Thursday, December 25, 2008

Character Generation

Ron just posted some concept art I did for DeathSpank over at his Grumpy Gamer blog. These are two of the many characters we created to populate the game's world. The pieces portray Ms. Heybenstance, the demon witch and everyone's favorite stoner merchant, Bong The Potioner.


UPDATE: And just to prove I can put hands on my character's correctly, here is a revised Bong, with everything pointing in the right direction. Let this be a lesson to all you youngsters: Don't drink and draw.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TA-ncient History #11: Around The World

This is skipping ahead a bit, but I always liked the visual simplicity of this French box that bundled Total Annihilation and the Battle Tactics expansion pack.

One of the last tasks as production nears completion on a game is translating the game into various languages. Humongous Entertainment always took a very aggressive approach to translating its games. When most companies in the US seldom went beyond FIGS (the oh-so-hip developer acronym for French, Italian, German, Spanish), HE was regularly releasing their most popular games in a dozen or more languages, including Hebrew, Dutch and Norwegian. That attitude carried over to Total Annihilation, though we settled for just doing FIGS. I like figs.

It's always interesting to see what issues arise during localization. For instance, in the UK I just misspelled the word "localisation." It's crazy... or mad.

Anyway, Total Annihilation was relatively easy to convert to other languages. The bulk of our in-game text used the same tools Humongous used, including their in-house animation tool, Splat, for the 2D artwork (this is what created those .gaf files you 3rd party folks know so well). It only took an artist a few days to replace the text seen in the interface and other parts of the game. Most of TA's movie sequences intentionally contained no speaking parts for cheap translation reasons. We made the game for a mere 1.1 million bucks, so we had to make decisions like that on a regular basis.

We did replace the voice narration for the mission briefings and the intro cinematic. Gamers in Germany might have recognized the voice of the guy who dubbed the German voice of James Bond for decades: Gert-Günther Hoffmann. I'm told Total Annihilation was Herr Hoffmann's last project before his death in 1997.

The voice of Total Annihilation in Germany.

GT Interactive's marketing experts in some countries disliked the name "Total Annihilation." It can be difficult for many non-English speakers to say. Plenty of English speakers stuggle with it too.

The folks in France pressed us to change the name completely. They said they were concerned that "Total Annihilation" might sound too much like "Final Solution" to European ears. They suggested the name "Hegemon" instead. The folks at GT's French office also thought the Arm Commander on the front of the TA box was too similar to a character in Heavy Gear, so he was removed from their version of the box.

The strangely empty French Total Annihilation box layout.

The people handling the marketing for Germany had ideas too. They attempted to translate the English name and lobbied for "Ganz Vernichtung," which definitely has a cool ring to it. It also might have compensated for the fact that German words barely fit on our interface. The German box was somewhat different as well. They placed hash marks indicating the number five in the background. This tied in to their marketing campaign which used the number five to connote the five senses, along with the slogan "Use Your Senses." It's sort of catchy, but I don't remember how Total Annihilation smelled... or tasted. Anyone who does, please keep it to yourselves.

"Ich bin ein Riesen-Roboter."

Humongous was already established as a successful division within GT Interactive, so we were asked nicely about the the renaming ideas and not simply ordered to comply. We felt it was important to keep the name consistent throughout the world, so we did. It may be an awkward tongue twister, but it was awkward for pretty much everybody, including Americans.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Below The Jurassic Strata

If this blog isn't proof enough, this should seal my reputation as a horrible pack rat.

I've been struggling to tame the mountains of old paper heaped in various places around the house. On one recent expedition I found some original animation cels from the Secret of Evermore television ad. This was probably the only game I've ever worked on that had actual ads on the air.

Here is the original context, for those who care:


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bad Drawings from A Good Weekend

L to R, upper row: Bob Bates, Gordon Walton, Tom Abernathy, Ralf Adam
bottom row: Rich Vogel, Lee Sheldon, Ken Rolston, Hal Barwood.

Every so often I try to attend an informal gathering of game designers known as the Game Designers Workshop. The most recent gathering took place last weekend in Seattle. It's a great opportunity to hear what game designers from all over the industry think about issues confronting our craft these days. It's a pretty amazing bunch of designers and creative types, so I'm always overwhelmed by the great ideas and immense perspective the group can bring to bear on a topic.

I'm an incessant doodler (which is illegal in 14 states), so I couldn't resist doing some crude likenesses of some of the other attendees while taking notes. A few of these are semi-okay, even though I'm pretty rusty when it comes to caricatures.

Apologies to my victims. I promise to be more flattering next time.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Life Imitates Fiction Imitating Life

I think we may have a copyright issue on our hands. You Voodoo Vince players can vouch for me.

You might recall the boss battle at the end of the Bayou level where Vince pits his powers of running, jumping and Voodoo against a hurricane. That hurricane's name? Okay, ours was called Hannah, but we added the "h" so it wouldn't be completely like our art director's last name, which was "Hanna," the name of the hurricane currently churning its way across the Caribbean.

It's back. And this time it's personal. If it stops by, tell it I went to the store.

Between this and another odd parallel I posted about back in 2006, I'm starting to think that hurricanes and video games don't mix.


Friday, August 29, 2008

The Spank of Death vs. PAX

I stopped by PAX today. I always enjoy seeing the unalloyed bedrock of the game biz in its natural habitat.

Hothead games was showing some teasers for DeathSpank. It's always amazing when something finally migrates off the drawing board and out into the world. Ron Gilbert and I dreamed up DeathSpank and spent years pitching it to publishers. Most were skeptical. Those who were not usually lacked the means to fund this little gem of episodic mayhem. I have to say, the folks at Hothead really get the concept, and these teasers show why. Things are still at a pretty early stage, but I'm thrilled with how DeathSpank is coming together. These bits only show personality, but a game like this lives and dies on personality. It sets the mood for everything to come.

Here are the three teasers for your viewing pleasure.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More Juvenile Humor

I promised a Vince statue to Dave Halverson from Play Magazine longer ago than I care to remember. He was patience itself, and now he has this fine decoration in his lovely home. It depicts a somewhat off-model Vince reading Dave's excellent publication while sitting on the can.

Dave was remarkably understanding and has agreed not to sue me.


TA-ncient History #10: E3

The Electronic Entertainment Exposition 1997 was in Atlanta

My first trip to E3 was in1997. It was also my favorite E3. I wasn't burned out on the annual dose of noise and stress and I was only marginally aware of the colossal production road bump E3 would create for so many future projects. This was when E3 still alternated between Atlanta and Los Angeles each year.

I almost didn't go. Many parts of Total Annihilation were unpolished, broken or just plain nonexistent as we crunched our way into the Summer of 1997. Multiplayer was touch and go. The interface was in the middle of a major overhaul at that point. Our producer didn't think the project could spare me, but Chris went to bat for me. He mentioned that I'd already bought some clothes for the trip, fer gawd's sake. The moral weight of that carried the day.

We were beyond excited to show our game to the world. The recent magazine ad was getting some good buzz. We launched the Cavedog website right before the show and there was already a lot of activity in the very first fan forums. The "animated screen shots" on the site also helped to build anticipation. E3 was the perfect opportunity to build on that.

So, like an idiot, I bought new shoes. Things were going great until we got off the plane in Atlanta. Chris and I were feeling more hyper than usual, so we decided to run to baggage claim. How far could it be? Anyone familiar with Atlanta's behemoth Delta hub only need to combine that with the"new shoes" concept to imagine the state of my feet by the time we got to our luggage. Remember those sides of beef Rocky trained with? You get the idea. Cavedog's new VP of production, Scott Wallin, was nice enough to provide bandages and and soothing unguent.

We checked in to the hotel then went immediately to a press reception at the convention center. GT Interactive and Humongous PR folks whisked Chris away before we were there five seconds, taking him from one clump of press to another. I decided to seek out free food and drink while trying not to ruin the carpet with the bloody stumps that passed for my feet.

Okay, it wasn't that bad, but they really hurt.

After the reception Chris and I went down to check out the booth setup. For anyone who hasn't witnessed it, the construction of "old" E3 was in many ways more impressive than the end product. Picture a gigantic room, filled with thousands of workers all building what amounted to a small city in a few days. It was busy. It was noisy (almost as noisy as the show itself). It was damn hot with the loading bays wide open and the whole placed jammed with workers and machinery. Disney's Greco-Roman fantasy was rising up in one neighborhood, while an ersatz Medieval dungeon received dabs of paint next to a futuristic assembly of lighting truss and monitors.

There wasn't much to see of the GT area, much less a Cavedog display to inspect. Just about everything related to Cavedog was still packed in crates while the union guys wrestled with wiring and other logistical concerns. There were shipping problems. Parts of the display was still in transit and nothing could happen until everything was there. This is when we learned the laserdisc containing the TA trailer had been sat upon.

It was hard to see how it was going to come together, but the crew working on the booth were unconcerned. I'm sure it was a walk in the park for them.

It did come together, such as it was. GT Interactive was touting itself as the number three publisher, so they had as much real estate as the other big shot publishers. Thanks to their cutting edge design sense, they conceived of a booth that looked like a cross between a 1980's hair salon and a scrap yard. It looked like it was built out of leftovers from 11 other booths, or like a giant robot had taken a large, clattering dump on the show floor. When E3-goers weren't wondering where to get a sassy new mullet they savored GT's lineup of games.

GT featured a bevy of games that year, including Shadow Warrior, something Duke Nukem related and the little RTS that could, Total Annihilation.

I'm sad to say I don't have any pictures of the Cavedog section of GT's chrome wonderland. The setup was simple enough. We had three kiosks, each with three screens. We mostly ran skirmish mode with cheats enabled so we could quickly toss together a conflict during quick demonstrations. A couple PC's were networked, so we could do a little multiplayer, but that didn't run particularly well. This was flanked by a wall with a GIGANTIC 35" monitor set into it that showed the Total Annihilation intro movie all day (sort of like the one in the Unreal display below).

When you show product at E3 you don't always get to see E3. I pretty much lived around our three kiosks featuring Total Annihilation, with occasional trips to the nearest bathroom. I didn't mind. It was fun to show off our game. The enthusiasm from the people who stopped by just fed that. Some people stopped to play TA every day of the show (in the case of one guy for three hours). I met countless game developers, buyers for every major retail outlet, press and lots of gaming enthusiasts. Unknown to me at the time, I met and demoed the game for two future co-workers.

About the only folks who didn't seem happy to see our upstart RTS was Activision. Our kiosks were practically surrounded with Activision employees the morning before the main doors opened. Most would just stand there and play with grim looks on their faces. It was generally accepted that Dark Reign was destined to rule in 1997 (at least until Starcraft showed up). Suddenly, they were forced to share Christmas with Total Annihilation.

We never planned to have a showdown with anybody. We generally avoided those endless "bullet point wars," but "TA vs. Dark Reign" was a common forum thread until TA shipped. Given the wildly different resources, marketing and E3 visibility, it's amazing Total Annihilation did as well as it did against such a high profile game.

We left the show floor buoyed up by the reactions to TA. It really was a great experience. After three days of demos, parties and shouting ourselves hoarse, it was time to get back to Woodinville and finish our game.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Sweet, Sweet Voodoo

I really thought I'd do another post about Total Annihilation or something next, but this was too good to pass up. A very talented mom named Toni sent this picture of a Voodoo Vince cake she made for her kid's birthday. As if the cake wasn't impressive enough, Toni says she created a whole Voodoo Vince party to go with it.

"I used the spool of craft wire in the background of the close up picture for his pins, and topped them off with gum balls. The whole party had a Voodoo Vince theme, with Mardi Gras colors, an Imp piñata (which sadly I don't have a picture of) filled with Mardi Gras beads and candy and super balls, just to give it the same feel as the big loose beads from the game. We had jambalaya, gumbo, catfish...we ordered the VDV Cd...blah blah blah...I could go on and on!"

What a lucky kid (and a creative mom)! For those who don't remember or care what the Imps in Voodoo Vince looked like, here is a dark, murky picture:

One thing is bugging me, though. Given that Vince is a voodoo doll, who feels chewed when he gets eaten?


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Good News From The Distant Land of Canada

I'm happy to announce that a concept I developed with my old friend Ron Gilbert has been picked up by Hothead Games. DeathSpank: Episode One: Orphans of Justice will be winging your way via the Intertubes in the not-too-distant future.

DeathSpank started as a joke character on our sporadic Flash cartoon on Ron's Grumpy Gamer site, but the big lug assumed a life of his own. Before too long he had a world, supporting characters and our insane belief that the game had to be made. This had to be more than a wiggly cartoon. It had to be a game.

Before I rejoined the ranks of the respectably employed last year, Ron and I spent a couple years developing and pitching this game. We loved everything about the concept, but it was nigh-impossible to convince publishers to back something that wasn't A. The Be All, End All Blockbuster, B. A Sequel To The Be All, End All, Blockbuster or C. Something Based On A Famous Crappy Movie. Anyway, Ron continued to fight the good fight and met up with a great publishing team. I'm delighted that something I co-created is going to see the light of day.

One question that might remain is whether I will be involved in the day-to-day work on DeathSpank. I wish that were possible, but I've been working on yet another cool game in the meantime (as yet unannounced) with Gas Powered Games. I'll be looking in on DeathSpank, though and pitching in where I can.

It's a feast or famine situation. Sometimes the game industry spanks you. Sometimes you spank back. Here's to Ron raising his mighty designer hand to paddle the bum of mediocrity.

Go DeathSpank!!!


Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Trio in The Flesh

Not to be outdone by Stewart Howe, Leesa G. sent this photo of her lovely tattoo art. Leesa has opted for a part of the Beep Industries logo, namely our alien mascot Arichitor and his two victims, Chet and Brenda.

I'm still amazed when someone likes my art enough to have it inscribed in their skin. Once again, I'm impressed and a bit flabbergasted. Mostly impressed, though. I just didn't want to get too far into 2008 without writing the word "flabbergasted."


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Belated Pumpkin Post

I'm kicking myself for not thinking of this one. A thoughtful dad did this superb Voodoo Vince portrayal for his kid last Halloween.