Research, development and reflection

Research, development and reflection

This brief is aimed at the learning and understanding of Concept and Reproduction, in order to refine our skill sets in our chosen field of expertise within the media and entertainment industry. With this brief, I’ll be writing up my own Learning agreement, which is to say I’ll be setting a goal that I can reach before the designated deadline. The learning agreement will contain what I hope to achieve for my final year project. By the end of the brief I hope to have successfully achieve creating a design document for my game as this will underpin and reflect the blueprint for my game concept. This blog will act as a reflective design journal for the development of required elements of my game such as, Concept Synopsis, Theoretical tenets, Storyline or Theme, Concept Art Storyboards, Game Play Blueprint Technical process guides, and limitations and tests. However I will primarily focus on the elements that concern concept art development such as narrative and theme. Only briefly will I touch upon game mechanics because these are the elements that don’t effect concept design.

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Theoretical Aspects

Outlining Concept: The participant plays the part of a Planet, not a ordinary plane,t but a living organism full of life. You are in control of the forces of nature that influence the balance of life on your planet. You influence weather, orbit and how the tectonic plates shift, changing the diversity and balance of life. The aim of the game is to survive, your biggest challenge is when an unknown alien arrives on a ship to colonise the planet, naming you Tabula Rasa. You survive by either two options, you accept the alien race or to eradicate it with the forces of nature and the provocative  actions they cause.

Initial Concept: The initial concept was that the planet you took control of was Earth, of which you controlled natural disasters. Much of the core concept has stayed the same, however the decision was made to change it from Earth to a Earth-like planet was done out of sensitivity to past and emerging world events. In the worse case scenario, reflecting tragic events too closely will lead to an abrupt halt on further development which also may be reputation damaging. Another reason why I changed this initial concept was to enable me to broaden the scope for narrative and design creativity.

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Genre: Choosing this concept has a lot of early consideration to take in to perspective, such as genre. At this stage in the development, I’m thinking that this game will work best in a turn-based strategy format, although this is not set in stone as of yet. At the moment I’m looking into gameplay methods that work best for this type of game as well as the far reaching implications that it may have on it’s target audience. In all games, the rules and boundaries enable you to classify a game genre. However it’s important to understand the effects that certain rules have on a game, as they can change the final outcome. As a designer, every decision must have a reason and must be fully understood, as a poor judgement will have a long term affect on the final product and ultimately the game will not become what you wished it to have become. In many ways a game’s genre also defines how it is perceived. Mentioned in the academic book on games ‘Understanding Video Games’, goes on to explain this affect.

“They [games] are everything from an instrument that influences culture to a body of knowledge that is influenced by the cultures surrounding it; they interact with media and other cultural trends in complex ways. But we must also acknowledge the culture of people who make the gaming industry possible – The gamers themselves. Men and women, young and old, poor and rich – players don’t just play these games; from the merging of a game (or genre) its the players that spring many different cultures and subcultures, each with particular interests, values, norms, and sometimes even languages.”1

This rings true as we see a lot of game titles and genre synonymous with certain subcultures. If one was to mention MMORPG, it conjures up the commonly perceived view on such subculture. This isn’t the only example, First Person Shooter (FPS), Real-time Strategy (RTS), and Turn-based Strategy (TBS), to name a few, all have the same rule apply. The reason why I’m looking into this so intricately is so I perhaps understand the design path my game would take.

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Narrative, Philosophy and Influence:   For all of my projects I pay close attention to the narrative, this one more so. I’m a firm believer that games have the ability to hold a greater sense of meaning beyond that of play. As a result, I always like to include relevance within narrative and concept to the participant, extending intrigue to a heightened level of cognitive interactivity and prompting an awareness of a message behind gameplay.


Limbo: One of my all time favourite games and one of which is the biggest influence on my game’s narrative, is the game Limbo by PlayDead Studios, a small Danish indie games company. Limbo in design is very unique, there are many variables in which this uniqueness is achieved. For example it had it’s own independent game engine programmed specially for its gameplay, which I feel was interregnal to the design of the game. The narrative of the game is what I take influence from the most. The overall theme of Limbo is dark, it starts with no indication to whether or not if the game has started. Almost out of confusion you’ll push buttons in hope of beginning, after which you’ll begin to notice a boy laying on the floor. Upon awakening you’ll notice there’s not a tutorial to be found either, no emerson breaking subtitles describing what to do. Instead your first impressions are that of cold isolation and bewilderment, you have become this character in this bleak and dangerous world. With this in example the philosophy is that the first impressions are the lasting impressions, where less is more.

*Sorry, there are spoilers*

The story of Limbo is perhaps what inspires me most. It has no right or wrong way to interoperate the ending, however for me there was a realisation at the end for what it could mean. The only information that is given to you is at the start of the story, a simple sentence explaining, a boy enters Limbo to find his sister. There is an automatic presumption that the nameless boy’s sister is lost or maybe even dead, judging from the title. Suddenly towards the end I realised that perhaps his sister wasn’t lost or even dead, there is nothing that confirms this after all. For me it was the sparking idea that maybe the prominent and violent deaths was not how we universally see deaths in games. What I mean by this is that in games death is a sign to indicate that you have failed to achieve the goal and that death was a simple restart – it never happened. However within the world of Limbo perhaps it wasn’t a restart but representative of the grim world that you occupy, where death and life isn’t the end or start, just multiple events in the game world. Upon that realisation you begin to see that maybe this nameless boy you control is dead and trapped within Limbo in desperation of finding his sister, who is alive. The video below is the ending of Limbo. At one point it shows the boy being launched through what seems to be a barrier, an event of importance represented by the slowing of time. The boy is tossed through a barrier upon where he collapses and lays and awakes in the same manner as the game started. Another interesting point as this is a reoccurring theme of the game, which supports that he is in the world of limbo. Upon being reunited with his sister the world remains bleak and the feeling of un-resolve remains. Maybe the boy is a ghost? Maybe his sister was in mourning when she felt his ghostly presence?2

Resources to help understand narrative: On the 7th to the 10th of November 2011, I will be visiting the Bradford Animation & Games Festival. For the Bradford Animation Festival I attended Adrian Hon’s ‘New stories for new platforms’. Adrian Hon is director of the game ‘Zombies, run!”, a new game for Android and iPhone. Based on a running exercise app with the twist of designing it to be more game like by adding a theme and narrative.

The selling point of the game is the narrative as there is a niche for story-based games for the growing popularity of phone games, and this is what the lecture was about. The BAF describes the lecture, “Stories in PC and console games are nothing new, but handheld and mobile gaming platforms are more likely to test your reflexes than your emotional intelligence. Adrian Hon examines how we might bring extended stories to these new platforms, who will make these games and how they will be funded , while exploring how player-generated stories can gain wider appeal on the new gaming platforms of today and tomorrow.”

Now as I attended this lecture I managed to gather quite a bit of useful information. Although as the title suggests it doesn’t directly focus on my subject area, as I’m not likely to choose iPhone or Android for my gaming platform. However Most of the issues raised were on the topic of narratives in games as a whole cultural movement. I’ve managed to record most of the Adrian Hon lecture however the sound quality isn’t great so instead I’ll use the BAF Podcast which recorded the same lecture.

3

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Concept Art Influence: In the conceptual design side of my game I will primarily looking at assets and environments to bring my world to life. For influence I will be looking at Conceptual Artists, Feng Zhu, Francis Tsai, and Syd Mead. All of the mentioned artist are industry recognised and have have worked on both asset and environment concept art for major productions. Hopefully either through twitter is other such methods, I will be able to contact at least one of them, most likely the two former. My objective is to ask for tips on the creation of concept design.


Feng Tzu: Feng Zhu is a veteran concept artist and has worked on many projects a lot of which are very notable. Feng Tzu also began his on design studio aimed at teaching students in concept art and design. On his website there are many free design tutorials ranging from how to get inspired, how the industry works, and how to better improve your photoshop painting skills. A method he pushes is working fast, he goes on to explain how this will be beneficial in the working design industry. Explaining that clients can be quite vague and as a result there is no clear direction, it’s best to draw a lot of loose concept pieces than one intricate time consuming piece that may not work. Another reason to do more loosing paintings is to ensure it looks alive. A over detailed painting can look frozen in time and the important organic aspect can be lost. Personally I feel my paintings are too intricate and as a result the feeling of concept is lost. This is something I’d like to look at and practice. Fortunately for me these elements of technique are subjects researched by Feng Tzu on his website through free tutorials. Here are the two tutorials that bore the most relevance to me.

^Environment design^

^Vehicle design^


2001: A Space odyssey : All good concepts as fantastical as they are all remain rooted in reality, A prime example of this is the film 2001: A Space Odyssey made in 1968 during a time where space was the ultimate goal of super-powers. Bearing in mind that mankind had not set foot on the Moon until a year later. Much of the core designs within the film are highly regarded as being very realistic even by todays standards. The reason being is that Stanley Kubrick had connections with NASA at the time, of which he could gather reliable information on vastly unknown elements of space. A prime example of these advanced concepts shown in 2001 is the centrifuge. A huge cylindrical film set in which some of the most memorable scenes from the film took place.

Exterior of the centrifuge film set

The idea that centrifugal forces could be harnessed to create artificial gravity is a compelling theory that stands well in concept design. However in reality this would not work for various reasons. The problems with such a method of artificial gravity would be for it to work, it would have to be impractically large. Obviously this doesn’t make it a bad concept, whatever the actual physics will work or not, it’s still rooted firmly in reality to pass the initial test  of believability . So what influences me about 2001, was that the design was influenced by real factors.

Syd Mead:

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Design Process:

As this section implies it’ll be about the development of my concept art for my game. This will be documenting everything design related.

Theme and narrative: The backstory for the game will be kept vague and ambiguous, a storytelling method inspired by Limbo. I believe this will induce a range of interactive responses in the player. The four interactive modes mentioned in the book ‘Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals’, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, explains these functions and it’s relation to a game and the player.

Mode 1: Cognitive interactivity; or interpretative participation. This is the psychological, emotional and intellectual participation between a person and a system. Example: the complex imaginative interaction between a single player and a graphic adventure game.

 Mode 2: functional interactivity; Functional interactivity; or utilitarian participation included here: functional, structural interactions with the material components of the system (whether real or virtual). For example, the interface? how “sticky” were the buttons? what was the response time? how legible was the text on the high-resolution monitor? all these elements are part the total experience of interaction.

Mode 3: Explicit interactivity; or participation with designed choices and procedures. This is “interaction” in the obvious sense of the word: overt participation like clicking the non-linar links of a hypertext novel, following the rules of a board game, rearranging the clothing on a set of paper dolls, using the joystick to manoeuvre Ms. Pac-Man. Included here: choices, random events, dynamic simulations, and other procedures programmed into the interactive experience.

Mode 4: Beyond-the-objectivity; or participation within the culture of the object. This is interaction outside the experience of a single designed system. The clearest example come from fan culture, in which participants co-construct communal realities. Will superman come back to life does kirk love Spock?4

These are the interactive modes established within the study of games. Some of the four interactivity’s occur naturally in human experience, such as cognitive interactivity. Although such interactivities do occur naturally, it’s possible to strengthen the cognitive nature of a story by designing it to encourage the participant into bridging gaps in the narrative. although this method I’ll use cannot solely depend on the lack of narrative, rather it depends of the placement quality of information. What I hope to achieve through my narrative is a heightened awareness of the deeper narrative, upon this I hope this will encourage Beyond-the-objective interactivity. How the game Limbo uses its narrative is much in the same way. Due to its secretive and minimal story telling it achieves beyond-the-object interactivity, as seen in online forums with discussions on Limbo’s possible meaning. I have myself engaged with researching possible meanings. Another well renown game that facilitates the forth mode of interactivity is the Halo franchise, such engagements are not solely exclusive to games; for example if we look at Star Wars.

The narrative for my game is based on a self-aware planet where life flourishes. This planet is young in terms of planetary age, and like a child is learning to control its functions. This unnamed planet is a oasis in the dark, cold vacuum of space, very much like Earth. However my imaginings of this planet is that its smaller than Earth and its weather and tectonic shifts are more violent and rapid. In this sense its behaviour is much like a child. The planet’s awareness works in a way that’s incomprehensible to humans, it does not see or hear but rather it feels. Perhaps the best way to describe this is that the planet senses.

This is where the narrative becomes deeper. The Nameless Planet senses something in it’s orbit, this information will be kept vague showing illustrations rather than written information. An alien flotilla of space shuttles begin to orbit the planet. Upon this, the planet can hear them, particularly a word that evidently becomes your name – You have been named Tabula Rasa.

Choosing the planets name: There are a few reasons why I chose the name Tabula Rasa. One of the reasons is that like most decisions I take, I like my ideas to have a connection to a wider cultural background. Tabula Rasa is a philosophical theory that states that people are born without moral perceptions or other such understandings and that anything information gained is from experience. The word Tabula Rasa derives from latin, translating in English ‘Blank Slate’. The following will be purposely vague due to the nature of the story. The Alien species is in fact the human race and the reason for this is to greater the impact of the underlining meaning, of which one of the elements is perspective; For example the human race would be alien to the distant planet. This relates to the name as the english translation for Tabula Rasa is blank slate, which is to give the sense that the human race has made Earth uninhabitable and had to flee in order to find a new home – a new start, or a blank slate.

Other reason I chose Tabula Rasa is that it acts as a double entendre to both the indication of the desperation of human race’s situation and the literal philosophical meaning of Tabula Rasa. What I mean by the latter, as mentioned before the planet is young in planetary age and there-fore acts as a child. Tabula Rasa will reflect the players growing understanding of the game’s function and storyline.

The definition of Tabula Rasa according to the Britannica encyclopaedia.

“tabula rasa,  (Latin: “scraped tablet,” i.e., “clean slate”), in epistemology (theory of knowledge) and psychology, a supposed condition that empiricists attribute to the human mind before ideas have been imprinted on it by the reaction of the senses to the external world of objects.”

Comparison of the mind to a blank writing-tablet occurs in Aristotle’s De anima (4th century bc), and the Stoics as well as the Aristotelian Peripatetics subsequently argued for an original state of mental blankness. Both the Aristotelians and the Stoics, however, emphasized those faculties of the mind or soul that, having been only potential or inactive before receiving ideas from the senses, respond to the ideas by an intellectual process and convert them into knowledge.

A new and revolutionary emphasis on the tabula rasa occurred late in the 17th century, when the English empiricist John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), argued for the mind’s initial resemblance to “white paper, void of all characters,” with “all the materials of reason and knowledge” derived from experience. Though Locke himself fell back on “reflection” as a power of the mind for the exploitation of the given “materials,” his championship of the tabula rasa signaled even more radical positions by later philosophers.5

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Why is the interactive elements of narrative important to concept design? The reason I feel narrative is a important aspect to concept design is because I think it influences some of the decisions taken in designing assets, environments, and even characters. Like in film or theatre, the theme is the set for multiple narratives to take place. Obviously Theme is essential to the overall design but it’s the smaller narratives that evoke the details in designing concept art. Take a spacecraft for example, we will probably realise that it is of a sci-fi theme; However the circumstances of that particular sci-fi story universe can be told through how the spacecraft will look. Is the spacecraft of Human origin or is it Alien in appearance? do the species that own the spacecraft have a home world or are they refugees?

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Title Concept

Initial blueprint design

Second phase of design

Third phase of design

The final title

The title for my game was made as to resemble an arcing shape to fit with the game name ‘Arc’. The name ‘Arc’ was decided to indicate the fate of the human race’s home-world, Arc is in reference to biblical stories of punishment and survival. Originally the game was going to be called Exodus, meaning “a going out; a departure or emigration, usually of a large number of people: the summer exodus to the country and shore.” This was in direct reference to the tone and theme of the story. However the name Exodus has a solid meaning which is turn leaves no room for interpretation which is the intention.

Going in the same direction, I decided to name it Arc in reference to the biblical story of the ‘Ark’. For design reasons I changed the ‘K’ in ark to a ‘C’. The reason for this is to keep the title ambiguous and to give it a double entendre. Changing it to ‘Arc’ gives the impression of an arcing motion from one object to another e.i a planet; All whilst maintaining the Biblical reference to the Ark.

Designing the title so that the ‘A’ in Arc was an arcing shape was an idea that I wanted to keep. This I felt could effect the legibility of the title, however in the end deciding the clarity outweighed any concerns over design.

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Unmanned Excavation Vehicle Concept

Following Syd Mead’s Gnomon workshop tutorials I begin the process of creating my concepts through silhouettes. The idea behind drawing silhouettes is to create a sort of scope for your imagination to fill in the blanks creating something that you might not of been able to create consciencely. This is a thumbnail technique in wide use in concept art.

Initial concept sheet

After this thumbnail sheet I’ve decided to pick on of the silhouettes that I like most and further define their shape.

Thumbnails for possible concept.

At this stage I knew I wanted my Unmanned excavation vehicle to resemble an insect of some sort. This thumbnail sheet varies very little

Three of the better designs rendered

This rendered image is to further refine my choice. The more I worked on the three renders the more I became convinced that the mosquito-like UEV was the better design. Generally I found it more pleasing to look at as it covers a large portion of values making it seem more three dimensional.

Movement and angle sheet

These sketches were drawn to aid me in distinguishing the shape, function and movement. From this I gathered than the rotors would fold enabling it to walk freely

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References

Salen, Zimmerman, K.S, E.Z, 2004. Rules of play: Game Design Fundamentals . 1st ed. United States: MIT Press.4

Nielsen, Smith, Tosca, S.E.N, J.H.S, S.P.T, 2008. Understanding Video Games. 1st ed. UK, US: Routledge.1

tabula rasa 2011. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 07 November, 2011, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/579900/tabula-rasa 5

2011, 18 November 11, Adrian Hon, Six to start, new stories for new platforms. 1. 10 November 11, http://soundcloud.com/nationalmediamuseum/new-stories-for-new-platforms. 18 November 11.3

Limbo, 2010. [VideoGame] PlayDead Studios, Denmark : PlayDead Studios.2

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Bibliography

 

Books:

Mead, S.M, 1996. Oblagon. 1st ed. U.S.A: Columbia lithograph, Inc.

Vaz, M.C.V, 1996. The Art of Star Wars. 1st ed. U.K: Mohn Media.

3DTotal.com, 3DTotal.com, 2009. Digital Art Masters. 4th ed. Oxford: elsevier LTD.

 

Websites:

Feng Tzu. 1999. ArtbyFeng. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.artbyfeng.com/. [Accessed 20 November 11].

 

The Gnomon Workshop. 2000. The Gnomon Workshop. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thegnomonworkshop.com/about.html. [Accessed 20 November 11].

 

Videos:

Gnomon: Thumbnail Sketching and Line Drawing, 2008. [DVD] Syd Mead, U.S.A: The Gnomon Workshop.

Gnomon: Value Sketching, 2008. [DVD] Syd Mead, U.S.A: The Gnomon Workshop.

 

Films:

Blade Runner, 1982. [DVD] Ridley Scott, U.S.A: Virgin Interactive.

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. [DVD] Stanley Kubrick, U.S.A: Roc.

 

 

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