Friday, September 29, 2017

Adventures in VR sculpting

I've been sculpting a lot in VR lately (via Oculus Medium) trying to figure out whether it's "the future" or not.

While I've worked in 3D for a long time, I'm used to building levels in a low polygon style with a 2D interface -- so for me, working "natively" in 3D VR has been strange and confusing, as I try to figure out how sculpting workflows work with 3D motion control interfaces.

When you are 3D modeling in a 2D interface, you can only move in two dimensions at once for every operation. Every stroke is constrained to 2 directions, so you learn to limit how much "each stroke" is supposed to accomplish. You begin seeing 3D in a specific "2D" kind of way. A lot of existing modeling software has evolved to fit this workflow, using operational systems that are non-linear and asynchronous -- what I mean is that each time you move a vertex or apply a bevel in Maya, you can always tweak or adjust that action later. Need to twist a tentacle in a weird way? You setup a spline, and 10 clicks later, you have a twist. It's very accurate because you're working very methodically in super super slow motion, decompressing time.

Current VR sculpting software doesn't really capture this "bullet time" dimension of working in 3D. Instead, it's very immediate and continuous. It's unclear whether VR will ever be able to support the high text density / menu complexity that most 3D modeling software needs.

If you have shaky inexperienced hands, too bad! You can't fine-tune or adjust your tool movements after you perform them, you just have to get better at doing more fluid, cleaner hand gestures.

Before, with a mouse, I could sort of do 100 different strokes and take the best bits of each one, and assemble the perfect stroke. But in VR, I feel like I can't do 100 takes, I get only 1 take, and I better not fuck it up! (Ugh. Why is this "natural" interface supposed to be so much better? Fuck nature!)

So now I basically have to become a much better fine artist, and learn how to move my body around the sculpture, instead of simply trying to developing the eye of a fine artist. Some of this frustration is due to the difference between a sculpting workflow vs a polygon workflow, but the inability to rest a mouse on a table certainly exacerbates it.

It also probably doesn't help that I'm taking on one of the most difficult topics of visual study possible, a human head. It's very easy to sculpt a "wrong-looking" blobby sculpture, as you can see in my screenshots! Fine artists usually spend many years in figure drawing workshops to train themselves how to "see" people and understand the many different shapes of our bones and muscles.

But I think this challenge has been helpful, and it keeps me focused on figuring out which skills I need to develop. How do I get clean sharp edges and defined planes in VR? Should I sculpt with blobby spheres and flatten it out afterwards, or should I sculpt with flat cubes and build-up my planes from the beginning? I'm still trying to figure it all out.

And if VR sculpting truly is the future, I do wonder how this will factor into a game development workflow. Maybe we'll sculpt basic forms in VR, and then bring them into Maya for fine-tuning -- or maybe it makes more sense the other way, to make basic forms in Maya, and then use VR only for detail?

I don't know of any game artists who seriously use VR as part of their workflow, but if you know of any, let me know so I can figure out what they're doing and copy it!!

(And hopefully in another month, my sculpts won't be so scary...)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Writing stories / dialogue for Unity games with Yarn

I've been using Yarn for a little while, and I've grown to prefer it as my "talking to NPCs" solution for game development. If you're not familiar, Yarn and Yarn Spinner are a pretty powerful Twine-like plugin for Unity (though it could technically work in any C# game engine) that's geared towards writing video game dialogue, and it was most famously used for Night In The Woods.

Yarn is fairly lightweight, extensible, and it basically gets out of your way. Want to make a really big long monologue, or 100 little pieces of dialogue snippets? Yarn works well for both of those use-cases. (If you want something that's more focused on manipulating very long dense passages of text, you might want something more like inkle/ink, the system that powers the huge 750,000 word narrative game 80 Days.)

To try to provide more resources for other Yarn users, or potential Yarn users, here's a write-up with some advice and a short guide to working with Yarn...

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Gay Science" at NYU Game Center, September 28, 2017 @ 7 PM

if you look very closely, you'll notice Nietzsche's moustache / hair / ears are actually made of tiny gay people writhing around, having a bunch of hot writhing techno-sex? poster by James Harvey
In about 10 days, I'm giving a talk about games at NYU Game Center called "Gay Science." Here's the blurb:
Robert Yang is a game designer and teacher who is the most recent addition to the Game Center’s full-time faculty. For the past few years Robert has been doing groundbreaking work as an indie developer who appropriates the tools and techniques of mainstream big budget videogames to make work that is personal, idiosyncratic, and highly experimental. His recent games exploring queer sexuality are powerful and sometimes scandalous interventions in gaming culture and he has developed a creative practice that crosses wires between the world of avant-garde media art and mainstream youtube streamers.

In addition to his creative work Robert has developed a large audience for his work as a game critic and thinker across a wide range of topics including an especially deep exploration into the formal and expressive dimensions of 3D level design.

Join us to hear Robert talk about his work and share his unique approach to games, art, and life.

Free and open to the public.
I'm also sharing this Fall 2017 Lecture Series schedule with designer of "Everything" / artist David O'Reilly (on October 26) as well as industry veteran / Campo Santo artist for "Firewatch" Jane Ng (on November 30).

If you'll be around New York City, come on down! Please RSVP here so we know how many chairs to setup.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Level With Me, Half-Life 2, complete!

I've just finished playing through all of Half-Life 2 on my level design streaming show, Level With Me. Much like with my playthrough of Half-Life 1, I've played through this sequel several times already, and I thought I knew it pretty well -- but there were still sequences where I was surprised, impressed, or disappointed.

There were several main themes throughout this playthrough:

1. The current version of Half-Life 2, the only one now available on Steam, has been poorly updated and maintained. When Valve added HDR lighting to Source Engine 1, someone dutifully went through Half-Life 2 and updated all the maps -- but that process only involved recompiling the maps with HDR lighting. That broke several things: there are no LDR lightmaps (it's impossible to play Half-Life 2 without HDR now), and the unchanged settings are poorly calibrated for HDR, often being too bright / too dark / with lots of halo-y hotspots everywhere. If you want to play a better version of Half-Life 2, I recommend the Half-Life 2 Update mod, which fixes a lot of these issues.

2. Another frequent theme has been how Half-Life 2 keeps mixing itself up; one chapter is a horror survival segment, and then 2 minutes later the next chapter is a road trip driving section. This is pretty unusual in 2017, where AAA action games usually feel more consistent, systemic, and homogeneous. (Of the big franchises, maybe only Call of Duty maintains this roller coaster setpiece structure.) You could argue that Half-Life 2 sort of tries to do 10 different things, and doesn't really excel at any of them. Or on the flip-side, maybe the Valve of 2000-2004 was really impatient and bursting with ideas, and in the end, executes all of these ideas decently enough.

3. Rugs!!!

Check out the full Level With me archived playlist for Half-Life 2 on YouTube, or watch future broadcasts live on Twitch.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

How to Graybox / Blockout a 3D Video Game Level

from de_crown, by FMPONE and Volcano

UPDATE, 11 NOVEMBER 2021: this blog post is OK, but I would recommend reading the "Blockout" page in my free online work-in-progress level design book instead.


While planning a level design class, I googled for a good article about blocking-out or grayboxing a 3D level design prototype. I didn't really find one that actually went into "how" you might actually go about grayboxing a level, so I guess I have to write it.

Grayboxing is a level design practice where you build a rough block-out version of your level using blocks (usually gray boxes) so that you can iterate and test the layout as soon as possible. Almost every 3D game engine has some sort of box primitive tool -- if you know how to use that, then you can graybox.

Before you graybox, you must make sure you've established a general game design direction. You should generally know how this level might fit into your game or workflow. There's no point in grayboxing if you don't even know what the player should be doing, or what this level is supposed to convey. Is the level supposed to be easy or hard? Does it focus on combat or non-combat? Should it feel scary or safe? Level design must always exist in the context of a larger game design, or else you're just wasting your time.

Then, open up your 3D game engine, and let's start laying down some boxes...

Thursday, September 7, 2017

On "Tacoma" by The Fullbright Company

This post spoils some of Tacoma and Sleep No More.

Tacoma is a sensible design progression from Gone Home. How do you expand upon the audio diary design and walking mechanics? The Fullbright Company decided to pair a dynamic holographic drama with some zero gravity movement. Unfortunately, the zero-G movement ended up making environmental storytelling more difficult so they had to scale it back (no tables or chairs; no objects at rest) and I also suspect it risked alienating a fan base that cares less about gamer-y traversal puzzles. So, that leaves all the focus on the holographic drama sequences.

Many commentators describe Tacoma as a virtual adaptation of the NYC immersive theater installation "Sleep No More" because both experiences involve wandering around a large dense environment and encountering short dramatic scenes of characters performing with each other... and then the characters split-off and you have to choose who to follow and listen to.

I think this is a telling comparison, because it also suggests the ways in which Tacoma's formal narrative structure doesn't work very well, despite its compelling themes and characters.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How To Tell A Story With A Video Game (even if you don't make or play games)

This post is a summary of a talk I gave at Storycode NYC on August 22nd, 2017. All the slides are available here. It is a primer for storytelling in games, intended for people who aren't gamers or game developers, but who want to get into interactive storytelling / immersive storytelling (like VR / AR / etc).

Video game design has much to offer interactive designers, even if you don't make or play any video games. When I taught at Parsons, we taught game design as part of our general design / technology curriculum, because this field has been thinking about the aesthetics of digital interaction for literally decades.

So if we want to tell a story with a video game, we should first ask, what is a video game made of? Some men have opinions on this:

Famous game designer Sid Meier has a famous quote: "a game is a series of interesting choices." When we play games, we're constantly making choices and feeding input into the game -- which way should Pac-Man go, how far should Mario jump? Some designers even treat the lack of input as an input. Inaction as an action.

My boss / NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz has a slightly less famous, but much more handsome quote: "a game is an opera made out of bridges." What he means is that a video games often try to present a sort of audio / visual "total work of art" spectacle that demands your complete attention and immersion, but to achieve that bombastic effect we also have to engineer physics simulations and future-proof code bases to work for many years. And if we're going to go with a bridge metaphor, we should also ask, what are these "bricks" and building blocks that make up video games?