I can't code and I can't draw...

...yet I wanna be a game developer! This kinds of posts pop up on game development forums pretty frequently and a common reply to these is "What can you do in gamedev without being able to code or at least draw some art?" These people (mostly programmers themselves) would be absolutely right around 30 years ago.

Let's start with a quick gaming industry evolution recap, shall we? In the "old days" games were made entirely by one person. This person had to code. With the evolution of gamedev came new roles. Games started to be made by larger teams, and the coders easily gave up things like visuals or sound. This is where acknowledging the art part comes from. The programmers and artists soon needed armies of people who could do things they themselves couldn't. Their little game making efforts evolved into game making companies. Of course, with the whole Angry Bird Flu, the vast part of the industry is now in the early development stage, recreating the pattern from the 80's. Small teams, where single person performs multiple roles.

What better to paste when talking about the industry evolution than evolution of the most famous pair of game boobs? Image stolen from http://pedro-croft.deviantart.com :)

Since we really don't want to limit ourselves with indie companies, let's focus on AAA. This is a list called "all the jobs in gamedev that come to my mind": producer, designer, writer, sound engineer, animator, programmer, concept artist, 3D artist, QA, and less development-connected: legal, finance, HR, sales, marketing, PR, IT. Some of them truely need programming skills. Some of them need artistic skills. Some don't need any. It is more or less like this:

Artistic skills refer explicitly to visual arts, as these are topic here.
I've introduced a new term here - scripting. Every game engine I heard of has a scripting language embedded. It is a simple language with a basic set of commands that do preprogrammed things. Compared to programming languages, these scripting things are very user-friendly, but have limited capabilities. They only let the user choose out of a predefined list of tasks, but it means you can actually do something in the game engine. There are some valid arguments, that scripting is a kind of programming - that there are algorithms, that there's debugging, that you need to actually know the commands and use them in a correct syntax.

Still, in reality, calling scripting programming is like calling chihuahua a real dog. Scripting languages used in the gaming engines are usually even less complicated than IRC scripts. Think of it in terms of advanced usage of MS DOS rather than actual coding. What's more important, most of the companies are either using their own engines with their own scripting languages, or are using purchased engines, but modify the scripting language to match their needs. This means that if you apply for an entry level job that needs scripting, most of the time you won't be actually expected to know the scripting language the company uses. They will expect you to know what scripting is, to be willing to learn how to script in their engine and to have some basic understanding of logic.

Therefore, while programming and artistic skills are actually required for the jobs they are associated with, scripting is an additional skill that will help you do your job with the core skills that are required, like animating or writing. This means, that when you are applying for an entry level job, the breakdown of required skills looks like this:

Artistic skills refer explicitly to visual arts, as these are topic here.
Let me rephrase that, because I am immensely enjoying this conclusion. One (1) job needs programming skills in AAA gamedev. Two (2) jobs need visual artistic skills in AAA gamedev. Thirteen (13) jobs, among these six (6) jobs in actual development need neither programming nor artistic skills in AAA gamedev.

"What can you do in gamedev without being able to code or at least draw some art?" - now you can easily answer!


Catching up: ICO and Shadow of the Colossus

I gotta admit - I have skipped an entire console generation. I of course had to make up for it in some way, mostly by reading or using emulators. There was one game I actually wanted to buy a PS2 for. Then I discovered a HD remake of it came out for PS3. Shadow of the Colossus. And the other game by the same studio - ICO. Both on one BluRay. Isn't this awesome?

I don't want to get into reviewing these games, it doesn't really make sense. They are awesome and it has been proven by so many reviews it is impossible to deny it. Just a quick peek on the hard evidence: gamesradar's top 50 PS2 games. ICO on 9th place, Shadow of the Colossus on 1st place. IGN's top 100 PS2 games. ICO on 5th place, Shadow of the Colossus on 1st place. Out of 10,828 titles released on the console. Team ICO, studio that only made 2 games in its history. Both games placed in almost every top list, in most of them in the leading 10. Let's try to analyze what makes these games so special. What makes the guys from IGN call Shadow of the Colossus the title that clearly proves games are art?

Consistency of the design
Both games focus brilliantly on their core esthetics and every element of the game helps deliver it. ICO focuses on responsibility. From the first moment you meet Yorda, you are responsible for her safety. You need to get the hell out of that mazelike castle while making sure she comes with you, safely. You can lead her by her hand or leave her to access places she can't reach. You always have to come back for her though. And not just when you finish setting up the easy path for her. Every time you leave her out of sight, shadows can come to steal her from you. She is considerably weaker than you. She can't fight, she can't jump as high or far as you. She can only open door that seem to react with some power she has. This makes the whole game revolve around her - that one person you need to protect.

Shadow of the Colossus has a different core esthetic - challenge. You are to battle monsters hundred times bigger than you. Your only weapons seem to be a bow, a sword and... determination. To emphasize how lonely the task is, you only get a horse as your companion. There are no monsters on the vast lands surrounding the temple you start in. There's only you and the Colossi. One at a time. One on one. A man versus an ancient beast the size of an Eiffel Tower. Imagine being Atreyu from The Neverending Story, just with less journey and more epic battles. The challenge and burden stays though.

Characters are strong element of immersion here
When you play both these games, you see that the protagonist is always a young boy. A young boy that is way more natural match with any gamer than Kratos or Enzio. A young boy you can identify yourself with, as he doesn't wield magic or do anything out of ordinary. He can run, jump, climb and swing a weapon in a manner that isn't overly acrobatic or impressive. Nothing an average human being wouldn't be able to do. A boy has a name - Ico or Wander, but it's never used. You can call him any way you like. You can, and probably will, put your own name there. 

In both games there is also a girl that you need to save in some way. In ICO, her name is Yorda, but you learn that after a great chunk of the game. She speaks a language you can't understand yet you feel right away you cannot leave her and she feels right away she can trust you and follow you. The name of the girl from Shadow of the Colossus is never revealed. She is just laying there, waiting to be revived by you and on some deepest level of intimacy, you subconsciously know who it is you want to save. Your friend, your wife, your mother... The dead girl on the altar becomes a manifestation of who you would risk your life to save. Yorda becomes the one that you would protect at any cost.

Suddenly, these games do tell you the abstract story of escaping from a castle or fighting giants, but it is an abstract story where you and that other special person play the main roles, as if you were magically warped there. But that's not all just because of the characters.

The magic of R1
The way Team ICO utilizes this one gamepad button is so simple and ingenious it hurts. Literally. After a few hours of pressing this button your hand hurts for another few. Let's look closer at ICO's input design. The game's core esthetic is responsibility.  How do you do it? R1. When Yorda is far, you call her with R1. When she's near, you hold her hand with R1. When you jump higher, you pull her up with R1. After only 10 minutes of constantly pressing or holding R1, your index finger feels like your whole hand. The pad disappears. You are actually leading the girl by her hand, feeling responsible for her. Rushing like crazy on the shadow demons, bravely taking care of the friend that you can't even understand when she's speaking.

Shadow of the Colossus does pretty much the same thing. Here, R1 is responsible for grabbing onto stuff. You hold onto the ledges and fur of the Colossi. Whatever is happening - whether they are trying to shake you off, dive under water, fly in the sky or bury in the sand, you keep holding onto them. You need to defeat them to save the one you care for the most. Again, after an hour of playing the game, you discover you are pressing onto R1 way harder than you normally would. You develop a cramp in your right hand while holding onto the Colossi. And it is you holding onto them. Not the other way round.

ICO and Shadow of Colossus easily traverse the barrier of the screen. Without any use of a motion controler, they make the player feel the actions of his onscreen character. Let the player be his onscreen character, caring about the other characters. Feeling responsible for that clumsy girl that can't jump too high. Feeling connected to this stubborn horse that doesn't always react when you try to control it. Feeling the mission that is ahead of you. All using the simplest methods possible. There's no need for a complicated plot or tons of dialogues. They would actually do harm to these games.


Jobs in gamedev: Concept Artist

Job of a concept artist seems pretty self-explanatory - it is a person that draws the stuff that then gets used in the game. Since gaming magazines and gaming sites often show these concept arts, people seem to have a pretty good idea what skillset is needed to land this kind of job and what the job itself is all about. Frankly speaking, there isn't that much mystery to it, although there might be some elements that might surprise some of you. They surely surprised me.

What is a Concept Art?
Concept arts are basically drawings or paintings that then get transformed into 2D or 3D objects used in the game. Nowadays, 2D is a relic in AAA industry, but it is still being used in indie and mobile games. 

Concept arts are often confused with illustrations. Origin of this confusion is very simple. When you google for "concept arts" you get flooded with nice, detailed promo art illustrations. These are not concept arts. These are pictures produced for marketing purposes, to draw attention of investors or customers and were never actually used as a reference for assets that are in the game. In many cases, they were painted basing on the 3D assets, near the end of game production.

The purpose of a concept art is to focus on the aspects that will then help produce game assets. Concept arts may show a character, environment, architecture details, props, weapons, armors, clothes, general mood, colors - pretty much anything, but they always focus on one element, ignoring the rest. If it is character, the elements of clothing and anatomy will be well-defined, but there won't be any background. Architecture concepts will bring out pieces of walls, finishings of roofs, etc. but not characters running on the walls. For general mood, the concept will not go into details, it will be a mostly blurry image that shows colors, lights and general placement of environment elements.

Wouldn't an illustration be able to provide all these elements? Sure, but in most cases it would cause problems, like:
- composition of the illustration would make it hard to catch the proportions
- some elements would be underdefined or not visible
- some elements would be too dark to see and/or the colors would be impossible to read because of the lighting used.
- making an illustration takes a lot of time - instead of finishing one illustration, the artist could make at least 5 drawings that actually show what needs to be shown.
Look at the Tomb Raider art above. It is really cool and would probably make a good mood concept, but a mood concept wouldn't need a character in the center. Especially one that takes forever to draw. It couldn't be an environment concept, because it only shows a piece of rock and a tiny building in the background. It mostly shows a character, but if you were to make textures for it - would this art tell you what colors you need to use? If you were to model it - would it be easy to get the proportions right, when the character is in a custom pose and perspective? Now look below at a true concept art from Metal Gear Rising and how it deals with showing the character. Based on this, a 3D artist can actually do a model for the game, and that's the goal of a good concept art.

What does a Concept Artist do?
Imagine the Art Director comes to you and tells you to draw a pink panther. But not just any pink panther. One that is cuddly, commercially attractive, with realistic proportions and looks nothing like THE Pink Panther.  Then the Game Designer comes to you and tells you that gameplaywise, this panther needs to walk on only 3 legs, because in 4th paw it will be wielding a bazooka. And then you learn that all the enemies in the game will be pink panthers and all need to follow the same guidelines and all have to be different and easily distinguishable. Not so easy, huh? But that's pretty much what the job is mostly about.

The harsh truth is concept artists rarely have much to say about the game's art direction. They mostly draw what they are told to draw, their creativity gets cornered and it's working more in the area of "what kind of leg should I draw" rather than "should this characters have legs or not?" Don't fret though, the guy that's giving you directions most probably started just like you. There's a light at the end of this tunnel and a lot of knowledge and experience on the way.

The artists often have their areas of expertise - they either draw environment or characters, sometimes they draw both. Many arts are drawn basing on references and artists do spend a considerable amount of time googling for them. There are also DTP-related tasks, like designing the game covers and overpainting the screenshots. Yes, most of the screenshots you see in the gaming press are actually corrected by artists to give them better lighting, colors and details. You may now consider yourself lied to by the whole industry. Some concept artists actually get to do some promotional arts and produce an illustration or two. Another task is feedbacking models that are being produced based on their concepts.

What do you need to get (and keep) a job as a Concept Artist?
Simply knowing how to draw isn't enough here. Concept artist needs a tremendous amounts of creativity to be able to come up with dozens of variations of the same elements. You would also need lots of humility and patience. Not every concept gets accepted - at first, if 1 in 10 gets used, you may consider yourself lucky. You will have to learn to discard your drawings without sorrow or regret. You will have to accept your drawings being discarded without anger.

And even after your concepts get modelled and after they get to be shown in one of the game's many versions, a complete turn in the art direction may happen. The whole mexican town with The Three Amigos you have designed can be thrown away and you will be asked to draw The Three Musketeers and a few districts of Paris instead. Seriously. That happens more than you may think. If you wouldn't be able to deal with it, look for some other job.

Versatility is a great asset too. You won't be lucky enough to draw tits all the time. On the upside, there's a big chance you will be drawing great stuff anyway - ninjas, cowboys, demons, pirates, spaceships, deserted islands, medieval fortresses, toilets from Pulp Fiction and underwater cities. Games usually want to be cool, so the stuff you will be concepting needs to be cool as well.

Good news for last - you do not need an art degree. All you really need is a good portfolio. Degrees don't draw, people do. Some education in fields that get used in games may often pay off though. Studios can certainly benefit from people knowing a thing or two about anatomy, architecture, history, interior design, etc. It's kinda like my mother used to tell me: to be a journalist, don't learn journalism. You know how to write. Learn something you will be able to write about.

Many thanks to my awesome Art Director for giving me hints for this post. 


Why Dark Souls have better narrative than Heavy Rain

Lately I have been stumbling upon the topic of narrative in gaming way too often to ignore it any longer. I keep hearing that "Uncharted has a nice story" or that "Story in Skyrim is irrelevant" - well, to be fair, I myself happened to say similar things on several occasions, greatly simplifying the argument. Let's take a closer look at the narrative itself and how its meaning gets confused so often.

Elements of narrative are nothing else than all the means by which the story is being told. Narrative was most probably first defined in literature and, since literature - in vast majority of cases - consists of words, narrative practically equalled everything that was written. Theatre and cinema added new means of narrative - the visuals and sounds. Narrative ceased to be delivered only by words. Games went another step farther. They added gameplay mechanics and player interaction as narrative means. Unfortunately, a lot of people keep thinking in a very outdated way: narrative = words. 

Image insolently stolen from Charlene Chua. Click to go to her blog!
This leads to major misunderstandings. The biggest one is calling a whole bunch of games "story-driven". Since everything in the game (visuals, audio, cutscenes, interface, gameplay mechanisms, lore, notes, etc.) is - whether you like it or not - delivering a story, most of the games are "story-driven". Yes, sure, Q3 Arena matches are probably an exception, but I wouldn't say that Journey or Shadow of the Colossus are less story-driven than Resident Evil or Uncharted just because characters speak less. Don't get me wrong - there are games that we can call story-driven. Those are the games where the core esthetic is the story itself. Where the story plays main role. What I'm saying is it doesn't have to be full of cutscenes, cliffhangers and story twists, or dialogues for that matter.  

Unfortunately, since gamers and journalists rarely stop and think about the story delivered by mechanics or game environment, game developers also often associate the story with cutscenes and dialogues. As a result, linearity of the game gets to be measured by the number of dialogue choices rather than how open the world is. When you are reading a fantasy novel, you get through whole chapters describing how the main character crawls through a dungeon, finding treasures, fighting monsters and avoiding traps. Nobody has any doubts that it is pure narrative and an integral part of the story. Now imagine an identical RPG - you are crawling through the dungeon, fighting and looting, getting hit by an occasional spike trap. You are inside this story! Even better! You are helping to write it! And then what? Then you say to yourself "ok, let's get back to the village and get some story progress". You were progressing a story, dumbass! Why are you depriving yourself of your input in the game's narrative? Cutscene that awaits in the village is pre-defined, standard, generic. What you did was awesome, unique and way more dependent on you. 

And this brings us to the topic of this post. I admit, it was made as an eye-catcher, but I still stand by it. Dark Souls, the game that is rumored to have some decaying remains of a story here and there. In the other corner: Heavy Rain - an interactive movie where our choices and performance in Quick Time Events change the course of the story. When it comes to the story itself, Heavy Rain delivers it straight in your face, it can be digested much easier and is probably presented in a more interesting way. There is no doubt story is what this game is all about. Heavy Rain gives the player a feeling of relevance of his actions and offers a wide variety of ways to reach the goal that isn't even clearly defined and - depending what you do in the game, the end result can differ drastically. However, let's focus on a big picture here. Heavy Rain is based on a limited number of predefined sets of emotions delivered to the player by a series of interactive cutscenes. While in most cases the characters are behaving rationally, there are moments where mechanics - one of the most important means of narrative in games - just can't deliver. Let's even ignore the moments when you want to feed the kid and end up walking around, bashing kitchen cabinets with your head like a retard, trying to get hold of the crappy interface while the camera jumps between angles. Look at the scene where you loose the kid in the crowd. The camera clearly shows you the boy is getting away. Your common sense says "catch the little bastard, put it on a leash and pay". The mechanics say "ooooooopen the waaaaallet... paaaaaaay theeeee veeeeendor" and all this time you are looking at this clumsy piece of shit you are supposed to identify with and realize that there is something terribly wrong in the scene. What you just witnessed was bad narrative. Unfortunately, Heavy Rain is filled with ridiculous moments like this. Luckily, these narrative mishaps don't ruin the story, but make it very hard to stay engaged sometimes.

Let's have a look at Dark Souls now - a heroic story of inhuman struggle in the land of the undead. All actions of yours, even those most repetitive, progress the story. The story of you - the player - taking up the challenge. The story that is never broken by some unfitting, event-based mechanics. Story that depends on your choices, as you can determine your own route and face the challenges in multiple ways. There are no cutscenes in which the hero over- or underachieves compared to the normal gameplay. There are no cutscenes taking control for some higher purpose of "storytelling" and putting words into your hero's mouth. The interactions with NPCs are non-invasive. None of them decides anything for you and you can kill each and every one of them if you desire. As you repeat the same sections of the map over and over, the game tells a story of continuous progress of your skill. When you arrive in Anor Londo you don't need any NPC by your side to say "Praise the Sun!" - you will say it yourself. And most importantly, no matter what happens in the game, you will never have this awkward moment of "why is my character doing or saying something I don't want it to do?". This is exactly what a good narrative is. 

Even this parody strip tells a story of the "storyless" Dark Souls.