Artefact One

My research topic is “how do you convey a sense of believability and narrative in virtual environments?” Now admittedly this is an odd area to perform research on. What exactly do you investigate?

Just over a week ago, however, it occurred to me that how an environment is set out is rather important in making it believable – if you’re not inclined to stay and look around a place, then any effort put into the buildings and other elements goes to waste. The originator for this thought came from an old “God game” called Populous: The Beginning that my brother used to play the demo of and the way that, particularly in the first level, he would set out the houses in a neat grid pattern. This always bothered me for some reason and when thinking over it for this artefact it made me think back to my visit to Coventry last year, which I didn’t enjoy at all. And over the course of the week, I realised why.

Coventry was extensively re-developed after the Second World War, and one of the results was that the main shopping part of the town centre is laid out something like this:

It’s all straight lines and tall buildings with few landmarks to tell you where, exactly, you are. And as a result I got rather horribly lost when I was there. There was also something about it that I just didn’t like – I’ve always loved going to cities like York and Durham and Lincoln because of how much there is to explore – in two trips to York, I’ve lost count of the number of side-streets I walked down, and I still haven’t covered more than half the city centre.

And then I remembered what it was like going through Ravenshead when I was young – it actually took me years to realise that there were side-roads going off the main road and I actually thought that the village only consisted of that road, because we always drove straight along it.

So with this in mind and going back to my old Geography lessons, I located some free building models (found on this site) and using a program called Role-Playing City Generator (which generates village, town and city layouts), 3DS Max and Adobe Director, I constructed examples of a linear settlement and a nuclear settlement (not sure of the correct term) that could be navigated in Shockwave and put them as a download on a page of this journal with questions to gauge people’s reactions to them. Then a friend kindly offered to host them on his server so that people didn’t have to download it (click on the images to load the simulations).

From the top, the two “villages” look like this:

Some of the responses I got I was expecting, particularly those saying that they spent longer going around the second village. With the first village, as one person pointed out, you’re likely to just walk straight through it and possibly not notice the side-road, as is what happened with me and Ravenshead. It occurred to me that linear settlements are the environmental equivalent of the long corridor in games – you just want to get through it as quickly as possibly. It also reminded me of a chapter in The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell where it talked about if you placed a line on the ground going straight ahead or to something, people would go straight along it.

Several responses were gained whilst in an IRC chatroom. Whilst this didn’t garner many individual results, it did raise a couple of points that I hadn’t previously considered. There was a consensus that the second village was more interesting “because it has these twists and turns in it” (Bert Loos, although he also admitted to nearly getting lost in it), and a couple of others said that they preferred it because they were adventurous people. One person, Aaron Bulger, gave the most thorough response:

I immediately began by following some of the paths in the hills, then returned to the village, in which my navigation was more of a meandering. I spent much more time off the beaten path in the second and was interested to see how the paths fit together.

The Art of Game Design addressed this as well; by adding more lines on the ground, people were more likely to veer off in different directions.

However, there was some difference of opinion as to the reason why Village Two was preferable, and it unexpectedly fed into the narrative part of my research topic.

One person, who went by the username “Dog”, said that the second village looked “more friendly”, and gave a rational for why this was: “Order+uniform=bad. Zigzags+non-uniform=good.” Another person, who went by the name of “Blub”, preferred Village Two for a very different reason: “[it] gives you more possibilities to escape,” whereas with the linear one “it seems to be that you can only escape in two directions.” This was because they were a really paranoid person, and it wasn’t something I hadn’t even thought about. If you were in a linear settlement there isn’t many options for you to hide yourself if you needed to, but in a place like Village Two you have far more corners to duck around and lose someone. But the reverse could also be true – someone could be hiding in the second village and ambush you, and in the first one they would have little opportunity.

The results of this artefact were far better than I expected. Without any prompting from me, some people inferred some kind of narrative on the environments, and their reasoning for their choices was very insightful. To build on this unexpected outcome, my next artefact will quite possibly look at how the sizes of buildings can induce a sense of foreboding or welcoming, such as with Coventry, being surrounded by tall buildings on all sides was somewhat claustrophobic.

Another Client update

Quick memo to self before I begin: make sure the chair is properly positioned in front of the computer if you don’t want another late night crick in the neck. I’m going to be feeling that in the morning.

I was really drawing a blank for other cover variations since the last post, not to mention racking my brains as to what exactly do I send my client. The whole proposal would be a bit overkill, maybe just bullet-pointed sections – a proper write-up will be handed in on the actual deadline.

Anyway, whilst wandering around the Arboretum next to our main University building on Tuesday, we stopped by the large aviaries there. And they had a lot of Cockatiels in there – here’s a picture of one that was very happy to come over and pose for us:

And this trigger a small brainwave. Quetzacoal, the Feathered Serpent (bit of a leap, I know. I do it a lot). So I went on another moodboard making spree:

I knew I wanted someone in a mask, and I was thinking along the lines of shamans – I also admit to being influenced by Princess Mononoke. The simple sketch at the bottom, second from right, is actually one of mine from a few years ago. This brainwave was the push I needed to come back to it.

This one has the most variations, because the first one, as you’ll see, looks silly. The second one is good, but a bit dull. The third has the most life in it I think:

Obviously backgrounds need addressing, but that will come in the main bulk of creating these covers. One thing that you’ll see in my own notes on the second picture, is my indecision over the type of mask (which I copy-and-pasted from the second version to the third because it had taken me ages to decide on the look of it to begin with). Below is a comparison of the draconic and avian masks on version three:

Really not sure which is better.

Now, a software recommendation for you all: if like me you’re not entirely comfortable at drawing people (I’m more successful when drawing in a sketchbook than on a computer) and can’t get to life drawing classes, get hold of DAZ Studio. It basically lets you position a model (already rigged with limits) and light it, like so:

It’s free to download and they’ve made a whole bunch of models free just the other day. Now I just need to figure out how to get my hands on Poser’s Wooden Mannequin model…

Oh, and the thing that inspired my second cover concept? Turns out it was this:

My love for that art style must have made it take root in my subconscious (we still don’t know who that is yet). At least I won’t go mad from trying to figure out the source now.

Client Project Update

Okay, okay, I know I’ve been exceptionally bad with this – breaking out of my usual mindset of working mostly in my head is surprisingly difficult.

So, my client project is to produce two illustrations that would go on the cover of ImagineFX, for which the prompt is “Art is Our Religion” that was in the brief I received. My tutor Andy has requested for that the images are A0-sized – I’m going to have to ask about dpi sizes when I get back in touch with my client (Xmas period mostly equals insane in their office, which is just as well, as I was rather preoccupied with the research essay), because A0 at 300 dpi actually succeeds in practically killing my iMac. It has 4GB of Ram, so you can imagine that this is a feat.

Anyway, images, and first up are the mood-boards I’ve gathered:

There’s this intriguing site called Dreamlines that I stumbled across on one of my meanders around the internet. Pop in a search term, and it uses images pulled from Google Image Search to create these bizarre fractal patterns that alter every few seconds (you have to quick with the screen grabs). These are some of the results I got when I put in “myth”.

One thing I hit upon is the idea of Creation – something that ties in with both art and religion. And what sprang to mind? The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula (top-right for full nebula and bottom left for the Pillars themselves). Nebulas are works of art in and of themselves, and looking at these beautiful images is like the game of cloud pictures turned up to 11.

Some images of Sumerian, Byzantine, Persian and ancient Chinese art here due to the realisation that mythologies are actually religions, just not relevant ones today. However, I’ve kind of developed an odd fascination with HP Lovecraft, and decided to do one cover based on Cthulu of all things, which is why there are weird things. In the bottom-left however is the image that triggered the idea for referring to nebulas – John Howe’s Dragon of Chaos (based on the Persian myth of the dragon Tiamat being struck down by her son Marduk). Which is unbelievably gorgeous when seen in his Forging Dragons book.

And then we come to the slightly curious part of the inspiration boards. The Golem – a creature from Jewish myth that is essentially an artificial human created from earth. Of course it all wraps round into the creation theme.

There are three concept sketches so far; two of which are variations of the same idea, because I was trying to work out the general look.

The third one is somewhat based on Russian Icons, and the Omega Nebula (have you seen that nebula? I swear it looks like there’s a guy looming over the scene in the background). Now, the figure in the middle, I can clearly picture it in my mind’s eye, but the thing is I know I’ve gotten the design from somewhere and I can’t for the life of me remember where. There’s too much stuff going off up here, I need a bigger head.

Research project… I’ll get back to you with that one. I’ve a good idea about how I’m going to go about doing the artefacts (I have also found blog posts that are relevant to my interests, as it were), I just need to sort out the focus groups.

File Sharing Animation

Once again, I forget to routinely update my journal. It’s not that I can’t be bothered, but I get so absorbed in what I’m doing, and I take so damn long in just typing a post, that it just falls by the wayside.

Anyway, here’s my animation for the simulated client brief. Slightly madcap, but then I am rather bad at pulling off serious stuff in a short time-frame. I’m much more geared towards oddball shenanigans.

To quote my sister; “let me get this straight – download illegally and you get abducted by aliens and anal-probed?” When you put it like that, it sounds like a pretty good deterrent to me.

In other news, I’m currently waiting on getting the signed copy of the client agreement form from my client in the post. After the trouble I went to getting it, it’d better be acceptable. As for the essay, I’m glad I can finally go into full-on bookworm mode. It’s all-right skimming through papers and books when you’re doing another project, but I work best when I can lock down and absorb myself in the material. You can bet my scanner’s going to be overworked so I can put scans through an OCR program (I’m hap-hazard at typing at the best of times, so the less opportunity I have to mess that bit up the better).

Anti-Piracy warning = nostalgia?

Whilst still trying to figure out a good idea for the simulated project, we went on a Disney nostalgia trip in our house yesterday and raided our VHS collection (we ended up watching The Lion King and Aladdin, in case you were wondering). Inadvertently, we ended up getting as much of a nostalgia kick out of the pre-feature piracy warnings as we did the actual films.

For those who might not remember them, they usually say that illegal video cassettes means a loss in quality, possible risk to future film production and possible damage to your VCR.

Annoyingly, this is the only one I could find. One of the later films (possibly Hercules, but I’m not sure) had one where it compared an actual copy to an illegal copy. We were all in agreement that the way these warnings were presented was far better than the ones nowadays, by pointing out what impact it has on you, rather than the corporations. Granted, the damage to the VCR is only likely to occur if the cassettes were damaged or tampered with (the tape’s a pain to get out once it’s been eaten), and in this age of digital media, the only problems you’ll encountered are usually down to someone screwing up. But there’s something to be said about the quality issue – I’ve amplified the audio on some mp3’s in the past (the iTunes volume check really is useless) and have accidentally ‘hit the ceiling’ on the waveform and caused distortion during the louder part. And if you’ve ever looked at Youtube videos, the quality is usually terrible, even when on the highest quality setting.

This got me thinking. When you copy something (and right-click save as doesn’t really count), it’s never the same as the original. So, for the 20 second animation (which by the way seems a rather short amount of time for this kind of thing) I figured I’d have a character trying to buy a DVD and, when he finds he can’t afford it, sticks it in a photocopier (for the sake of argument) to get a free one. The copied product is shown to be “flawed” (I’m really tempted to make it look like it was drawn by a six-year old) and something to do with the cops or something at the end. Haven’t figured out what yet.

Unearthed Old Anti-Piracy PSA

Dear Lord, I can see why this might not have worked as intended.

Points should not be made using the medium of Rap and a MC Hammer lookalike. The will to live was lost somewhere around the montage of programmers telling us why it’s a bad thing.

Although “Don’t Copy That Floppy” is quite a good slogan. Bit hard to create a similar one today though – half the rhymes I can think of off the top of my head ended up having a double meaning.

[Source: Download Squad]

PS: The Download Squad post links to the results of a recent MPAA contest to create anti-piracy ads. After seeing about a minute of the winners’ entry, someone needs to inform them and the MPAA that making it in the style of a trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster may look cool, but doesn’t automatically make it a good idea.

The Cat Piano

io9 is one of my favourite blogs but, occasionally, it takes me by surprise with what it posts. Last month, it posted an animated short that completely blew me away. Everything about it; the art style, the narrative, the animation, the sound; was utterly superb, and it left me wanting more in this world.

I firmly believe that everyone should see this at least once.