I slept in until 10AM, so the month is off to a great start. I woke up in the middle of the night and refactored some of this website's HTML. In a world of Trellos and Behances and Discords and Slacks and whatever other multitude of organizational software (what was that stuff they made us use in game design school?), it's been very refreshing to sit down and hand-craft this journal.
The Detective Office tutorial isn't really a "hand's on" experience. I still haven't heard back from Epic regarding the project files, but that doesn't matter. There are some pretty big jumps in production between the videos in the module. I've done my best to note the workflow in my notes. It would be great practice to set up a room using these techniques, and I'll add that to the bucket list once I've run through the contest requirements. The rest of the course was a nice overview of how to get meshes, textures, and materials set up. There's a bit of self-indulgent section where the instructor spends 20 minutes lovingly set-dressing the scene. This is easily skipped if you're familiar with level design and environmental storytelling. Same with the lightmapping section. Any time a game development tutorial shows the instructor faffing about with settings, twisting knobs, or just generally spinning their wheels, it's a clear indicator that the process in question is experimental by nature. These are times where there's no hard and fast value settings for any variables. When it comes time for you to place a chair or tune a light, you'll get the most joy from just rocking values back and forth until the scene looks good. There is a basic rule that I learned years ago when it comes to adjusting variables: work in doubles and halves, then refine. So if you start at 1, and need more, double it. If 2 doesn't look good, try 4. Then 8, and so forth. If you start at 100 and need less, try 50. Slide up and down once you feel like you're in the ballpark.
Rockstar Games released Red Dead Online as a standalone game today. It's 5 USD (limited launch price, though likely to fall under the same devaluation sales that all of gaming suffers) for what amounts to one of the most beautiful renditions of the Wild West is a steal. I grabbed it from Epic Games Store, and after some minor hiccups was back rolling across the hills and valleys in free-roaming adventure. Sadly, the more than 200 hours worth of progress I'd made in the PS4 version of the game did not transfer. It's unfortunate, and I have to wonder if Rockstar has done that just to make more money. In order to get started in the "roles" in the game, a player must spend the in-game currency. You start with none. There's a "battle pass", a season pass thing, but that also costs. So while it might be 5 bucks to get the massive 116 GB behemoth of a game on your hard drive, it's another $26.99 to get into a position where playing the game is actually worth the time. Also, a session of just wandering around and shooting a few animals to clear a daily challenge swallowed almost 2 hours of my day. I don't think we'll be investing much more into the title. But, if you're in a position where you have a ton of free time, and a decent PC, you might want to take a look at what can only be described as a phenomenon in gaming.
The Sytrus "tutorial" that lives in the FL documentation taught me a really valuable lesson: how to identify what's been modified in a preset. Knowing this, I can now treat patches like I would a built Substance graph for learning purposes. I really, really want to get comfortable with Sytrus and produce my own sounds. It's a sub-hobby of a hobby. Whether I'll be able to prioritize this or make time for it, we'll see.
I want to reach production, I do. But I want to do it in a way where I'm presciently comfortable moving from tool to tool. I want to be able to put some streaming video and techno on in the background and just work. But there's much more groundwork to be laid before getting to that stage. I'm confident that all of this build up will be worth it when the time comes to start executing on ideas. I think that one of the main factors that led to my first demise as an indie developer was the overabundance of half-assery that went into my processes. I did way too many things without understanding why I was doing them, so when it came time to refine and polish I couldn't even begin to comprehend what needed to be done.
Speaking of comprehension, I managed to crack Rules of Play today. I'm getting into Unit 2, on rules, and the opening chapter served as a groundwork definition. Rules limit player action, and are: explicit and unambiguous, shared by all players, fixed, binding, and repeatable. Rules of a game are different from strategic "rules", or meta. Rules are distinct from an aesthetic experience of a game, for example if you use a piece of fruit instead of a carved wooden horse to represent a knight in a game of chess, it doesn't change the rules that bind a knight's moves. And yeah, we're talking 'bout those knight moves.
The first pass on the refactoring of my second book, the novella "Tale of the Madeus", is complete. I think if I devoted a whole day to the work, I could do the novel "Ambia" in one go. But we're all about pacing now. Gently, we go. Once I get everything cleaned, I'll do another major editing pass on each book in turn, and record an audiobook version. Then republish, and get to writing more into the series. It's been bittersweet, re-reading all of my material. It's a lot like when I notice my gut swelling out over my belt buckle, and realize that I've once again thrown out progress in favor of self-serving laziness.
Good Gaben, I've started a small practice project. I'm following the production pipeline outlined in the Detective Office module, and I've made an environment practice page on the site. One thing I noticed was that the first step should be initializing the Unreal project, as that creates a convenient folder hierarchy for storing the reference. PureRef allows for state saving, so I exported a basic .jpg for the page but I'll be using a mutable canvas. I'll scavenge a few more related images and draw the map tomorrow. I should be ready to build models by the end of the week, and that'll be a huge step forward.
I moved on to the 2nd course in the Unreal contest and was triggered by the course requirements:
As it's already late in the evening here, I'll go as far as I can before it starts asking for the files and then pick it up tomorrow.
I put a couple of hours into fiddling with FL Studio's 3x Osc. Supposedly this is a great plugin for learning the basics of synthesizers. I ended up playing more with automation and Gross Beat, but I feel like every minute spent in the DAW is worthwhile. Here's the result:
And that'll put a lid on a really productive day.
Epic released Unreal Engine 4.26. I documented the features in order of personal importance. It looks like they're really trying to make headway in film production.
I dug into the refactoring of Ambia today. I underestimated the volume of work. The writing is far denser than the previous two, and it's going to take more care and attention to ensure the editing goes smoothly. I think 3 chapters a day should cover it.
The "mood board" section of the environment design had me stymied, so I looked up a subprocess to deal with it.
Using this process, I put together a "proper" mood board.
Today might end up as a "wraparound" day, one where I slept a lot of the afternoon and will end up working through the night. Whatever happens, the afternoon was a sleepy one, and I ended up refactoring more Ambia chapters. I'm really looking forward to cleaning the ebooks up for publication.
The project files for the Unreal Engine learning module downloaded, so I'll move on to that as soon as possible. Oh, and I got more of the Unreal Engine legacy notes transcribed before midnight. I've got an old 3DS Max notes document to do once that's finished.
I've got some external gamedev "work" that I picked up on Reddit. It's what'd I'd call a clean pass on some in-game text. There's 400 lines in an XML file, I should be done by Monday. I'm only asking for a credit and copy of the finished game. If anything, it'll be good practice.
I finished the initial refactoring on the published ebooks. Next is establishing a stylesheet, formatting the EPUB and MOBI export files, running an editor pass, and recording audiobook versions. Once this is all done I'll have a solid publishing template. It's been very good splitting the work over multiple days. I have a lot to say on this work method, maybe I'll make a chapter of it in my memoirs.
With this poem the coursework for half of my semester is done. I just need to collect the revised writing from both classes into their respective portfolios and I'm done until January. I should do it right now, the sooner it's handed in the sooner I have 100% of my time freed up for gamedev. I hope to have it done by next Friday.
I also built a very quick Substance graph to add a small visual to the aforementioned poem:
A slow day for gamedev, but I expect the weekend will be full of activity. I managed to finish transcribing the old Unreal Engine notes. I don't know how far I'll go with regard to navigation and clean-up, but they're now stored verbatim on the site.
It was a weird "wraparound" day. I completed the side work I'd picked up on Reddit. If it ever gets published, I'll get an editing credit for the English texts. The game is Earth Analog1, set for a Q1 2021 release. I enjoyed doing the work, and it only took 2 hours to edit 400 lines of XML. If you've got some in-game text or narrative that you need someone to look at for consistency and presentation, hit me up.
I spent the bulk of the early morning working on the final submissions for this semester's university work. It's taxing, but I'm trying to get as much of it finished as soon as possible. Once I hit the final submission, I'll be free until January.
I decided to try and boil down my existing EPUB template. To this end, I've established a publishing notes page on this site. I'd love to have as clean and lightweight a skeleton as possible. Previously, I'd simply copy-pasted the necessary files from existing ebooks. It was a fine way to get something out the door, but with this new era of questioning everything and gaining a deeper understanding of why things are, it's important to do a full tear down and rebuild. I promise: once that's done I'll get to editing and recording audiobooks.
Subscribing to In the Mix on YouTube is already paying big dividends. He features free plugins (unsponsored) and does great overview videos. I snagged "Vinyl" today. Maybe I'll try putting together a Burial-ish tune soon. The installation and usage of the plugin taught me a little something new about automation, and reminded me that I really should sink my teeth into more advanced modules on the topic. In particular, shaping the automation clip's curve. I think I've seen seamlessR just drop a stepped square wave into a clip. I need to learn how to do that just for efficiency's sake.
I just want to write something really quick about this process I'm going through. When I first went indie back in 2010, I think I made the mistake of looking too far into the horizon. It's common to hear "eyes on the prize" and "focus on the goal" whenever anyone talks about motivation and achieving dreams. Of course, I think it's good to have some idea of where you want to end up. A completed videogame project, a published ebook, what have you. But making that shiny end product the absolute be-all, end-all target can be counterproductive.
Pharaoh Khufu gets it in his head that he wants a monument built. So he gathers up all the greatest artists and architects, and everyone agrees that a massive pyramid would be great. How massive? It's estimated that some 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing 2.5 to 15 tons, were used. That massive tonnage of rock didn't just manifest out of thin air. Each block had to be individually placed, and each layer of the structure depended on the one before it for stability.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I focused too much on having that final, timeless structure in place. I should have given far more attention to the careful quarrying, transporting, and seating of each stone. That, I think, is where the true beauty in creative discipline lies. The pyramid will get built. It's the quality of each element that really matters in creating something immortal.
It's early evening as I jump back into the UE4 contest stuff. I've been avoiding this for a couple of days because it involves programming. I need to get over my stubborn reluctance to re-engage with code, but it's going to take time. Either way, my fears were immediately realized as stuff started breaking down while following the module's instructions. I had to manually troubleshoot and rewrite function calls to get the stuff to work, but I got it going. I still don't full understand half of what's happening, but hopefully after sticking it out it will all become clear. I think that programming is one of the hardest things to teach. I had a dozen different university-level professors try over the 3 years that I studied and, although they were all decent human beings, not one of them ever had me on the same page.
I'm going to have to devote some Sunday time to plowing through the C++ stuff. I feel like the last couple of days have been somewhat low output, so it should be fine. I also need to clean my desk. It's looking nasty.
1. I only edited completed texts for clarity. I had no hand in developing the game, nor do I endorse the finished product.
I started work at 12:45 PM. It seems like I needed a little extra to get rolling this week, or maybe I was subconsciously avoiding the programming stuff I need to study in Unreal Engine. I'm not sure if I'm going to make the learning contest deadline, but I'll complete the required modules either way.
I figured out how to form waves in FL Studio automation clips before I got stuck into the coding. This is a huge step forward for me in music production.
I feel like I blew the day trying to get through this Converting Blueprint to C++ module. The instructor says "probably" and "hopefully" far too much for my liking, but I suppose that's the nature of programming. I only managed to advance 3 lessons all day. Well, in 6 hours. I forgot that I woke up after noon. I documented as much as I could follow, which was maybe 80% (and that's after 3 years of post-secondary computing science education. Specializing in C++ no less!). Either way, after waffling on it I'm pushing the rest to tomorrow and going to hunt deer in Red Dead Online.
Until you've done it yourself, it's difficult to appreciate how much work goes into publishing an ebook. I woke up at just after midnight to continue rebuilding the "skeleton" of the EPUB, the digital format from which I hang the meat of my books. I spent 4 hours carefully studying .XML files, embedding fonts, and setting up images. I'm still far from complete. I'm choosing to completely hand-roll my files this time around. Previously, I relied on templated files that I just copy-pasted together until they passed verification. Now I'm trying to actually make sense of what I'm doing. All of the relevant information is freely available online, all you have to do is search "how do I publish an ebook" and off you go. I could use a tool that would automate everything, those exist now where they didn't 8 years ago. But where's the fun in that?
I've been getting FL Studio topics in my head and noting them down in a reminders app. Today I got a notification to "learn pre-composing". I'd remembered seeing this technique years ago. It's a method for saving CPU when working with MIDI. In FL Studio it's referred to as "freezing" tracks, and I believe it's traditionally known as "printing". It's easy to do once you see the workflow.
Against my better judgment, I recorded a podcast episode:
I started putting together the asset list for the the environment practice. I'm looking forward to having a little something-something to model and texture every day. Speaking of modeling and texturing, I started transcribing the 3DS Max legacy notes. I was going a little insane in May of 2015 trying to understand things like rigging and animation. Even though I'd long given up on producing a game, I was still obsessed with character creation. I added the hotkey, general, and old baking notes. There's 20 pages of step-by-step instruction on how to generate an IK rig for bipedal animation. When I scrolled down into this I felt like I was lifting a bookmark out of a book I thought I'd never open again. What's 5 years in the face of genuine passion for results? Nothing.
I had a thought about graphics. If, as an indie, I'd established a graphics style like Hideo Kojima had for Metal Gear Solid 3, I'd never evolve it further. I still think that beautiful, flat-shaded, simple but expressive modeling and texturing they did for that that game and Peace Walker was perfect. You could build an absolutely massive, open-world experience using that aesthetic. Just keep piling up the assets in a huge bank filled with all kinds of props, weapons, and characters. The UI sensibility was also more or less perfected as it related to the visual design.
Why mention that? I think one of the places a game development can go wrong is trying too hard to keep up with whatever the bleeding edge of graphics tech is. Indies who leverage 2D pixel art or that low-poly, low-fidelity PlayStation 2-era level of 3D graphics have the right of it. It frees you up to explore more in terms of actual game design, rather than worrying about whether the visuals will render on your customer's machine. I think we can all agree that certain past aesthetics just look good, and will always look good. We've had enough of a spectrum from simple basic flat pixels all the way up to ultra-realistic ray-traced insanity that there's a "zone of acceptable representation". Anyway, as I move into 3D production I have to think about these things. What will this generation of Dark Acre design look like?
After getting that idea in my head, I wanted to go back to the source and see if Kojima's work really did still stand up. I have the HD collection for the Metal Gears in question on my PlayStation 3, which has never been unplugged and is always ready to go. I have it wired into the development PC so I can just fire it up in a capture window whenever I feel the urge. I started the downloads on the games in question (nearly every PS3 game I own is digital via PlayStation Network) and I was reminded of how terribly Sony handled their marketplace. You can't just search your collection. You can't even go into the store, find the game there, and download it. You have to go into your account history and scroll through a list that's sorted by date from most recent. I have 744 items in that list, and I couldn't remember when I bought MGS HD. It got me thinking that maybe I should go through and catalogue each game in the PS3's PSN collection properly. I've done a first pass on Backloggery, but what I should have done was recorded the purchase date and used the Original System field to indicate which system (PS3 or PS Vita) the downloads were for. So while waiting for files to arrive I started doing that. I got 44 done in an hour, I'll whittle away at the rest of it in the coming week. I just hope that when Drumble eventually upgrades to Backloggery 2.0 that this work doesn't go to waste.
There was a bunch of domestic stuff to do today. The next few days may be a little light on development.
I've been thinking a lot about CD PROJEKT RED's "Cyberpunk 2077". It's hard not to: I've been aware of the game since they dropped their first concept teaser trailer on January 10th, 2013, a month shy of 8 years ago. It's incredible, the difference anticipation + massive marketing efforts makes. Consider how ubiquitous the game's advertising is right now. It's impossible to escape! One would almost be convinced it's the only videogame that launched this month. And yet it's a heavily flawed release. If it weren't for the high-end graphics on PC, I honestly believe the game would have been laughed out of the park. I have to believe that, despite the troubles that have plagued this game's development, CDPR has sold through a billion USD across all platforms.
How could any other publisher/developer, other than Rockstar compete with that? The short answer is: they couldn't. An abnormal number of smaller games are going to drown in the wake of CDPR's behemoth this month. And, I'd argue, that's more than a little unfair when you look at the quality of what they're selling. There's a whole essay in exploring this topic of big-game quality, one that I don't have the time to write. Just another one of those game industry things I would've gotten off my chest on the old Twitch show and now can only commit to a couple of paragraphs here.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention The Game Awards. They happened today. Not many surprises for me. I spent the majority of 2020 as a "culture critic", so the writing's been on the wall for a while. I will say that I'm happy to see that things really haven't changed much at all, at least with the supposed "evolution" of videogames. Years ago, when the only big reveal event was E3, social media pundits called out the games industry for their lack of "meaningful" games. What's a "meaningful" game, you ask? In 2010 it was one that didn't involve being an angry dude shooting enemies in the face. In the decade since, indies have worked tirelessly to give us what AAA seemed unable to. So imagine my total lack of surprise when the show led with a Left 4 Dead clone, a 2022 Dead Space-ish project from the guy behind the original game, and another 4-player co-op monster smashing romp. We've moved away from "angry man shooty gun bang-bang" and now we're "diverse squad of monster destroyers". Gender politics notwithstanding, it seems the core paradigm is still all about violently dispatching endless waves of alien enemies. I think if you're gonna make a new game for the coming decade, it'd be a pretty safe bet that violence will still sell. Learning the skills to light and render the blood and gore will good for business, too.
I'm stepping away from the dev rig for the rest of the day, having accomplished nothing. Some days, it do be like that.
I built a new techno track in the middle of the night. Yan Cook continues to inspire:
I've been taking it easy these last few days. I plan to complete the poetry review necessary to submit my portfolio for university, play more games, record another podcast, then resume the full development schedule. This time pursuing other things is also serving as a "percolation" period for the environment work that's underway.
I finished transcribing the legacy 3DS Max notes, mostly thanks to squeezing value from the "free" Disney+ benefit from upgrading to Game Pass Ultimate. I've been watching the Clone Wars animated series as background noise for some time now. It's the best sci-fi fantasy storytelling I've experienced in a long while. I wonder how many kids were lucky enough to grow up with it. It's not a children's show, by any means. There's more violence, torture, and sexual innuendo than most of Game of Thrones. I wonder if the creative teams who worked on it felt like they had to make up for Star Wars I-III? Highly recommended viewing.
I spent the conscious hours of this Saturday recording another podcast episode:
That's it. That's the whole update.
Two weeks now into December. It's been a slow month compared to the previous 2, but there's been a lot of background interference. Cyberpunk 2077, Red Dead Online, GTA Online, and cleaning up the semester work for university have all taken priority. I know, it's silly to prioritize playing videogames over making them, but I made that mistake the first time around. I focused 100% of my energy in the first couple of years of indie development on making games. There were times when I looked down on playing as a waste of time, and a distraction. While games may still be intrinsically a distraction, by no means is their enjoyment a waste. Unless, of course, the game sets out to be a waste.
I managed to publish another musical experiment:
FL Studio also released a new update today. I'm looking forward to making use of this:
I have a ton of melodic sketches recoded in voice memo apps, and I want to feed them through this and craft MIDI version. There have been other methods to do that, but this makes it much simpler.
As soon as I get the last bit of university work cleaned up, I'll resume full gamedev work. I have something to say about actual, creative production: time spent thinking before doing is very important. It's a fine line though, and easily mistaken for procrastination or detour behavior. So far, I've felt like I've made good use of the pre-production build-up.
Journaling the journey has proven invaluable. It's kept me motivated and had me anticipating each day. I highly recommend this practice to any creative developer.
I know it's been a little quiet on the Acre these last few days. If you're not seeing updates here, it's because I haven't done anything toward making a videogame or publishing an ebook. I hesitate to call this brief interlude a holiday, but looking back on the historical record it seems 2 months of solid effort was the first limit. Not bad, considering I haven't done any kind of serious development since 2013. I'm older, more tired, and generally weaker than I was. I haven't tried as hard as I should to keep the decay at bay. I hope that acknowledging it counts for something.
Discipline is hard. It's easy to keep up the appearance, though. Pretending to be someone, or do something, is one of the easiest things a person can do. I've seen it time and time again. And people get away with it. For years. I'm trying to approach this new era with as much transparency as possible. I hope that's coming across. But yes, discipline is hard. I think it takes many forms, too. It's not just about keeping a regular schedule, eating the right stuff at the right time, sweating enough each day. It's about maintaining a vision. It's about captaining in such a way that the crew's morale stays high and the boat keeps its course. Part of that metaphor involves a healthy amount of shore leave.
The university work is all done for the semester. I have to say, I hate taking academic criticism. I know that most professors are just going through the motions of a job like any other worker, and it's never been more apparent than with this degree. I'm doing online course this year (thank Gaben) and it doesn't take a trained detective to see that the materials are old and the classmates are disinterested. We're all just part of the process of higher education, I suppose. Hopefully I've processed a couple more A's for the record, not that that's going to matter in the long run. Particularly when we're living in a time when universities are saying that a pass is good enough under the circumstances. I expect that to continue for at least another year, which should translate to smooth sailing for yours truly.
I've been collecting numerous gamedev-related YouTube videos into the Watch Later playlist. I've also been thinking of how to structure the podcast, and how important of a role it's going to play in this whole thing. Other than that, though, it's been mostly just sitting here and playing Grand Theft/Red Dead Online while working my way through the Star Wars content on Disney+. Clone Wars was amazing, and I'm sad I slept on it for so long. I always thought it was a kid's show, but it turned out to be one of the most brutal, well-written science fantasy series I've ever seen. Very inspiring stuff. Highly recommended, especially if you've ever looked down your nose at Star Wars.
I've tried to play Cyberpunk 2077. It just doesn't interest me. That's the most polite thing I can say about it.
I'm going to take another day to chill, then we'll stoke the fires and get the engine rolling tomorrow.
There are 3 pillars to success:
I've had these on a sticky note somewhere near my workplace for years. I don't always regulate them like I should, but scientific study shows that their neglect leads to higher-level failure. I listed them in order of importance, or perhaps in order of hierarchical contribution. I believe that proper sleep is the absolute foundation of everything good in life. Without rest and nutrition, it's impossible to motivate the body to move nor calm the mind for meditation. There's a lot more to say about this stuff, but this isn't the place. I just wanted to remind myself as I resume the gamedev journey.
The bulk of the day's work involved finalizing the EPUB template. It took a shocking amount of work, but after dozens of trials it finally verified!
It would almost be worthwhile to record a simple tutorial video and sell that alongside the template. Something to consider.