Design Occlusion is Killing Your Game Design

June 5th, 2013 by Adriel Calder

Last March, while at the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, I attended numerous enlightening talks focusing on the different ways one can approach game design.  The one that stood out to me the most was titled “Design Occlusion is Killing Your Creativity” presented by Dylan Cuthbert of Q-Games.  Cuthbert’s talk focused mainly on his time working for Shigeru Miyamoto on Star Fox for the SNES and the lessons he learned as a young game developer working with an established person in the industry.  In addition to this, Cuthbert was also faced with understanding and appreciating the differences between British and Japanese approaches to design. “We were a very cocky sort of British programmers…sort of taught ourselves everything and we were suddenly thrown into this Japanese environment….and we were kind of in awe and also kind of in shock at the same time about the process.”

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Vicarious Visions at GDC

May 22nd, 2013 by Aaron Artessa

User: “Something doesn’t look right, it’s just not working”.
Artist: “What’s bugging you?”
User: “ I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it”.
Artist: Look calm like the pro you are but secretly swear on the inside at the clueless situation.

This conversation is pretty familiar amongst artists with producers, testers and creative directors. Sometimes you simply can’t put your finger on the problem, but like the Matrix, you know it’s there. This tends to be where the bottleneck in the art pipeline happens and proverbial dollar signs start ticking through the producer’s eyes.

On my third visit to GDC, Vicarious Vision gave a talk about their process on developing environments for Skylanders offering an interesting solution to this problem utilizing custom tools working directly in their engine.

If you haven’t played Skylanders before, I’ll tell you that the environments are gorgeous, jaw-dropping, hand-painted scenes inviting you into a colorful story begging to be explored. Even the production environments feel polished and ready to ship.

Even the most accomplished of artists still find themselves scratching their heads. During testing, the team at Vicarious Visions discovered that the audience didn’t know what to do in some puzzle areas. The conversation above ensued. The answer: Visual Debugging.

Having your puzzles tied into your environment is a tricky balance- on one hand you want to cue the user so that they that can intuitively interact with the puzzle elements. On the other hand, you don’t want the visual cue to be so overt that the puzzle feels out of place. To achieve this balance, Vicarious Visions has a series of tools integrated into their engine to help debug what people are seeing behind the scenes in real time.

On the basic level, they could utilize filters to display one of three things: Chromadepth, Edge lines and Contrast. Using a Chromadepth they were able to identify color variation and hot spots in the scene, helping them see where the eye was being drawn and if the focal points were being lost in a mass of detail. Contrast works in a similar fashion except without chroma variance.

Another option Vicarious Visions employs is The Edge line tool. If you are familiar with Photoshop, this tool gives an effect similar to the Glowing Edges filter, except in black and white. This helps the artist identify areas of visual clutter due to various elements creating hard edges either due to specular detailing, contrasty diffuse textures, or harsh lighting.

These tools aren’t exactly impossible to mimic. As I said before, the edges can easily be simulated, as can chromadepth. That said, having it a part of your engine and working in real time- the benefits to this type of workflow are incalculable.

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Infrared5 Ultimate Coder Week Six: GDC, Mouth Detection Setbacks, Foot Tracking and Optimizations Galore

April 3rd, 2013 by Chris Allen

For week six Chris and Aaron made the trek out to San Francisco to the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) where they showed the latest version of our game Kiwi Catapult Revenge. The feedback we got was amazing! People were blown away at the head tracking performance that we’ve achieved, and everyone absolutely loved our unique art style. While the controls were a little difficult for some, that allowed us to gain some much needed insight into how to best fine tune the face tracking and the smartphone accelerometer inputs to make a truly killer experience. There’s nothing like live playtesting on your product!



Not only did we get a chance for the GDC audience to experience our game, we also got to meet some of the judges and the other Ultimate Coder competitors. There was an incredible amount of mutual respect and collaboration among the teams. The ideas were flowing on how to help improve each and every project in the competition. Chris gave some tips on video streaming protocols to Lee so that he will be able to stream over the internet with some decent quality (using compressed JPEGs would have only wasted valuable time). The guys from Sixense looked into Brass Monkey and how they can leverage that in their future games, and we gave some feedback to the Code Monkeys on how to knock out the background using the depth camera to prevent extra noise that messes with the controls they are implementing. Yes, this is a competition, but the overall feeling was one of wanting to see every team produce their very best.


The judges also had their fair share of positive feedback and enthusiasm. The quality of the projects obviously had impressed them, to the point that Nicole was quoted saying “I don’t know how we are going to decide”. We certainly don’t envy their difficult choice, but we don’t plan on making it any easier for them either. All the teams are taking it further and want to add even more amazing features to their applications before the April 12th deadline.


The staff in the Intel booth were super accommodating, and the exposure we got by being there was invaluable to our business. This is a perfect example of a win-win situation. Intel is getting some incredible demos of their new technology, and the teams are getting exposure and credibility by being in a top technology company’s booth. Not only that, but developers now get to see this technology in action, and can more easily discover more ways to leverage the code and techniques we’ve pioneered. Thank you Intel for being innovative and taking a chance on doing these very unique and experimental contests!


While Aaron and Chris were having a great time at GDC the rest of the team was cranking away. Steff ran into some walls with mouth detection for the breathing fire controls, but John, Rebecca and Elena were able to add more polish to the characters, environment and game play.



John added on a really compelling new feature – playing the game with your feet! We switched the detection algorithm so that it tracks your feet instead of your face. We call it Foot Tracking. It works surprisingly well, and the controls are way easier this way.



Steff worked on optimizing the face tracking algorithms and came up with some interesting techniques to get the job done.


This week’s tech tip and code snippet came to us during integration. We were working hard to combine the head tracking with the Unity game on the Ultrabook, and ZANG we had it working! But, there was a problem. It was slow. It was so slow it was almost unplayable. It was so slow that it definitely wasn’t “fun.” We had about 5 hours until Chris was supposed to go to the airport and we knew that the head tracking algorithms and the camera stream were slowing us down. Did we panic? (Don’t Panic!) No. And you shouldn’t either when faced with any input that is crushing the performance of your application. We simply found a clever way to lower the sampling rate but still have smooth output between frames.


The first step was to reduce the number of times we do a head tracking calculation per second. Our initial (optimistic) attempts were to update in realtime on every frame in Unity. Some computers could handle it, but most could not. Our Lenovo Yoga really bogged down with this. So, we introduced a framesToSkip constant and started sampling on every other frame. Then we hit a smoothing wall. Since the head controls affect every single pixel in the game window (by changing the camera projection matrix based on the head position), we needed to be smoothing the head position on every frame regardless of how often we updated the position from the camera data. Our solution was to sample the data at whatever frame rate we needed to preserve performance, save the head position at that instant as a target, and ease the current position to the new position on every single frame. That way, your sampling rate is down, but you’re still smoothing on every frame and the user feels like the game is reacting to their every movement in a non-jarring way. (For those wondering what smoothing algorithm we selected: Exponential Smoothing handles any bumps in the data between frames.) Code is below.

Feeling good about the result, we went after mouth open/closed detection with a vengeance! We thought we could deviate from our original plan of using AAM and POSIT, and lock onto the mouth using a mouth specific Haarcascade on the region of interest containing the face. The mouth Haarcascade does a great job finding and locking onto the mouth if the user is smiling – which is not so good for our purposes. We are still battling with getting a good lock on the mouth using a method that combines depth data with RGB, but we have seen why AAM exists for feature tracking. It’s not just something you can cobble together and have confidence that it will work well enough to act as an input for game controls.


Overall, this week was a step forward even with part of the team away. We’ve got some interesting and fun new features that we want to add as well. We will be sure to save that surprise for next week. Until then, please let us know if you have any questions and/or comments. May the best team win!

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GDC12 – Game Developer Conference 2012: a Post-Mortem

March 30th, 2012 by Elliott Mitchell

GDC12- AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (Force = Mass x Acceleration) by Dejoban Games and Owlchemy Labs, played by Oleg Pridiuk (Unity Technologies) as Ichiro Lambe (Dejobaan Games) and Deniz Opal (Cerebral Fix) watch - Photo Elliott Mitchell (Infrared5)

This year’s Game Developer Conference (GDC) 2012 was networking, networking and more networking.

Within a one mile proximity of the San Francisco Moscone Center, hordes of game developers and artists could be seen in the streets, cafes, bars, mall food courts, and hotel lobbies and heard talking shop, showing off their games, catching up with friends, debating the ethics of cloning social games from indies, shopping to find publishers, contractors and jobs. It was an intense meeting of the minds of people who make games in the streets of San Francisco.

Google Huddle chats, Google Groups email, shared Google Calendars and Twitter were all utilized very effectively to make the most of GDC. Multitudes of varied networking opportunities streamed in real-time through my iPhone 24/7. The level of my success at GDC was determined by how much networking I could possibly handle. With the help of my friends and the social/mobile networks,  success was at my fingertips.

In addition to the obsessive networking, there were many other valuable aspects of GDC. I’ll briefly highlight a few:

Jeff Ward’s Pre-GDC Board Game Night

GDC12- Elliott Mitchell (Infrared5), John Romero (Loot Drop), Brenda Garno Brathwaite (Loot Drop) & Elizabeth Sampat (Loot Drop) playing games at Jeff Ward's (Fire Hose Games) 3rd Annual Pre-GDC Board Game Night - Photo Drew Sikora

Jeff Ward (Fire Hose Games) knows how to get an amazing collection of game designers and developers together for a night playing board games. This was one of my favorite events of GDC. When else would I ever be able to play board games with John Romero (Loot Drop) and Brenda Garno Brathwaite (Loot Drop) while enjoying hors d’oeuvre and spirits? The crowd was a rich blend of artists, game developers, game designers, indies, students and superstars. There were so many new and classic games to play. I personally played Family Business and a really fun indie game prototype about operating a successful co-operative restaurant. Walking around after playing my games, I observed a host of other cool games being played and pitched. I’ll definitely be back for this event next year.

Independent Games Summit and Main Conference Sessions

GDC12 Ryan Creighton (Untold Entertainment) presenting Ponycorns: Catching Lightning in a Jar- Photo Elliott Mitchell (Infrared5)

Many session topics were super interesting but it wasn’t possible to attend all of them. Luckily, those with a GDC All-Access pass have access to the GDC Vault filled with recorded sessions. Here are a few sessions I saw which I found useful and interesting:

*Perhaps a Time of Miracles Was at Hand: The Business & Development of #Sworcery (Nathan Vella – Capy Games)

*The Pursuit of Indie Happiness: Making Great Games without Going Crazy (Aaron Isaksen – Indie Fund LLC)

*Ponycorns: Catching Lightning in a Jar (Ryan Creighton – Untold Entertainment)

*Light Probe Interpolation Using Tetrahedral Tessellations (Robert Cupisz – Unity Technologies)

Independent Game Festival Contestants on the Expo Floor

I played a bunch of the Independent Games Festival contestants’ games on the Expo floor

GDC12 - Alex Schwartz (Owlchemy Labs) playing Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik) - Photo Elliott Mitchell (Infrared5)

before the festival winners are announced. There was a whole lot of innovation on display from this group. I particularly loved Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik), a game without graphics, and Dear Esther (thechineseroom) which is stunning eye candy. Check out all the games here.

12th Annual Game Developer Choice Awards

I was super stoked to see two indies win big!

Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP (Capy Games/Superbrothers) took the Best Handheld/Mobile Game award.

Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik) won the Innovation Award.  Johann Sebastian Joust is worthy of it’s own blog post in the future.

EXPO FLOOR

* Unity booth – Cool tech from Unity and development venders partners showing off their wares
* Google Booth – Go Home Dinosaurs (Fire Hose Games) on Google Chrome
* Autodesk Booth (Maya and Mudbox)
* Indie Game Festival area ( All of it)

GDC12 - Chris Allen (Brass Monkey) and Andrew Kostuik (Brass Monkey) at the Unity Booth - Photo by Elliott Mitchell (Infrared5)

GDC PLAY

Lots of cool tech at the 1st Annual GDC Play. Our sister company, Brass Monkey, impressed onlookers with their Brass Monkey Controller for mobile devices and Play Brass Monkey web portal for both 2d and 3d games.

UNITY FTW!

Last but not least, the most useful and pleasurable highlight of GDC was face time with the Unity Technology engineers and management. Sure, I’m on email, Skype, Twitter and Facebook with these guys but nothing is like face to face time with this crew. Time and access to Unity’s founders, engineers, evangelists and management is worth the price of GDC admission. Can’t wait until Unite 2012 in Amsterdam and GDC13 next March!

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Top 10 GDC Lists

March 1st, 2012 by Elliott Mitchell

GDC is approaching next week and I’ll be traveling to San Fransisco to participate in the epic game developer event. I’m psyched and here’s why:

TOP 10 GDC RELATED THINGS I’M EXCITED ABOUT

10  The Expo Floor
9    The History Of 3D Games exhibit
8    Experimental Gameplay Sessions
7    The Unity Party
6    Indie Game: The Movie screening & Panel
5    GDC Play
4    14th Annual Independent Games Festival Awards
3    Networking, Networking & Networking
2    Independent Game Summit
1    Unity Technology Engineers

TOP 10 GDC SESSIONS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO

10  The Pursuit of Indie Happiness: Making Great Games without Going Crazy
9    Rapid, Iterative Prototyping Best Practices
8    Experimental Gameplay Sessions
7    Create New Genres (and Stop Wasting Your Life in the Clone Factories) [SOGS Design]
6    BURN THIS MOTHERFATHER! Game Dev Parents Rant
5    Bringing Large Scale Console Games to iOS Devices: A Technical Overview of The Bard’s Tale Adaptation
4    Light Probe Interpolation Using Tetrahedral Tessellations
3    Big Games in Small Packages: Lessons Learned In Bringing a Long-running PC MMO to Mobile
2    Art History for Game Devs: In Praise of Abstraction
1    Android Gaming on Tegra: The Future of Gaming is Now, and it’s on the Move! (Presented by NVIDIA)

If you’re going to be at GDC and want to talk shop with Infrared5 then please ping us! info (at) Infrared5 (dot) com

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