Editing a Trailer

I’ve spent the last couple of days in at Grinding Gear Games’ Titirangi office preparing a new trailer for their Online Action RPG, Path of Exile.

The process is always fun – shaping something engaging, informative (for eager fans of the game) and artistic from many disparate elements. We went through our voice actor session at Thinkt Studios on Tuesday and captured a lot of good stuff. Our actor, Kevin Harty, had a healthy scottish brogue and brought an enthusiasm and attitude that made the session nice and easy!

I’m going in tomorrow to finalise the edit and then I have time to move on to the polish – finer visual flourishes, audio mixdown, etc.

The picture on the right is from a desk in at Grinding Gear Games – I took a photo because I love the skill of sculpture and 3D games bring artists who think and design in 3D space. These two ‘sculpts’ are examples of fine visual design in two popular game franchises of recent times (Assassin’s Creed, Killzone).

l’ll post an embedded version of the final trailer once it’s online – for now, it’s back to finishing up some web work and pre-production planning!

8 bit Music Goodness

I’ll be starting on another game trailer project in June but for now I’m moving on to a couple of game music projects.

Any music can be used for games nowadays – if it suits – but one type of music that will always be associated with videogames is chip music – to use a broad definition: music created using sound chips on game console hardware. I’m keen to create music for the first game project using PXTone, the tracker (i.e. chip music creator) made by Cave Story‘s Daisuke Amaya; I’ll be taking a more traditional approach with the other project (more on that later).

Chip music has its superstars – especially from the C64 era – and some tunes stick in my head to this day. Ben Daglish and Rob Hubbard are two such personalities – Ben created one of my favourite soundtracks from the 8bit era: Last Ninja. Rob was responsible for some stonkin’ great tunes like the Commando theme.

Just recently I came across a morsel of greatness – Christopher Voss has created an 8 bit version of The Pixies’ Where Is My Mind, combining two great artforms in one. Now I’m more than ready to dive into some 8bit music creation for Tom Mulgrew‘s Thunderbolt!

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3D Gaming Sux… if you’re BLIND

I realised I haven’t posted a lot of game stuff on ‘the interactivist’ because I’m posting that on PlayMaker. But as that’s always about NZ development I can at least post about some of the stuff I’ve been playing that isn’t from NZ. Problem is, I haven’t been playing a lot lately haha.

It’s a sad thing when it feels like a luxury to play a game but I’ve been fairly busy. However, I’m well aware it’s a bit rich to call yourself a game designer if you don’t play games! The problem for me is that I like playing the big games – big story, big setting, loooooooong play time. I don’t enjoy FPS multiplayer anymore because I don’t put in enough time to last longer than 5 seconds against the tween assassins out there.

I have Assassin’s Creed II to play through. Yes, I haven’t even made it to Brotherhood yet. But I’ve held off AC2 because I want to put aside a good chunk of time to really get into it. I played Assassin’s Creed 1 in stereoscopic 3D and it was such a great experience that I wanted to do the same with 2. And I know from experience that you can get well caught up in a game that you’re fully immersed in…

What I’m sick of are all the web commenters out there who say that 3D is crap, a gimmick, a passing fad. What is a passing fad, perhaps, are the glasses – the way we view 3D now. But if you’ve ever seen 3D gaming with the right settings (not as straightforward as you’d think – see below) you can’t compare 2D gaming at all. I can understand that some people don’t like it, don’t get it yet, and aren’t impressed with our current standard. But to outright deny 3D as the next step in visual media is stupid.

Put your 3D glasses on… now.

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I’ve never had a more immersive experience than when I was playing in stereoscopic 3D. I’ve never felt more fully transported to another world. It’s like the difference between sound and colour and black and white silent – if not greater. I played Tomb Raider 1 on a huge projector screen for an entire weekend when it first came out and me and a friend at the time were completely caught up in the experience. I played Tomb Raider Anniversary – the remake of the first game – in stereoscopic 3D a few years ago and felt like I’d taken a revolutionary step forward in immersion. COD4′s modern warfare genre is not something I’d usually play but as soon as I started up the first level and landed on the boat I was sold. I pretty much didn’t put either COD4, TRA or AC1 down when I picked them up in 3D. Hence my need to hold off on AC2 for now…

The problem with 3D gaming is that you can manually fiddle with the convergence and depth settings. This is a problem because they aren’t automatically set for you and different games require different settings to best convey the experience. It’s also a problem because the settings I’ve found on the net that are supposedly “optimal” seem to be setup in most cases to reduce eyestrain. That’s obviously not a bad thing but I’m convinced the better experience to be had in 3D should strain your eyes – at least, at first. I found that pushing the settings so that you were right inside the world was the most immersive thing to do (sounds obvious but when you see what an initial strain that is it seems better, at first, to push the settings back). When we made our 3D music video we had a number of 3D technologists who essentially said that the common concern about eyestrain was a storm in a teacup as the effect was something that your eyes eventually adjusted to – like most things we experience that push us physically in some way.

To ensure the best experience you also have to have your screen fill your field of view. That generally means sitting right in front of your monitor. I haven’t tried PS3 3D yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony have gone with ‘safe’ settings by default when it comes to convergence and depth, thus lessening the overall experience. And how many people sit close enough to their TV to have it fill their field of view?

Bah! I’ve got a lot more to say on 3D but I’ve blathered enough for now. I’ll make a more readable bullet-point list at some stage in the future!

Cover Zen: Super Conte Theme

Well, it’s yet more music on this blog but as it also includes a game angle I’ll use it as a segue…

Jack Conte is back with more Cover Zen madness – a version of the Super Mario Bros theme that I like a lot! He’s obviously a talented musician but I also have a lot of respect for his editing skills and sense of manic visual energy; this video jumps and blits about like the video game junkie the song speaks to.

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Crack Conductor

To be honest, I’ve never really considered myself to be much of a casual games fan.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy casual games or appreciate the skill and effort that goes into making them. I really applaud the work of those who’ve made the App Store what it is today – and those who’ve learnt how to create casual magic in their bedrooms and garages. It’s no easy task distilling fun down to its purest essence in a simple mechanic that scales in complexity without losing its easy accessibility. But whilst I have enjoyed the many casual games I own, I’ve never really been as hooked on them as some of the other genres that have captured me in the past – RPGs, RTS, Adventure Games.

Enter The Voxel Agents, an Australian developer based in Melbourne, who have the art of creating pure casual fun down pat.

I downloaded Train Conductor when it was available for free on April 20th and promptly bought Train Conductor 2. In the first game you move through cities in Australia – in the second, you move through the U.S. Finally I understand what all those people are talking about when they say they can’t put Angry Birds or Doodle Jump down. I thought both those games were awesome – but I never found it hard to put them down. Very different story with Train Conductor…

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Like all good casual games, the core mechanic is simple, but engaging: you have a number of train tracks on the screen (you start with three) and trains enter the screen from the left and right with numbers above their engine that tell you which track they need to be directed to. A swipe will create a temporary track to send the train on its way – but you have to make sure the trains don’t run into each other. Tapping a train will switch between stop and start. Of course, things scale up from there.

The first game has only five levels but you can also switch to night mode and play with ghost trains that don’t crash into each other, effectively giving ten levels. I felt its size was perfect – you get the satisfying sense of completion and the gameplay is such that you can dive back in and play it some more without feeling like you’re rehashing old ground. If I’d purchased the game for $1.29(NZD) I’da been more than happy with the experience I received – but for free, it’s almost a crime.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on The Voxel Agents in future!

You can download Train Conductor from iTunes (free over Easter!)

Voice Acting in Games

We’ve begun the process of casting a voice actor for the next game trailer we’re working on.

It always strikes me that there’s often an overly theatrical approach to voice acting in games, in general. I think we accept it only because we’re used to it. Many an article on voice acting makes a point of the fact that voice acting is a different beast entirely from screen acting. I think that’s obviously true in the process taken – but I find it hard to accept that the end result should be as different as it often is.

Theater acting is different from film in that there is a distance between the audience and the actor requiring projection and exaggeration. Voice acting for a radio show is a different discipline from either as there is no accompanying visual to assist in telling the story. With games, however, there is an accompanying visual and I feel the performance could go either way – if there are no close-ups and / or other filmic devices then perhaps a more theatrical approach is warranted (e.g. if the game maintains a top down view, not allowing the camera to go in close to see the characters – or if the characters are limited to reduced animations). The other situation is one in which you do have filmic syntax (close-ups, characters animated in sync with the story e.g. mocap) and that is the kind where I feel the standard approach to voice acting (being enclosed in a tiny booth without any of the environment or other characters to react to) is perhaps a less effective one.

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Games like Uncharted are getting closer to the best tactic, in my opinion, where the actors are being mocapped and delivering the dialogue at the same time. They are acting out the moves of the character while talking and responding to the other characters in the space.

I’ve often wondered whether a better approach might be similar to that taken when “looping”. One could get the actors into some kind of space and film a sequence using a standard video camera. Then, in the studio at a later time, essentially carry out a standard looping session – having the actor read back their lines as they watch themselves perform the scene on video. The purpose of this is to allow the actor to holistically embrace the emotion of the scene and to have them feed off the other players (if there are any) in the space. Budget-wise it wouldn’t have to cost too much extra – unless you wanted to dress the actors and the set, of course. I’ll be trying this on a future project and will do a write-up on its effectiveness!

Speaking of overly theatrical, the embedded video shows a behind the scenes look at the Dawn of War 2 voice actors. I mean in no way to cast aspersions on the approach taken for Dawn of War – if anything, they support my assertion that the theatrical approach may be warranted in places where cinematic devices are limited. The voice acting in DoW2 usually accompanies talking heads and topdown viewed characters so it makes sense that emotion and inflection is left for the voice to convey. There’s a lot of talent and ability on display here!

Oi! Besides providing the deep tones of Captain Davian Thule, Fred Tatasciore has been in almost everything else – from games to cartoons – including the voice of The Hulk in Ultimate Avengers and Hulk Vs, Damon Baird in Gears of War 3 and Saren from Mass Effect!

The Hunt for Trailer Art

I’ve been scouring the web trying to find any “best of” movie trailer sites – but I’m kinda after sites that show trailers that have been crafted with love and skill, treating the discipline like the artform it is. Haven’t had any luck so I might have to put together a list myself… If anybody reads this and has any idea of a trailer that showed a real craftsmanship in its construction please let me know (movies or games). As an example, I think Snyder’s 300 trailer put Trent Reznor’s “Just Like You Imagined” to perfect use.

Here’s a great looking game coming soon from Ubisoft – they’ve put the classic trailer soundfx to good use and I found the zooms (which were surely done in post…) to be an interesting touch!

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The role of music in games

Some games understand the importance of dynamics, subtlety and just plain rightness when it comes to music.

My early experience of a deft touch of minimalism in game music occurred with the very first Tomb Raider game. My friend and I were caught up in a virtual world, staring at his projector screen in awe as Lara wandered through ancient ruins with nothing but the crunch crunch of gravel or clop clop of stone beneath her feet. The occasional brief musical stings as Lara entered a new area and a gorgeous vista opened up beneath her feet, were perfectly placed and brought a swell of anticipation whenever they appeared.

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Other games have a George Lucas approach to music: there is always a soundtrack playing. The japanese seem to love this style. Many’s the game where one finds oneself wandering through a picturesque village with jaunty music plunking away on endless repeat. The music becomes part of the background atmosphere after a while, then when you enter the next area – e.g. the vast, uncharted wilderness – a stirring anthem of adventure bursts forth and your expectation of new encounters, excitement and danger suddenly kicks in to gear.

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There’s obviously something appealing about the approach above (constant music) but I’m more of a fan of dynamics, personally.

A great example of soundtrack dynamics from film is in Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, during the sequence in Balin’s tomb, in the mines of Moria. When the orcs finally burst through the door and the battle is joined, the soundtrack that had been gradually building the tension of their approach drops out completely and all we hear is the thwack and whump of swords and arrows, interspersed with the occasional grunt and cry.

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Peter Jackson (or the editor ; ) uses the music to bring us into the mindspace of the heroes of the Fellowship: before the battle, when they can hear the howls of the orcs outside and the hacking of axes at the door, the music escalates along with the tension they are feeling; then, as the fray begins in earnest, the heroes’ focus turns from their imagination – from anticipation – to their immediate predicament; to the urgency of life and death and the simple act of keeping their enemy’s sword from entering their body. They hear no ‘mind music’ of escalating dread and anticipation – they are in the moment: a frantic and uncluttered zone of conflict (and, by extension and musical cue, so are we).

After a time, and at a significant moment in the narrative of the battle choreography, Jackson reintroduces Howard Shore’s score and we are figuratively ushered back in, as an audience, to witness the spectacle of our heroes in action.

~ * ~

Those sorts of dynamics, when applied to games, interest me the most. The music in a game is one part of a multi-faceted whole that includes the visuals and the gameplay experience – and just like an individual instrument in an orchestral score it should be employed at a specific time of the creator’s choosing. In musical scores an instrument is introduced at points where its particular contribution is most perfectly suited to the emotion or feeling the creator is trying to express at that time. At other times, it suits the score for that particular instrument to be silent.

As I said, I can’t understand the benefits or artistry involved in the decision to have a soundtrack constantly playing throughout a story experience (please enlighten me below!) – but it seems to me to be the difference between being enveloped in a holistic, engaging experience or simply playing a game where the music is a convention, like the health bar and the opening menu – something that, if missing, would be sorely noticed but when present, seems simply to fade into the background like so much wallpaper.

Some would say, “George Lucas had a constant soundtrack and we still experienced a great emotional journey from his films”, but I would point out that the music was often composed specifically for the images and action on-screen and was thus dynamic in its makeup – a dynamism that game music often can’t emulate (as the Player could take ten seconds to walk across the screen to the next area or they could take thirty minutes – by which point the music has had to loop a number of times).

What do you think? Is a dynamic, nuanced soundtrack more likely to engage the Player on a deeper emotional level than a soundtrack that plays constantly throughout the game?

(Reposted from my original PlayMaker personal blog)

Lonely Soul

Phew… a quick drop today/tonight as it’s 3am and I’ve just finished installing Vista xD Good times!

One reason I’m making the move to Vista is “Assassin’s Creed”. Marketing teams for the AAA games titles are getting savvy with music now (especially after the atypical Gears of War trailer using Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears “Mad World”) and to celebrate my pending elation at being able to play the DirectX 10 version of Assassin’s Creed ; ), here’s a live performance of the track that Ubisoft used at one point to market the game: Unkle’s “Lonely Soul” featuring the vocal talents of The Verve‘s Richard Ashcroft.

It was a great choice for the game with its title and its dark air and Ashcroft’s voice fits the bill just nicely.

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