|174 posts found|
OP 6/09/08 11:31:41 PM#1
Astromechs & Friday Features and other stuff from 2003-2005
(Jeff Freeman Blog moved forward >> in the thread)This is from a Astromech posted 19 August 2005 :
Least-played to most-played professions
Force Sensitive - Crafting
Light Saber Mastery
Force Sensitive - Senses
Force Sensitive - Reflexes
Force Sensitive - Combat(Most Played)
From the beta boards. Before they merged some of the professions.
More to come.... >>>
The Second Day Vet
6/10/08 1:34:06 PM#2
Good stuff to have around.
Particularly the Jeff Freeman blog post that displays just how cah-way-zee the SWG devs could get, and how they'd regret what they did.
The rancid pile of rancor poodoo that is the NGE DID kill the social aspects of the game, and the community that had been created. Levels suck, classes suck.
CH, Jedi, Commando, Smuggler, BH, Scout, Doctor, Chef, BE...yeah, lots of SWG time invested.
Once a denizen of Ahazi
6/10/08 3:48:15 PM#3
Oh man that is fun.
proof of drug use at soe.
Warhammer Online Correspondent
"...you mean three philippino women."
6/10/08 4:24:16 PM#4
Originally posted by suske
Indeed. They were way beyond drug experimentation and were at the drug dependency stage.
Until you cancel your subscription, you are only helping to continue the cycle of mediocrity.
6/10/08 4:41:33 PM#5
6/10/08 7:04:35 PM#6
Freeman's blog gives a glaring example of his own admission that the player's never even entered into the equation. It was what they thought would be "fun" and rammed it down our throats.
6/10/08 8:19:41 PM#7
Yeah I nabbed that Freeman blog back when he wrote it, then after I posted it everywhere. His "get back at me" was to have me quoted in his new blog as saying "Jeff Freeman is a Morron" in his "what people say about me" track backs, or some shit he pulled off Raph Kosters site.... lmao. Anyways good stuff right thur though.
OP 6/30/08 11:08:06 PM#8
Here we go again.... >>>
OP 6/30/08 11:12:06 PM#9
MMO economies are hard. It's kinda become a truism by now. There's models for closed economies and open ones, there's terms lifted from real economics thrown around, and lots of theory about faucet-drain economies, mudflation, and whatnot. Why bother? Well, mostly because the game gets more boring when the economy is out of whack. If too much money is entering the system, then players tend to have more stuff than they should be able to afford, and that makes the game easier, which then can make it kind of dull. So the health of the game economy is something that we pay pretty close attention to.
SWG uses what is called a faucet-drain economy. You can visualize a spigot of cash coming into the game, a big ol' sink where the money sloshes around, and a set of drains where the money goes out the bottom. When money comes in from the faucet, it's actually being "minted" - it's being created by the game system. The sink is basically the whole game. It's the bank accounts, the player inventories, all the money that is used for trades and transactions among players, etc. When money goes out the bottom, it's deleted from the system, rather than circulating back to a central bank.
(Credits aren't the only thing that is generated, of course - a significant faucet into the game economy actually comes in the form of resource mining. Since the amount of money and the amount of resources coming into the game at a time both vary, you get small fluctuations in the price of resources as the value of both the resources and the currency changes. Plus, you also get different qualities of resources that affect the price. But we're not really talking about commodities pricing today, much as just about the value of a credit).
We try to monitor the broad flow of cash in order to assess the health of the credit as a currency. There are other metrics for measuring the health of an economy overall - for example, the amount of transactions and the amount of currency that changes hands between players - but today we're going to just look at the flow of currency itself.
The four biggest tools we use in order to assess the health of the currency are reports on the flow in and out of money, and the percentage breakdown of where the money comes from and goes. For example, have a look at this graph:
What you see here is the raw amount of cash coming into the game over the course of the last month. It does tend to fluctuate up and down based on how many people are playing (which varies per day of the week), what they're doing, and so on. When we do major changes to the game (such as adding or removing a source of loot, let's say) the amount of currency flowing in tends to change.
We mostly watch this one in comparison to the amount of currency flowing out, which looks like this:
As you can see, the variety of outflow sources is much greater. We've been more successful at having a variety of ways for you to spend your money than a variety of ways for you to make money!
Those of you with sharp eyes may have noticed that in fact the game economy is running at a net loss, based on those two graphs. A while back we noticed that the game was running at a deficit, and yet there were none of the major effects we'd expect, such as currency becoming incredibly hard to come by, people going bankrupt, etc. Our conclusion was that a lot of the currency out there must have been "counterfeit" - in other words, we had a dupe bug. We promptly started hunting for it, and in fact we not only found it, but were able to mass ban a large number of folks who were clearly involved as well as removed trillions of credits from holding accounts, middlemen, etc. Running the overall currency flow at a deficit is effectively "eating up" the duped credits, and we'll return to the game economy to a more even keel when the total amount of cash in the system is something we're more comfortable with.
The graph above shows the percentage breakdown over the course of the last month for where people get their money. As you can see, the vast majority of the money coming in enters the system via missions. Loot runs in a distant second place.
Looking back at a long-term history of expenditures even lets you see when major features went into the game:
The red appears when vehicle maintenance kicks in, the purple is the arrival of player cities, and the light blue is when we made adjustments to the cost of player insurance.
In addition to these sorts of tracking, we also monitor things like large changes in wealth for individuals (often, but not always, a sign of cheating or duping), wealth distribution across the playerbase, and so on. For example, it's easy to see that just like in the real world economy, the chacteristic "Pareto Law" distribution of cash holds true: most of the money is in the hands of a few. This is a graph of just the top 2000 or so folks on Bria, for example - the highest folks are billionaires.
This isn't necessarily something to be discouraged by - rather, we take it as a sign that the game economy is replicating characteristics of the real world economy. Since one of our goals was to have a game economy that can provide ongoing interesting strategy gameplay, seeing real world patterns manifest is something we were looking forward to.
There's a ton of other types of data we track, and you've seen some of them in other features. But game economy is one of the most important, because overall health of the currency is one of the quickest ways to see if the game is going sour. You can even do some of this yourself - try monitoring the fluctuations in the prices of different items on a day to day basis, and build your own graphs. If you're a stats geek like me, it'll open your eyes to a whole new way of looking at online worlds.
OP 6/30/08 11:13:44 PM#10
Cries of Alderaan Act 3 Metrics
If the Rebels win Act 3: A modified Dead Eye will become a Rebel Perk.
Live server report date: Feb 19th 2004
Currently the Imperials are winning Act 3 by a 1% margin. Rebels get out there and encourage your mates to complete the story arc!
Note: Because the Rebels previously won both Act 1 and 2, the Rebel final mission was made to be more difficult than the Imperial final mission.
Live server report date: Feb19th
Stat notes: There are 10% more factioned players since the October Astromech Faction Stats. There are still less Imperials than Rebels, but that gap has been shrinking. The numbers of Overt seemed to decrease, BUT we have also changed the code such that logged out Overts register in our logs as Coverts (they become Overt automatically after the player has fully loaded in to avoid players getting killed while starting the game).
This list includes characters that were created but potentially never used (it doesn't include deleted characters).
OP 6/30/08 11:14:45 PM#11
Cries of Alderaan Final Act 3 Metrics
And the winner is....The Rebellion!
In a hard-fought struggle, the Rebellion was able to protect their flora research stations from the Imperials long enough to develop an alternative version of Dead Eye. Once the new schematic is ready for mass production, Rebels will be able to craft Dead Eye using flora other than the rare Alderaanian Flora. When ready, the new schematic will be available from Rebel recruiters.
Stats recorded from start of act thru April 5th
In looking at the numbers, you'll notice that many of the servers came right down to the wire. Though the Rebels did "come from behind" the February tally was quite close. For the final numbers on many servers to determine who won and who lost was less than 1% (11 servers were within .5%!). After looking at the numbers, it could have gone with either way right up to the end.
* This column represents the margin by which the winning faction on each server leads.
This list includes characters that were created but potentially never used (it doesn't include deleted characters).
OP 6/30/08 11:15:29 PM#12
Top Ten Solo Kills:
1. meatlump buffoon
Top Ten Group Kills:
1. slinking voritor hunter
Top Ten "Raid MOBs":
1. canyon krayt dragon
Top Ten "Raid MOBs" by soloists (!):
1. canyon krayt dragon
Top Ten Things Nobody Solos:
1. stoneskin hanadak
Top Ten Things Nobody Group-kills:
1. stoneskin hanadak
Loneliest Creature In The Game:
stoneskin hanadak. :)
Top Ten Things That People Solo But Shouldn't Be Able To With Their Current Skills/Weapon:
1. tusken captain
Top Ten Things That People Group Kill But Shouldn't Waste Their Time On:
Commonest Even Matches For Soloists:
Commonest Even Matches For Groups:
1. dark force crystal hunter
Typical Solo Kills A Day: 2.5 million.
Average Number Of Ancient Krayt Dragon Kills A Day: 50.
OP 6/30/08 11:16:13 PM#13
Live server report date: Oct 20th 2003
Notes: This list includes characters that were created but potentially never used (it doesn't include deleted characters).
Live server report date: Oct 20th
Notes: There are 10% more factioned players than in early September. Rebels currently outnumber Imperials by 63%. We need to find ways to encourage more players to join the Empire as covert agents.
OP 6/30/08 11:17:25 PM#14
CLICK IMAGE FOR FULL SIZE SCREENSHOT
Developer Structure Viewer 2003
OP 6/30/08 11:19:43 PM#15
Friday Feature Pre-launch
Creature Creation Part 1: Star Wars Zoology
The Star Wars galaxy teems with an amazing diversity of inhabitants. Creatures can be found just about anywhere, from thick swamps to cold gray asteroids in space, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In a game like Star Wars Galaxies, the task of creating the critters that are integral to the Star Wars flavor is great, and the team assembled to tackle the job is equally great, in both talent and number.
Star Wars Galaxies currently has more than fifteen artists and animators whose jobs are to re-create (and in many cases, create) the rancors, gackle bats , gnorts , dewbacks and dozens of other lifeforms players will encounter as they live the Star Wars movies through their characters. To get a good idea of how creature creation works in all its stages, I consulted with the team responsible for putting the skin on Salacious Crumb and the jelly in Jabba's belly laugh. However, this article ballooned as I began to see why the project requires so many artists!
So Many Creatures, So Little Time.
The process begins much like the planet building process, with hard choices: What creatures will make it into the initial release of the game, and which will not? In fact, the choice of planets helps determine which creatures can be included.
Haden "Shug Ninx" Blackman, producer for LucasArts, brought his vast knowledge and resources to the decision-making table to help in this respect. "We knew that Corellian slice-hounds are native to Corellia, for example," he explains, "so, we knew that we could include them. The wildlife of Tatooine and Yavin 4 are extremely well-documented. In the case of those two planets, where we probably couldn't include every creature ever mentioned, we started with the creatures that would be most recognizable and then moved to the creatures that filled a niche-as enemies, or pets, or whatever."
The design of the gameplay has an important influence on the decision-making process. All creatures to be included must fill a niche in the game, or have a "purpose" in the overall gameplay. The design team decided what these niches would be early on, and these included types such as predators, flying predators, herbivores, fish, mounts, and many others.
There is ultimately a limit to how many creatures can be put into the initial release, and with limited time available in which to finish the game, development efficiency is of primary concern. It fell to Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers to devise a system that would maximize creature variety and fill the required niches, while managing development time.
Once a creature has been given the green light, the artists can begin working on bringing it to life in the game. In many cases, the creatures come directly from the Star Wars movies, and it is these films that serve as the artist's primary reference. Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace proved a particularly rich resource for creature references. But there are many creatures you'll see in the game that did not appear in the movies, and this is where concept artist Arnie Jorgensen comes in.
Star Wars Galaxies. From clothing, to creatures, to furniture, if it needs initial visualization, Arnie can create it.
"Concept art begins at the design stage," Arnie explains. "A designer will come up with something he or she needs for the game that has never been seen before, and then they pass the idea on to me and the lead artist. I will take a look at it and approach the piece in different ways depending on what needs to be done. There are all sorts of rules and restrictions placed on the designs by the game engine. If it's a building, I know that I must keep in mind this rule, or that rule, and if it's a character, then I must keep in mind a different ruleset. Once past these challenges, I can really settle in to making it an interesting design. Normally, I rough out a sketch in pencil and then scan it into the computer to color."
Arnie doesn't spend time re-inventing the wheel in his concept work. Those creatures that have already been seen in the movies don't need a redress. However, if a dewback needs a saddle, then Arnie will concept it. "You'd be surprised how much concept art like that needs to be done," he says. "We have four movies and a mountain of "The Art of..." Star Wars books to look at, and yet there is still plenty to design."
I asked Arnie what are the most enjoyable and most difficult parts of creature concept design.
"The best part of this work is when I see the concepts that I've done fully modeled and textured in the game. When we're walking around in the game and look up at a giant dinosaur type creature that has never been seen before...it's fun.
"The toughest part of all this is to make designs that look like they 'fit' into the Star Wars universe. I can come up with an idea that I think looks great, but then when I step back and picture it next to a Wookiee or a Hutt and it just doesn't fit, I trash it."
"It's a Gut Thing"
Bringing together as many different artists on a single project as Star Wars Galaxies does, you inevitably end up with a wide range of artistic styles. As Arnie mentions, one of the hurdles the team faces when creating the creatures in the game involves "fitting" them into the Star Wars universe. Jake Rodgers, the art director on the project, and Haden Blackman take up this important responsibility.
"Mainly, it's a gut thing," Haden explains about reviewing newly created creatures that have never been seen before. "The creature has to look like it belongs in the Star Wars universe. There's no real formula for that.... I guess I'd say that the creature needs to look possible. It should, in some ways, remind us of creatures that we are familiar with, but still look alien.... That's a tricky balance. If the creature is too bizarre, then it won't feel like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, which is a very realistic place, in my mind. If it doesn't have any strange qualities, then it will seem too mundane.
"Fortunately, the concept artists on Galaxies are pretty amazing. I think they intuitively know what fits in the Star Wars universe."
Jake gives credit to Arnie for creating those creatures that make both Haden's and his own guts happy. "We discuss relative size and ferocity, eating habits, background like that, but then Arnie goes to work on coming up with some amazing ideas. I stay out of his way for the most part. Sometimes he will come up with something and we work on the idea until it is more of what I think of as the essence of the creature we're making, but usually Arnie surprises us with something different than we were expecting, and it ends up working better than we thought."
When the concept art is done for a creature, the concept is handed off to the team of artists who will create the 3-dimensional "mesh" of the creature and give it skin through texturing.
Twelve artists handle the modeling and texturing process for creatures in SWG. They include Don Alexander and Dan Borth, who both do a considerable amount of animation work as well; Minoh Kim, Bill Daly, Nick Zuccarello, Jason Minor, Kris Taylor, Damon Waldrip, Andrew Collins, and Jeff Jonas specialize in this kind of work. There is a fair amount of crossover between the art jobs on the team, so even though one of these artist's primary task may be to create textures, they can take on other tasks such as animation, too.
Who gets to do which creature in Star Wars Galaxies? Obviously, some critters will be very popular picks, and so Jake Rodgers and Joe Shoopack took requests and tried to assign tasks the artists would enjoy. "Some of them get handed to you, a few you get to pick," explains Minoh Kim, the texture artist and modeler whose work you've seen in the krayt dragon. "A year and a half ago, they asked what creatures we'd want to work on, and we submitted a list. I asked for the rancor and the [Emperor's] Royal Guard. I got those two."
Much of the work is done in Maya, but not all the artists came to the team with Maya experience. Again and again, the team echoes how important it is for the prospective game artist or animator to have a solid art background. "What has been my biggest asset from my past that has helped me in this industry," explains Jason Minor, "is my training in traditional art. Anybody can learn a piece of software, but without a basic knowledge in art, you're sunk."
"That Lived-In Look"
Modeling a creature can begin with something as unexceptional as a box. Minoh gives me a quick lesson in the basics.
"I work with primitives," he says, indicating the plain dark gray box on his screen. "I take a simple polygon shape, then I extrude polygons from it to get a basic form." With his mouse, he pulls at the edges of the box and a polygon extends like a rectangular wing. He angles two opposing sides until this wing looks like a pyramid with the point cut off. He does the same to the opposite side of the original box. With a few more example adjustments to the box, he begins to move faster.
"From there I make something that resembles the shape of a dog's head." There's no question about it, it looks like a dog's head, a Doberman to my eye, all from a boring box and in the span of less than a minute.
This process creates the "mesh" of a creature, which looks like just like it sounds, a mesh netting that seems to wrap skintight around the model, taking its shape down to the small details.
The Mysterious UVs
The next step involves making what are referred to as "UVs." This seems to be universally one of the less popular tasks, and involves a variety of techniques particular to each artist. To create the skin of the creature, or the texture, the artist basically paints it on. That's not as simple as it may sound.
So, what's a UV? Asking that question is apparently akin to asking for an explanation of pi.
"I forget what U and V stand for, if anything."
"This is really too hard a question!"
"I actually wondered what the hell a UV is myself, even after I learned how to UV a model."
Attempts to explain to me what "UV" means meet with resistance in my brain, like tossing a nickel against a brick wall. But eventually, I got the gist: The U and the V represent two axes of an editor grid (X and Y are already used, so, logically, U and V are next). The editor allows the artist to "unwrap" a model, flattening it out so he or she can paint on the texture. And that's all the explanation of a UV you're getting from me!
Each artist seems to have a favored way of creating UVs. Jason maps the vertices as they are, then pieces together the UV's and flattens them out. Bill Daly generally uses the flattening style and fixes his seams in DeepPaint3D. Nick Zuccarello also flattens out his models, while Minoh, who sits directly across from him, generally leaves the model intact and separates it. No matter how they do it, the final product is exceptional.
Next, the artist works on the texture, which is essentially the creature's skin. This is where a whole new level of detail comes into play and an artist's observational skills, sense of color and texture are great assets. This is also where artistic savvy can overcome technological limitations to achieve a creature that looks realistic.
Bill Daly explains: "I usually spend more time on my textures than on the model, since that's where all your detail is. The model has to be low poly so you really can't model all your detail. Instead, you rely on the texture to fill in where the poly count leaves off. Creating a good texture is very important. I find that spending a fair amount of time on an under painting is very helpful. I start by painting all the muscle definition, skin folds, wrinkles, etcetera, in shades of gray. So my initial texture looks like a primered model with a decent amount of detail. From there I use photo reference of various animal skins, rusted metals, marble patterns, etcetera, as overlays. At this point, things really start coming together. Add in a color scheme and spend the rest of the time flushing out the texture to give it that worn, lived-in look."
The final result appears very much like a stretched out animal skin, with each body part marked out on the hide. It almost looks like the clothes patterns my mom used to order from Sears that she'd cut into leg, arm, and torso shapes according to the guides, to pin down on her chosen material. The artists even "sew" up the seams of their critters, too.
Mom never sewed up a pair of krayt dragon slacks for herself, however.
Given such diversity in technique and style among the artists, one would think getting that consistent "look" Jake and Haden strive for would be a very difficult task.
On that point, one would be right.
A big part of Jake Rodgers job is to ensure what is produced for the game not only has a consistent look, but a consistent Star Wars look. How does he bring it all together, with so many artists at work on the project, each with their own artistic styles?
"It isn't quite there yet, actually," Jake admits. "We are currently working on another consistency pass on creatures. This usually involves adjustments to make all the creatures have the same relative feel of realism, brightness, contrast, and saturation. We don't just look at them individually, or in groups. They need to be in the environment they will actually be walking around in, with player species around, and with different lighting situations. Since the lighting in our game changes with the position of the sun, it's got to work in many different types of light and weather. We can't gear them for a real dramatic lighting situation like a film. It's more like making them for a zoo.
"Well, more like a petting zoo, or in some instances, a full-contact zoo."
The quality that Jake looks for in the Star Wars creatures they create is just a few notches back from photorealism. "Photorealism necessarily means complicated to me. I want to keep the textures as simple as possible, only enough detail to get across the idea, yet not so stylized as to be 'painterly.'
"The models need to be done with basically the same idea-enough to show what we want to show. The animators like little details, like an ear twitch, or a blink, or a good scowl, so Joe [Shoopack] and I try to allow as much as possible without affecting the player's performance too greatly."
The Krayt Dragon Revision
As Minoh Kim shows me a few samples of his work (one is a staggeringly HUGE critter that could swallow a bantha whole, and of which he is justifiably proud, but he says probably won't be in the initial release; so, I can't reveal what it is), and we come across his familiar krayt dragon.
But this time, it's not so familiar. Something is subtly different. I ask about this, and Minoh explains that the krayt dragon has gone through a small bit of revision based on the release of a recent Star Wars art book called The Wildlife of Star Wars : A Field Guide, by Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau. This book is chock-full of new artwork depicting Star Wars creatures of all types, one being the krayt dragon of Tatooine. The Field Guide version is a little different from the original created for Star Wars Galaxies. It's more lizard-like in stance, with it's front section and head hanging much closer to the ground.
The team revisited their version of the krayt dragon and tweaked it to make it a bit more like the one featured in the Field Guide. The krayt still has his fearsome appearance, but now he looks slightly more...sinister.
"One of the great things about Star Wars is that it supports the visions of multiple artists," explains Haden Blackman. "No two artists are going to draw the krayt dragon in exactly the same way."
OP 6/30/08 11:21:05 PM#16
Friday Feature Pre-launch
Creature Creation Part 2: Animation
"Here's a good quote for you," says Brad Constantine, an animator on Star Wars Galaxies. "Animation is never finished. It's only abandoned." He laughs, but the sentiment about the complexity of animation is serious. "You can sit and noodle something forever."
Bringing a Star Wars creature to life can require a lot of noodling by artists. Even before the meshes and textures have been finished and handed off to the animators, the animators go to the zoo. Sometimes they go watch videos. Other times they may go read a book or surf the Internet. It's all homework done to prepare them for animating their projects (and you thought you'd escape homework once you were out of school-not a chance).
"I do a lot of homework for any animation set that I do," explains Brad. "When I know a character is coming up, I start studying this stuff ahead of time, to get a feel for how they move and how the bones fit in the body. A lot of these creatures are hybrids of creatures that you find in the natural world here on Earth. So, I'll find creatures that are similar to the ones I'm working on. In the case of the krayt dragon here, I've got a whole video of Komodo dragons. Even just things like the attitude that his body's in when he's walking, things like that are helpful."
Just as the artists who make the meshes are limited by technology to a strict number of polygons, so too are the animators similarly limited. Instead of polygons, however, they are limited as to the number of bones they can put into a creature. Brad shows me the bantha he has been working on. It is an enormous, elephantine hulk of swaying hair with a large mouth and great curving horns. "I'm only allowed a certain number of bones. The bantha here comes in at about 54 bones. The most we'd want to do for a large character like this is 60. The krayt dragon was a bit over, I think."
Back at the beginning of development, the designers decided on which creatures they wanted to include in the game, based on the planets they planned to have in the initial release, "niches" each creature would fill in gameplay, and other criteria. The list was long. It was the job of Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers to find a way to create them all within the development time available. Sacrificing quality for speed was not an option.
Their solution for animation was simple and efficient. Because so many of the creatures of Star Wars can find their physical roots in real Earth creatures, Joe and Jake were able to break down the list into skeleton types.
"We devised all the different types of skeletons," explains Joe, who begins clicking through the many folders in his computer, "such as goat, frog, giraffe, elephant, dinosaurid, canine, finch-type birds, and giant-type birds. We use some mythical skeleton types, too, because on Earth we don't have, say, a four legged giant flighted creature. We finally categorized approximately 40 skeleton types."
With a manageable number of groups in hand and most of the creatures divvied up into their proper group (some creatures, like the Great Sarlacc, are so singular in shape and function that they defied categorization and so were treated a bit differently), the animators could generate a basic skeleton for each group. Joe comes to the tusk cat file and opens it to show as an example. The "tusk cat" you saw in Part 1 of this article is not actually a tusk cat but a great plains tusk cat. With the release of The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide, the "tusk cat" was revealed as a mount, which differed considerably from the tusk cat the team had already designed. Rather than scrap the work, the predatory great plains cat-a cousin of the tusk cat-was born. "If you take the flesh off a cat, they're all very similar at the skeletal level, though they may be structured more muscular or thinner or sleeker," says Joe.
One might assume this would just lead to lots of the same critters running around in the game with different names and skin colors, but ultimately the same body. It crosses my mind briefly, but that assumption is quickly dispelled as Joe opens creature file after creature file to show me examples. Certainly, varying skin color is one way to introduce some variety, but it's limited compared to what the team is able to achieve through creative modeling, texturing, animation, and even specialized changes to a basic skeleton itself.
But we're jumping ahead a bit.
The Difference Between a Squill and a Squall
Along with coming up with the skeleton categories to help make creature creation efficient, Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers also came up with an animation list that would include the basic actions and reactions all creatures in the game need. "Everybody has to locomote with at least two different speeds; everybody has to turn left and turn right. Everybody has to have an idle," says Joe. "Beyond that they're all pretty different. The predators have multiple attacks, where the standard creatures have one attack. Predators can get into combat position, and have a combat walk that is like a sneak. These aren't necessary for a dewback. Fish, especially small fish, do not generally require a lot of these animations either."
Both the skeleton categories and the animation list provided a structured plan and jumping off point from which the artists could build hundreds of unique creatures efficiently.
Joe is still popping open creature files. His screen is jammed full of things you could only meet in a game like Star Wars Galaxies. "'He seemed to scroll forever down the unending list of imaginative Star Wars creatures,'" he quips in a writerly tone, as if he were reading it from the page of my future article. "'I was blown away by the sheer variety.'" We both laugh. I think to myself, there's no way I'm going to write that.
He stops at another peculiar looking beast. It's furry with a long body and short legs. Its head look vaguely like a giant fruit bat, but this thing doesn't fly. This is an example of a creature that uses the lizard skeleton as a base, but isn't lizard-like at all. Though a creature's skeleton may be one of the 40 basics, labeled "the lizard skeleton," or "the elephant skeleton," for example, it can drive anything that has its general posture.
Speaking of heads: "The secret with the heads is, all you really need on a head is the location of the jawbone and some eye movement. But this jaw can be like this," Joe shows me-something, I don't know what it is-with a hideously extended lower jaw, "or this," he points out another thing with a stubby beak, "as long as its pivot point is fixed." Neither creature looks anything alike, yet they share a common skeleton. This same principal applies also to things like ears and tails, too. As a matter of fact, a tailless creature could use a skeleton that has a tail. The bones still exist, but aren't seen be because there's no mesh weighted to them. Again, even more opportunities for variety.
A knock at Joe's office door interrupts us. Someone on the other side jiggles the handle but it's locked. I get up and open it. It's Senior Artist Jeff Jonas.
Jeff: "On these hair things, can we just assume that we're going to do all the hair and start doing them on all of our creatures that have hair, so you don't have to send out the pink slips?"
Joe: "Yeah, if you want to, go ahead and do it."
Jeff: "Why don't you email everybody to start fixing the hairs so you don't have to deal with that?"
Joe: "I do that because when I email people they'll say, 'I don't have anything with hair.' If I email them a specific list, they'll say, 'Oh, yeah that. Okay.'"
Jeff nods and leaves. Waiting patiently behind him is Tim Webb, an animator. I start to feel like I've been monopolizing a valuable resource with this interview.
Joe: "Hey Tim."
Tim: "I have a really difficult question for you. Now, is it the 'horned kreval' or the 'horned krevol'?"
Joe: "Let's check the list. These names are all approved by Haden Blackman our producer content supervisor guy. Let's see...it is...the horned krevol."
Tim thanks Joe and closes the door behind him. Joe resumes the creature slideshow on his monitor. He seems to scroll forever down the unending list of imaginative Star Wars creatures. And despite my earlier declaration, I admit that I am blown away by the sheer variety.
He finishes by offering a bit of ominous zoological advice to future players of Star Wars Galaxies: Know the difference between your squills and your squalls. Your life may depend on it.
The Illusion of Life
Once the skeleton categories and animation lists are done and the many creatures to be included in the game are parceled out to the artists (individual requests for certain creatures by the artists were considered as well), work begins. When a creature's mesh and texture are created, they are handed to the animators, who include Alan Pickett, Brad Constantine, Tim Webb,Kris Taylor, Nick Zuccarello, Don Alexander, and Dan Borth. Some of the artists, such as Don and Dan, do it all, from modeling and texturing all the way through animation to the final product. Don has even done some concept work as well.
Both Alan and Brad are veterans of 2D animation, and Joe Shoopack looked for artists with experience in this area. 3D experience along with computer knowledge was also valuable, but candidates with solid 2D animation background had definite appeal. "The software is only a tool," says Joe. "It's one thing to know how to use the software, but you need the traditional animation skills behind it."
"I still apply all the same techniques and methods I used as a 2D animator now to 3D," says Alan. 2D animation background can provide a sense of how things move (movement in 3D is driven by the bones; this is referred to as "weighting"), which is a very valuable skill.
The animation list, which is prioritized by ratings-one being the most important, two being secondary, and so on-helps the artists and the producers ensure that they cover all the actions necessary in the game. But within those specific animations, such as walk, run, gallop, attack, take damage, idle, etc., there is a great amount of creative flexibility for the animator. How will the creature walk? Does it lope from place to place? Does it dart about? Even when it is standing still, doing nothing, a creature is doing something. Otherwise, it doesn't create the illusion of life. How they do these things is largely up to the artist.
As mentioned, the animators do their homework, studying books, videos, and even real animals. If they're working on something that has been seen in one of the Star Wars movies, these will serve as terrific references-what better way to figure out how a rancor walks than watching Return of the Jedi?
Animating a creature is best tackled in stages. "The first thing we usually do is a walk," explains Brad. "The walk is a great way to start testing a character out. A walk kind of sets the tone for how a character will move size-wise.
"A lot of people don't know where to start on an animation. They start with the feet, and they're worrying so much about what the feet are doing that they're not thinking about the rest of the body. Generally I start with the body in a walk. I have a bone at the base of the spine, kind of a tailbone. I usually start there and think about what the whole body is doing. Then I add one thing at a time. That's why it's important to really understand what these things are doing in real life. And that's where having the video tape comes in handy."
A great example of the stages of an animation can be seen in the walk of the great plains tusk cat. The team has provided seven short movies of these stages, from beginning to end.
The computer is a tool that makes animation much easier and faster for the artists. A final animation can consist of about 60 frames. However, the artists need not hand-set every single one of those frames. Instead, they set what are called key frame poses. As an example, Brad shows me the krayt dragon's animation for taking a hit. "About seventeen frames is all I need to get him into the major poses to do the animation. I don't worry about getting from here to there. I let the computer do all that." In the action (or reaction in this case), the krayt takes a hit and rears its great head, tracking in a bent ellipse. It actually appears to be in pain, so effective is the drama in its motion, until it finally brings its head back around to face the fool that dealt the blow. Now it just plain looks furious. All that from just 17 frames blended into 60 by the computer.
This helpful technique performed by the computer is called blending, and makes animation efficient and flowing.
When all the noodling of a creature's animation is complete (remember, no creature is ever finished!), it is reviewed by Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers. They make sure animations are smooth and there is no foot-sliding or jitters. But all the artists are professional, so issues like those are corrected before they ever get out.
The artists I talked to expressed similar feelings on what makes their job enjoyable: The challenges.
"Technically, the most difficult animation to do with our particular set ups is the death of four-legged creatures," explains Alan Pickett. "It is usually very difficult, though not impossible, to get the creature down and then back up again realistically. The creature usually doesn't want to cooperate."
This is a challenge Tim Webb particularly enjoys. "The locomotions are fun, but I think I like doing deaths," he says, laughing. "I mean, you can have a creature die, or you can have a creature DIE! As a player when I kill something, I wouldn't want it to just fall down and go limp. I think it'd be more fun to watch it try and fight for life a little bit. Of course, you have to worry about file sizes and stuff, but you can put a little extra in there, and I think it's definitely worth it."
Nick Zuccarello found some challenge in a "creature" composed of only nine bones. It isn't a creature at all, but rather an Imperial Interrogation droid. The metal ball hovers with one extended arm while a central band seems to spin within it, independent of the rest. "It's got two different skeletons in it," Nick explains. "That light you saw spinning in the middle, that's a layered animation that will be layered on top of the other animations that are playing. The spinning part's independent. It's a special case. We had to take a separate skeleton and attach it to the other. The game sees it as two skeletons, one following wherever the other skeleton goes."
Alan enjoys animating the established creatures from the movies. "So far, my favorites have been the rancor and Jabba the Hutt," he says. "I am now animating Salacious Crumb. You know, the little creature that hung around on Jabba's lap. I really don't like him in Return of the Jedi. I am enjoying the opportunity to really bring this character to life in SWG."
So, You Want to Be a Game Artist
The SWG art team is always willing to give advice to young artists who want to break into the gaming industry. It's not easy, but the rewards are many. For one, the pay for a skilled artist is often good. Plus, working in the gaming industry has considerable cool value.
Alan recommends you go to college, "preferably one that teaches both classical and computer animation. Try to hook up with people who know what they are doing so they can look at your work and give you pointers. Most people are decent enough and will help you achieve any goal you may be working for."
When you're applying for a job, present a solid portfolio that shows off your skills. "If you're focusing just on animation, it's probably a good idea to balance it out a little bit. Show a good sense of timing and the basics. Show that you can do cycles well; I think it will be a benefit for game or film. Get at least a quadruped in there, shifting its weight and walking with a little bit of character. It definitely doesn't hurt to put in presentational stuff. If you end up doing cycles all the time, it's boring. People want to see that you can do cycles, but deep down I think they want to see a little fun. Show them a couple different types of set ups. The models don't have to be perfect, it just has to move well."
"The most important thing a person can have in this industry is a love of learning," says Damon Waldrip, a senior artist. "There are so many ways of doing things that you can never know them all, and technology inevitably marches on, so you have to keep up. The second most important thing is persistence. This means believing in yourself. Nobody starts out any good. You can only get good at something by actually doing it. Talent can only be realized through practice."
So there you have a glimpse into animation on Star Wars Galaxies. This is hardly even the tip of the iceberg of all that the artists do day after day. SWG is a tremendous project. But stay tuned to the Forums, as the developers keep the community up to date on what's going on behind the scenes, and look for more articles in the future. E3, the biggest gaming convention in the world, is coming in May, and there's bound to be more great peeks at the game to come!
OP 6/30/08 11:23:05 PM#17
Friday feature Pre-launch
Mo-Cap: Bringing Games to Life
"That was a little twisted. Let's try it again."
A voice hidden behind a large black bank of controls says, "Ready," and after a moment, "Action!" Then-
Whack! Crack! Stomp! Swoosh!
I enter the large, rectangular room. It's a rather drab, gray and black place. Several dingy blue mats lay heaped against the left wall. Han Solo stands back there with the mats, blaster drawn. Boba Fett guards this door, just to the left, arms crossed. They're both made out of cardboard. Who knew Boba Fett was so short?
This is the motion capture studio on the campus of Sony Computer Entertainment America, located in San Diego. Right now, a group of Star Wars Galaxies designers and artists is in the process of capturing all the emotes, actions, and reactions a player character will make in the game.
Joe Shoopack, the character team lead, is here, stationed at a long folding-legged table, tapping the keys of a laptop. He wears his BYU ballcap and scrolls through a list of nearly 750 different animations. Over the next three days, he plans to get motion capture data for every single one of them.
"Next is parry high right," says Joe. His list is full of names like this: parry_high_left, parry_high_center. Many are much longer; the precise naming system is key to keeping everything clear and understandable. It also helps to ensure they cover all the animations they want to record.
Jake Rodgers, the art director, is here, perched in a tall director's chair, swinging a cane in front of him as he intently watches the moves of the figure at the center of the room.
"Idle one is breathing normally," he says. "Just standing. Really, don't do anything. You're calm. Then we'll do a version where you're kind of-" Jake begins panting, breathing heavily in an exaggerated fashion-"worn out from combat. We'll be able to blend between the two depending on how tired the character is."
The figure in the center of the room is Hiro Koda, a martial arts expert and stunt man with Action Specialists. Hiro is wearing a skintight flexible black body suit, and a snug stocking cap. Positioned all over his body, head, and shoes are marble-sized reflective balls. He nods.
"Action!" is yelled again, and he stands calmly until the take is complete.
"Same thing for idle two, only exhaustion from combat," says Jake.
Hiro doubles over, his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
"Not like you're going to throw up. But very winded. So you're breathing like-" Jake pants again.
Hiro gets it, and starts breathing like he's just completed a marathon. I get winded just watching.
Jake laughs. "Don't hyperventilate."
This process will be repeated for each animation in Joe's list over the next few days. Some animations will be cut, but many new ones will be added. Despite the immense number of motion capture animations-the most in any single online game ever made thus far-the artists and technicians will move quickly through them thanks to their experience, and that of the talent hired to swing the lightsabers, dance seductively, use Force powers, breathe heavily, and execute the amazing multi-move combat combos.
I notice the last of these combos in Joe's list and my jaw drops. The staggering five-move combo is scheduled for later today.
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OP 6/30/08 11:24:24 PM#18
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OP 6/30/08 11:25:54 PM#19
Mo-Cap: Part 2: The Dance
Neither the team from Sony Computer Entertainment America nor the Star Wars Galaxies Team has done anything like what they're about to do today.
The set up and preparation before the motion capture session moves along smoothly. The highly sensitive cameras are calibrated successfully, a procedure the SCEA guys have to go through each morning to ensure precision. If even a single camera is off by a hair's breadth, the data gathered could be useless.
This session will be devoted to capturing the force power actions and dance moves for Star Wars Galaxies.
Dan Legg begins the "subject-cal" as they call it, short for subject calibration. He sits behind a bank of dials, buttons and monitors, the top of his head just visible from where Sabrina Fox, one of SWG's motion capture performers, holds a T-pose at the center of the room. To Dan's left rests a rack of high-tech video equipment and computers. "Have her kind of hold her head up a little," he calls out over the top of the bank, never taking his eyes off the monitor. The cluster of pixels and lines on the screen shifts slightly. Each point corresponds to a reflector attached to the suit Sabrina wears.
This subject-cal is a little different from what Dan's accustomed to. For one thing, two of the markers are in the wrong spots. "You get used to looking at it and having it look a specific way," he says, pointing to several points that normally would be knees, but are much higher on the leg to accommodate a whole different range of human motion that will be captured today. "You adapt." Sabrina has moved into the proper position. "Yeah. Now, hold it...okay, thank you. Perfect. We got it."
The conglomeration of dots and wires and numbers appears chaotic on the screens to the layman, but to the Sony team that runs the studio day after day, it's like perfect prose. "How geeky is it when you can look at numbers and say, that data is a little noisy?" says Brian Rausch, the director of the motion capture studio. "You can look at a ticker and decide whether a move is going to be pristine or not. Mom would be so proud."
Brian is a wisecracker, and tells a story about a particularly rough football capture session he took part in a while back. "The guys were just killing each other all day long. I was actually worried someone was going to get hurt. Then one of the guys gets up, groaning. I'm thinking, oh great here we go."
Then something completely unexpected happened. On Brian's monitor, a stream of pixels began pouring out of the wire-framed football player, bouncing and scattering across the floor plane. "This guy's got a handful of markers he's been carrying the entire time and holds them behind himself and drops them, so it shows up in the data."
The fun doesn't slow the work progress. The calibration phase is completed and everyone's ready to begin the capture phase, ahead of schedule.
The performers for the dance moves are Cosmo Hom and Sabrina Fox. Both are experienced motion capture actors, and have worked together in the past on titles such as Syphon Filter 1 and 2. Both are trained dancers, proficient in many different dance styles, which will be called upon for the moves Jake Rodgers, the art director, and Joe Shoopack, the character team lead, want for SWG.
Sabrina is the first to perform today.
Mo-Cap Part 2, Page 2
OP 6/30/08 11:27:45 PM#20
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