Thursday, 30 December 2010

The first Leviathan Mortis has been listed on eBay

Casting took considerably longer than planned, two days of fussing with new molds and adjusting vent and sprue size. I suppose it’s to be expected but it sure is frustrating.

Because of the current production rate, I have concluded that I need to move this out of house sooner than later and will be working toward that end.

Until then I had to choose a way to sell, that would allow the greatest number of people a shot at purchasing a kit... I settled on the auction format. I know it’s not ideal and bidding may go over the suggested retail but the market supply and demand will set the price and if there is extra profit, it will go straight to the contract caster to get that end rolling.

I refuse to take pre-orders because I will not sell something that is not in a box and ready to ship.... Been there, done that, and won’t do it again. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and I would prefer not to anger my customers with unreasonable wait times.

I apologize and hope you understand my decision. If the auction format drives the price too high, I would ask for your patients while I work out the production issues. How long will it take? Likely several (2-3) months for the contract caster to start production.

Have a safe and happy New Year, and happy bidding….

Item number: 230568665580 click here to be taken to listing

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Casting has started!

I will have two and possibly three Leviathan Mortis available by the 31st.

When they are packed and ready to go I will make an announcement here. I may list one of them on eBay in auction format, to allow those who may have missed the chance at the first run to purchase a kit if they feel they cannot wait until the production rate is up.

The first few models will be a Limited Release Edition, and will include the Crusader Head and a right hand Vulkan Cannon in addition to the normal Mortis head, Scythe and Claw.

The limited Edition Mortis will only be available for a short time, likely five kits. After that the Vulkan and Crusader head will be available separately.

Total Package Value: $400.00  ($350.00 Mortis/ $45.00 Vulkan/ $5.00 Crusader head)
Limited Edition Price: $375.00

Production will be rather spotty; I need to cast up two for Pat over at Senji Studios, a Mortis and when the molds are done, a Crusader, to take care of a trade for the wonderful buildings he made. Possibly two more for other obligations, and then start work on the Crusader molds for it's release.

I'm still in talks with a couple of production shops for contract casting and I will need to make production molds.... In short, there is much still to be done and casting needs to be juggled between tasks.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Updated Website

While I was waiting for the re-printed part, I took the time to hack and slash through the website. It is still not completely done, the Game page needs a lot of work and I threw together the pics for the Vulcan Cannon page.

All in all, it loads faster and is far kinder to maneuver through. You still cannot buy anything; I have the PayPal buttons set so it will not complete the transaction without stock on hand.

No rest for the wicked... I start benching the re-print tomorrow and molds to follow.

Stay tuned! I will update the Blog with a final release date when I have it... Just keep in mind there may only be a couple of kits available on the day of release.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Leviathan Mortis Instructions

Instructions for the first release are complete. That was about as much fun as a root canal, but at least its done.... Enjoy!
Just click on the images below

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Waiting on Prints

My go-to guy for prints, Moddler, is out of the office for the next couple of days and slammed with work. I will likely have the re-printed part on Friday. I will need to bench the part and make a new family mold. Unfortunately, this will slightly delay the first release. It will take approximately 10 days to get everything done once I have the item in my grubby little hands.

Rest assured, workers in my high tech production facility will be flogged daily until this problem has been resolved.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Player - Avatar Symbiosis

In a recently released paper, Jeroen D. Stout (creator of Dinner Date) proposes an interesting theory on the relashionship between player and avatar. It is related to the things that have been discussed previous post about immersion, so I felt it was relevant to bring it up. The full paper can be gotten from here. I will summarize the ideas a bit below, but I still suggest all to read the actual paper for more info!

Most modern theorists of the mind agree that it is not single thing, but a collection of processes working in unison. What this means is that there is no exact place where everything comes together, but instead the interaction between many sub-systems give rise to what we call consciousness. The most clear evidence of this is in split brain patients, where the two brain-halves pretty much form two different personalities when unable to communicate.

This image of a self is a not fixed thing though and it is possible to change. When using a tool for a while it often begins to feel like an extension of ourself, thus changing ones body image. We go from being "just me" to be being "me with hammer". When the hammer is put down, we return to the old previous body image of just being "me". I have described an even clearer example of this in a previous post, where a subject perceives a sense of touch as located at a rubber hand. Research have shown that this sort of connection can get quite strong. If one threatens to drop a heavy weight or similar on the artificial body part (eg the rubber hand), then the body reacts just like it would to any actual body part.

What this means for games is that it is theoretically possible for the player form a very strong bond with the avatar, and in a sense become the avatar. I discuss something similar in this blog post. What Jeroen now purposes is that one can go one step further and make the avatar autonomously behave in a way that the players will interpret has their own will. This is what he calls symbiosis. Instead of just extending the body-image, it is the extension of the mind. Quite literally, a high level of symbiosis means that part of your mind will reside in the avatar.

A simple example would be that if player pushes a button, making the avatar jump, players feel as if they did the jumping themselves. I believe that this sort of symbiosis already happens in some games, especially noticeable when the avatar does not directly jump but has some kind of animation first. When the player-avatar symbiosis is strong this sort of animation does not feel like some kind of cut scene, but as a willed action. Symbiosis does not have to be just about simple actions like jumping though, but can be more complex actions, eg. assembling something, and actions that are not even initiated by the player, eg. picking up an object as the player pass by it. If symbiosis is strong then the player should feel that "I did that" and not "the avatar did that" in the previous examples. The big question is now how far we can go with this, and Jeroen suggests some directions on how to research this further.

Having more knowledge on symbiosis would be very useful to make the player feel immersed in games. It can also help solving the problem of inaccurate input. Instead of doing it the Trespasser way and add fine-control for every needed body joint, focus can lie on increasing the symbiosis and thus allowing simply (or even no!) input be seen by players as their own actions. This would make players feel as part of a virtual world without resorting to full-body exo-skeletons or similar for input. Another interesting aspect of exploring this further is that it can perhaps tell us something about our own mind. Using games to dig deeper into subjects like free will and consciousness is something I feel is incredibly exciting.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Leviathan Mortis First Build

It has been quite the journey getting here, but it is very satisfying to hold the final model.

Please accept my apologies about the website, I know it's broken... I just have not had time to get to it. It's on the to-do list. I keep the blog up to date so this is where you can find all updates until I can sort out the website.

As expected, it has been many long days to prep the molds for production. I had really hoped to show a nicely painted model on Pat's wonderful diorama but time will not allow that right now, I’ll have to come back to it when the Crusader is ready for the build. I wanted to make sure my customers could see a real world model and not just a CAD render, so primer will have to do for now.
 Although I prefer to take my time on a build, I assembled this kit in just a few hours, skimping on much of the pre prep work and clean up so I could get cracking on the instructions. I did find one part that will need to be re-printed and new molds made so there may be a slight delay on the December 15th release date. This is still my goal and I am working hard to stick with it.
I will take what I have learned from this build and make notes in the instructions, there are a few components that need to be assembled in a specific order or you will be cussing up a storm. I will also include notes on how to build a resin kit and what tools and glues work best. I dislike pinning resin models and was happy to find that the only part that needs the reinforcement was the spine. As you can glue the spine in place and then drill from the bottom of the pelvis and from the top of the chest right into the spine area it was a fast and easy pinning job.  For a 136 part model, I am happy to say it was a fairly simple build.
Still sooo much still to do; Complete the instructions, new molds and prep of the re-printed component, web site (I doubt I will get this done before the 15th, so expect the first few sales to be on Ebay) and all the other items I am sure I have overlooked.

Ultimately I need the casting contracted out, sooooo...

**If you are a contract caster or garage kit producer of resin models and looking for long term work, contact me at for details.**

Quick recap:

Release date... shooting for the 15th, depends on the re printed part turn around time. This will likely be on Ebay as I doubt I will have time to fix the broken website before then.

Retail $350.00 (Kit will come with the Crusader head as well as the Mortis head)
Optional Vulkan Cannon $45.00
For now, enjoy the pics!
Here is a shot for scale, using a 30-32mm MERCS Mini.
Here is a shot for fun ;)

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Tech feature: Light Masking

So just wanted to give a quick info on a brand new feature: light box masks.

When placing lights in some rooms, it is common that light bleeds through walls, and show up in other rooms close by. The obvious way to fix this is to add shadows, but shadows can be pretty expensive (especially for point lights), so it is not often a viable solution. In Amnesia we solved this through careful placement, yet bleeding can be seen in some places.

To fix this I added a new feature that is able to limit the lights range with a box. This way the light can cast light as normal but is cut off before reaching an adjacent area. This pretty much does the job of shadows, but is much cheaper.

It turned out to be pretty simple to implement as well. In the renderer, different geometrical shapes are used to render lights (spheres for point lights and pyramids for spots) which make sure the light only affects needed pixels. To implement the masking, these shapes where simply exchanged for a box and then with some small shader changes it all worked.

Without masking:

With mask:

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Bye, bye Pre-Pass lighting

I have an announcement to make.

I am dumping pre-pass lighting.

A couple of weeks ago I started to remaking the renderer from a deferred shader to a pre-pass lighting one. Directly after implementing it, I wrote this post. At first, pre-pass lighting sounded great: faster light rendering and more variation in materials. Having seen that companies such as Crytek and Insomniac Games used it, I thought it would be the next logical step to take.

However, even as implemented it, the problems began. The first one was that specular lighting has to be made through hacks or something that makes it closer to deferred lighting. The next was that implementation become more messy. I suddenly needed to redraw all objects in two separate passes and this made the material and shader code harder to maintain. Normal deferred shading has this nice design where all material info is rendered in one pass to one buffer. But in pre-pass lighting, this spread out and makes more annoying to add new stuff and to update existing.

Still, I stuck to it, because I was sure that the speed and material variety would make up for it. One of the features I was looking forward to was making more interesting decals, with normals and such. Since only the light data is written to an accumulation buffer I thought this would allow me to easily put more effects to the decals. However, I quickly realized that I had been quite foolish and not considered that pretty much every interesting part of a materials is added when lighting it. The surface normals, specular, etc are all baked into the light data. So I ended up doing tricks that I could actually work with normal deferred shading.

So what ended up with was lighting of worse quality, compared deferred shading, and with no more room for special effects. Still, this rendering is much faster right? Well, I did some checks which I collected in this post. It turns out that pre-pass is actually slower unless in very specific situations. None of the improvements I was hoping for turned out to be true.

Still, I stuck to it. I am not sure why, but I guess I did not want to face the truth after having put so much time and effort into it. Going back to the old renderer was something I did not want to consider.

Then last week, as I was starting making undergrowth for the terrain, it suddenly happened. I realized that I had to render the vegetation twice, creating more overdraw and making it a lot more cumbersome to implement. At this point I decided that I should seriously consider going back to the old deferred renderer. What I was most worried about about was that it would exclude us from consoles, but I found out that games like Burnout Paradise used a deferred shader too, and assuring me that consoles would still be possible to do.

This post by Adrian Stone, with an in-depth discussion on the subject, sealed the deal for me and I got to work with going back to deferred shading. I had actually come across Adrian's post before when implemented pre-pass lighting, but never read it carefully. I guess it would not had made me stop then since I wanted to check it out myself, but it is interesting to see how one can convince oneself that something is correct, to the point of avoid contradictory sources. This is a very important lesson to learn and one should always be prepared to reconsider and "kill your darlings".

Right now I have fully implemented the deferred shader again and even updated it a bit too. For one thing, I fixed so the decals support all the feature I had in the pre-pass lighting shader. Since we are aiming for a little higher specs (shader model 3 or 4) for our next game, I took that into account and was able to add some other fun stuff. Examples are colored specular and saving the emission in the g-buffer (allowing to cheaply to a variety of effects).

I am really happy to back to the old renderer and now that I am adding new features things are going a lot smoother. The pre-pass renderer was not all in vain though. I cleaned up the rendering code a lot and it also made me rethink how some features could be added. Last but not least, it also reminded me that I should never get too attached to an idea.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Tech Feature: Terrain textures

I have finally finished the part of the terrain rendering that I spent most time researching and thinking about: texturing. This is a quite big problem, with many methods available, each having its own pros and cons.

I was looking for something that gave a lot of freedom for the artists, that was fast and that allowed that the same algorithm could be used in both game and editor. The last point was especially important since we had much success with our WYSIWYG-editor for Amnesia, and we did not want terrain to break this by requiring some complicated creation process.

Even once I started working on the textures, I was unsure on the exact approach to take. I had at least decided to use some form of texture splatting as the base. However there is a lot of ways to go about this, the two major directions being to either do it all in real-time or to rendering to cache textures in some manner.

Before doing any proper work on the texturing algorithm I wanted to see how the texturing looked on some test terrain. In the image below I am simply project a tiling texture along the y-axis.

Although I had checked other games, I was not sure how good this the y-axis projection would look. What I was worried of was that there would be a lot of stretching at slopes. It turned out that it was not that bad though and the worst case looks something like this:

While visible it was not as bad as I first thought it would be. Seeing this made me more confident that I could project along the y-axis for all textures, something that allowed for the cached texture approach. If I did all blending in real-time I would have been able to have a special uv-mapping for slopes, but now that y-axis projection worked, this was no longer essential. However, before I could start on testing texture caching, I need to implement the blending.

The plain-vanilla way to do is, is to have an alpha texture for each texture layer and then draw one texture layer after another. Instead of having many render passes, I wanted to do as much blending in a single draw call. By using a an RGBA texture for the alpha I could do a maximum of 4 at the same time. I first considered this, but then I saw a paper by Martin Mittring from Crytek called "Advanced virtual texture topics" where an interesting approach was suggested. By using an RGB texture up to 8 textures could be blended, by letting each corner of an rbg-cube be a texture. A problem with this approach is that each texture can only be nicely blended with 3 other corners (textures), restricting artists a bit. See below how texture layers are connected (a quick sketch by me):

Side note: Yes, it would be possible to use an RGBA texture with this technique and let the corners of a hyper cube represent all of the textures. This would allow each texture type to have 4 textures it could blend with and a maximum of 16 texture layers. However, it would make life quite hard for artists when having to think in 4D...

When implemented it looks like this (note he rgb texture in the upper right corner):

However, I got into a few problems with this approach, that I first thought where graphics card problems, but later turned out to be my fault. During this I switch to using several layers of RGBA textures instead, blending 4 textures at each pass. When I discovered that is was my own error (doh!), I had already decided on using cache textures (more on that in a jiffy), which put less focus on render speed of the blending. Also this approach seemed nicer for artists. So I decided on a pretty much plain-vanilla approach, meaning some work in vain, but perhaps I can have use for it later on instead.

Now for texture caching. This method basically works as the mega texture method using in Quake Wars and others. But instead of loading pieces of a gigantic texture at run-time, pieces of the gigantic texture is generated at run-time. To do this I have a several render textures in memory that are updated with the content depending on what is in view. Also, depending on the geometry LOD I use, I vary the texture resolution rendered to and make it cover a larger area. So texture close to the view use large textures and far away have much lower.

I first thought had to do some special fading between the levels and was a bit concerned on how to do this. However, it turned out that this was taken care of the trilinear texture filtering quite nicely (especially when generating mipmaps for each rendered texture). When implemented the algorithm proved very fast as the texture does not have to be updated very often and I got very high levels of detail in the terrain.

Side note: The algorithm is actually used in Halo Wars and is mentioned in a nice lecture that you can see here. Seeing this also made me confident that it was a viable approach.

The algorithm was not without problems though, for example the filtering between patches (different texture caches) created seams, as can be seen below:

(click to enlarge, else it will not be seen)

The way I fixed this was simply to let each texture have a border that mimicked all of the surrounding textures. While the idea was simple, it was actually non-trivial to implement. For example, I started out with a 1 pixel border, but had to have a 8 pixel border for the highest 1024x1024 textures to be able to shrink it. Anyhow, I did get it working, making it look like this:

(Again, click image to see full size!)

Next up was improving the blending. The normal blending for texture splatting can be quite boring and instead of just using a linear blend I wanted to spice it up a bit. I found a very nice technique for this on Max McGuire's blog, which you can see here. Basically each material gets an alpha that determines how fast each part of it fades. The algorithm I ended up with was a bit different from the one outlined in Max's blog and looks like this:

final_alpha = clamp( (dissolve_alpha- (1.0 - blend_alpha ) / (dissolve_alpha * (1-fade_start), 0.0, 1.0);

Where final_alpha is used to blend the color for a texture and fade_start determines at which alpha value the fade starts (this allows the texture to disappear piece by piece). blend_alpha is gotten from the blend texture, and dissolve_alpha is in the texture, telling when parts of the texture fades out.

So instead of having to have blending like this:

It can look like this:

Now next step for me was to allow just not diffuse textures, but also normal mapping and specular. This was done by simply rendering to more render targets, so each type had a separate texture. This would not have been possible to do if I had blended in real-time as I would have reached the normal limit of 16 texture limits quite fast. But now I rendered them separately, and when rendering the final real-time texture I only need to use a texture for each type (taken from the cache textures). Here is how all this combined look:

You can see small version of each cache texture at the top.

Now for a final thing. Since the texture cached are not rendered very often I can do quite a lot of heavy stuff in them. And one thing I was sure we needed was decals. What I did was simply to render a lot of quads to the textures which are blended with the existing texture. This can be used to add all sorts of extra detail to map and almost require no extra power. Here is an example:

I am pretty happy with these features for now although there are some stuff to add. One thing I need to do is some kind of real-time conversion to DXT texture for the caches. This would save quite a lot of memory (4 - 8 times less would be used by terrain) and this would also speed up rendering. Another thing I want to investigate is to add shadows, SSAO and other effects when rendering each cache texture. Added to this are also some bad visual popping when levels are changed (this only happens when zooming out a steep angle though) that I probably need to fix later on.

Now my next task will be to add generated undergrowth! So expect to see some swaying grass in the next tech feature!

Monday, 22 November 2010

How the player becomes the protagonist

In Amnesia one of the main goals was for the player to become the protagonist. We wanted the player to think "I am" instead of "Daniel is" and in that way make it a very personal experience. The main motivation for this was of course to make the game scary, but also for the memories that were revealed to feel more personal for the player.

In this post I will go through some of the design thinking we used, problems it caused and how it eventually turned out. I will also briefly discuss the future of this sort of design.

Playing a role
First of all, it is not required that the protagonist matches the player character in order for the player to "become" him/her. As an extreme example, I see no problem with a game featuring an animal as lead character to have the player become the protagonist. The idea is not that the player should match the physical / mental protagonist, but rather that he/she should be able to roleplay him/her and to feel like really being him/her.

There is of course limits to this kind of roleplaying and certain characteristics might make it impossible for a player to feel a connection. This is the same for works in other media where the reader/viewer is meant to feel empathy toward one or more characters. Sometimes there is some mismatch that removes this feeling, and much of the work's power is lost. Note that this sort of friction is more likely to happen because of the personality of the character and not so much because the physical appearance. A simple example of this would be that protagonists in Disney movies are often very easy to relate to despite being animals.

Considering this, the general rule that we used was not to force emotions and actions that players were unlikely to accept. When the protagonist is displayed as doing or feeling something, we had to make sure that player could agree to this.

Getting into the act
In film or literature it is possible for the audience to not like the protagonist at the start, but then make them feel a connection over the course of the work. This is not possible to do in a videogame, as players must start acting out their role as soon as the game starts. If the situation does not feel comfortable at the start, then it will be very hard to connect.

Because of this, videogames need to have a tutorial of some sort where the player gets used to the idea of playing a certain character. During this phase it is also important that the player learns how to act as the protagonist, so they later act accordingly. I do not think this can be done solely on a mechanics basis, as the trial and error involved will most likely just frustrate. This is largely dependent on the space of actions available though and sometimes players will quickly realize the role they are meant to play.

In Amnesia we made the choice to be very upfront on what is expected by the player. This is accomplished by displaying messages before the game starts, telling the player what to do. The main message was a rather simple one, simply saying that the player should not try and fight any monsters. As this is pretty close to what most people would do in real-life, we basically just had to tell players that the game was not a first-person-shooter and the rest came naturally. If the game would have required more specific behavior from the player, more info might have been needed.

Once the player accepts this role and is ready to play, the next step is to provide an interface between the player and world. Here a bunch of problems arises and it becomes less clear what is the right thing to do.

What emotions to hide?
First of all, we decided to remove any form of cut-scene from the game. Upon entering a cut-scene, there is a large distinction between the kind of control a player has during normal play, creating a discrepancy that weakens the player-protagonist connection. In our previous effort, Penumbra, we had little of these, but there were still places when control was taken from the player for longer periods. In Amnesia, we only used very short "view hijacks" to display points of interest. These were not very frequent and were meant to be seen as reflexes, which seemed to be accepted for most players. Some were a bit annoyed by them though and we are not sure they were that necessary.

Next thing we decided on was that, unlike Penumbra, Daniel (the protagonist) should never comment on the situation. In Penumbra the most obvious place this happens is when a spider is spotted and the text "A spider! I do not like spiders" appear. This sort of interface where the protagonist make subjective remarks on the game world can very easily break the connection between player-and-protagonist.

We tried to skip descriptive texts completely, but this caused problems when dealing with puzzles. If players start thinking about a puzzle "incorrectly", then it is imperative that they get on the right track. In these cases, the easiest (and many times only) way to communicate this to the player is by using texts. We tried to add as many solutions to avoid having texts, but it only works so far, and eventually some kind of explanatory / hinting text was needed. If not the player would have gotten stuck instead and we thought this would be worse than having the texts. In order to keep the player-protagonist connection, we kept all of this texts very objective and impersonal, careful to not force emotions on the player.

Side note: A problem we had when removing subjective comments was the hints were much harder to write. Not being able to let the protagonist guess, use insights or personal knowledge proved quite tricky at times.

We did not remove all of the subjective protagonist emotions though. We kept the more autonomous physical actions such as panting and heart beats, a choice that proved slightly controversial. After releasing the teaser video some people argued that having these sort of reactions pulled them out of the experience. Others felt that it just heightened the experience. Once the game was released, the main complaint came at a very specific feature, namely the "sanity damage"-reaction (that happens whenever the player witnesses something frightening). In the end, we estimate that something like 15-30% of the players disliked these kind of effects.

For the people that did not dislike these effects, many felt it increased the connection to the protagonist. For example feeling as if their own heart beat faster when the protagonist's did or becoming startled when a "sanity damage"-effect told them to. This is a really interesting subject and while using these kind of effects might detract the experience for some, I think it might be worth taking the risk. So far we have mostly tried this for very simple situations, but I believe it can used to evoke much more complex emotions.

Bringing back memories
An important part of Amnesia is that players slowly learn the background of the character they are playing. As the name suggest, the game starts out with the protagonist having amnesia that sets the player and protagonist on equal footing. By progressing through the game both the player and the protagonist gain access to increasingly more lost memories, slowly getting an idea of how Daniel ended up in the situation he currently is in.

The main mechanic we used to deliver these lost memories was through diary entries scattered throughout the game. We decided to voice these in order for them to be more interesting, but I think this backfired a bit. What many players seem to have experienced was that Daniel was reading the entries aloud. Thus this proved to be a large distraction and must have weakened the player-protagonist bond for many. What we intended was for the player to hear Daniel's voice as the voice of their old self. This was probably way too obscure though and it might have been better to just had them as pure text.

Added to this was the fact that Daniel actually spoke at some points. Some lines are spoken during the start of the game and some during gameplay if sanity is too low. Again, this was intended to be lost memories, but many players did not perceive it as such and instead thought it was strange to hear Daniel talking.

As mentioned earlier, we wanted the player to feel as if the lost memories were their own. But because of the way the memory content was delivered I think the effect was not what it could have been.

A major obstacle when trying to create strong a player-protagonist connection is that one often end up with the so called "silent protagonist". The reason for this is simply that that whenever spoken words are required, the lines spoken by the protagonist must be predetermined and chosen for the player. Either, the character simply speaks a scripted line or the player chooses from a list canned responses. Using the first type allows for more fluent conversation but removes any interaction. The second choice provides some interaction but makes conversations stiff (as other actions are only possible when in "dialog mode") and might lack options the player finds appropriate to say. Some hybrid solutions exist (like in Blade Runner where the player just sets an attitude) but the problem still remains.

Side note: Interestingly, the problem is quite opposite in Interactive Fiction. Instead of lacking options for the player, the characters one speaks to lack the intelligence to understand all possible (and fitting) sentences.

So how to solve this? Well, first of all it is worth noting that the systems mentioned above can still be used if applied carefully. If the player's emotions are in line with the protagonist's then simply having short scripted lines could work very fine. To make this work I also think it is important that the protagonist's voice is a recurring element of the game to get the player used to it. If it just pops up on rare occasions, the illusion is easily broken. Call of Cthulhu and the Thief series use this to some success (I think it is at its best when short, in-game and the player is free to do other actions at the same time).

The multiple choice system is also possible to use, but I think it comes with more problems. The biggest is that since the player gets a choice it is more obvious when the game does supply the wanted action. With other actions such as walking and fighting, it is easier to set up rules for the player on what is allowed and not. Conversations have a much wider scope and it is much harder to keep it consistent. It is also much harder to display the options in a way that feels okay. Unless they entire game is controlled with a menu-like system, having a menu pop up for a specific action is very distracting.

In Amnesia we chose to avoid conversations as much as possible and there are only two occasions when you meet another character face-to-face. And in only one of these were there any real opportunity for a conversation (with a tortured man called Agrippa). The way we went about it was for Daniel to be silent, but for Agrippa to respond as if Daniel had spoken. This gave the dialogs (or rather monologue) more flow but many players found this quite disconnecting. They found it strange that Daniel silently spoke back, especially as many was sure they had heard him speak before when reading diaries. On the other hand, it might have been even more strange if Agrippa had never asked Daniel anything and simply just spoken in direct orders or in a lecturing manner. Agrippa was put into game pretty late in development and we did not gave it as much thought as we should have, so this might have been solved better.

When creating a videogame with a strong player-protagonist connection, the best option is probably to fit the game world around a protagonist that does not require none or very simple (as in yes-no or simple vocabulary) speech. This way, the player-protagonist connections is more easily kept and consistency is maintained. An example of this is System shock where all characters are dead or talking through a one-way radio. Another example is BioShock 2 where the protagonist is a dumb robot that is not expected to speak. This of course put limits on what kind of experiences that can be made, but might be the only way to create a strong player-protagonist experience.

Problems to overcome
It is not only dialog that is a large problem when trying to make player and protagonist one and the same. Since we are trying to craft an experience where the players themselves are a central ingredient, much pressure is put on them.

A major problem is that it is hard to let the protagonist have any special knowledge. This is a reason why stories starring amnesiacs, outsiders or cannon-fodder are so common; things becomes very complicated if players need to have a deeper understanding of their surroundings. A way to solve this is to force the player into learning things before starting the game. But since reading a novel before starting the game is not really possible, the amount of information that can be given is quite limited. Another way to solve this is to have some sort of tutorial texts popping up, but this is of course very distracting.

Another issue, is that the player and protagonist might not share the same goals. For instance the protagonist might be out for revenge, but the player might not be interested in this. This makes games of this type end up with fairly simplistic motivations. It might be possible to give some kind of instructions before the game starts, but that does not seem very good to me. Better would be to provide an experience at start that sets up the player's mood to match the protagonist's. This is easier said than done though.

Why bother?
So why go into all of this trouble of making blurring the line between player and protagonist? For one thing, I think it is something that is extremely interesting to explore. So far games that try to create strong player-protagonist bonds are mostly about killings things and exploration into other themes is pretty much uncharted.

Secondly, it is something that that is unique to the medium. In no other media can the audience step into works of art themselves. And just because of this I think it demands to be experimented with. Instead of looking too much to film or other art as inspiration, we should try and do things in ways that only videogames can.

Your thoughts?
We would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this. How did you feel like you connected with the protagonist in Amnesia? Was there any especially large obstacles for you to have a strong connection?

Also, in case you are interested in more discussions on this, check out the previous post on self-location in games:

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Leviathan VR5 Mortis (Totenköpfe - Deaths Head)

For those of you who have not seen it, I felt I should post a description of the first Leviathan release. For those that have.... Here is some new eye candy.

Grandfather of all Leviathans; the VR5 design is over 200 years old and has seen many improvements and variants. It and its variations are widely considered some of the finest designs ever produced. A balance of size, speed, armor and armament all come together to make a very formidable vehicle.

The decision to design the cockpit after the Totenköpfe was primarily nostalgic and a matter of national pride. The frame of the first Leviathan was designated VR5 in honor of the 5th Regiment commanded by Colonel von Ruesch, the first Hussar commander to use the deaths head symbol. The Prussian army Hussar first adopted this symbol in 1744.
The Mortis in its purest form is outfitted with two close combat weapons, and no additional armor, this allows for the fastest possible movement and a vicious close combat capability. The massive oil stacks provide the option of overcharging the reactor for enhanced speed or combat. Two KwK 200 20cm auto cannons mounted in the torso ensure its survivability in a ranged engagement.
Here is a pic. to help add a little scale referance...

Friday, 19 November 2010

Leviathan Mortis release date

I have a (tentative) release date of December 15th. If all goes well and there are no major hiccups.

There is still ALLOT of work to be done. Molds checked for vent and sprue issues, Instructions, Box art, Web store and shopping cart integration, ect. Perhaps a more realistic date would be January but I like to push myself.

I may releases the first one or two on Ebay if I don’t have time to work out the cart and website issues.

Pricing as it stands now:
Leviathan Mortis: With Scythe and right hand Claw $350.00
Optional weapons: Right hand Vulkan $45.00
The Leviathan Mortis is a all resin model kit, roughly 9.5" tall
I will be working a lot of late nights to try to get this out the door by the 15th, so please be patient with me if the date is bumped.

Please understand that they will initially be produced in house so the number of kits available will be limited due to having only one set of production molds and production equipment.

I will update the blog with pictures of the final casts and assembled model as soon as they are completed.

I am the great and powerful OZ!

Many people ask why is this so expensive. The short answer is that nothing about making resin models is quick or cheap. The long answer requires a more in depth look at the costs involved. Unlike many manufacturers, I do not feel it is constructive to dance around this question. An honest question deserves an honest answer.

So let us pull back the wizards curtain and see what hides behind...

Pricing my models is a subject that often causes me a great deal of discomfort. Every kit, every release begs the question what is a fair price? What do I need to charge to keep the doors open and continue making things I, and hopefully others enjoy. While understanding not every model will be a spectacular hit, what is a reasonable number of models you should expect to sell to amortize your upfront costs?

Now we look at the ugly numbers. I already own the equipment so I will not count that in the total but I show them here for general reference. Also, keep in mind this rough overview is for a rather large and complicated model with over 32 molds and 136 parts. Although the costs are not accurate to the penny, they are honest reflections of the true costs. There are numerous other costs that will not reflected in this break down, such as overhead, web development, problems with molds, etc. These costs likely reflect another 3% to 5% reduction in true profit.

Initial equipment investment: (This cost is not reflected in the totals below)
Compressor, Pressure pots, Vacuum pump, Vacuum chamber, assorted tools, mixing containers, etc
Rough estimate- $1800.00

Initial materials investment:
Model print cost, Initial molds (RTV Silicone cost), Mold boxes, clay and other tools, Resin for mold master.
Rough estimate- $3850.00

Cost for each model produced:
Assuming a conservative25 pulls per mold, before mold needs replacing. Estimate for resin, rubber and packaging.
Rough estimate-$89.00

Cost for casting service:
Assuming the molds are made and supplied by me.
Rough Estimate-$75.00?? (This number is still unresolved)
Shipping costs back to me from caster-$4.00

Credit card transaction fees:
3% to 6.5% (average 4.75% of $350.00 retail) $16.62



Taxes on profit:
 $65.00 (Uncle Sam and California demand their share of my hard work)


DreamForge-Games company profit- $50.00 per kit
Costs of initial investment, $3850.00. (First true profit after 77 kits have been sold)

My profit per kit- $50.00 per kit
Target of $15.00 an hour for my time. CAD Modeling, Benching, Mold Making. Four hundred and sixty hours invested, and an additional ninety hours for the three mold change outs needed to meet the 77 total kits sold to square up the initial model/materials costs.
Total dollar cost of my time $8,250. (First true profit after 165 kits have been sold)

What do I make per hour, if we try to zero my hourly rate at the 77 kits sold, based on the initial investment costs of the model and materials. I net $6.99 an hour for my time…Hmmmm…

Add the taxes back into the total that we removed earlier and were up to a “respectable?” $9.44 per hour actual working wage. This begs the question, if you possessed the creativity and the skills set in CAD and mold/model production, would you work for $9.44 an hour with no health plan.  I am not crying poor me, this work is something I love doing or I would not be doing it.

I hope that this release is a smashing success and I sell hundreds…  This would improve the look of my financials greatly. I would much prefer to amortize my investment to the first 40 or 50 kits sold, and on smaller less expensive models, this is always my target.

For the immediate future, I will need to cast these in house while I search for a suitable service provider. This will increase my profit margin but will slow the development of new models and severely limit the number of kits available to my customers. With this in mind, moving production out of house is a very high priority. If the contract casters services are far greater than expected, I will need to increase the price to reflect the additional costs.

Things being what they are, I feel it is a fair price for my customers and a fair price for the product I deliver. I hope that you feel the same and I hope that I helped to dispel the age-old question “why is the price so damn high?!”

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Leviathan Azazel sneak peek.

Azazel will be the last of five in the series of VR5 frame Leviathan.

Azazel and subtlety are two words seldom used together. There is nothing subtle about this Leviathan. It wields one of the largest projectile weapons mounted on any Leviathan and a whirling blade of destruction. This is the King Tiger of Leviathans

Just to recap, here are the five VR5 frame Leviathans in the series.

 I hope to start limited production of the Leviathan Mortis some time in December, with the crusader soon after and the remaining three in this series to follow ASAP.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Tech Feature: Noise and Fractals

Now that I have a working algorithm for terrain rendering, I wanted to try making some of it procedurally. This would not be used in order to generate levels, but instead to help artists add some extra detail and perhaps for some effects. The natural world is very noisy and fractal place, so in order a to get a nice looking environment, these two features are crucial.

When doing noise for natural phenomena, one normally wants some kind of coherent noise. Normal white noise, when nearby pixels are not correlated in any way, looks like this:

This is no good when one wants generate terrain and the like. Instead the noise should have a more smooth feel to it. To get achieve this, one fades between different random values, creating smooth gradients. A way to do this is to generate a pseudo-random number (pseudo because a certain coordinate, will always return the same random value) for whole number points, and then let the fractional parts between these be interpolations. For example, consider the 1D point 5.5. To get the value for this coordinate the pseudo-random values for 5 and 6 are gotten. Lets say they are 10 and 15. These are then interpolated and since 5.5 lies right between them, it is given the value 12.5 ( (10+15)/2 ). This technique is actually very similar to image magnification, where the whole numbers represent the original pixels.

Generating random numbers this way, something like this is gotten:

This looks okay, but the interpolations are not very smooth and looks quite ugly. This can be fixed by using a better kind of interpolation. One way to to do this is using cosine-interpolation, which smoothen the transition a bit.

This looks a lot better, but the height map image still looks a bit angular, and not that smooth. However, we can smooth it even further by using cubic interpolation. This ties nicely into the image magnification analogy I made early as cubic is a common type of filter for that. It works by not only taking into account the two points to blend between, but the points next to them as well. In our above example this would be the points 4 and 7 (which are next to 5 and 6). It looks like this:

This gives a much smoother appearance, but it (as well as the other algorithms above) has some other problems. Because the height values for each whole pixel are completely random, it is gives a very chaotic impression. Many times one wants a more uniform look instead. To fix this something called Perlin noise is used. What makes this algorithm extra nice is that it based on gradients instead of absolute values for each pixel. Each whole pixel is assumed to have the value 0, and then a gradient determines how the value changes between it and a neighboring pixel. This allows it to be much more uniform look:

Because of it is based on gradients, it also makes it possible to take the derivative of it, which can be used to generate normal maps (something I am not using though). It is also quite fast, pretty much identical to the cosine interpolation. The cubic interpolation, which requires more random samples, is almost twice as slow.

Now that a coherent noise function is implemented it can be used to generate some terrain. The screens above does not look that realistic though and to improve the look something called Fractal Brownian Motion can be used. This is a really simple technique and works, like all fractals, by iterating an algorithm over and over. What is iterated is the noise function, starting off with a large distance between the whole pixel inputs (low frequency) and then using smaller and smaller distances (higher frequency) for each iteration. The higher the frequency the smaller the influence, resulting in the low frequency noise creating the large scale features and the high frequency creating the details.

The result of doing so can produce something like this:

Suddenly we get something that looks a lot more like real terrain!

There is lots of stuff that can be done with this and often very simple alteration can lead to interesting results. Here is some iterated fractal noise that as been combined with a sine-function afterwards:

End notes
There is a lot more fun stuff that can be done using noise and I have just scratched the surface with this. It is a really versatile method with tons of usages for graphics. The problem is that that it can be quite slow though and my implementation will not be used for any real-time effects. However, Perlin noise can be simulated on the GPU, allowing it for realtime usage, and this is something I might look into later.

Next up is the hardest part of the terrain rendering - texturing! I am actually still not sure how to do it, but have tons of ideas. Can never get enough of info though, so if anybody know any good papers on terrain texturing, please share!