Hello everyone! The name is Duane and I am the Animation Director here at Nerd Kingdom.
During my lengthy career in game development, I have certainly been here before. Well, not really here, as here is a bit different. However, in some aspects, it is almost entirely the same. The outstanding difference is the Eternus Game Engine currently under development at Nerd Kingdom. Built from the ground up, Eternus holds the promise of a groundbreaking game development engine and tools upon which its flagship product will be developed. So, it’s deja vu all over again…or is it?
The first time I heard the term “virtual reality” was when I began my career in 1994 as a Lead Animator at Virtual World Entertainment (VWE). The Chicago game studio made two products, a first-person shooter (FPS) “walking tank” game called Battletech and a “hovercraft racing” title called Red Planet.
Each product was built from the ground up on a proprietary game engine, completely unique to the requirements of gameplay for a multiplayer FPS and space-based racing title respectively. Each engine included its own set of development tools and export processes, designed and built with essential integration toward the support of an efficient iterative creative process. Nothing was borrowed or modded, and middleware was non-existent. All of it was brand new, completely from scratch. (Ok, truth be told, some code between Battletech and Red Planet was recycled. But, I’m trying to make a point here.)
Fresh out of college, I was the studio’s first and only Lead Animator and it fell to me to collaborate with a newly hired Junior Programmer to design, test, and implement an integrated LOD Texturing tool. The sky was the limit and… “What the hell is an LOD anyway?”
So, there I was, tasked with one of the most important art tools for Battletech’s and Red Planet’s CG art development. Not because I was particularly suited for the role, but because I was “the new guy” and no one else wanted the job.
If you’ve ever wanted to make games for a living and knew nothing about the process, I knew exactly what you did when I began my career. Lucky for me, this first challenge was a remarkable Art Tools design experience and quite an education.
Trial by fire, I learned how to make LODs by hand expeditiously, a method of reducing an object or character’s total number of polygons while maintaining its shape and silhouette. I made four Levels of Detail (LOD) for each of the 20+ Mechs (aka “walking tanks”) and 12+ VTOL (“vertical take-off and landing”) racing craft. That’s 128 LODs plus the original 32+ models.
Then, I learned about creating UV Maps followed by applying textures via Planar Projection mapping for the many texture groups within a single model. At the time, Planar Projection mapping was all that this tool would provide.
The number of texture groups per model was exponential. I had to rotate and place each Planar Projection, an intermediate object represented by a 3D Plane, over every single polygon group or group of facets (aka “face group”). It was meticulous work. But then, that’s why we were developing the LOD Texturing tool in the first place, to expedite this laborious process. Ultimately, our efforts allowed Artists to texture any 3D model and all of its LODs based solely on the original models UV textures. It was a profound success and increased my passion for making games and inventing game development technologies, in general.
By the way, is it really work if you love what you do for a living? For me personally, animating for games is truly a dream come true. I remember when a Tippett Studios’ VP at Siggraph once said, “These guys will work for nothing and do it all night long. They love it! They’re gamers and artist.” I thought, “Holy sh*t, she knows our secret!” But, it’s true. Game developers will work long after their salaries have exhausted a full day’s work. We are habitual over-achievers with a relentless work ethic. Like some kind of digital junkie, looking forward to that next first moment of realized innovation in VR immersion. It’s addictive! That’s why most of look the way we do…trying to score that next (top-selling) digital hit. Thank God mobile game development offers the same euphoric affects at smaller doses. And, with the recent debates over VR/AR/MR, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality respectively, the digital chug-wagon continues.
I remember when I was in college, learning Alias|Wavefront software on a Thompson Digital Image machine back in the early 90’s. No one knew what they were doing. The teachers that were teaching the 3D Art and Animation curriculum at Columbia College Chicago had no clue what 3D was or even how to teach it. Every student dove into the manuals and surpassed their instructors before the end of the second week, too impatient to watch some “old dude” struggle to understand the poorly written tutorials.
Anyway, I digress, back to the topic at hand.
Other things that haven’t changed in game development for decades? How ’bout the division of labor across three main groups – Programmers, Designers, and Artists. At VWE, I learned about five disparate teams the studio employed in their game development process – Owner/Managers, Programmers, Designers, Artists/Animators, and Testers. And that right there was the pecking order by status and salary. How little has changed in the industry as a whole.
Each of these teams worked in silos as focused but independent specialists prior to pre-production and were brought together as one homogenized unit as the pre-production “vertical slice” neared completion. No, “vertical slice” has nothing to do with bread or ninja skills – Google it.
Over the years, the terminology for “development meetings with prioritized schedules or milestones” mutated into words like Sprint, Scrum, Agile, and Agile/Scrum. Call it what you like, it has been the same process since the dawn of game development. In its most basic form, it goes something like this – create a series of meetings based on a prioritized schedule of milestones around the topics of concepts/game ideas, dev, design, art, scope, and schedules. Then, build and test the plethora of advancing software. This is usually followed by cycles of wash/rinse/repeat. Critical to the successful development of this cycle is smart, honest decisions by talented and experienced key team members…and yadda, yadda, yadda – it’s boring stuff, but absolutely necessary.
Another enduring oddity in game development is something called “studio culture”. Here’s a checklist of things that, in my experience, have existed in every studio I’ve ever worked for:
⦁ Very smart, technical/analytical problem-solving academics who love games and are “kids at heart”
⦁ A fascination with technology trends, games, movies & music, art & animation, and science fiction/fantasy.
⦁ Communal eating spaces/kitchens with free drinks – a game developer’s divine right.
⦁ Tattoos, piercings, long hair. Occasional bad hygene? Perhaps.
⦁ Action figures
⦁ Nerf guns
⦁ Darkened work space that are quiet, but at times rowdy on a good day (aka productive day).
⦁ Flexible 8 hour work schedules
⦁ Casual clothes – bare feet (aka sandle or flip-flops), bare legs (aka shorts), baseball caps, and enigmatic t-shirts.
⦁ The mention of manga/anime, Weird Al (Yankovic) for some reason, and anything sci-fi…most likely a Star Wars reference.
And then, there’s the “proximity task”. Happens all the time in game development. It can usually fall to the person who is simply absent at the wrong time during a formal team meeting. But when it’s an informal discussion, simply sitting at your desk near one can get you saddled with a task that no one wants. Like today, for example, when I was asked to write this blog. Happy reading!
By the way, if you’ve made it this far into the article, then bless you for your unwarranted attention. You are a saint! Take heed, I’m almost done.
One last thing that is ever present in this industry are the abundant proprietary processes developed and never shared by the multitude of game developers the world over. With most new games and especially with innovative immersive AR/VR experiences on new hardware, a new engine, SDK, and game product are under simultaneous development. In my experience, the lineage of this simultaneous development started on PC, followed by the original Xbox console, then Xbox 360, Kinect, HoloLens, and Magic Leap.
And now, finally, “Back to Eternus”. Sounds like a great sci-fi epic, doesn’t it?
Here at Nerd Kingdom, I ran into an old friend of mine not mentioned above, good ol’ Mister Frame Rate. “How have you been, Old Chum? It’s been awhile. Wife and kids? Goooood.” Ever the divisive arbiter of quality graphics versus render speed, Frame Rate could often be an allusive collaborator. But last week, he sauntered up to me with a drink, “Here, knock this back. Oh, I forgot. You don’t drink. (Chug! Slurp.) Let’s talk, shall we?”
So, after closing time, there we were, old Frame Rate and I, talkin’ ’bout the Good Ol’ Days and the mischief he put me through as a Director of Animation under fire for the largest memory footprint that character animation had ever occupied in VWE’s history. Now, I can’t say that I remember those days with as rosy a resplendent recall, but I do remember the relief I felt when we were able to solve the issue with a technical art solution, an animation export tool, that we could all agree upon.
Allow me to blather on in detail about this very familiar topic. In the early days of game development, when you would export a character animation for a game, whether authored in Maya, 3D Studio Max, or some other CG software of choice, the animation asset was exported as a linear keyframe for every frame of motion exhibited by each joint or node in a character’s skeletal hierarchy, regardless if its value changed or not, for the duration of the motion.
Well, as we research a popular export format, it is creating a similar result – a keyframe on every frame. And so, it’s not surprising that discussions about frame rates and reducing file sizes have stirred this air of frame rate nostalgia. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of keyframe data that can be filtered and omitted from animation assets that will reduce the size of every animation file, thereby reducing its memory footprint, load times, and in turn increase frame rate.
The last time I helped solve this puzzle, we decided upon a proprietary export tool that would allow the Technical Animator or Animator to provide an overall attribute value, as well as an attribute value per joint (per axis) to influence the total number of keyframes that would be generated along a curve. These attribute values would then generate a range of results, interpreting the motion (based on angle deviation) as “a keyframe every frame” to “a reduced or filtered key set based on the degree of change (by angle deviation) along a curve” to “omitting keyframes completely”.
Said differently, the algorithm inspected the curve and re-created it as a slimmer version of itself (in bits). Where there were more changes in value, more keyframes were exported or maintained along that portion of the curve. Where there were fewer changes in value, the placement of keyframes was farther apart. Whatever solution is devised for Eternus, we are certain to surpass the current state of our technology as of this writing. And, I can’t wait to revisit that feeling of overwhelming accomplishment when the motion in-game is identical at less than half its original file size.
Oh, the nostalgia for innovative thinking. All of it, in pursuit of making great gaming experiences with Eternus that will entertain and occupy the masses. I guess you can go home again.
All that’s old is new again – for the first time. May you enjoy playing our product in its many pre-launch versions. And may the God of Shipped Titles smile upon us as we run head-long into the many game development cycles of deja vu and repeated timelines. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Game.
Have a wonderful weekend!