Keep Games Weird

Hi,

This is Vikram - one of the engineers at Funomena. I work on Wattam and this is actually the first commercial game project that I've worked on. Before this I was a software engineer in test at Google and at Microsoft before that.

When I signed up for writing a blog post, quite a while back, I had to pick a title. I knew I wanted to write about something light. I chose "Keep Games Weird" since I like playing weird little video games - it's the weird ones that excite me the most, and hence I feel are the most rewarding to play in the little time I have in my life these days. But since then I've been thinking about the word "weird", its different meanings and why all of them are good for games. (I actually also thought of different meanings for "Keep" and "Games" too but I am just going to stick to "Weird" for now.)

The first meaning is what most people think when they hear weird - something that's strange, bizarre and maybe also unexpected. Games are capable of moving people in different ways through their form and substance. We have just started exploring different ways of doing this. As a game creator, there's just too much ground to cover to make something only slightly different from what has been done before. As a player your time is too precious to be spent on the same kind of game over and over again. Though we can agree on this in principle, we sometimes forget it and settle into the comfort of the known. That's when a weird game comes along and hits you in such a profound way as to remind you of the real power of games. I think we are actually not doing too bad here and there have been so many "weird" games that have come out in the past year that have personally moved me. The part we can probably do better in the "keep"-ing part is to talk about these games more and provide a platform for more of these games to be made.

The next meaning is more related to the original phrase - "Keep Austin Weird". It's a marketing slogan that has grown well beyond its original purpose into a progressive idea of a culture that accepts people from all different backgrounds - LGBT, intellectuals, naturalists and various non-mainstream subcultures. Applying this idea to games, I think this kind of diversity in creators, themes, players and critics is hugely important right now as it expands from games just serving a small group of people (even though it might not seem so small to many who are already in that group). Personally I have been extremely lucky and privileged to find the right people who accepted me into the game making community and I feel its important for me to help bring more people into the fold. In the wake of unfortunate events in the past year I will just mention one of the efforts to support diversity in games - http://weheart.github.io/. We need to do a lot more here.

Lastly I would like to reflect on something I found in Urban Dictionary (it's all solid sources I'm using here) while researching weird - "Weird (but in a good way)". More specifically the phrase "they're not scared to be themselves". Ultimately being weird is not about just standing out but being true to yourself. And so we make games that we love to make - and they are weird.

 

P.S After choosing the title I found that there is already an essay titled "Keep Games Weird" by Charles Pratt about the New Arcade Movement and No Quarters Exhibition. Please read it here.

 

vikram1.jpg

Vikram Subramanian, Software Engineer

 

Diversity Matters

At CES earlier this month, I participated in a panel discussion moderated by Intel Chief Diversity Officer Rosalind Hudnell. Focusing on Intel's recently announced $300 million investment in diversity, the panel included Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich, broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien, and Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of CODE 2040, a SF-based nonprofit working to open doors for black and Latino engineers in Silicon Valley. 

 

The gist of the panel was that diversity is something we need leadership on within the valley and in tech in general. It isn't just something that we *should* do... it's what makes sense for business, overall. 

Whenever anyone asks me about diversity and changing the ratio - I use the following analogy - from my friend and longtime mentor Hiroko Osaka, who I met while taking classes at Kellogg back in graduate school. She points out that there are international companies... and global companies. An international company may have offices in Shanghai, Dubai, Los Angeles, London… But a global company has people from all these places at all levels and locations within its organization. Diversity is about becoming truly global in our approach to what we do.

Widening the conversation to include fresh perspectives will improve our processes, our products and ultimately our bottom line. It’s just the smart thing to do. Google’s push to unearth unconscious bias in their hiring, retention and mentoring programs has received national attention. As has their Made with Code initiative, which I am proud to be a mentor for. By making diversity a top-line goal, devoting resources to it, and been relatively open about how and why this is essential to their future success, these companies pave the way for a more balanced, inclusive future. Funomena is proud to be working on these initiatives, and to continue to broaden the conversation so that we push for lasting, positive change.

But it does take hard work! As I also point out in the panel, games are a creative business. And game developers make games because we love them! We will often agree to work on short deadlines and tight budgets to have the privilege of pursuing our passion… which means we sometimes put less time and energy into thinking through the hidden biases in our hiring, retention and mentoring processes (if we have time to think about them at all).  To make positive change, we need to make balance & diversity a priority, and pay attention to the details. This means: 

  • Casting a wider net:  Reach out to unexpected places for new candidates, instead of just leaning on colleagues or friends of friends.

  • Broadening our sense of “fit”: Think about the people you hire in terms of all they bring to the table. Prioritize variety in creative tastes, hobbies, personal background and work experience.

  • Testing & tuning: Leave more time to onboard and mentor new voices. Listen when they give feedback, and tune based to what you see. Design your business like you would design a game - for optimal performance AND enjoyment! :D

At Funomena, even though we are small and bootstrapping - we take the time to have an open, ongoing discussion about diversity. We work to make it a priority even though it may mean we grow more slowly. We gather feedback from our employees, and iterate on our internal processes. Why? Because we believe the effort is worth it - and that we will make better, more creative, more broadly appealing games as a result!

<3

Vert Pushing - An Introduction to 3D Animation for Games

Bringing characters and objects to life is the main task of an animator, but the process of breathing life into a pile of pixels and verts involves many facets that span the gap between art and code.

It all starts with a spark; the inspiration or idea for a new character, creature, or … well anything really. After that spark the idea needs to be made tangible in the form of a concept before being modeled and textured. In order to make the job of a rigger easier modelers build characters into a neutral pose (T-pose), which allows for better deformation in areas like the shoulder, hip, elbows, and knees. Once that is complete it is ready for the rigger to get their hands dirty.

(Here is a simple model of a cartoony eyeball I made. No specific concept was used in this case. Instead of a T-pose I modeled the eyelids in a fairly neutral resting state to allow for better deformation.)

While not all animators do their own rigging, it is the keystone to any good animation. Without a rig a character is just a sack of polygons with lots of potential. The process of rigging starts by building a character's joints, i.e bones. Having good references for anatomy is always helpful when placing joints. The human body is a complex machine driven by 206 bones, 360 joints, 640 muscles, and miles of veins and arteries. Game characters are hollow shells of polygonal geometry driven by 1-200 strategically placed joints that are meticulously skinned to the model's vertices. The process of skinning, or weight-painting, involves defining the region of the mesh that a given joint can influence and determines how a model will deform. The rigging artist's job isn’t done after just creating the joints though.

(Placing joints and painting weights require thoughtful planning of the desired look, and a basic understanding of anatomy. I knew I needed the eye to be able to blink and look around. I also added a few joints to the brow and cheek to help the eye emote.)


After the joints have been placed and skinned to the mesh, the rigger now creates a set of animation controls that the animator can use to start bringing life to the character. Control rigs can be thought of as the strings on a puppet. The rigger will define how a control object drives a joint and the animator can then manipulate the control, which drives the joint, which drives the mesh. A good control rig gives an animator a lot of control over the character and allows for highly expressive animations.

(Here you can see that the red control object is driving the movement of the eye joint which has been bound to the mesh. Moving the control object results in movement of the eye. I then set up more advanced controls so that the eyelid joints move slightly with the eye as it rotates to create a lens “pushing” effect, and mapped the blink to the scale of the yellow control object.)

Now the animation can begin! The actual process of animation for games comes in many forms, but starts from a simple set of steps. Using the control rig to pose the character and start setting keyframes is the first step of the actual animation process. Keyframes are the core of an animation, they are the defining poses that determine the timing and spacing or a movement. After creating a pose and setting a keyframe the process repeats, always keeping in mind the frame before and the next pose you want to make. Game characters require full movesets of animations that are composed of hundreds of individual animations that can be played based on player input or context. From creating looping walk cycles, object interactions, or full cinematic sequences, the process of animating doesn’t change much. Game animators have to be adaptable and always keep the games design in mind. A character who is running through a field in a dream world would probably not run the same as the character escaping a burning building. Game animations are also heavily reusable by nature and must be made to not look bad when seen thousands of times. To break up some of the monotony of heavily reused animations, additive animations and animation layers can be a saving grace. There are many different styles and approaches to animation, but it is always important to keep the basic principles in mind. (I’ll go into the principles of animation another time)

(After setting some keys on the animation controls we can start to see the model come to life.)

After a character has been created and animated the skeletal mesh (the mesh and its skinned joints) and animations (the joints with the animation data baked into them) are imported into the game engine. As is the case with many aspects of game development, the animation pipeline is always changing and improving. Animators are being given more and more control, and thus, more and more responsibility. One major improvement to the animation pipeline in most modern engines (Unity 3D, UE4, UDK, CryEngine) are state machines. State machines are logic trees  that store animation states, and operate based on input to cause a change. Animators and programmers work together to set up logic connections inside of the state machine to define how animations will play based on user input using a set of parameters. State machines can get quite complex, but are a fast and efficient way to visualize the amount of information needed to make your character run, jump, swim, and crawl.

(Example of a simple State Machine from Unity’s Documentation. )


Animation is an important aspect of modern games, and is an area that has seen large improvements in recent years. It is an exciting area of game development that always offers a fresh challenge and fun solutions to a number of problems.

Ryan Mohler, Animator

Ryan Mohler, Animator

Video Games for Grown Ups

There's been a lot of talk recently about what it means to make games for "grown ups"... ie: the generation of gamers who grew up playing games, and are interested in new experiences. This could include games that explore quieter, more adult themes like empathy, or loss, or integrating trauma.

 

In in this piece from NPR, Our CEO Robin talks a little about what it means to consider making games of this type - for existing gamers and new gamers alike. She also covers this topic in this interview with Fast Company, which highlights the work we are doing here at Funomena on our recently announced game Luna, as well as several other great indie games that approach new topics with a fresh perspective. 

The Life and Work of Umetaro Azechi

In October of 2014 I was honored with an invitation to speak to the Art Department at my Alma Mater St. Olaf College.  The subject of my talk had to do with the journey that led me to my current position as an Art Director at Funomena, but rather than lay out an instruction manual on how to get from point A to point B (which would be useless) I spoke largely about my influences; what was I influenced by or NOT influenced by that continues to evolve my aesthetic.  One of the major points I attempted to make was that one cannot grow as an artist if one is constantly referencing what has been done in one’s respective discipline.  In my case I had big dreams of working as a character designer in Animation.

A huge turning point on that particular career trajectory occurred when I enrolled in an Advanced Character Design workshop at The Animation Collaborative taught by my instructor and friend Chris Sasaki.  His design philosophy was contrary to what I had been told for years as a student specializing in Animation Design.  Rather than having us look at what was current in the world of Animation, Chris urged us to look beyond that at other art forms, and disciplines whether it be theatre, furniture design, photography, literature and (especially) nature… Everything was fair game.  Coincidentally, around this time my girlfriend stumbled upon a book at our local library on Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints.  The work of one artist in particular floored me.  His name was Umetaro Azechi.

Azechi is relatively unknown these days but he grew to prominence in the mid 1960’s and is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence now.  His story is as inspiring as his art.  He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist, but his family was poor and he wasn’t able to further his education beyond eighth grade level.  It wasn’t until he was 18 that he had enough savings to take his first formal art course by correspondence.  Living in the small town of Uwajima in Ehime Province on the Island of Shikoku didn’t lend itself to artistic exposure, so he moved to Tokyo and scraped out a meager living distributing newspapers.  While there he acquainted himself with a cadre of like-minded peers who formed an informal  group and dubbed themselves the “Seven Stars.”  It was the leader of this group who later provided Azechi with a job at a Government printing Office.  While there, he was exposed to the art of printmaking and took advantage of the opportunity to teach himself how to engrave.  In his spare time he continued to study art and found a mentor in Un’ichi Hiratsuka, a prominent printmaker/artist who invited him into his home and encouraged him to continue his pursuit of an art career.  The life of a woodblock print artist had to be very simple and meager especially during the Second World War, but to Azechi, the most important thing was the work.  He found acceptance as a serious artist when he finally exhibited his prints in several juried shows.  The acceptance of his work and the praise he received were enough for him to ultimately quit his job and become a freelancer.  

All the while Azechi also discovered his other passion, Mountaineering.  It’s important to note that Azechi didn’t just draw inspiration from other printmakers in his circle, he looked at the larger world around him, especially at nature.

“My roots are in the Country, and I like simple rustic work… I respect (Shiko) Munakata’s approach, and I agree with him that japanese artists imitate too much.  In my own case I think my lack of training saves me from that kind of thing.”  -Umetaro Azechi

Later on he would actually gain prominence as an avid mountaineer and he also made part of his living writing about mountaineering.  Oddly enough he only wrote one book on woodblock printing (a copy of which I happen to own).

His overall philosophy is one of learning to live with imperfection and with mistakes which encompases a large part of the philosophy behind our game Luna, so it was only appropriate to bring his work in as a major source of inspiration.  What I love about Azechi’s work first and foremost is how it evokes the spirit of its subject matter.  His prints are very rough and in many ways primitive, but his sense of design and storytelling is very honed and sharp.  Most of his subject matter is inspired by his many solo treks into the wilderness, a practice I have adopted; not just capturing the physical reality of a landscape but evoking its emotional reality.  It is this kind of design philosophy that I hope to bring to Luna… To me there is no separation between our psychological selves and the natural manifestation of those hidden emotions in nature.  Umetaro understood this in his own way and worked it subtly into his prints.  

Umetaro Azechi passed away in 1999 at the age of 97 after a long, happy and simple life climbing mountains and creating his wonderful rustic work.  

Earlier this year, there was an estate sale in San Francisco that liquidated a huge cache of Umetaro Azechi prints gifted by him to an Artist friend in the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to purchase a couple of original Azechi prints for my home studio that I hope to cherish and draw inspiration from for years to come.  

-Glenn Hernandez, Art Director for Luna