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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Interview with Fable 3 FX Artist Robert Tatnell

Lionhead FX Artist Robert Tatnell has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his work for the Beames On Games blog. Despite being relatively new to the industry, Robert has already got quite an impressive c.v including work on such PS3 exclusive titles as Heavenly Sword (pictured) and Killzone 2 and currently working on Fable 3, which is of course being developed by the world renowned Lionhead Studios for the XBox 360. It was on the subject of Fable 3 that my questions began:

Is Fable 3 shaping up like Fable 2 (a more polished and refined version of the first game) or is it going to be much, much bigger?

Feature wise that’s something I can’t really talk about. Being able to rule over Albion in Fable 3 definitely adds to the experience and there are plenty of exciting features in the works. Fable 3 is making big strides in terms of the quality of everything in the game too and it’s undoubtedly going to be the best game of the series. Just seeing the quality of work coming from the team is staggering. I’ve been an admirer of Lionhead’s work for some time and being in amongst everyone I can say I’m in awe on a daily basis!

It must be hard working for Peter Molyneux, seeing as how he really cranks up anticipation for the press sometimes setting up unrealistic expectations ("you can chop every tree" etc). I have always wondered if sometimes the developers are going "what is he saying the game will do now?". What has your experience been from the inside?
Although I have only been with the studio for a short period I’ve found that as such a large group of people have influence over the Fable experience, big sweeping changes don’t really tend to happen in the way that a lot of people would expect under Molyneux. Certainly the development of every idea is tackled properly and with care by everyone involved. I know Peter has gotten a lot better at how he handles himself with the press, but I’ve always been an admirer of his passion for what he's creating. I always think it's a little cruel to pull apart what he's said in the past and criticize him for what appears to be missing. I see him more as a child getting really excited about a new toy and wanting to share that excitement with his friends.

More specifically, what work are you doing on Fable 3?
I obviously can’t go into the nitty-gritty with my answer to that but given the type of game Fable is, and it’s various fantasy elements, working as an FX Artist certainly brings a varied set of challenges. Having a large amount of creative control over the FX we produce means we can really get creative when approached with an FX request and I’m thoroughly enjoying it!

You have worked with some really exciting developers (Ninja Theory, Guerilla, Lionhead) what has been your career highlight so far?
I think achieving the childhood dream of working in video games has to be the biggest highlight for me! Every game I’ve worked on, and the companies I’ve worked with have all provided challenges as well as highlights. I’ve enjoyed the learning process over the short amount of time I’ve been in the industry, there’s always something new to get your head around, or sink your teeth into. I’ve also come to realize just how talented the industry tends to be, it really is a shame it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves at present because everyone I’ve worked with have been just amazing.

How did you get into the games industry?
I knew what I wanted to do from quite an early age. I always enjoyed painting and drawing; and was drawn to programming too. When Toy Story came along I knew I wanted to get into computer graphics so I aimed my education in that direction, studying maths, computing and art through school and sixth form. It was during sixth form that ironically I got a chance to visit Lionhead, and it was then that I decided exactly where I wanted to head. I managed to get into the National Centre for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University and after studying I was offered a temporary designer’s position at SCE Cambridge. I was then able to move into the art team and it went from there.

What are your hopes for the future? So far you've done a lot of work on effects. Are there other roles in game development you are interested in filling on future projects?
I absolutely love working in FX, it’s something I got the chance to get into on Heavenly Sword and I’ve not really looked back since. I worked with the lighting team on Killzone 2 and that saw me getting my head around the lighting and rendering systems within games. Both departments add such a depth to what you see and have a very direct influence on the player’s experience that they’re areas I want to keep within. My ultimate aim is to eventually own and run my own games company but that’s a long way off yet! Thankfully though it seems like it’s becoming a lot easier to get picked up and to get your games out there, especially with things like Indie games on Xbox Live. For now though, I’m loving where I am!

Do you have any gaming heroes? Is there anyone whose work you admire (or try to emulate) in video games who does the same job as you?
The Final Fantasy games have been a massive inspiration through the years; the quality of their effects team’s work is always staggering. The FX sector doesn’t really have any “heroes” within video games I’d say. I try to keep my eyes open to what’s going on around me. The quality is always moving forward with video game graphics and FX are no exception, I just try to keep a look out for those games that really move things forward. Film FX are consistently raising the bar and they’re an area that provides much inspiration as well as many ideas that can certainly be brought across to video games.

What are your opinions on video games as art?
Now there’s a deep question and one I could spend hours answering! For me art can be several things. It can act as a method of awakening you to something you may not have considered before. It can affect you physically with abstract installations. It can be something of immense beauty. Video games can be all of these things and it’s how the technology is applied that will allow for new experiences within art. I do see games as a creative industry. Much as film straddles the border between art and entertainment so too do games in my opinion. I think games have so much potential as entertainment as well as art, and I applaud studios that push the preconceptions of what games typically are. As an interactive media, games can embrace the consumer with far more intensity than other forms of entertainment; and I believe at times can move someone with more strength than art. The whole issue whether games are art is down to the developers and how they choose to use the medium. I’m really very excited to see what the future holds.

You've worked on AAA titles for PS3 and 360: how have you found these two consoles in terms of ease of development and in terms of the results you have been able to achieve?
From an artist's perspective the two differ very little in terms of day-to-day work and the results you get from them. It really boils down to how good your tools programmers are when it comes to how easy it is to work on a platform. Having said that most of the coders I've spoken to tend to prefer the 360 to work on as a lot of what they need is easier to find and implement on the xbox. Personally I prefer the 360 simply due to the fact the devkits are far easier to use.

Finally, this is a Brighton-based blog: Creative Assembly; Relentless Software and Black Rock Studio are among the games development companies down here. Does Brighton enjoy a reputation as a good place for people interested in video game development to live or are there other cities with an even greater wealth of job opportunities (if so which)? Do you need to be flexible in your line of work (able to travel to a new city) or can you work from home?
I love Brighton, and it’s blessed with a good games industry presence too. The city is lucky in that it benefits from being seaside as well; which is something you don’t tend to find with cities harboring games studios. Companies seem to “clump” together in places around the country, obviously there’s a large concentration in and around London, and then there’s a good selection in the midlands too. Because of this sort of grouping of companies you can be lucky in that moving from one studio to another doesn’t necessarily mean you need to move home. Depending on your department you can have the opportunity to work from home, however this would only be in extreme cases, and generally is only used when there’s adverse weather or good reason for the individual not being able to make it in to the office. Games studios benefit from being a close group of passionate individuals; everyone needs to be together in one place to really get the best out of what they’re creating. You lose the commitment and connection to what you’re working on if you’re disconnected in any way.

Fable 3 is set to be released on the 1st of November 2010. For more information on Robert Tatnell please visit his lovely personal website.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Why are games still embarrassing me?

A while back on an edition of BBC 2’s ‘The Culture Show’ UK film critic Mark Kermode was asked to look at video games. After a spot of Wii Tennis, he was asked to give his thoughts on the subject. He said “I’ve never played a video game before, and I hope I never do again.” Ok, now that is a snooty thing to say (not to mention pretentious) but it is interesting to look at exactly why somebody like Mark Kermode would want to distance himself from the whole medium so fully. It isn’t because of the violence inherent in modern games and the surrounding moral panic. On his blog he recently posted a video where he likens the media furore over recent violent games to the video nasties coverage of certain horror films, so I don’t think that’s his problem here, because Kermode loves his video nasties. No, I think it has rather more to do with a major image problem games seem to have. Despite the fact that unprecedented numbers of girls and people at both extremes of the age spectrum seem to be playing video games now (mainly thanks to Nintendo) and despite the fact that they rival films as a form of mainstream entertainment (certainly in commercial terms) video games are continually marketed towards fifteen year-old boys. Yes, I know, fifteen year-old boys aren’t supposed to be playing Gears of War 2, it’s an ‘18’ rated game: but in terms of its attitude toward violence, its character designs and its dialogue, Gears of War is at least trying to appeal to the fifteen year-old boy inside of the 18-25 year-old audience. The machismo of it. The blood splatter on the ‘camera’. The great big gun with a chainsaw on the end (above seen in the arms of a "booth babe" from a game expo). There are only two kinds of people you find who seriously love Gears of War (I mean the kind of people who buy the hoodie and the action figures etc): teenage boys and slightly older boys with the personalities of teenage boys. This ties in a little with my previous topic, on games as art, in which I suggested that labelling a game as ‘adult’ is really only a way of saying the game contains violence and sex. These things are not in themselves adult. There isn’t really anything adult in the themes or ideas of Gears of War. It doesn’t demand any great level of intellectual development to understand.

This immaturity in games extends itself to the depiction of female characters. Have you ever used a character creation tool in a fighting game, sports sim or an RPG? If you have ever used one to create a female you’ll know that generally they can’t sport a healthy weight around the hips and the minimum bust size is usually at some kind of post-op proportion. Games like Dead or Alive or Ninja Gaiden (both by the same studio, Team Ninja) exploit their big breasted female characters to the maximum, with the former title boasting customizable amounts of breast jiggle (and providing the basis for a series of spin-off games involving collecting bikini’s and playing beach volleyball, as pictured above). The latter title, in its most recent PS3 incarnation, has the gameplay “function” of tilting the motion sensitive PS3 controller to manually manipulate the onscreen bosoms. But surely this is a joke, right? I mean, it isn’t a major selling point; it’s just a little bit of fun, yeah? Well, no. In Japan the game was trailed on television with an ad exclusively focussed on this groundbreaking feature. Is it any wonder that Mark Kermode doesn’t want anything to do with us game playing sad cases? I feel like blowing off my own head in mock disgust.

Yeah, I know, the truth is he’d hate games whatever they were like, just because he needs to show us how serious he is. This much is probably obvious. But games like these don’t half provide an excuse to pour scorn on games and the people who play them.

It’s not just the hyper- crass examples above that support those who’d happily see games dismissed out of hand as the preserve of those without social skills. Take a recent and critically lauded game like Bayonetta (Edge Magazine gave it 10/10) as an example of a superb, technically polished and well made game with its own burgeoning acne problem. It stars a sultry lady with a pistol extending from her high-heels and a colossal bust, whose magical powers make her very clothes disappear (pictured). Let me make this clear: I’m not being a prude. Of course games can handle sex and feature sexy characters (something that, with varying degrees of success, BioWare have been trying to do for years). But these images seem regressive to me. They seem to be blind to the fact that so many more people are open to playing games now. It seems like video games have a lack of self-confidence, either that or a lack of faith in their audience, who, in the main, are prepared for something genuinely mature by now (I’d like to think).

Granted, Bayonetta has sold really well, and I don’t begrudge it that. By all accounts it’s a decent game. And I know at least two women who love it, so I don’t think it’s upsetting lady-gamers or anything. Nor do I put myself above the likes of Gears of War or Dead or Alive: I have played and enjoyed both titles over the years. But games have come a long way in a short space of time in terms of technology and in terms of the demographics they appeal to. So why are they so behind in terms of their gender politics or just in terms of “good taste”? Why are they still marketed towards this fictional, Nuts-subscribing fifteen year-old boy?

It’s a shame Kermode and his BBC chums didn’t give their Wii a bit more of a chance. After all, with a range of “games” to do with fitness, numeracy, learning a foreign language, as well as the more traditional likes of Mario (Brothers/Galaxy/Kart), Zak and Wiki and Metroid, the Wii is arguably closer than any of its rivals in fulfilling the BBC’s own brief: to inform, educate and entertain. Too bad the critics focus on all the fat, sweary kids salivating over a chainsaw kill on Gears of War, calling somebody a "faggot" online, and generally making the rest of us look bad.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The ol' games as art debate...

It's a subject that often appears in the games press: are video games art? Certainly there are artists involved in the making of video games, literally in the case of graphic artists or story boarders to give just two examples. But can a game “say” anything about the human spirit? Can it make you question something or make you cry? Games have been overtly attempting to ape another art form (the movies) since their inception. But cinema has had its own troubled history in terms of gaining serious critical recognition and the story of cinema, of course, mirrors the story of games. Both mediums started out as science and became a novelty entertainment, eventually both adopted ideas of narrative and have both undergone similarly epochal technological changes: sound and colour in film and the move to polygons in games. Both began life outside the home, in theatres and arcades, before being consumed in the average living room and both face similar challenges when it comes to digital distribution in the future. In terms of content games like last year’s splendid Uncharted 2 have already equalled Hollywood’s best in delivering set pieces and action movie style plotlines, even if they haven’t yet resonated on any deeper level. Now, as graphics become more sophisticated so the potential to tell recognisably human stories increases: one of this year’s biggest releases, another Playstation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain (pictured), is promising to be one of the most cinematic yet and is aiming to come closer than any game has yet to telling a story that will resonate with gamers on an emotional level. Whether the game achieves that aim is something I will surely come back to once it is released in late February. But are games that successfully mimic films a laudable achievement? Can’t video games find some way to stand alone as a form of artistic expression?

You could argue that a game like Tetris or Space Invaders is already art. They certainly feature iconic design, often referenced in popular culture or even in fashion (I have seen a fair few retro Atari clothes in Brighton clothes shop windows), but they are also perfectly designed, superior examples of their medium. Likewise, Mario 64 or Jet Set Radio may not be telling a heart-rending tale, but both are arguably succeeding in every way in which they set out to succeed: both master the art of game design.

In a really odd twist it has been game which isn’t “filmic” that has resonated with me the strongest in terms of emotional reaction in the last year. The Playstation Network download title, Flower, is not only painfully beautiful to look at and perfectly simple in terms of its gameplay (you control a gust of wind and collect petals off flowers. Once each area is cleared of petals you move onto another and repeat until the level is completed) but it made me joyously happy and, at one key moment, it creates a very real sense of melancholy and tangible dread. What is impressive is that it did this without trying too hard or pushing any obvious buttons. In an age where more and more games will be shouting “look at me I’m a serious game for grownups: I’m about a cop with a crack addiction who has lost his kid” or whatever, Flower (refreshingly) isn’t edgy. It exists as a marvellous piece game design where a combination of music and lighting create a really compelling and thought provoking atmosphere. For me Flower is a real work of art.