Friday, 16 May 2014

End of Second Year Review

It’s now the end of my second year of Game Art Design at DMU. I’m feeling nervous about what will come next but at the same time I feel that I have accomplished a lot this year, and I have developed both academically and personally in a short space of time. I feel more comfortable and confident in expressing myself and my ideas because I have the tools and technical/artistic skills to do so more articulately.

I think university was the best decision for me, I understand that Universities aren’t for everyone though. Uni is not like a career or a job which you depend on – even when I try and think of uni as my job, that doesn’t really sink in properly because in reality, it is a much freer environment where you are in control of your own learning. Education comes from many more sources than just tutors – in fact, solely depending on tutors for your education at Uni would be limiting yourself.

I feel that I have really stepped out of my comfort zone this year, more than I ever have in my education I think – and in ways that lean far more towards practical technical ability and logic than for example in my previous exploration where I have been more emotionally driven and abstract.

I’ve been working in a group during second year too, which has surprisingly been massively different from working in a game company team like when I worked at Lucid Games. I feel that groupwork is incredibly important in an artist’s development to become a better artist – we need to be able to give and take critique fairly, and learn to compromise and unite ideas – artists who don’t experience group work may be missing out on learning a way of working and interacting with others, especially commercial artists who will inevitably have to work with clients. I’m not sure I would have had the same opportunity to be involved in a group working on exciting projects if I was not at University, I think it would have been a lot harder for me to make it this far on my own.

I have really enjoyed getting stuck in to personal projects this year too, having my own work to do in my spare time when I’m not working on things I’ve been asked or briefed to do has kept me eager to learn new software, techniques, industry practices – and it’s also helped keep me sane when tension and stress has been high.
I hope to continue working this way for as long as I can, (somewhat sadistically) I really enjoy pushing my limits and finding out how much work and progress I can make in short intervals.
The downside to this is that I can sometimes be a workaholic and become too stressed and on edge too often. Work is important to me, but when I’m losing sleep just because “I work better during the night”, I have to reconsider if it’s entirely worth it. I’m hoping to get into a better, healthier routine over summer.

This year has also been really important for me in making friends and chilling out. I had a lot to deal with last year and kept mostly to myself, just getting my work done and keeping fairly quiet. This year, a lot of weight has been lifted from my back, and I’ve felt more confident in myself than I have felt for quite a while – I’m very happy where I am right now, with my Game Art friends, and I’ll be sad to leave second year because it’s been amazing!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

University : Life Changing or Career Building?

In the game industry, many people have come from varying education backgrounds. Some may not have gone to university, whilst others may have done a degree that is or isn’t relevant to the field of work that their career is in. Game-centered educators face the issue of whether or not there is a choice between teaching specific technical skills or developing learning attributes and ‘soft skills’.
Teaching requires mentoring people who are generally less experienced and look to you for guidance. The hard skills that a game artist tutor can teach their students involves technical skills, such as how to use 3D Modelling software, Photoshop, game engines etc. However, there is a limit to how much of this someone can teach - because there is so much information about these hard skills that it is impossible to teach all of it.
So tutors rely and depend on a student’s ability to take initiative and go study more in their own time. Hopefully, students will learn new things, spread and share the information, and in a way become teachers themselves. Education should be a community, in my opinion.

But what do companies want? I think that you can have degrees, you can be educated in programming or art or marketing or anything else, but what matters to the company is; can you do what you say you can do?
Ultimately degrees are grades which are of course highly important for credentials and solid evidence of competence, but they aren’t really accurate evidence of the style of work you produce, or who the person behind that grade is; that’s who the companies want to hire (hopefully!).
From my experience of assisting in interviews for next year’s first years on my Game Art Design course, I think the best way of finding out who that person is, is through their portfolio.

I’d hope that as a tutor, you would want your students to produce a portfolio of work that expresses all of their strengths. Giving students tasks that will make them learn technical skills is the first step to encourage them to go out and learn more. And if they are enjoying what they are doing and learning, then they might make work for themselves - perhaps for the fun of it, or to prove themselves and to show who they really are, especially when creating their professional profile.
Soft skills are undeniably always going to be needed. Technology may change drastically, but having those soft skills of conscientiousness, the will to share and learn and teach others, ensures that you can adapt to new circumstances. The hard skills are a way of getting yourself up to scratch to understand the underlying basics behind the work you are producing.
Hard skills need to be used like a science. There are formulas and equations that make things the way they are. If you want to use Physically Based Rendering in your work, then you will need to understand how PBR actually works. The hard skills will be using PBR itself, but the soft skills will be your own drive to understand the workings of it. In science, we discover new things through experimentation and testing – take the truths of something, play with it and see what results you can find.

I feel the most important soft skill is teamwork and social skills. Using your own initiative to help further your own success is commendable, however using your initiative to help further other people’s success is even better. I believe that encouraging others, knowing how to properly critique others, communicate well and treat people with the utmost respect and care is far more important than any hard skill you can learn.
This is generally what tutors are doing in their day to day job, and so if we follow their example then we are indirectly learning soft skills – theoretically. I think that does take a certain amount of self-awareness however, which is a soft skill in itself!


Creativity: Myth or Talent?

Creativity is an aspect of humanity that is left mostly unexplained. There are lots of theories on what it could be; perhaps it is something that we are all born with, or it is a product of our upbringing and we acquire it. Some theories suggest that creativity exists as an entity separate from our mind and body. Is creativity is a real thing, or just an abstract concept?
In Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk about how education kills creativity; he discusses a statement by Picasso; we are all born creative, the trick is to remain creative through the rest of our lives. Robinson argues that education pushes out creativity. In schools around the world, English and maths skills are given high priority, whilst dance and art is given the lowest priority – however human beings are capable of both maths and dance and young children have an extraordinary capacity for imagination and creativity, yet certain subjects are still given more importance than others. 

 Amy Tan makes an interesting point in her TED talk about where her creativity hides; that creativity could in fact be a type of neurosis or psychosis that we are all born with. Perhaps some people are more affected by it than others. Research suggests that Vah Gogh suffered from frontal lobe epilepsy, and this is could be attributed to his enigmatic decisions as an artist.

Conversely, psychosis is something that a person can acquire through nurture, and so if creativity can be explained this way, then maybe it is not something we are born with. Perhaps creativity is how we express what we have learnt through experiences and things that have influenced us both consciously or subconsciously.

John Cleese explains in his talk on creativity that being creative is a way of operating, and it is not a talent or an ability that someone is or isn’t able to do. He explains that people work in two different modes, a ‘closed mode’ – where we are rushed for time, have many small things that we need to get done, feel slightly tense, impatient, purposeful and possibly stressed or manic.
In this mode people may thrive and enjoy working in this atmosphere; however Cleese argues that a person cannot be creative in this mode. They must be in the ‘open mode’ instead, where they are relaxed, expansive, contemplative, humorous, playful, curious and childlike.In this way he agrees with Robinson, that a child’s ability to be imaginative and unafraid of being wrong is where originality comes from. However it is unclear whether being childlike in this way is something that we are born with and struggle to retain, or is a learnt behaviour.

Counter to this, some believe that our creativity comes to us from external entities that are out of our control. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love spoke on her TED talk about the ancient Greek and Roman belief of the Genius – a type of daemon who would visit painters, poets, writers or any other person and inflict their creativity upon that person at any given time. This concept ultimately means that the person cannot take full credit when the results of their creativity is a success for a failure – in other words it would lift the pressure of being a genius off the people themselves.

Amy Tan proposes that creativity could be an abstract concept that exists just as much as serendipity, chance, fate and luck does. Or it could in fact be a product of quantum mechanics and is random coincidence. She even questions if purposeful creativity is given to us from past lives or the guidance of the universe itself.

To conclude, creativity is something that is diverse, dynamic and distinct. Humans all experience it, perhaps not equally, but usually at least during childhood when it is in its strongest form. I think we need to have some belief that creativity is something that we innately possess, but must use our experiences and influences to unlock it effectively. I’d argue that believing creativity comes from external sources is irrelevant to the process of being in an ‘open mode’, but is a helpful attitude when thinking about the struggles that a creative person goes through.
It also brings to attention the amount of stress and expectations society presses onto creative people when they are not having creativity pushed out of them by schooling or other means.

Generalist or Specialist?

The games industry first began with ambitious people taking on the roles of programmer, producer, artist and writer simultaneously to create games that generally started off in a coder’s bedroom. Now we see multi-million dollar development studios hiring hundreds of people who fulfil the many different roles for the many departments required to put a game together.
Many studios will also outsource some of their work – where they contract skilled workers in non-EU or US countries to make assets quickly for low labour rates.
It can become very difficult for an aspiring game developer to get into the industry today when the industry is so saturated with people looking for work, and the option to outsource is so easily available.

Much smaller companies often require their workers to be generalists; developers need to have expertise in a wide area of topics because they would be called on for many tasks –Conversely, in the larger companies, someone will train in a certain area, get a job in that area respectively and then perhaps continue to only really work in that section of the company. For example, artists can be subdivided into character artists, vehicle artist, environment artist etc.
Furthermore, as I am a person studying game art and not also programming or design, I would only apply for an artist position.
Some companies themselves are specialised, for example the London based company Slide only make characters, which are outsourced to other companies such as Ubisoft, Warner Bros, Rocksteady and many more.
Specialising can help you to hone your skills and become extremely good at something, you can put all of your time and effort into one main subject. Yet being a generalist is still very much a viable career route in the industry, the success of indie companies demonstrates this perfectly. I think that the size of the company you hope to work for relates to the scope of skills you will need to have.
Valve’s philosophy for its ideal workers is a popular opinion amongst Game companies; the T-Shape person. This refers to a person who has a good grounding in general areas, and can perform a wide range of tasks well (the top horizontal of the T) but is specialised in one area and can perform specific tasks expertly (the vertical of the T).
“An expert who is too narrow has difficulty collaborating. A generalist who doesn’t go deep enough in a single area ends up on the margins, not really contributing as an individual.” 
Being a T shaped person can make you very resourceful and valuable to a company, as you may be able to complete tasks that the company would otherwise have to hire someone else for or outsource. Game developers all need to be adaptable people who use their creativity, logical and artistic talents to give companies the edge and soul that can’t be bought from outsource companies.


Elements of Game Technology : Interaction Design

Games are complex systems that demand constantly changing inputs and responses from the player. The evolution of the controller since the 1960’s has been monumental and there has been an even larger jump to hands free or virtual reality controllers in the past few years.
Ergonomics are important for console manufacturers, and a controller is sometimes the deciding factor between what system players prefer to play their games on. Controllers are becoming much more streamlined and sleek, and are demanding more interactivity from the player than ever before.
For Next Gen consoles, controllers have stepped up to involve more than just well timed and tactical button pressing, the PS4 controller has a touch sensitive click pad, motion tracker and built in speaker to appeal to a player’s movement, hearing and dexterity. Xbox One controller designers even planned to put smell emitters in their controller!
Intuition is becoming a larger factor in how players interact with games –joystick controls are still widely popular, yet motion controllers/sensors such as the Wii and Kinect make playing games more of a physical activity requiring full-body movement as opposed to just twiddling thumbs.
The Oculus Rift made an appearance in 2012, it is a head-mounted display providing vertical stereoscopic 3D perspective. I was lucky to try out an early Oculus Rift Developer Kit last year and then a later updated version at Rezzed in Birmingham this year, and I felt that whilst the visuals were very impressive and intuitive, I was still hindered from feeling fully immersed because the controls were a keyboard and mouse.

With virtual reality headsets becoming a popular trend, some companies such as Virtuix have made huge stations in which the player can run, walk and crouch in a contained space – like a treadmill; the Virtuix Omni. I imagine that this makes playing games seem very realistic or at least totally immersive.

 The adrenaline of running away or after enemies would be a full-body experience. This opens up so many new avenues for games to go down, and may prompt new generations and designs for headsets, full body controllers and other virtual reality integration systems.
But do games need full body controls to be enjoyable? Definitely not, games are always going to be enjoyed as they have been in the past, with a screen and hand-held controller. But with the option for more advanced controllers now in the fold, it widens the availability and cost range of game systems. Players now have more of a choice on how they want to experience a game, which is an interesting concept. This of course may depend on how much money the player is willing to spend however.

Would using the Virtuix Omni give players an unfair advantage over controller users, or would it give them a disadvantage if their own physical movements could not match the automated controls of a player’s button pressing? And does involving your entire body when playing games have a detrimental effect to your mental and physical well being, or a positive one?