was the most successful from my perspective, the sound and game design. It was important for us to create something with a sense of depth in a short amount of time. The game is relatively simple, geared towards quick play times in a exhibition setting, but we still wanted the experience to be rich. The fantastic balance of ambient sound and SFX helped reinforce the art and mood. Likewise, the game design really helped set the stage for a unique fantasy world that properly conveyed ideas of Biomimicry and sustainability. The twin planet balancing act, screen lay out and simple but rewarding interaction provided the art with a unique sandbox.

So Far To Go, So Little Distance
(Image rendered for promotional use, so the depth blur and haze effect isn't representative of in game visuals. However, it is an example of a VFX that I wish we had time to implement.)

             When the project was just about done, it was as if time sped up and slowed down at the same time. A lot of the work consisted of tedious adjustments, last second additions and polish. It was like a snail speeding toward the finish line. It was day after day of crunching. Creating and testing, creating and testing. It takes a great deal of patience, if anything is rushed it could end up breaking more than it fixed when implemented into the build.
           Working on Bioharmonious was a great experience which provided a wealth of lessons in the world of game design and development. We hope those who play it will enjoy it and appreciate the experience. You find more about Biomimicry and other information on their website, Meanwhile, Bioharmonious can be found in the Nature's Tool Box exhibit currently open at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Kind of the end of the rambling post, hope it was interesting enough. One last section of some extra images and notes below. Before you read that I'm going to list names and titles that belong to some good, hardworking people that made the game possible.

Amanda Dittami - Lead Design, Developer and Super Saiyan
Craig Deskins - Sound Engineer, Composer and Juke Box Hero.
Gewargis Envia - QA and Southern Dandy
Matthew Farmer - Programmer and Level 9000000001 Wizard
Blair Kuhlman - Artist, VFX, Animator and Factotum.
Randy Rosenberg - Executive Director and Awesome Project Giver

Left Out

           Below are some of the cuts from the game. In a way it worked out as a good amount wasn't up to par, but in some cases I really wish we had a little more time to work them into the game.

 (I initially was in favor of a crab for the sake of space and animation. The Sponge Fish ended up having a more interesting design. Unfortunately, as interesting as it was, getting an active creature like this into cramped, shallow waters posed problems. There was no room in the inn for poor little Sponge Fish.)

(Flamizard was a play on a flamingo and lizard, while the name also plays on the fiery pattern of  the beak and mane. It's downfall would be it's tardiness. It was the last creatures to be completed and by that time for design sake things needed to get cut. One more creature means multiple building transformations and animations we had no time to handle. It substitute would be the non-interactive glowers floating about the plains.)

 (It was a long road for the inhabitants, but ultimately we ended up with a non-obtrusive design that served the purposes of the game. The two at the very top right made it into the game. Initially the fellow waving hi was to be the citizen, but ultimately was a little too much like a mascot. Original plans had a mascot figure talking you through the game, with little head shaped space pods as inventory devices. We opted for a more subtle and more toned down approach.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Beware The Gray Ghost!

             I'm back! This is the first post of 2013 with many more to come. The posts came to a grinding halt, but the drawing and painting is at full speed. I have a lot of finished, unfinished and scrapped work to post. Similar to last year, I really hope this blog isn't a waste of anyone's time, although odds are that it is. Either way it really helps me dissect my work, focus on my weakness and improve as an artist. So as usual all honest feedback is welcome.
              I will also be posting the conclusion to the BioHarmonious developer diary series this week. That will be followed by the beginning of a new developer diary series for Box O Zombies: The Game. Then, hopefully, that will lead up to a series on the independent comic that is currently in the works. So hope you enjoy the letters streamed across the page.

The Gray Ghost!

          Although the schedule could be grueling at times, I made sure to take breaks to work on various sketches. Some of them I would poke at for a couple of days when I had time. The idea was to work quickly, work on something fun, expose weaknesses, tackle weakness and explore different approaches. This one revisited the exercise followed when creating The Bat Man illustration. I wanted to see what I could do by creating a background, then building my image only using the color picker. Thought it would be fitting to sketch Batman's child hood hero The Gray Ghost, as portrayed in Tim Sale's fantastic animated series.
             I wanted the pallet to have a smokey quality, but didn't want to go with a straight forward, flat or literal gray interpretation. In order to maintain a vintage feel while still giving the image some energy through color, I decided to work with a subdued, cooler pallet somewhere between slate gray and steel blue. 
              If I decided to put more time into this, I would follow through with my original idea of really pushing the reality of his era. In the animated series, he existed some time during the WWII era from what I can tell. The original idea was the spot light would catch The Gray Ghost holding someone by the collar, with the end of a pistol poking out form his cape. I wanted The Gray Ghost to look a bit guilty as if he was bullying someone, making the situation a little unclear. That way we would look at him a bit uncertain, in the same way a cops demeanor 70 years ago would probably not fly in our time. The slight hint to this is the cigarette in his mouth, which I thought would be funny if part of his legend is him always arriving in clouds of cigarette smoke. Unfortunately, I only allowed my self so much time so I had to move on. Our chain smoking hero will have wait till next time.