Sunday, December 24, 2006

Team Voodoo!

I got an email from an American Flag Football club in the UK last year called Team Voodoo. Their team President asked if they could adopt Vince as sort of unofficial team mascot and maybe put him on some shirts for the team. I passed his request on to the powers that be at Microsoft (they own the Vince intellectual property) and they were nice enough to consent.

Maybe I felt a special affinity, having broken a wrist playing flag football in junior high. I offered some of my nonexistent free time to make the art and the end result is at the top of this post. I'm reasonably happy with it. I can't wait to see and wear the final product.


ps: Hey! I noticed a YouTube clip of Team Voodoo in action.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Powerless in Seattle

Okay, not Seattle proper. Just someplace near there. Some of you may have heard about the big wind storm we had recently. If anybody has been trying to email me at my Beep Industries address, or visit the Beep web page, they will find things aren't working and bouncing left and right. The same goes for the info address at Beep. This is because our ISP still has no power (or phones) and our email isn't working. I'm kind of surprised they weren't even able to get web mail or some kind of reroute working, much less a simple announcement via other channels, but that's the way it goes.

Anyway, I have electricity (duh) and am busy procrastinating on my next thrilling post. Hopefully all the Beep stuff will be back up soon.


UPDATE: Looks like Beep's ISP is up and running again as of Sunday night!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I'll Just Have The Salabog

I didn't expect to post much about Secret of Evermore on this blog, but it seems to be enjoying a small rebirth as a cult classic. Don't ask me why. I'm as surprised as anyone. I hear the new issue of Game Informer lists Evermore as their third most anticipated pick on their "top 10 retro game we can't wait to download on our Wii" list. That, plus the fact that folks keep posting clips of it on YouTube make for a quick easy post on a lazy Sunday. So, yay.

This clip is of the third boss battle in SOE, the big swamp snake thing, Salabog. I did the background art and Salabog himself (based on a concept painting by our art director, Daniel Dociu). The big critter himself contains very little animation, at least by an artist. The movement of the head and the body were all done with programming (I keep thinking it was Jeff Petkau). The neck is just made of a small overlapping sprites. The sections of the monster seen in the background got their motion from good old fashioned color cycling.

Below is another craptacular doodle from the notepad I had on my desk at the time.

As I said in earlier posts, lots of people who went on to Cavedog (and Beep, and later ArenaNet) worked at Square's Redmond office. The main character and dog were animated by Rebecca Coffman. TA fans might be interested to hear the score by Jeremy Soule, who accomplished some amazing things with the limited audio palette available on the SNES.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Slighted Over Germany

A friend of a friend snapped this picture. The elusive Voodoo Vince plush has been unceremoniously strapped to a rope and incorporated into a display on the suspended lighting at a Saturn store in Frankfurt, Germany. It doesn't look very comfortable, but it probably offers Vince a fine view of the tops of German shopper's heads. I can only approve of his proximity to that giant bag of coffee, even if it is just robusta.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fun With Sculpey - Chapter 1

Here's Vince in a whole 'nother kind of 3D.

Sometimes I like to break out sticks, sporks and other things that poke and prod so I can make feeble sculptures. My medium of choice is Super Sculpey, a polymer clay which can be purchased in alluring fleshy bricks at your local craft store. I did a few pieces with regular Sculpey, but prefer the flexibility of the Super kind.

I promised Vince sculptures to a couple friends some time in the late precambrian period, so I figured it was about time to break out the tools and get something done. I'm posting about the first half of the project here on TOC mostly so I'll be more motivated to finish this up. The first sculpture I'm attempting is of Vince sitting astride a tombstone, happily playing a ukulele (or tiny guitar).

As I said, my sculpting skills aren't much to shout about. The process I describe here was taught to me by Tom Collie, who was the resident sculptor back at Humongous. Tom made great, polished pieces of the characters in the kid's games at HE. These were handy reference for animators, and dang cool to look at. Here is my bastardized, sloppy version of what I learned from him.

First, I start off with a wooden base. I drill some holes for the primary armature pieces, which I fashion from quarter inch copper wire. The base can be a simple post cap for fencing from any home improvement store. Craft stores have more polished (and expensive) wooden bases. I went with the slightly swankier craft store kind here. I use a narrower gauge of regular metal wire as an armature for the smaller protrusions. I'm the worlds worst engineer so I do a lot of needless twisting and bending so I feel like I'm making it stronger. I'm probably not.

No, that's not an energy being from Star Trek.
Just flash photography gone awry.

Next, I jam aluminum foil into any major gaps within the wire armature. This should be packed as tightly as possible to avoid any sizable air pockets.

Once this is done, I slather a base layer of Sculpey onto the armature. If I don't like the way things are shaping up, I can still nudge the wire and foil pretty easily. I try to work the material into the many, many nooks and crannies I have created in my sloppiness.

After the basic Sculpey is in place, I add another layer or two. Something of where I'm going has started to emerge at this point.

Next on Procrastination Theater: the detail work which will include a big pile of bones around the tombstone, Vince's other arm and other untold wonders.


Monday, November 13, 2006

TA-ncient History #8: Destroy With Care

The intro movie for Total Annihilation was a pretty important piece of work. This was the first impression we made when players launched the game and it was the only piece of snazzy video we would display at the humble little Cavedog corner of GT Interactive's booth at E3 that year.

The cut scenes were headed up by Kevin Pun. He started with a rough framework centered on a long, continuous pullback I tossed together, but added an amazing amount of drama and wonderfully orchestrated motion to the final sequence. Kevin created a huge chunk of the assets used in the introduction. He also incorporated models and animations from the unit artists, and a small team we added specifically to help out with the cut scenes. The movies came together so quickly the intro was extended by about one third at the last minute, incorporating new shots largely created by Rebecca Coffman. Cavedog was the third job I'd been at with Kevin and Rebecca, and it was a pleasure to see them kicking so much ass.

Page one of Kevin's storyboard for the final intro movie.

It's amazing how well most of this sequence holds up today. The movie was made by a handful of folks using relatively simple, inexpensive tools, but it delivers a great sense of action and anticipation.

Two excerpts from the original storyboard.

Once the final animation was rendered, a few dissolves were added using Adobe Premiere. The sound effects were added by Frank Bry, using an early pass of the theme music for Total Annihilation (by Jeremy Soule, of course) as a backdrop.

The question at this point was about what sort of media to use for E3. This was before DVD's came along. Plenty of video displays at E3 were still played off various formats of magnetic video tape, which necessitated rewinding your cool eye-catching movie every so often. To avoid that I asked if we could burn the intro sequence to a laser videodisc. I figured this would avoid the risk of jamming or wearing out and the movie could just be set to repeat all day.

I owned quite a few laserdiscs, but had no idea how to go about getting a single one-off disk made. It wasn't hard, but there were lots of little steps. First, I had all the individual frames for the movie rendered and numbered sequentially. We didn't have a CD burner in the office (we were that low budget) so I had to transport the frames on a stack of Zip disks. I took these, along with a stereo .AIFF file of the soundtrack to video post facility in Seattle, called Pinnacle Post. They combined the frames with the soundtrack and recorded the assembled movie to a betacam tape. This was FedExed to a facility in New England where they burned a single laser disc, containing the intro movie.

Make that two disks. I found out that unlike regular laser discs, a one-off was burned onto glass. Instead of the typical aluminum and polycarbonate plastic used for CD's, DVD's and regular laser discs, we would receive a disk made of perfectly flat, brittle glass. I had a bad feeling about that. Between getting shipped back and forth across the country, sent to E3 and the chaotic process of setting up the booth in Atlanta, I just knew something would happen to that lovely circular mirror containing our movie.

The shockingly reflective intro movie disk.

I was right. A teamster sat on one of the disks while the booth was under construction.

The version of the movie shown at E3 was slightly different than the one that shipped with the game. We hadn't done the full orchestral recording of the soundtrack yet, so the music was an earlier synthesizer-based version. It sounded pretty convincing to any casual listener, but lacked the punch of a real orchestra. We also hadn't recorded the narration, so the introductory voice over was accomplished with on-screen text.

Back to the story... The surviving disk played perfectly and we didn't have to worry about looking up to see if a tape needed rewinding. Next to booth babes, the most common way to lure dazed attendees into your booth at E3 is a mind-numbing display of sound and video. We had a fairly small screen, and the audio was almost impossible to hear, but the little TA intro movie did it's job. I couldn't believe how many businessmen would walk up to the big screen and dutifully record the intro movie on their camcorders -- and never once turn around to actually play the game itself.

That was fine, since lots of people wanted to play Total Annihilation anyway.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Virtual Vince

This might look familiar to anyone who read the previous post about the Voodoo Vince storybook. In the early, heady "let's start a company and not get paid" days of Beep, our art director Gary Hanna made the first 3D rendition of Vince. It's almost eerie when something you draw is recreated so perfectly in 3D. This image was done using Maya. I really like how crude and craggy Vince is in this rendition. The burlap is nice and raspy looking. Those pins mean business. The patches look like they were stitched on in a hurry. After looking at this I almost think Vince got too smooth and cuddly later.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

TA-ncient History #7: Prime Artistry

We didn't get our giant CG intro movie with dancing clones, but we still had to make all sorts of fancy pictures for marketing and the game. The universe I wanted to portray would still need a lot of high quality visuals to give players a decent sense of Total Annihilation's setting. We also needed plenty of promotional stuff for E3.

For the game itself, we needed to make a short intro sequence, two victory sequences and a host of what we called mission paintings - The last items being a little visual reward shown to the player after successful completion of a level.

For the mission paintings I organized a simple assembly line. Every 4 or 5 models, the artists would make a "high res" version of a given unit. I put that in quotes since these only had 2,000 to 5,000 polygons. Models with higher poly counts are now common in real time environments. I think there are more polygons than that in Master Chief's left nostril.

These models were handed off to staff artist Jarrett Holderby. It turned out the same cheap, simple tools I chose for the game worked equally well for the mission paintings. Jarrett dropped these models into KPT Bryce, added some textures, rendered an image, then retouched the image in Photoshop and Painter.

It helped that Jarrett was a classically trained illustrator with a couple decades of experience. His eye for composition and lighting were (and are) superb. The Bryce scenes were devoid of grit, smoke, explosions, motion blur and other touches that help bring a futuristic war picture to life. Jarrett's ability to add these things "by hand" to a rendered images without making it too obvious was another rare gift. At top is an early image of Core Prime (a.k.a. Metal World). This setting was used for many pictures, but I don't think this particular image was ever used. I stole some of those textures when I made the metal world map segments.

All the renders for maps and mission paintings were done on Macs. Back artists had both a Mac and a Windows rig on their desks. An early rendition of Bryce existed for Windows, but it lacked the ability to export height maps bigger than 72 pixels on a side. We needed much bigger elevation maps for the background sections. We certainly needed huge height maps for these mission paintings. We mostly used Power Mac 8500's and 7600's. Opening or saving Jarrett's super big print files would take minutes. The same went for applying the simplest filter. The fact that Jarrett didn't go completely insane working on them is a real tribute to his fortitude.

This same technique provided most of the big, lush images we made for magazines and marketing. Jarrett assembled some truly fine scenes, all of which helped to build an image for the game and its universe.

I think this image was made for a game magazine that never got off the ground. It would have been TA's only magazine cover prior to its launch, but that was not to be.

The models from the unit artists were supplemented by additional pieces from the small team working on the movie sequences, giving Jarrett had a pretty decent inventory of models to work with. This added a lot to the scope and complexity of the pictures. Some images are more effective than others, but overall it was a great way to get a lot of pictures made in a small amount of time.

The movies represent another big push for the art team in the weeks leading up to E3 in 1997. More on that in the next TA-related post.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Enough tiles and I can build the world!

Copyright 1995 Squaresoft, Inc.

Yes, another glimpse of our primitive pixel roots. This screenshot is from my time on Secret of Evermore at Squaresoft, Inc. This is part of the market from the desert town late in the game.

There is a certain pleasure in working within limitations. Any artist who worked on console games in the pre-3D, 16-bit era had to get very friendly with tiles. On the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) any given level had a limit of 1024 tiles, each of which could only use one 16 color palette. Little tricks were needed to build everything a level design called for: X and Y flipping, color cycling, palette swapping and tile animations were usually needed to stretch the tile budget. That, and some careful planning made it possible to build the requisite hills, valleys, roads, rivers, rocks and huts in a given level. It was a challenge, but it was actually fun to figure out how to get the most from every pixel.

Evermore was my first experience with an isometric top-down view as well, which came in handy during Total Annihilation.

Above is a page from my production notebook. This has a basic inventory of things I'd hoped to build with the tiles allowance for the market level. Most of my career in games can be summed up by countless pages of random notes and awful doodles like this one. It looks chaotic, but it's amazing how much information I find on them today. Just to make myself seem even more ancient, it's like putting a needle into the groove of a record. Once I start looking through the reams of pages from Total Annihilation or Vince, I can usually place the exact time and place I made each crude doodle and notation.

Games are still subject to many limitations today, but the boundaries are a lot more mushy. Storage is hardly a problem anymore. Movies and audio assets often take up more space than the games themselves. Tile counts and finite palettes have been replaced by polygon counts and texture memory - but a bit of your frame rate or a few seconds of load time can be (and are) sacrificed in the name of "but it's so cool!"

We spend a lot more time creating wonderful visual content nowadays. I have no complaints, since that's my bread and butter. But the spiraling cost of developing a game has grown along with our technical horizons. Games now take years to make, rather than months. Back in the SNES era, when a cartridge was full, it was full. It was kind of nice to have that clear line in the sand.

Do I have a big, important point? Nope. I just wish I hadn't run out of tiles before I could make some hanging pots and pans for that one merchant's stall. Dammit.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Vince Cutting Room Floor #3: Roachfort

Why do I keep repeating myself? All this concept art is by Doug Williams who is brilliant, blah, blah, blah.

So many ideas... So little time. It's important to aim high when designing a game. As the realities of the development process have their filthy way with your ideas it's always good to have more ideas than you need waiting in the wings. Change and compromise are like an unholy Master-Blaster out to thwart your good times at the Thunderdome of game creation. You've got to be ready to roll with the punches and come up with good alternate plans, even when Tina Turner has a wrist crossbow pointed at you and... um... you get the idea.

As I said in an earlier post, I sort of wish Roachfort had been cut in favor of the riverboat level, but that's just the hindsight talking. There are some great things in the level, but many ideas were scrapped during development. It seemed like harmless little bits and pieces along the way, but I think the overall quality of the level suffered as a result. Nevermind the fact that the water table in New Orleans is about three inches underground, making large subterranean caverns pretty damned unlikely.

At the heart of the biggest change were the residents of Roachfort. I originally planned to populate the subterranean world with effete French cockroaches who still thought it was the 18th century... hence the name. The Rochefortians were to be vain and silly. They believed the surface world is a myth and that their dank sewer is the center of the universe. Someone like Vince wouldn't fit their world view, so he needed to travel in disguise using a tattered, unconvincing cockroach costume.

The last big alteration had to do with Vince's escape from Roachfort. In the first draft of the design document Professor Ethel was a bit more helpful. Rather than abandoning Vince like a complete jerk, she makes her escape using Vince himself for balloon material. This was based on a mini-game where players would have steered Vince around sharp pointy things as he ascended a long twisty pipe leading to the surface world.

One thing that doomed these parts of Roachfort was the way I approached the design. Rather than create a coherent system from which puzzles and gameplay could flow, I wrote a lot of "one off" stuff in this level (I did a bit too much of that in the whole game, really). The time and effort needed to make the exploding gas cannister puzzle the airplane level and the laundry basket ride cut into more atmospheric goodies like these poor, deluded cockroaches.

It was a trade. I didn't get to recreate the court of the Sun King with bugs, but that plane was pretty cool.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ye Olde Downtown Tulsa

One great pleasure I've discovered about this self-serving blog is finding new things lurking in pieces of old art and memorabilia. Until lately, I seldom took the time to look at this stuff or reflect on my strange little career. I now find myself looking at artwork from old projects in a whole new light.

I managed a team of about 35 people during the development of Kingdoms. I also worked with a half dozen or so external contract artists, most of whom worked on illustrations for the game's cinematic sequences. The contractors varied a lot in their experience level, ranging from veterans with decades of experience (like the aforementioned Greg Call) to fresh young talent, right out of art school.

One of the veteran illustrators was a man named Dale Rutter, a long time instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle. Dale was primarily responsible for painting a panoramic view of the capital for each of the kingdoms in our story. Above is his lovely painting of Lendra, the capital city of Veruna... the side with all the nautical stuff. Upon closer examination, I can't help but think that some of the city seen behind those evocative, ancient battlements has a distinctly modern look.

In fact, I'm sure of it. This looks more like the sort of place you'd find insurance brokers, condos and health clubs than the seat of power for a distant magical land. Dale has a reputation as something of a prankster, so I'm guessing this was intentional.

Good one, Dale. Too bad it took me almost eight years to notice!


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

TA-ncient History #6.1.4: First Ink Amended

Those of you familiar with the high journalistic standards here at Ton of Clay know the premium I place on the truth -- A premium so high only the very rich can afford to bribe me. I started thinking about my reference to the ill-fated demo map called Boris. Was the map really 100x100 screens?

I had to verify this for you, the reader. Yea, though I sift through many a worn CD-ROM, risking flying shards of frail, shattered disk in my eye, I will persevere. Anyway, I got curious and found the remains of the original map earlier this evening.

Above are the sections of Boris, assembled in something approximating the original design. Each square chunk was about 5 by 5 screens (2560 pixels on a side). I recall now that the plan was to expand this by placing large strips of open water between each type of terrain. So, the ultimate goal for Boris was probably closer to a mere 40x40 screens. Much smaller, but still insanely big for an average computer in 1997. The real problem was partly the physical dimensions, but also the high number of memory-gobbling unique tiles in this design.

In retrospect, Boris just seemed like 100x100 screens, much as memories of a playground bully can make them seem like they were ten feet tall, with a helpless nerd in one hand and a twisted jungle gym in the other.

I regret the the lapse in accuracy extremely. I apologize to my vast readership - but I mostly apologize to Boris. He just wanted to be loved and probably came from a tough neighborhood. Boris was, if anything, simply ahead of his time. Poor little fella.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

TA-ncient History #6: First Ink

Copyright 1997 - Imagine
Ironically, a sequel to our producer's most famous game graced the cover
of PC Gamer the same month as the first Total Annihilation preview.

Getting the press interested in yet another real time strategy game in 1997 was no easy feat. Approximately 24,000 RTS games came out that year. A new game from an untried studio wasn't exactly catching the eye of editors and journalists. The glut of RTS games created intense competition for the hearts and minds of gamers. Some publishers were putting big money behind promoting their entries.

Many upcoming games engaged in what I call bullet point warfare. Lists of features and visual gimmicks were dutifully recited in prepress coverage and endlessly compared and debated by the nascent Internet community. A week didn't passed that some helpful person would come into our office and say "Gosh, this game XXX from XXX has unit morale, cyborg pez dispensers and dancing pie charts showing alfalfa comsumption... Do we have morale, cyborg pez and pie graphs?" We did what any good developer does when asked about stuff like that. We completely ignored it and concentrated on making the game.

Our ship date had floated around for about a year. We changed it twice, but by the spring of '97 we were finally pretty sure we would RTM (route to manufacture) in September. Ship dates don't seem as stressful when nobody knows you exist. We were getting a little anxious, though. US game magazines had a lead time for stories of three to five months -- some still do in spite of competition from gaming websites. That's pretty simple math. It was already March and we still weren't sure how the world would ever hear about Total Annihilation. We had that spiffy print ad figured out, but E3 was just around the corner. We needed to make at least a decent splash or Total Annihilation would be in the bargain bin before Christmas.

Word finally came down that we would get a preview story in PC Gamer (US version). A staff writer from San Francisco would come to the Humongous/Cavedog offices in glorious Woodinville, Washington. We were told the plan was for a one page write-up in their preview section. We geared up by pushing even harder to make the game presentable (old multiplayer UI below) and to create high resolution assets for our future marketing needs.

It wasn't enough that we already had maps bigger than any other RTS game. We had to do something truly awe-inspiring... something that would astound and amaze. Ron, Chris and I jointly conceived of Boris, a 100x100 screen behemoth (Editors note: See next post). Maps that size are no biggie to the TA 3rd party community these days, but we attempted this with a mere P200 with 64 megs of RAM. I stayed up for days rendering and assembling pieces of Boris. The stability of the engine was still fluctuating from day to day. We didn't really know what would happen.

It's pretty obvious what happened: My PC went into shock and curled up whimpering in the corner for days after my first attempt to load Boris. After those days of sleep deprivation and stress, I still shudder when I hear that name. We had to make do with our regular maps, which served us perfectly well.

There is an expectation that games are built using piles of slick concept art. It won't do to give magazines some doodles on a stained burger wrapper. Nope. Concept art has to look like it came from the halls of Skywalker Ranch or Ridley Scott's wet dream. The visual standard for games today makes walls of concept art a common sight. We didn't have much stuff like that for Total Annihilation. The design for a 40 polygon tank isn't much to look at.

So, we faked it. We had some great artists who were fully capable of making froo froo art like that. We were just too busy to make it most of the time. But it looks swell in a magazine article, so Kevin Pun (another Square alum) whipped up some nice juicy marker comps of units after they were already finished and in the game. Here are his wonderful, tarted up takes on some TA units.

PC Gamer never used these for that piece, but they were handy for other articles and interviews that came along later. We fed the marketing and PR machine at GT a steady stream of high resolution renders and more concept art for months to come.

Our real unit designs were certainly nicer than something on a burger wrapper. Below is a real first design pass for a Core aerial unit by Mike Fisher, the artist responsible for the bulk of the Core units. I usually asked for a quick pencil treatment so I could sign off on a unit design before the unit artists waded into 3D land. Mike always worked with wonderfully clear schematics, worthy of an engineer.

It would have been about April of 1997 when Michael Wolf from PC Gamer paid us a call. Michael was a reviewer who later became the disk editor of PC Gamer. Michael is now a PR manager over at Microsoft's Windows game division. He arrived late in the morning. My impression was that he may have expected yet another C&C clone and I can't blame him. As we showed off our game he seemed to grow more impressed and excited as the interview progressed, asking lots of good questions.

Ron, Chris, Michael and I piled into Chris's Mazda 626 and went to lunch at a local Chinese place. I only remember that because I have a strong recollection of ignoring my wonton soup while riffing on the notion of the Core Commander writing a lonely hearts advice column. That later made its way onto the Cavedog website as a semi-regular feature.

If you read this early coverage, you'll notice Ron's name sometimes comes up more than Chris's. His name is the only one mentioned in the table of contents above. The industry at large hadn't really heard of Chris, Cavedog or our game yet. Ron was an acknowledged industry heavyweight. His background as a design god at LucasArts and the upcoming Monkey Island sequel (though unrelated to Ron) sometimes made him a focus for journalists who came to look at TA. Ron was always gracious and pointed reporters right back to Chris. He really believed that a designer should speak for his own game.

Copyright 1997 - Imagine
I almost forgot about the button layout that sort of looked like a skull. Oooo... Spooky.

When the preview finally hit magazine stands in their July issue (on the street in June) we were amazed. It was as nice as a preview gets. Phrases like, " could very well be the most revolutionary real-time strategy since Dune II" had us pinching ourselves (we did that to stay awake anyway). The timing couldn't have been better. This was the edition of PC Gamer that was circulated at E3 that year. Our ad was in other major game publications that month as well.

We had plenty of good buzz going into E3. Now we just had to get the game halfway polished for it's big debut on the show floor.


Friday, October 13, 2006

A Tangled Rope

This is the last of the visual prototype images we brought to the Voodoo Vince green light meeting. Just about every picture shows Vince doing something different. We felt it was important to show as much variety as possible by putting Vince in a variety of settings and in an assortment of vehicles. Here we see him swinging his way though a fanciful forest canopy. Of the four mockups, I think this is one of the prettiest. It's definitely in the top four.

During the creation of this picture Gary Hanna jokingly referred to all the bright, radiant plant things as "glowberries." We didn't really have glowing bits like that in the final version, but that did provide part of the level's name, Glowberry Tangle. For players who don't like bottomless pits (and there are many), this level was pure hell since the whole thing is one big bottomless space with thin, twisty tree limbs to land upon.

Different modes of travel always create interesting issues for art, design and technology. Keeping the camera under control, physics, strange clipping and character behavior all present different challenges. This visual test depicts a cable-like vine for Vince to swing on. We soon found that making a polygonal model look convincing as a rope (in real time) is pretty damn tough. A solid rope object also did some odd things when it passed around or through the in-game camera. We opted for a string of stretchy particles instead. This avoided strange rope malfunctions and pulled Vince away from the camera quickly, which helped to avoid clipping and a loss of orientation.

Original take on the Glowberry "perfect world" image by Doug Williams

The illusion of distant foliage in Glowberry Tangle was done simply by wrapping the level in some layers of leafy texture, forming a surrounding tube of sorts. Again, the original take on this didn't work out. The original has a light, distant sky layer with a slight gradient to it. This tended to make the leaf backdrop stand out more, and look more fake. The brighter, more intense backdrop also competed too much with the branches and landing places, making an already challenging level even harder. So, the final version (again) made use of a simple dark backdrop with the distant tube o' leaves mostly obscured by distance.

A skilled player can breeze through Glowberry tangle in mere minutes, never suspecting the long list of boring decisions that went into its creation. That sort of makes me wish a "directors cut" of a game were possible, with running commentary so players could be made aware of the developer's self-centered, long winded thoughts. That wouldn't work for me as a player, though. I'd probably get distracted by some comment about the code or art while a monster is going to town gnawing on my leg.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Carnival DePrave

Nothing beats a worn out, deserted carnival for sheer atmosphere and spooky good times. The level artists did a great job creating Kosmo's base of operations, the Carnival DePrave. This was the final location in Voodoo Vince. Once the level designer John Baron finished laying out the platforms holes and the structures, Doug Williams created these superb black and white mood pieces. The level artist (also John Baron, come to think of it) worked from these to create the final level art.

Hmmm... In retrospect, the entryway to the carnival has a somewhat goatse-y look to it. Shame on anybody else who thinks that.

Every level in a game like Voodo Vince is a big accomplishment, but each one is filled with reminders of things that might have been. The Carnival DePrave was, if anything, a bit too empty and deserted. I had hoped to fill the booths on the midway with playable minigames. But our ship date was looming. The mini-games ended up as static pieces of background art, but you can still see the original idea thanks to the textures in the level. John Baron thought up most of the games while doing the initial level design.

The final in-game textures were given a wonderful air of festive decay by Dan Cole. You can almost smell that bilge water taffy.

I can only imagine what sort of bent mischief these might have turned into. All you super elite Ton of Clay readers will notice that Madam Charmaine's original name makes a slightly modified appearance. All of these images incorporate bits and pieces of walls we photographed in and around New Orleans.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Homespun Voodoo

The incredibly rare Voodoo Vince doll. These have sold for millions of dollars on eBay.

The most common question I get via the Beep Industries website (next to "Are you guys dead?") is from people who want to know how they can buy, beg, borrow or steal a bona fide Voodoo Vince doll. We would have dearly loved to see vast heaps of shoddy Vince merchandise, dolls included, but that was not to be.

A Vince doll was made (above), but it was mostly sent to members of the gaming press. The crew at Beep and some of the Microsoft people snapped up the rest. It couldn't have been more than 100 or so dolls, total. I managed to get three. One is on the shelf in my office. Another is being kept in its wrapper for my kid when he's old enough to really enjoy long, pointy pins.

Speaking of which, one sad aspect of the promotional dolls is that they didn't include Vince's pins due to the usual hand-wringing and liability concerns. Vince without his pins is, well, just a doll. The pins you see on my doll were made by my good friend Patrick Hoynes. He melted authentic Mardi Gras beads onto antique hat pins, creating pins as lovely as they are dangerous. That earned Pat the third doll from my small supply.

It's sad. Given the lukewarm reception Vince had in some quarters, those dolls would have been better off in the hands of eager Vince fans. Maxim magazine mailed theirs as a gimmick to a random recipient. I stongly encourage indifferent members of the gaming press to put theirs up for sale on eBay. Contrary to my caption above, you will only make a few bucks but it would help to right a great wrong and restore balance to the gaming nerd cosmos.

This lack of dolls hasn't dampened the spirits of determined Voodoo Vince fans. Since no Vince merchandise exists, they've made their own. Over the last few years I have received some great pictures (and one actual doll) from fans who have made t-shirts, artwork and quite a few home-made Vince dolls. No mass produced chotchkey will ever match these for personality, warmth and all-around coolness.

One lucky Vince fan received this statue for her birthday from her very talented son:

I have to smile every time I look at these. When I think about the hours these must have taken to create, I'm simply amazed. This proves that an idea can live on in the hearts of gamers long after the machines that play them have been converted to goldfish bowl case mods - with or without the help of marketing.

This final image by a grade schooler is better than any sign-off I can think of.