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Solace State: More scene assets

More scene assets have been added onto my Unity build since the last post. This is because I’m creating my first showcase demo build for early December! I will have a table at a fan expo with my art prints as well, and it’ll be a great opportunity to gain some valuable feedback from players and members of the dev community. As I want to retain some surprises for people who want to try out the game there, I’ll just report on the following below:

I’ve put in all of the dialogue and narrative in the first 5 scenes, with the proper pacing and click-based interactions. However not all of the 3D and 2D assets are done yet, as I have been working on each of the priorities for each scene. Here’s a screen shot of the second scene! There’s still some foreground UI animations that I’ll need for this scene for the protagonist’s passport. This scene also animates cinematically, as though from the protagonist’s first-person perspective.

SolaceState_Sc2_Word2_875SolaceState_Sc2_Word4_875

Additionally, I want to expand on the second game design that I was experimenting with. It represents when Chloe is hacking and finding out more details of a place. The camera goes into orthographic view in this mode, and you can move around using WASD keys to read snippets of text in the environment, that might disappear or appear depending on where in the environment you are. Later on, I might have some basic point-and-click puzzles. I kind of like this different way of perceiving a 3D space that isn’t first-person, to illustrate that the “hacking” Chloe is doing unnatural, and also gives her an incomplete picture into the world.

It’s also got a somewhat abrasive aesthetic that mimics a glitch image, especially when done to whole buildings.

Finally, I’ve asked a new collaborator to come on board to create some additional character art for me! My original illustration style was softer and didn’t have as many interesting postures and expressions. So we’re exploring a more graphic look for the characters that are also more visible on smaller screens. Additionally, it makes it more manageable for me to focus on 3D assets, writing, and putting the game together. (See: “Rebecka” at left.)

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Game design elements for Solace State

Solace State is in its early production stage. It is an interactive novel where you play as Chloe, a young hacker who must navigate a near-future metropolis to re-unite with her friends, and contend with both the tyranny of the great and the sectarianism of the many. For more information, please see the recent re-introduction post here!

What does it look like? The new screen captures from today show the game mechanics and art style which will stay consistent for most of the rest of the project.

In Solace State, you play from Chloe’s perspective. The core mechanic, as described in a previous post, remains simple and unchanged: You get to chose some of her dialogue and actions through contextual buttons, to try to develop and maintain trust or exploit a character or social group. This plays out in a branching narrative, similar to many story-driven games and interactive fiction.

HoloDesign_UnityPrev02_sig

95% of what will appear on the screen are events through her eyes. This includes the room that you’re in, to the computer hologram pop-ups that greet you. This was a design decision that took a while to articulate, since I do want the protagonist’s face to show up now and then, but I also want to maintain immersion of a singular perspective.

This is a first design for the UI, where one character talks to you. The character will have expressions to match what they are saying, but will generally be static, similar in style with many Visual Novels. The self-cam shows Chloe’s face or nearby proximity as appropriate for the scene, and sometimes no image feed at all. Since this scene is early in the game, I chose to crop in on her eyes and reveal her full appearance over time.

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This UI design is still preliminary, and there will be other configurations in other scenes so that the holo-screens do not block a particular focal point in the background. The background is fully 3D in Unity 5, and takes advantage of its physical shaders, and therefore can include atmospheric effects such as shifting light rays, reflective moving surfaces, and much more.

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The second major game mechanic that I’ve been testing lately is the ability to find key information and extrapolate emotional narration from our main character without the use of flashbacks. This one is structured around Chloe’s playground – her hackspace – and lets the player scroll through an isometric space to find and read information. Another design consideration is that I have to consider how to write for something that will likely be read out of order – an interesting premise! The player also pieces together the architectural space gradually, which can give more flavour or clues as to what the narrative slices are about.

*Note: The grainy, blurry quality of the GIF above is because it was very compressed for web! Rest assured that the textures look better in Unity realtime, or as a Video file.

I’m quite excited about both of these gameplay trajectories as Solace State starts feeling much more interactive! Thanks for reading!

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Solace State: A re-introduction

A lot has changed over the past months for how Solace State looked, told its story, and played out. I had expected development to be a thoroughly transformative process, and it has not disappointed me. I read up on a number of studies that examined political resistance, as well as cyberspace as the new frontier for civil struggles, and it led to a number of broad changes both to narrative and to gameplay itself.

Here’s a new introduction to the project…

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The Premise
“Our future, our design!” In 2038, Abraxa Harbour city-state is hailed by its wealthy as the crowning jewel of thriving markets and cosmopolitan culture, at odds with the increasing number of destitute who live in the shadows of its skyscrapers. But this is the year that even students and workers see their future dwindling away, and they rally to form a society different from what the city’s strongholds have authorized. A young woman, Chloe, is in many ways an outsider, a newcomer who finds Abraxa full of forbidden and cryptic histories. But she must strike deep into the storied urban streets in order to reunite with her friends, who have embedded and braced themselves to defend their livelihoods. Can she reunite them across ideological divisions, or are some of them better off alone with their ambitions? With her machine-aided perception to see into reclusive worlds and associations, how will Chloe negotiate her hopes and fears in the midst of turbulent revolution?

Visual Novel Features

  • A unconventional story set in a sci-fi city that focuses on the human stories of negotiation and social trust
  • What dialogue and actions you chose matters to the outcome of the game and the characters around you
  • Hand-drawn characters and handcrafted 3D backgrounds
  • Unique introspective scenes where you must “hack a 3D space” to find the internal monologue

Why a game?:
Solace State is an imaginary vision of participatory citizenship and negotiation between some very differing groups of people. It makes sense that players can engage with the narrative through various menus of choices that are reflexive of their own values. The sci-fi elements of the story allow the protagonist to quickly wrest information from the world and make strategic decisions. But most simply, this is a game with a story about people who often feel like outsiders, who are overlooked, but can come together to create new emergent livelihoods. Because I want to portray both utopic and dystopic elements, I feel like a game form can give me the greatest range of affective outcomes and not just show one tone or atmosphere, given that you can chose a path in the story. Above all, the players can interpret whether the story is utopic or dystopic themselves.

Game Engine:
Built in Unity 5, so that I can take advantage of the asset store for visual novel tools, as well as full 3D engine and realtime lighting capabilities.

Pt 2: History of Development:

I started ruminating on the idea of a game about a futuristic student-led society since early 2013, when I had just completed a game arts & VFX internship in Hong Kong. I was traveling in East Asia and was having conversations with friends and artists there about our histories and civil identities. In Nov-Dec 2013, a group of friends and I put together a 5-minute playable level in Unity as a proof-of-concept. Back then, the game was called Babel. It featured point-and-click puzzles and voice-over narration in a 3D environment built for first-person exploration.

Something didn’t quite grasp the agency and atmosphere that I wanted to convey in the first playable demo. The puzzles weren’t very good, and each of us in the team were considering longer-term job opportunities at the time. We put the project on indeterminable hold. In Fall 2014, outside of a couple of short-term freelance engagements, I returned to developing this game.

After some consultation with programming and design friends, I realized that I really needed to hone in the script first for it to be a narrative-driven game, and that my gameplay will be informed by the key characteristics of the narrative. This may seem counter-intuitive for a lot of general how-to-dev guides that demand focus on gameplay first, but for me, interaction cannot be divorced from narrative action in a text-heavy game. Finally, it did not seem like I was fighting with gameplay ideas that could barely move past the prototype stage because the narrative seemed like flavor, not a key feature, and that was not necessarily something I wanted to produce for this particular game.

Thus, through the remaining months of 2014 and early 2015, I drafted a cyberpunk story with an outline for the general arches of narrative action. I had a much better grasp of what I was going for, and Solace State as a name reflects both sci-fi and political overtures. I created a trailer in Feb 2015 to solidify the atmosphere and tone. I knew clearly what I want to highlight for Solace State: Conversations and building relationships and trust between characters. Which brings us to now: As a solo developer, I currently balance my time between design, game engine work, writing, and artwork.

Art style (a continued odyssey):

In Dec 2013, the game was a 3D exploration puzzler, and the models were realistically proportioned but had a very painterly texture to them.

BabelDec2013_Set2_size

By Feb 2015, I have found a simpler style: Banksy-like graphical style with painterly 2D backgrounds.

SolaceState_Trailer_OutOnStreets

 

Now, I’m finding an in-between: 2D illustrated characters that will have more diverse facial expressions and a hand-drawn look. I am experimenting with 2.5D backgrounds and 3D scenes.

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Shown above: A Ren’Py prototype from Aug 2015. The art got a bit too convoluted, and I want a separation between characters and backdrop (kind of like Disney’s different styles between character and background art).

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This is a realtime prototype in Unity, created Sept 13, 2015. I want to see how I can push this with 2D flatty character art.

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GDC 2015: A Journey in Learning

GDC was such a whirlwind of experiences, inspirations, and constant learning. Learning came in many forms, whether they were in workshops, at chill-out lounges, at talks, in the Yerba Buena Gardens, at parties, at the expo, at luncheons, at roundtables, and more. It was cathartic to be surrounded by so many talented individuals from so many diverse backgrounds, and, because of that, I can only have room for improvement in my own craft. I think that it is so important to have people in the industry to look up to and also to approach and talk to about work and life. GDC is one of those places where that there will always be a diversity of people to share their insights and inspire others.

I would not have had the opportunity to attend GDC if it wasn’t for the generosity of the GDC 2015 Dames Making Games Scholarship and the sponsors which made it happen for our convoy. Thank you especially to our Convoy Partner, ID@XBOX, whose generosity helped support women developers who can travel to GDC for the first time. Sharing the GDC experience with so many diverse talents is incredible, and developers I’ve talked to have been very excited to hear about the initiatives to encourage more women and other minority groups into the games industry.

IGF 2015 with Nathan Vella

IGF 2015 with Nathan Vella (Capybara Games) hosting

 

I went into GDC with the mentality that I wish to experience a little of everything that the conference had to offer. I was successful on trying something different each day. On looking back, there could have been an additional networking strategy that I should have struck out with: To find developers and designers who did similar work with similar themes and tonality, so that I can inquire as to their failures and successes and perhaps even find a suitable mentor there. I think that I met a lot of diverse individuals at all stages of game development, from students to seasoned pros, but I should have been more proactive and forward-thinking in seeking out specifically narrative game developers. I think, should I go to Indiecade Festival this October (22-25), that should be one of my top reasons to make the trip.

Playstation booth at GDC Expo

Different folks will tell you different strategies of how to tackle your first GDC or major developer conference. Student guides will always say to go to events during the day and party till you drop at night. Veterans will tell you to skip the talks because they’re all in the GDC Vault anyways. Some will say that the expo is a see-once experience, but worth it for the swag.

Everyone buzzes about the parties, parties, parties, but there’s certainly no agreement as to which one is the “best party”. I personally like the ones where I can network and chat at normal volume without feeling rushed; Others like thumping dance parties where they can decompress the conference day away. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed dance as a practice, but my brain is one of those that finds it hard to switch off from networking, once I’ve got the ball rolling.

Resting my feet at Mild Rumpus, in the middle of a packed day of networking, learning, and chatting to other devs.

Resting my feet at Mild Rumpus, in the middle of a packed day of networking, learning, and chatting to other devs.

This is also what worked for me, which my boyfriend picked up on easily: “What is it that the pass really pays to get you into?” he asked me, “The talks, the workshops, the roundtables. Go to those. They’re in the Vault, yes, but the people who are there bothering to attend the presentation are those who share the same niche interests in game dev as you. And they’re the people that you need to talk to.” And the thing is, I’m the kind of person who feels really engaged with lectures. So I tested this theory on Thursday, Friday, and indeed, I felt like I connected very well with people who are also attracted into a certain specialized talk. As diverse as game-making can be, people at highly specific talks are attracted to the same concerns and questions that I have in my own career trajectory.

Since everyone likely has such a different experience of GDC, I will document my highlights:

Daniel Cook on Emotions of Game Design

  • Game Design Workshop, lead by Robin Hunicke (Funomena, thatgamecompany) in my section to iterate in design teams of six on a tabletop game that emphasizes Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics in a causal loop (MDA Framework). We learn how to tune our card game in an iterative feedback system that balances cooperation, betrayal, negotiation, and aesthetics. Slides are available from 2014 session here!
  • Design Bootcamp elective on Putting More Emotion into Play, where my favorite take-away is that design should evoke a “body loop”. It is the idea that there should be a direct emotion involved with game mechanics’ direct motion, so to encourage the player to remember and to be stimulated by gameplay actions. One of the most obvious loops is the feedback of delight in an “aha” moment, a really clear example of which is expressed by figuring out a puzzle. Daniel Cook (Spry Fox) lead the workshop and he has more articles here on experimenting on emotions in game design
Alexander Martin, Damian Sommer, Leisha Riddel, Taylor Bai-Woo and friends at Yerba Buena Gardens

Alexander Martin, Damian Sommer, Leisha Riddel, Taylor Bai-Woo and friends at Yerba Buena Gardens

 

  • Exchanging stories in the Yerba Buena Gardens with game dev friends from around the world, old and new

Paloma Dawkins presentation at Mild Rumpus GDC 2015

  • Chilling at the Mild Rumpus with friends and in awe of Paloma Dawkins’ presentation of her exploratory 3D game, Gardenarium. It’s so immensely dazzling, you should check it out here

Disasterpiece and Teddy Diefenbach's GDC 2015 musings + music

  • Keep Grooving: Teddy Diefenbach + Disasterpiece’s live scored “poetry slam” about gamedev life & musings was an experience with spiritual transcendence. It was beautifully tempered and a most engaging performance piece. Glad I got to see this live with so many great friends!

Unreal Engine booth at GDC 2015

  • Spending hours at the Epic Unreal expo booth talking about rendering distance field, procedural generation, and especially the new UMG UI system, or just generally about the Blueprint system in general. The support teams from Epic are just phenomenal. Then, spending hours at Intel Lounge also talking about Unreal. Haha!
  • Getting a perfect score on SpaceBro at Alt.Ctrl with developer @nkornek
Brittney Oberfeld, Gabby DaRienzo and Kara Stone at XBox Women in Games Award Luncheon

Brittney Oberfeld, Gabby DaRienzo and Kara Stone at XBox Women in Games Award Luncheon

 

  • Enjoyed Xbox Women in Gaming Awards Luncheon with fellow DMG convoy members, catching up with @stinkerfish over academic interests and meeting our ID@XBOX Convoy Partner Sponsor. The Xbox Luncheon highlights the achievements of women in gaming. Four female game development leaders – Colleen Macklin (Parsons School of Design, PETLab), Abby Lee (LXP of Microsoft Studios), Amy Robinson (EyeWire), Robin Hunicke (Funomena) – delivered incredibly personable and inspiring talks, an experience that I would not trade for anything: From the art of failure, to embracing difference, to prototyping often rather than just ruminate on ideas, to having the positive outlook to believing in others.

Never Alone Slide of Inupiat Cultural Values GDC 2015

 

  • Adventures in Storytelling: Telling the World’s Stories Through Games discusses the community collaboration that brought the indigeneous Inupiat representations in Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) to culturally respective design. Creative director Sean Vesce and Writer Ishmael Hope shared the oral tradition which has a direct source back to the lineage of Elders, and how to transmit emotion and specificity of culture in game form. What particularly resonated with me was their tips on how to create partnerships: To build trust, mutual respect, and exist in a framework of equal power – that is, that game developers do not have all the answers, but must be better listeners to be better storytellers. E-Line Media worked directly with the Inupiat community and was gratified that Elders and community members supported the game.
Ken Seto, Lyndsey Gallant and Andy Smith at Tonga GDC 2015

Ken Seto, Lyndsey Gallant and Andy Smith at Tonga

 

  • Meeting up with fellow Canadian developers at the OMDC party and Tonga, the most stylish Tiki bar in town
  • Startup Accelerators Roundtable run by Execution Labs’ Cofounder Jason Della Rocca, which helped cement the idea that I am much more project-based currently in my career, and may be more suited currently to seek grants and publishers in the middle term.
  • Meetings for potential sound and musician collabs
  • Low Budget Indie Developers Roundtable run by Oded Sharon of Corbomite Games: Developers from all backgrounds and experience levels share their ideas of how to find coworkers, how to leverage social media and Kickstarter, and how to keep motivated
  • Date dinners and bonding time in North Beach, Union Square, Telegraph Hill, Japantown; The breaks were necessary and helped me reset my enterprising and networking energies

And, my goodness, I think I missed meeting up with at least 60% of friends that I wanted to see this trip. The week felt like it came and went so quickly! I’m so sorry. Next year? Next conference? We’ll have to have the opportunity to meet up again!

What astounds me about the whole trip is that I was able to connect with people, not just about work and games, but what makes them engaged about the world. I’ve talked to people I’ve never met previously about the flux of change in political states, I’ve listened to a conversation about military practices, I’ve exchanged style tips heartily, I’ve reminisced about our beginnings. That human connection between devs at every experience level and background is something that makes me so excited to be in the game development industry. I look forward to my own work, just as I look forward to new innovations from all of you!

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From Babel to Solace State: A concept trailer

Solace State is the new name for Babel. With this change also comes a new mockup concept trailer, with a new illustration art style that I believe is more distinct and carries consistently through. It’s created right in time for GDC 2015.

After consultation and a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that Solace State is a much more descriptive title for an interactive novel video game. The story remains the bedrock even though my prototype game designs have changed.

Solace State is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s reunions across a troubled hotbed of ideological dissent. She will come across challenges that bend the very fount of many people’s hopes, dreams, and fears. The city which she knows and does not know may censor secrets, or share too much.

Please watch the trailer in full screen, with sound on. Enjoy!

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My 2014 freelance year in review: Remembering to Learn

People have encouraged me to keep my passions strong about my own work. But, there were some dark moments of 2014 that I took my own passions for granted. For example, during crunch times of consistent 80-hour-plus work weeks, I have forgotten the extent of how to manage my own energy output. I tunnel-visioned on actualized results and deadlines, and neglected the joys of learning. I mistook workaholism for passion and momentarily misplaced my personal identity.
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Because of this, I’m charting my career growth in 2014 in terms of what I’ve learnt, not what milestones I have met. I believe it is a positive and healthy mind-shift for one’s own professional goals. And learning is incredibly valuable to someone who is fairly new to freelance and developing their own projects. Self-employment has a kind of freedom that requires self-reflection and self-discipline. Freelancers ought to develop their own brand through how they work and what they want to learn. This, I found, is the best way to know how to say yes and when to say no.
At the same time, do I really have a “final product” to show for my learning this year? Not really. But, for my self-initiated projects aimed at commercial release, I’ve finally lived through what it truly means to pivot and transform a project. I needed to do this because otherwise I may be staring at a 3-year wall of work, but now I have a project that has a scope that better reflects its core strengths. And I will likely continue to pivot again and again. The growing pains are harsh, and they always will be, but I think that making myself more adaptable and malleable is for the better.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology demonstrates how employees’ mandate of meeting milestones and deliverables is a well-intentioned structure, but it isn’t actually efficient if the final product does not have meaning or contribute value.
Now, there’s several ways that we can understand value, such as value in the marketplace by real users, as well as value by the people who have worked on the product. We can measure value for professionals based on our empowerment, through learning and gaining confidence in our contributions. And I believe that this goes all the way down to the individual level. That, even and especially when there are failures, we ought to still measure our professional achievements by learning first, at the very least for ourselves. Because that’s how we create positive change from failures, and it’s how we pivot.
This is my 2014 learning chart:

LearningOf2014_sm

One thing that should be clear from such a chart, at least to remind myself, is that a lot of my efforts did translate into learning opportunities. And I don’t think anyone should forsake that. Instead, we should remind ourselves of our recent accomplishments which are meaningful and that we can feel proud of, even if they don’t contribute to a final product. I had forgotten, for example, how much time and energy I’ve focused into creative writing this year. This is compared to treating it as a hobby in the past, and it feels great to treat it respectfully as its own process. I think that I still have far to go, but practising it and utilizing a multidisciplinary approach can only make better practice. And I finally created a Babel: Episode 1 storyline that I am happy with. Even in October, as I stared at an abyss of really needing to pivot away from 3D, or face a high-risk project of years of development and multiple team-mates’ contributions on the line, the story was what kept it grounded.
But there is also a lot of room for improvement. For example, there was such little time spent on coding. I barely even remember anything of UE3’s Unrealscript because it was sandwiched between a lot of crunch and having too many obligations simultaneously. UE4’s Blueprint didn’t even register on my chart because I felt like I gave myself so little time to learn how to make dialogue and trigger objects work. However, as I move forward, I need to provide more time and patience into learning coding. The only time that I feel like coding started to click for me is when I recoded my TOjam game, Scar Tissue, into Unity for more flexibility. The first pass was also done in a crunch of four days, but it felt really neat to turn nothing into a set of workable and simple game mechanics.
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By assigning key dates to the work that I’ve done, I really became aware of how little breaks I have given myself. I was working non-stop from August 2013 to June 2014, worked straight through 2013’s Christmas holidays, and didn’t give myself a complete weekend off until early September 2014. It’s not healthy, and in hindsight I believe my pivots for both Scar Tissue and Babel would have been less painful processes had I just given myself real breaks. Half-weekend work days are still not entirely a breather. There were some instances where I should take a continuous two-and-a-half days off in “don’t-even-think-about-it”-mode, to look at it again with fresh eyes.
In terms of art, 2014 was the year that I had dealt with the most diverse aesthetic explorations, both of my own choosing as well as that of clients’ or teammates’. The biggest learning curve was for the Remington client project that I managed game engine-side graphics for, but a really valuable takeaway from that is that anything with aesthetic unity requires R&D / storyboarding / mockups. Lots of it. I will improve on my artistic practices in 2015, for I will develop a stricter process of experimentation to key the right aesthetic vision to Babel and other projects. 2014 as a whole was a good mix of both organic and inorganic artworks, and in mid-December I finally crunched out my first human 3D model since game arts graduation in 2012. All of the above learning feels rewarding and memorable.

It’s been a hard year for a lot of people in the entertainment and video games industry. I’ve seen how hard people have worked to get to where they are. I’ve seen how prototypes and final products feel like two divergent paths, because the former feels like a roadtrip and the latter feels like grind. I know now how difficult it is to hit that sweet spot of game design that feels meaningful and heartfelt to players and unifies the game as one cohesive journey. A lot of us are perfectionists. Some of us go through this self-destructive passage in forgetting the rest of the world, or even our own, and burn out.
It happens. The greatest privilege is to know that you can dust yourself off because you’re learning, training yourself anew from the shells of your old projects. And I must recognize my own privilege that I’m in a game development community that is very supportive of emergent voices and experimentation. There are friends who encourage me to follow my dreams. Experienced designers and engineers who send the elevator back down, to encourage the growth of opportunities for the next generation. I don’t want to squander anything that I’ve learned over the years, whether in school or starting out like this in freelance. I have finite energy, but, by focusing on learning, and aiming to share what I can, it all feeds back into a cycle of renewal. We ask questions and we learn more as we teach what we know. I want to encourage that aim for a great journey, of wondrous lessons and its stories, and not just that perfect result.
(All images in this post are illustrated by yours truly; Header image is an “unfinished” concept piece for Babel.)
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Exploring Babel

Babel has been an interesting process lately because I am going back to the drawing board for a number of design considerations, in order to better create a match between storytelling and immersion. Script writing continues to be an iterative process, which helps articulate the scope of the game, since it is narrative-driven. There will continue to be more prototyping to see what works best!

I’ve been looking at different interfaces, but also find myself enjoying some of the beautiful rendering and shader tools available in Unreal 4!

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My First Lean Startup Machine: A Network of Possibilities

So hey, I’m one step closer to being a triple-threat model: 3D modeler, photographic model, business modeler.

All joking aside, I was really nervous about joining up for Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop this weekend. Sure, I had read The Lean Startup book by Eric Ries, but to apply it as a group in a concentrated 48-hour workshop series was different than reading up on inspiring methodology. After all, I’m most comfortable when I get to hide behind a book to give me insight to the world.

The moment that I stepped onto Decentral where LSM would headquarter over the course of 48 hours, people who are strangers to me did an elevator pitch of their startup idea, and then we coalesced into groups around the best ones to create a viable product-market fit. That’s the goal. And the process is something that would otherwise take businesses a few months or more: We had to create the Minimal Viable Product and present it in front of a panel of judges within that time. Plus, we had to gather as many interviews and people-based metrics as possible to declare whether or not we actually had a useful product, and not just a product that no one would buy.

Organically finding the startup group whose idea appealed to us. Photograph by Rami Sayar.

Organically finding the startup group whose idea appealed to us. Photo by Rami Sayar.

I was anxiously certain that I would stick out like a sore thumb. A burden. I have no experience whatsoever in business, finance, accounting, nor even entrepreneurship. Instead, I have a background in academic humanities theory, 2D and 3D visual arts, game engines, and a tendency towards esoteric and tangential conversations. None of them felt like they translate very well to Lean entrepreneurship. But the tipping point is this: There’s no guarantee that people can derive value (emotional, intellectual and/or spiritual) from my art, and that’s the scariest proposition that any artist have to deal with. Everything else, like my worry for lack of business experience, pales in comparison to this desire to do something about this productive stagnation.

Also, is there treasure at the end of the rainbow? I’m curious.

Also, is there treasure at the end of the rainbow? I’m curious.

This is how I work: You think that this 3D real-time game scene below looks pretty good? Think again. I can name forty things off the top of my head that’s subpar with it: It’s in an old game engine, so the lighting shaders and occlusion aren’t as great as it can be. The amount of weathering and grime between bed, lamp, walls and floor are unmatched, making it look like they all come from different decades. The 3D effect could pop out more for the tiles. The metal frame is too shiny. The mattress should be lumpier. And so on goes the tunnel vision. Believe me, it’s legitimate, this is how professional artists ought to think. Similarly, too, this carries into my level of discernment and aggressive rigour for creative writing.

ParturitionWard_120818_Render03-1020x710

Even the perfectionists are wary of this. But you learn to be satisfied with what you’ve got, because inevitably there’s a deadline. And I suppose there’s a reason I’m pretty obsessive about modelling hospital-related assets… P.S.: It’s really hard for me to post the blue comic doodles in this post because they look really unfinished to me. I had a huge internal fight with it the whole way through.

LSM teaches the opposite of this type of behaviour. It’s much more proactive, focusing on asking questions rather than executing based on a particular set of parameters. They’re two divergent ways of creativity with some very contrasting set of goals. If I could summarize one of the key teachings of the Lean mindset, it is to not assume anything about your final (or even preliminary) product, no matter how “cool” you think that it is going to be for your potential customers. It’s about not thinking about the solution right away until you know the problem that you are trying to solve, and who has that sort of problem or is in need of a new benefit and convenience in their lives. Put that way, it’s incredibly empowering because you’re putting something together for a non-abstract “somebody”, not just taking something apart to put together for the sake of the exercise.

I'm pretty sure that this isn't the solution to the puzzle.

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t the solution to the puzzle.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean that it has to negate the personal vision. It’s not a zero-sum game. The most non-abstract “somebody” is myself. And I’m trying to tell myself this, even though I know that it’ll be a psychological fight all the way: Don’t work in isolation. Don’t be the artist who completely forgets to look at the discerning eyes of another person while working on that beast of an oeuvre. For creatives, I believe that there are times when, as we hit a plateau, it seems impossible to move past that “block”. It shouldn’t be that way, because all art pieces and all forms of storytelling are conversational. They’re meant to communicate.

Sometimes we just gotta have a heart-to-head. (Heart, be nice!)

Sometimes we just gotta have a heart-to-head. (Heart, be nice!)

Art is also meant to listen. As Todd Charron explained, “Listening is the willingness to change.” Art is often very much about listening to a broader society in order to cultivate a meaningful reflection of it. So, many of the ideas embedded in LSM itself doesn’t necessarily always have to pertain to customers, but it can work as well for audiences or other receptive learners. Instead of asking people, “Will you buy this”, I can always ask “Is this meaningful to you”, should my key goal privilege cultural and expressive values.

Much of what I’ve learned at LSM is really something indescribable because it is the process of learning for yourself and your team – and learning to fail. What I can say is, I agree with Ramli John when he wrote that “LSM is not a rulebook. It’s a mindset.” And there’s nothing to say that mindsets and pipeline-specific methodologies can’t co-exist together. But it will be an experiment all the way, and many testable hypotheses. It’s where I can’t let too many ideas bubble over without being able to look at the basic chemistry behind it all. Fellow attendee Cherry Rose described it best, and even with a drawing: You start off with a lot of seemingly brilliant ideas, but then you test it and find that you can only take the best, and then layer on new ideas, and keep building and culling. Like layers of sediment.

Bear with me, I'm an Arteeste.

Bear with me, I’m an Arteeste.

The LSM learning would not have been so eagerly appropriated by me for potential use in a non-profit centric mode of production, were it not for the community atmosphere there. I love all the learning and shifting of mindsets at the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) weekend. I have not met a mentor that was not supportive and willing to share their insight, as well as give us the necessary push to move us out of our comfort zone. Everything felt well-paced. There’s almost an “aha, I’m joking”, because the pace was so frenetic and kinetic that made you look back and go, “wow, I didn’t realize I was capable of that”. But the point is that we are capable, and we achieved a lot in those 48 hours.

Is LSM for everyone? Not at all. It’s not a stroll in the park, but more like scaling a mountain. I think some would absorb the value of it much better than others. It’s a draining, sometimes heart-breaking process. It’s like going through an emotional relationship in a compressed timeline. It’s all about facing up to rejections, but also moments of high reward because you know things just clicked. But, most of all, it’s about the willingness to learn and listen. The willingness to help others and to be clairvoyant to the strengths and weaknesses in human nature, of yourself, your team, and of the people that you interview to find your customer base.

Our team picture. We actually had to get out of the building to get real customer responses to our ideas. Photo by Ian Gerald King.

Our team picture. We actually had to get out of the building to get real customer responses to our ideas. Photo by Ian Gerald King.

As a “mountaineer” of LSM this weekend, I think that I really got a glimpse of how different the whole atmosphere of thinking at this strata is. To evaluate my performance through this analogy, I think that I packed fairly light but was not really capable to carrying anyone else’s load. Sometimes my gaze would wander to the faraway vista or the flowers rather than the task at hand. And, while breaks are very necessary, sometimes the tangents strafe away from the goal, even if it was only a few seconds of unrelated discussion. One of my teammates, Joe, was very good at getting me back on track, as he never scolded me when I did not comprehend something. Instead, he led the way by kindly re-enunciating the useful examples, once even with diagrams, thus allowing me to more proactively contribute ideas that are more pertinent.

That’s the other thing: Like scaling a mountain, it takes patience with oneself and with the team. This was something that I think that my team members exemplified well.

I think that, by the end of the week, I had made it to the middle of the mountain. I was looking up at the parts where there are icy slopes and deemed it a bit too scary for myself. I was not able to sell a product to a customer, whether it was product concept or an actual, physical prototype, in order to most truthfully replicate the exchange of value with the early adopter. Mike from my team put forth the Herculean effort to do just that, carrying around 10 pounds of our product to our target market.

If there was one thing I wish that I had discussed more with fellow participants, it is how they learned how to become more comfortable speaking to strangers that they ended up getting some really engaged conversations. Team leader Neil and I did have one case of that where we had a young woman get so excited about our product that she told us what design consideration would work best for her usage. I want to know what would trigger that more, and I will ask for more advice as well as just learn by discovery.

Many useful perspectives to scale a mountain.

Many useful perspectives to scale a mountain.

I had asked the question of whether or not the Lean mindset can be applied to “art” projects. MC and Mentor Jason Cheong-Kee-You offered me the open-ended response: When we are designing startups at LSM, much of it privileges text and speech. What has yet to be explored is the power of visual imagery and interaction, both of which game-making exemplify. How we can create simple and meaningful experiences out of those two additional modes to connect with potential audiences is a very relevant realm to explore. And the neatest tidbit? These experiences do not need to be complicated in order for it to be a testable experiment.

To close off, I subtitled this blog post as a “Net-Work of Possibilities” because it really is about understanding how our work and our solutions are tied to a network of different groups of people, whether they are consumers, audiences or developers, and what they each need. Cast too wide of a net, and the product that you have spent all your energies building might be something that is not useful to anyone, and thus not useful to a company. But at the heart of it, it is also about motivation and creation, and thus the core observation and organization skills enhanced through LSM can be adapted through so many kinds of projects, even when maximizing monetary gains is not its primary goal.

 

Thank you to all those who made the weekend possible: Mentors Jason Cheong-Kee-YouIan Gerald King, Robert Mackenzie, Nick Piquard, Todd Charron, Jane Wang, Rami Sayar, and many others! Thank you also to my team Neil Lachapelle, Mike Imeson, and Joe Goski, whose creative energies are really inspiring! Thanks also to fellow participants Cherry Rose, Padraig O’Shea, Sergey Kalnish, Andrew Witchell, David Lewis, Shuai Zhong, Ashlam Abowath, Fahad Khan, Juan Galt and numerous others for welcoming the sharing of ideas! Hope to meet up with you all again to continue such creative conversations.
Scar Tissue Narrative Interactive Story Video game presentation at Dames Making Games, Tanya Kan and Mikki Benaglia
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Scar Tissue from TOJam 9

While buried with other work obligations, I was really pleased to have the chance to work with some really talented people at this year’s TOJam 9, the largest game jam in Toronto. For the uninitiated, it means that participants in teams of their choosing have 48 hours the weekend of April 25 to 27 to create a game from start to finish. For TOJam, there was a great creative atmosphere of students, aficionados, and professional game developers all collaborating together. The point is to try something new, or work with a new team, to put together a playable prototype. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay! It’d still be a productive weekend of experimentation.

Platform art by Mikki Benaglia

We created a team with Eric Roberts as Programmer, Oskar Pruski as Composer/Sound Designer/Artist, Mikki Benaglia as Artist, and me, Tanya Kan as Designer/Writer/Artist. Because Eric Roberts has a lot of experience with 2D games, I was inspired to try my hand at designing a 2D game as well. He told me to stick with my strengths, which is writing and art direction, while I am simultaneously trying something new. I feel like this is a great advice for many jammers, especially for those, like myself, who have not played the designer/producer role under a jam’s time constraints. As such, I designed an interactive novel-platformer game hybrid, under Eric’s advice. The whole idea is that whatever one player goes through narratively will not be the same experience as another player’s, even if the number of platforms is static.

The story is about a superstar so stressed out by the pressures of her industry (and plastic surgery) that she skips in and out of time, and creates disarray of her “private” life as a result. The narrative itself has been living with me for some time. It first inception was in my little Twine experiment, Sound is a Spectrum, which is playable (but narratively incomplete) on this site.

Scar Tissue Interactive Game spreadsheet preview of dialogue

As also recommended by TOJam organizers, we came prepared with a list of programming priorities. I also created a spreadsheet of all of the game writing/dialogue and corresponding art assets. I created a Grooveshark playlist of the atmosphere that I was trying to set. On Google Drive, I defined the look of the game with reference images with consultation with Mikki, and then we all tried out these experiments at the jam itself! Eric went with an engine structured around 2D called Godot, currently in beta, as he wanted to test drive it at the jam.

Jam version of the game is available for download on itch.io, but is unfinished:
Scar Tissue as created at TOJam in Godot, programmed by Eric Roberts, designed by Tanya Kan

After the jam, I realized that I quite like the idea behind the game as a free release. As such, Mikki and I have continued to adapt the game. We changed the game engine from Godot to Unity, even though the languages are not compatible, because I am trying my hand at programming for the first time. I went with Unity because I really like the documentation and community that Unity has to address most of my questions, and I know that the Engine is flexible around the development needs of my future games. It was definitely an interesting learning curve to say the least, but not as much of an uphill climb as I feared! The other part is also that I can ask silly, simple questions of my Toronto friends about programming.

 

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Now, for this new version, we have a lot more art assets to augment the story. Each platform is meant to have a different visual design to hint at the story inside each of its collectable dialogue boxes. Mikki designed and illustrated about 2/3rds of the platforms and they inspire me to have better design for those that I am in charge of! We tightened the art style so that it is more unified in the fashion illustration meets Dadaist hybrid. I am also playing around with the inclusion of some harder-to-reach platforms so that we get more narrative variety, and have some great friends to help out with the programming side!

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Mikki and I were very kindly invited to present our game at Dames Making Games Speaker Social, where we shared some of our design considerations! It was a fantastic experience, where we received positive and constructive feedback. Thank you DMG and Bento Miso! Here’s the unabridged Powerpoint slides if anyone’s curious.

Update 2015: Scar Tissue is currently on hiatus.

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Updates from Winter to Spring

Hi! It’s been fairly quiet here since the New Year because I’ve been working on one of the most challenging and busy contract projects by far, by doing a lot of fundamental in-game engine work. Whenever I can, I have tried to make some spare time for adding to game design concepts, aesthetics and writing fiction. Additionally, I was able to be part of two 48-hr game jams during this time, Toronto Global Game Jam and TOJam, which were both fascinating experiments with some great talents.

Starting late May and early June, I will create more content for this website, including blogging about Canadian game dev projects, events, and communities. I will also talk about international game development, but I will aim to shed light on more Canadian content because we have quite a unique talent pool and very engaging voices that are sometimes not explored by enough people who know about indie games. To that end, I will also redesign the layout of this website so that it is much more comprehensive and content is much easier to find. Ah, maybe even bring my Twitch.tv channel back to life more frequently (though this is the most difficult to schedule in)!

One of the first things that I will cover will be Bit Bazaar Spring Fair at Bento Miso, which showcases Games, Crafts, Zines and good food in conjunction with TCAF. It runs all day Saturday, May 10. Because I am expecting a lot of fantastic content – video, pictures, and lots of excited words – I will update gradually about the cool things from the Fair over the course of this month and early June.  Also because I am, as of writing, in crunch mode.

Line-up for Bit Bazaar on May 10! So excited.

Line-up for Bit Bazaar on May 10! So excited.

I won’t claim that I am an impartial observer in game development. I think that it is hard to, from a practical standpoint, because I am embedded on the production and content creation end. Additionally, I come from a background of cinema studies, and I think it would be a strange thing to not attest any sort of cinphile or mediaphile. I can claim formalism when I commit to it, certainly. But in a blog, I cannot say that I do not love the field of games and new media, and, as such, I think my coverage will be more accurately understood as Editorials. Succinctly, I am of the belief that, when I love something and it is presented as such (ie not under academic rigour), there are emotions involved, and therefore there cannot be an impartiality.

Okay I don't have that many pictures lately, hence the picture from December's massive ice storm at the top. But this one is from February! With lots of the VR Jam participants hanging out at Bento Miso. It's just such fun working with these talents.

Okay I don’t have that many pictures lately, hence the picture from December’s massive ice storm at the top. But this one is from February, when our Oculus VR Jam shirts arrived! With lots of the VR Jam participants hanging out at Bento Miso. It’s just such fun working with these talented and cool folks.

What I can say is that I want to meet friends, new and old, and share good works with a broader audience. I want to give back to the Toronto game dev community that has been so vibrant the past year for me. I want to do that in writing and in vlogs. I want to share some of my joys and the joys of fellow devs, who may or may not have gone on a similar journey as the one that I’m embarking on. With great friendship comes great learning experiences, and so, I hope that it’ll be a positive learning experience, not just for myself, but for everyone: Readers, writers, creators, all.

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New Years and looking back to 2013: Being lost, finding my way, and the hope of Babel

2013 was a year of growth for me. Painful growth, thorny and weedy and out-of-place.

The start of 2013: I was still coming into my own, still ill at ease with my sense of personal and cultural identity, feeling at odds and far away from home. This was despite that I had found work and rent in my place of birth: Hong Kong.

And then I fell in love with the city, despite my own fresh heartbreak, plus the feeling of hopeless inadequacy without the perception of my grandparents’ generation to guide me through its labyrinthine sociopolitical heritages (unlike them, I have a myopia for war and conflict). I was barely making rent, but my want for independence still played to fit the colourful, liminal spaces. I was breathing in the smog, but also the omniscient lights and the throngs of people from all walks of life. I dared myself to persevere, and by consequence I saw that each neighborhood has a life-beat of its own.

I threw myself into work, of twisting vertices and bones, and setting them to an animation track. Stress tests. I walked out of the office at 9pm for fast food congee and walked back in on a sudden Eureka moment because I lived 5 minutes away, in one of the most condensed metropolitan centres in the world. And, somewhere along the way, the colour palette shifted, like a filter under the cinematographer’s technique. An orange warmth of the hues as I scraped up the Mid-Levels escalator with new friends, local and cosmopolitan, and felt like I could touch that sky that had never seen snow.

Dichotomies exist in all cities. The old and the new. Hong Kong's captured me.

Dichotomies exist in all cities. The old and the new. Hong Kong’s captured me.

I knew, then, that this was what I was meant to do: Observe, fall in love, and tell a story through art and language.

It was a new kind of disquiet when I came back to Toronto in March 2013, five months after I’ve left for Hong Kong. There would still be frost on the ground for another two months. But what was once familiar had a kind of emptiness in gestures, because the person I thought I would always share them with had left me behind. I lost also the kind of crowds and colors that I thought I could hide in as a personally demarcated “foreigner”.

It brought to the forefront of how I am so compelled to re-examine my identity. I have never been more hyper-aware of the ambiguity of my Westernized personality and socialization. It wasn’t a question posed within the walls of academia for once, but in everyday perceptions and conversations. Those missed opportunities for grasping something meaningful about one’s social roles and beliefs, especially. In the case of those who have had their foundations in mainland China, there was such a gap of shared cultural experiences with me as to be a chasm.

Babel is that project about identity. It was born from staring at a mirror shining with naiveté and idealism, and wondering how they’d be lost. It was losing track of language, signs, faces and realities, and gaining it again. Babel is the understanding that many people in a city state goes through this transformation in various ways.

In Hong Kong, I was taking photographs for the express purposes of documenting memory and being able to reproduce it in 3D. For an interactive experience.

In Hong Kong, I was taking photographs for the express purposes of documenting memory and being able to reproduce it in 3D. For an interactive experience.

It’s a work of fiction that aspires to be art. It’s primarily inspired by the many contemporary concerns of an advanced capitalist state where demarcations of East and West are rarely clear. There were many times when I am writing Babel as a script that I had rewritten again, so that the core themes have a deep presence that can be read across multiple tonalities. It’s not until I’d become more embedded in the local game development community and met so many diverse talents in the latter part of 2013 that I have a true confidence that storied experiences can have local flavours can also be universally approachable. I had always known this in theory, but it was different to put into practice as a content producer.

Loss and rediscovery of identities and culture?
That’s lingua franca to everyone.

Where-ever you are, where-ever you’re thinking of: There’s something to be said about loving a place so full of pastiche. A localized cinematic examination, I’ve found, can give such homage to a place as to add to its breathing structures. With the demarcations of light and movement, the artistic compression of a city onto film patch a unique intentionality. And an unspoken intimacy, even if we don’t understand a single line of dialogue.

It’s never going to get easier. In 2014, and in the years to come, the stories I want to create as well as those foisted upon me will only become more textured. The plot will be convoluted. But that’s part of the challenge. That’s part of the hope.

 

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Babel at Bit Bazaar: Write-up of our experiences!

Babel’s team had a great time in its first outing at Bit Bazaar’s Arcade. Bit Bazaar is a Toronto celebration of comics, arts and crafts, and the local game development community, brought to life at Bento Miso by Jennie Faber and her team of awesome volunteers. For the short amount of time that I was able to peel myself away from Babel’s station, I was able to get to know some really diverse and engaging talents from Toronto’s comics and game development scene.

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Although we are really only one month into crucial development time, and even less if we count that towards building our showcase level, it was a great way for us to really come to face how to develop as part of a community rather than in isolation. It was also a great milestone for us to aim for. Some might say a little prematurely, given that we were rubbing shoulders with game devs with over a year in development for the games that they are showcasing. At the same time, we already share a common understanding that, regardless of the game, the development process comes not only great design and focused themes, but a lot of consistent hard work. We learned a lot from these experienced developers and how they connected with their audience at the Bit Bazaar Market.

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We generally got great critiques and feedback from people who engaged with our niche game, and we really want to thank people who tried out our game to give us such thoughtful feedback! We heard back that the atmosphere clicked with a lot of people who tried our game. Some found that the pacing and melancholy was different from the norm but was an interesting vision that usually isn’t articulated in video games. Some really got it, that it was meant to be an artistic interactive experience in the same vein as games like Dear Esther and Cat and the Coup, or even closer to arthouse cinema, from which it gained its inspiration (Chungking Express and other Wong Kar-Wai films). Personally, I am delighted by the interest from academics, who see potential of Babel as a way to describe and contextualize difficult narratives of political and personal identity within the format of interactive puzzles.

At the same time, we want to push the boundaries a bit further to blur the categories of artistic and emergent gameplay experiences, so we will look to redesign better puzzles, both relying on logical and lateral puzzle-solving. We know that we can push the emotional emphasis to the game a lot better, while more gradually revealing themes and conflict of the narrative. We will keep honing the script, level design, art, and game logic to that end!

Thank you Bento Miso and the Bit Bazaar organizational team for such a great experience.
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Alexander Martin (@Droqen of Starseed Pilgrim fame) checking out our game! Thanks for the feedback! Looking forward to incorporating the changes.

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Yasin really liked our game! Thank you for all the fantastic feedback!

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Thank you team! From L to R: Me (Tanya), Blake Withers, Mikki Benaglia, and Rob Richard.

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For the video walkthrough of the prototype level, click here!

 

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Sound is a Spectrum: First chapter released for a new Twine game

This is just something that I just started developing after coming out of Bit Bazaar and the first Babel build. I started thinking up the idea of creating a slice-of-life story of a girl who grew up in an entertainment agency and wants more than anything else to step into the role of an idol, just because that’s all that she grew up with. As everything else that is so manufactured and under the watchful eyes of another, I think there’s room to create a world of dreams as well as insurmountable nightmares, pressures, and fears.

I created this chapter in Twine over the course of eight hours (with plot outlines that I’m not showing you, of course!). Some GIFs are sourced from performances. Unmoving images are my own.

You can play the first chapter here.

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Video Playthrough: Babel First Prototype

Just newly built on Dec 7th, 2013!

Here is the artwork from Babel’s first prototype, built in Unity and 3DS Max. Story and art driven, Babel was a challenging one month build because I had to ensure that the first chapter’s script was comprehensible to the world that I had to level design for, while keeping the authenticity of East Asian urbanity. I had over 75% of all model assets to complete for a six-minute puzzle game.

It is an experimentation with a painterly acrylic look to the art assets. The rest of the models – including the NPC – are created by Mikki Benaglia and Blake Withers. Rob Richard was the lead for programming, real-time deployment and optimization.

Gameplay: You throw a projectile to hack into electronics, in order to reveal game dialogue. We are going to continue to develop this gameplay mechanic further so that there’s more iterative puzzle solving.

Our timeline for this build:
2 weeks of preproduction: Script writing, script editing, level design, asset list, concept art, core systems
2 weeks of production: Voiceover recording, promotional printing materials, modelling assets, building the level, coding scripts, lighting, video editing

In engine (Unity):

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Screenshot_Rooftop

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In Max:

 

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Babel_Preview_FavoriteElectronicsSome of my favorite electronics.