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Archive for April, 2013

My family went down to Eureka, Utah this past weekend to see what sort of photos we could collect.  It’s an old mining town that still has a small population in it, so it hits a sweet spot between a ghost town and a place that people want to live in, which means some amenities and environmental cleanup (taking care of lead from mining, mostly), but relatively easy access to some excellent old mining machines and sites.

Machinery

So naturally, the weekend we planned to go there, Harley Davidson had an event there, with nearly 2000 bikers in town (more than double the town’s normal population).  I found this would be the case the morning before we went, and I was a little dismayed, since I was looking for a nice quiet photo expedition.  I don’t have anything particularly grievous against bikers (secondhand smoke is annoying, but the bikers I tend to run into here are decent folk), but I was hoping for, well… quiet.  As it happens, though, the event was exactly what we needed.

One, they were doing a poker event.  Heh.  I wound up handing out my whole deck of business card prototypes (really just my deck’s aces with a link to my website Project Khopesh on the back).  Funny how that works out.  (Incidentally, the Project Khopesh site mostly just points back here at the moment, but it’ll be more interesting when I get things rolling.)

Two, because the bikers were in town, Eureka was more open than it typically is, letting us explore their Union Pacific trolley and the Chief mining facility.  Those are almost never open according to the people I talked to, and we were able to get some great photos in both locations.  I also got to talk to an older biker guy (dude? gentleman? whatever) who was also taking photos of the machinery.  He was quite genial and told me about some of the machinery, since his wife’s family was a mining family.  He really knew his stuff, and was happy to share.  His story about the underground mule stables was most interesting; I had no idea they did that, but it makes some sense on reflection.  (They needed the mules to move ore carts, but if they ever brought the animals above ground, they wouldn’t go back down.  So, they lived their whole lives in the mine, complete with underground stables.)

IMG_8539-1024

I did record some video at the Chief mining site to make a promo video for the Kickstarter for the deck I’m now calling the Tinker Deck (still carrying the subtitle “Heroes of the 19th Century”), but there was an almost constant background chatter of Harley motorcycles.  So, once I get it cut together and presentable, just know that such isn’t the normal soundscape of Eureka.  Those bikers were our “angel facilitators” of a sort, though, so I think it’s wholly appropriate that they are part of the campaign, even if it doesn’t sound like a sleepy semi-ghost town.

Anyway, here are some of the photos from the trip over on my Google+ account.

Eureka, Utah

I also got a bunch of photos of the textures of the place, like a lot of really cool shots of rusty metal, and I’m weaving those into the card designs.  So yeah, when I said the art was done, I was right… at the time.  I tell you, it’s possible to tinker endlessly with art if you really let yourself.  At this point, though, I’m polishing it up to make it more appealing to Kickstarter denizens, some of whom have somewhat particular tastes.  It’s subtle things, like making the card back perfectly rotationally symmetrical and making the faces use the same edge; these are big things for magicians and some collectors, and pretty easy to make happen.

Card Poker Back Eureka

Card Poker Back Eureka

The bigger question at this point is whether or not to print via Bicycle or just USPC… or just the best priced Chinese company… or something in between.  I’m still not sure on this, so any input you all might have would be appreciated.  I’m leaning to the cheaper cards because I want to peg the price per deck around $5 instead of $10+, but I’m really not sure how that will sort out.  I’m price sensitive, but the Kickstarter market seems… fickle.  Also, the alpha version of the deck (pre-Eureka upgrades) will be available at The Game Crafter for $9.99 without shipping.  I know, Bicycle makes better cards, so $10-12 for a deck with upgraded art isn’t a bad deal, but that $5 price point is still intriguing.  One of the biggest points of doing a Kickstarter in the first place is to get a better price thanks to the economy of a bulk order.

Anyway, plenty of numbers to grind and research to do yet.  It feels agonizingly slow sometimes, since I want to get the deck released into the wild and move on to other fun projects, but sometimes the gears of progress grind slowly… slowly…

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I’ve finished all of the art for my steampunk-gearpunk playing card deck.  That was the easy part.  The court cards took the most time, even though they are relatively simple compared to something you might see in this sort of deck (which is really cool, by the way).  The Jules Verne card is my favorite, but this Thomas Edison card will always be a bit special, in that he and I have the same initials.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Anyway, you might note that he’s rusty red now, instead of the silver I’ve been showing thus far for the nonblack cards.  Y’see, part of making this into a Kickstarter project is doing market research.  It seems like most of the decks offered thus far on Kickstarter and the commentary threads I’ve read suggest that there is a strong desire for traditional playing card design.  The standard red/black color scheme is less relevant when talking about custom art on playing cards, but there’s still a strong traditionalist streak to appeal to, it seems.  Since I’m not doing the “one eyed Royals” or some of the other fine details of tradition, I figured I’d fall back to the red/black color scheme.  I miss the silver/steel Hearts and Diamonds, but rusty red works in the theme, too.  I took the opportunity to de-purple the edge too, make it a bit rustier, and spiffy up a few other little things.

10 of Hearts

10 of Hearts

Similarly, I’ve made a new set of cards that use the standard pip layout instead of  the custom one that I did earlier.  So… now I effectively have two decks of cards designed.  I’ll offer my original silver/black deck via The Game Crafter, and set this new one up as the Kickstarter deck.  It’s a bit of a compromise, but it seems like it might be the better choice for the venue.  (And, really, though I miss the silver, this new design is looking a bit sharper and more unified anyway.  Maybe I’ll do a silver variant sometime, just on principle.)

So yes, the art is done.  Doing a Kickstarter campaign requires a bit more than that, so I’m going to a semi-ghost town this weekend, among other things.  More on that later.

There’s more research to do, numbers to run, paperwork to file, people to email… plenty of stuff to do before this baby is ready to launch.  But it’s getting there, and I’m pretty excited to get it out there for public consumption.  Thanks for your interest, everyone!

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I’m just ruminating a bit, spurred by a pair of excellent game design posts I read last week.

First, there’s Syl’s post about Why Storytelling in MMOs is Overrated.  I love her article, and I’ve wished for a long time now that MMO devs would ease off the reins and let players tell the story.  (Tangentially, Brian “Psychochild” Green’s work on Storybricks looks like a good step in that direction.)  The developer-driven narrative in these MMO things is a mismatch for the game design from the conception, and the devs seem to cling to their sense of authorship too much.  I can understand that, as a creative sort.  I’ve done a bit of Game Master work in tabletop RPGs in my day, though, and ultimately, the game always seems to run better when the players feel like they are in control.  The GM has to keep everything together, but player agency is the heart of games.  Even if it means they do things the GM doesn’t anticipate or even desire.

Second, there’s this gem from The Rampant Coyote, From Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded.  The discussion there about graphics and how cutting edge technology tends to create absurd demands rings true to my experience both in games and when I got my college degree in computer animation.

Today, I stumbled across this interesting tech demo from Activision.  It’s, well… creepy.  It’s very impressive, but it’s still not quite right.  Here it is on YouTube:

That Uncanny Valley looms large.  This is one of the huge dangers of chasing the tech edge.  Yes, in theory, with enough money, processing power and artistry, it’s possible to make artificial life that can pass for the real thing.  The cost is huge, though, and that Uncanny Valley is big.

Also, most importantly, it’s relatively easy these days to make artificial life look good in a still frame, but the real test is when it moves.  Motion is ridiculously hard to make, and exceptionally easy to break.  We have an instinctive understanding of how living things are supposed to move and behave, from physics to biology to exceedingly subtle emotional cues.  (See: Lie To Me, Sherlock Holmes, psychopaths, etc.)

This, perhaps more than anything, is what I really dug into when I was in college.  It’s at the heart of the Disney films I always wanted to make, The Illusion of Life that really makes animation work.  (By the way, I highly recommend that book if you have any interest in animation, along with a more recent tome, The Animator’s Survival Kit.  If you can only digest those two books, you’ll be a long way to understanding the core of animation.)  Ultimately, it’s possible for a skilled animator to make a broom or sack of flour (or even a paper airplane) seem more alive than the latest Final Fantasy CGI characters.  Or, as I noted over at Syl’s place, animators try to be conscious of the silhouette, making sure it’s readable at all times.  You can get a lot of mileage out of just the silhouette, as the XBox LIVE Game LIMBO shows:

And really, a lot of what gets communicated has to do with what isn’t seen.  (For a funny riff on this, there’s this take on what LIMBO might play like when you can see more information… but again, selective reveals are what sell the humor; it’s the juxtaposition of what you expect vs. what is “really” there that makes it humorous/scary.)

If you haven’t seen Paperman, go watch it.  Seriously, go watch it and then come back.  (Or watch the embedded one, sure.)

And then watch this, a video about some of the tech behind it.

So, for a relatively simple-looking bit of animation, there’s a lot of tech under the hood.  Some of it is obviously CG, at least to me, having spent as much time as I have watching and producing art and animation, both traditional and computer-assisted.  Still, there’s a lot of work going into this… and it’s all to make a stylized bit of art.  As with the style of The Incredibles, stylization goes a long way to making something play well.  It short-circuits our instinctive evaluation systems, and the errors in animation that pop up are kind of fudged away, filed in mental gaps that we don’t wind up caring about, largely because we have already internalized that these characters are not real, and we don’t expect them to be.

This is how we perceive motion in film and animation in the first place, per the Persistence of Vision theory.  The 24 or 30 frames per second that flicker by don’t cover the infinitely reducible time frames that reality can be split into, but they happen fast enough that our brain accepts them as continuous enough to be believable.  In fact, sometimes less information works better, as evidenced by some of the kerfluffle around the new-fangled 48FPS The Hobbit movie.  All we really need to know is enough to fool our brain into accepting something as real or believable, and then let our imagination and subconscious do the rest of the work.  Perhaps we could call it a “Persistence of Cognition” theory when it comes to storytelling and lore; the reader/viewer invests headspace in imagining the fictional world and how it works, or how they could work within it.  It’s all about leveraging the strengths of the end viewer/reader/player, making them a partner in the experience.

This is why a lot of the high end stuff fails.  It tries to do too much.  Our brain takes it at its word, holds it to a higher standard, and finds it lacking.

Most of the time, especially with art, story and anything that really hinges on the viewer getting emotionally involved and engaging the imagination, less, to a certain degree, actually is more, simply because you’re letting the viewer breathe and take a bit of ownership, which tends to be a multiplying factor in the efficacy of a presentation.  It’s part of that “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s so important to get people to buy into what you’re doing.  There really are reasons not to go into obsessive hyperdetail, not only because it’s a time and money sink, but because it’s also less effective.

Artists tend to understand this instinctively after some practice, since it’s entirely possible to put too much into a piece of art and thereby ruin it.  Hinting at detail is often far more effective than rendering it.  Even Daniel Dociu’s incredible art, which tends to look really complex, is largely suggestive, relying on the viewer to infer a ton of detail that really isn’t there.  Just look at the actual brushstrokes in one of his pieces and compare it to what you thought was there at a glance.  Dociu is a master at implying complexity.  He’s making your brain do the heavy lifting.

Similarly, as any avid reader can tell you, “head canon” and “mental visualization” of words on the page can never compare to a moviemaker’s craft.  They simply function differently.  That’s a good thing, and creative types really need to leverage the supercomputers in viewers’ brains to do a lot of the creative work for them.  It takes trust, and knowing just what to imply and what to make explicit… but there’s a lot of strength in letting the viewer in on the process, even if it’s only on a subconscious level.

They will fill the gaps, if you can learn what to leave up to them.

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Some time ago, Psychochild mentioned his friend, Dave Toulouse, and his crazy awesome indie game development ways.  He runs a blog over at Over00, where he writes about his efforts.  I’ve been following them both on Twitter, and a couple of days ago, they announced Toulouse’s latest project, Bret Airborne, which he has written about a few times on his blog that I totally have been neglecting.  I’m so bad at keeping up lately.

Anyway, I gotta say… I like it.  A lot.  Like, enough to play it and write this post about it instead of working on my steampunk poker stuff like I probably should be doing.

Y’see, I’m a fan of Puzzle Quest.  And Puzzle Kingdoms.  And Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.  And Gyromancer.  And I’m a huge fan of Puzzle Pirates.  Muckbeast’s Tower of Elements is similarly sweet.  I’m a gamer, have been for decades, but I never did pick up the attitude that “match 3” or other simple puzzle games are unworthy of attention.  I like puzzle games, and though they may be “light” gaming fare most of the time, that’s not a bad thing.  I also happen to love RPGs, so splicing in some RPG DNA into puzzle games is a Good Idea in my eyes.

Bret Airborne is definitely a mutation of the Puzzle Quest school of design.  This is an expression of praise, at least as far as I’m concerned.  It uses some of  the standard match 3 game design elements, with swapping items, new pieces dropping in from above, that sort of thing.  It is basically PvP puzzling, like Puzzle Quest is, complete with special attacks (using energy from matches you’ve made) that you can use to make the experience a bit more strategic.  It’s pretty simple to understand, and the learning curve is kind.

BretAirborne

It builds on the Puzzle Quest design in a few important ways (that I’ve seen, there may be others), though.  First, the playing field is split between the two players, though it’s still technically a shared space.  If you get matches of 4 at a time or more, you can push your zone of control of the shared space into the opponent’s territory (that bar in the middle scoots over, opening up a new column to control), messing up their plans or using their resources.  At first, I thought this was too constraining and potentially too swingy, but it actually plays very nicely.  I thought the scoot was persistent, silly me.  It actually resets at the beginning of each player’s turn.  It certainly penalizes bad luck and bad defensive play, but it just feels right, like my own play is more important than luck.  This is a Good Thing.

Second, and I can’t emphasize how much this made me happy, you’re not constrained to making moves that create matches.  You can make a move that sets things up for the future, though if you don’t make a match, the opponent gets a boost to their zone of control on their next turn.  I have always loved Bilging in Puzzle Pirates for exactly this, the ability to shuffle things around without the necessity of matching every time you make a move.  In that game, you do take a scoring penalty, but if you play smart, you can set up big combos that more than make up for the penalty.  This freedom is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome to see it in Bret Airborne.  This also means the board will never reset itself if it gets into a locked position, which again facilitates planning over randomness.  This is a subtle thing, perhaps, but it’s something that makes the game a joy to play for me, rather than the frustration that the persnickity prototypical Bejeweled clones tend to offer.

It also has a few of what I call “quality of life” improvements.  One that made me smile was that matching two sets of three in an L or T shape doesn’t just register as two threes, it registers as five at a time matched, with the concurrent zone increase bonus.  Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it really helps me enjoy the game.  No longer do I have to choose to match a four in a row (to get the zone bonus and extra move) and leave a bit of clutter with that fifth piece as the odd man out.  If the gems are in the right formation, I can play with an eye to keeping the board cleaner, which enables further tricks down the road and still get the bonus for matching more than the baseline three.  Maybe this is “easy mode” to purists, but I love it.  The suite of tricks that you can learn to make combat more interesting are excellent, too.  There isn’t quite the array of abilities that Puzzle Quest has, but then, it doesn’t have the class system, either, so it’s nice and flexible.  One other, simple thing… it lets me click over to my second monitor without freaking out, crashing or nuking my computer.  No Alt-Tab necessary.  This is a little thing, but I love it.  It’s like Star Trek Online in that regard… and it’s something that WoW, in all its pomp, still fails at sometimes.  (Alt-Tabbing out of it crashes the game half the time for me.  It’s a jealous game.)  Bret Airborne runs in full screen mode nicely on one monitor while I do my thing on the other, like writing this post, and it doesn’t try to wreck my workflow.  It’s a genial game.  Again, simple quality of life improvement, and it’s a shame I have to mention it as an aberration, but I appreciate it.

Oh, and it’s Steampunk themed.  This also makes me smile.  The art is fairly simple, but it’s clean, readable and stylistic.  It won’t compete with Bioshock Infinite (since y’know, that’s important or something), and there are some things I’d do differently (I’m an artist, after all), but that’s just me nitpicking.  The play’s the thing, and Bret Airborne is simply a joy to play.  Maybe it’s a little “plain Jane” to look at, but it’s a beauty in action.

Go get the demo.  Play it.  Buy it.  It’s worth it.  I’ve been picky with what games I buy lately, mostly because I don’t have time to play, but this is one that I’m happy to have found.  I recommend it highly.

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What happens when you get a bunch of quirky kids together with their uncle who loves mad science and making weird fudge?

Peep Fudge

Peeps are weird treats.  I can’t stand them, but to each their own.  They make a good marshmallow substitute in fudgemaking, though, so we wound up… experimenting.  We swapped peeps in for the marshmallows and added a dozen crushed mint OREO cookies at the end.  The fudge is a mildly minty “cookies and cream” fudge that just happens to look like stroganoff.  Luckily, it doesn’t taste much like it, though.

There are probably some moral messages in there somewhere, like “don’t follow the crowd”, “be careful with what friends and parties you pick”, and “don’t trust a boiling hot tub”, but it was mostly just a fun evening with a crazy idea.  Happy post-Easter candy sales!

PeepFudge_018 PeepFudge_019 PeepFudge_020 PeepFudge_021 PeepFudge_001 PeepFudge_002 PeepFudge_003 PeepFudge_004 PeepFudge_005 PeepFudge_006 PeepFudge_007 PeepFudge_008 PeepFudge_009 PeepFudge_010 PeepFudge_011 PeepFudge_012 PeepFudge_013 PeepFudge_014 PeepFudge_015 PeepFudge_017

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OK, I’m committed to doing a Kickstarter for my steampunk/gearpunk poker deck now.  Many thanks to those of you who weighed in on it last time!

So… now what?  Lots of things, it seems, most of which I’m already busy digging into.  Mostly, plenty of research on what it takes to make this happen, mad schemes to make it cool and appealing, and finding ways to spread the word far and wide.  Thanks to those of you who have chimed in and spread the word a bit already!

A few questions, then:

Scrusi suggested plastic cards instead of paper cards.  The one plastic card manufacturer that has returned my email has a minimum order of 1500 decks (750 sets of two), at $8/deck.  That adds up fast, to big, scary numbers for a freshman Kickstarter.  I’ll be looking around for more numbers, but that’s a starting point at least.  Paper decks will be cheaper, I assume, but they need to be a fair bit cheaper than the price I’d get at a Print on Demand place like TheGameCrafter.com (about $10/deck) or else there’s not a hugely compelling reason to try to leverage the economy of scale and bulk discounts.  Sure, a Kickstarter will probably bring more potential customers just via publicity, but I’d really like to get a better deal for everyone as part of the bargain.

So… I’m still looking at pricing.  I’d really love to hear what you all think, specifically about what vendors might be optimal in the ol’ cost/quality spectrum.  Paper or plastic?  (I know, plastic cards will be more durable, but are they worth triple the cost or more?  How many players care enough about quality to pay that much more?)  What about brands?  Bicycle has a well-oiled pipeline for Kickstarted decks, and the ability to license their brand name (extra cost, maybe extra perceived value), and a 56-card standard deck that would allow for two cards to be super special Kickstarter rewards.  They also offer custom tuck boxes, which seem like a Good Idea.  That’s certainly not the only route, though, but there are a lot of vendors out there.

…and then there’s the art questions.  I’ve done 12 of the 14 portraits for the face cards, and they lend the suits themes, as well as highlighting important 19th century people.  I like the group I have… but it would be nice to open up the roster and let backers who want to be more involved get their portraits included.  I didn’t start this with Kickstarter in mind, so I didn’t leave room.  One thing I’ve considered strongly is to make the baseline historical figure deck available as a Print on Demand product, and point it out in the Kickstarter, but then open up all of the roster for people to buy into as a special limited edition of the deck.  What think you?

Secondly, and this is perhaps more esoteric… just as an artifact of my design, I’ve altered the layout of the suit pips on the number cards.  This is one example.

6 of Clubs

I chose to do this because of graphic design considerations (the large corner braces), and the desire to make the layout rotationally symmetrical on all cards.  (Pip orientation aside, of course.)  I like how it turned out, but it’s not traditional.  Does that matter to you?  Again, maybe this is where I offer the original elsewhere, and make the Limited Edition (gee, that term is starting to look official and all special-like) use the traditional form.

Offering the original as a paper Print on Demand deck opens up the option to make the Kickstarter a plastic deck project, too… but again, do enough players want plastic cards to make it worthwhile? Maybe this means two Kickstarters in the end, the first one in paper, the second one in plastic?  I’m really not sure on these things since they are largely based on predicting what people might want.  That’s why I’m asking now for as much feedback as I can get.  Will you please help me spread the word and get some opinions collected?

I do have some other stuff planned, some spiffy extras to sweeten the Limited Edition, one of which I’ll tease a bit here:  I work in 3D modeling programs most of my work day, so I’m adept at 3D work.  I spent some time at home the last two evenings and whipped this up, and put it in my Shapeways shop.  (The home of the Gearpunk dice, which dye and paint up pretty well.)

Spade Token (Shapeways render)

Spade Token

It’s derived from the Spade suit pip.  It’s as big as it is (almost 4×3 inches) to make the gears functional.  I can make a smaller version, certainly, but the gears would fuse.  It’s a costly beast, even in plastic.  I’m going to try to hollow it out a bit to save on cost, but it’ll still be biggish to make those gears work.  I’m not sure the gears would ever work if it’s printed in metal, though, so maybe smaller is the way to go anyway to give plastic vs. metal options.  I like that large version, but it’s a bit unwieldy and, well, expensive.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and reading, and I’d love to hear what you all think!

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Syp of BioBreak and Syl of MMO Gypsy contacted me a little while ago, asking for some art for their newest project, the Battle Bards Podcast.  I’ve been looking forward to this, since I’m a big fan of video game music, and these two have tipped me off to some great stuff.  MMO Gamer Chick is on board as well, and it sounds like they are having fun with it.

The soundtrack for Chrono Cross by Yasunori Mitsuda is perhaps my all-time favorite album in all music genres.  (Though it has stiff competition from The Piano Guys, Chrono TriggerSleepthief, Enya, Austin Wintory, and pretty much any Nobuo Uematsu CD.)  I’m still just dipping my toes into the MMO music scene, but from what I’ve heard so far, there’s a lot there to like as well.

So go check out what those Battle Bards are up to!

Oh, and here’s a set of 1080p desktops of the art that I did for it, and even some shirt options, or maybe a mug, should you feel so inclined.  There’s just something entertaining about an Epic Lute in the MMO conversation space.  Yes, that has to be bolded and italicized.  And purple.  Do not question the Epic.

EpicLute1080pRightText EpicLute1080pLeftNoText EpicLute1080pLeftText EpicLute1080pRightNoText

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