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VIDEO AND CABIN FEVER

Filed in Developers' diary by Dan @ 9:26 am UTC Sep 27, 2013

An image from our storyboard, this one was not drawn by me

A strict deadline for all things to come together invariably leads to “funny” situations. You may for example have fully functional pathfinding and a completely operational crafting minigame and when combined into a single whole, both will stop working for some unfathomable reason. The likeness of that happening increases with the number of systems that are being joined together, as a result, when everything is merged, nothing works.

It goes without saying that the bar goes up as well. You stop overlooking “tiny” glitches like clipping (graphics that vanish when they get too close to camera) in combat. It didn’t bother anybody so far, everyone was happy that it’s possible to fight at all and we saw superficial stuff, like two weapons intersecting each other, as something to be fixed later. But when you show the game to somebody, the clipping and the weapons intersecting each other are the first things they’re going to notice in combat. It doesn’t matter that no other game ever had combat like this: it flickers and looks unfinished, so it must be rubbish.

And when you try to fix those things, you learn that you need a new version of the engine that’s going to be released in a month, i.e. about a week too late for your demo. And what now? You have to start hacking. Doing that, the enemy AI starts to behave strangely and you come a long way on your downward spiral. People get nervous and start quarrelling. So besides being nervous yourself, being a boss, you have to be a company shrink for the rest of the team to put their minds at ease.

PIECE OF CAKE

In our case the catalyst of the tension was the video. We decided to go beyond a mere collection of in-game shots and top it off with an action-packed intro outlining the plot of our game. At the same time, we didn’t want the video to be too difficult to make. I wrote the screenplay several months ago, the animations were mostly recorded in the motion capture session, and we didn’t forget about voiceovers – so it was going to be a piece of cake. Not completely…

We discussed our options for putting it all together with respect to our time and resources, I drew a simple storyboard and artists as well as animators set out to work. We have good artists and animators and so I was pretty sure everything was going to turn out well and went on with my PowerPoint wizardry. When I saw the first draft shots in a few days, I was aghast. “This doesn’t look next-gen, guys!” “Why? It’s exactly as you wanted it!” “But the lighting is all weird and the shots are too long and boring.” “The shots are exactly as they are in the storyboard!” “That may be so, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t cut a long shot with a different one. It just didn’t occur to me when I was drawing it!” “But I did it exactly the way you wanted it!” “All right, but can’t we re-cut it somehow? And we should do something with the lighting, it looks like a faded video…” “I like it the way it is…” “But if we re-cut it, it’s definitely going to be better. Can you please do it?” “I don’t know how, so either tell me exactly how to do it or you can do it yourself…” And the atmosphere around the office grows thicker. Opinions differ occasionally and somebody has to make a decision (by virtue of my position it should be me), somebody is bound to disagree completely and, unwittingly, a conflict is born. I have lot of experience with that, I used to be a ruthless angry boss riding roughshod over other people’s feelings to get what I wanted. This can be a good short-term strategy or it may work under some very special circumstances, but it’s counterproductive from the long-term perspective. So I try to do the exact opposite now: getting reasonable, consensual people that are good at what they’re doing. It makes for fewer opportunities to get angry, but from time to time it just doesn’t work anyway.

IT’S TOTALLY CLEAR! IS IT?

Sometimes the root of a disagreement is a simple misunderstanding. I have a very specific idea how a thing should look, I explain it as best I can, I make pictures, supply photos of how it should look but the other party understands it in their own way and as a result, when they deliver what is, from their viewpoint perfect work, they feel understandably irritated when I have a feeling that they created something completely different from what we agreed upon. This is ‘wrong’.

An image from our storyboard, this one is the work of the master.

In this situation it always boils down to how specific the original idea was and how to approach a different (not necessarily worse) result. Once I showed the artists a shot from an older movie and noticed that I like its lighting and colors. However, I didn’t make myself clear enough and the result was almost the exact opposite of what I wanted. The artist thought I was pulling his leg and I felt exactly the same way about him. It would have been enough, though, to specify the OBJECT in that shot the color of which I liked, instead of saying I LIKE THE COLOR OF THIS SHOT.

Things like that cannot be avoided with creative work like making videogames. You can limit it somewhat by making very detailed specifications, but this will make the creative people feel they have no freedom, they won’t like what they’re doing, will deliver poorer results and finally leave the company for a place that would allow them to express themselves better. Or you can give your colleagues just a rough sketch and leave the rest to their creativity. The result can be something so awesome you wouldn’t be able to dream about it much less to describe it, because your artist is understandably much better at what he’s doing than you are and his work will be better than your idea. Or the exact opposite happens and the result is something quite unutterable, because the artist, genius as he may be, did not understand your idea at all and went off on some weird tangent. When this happens, you have to have him redo it and this will probably anger him more than a too strict specification would have.

ALL IS WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Every person feels about these things differently. Somebody pedantically sticks to strict specification, somebody else hates it and want to have his hands freed (but this only works if his tastes are similar to yours). And then there are people who are very good craftsmen that would be appalled if something inventive is asked of them.

A good creative boss has to know the best way to approach somebody. You hear stories about film directors that purposefully make actors angry so that they look authentic on camera, send them to military boot camp, avoid talking to them or use other manipulative techniques. However, developers are not actors, game development takes much longer than actual movie shooting, and you want to avoid violent confrontation, so it’s better to eschew some methods.

Finally my colleagues made the video as they saw fit, I re-cut it a bit, everybody had to swallow some pride and everything ended well. Save for me cutting the video at 11pm with our plane leaving in the morning.

That’s how it goes when you work in a company that does video game development instead of video editing and one day you need to edit a video. You download all kinds of freeware to convert video from one format into another, desperately try to find a codec where it would look best and would work for everybody. Finally, everything was ok and the video (or rather several videos) was here. We had a trailer, five-minute overview of all the game’s features and a thirty minute complete play-through of the whole prototype.

In the meantime Viktor & Co. were desperately fixing the build that started to break down on its own as usual. We changed the ugly beard of one character for a nicer one and an apple that the character was looking at suddenly disappeared. A journeymen in a forge stopped working the bellows (he probably went on strike) and the riders that were supposed to gallop past the player in the opening scene sometimes rode, sometimes walked and sometimes didn’t move at all. We were also fixing our automated camera system. For several months I ‘didn’t have time’ to show the programmers how to set cameras and so I ‘did it’ just before leaving and at the very last moment we were dealing with stuff like viewing angles, depth of field and camera placing. Fortunately, we were successful.

Late at night we copied all of it onto a flash drive and our demonstration unit and went home, where I stayed up till four packing my stuff for our dainty three week roadshow. But that’s another story.

Dan Vavra, Creative Director

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