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BIGsheep’s BIGrun

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In just over two weeks I will be pounding through 10km of the streets of London to raise money for SpecialEffect. Thanks to a vigorous training regime taking in the canal paths of Nuneaton I’ve been through the requisite montage and am now ready to represent Rare at this industry-heavy event.

For those of you who don’t know Special Effect, they are raising the quality of life for people with disabilities by helping them to benefit from the fun and inclusion of video games and creative technologies. Imagine, if you will, a James Bond-style inventions department that customises all sorts of controllers and gadgets for use with people with special needs. Input devices they can operate with their eyes, controllers that work with only minimum touch, simplified joypads that reduce the complexity of their modern form; all of this to allow people who would be otherwise unable to play with their siblings and friends to experience the wonders of our trade.

Anyway, considering most of my life’s exercise has consisted of standing between two white sticks and shouting at people this is quite a step up. So please make the pain in my knees worth it and join me in supporting what I think is a very worthy charity.

https://www.justgiving.com/bigsheepsbigrun/

Thank you in advance,

James

 

Amnesia Fortnight 2014

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Double Fine opens its doors and lets you in to watch as their annual Game Jam unfolds.

AVForums | Amnesia Fortnight 2014

Memories of Crunch: Musical Accompaniment

It’s not uncommon in our office to look around and see a sea of heads topped with headphones, each one gently bobbing independently to a variety of unheard songs. There’s our resident DJ who nods with a firm assertion of the beat, a tinny tone escaping from his cans. Down the row we have our office whistler, offering us a fleeting chance at guessing his melodic choice of the moment by inadvertently letting slip a few bars. And then there’s me, the mime artist. Play a song that I enjoy and chances are I’ll be belting it out at the top of my silent lungs. It’s a little embarrassing when someone comes to talk to you mid-chorus but sometimes you just need a power ballad to make it through the day.

I usually listen to podcasts when working. Ever since starting learning the drums I find myself too wrapped in listening to the rhythm of a song and my task at hand goes wanting. It’s not an intentional dereliction of duty but my mind goes searching for where in the pattern the bass drum falls and it’s hard to pull it back.

Quite strangely I have no problem working with talk radio or podcasts. I can float in and out of them depending just where on the build cycle I am, rewinding if I feel I’ve missed something meaty. It’s hard to do that and keep the flow when listening to music but more oft than not, as the crunch evenings draw on, I find myself needing the energy boost that a silent karaoke session brings.

With long hours comes tiredness and saving a good album back for just such a shot in the arm I find invaluable. I’ve extremely fond memories of some very late nights at work where I am the only one left in the office and all I have to amuse myself as I track down a particularly nasty bug is my music. When the last person leaves the headphones come off and the speakers go on.

With each game I’ve worked on the soundtrack has changed. Most vary with the time but all of them live firmly in my mind as being attached to a certain project. As is usually the way, I remember my first batch most fondly.

Back in 2003, as a young and eager engineer, not yet wise enough to be wary of the word “crunch”, we were finishing Grabbed by the Ghoulies. At the time I don’t think many of our PCs had CD drives, the thought being that we could just install the required applications from the network drive. With that I took in the tiny stereo system that had served me so well through university. The brand of which eludes me but I remember it taking pride of place on my shelf just waiting for 5pm to come (we weren’t allowed to listen to music during the day back then) so I could get a kick-start for the evening ahead.

The three albums that I believe on constant rotation back then were Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ By the Way, Idlewild’s The Remote Part, and Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. I should probably add that back then I was still trying to be a skater boi.

To this day whenever By the Way or American English crops up, be it on the radio or halfway round ASDA, my thoughts immediately dart back to then. To fine tuning the Grim Reaper’s AI as he bustles round a haunted house and trying to ensure that the font had the right amount of ghostly float to it.

Ghoulies is not alone in holding this connection for me but it is by far and away the strongest. Crunch was still a novelty for me back then: a challenge, a rights of passage. Now there’s a sage head on these shoulders that knows that it’s a grim inevitability but as long as there’s enough up-tempo rock nestling in my iTunes then I know I’ll get through.

Happy New Year

Happy 2014!

Through a mix of pressures from work and home I’ve taken a short sabbatical from the site but with the New Year comes renewed enthusiasm.

Part of the joy of the site for me is now that it is far more casual than it was a handful of years back. Back then there was a push to see if we could make it and crack into the industry good and proper but over time we found that that simply wasn’t going to be obtainable with the amount of time we could dedicate to producing reasonable content.

As it stands now it’s a plaything, a place where a handful of friends can talk about games they like and experiment with writing and other media. And I’m more than happy with that. The day this gets too serious is the day I’ll probably consider packing it in again as I have enough serious in my day job.

So, as we usher the New Year in, thank you to those who continue to stop by in the hope that one day we may put a new article up. Your presence is much appreciated and I can only hope we serve you better in the coming 12 months.

Slimming Down

Office moves are not uncommon at Rare. As projects, priorities and teams change, engineers move around to be closer to those they work with. It’s not a necessity given the joys of IM and email but there comes a point where you need to be around those sharing your common goals.

And so today I packed my stuff in a box and for the 20th time since I joined the Twycross studio moved desks. Thankfully it’s gotten a well practised routine as a good proportion of those moves being in the last year or so. It got me thinking though about how it used to be.

Casting my mind back I remembered I blogged about the pain of shifting desks at the end of Viva Pinata. Compared to the one trolley load I created this time it took me a mammoth eight journeys then.

Moving to an open plan office helped slim my stuff down (as I had no where to put it), as did realising I didn’t need to keep every document or note that I ever took. It’s strange to consider how or why I had all those possessions at work and decorating my shelves. I miss a handful of the trinkets that used to keep me company on the long crunch nights but at the end of the day, when you have a Megabloks Pelican, a large fluffy Kirby, and a pair of T-rex, you can’t complain.

Then.

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Now.WP_20130912_001

And as someone pointed out at work; if I drank the Coke and scoffed the banana I’d be even more streamlined.

Space Hulk ::: Interview

During our time out in Germany we were lucky enough to meet up with Thomas Hentschel Lund, CEO of Full Control. His indie team have put together the recently released Space Hulk and are behind a forthcoming reboot of Jagged Alliance. In the first half of our interview we speak about battling Genestealers in the depths of space.

7outof10: Congratulations on the launch of Space Hulk, is everyone taking a well-earned rest at the studio? What are the team focusing on now?

Thomas: The push for the next several months is to get more content into the Windows and Mac version in the form of more Space Marine Chapters and new campaigns.

We’re also working on the co-op mode with an additional campaign for that because the original Sin of Damnation campaign from the board game that we based ourselves off of is not setup in a way that is good for co-op. There are one or two missions where you have multiple squads that you think if one controlled one and one controlled the other it could work but there’s nothing designed with co-op in mind. We realised that when we went through development.

So we have created a larger four mission co-op only campaign that can have up to three guys on the Terminator side – everybody gets a Terminator squad – and there’s a common goal but each of the squads have different tasks. So one might have to fight his way through the Genestealers to turn on the emergency power grid to open blast doors for the two other teams to go into the next section on the Space Hulk and then go back again and try to keep the back clear. That interaction is what we wanted to design into the co-op missions, to give another dimension of co-op and not just “oh we’re killing Genestealers together.” Though that’s ok too.

How is that affecting the iPad version’s development?

So that’s in development. On the side [of the co-op campaign] we have the dual development of the level editor and the iPad version. IPad is coming this year. We definitely want to do it but with the opportunity and support we got for the PC and Mac versions we want to get more content to people, especially the co-op.

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So you’re more focused on expanding the current community?

Personally I really love that and that’s one of the reasons we’re giving that away for free, just to say “I as a fan I would love to play co-op”, and instead of having just a few people play it, the ones who want to pay money for it, we’re saying here you go.

The level editor’s, the same thing. We can see that nobody is likely to make another turn-based Space Hulk for many, many years and at some point it doesn’t make sense for us commercially to add any more content to it. We really wanted to keep the game alive though so we’re giving away the level editor with the mechanism of sharing maps, voting, rating, downloading whatever anybody has created and creating a community around the game that should last many years.

Are you using Steam Workshop for this?

It’s our own system and we want to see how we can try and hook it into the Steam as it has some cool features as well. So it’s going to be some kind of hybrid, using our own editor systems that we had for development but enabling usage of whatever makes sense that Steam has to offer.

That’s the main part of the Space Hulk development moving forward. As many Chapters as we can, customisation of Terminators units, progression of what you can unlock, purity seals, gems or loin cloths or whatever you want to add to your Terminator crew as you advance.

Did you get complaints that certain Chapters weren’t in the game?

Yeah, everybody has their favourite Chapter. And the board game campaign has the Blood Angels so that’s the one we ran with but we know there’s a huge following especially of the big four so we’re looking into adding one or more of the Ultramarines, Space Wolves and Dark Angels. Those are the ones we’re concentrating on first and then we’ll see what’s going on.

Again, for as long as the income is higher than the cost then it makes sense to makes more and give the fans more.

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If you ever want to consider the White Scars, I won’t be offended.

The thing is we’ve been asked “can’t you just make a painter to swap colours and what-have-you but if you’ve seen the Terminators that we’ve made they’re very, very detailed. Just painting a Blood Angel blue doesn’t make him an Ultramarine.

They all have their different traits, right, so the Blood Angels are really the bling vampires, once you go over to the Space Wolves you have the pelts the fangs and so on, and Ultramarines are far more strict military, so every Chapter has their different set to add into it. So what we want to do is give you the ability to customise the Space Wolf or Ultramarine but not by just taking him and painting him in a different colour and saying that’s a Salamander. As fans ourselves we want to make it right.

Going back to the level editor, are they the same tools as you used to make the game?

Mostly, yes. We’ve an internal tool that when we make a level we set it up like the board game. In the board game each room and corridor is a section and so you take these sections and slam them together to make the general layout – bam bam bam – then we export that out of the level editor and then it’s a semi manual process of adding the spawn points. Then objects have to be coded in so that you have the win conditions. That’s all in an xml file so it’s pretty accessible but it’s still nerdy.

We want to take this up to another level where it’s end-user friendly. Where there is the ability to take all these logic pieces and link them together visually instead of you having to code xml. So you can take a board game section and say I would like to use this tile instead of this tile and it swaps it out, use this lighting scheme so you can pop two lights here two lights here or floor lights, that way you can configure the map. You can write the briefing screen you can select the voice over to be used in some of the parts and then you can share it.

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So if the level editor and co-op are free, what’s going to be paid-for content?

It’s a business but we’re also fans. The fan part of me has been wanting to do the co-op so let’s give that to everybody and the level editor is going to keep the game alive for many, many years and gives the fans a voice.

When we do new big campaigns or new Chapters there’s a lot of work involved in making this and those are going to be the paid for expansions. We want to give something out that’s as substantial as possible so when we do a new Chapter we’ll also do a small mission that specific to that Chapter that ties into the lore. So if you buy the Ultramarines you’ll get an Ultramarine themed mini Space Hulk with that. Reasonably priced though so everyone can have some fun but, yes, we still have to be able to pay salaries.

Well everyone appreciates new content.

I would, some of the ideas we have take it from where we are now – the board game campaign, which is pretty cool if you like the board game and people can identify with it pretty fast – but there are so many options that you have in a computer game that you don’t have in a board game. A living environment for example, why not have some rooms that have mechanisms that are deadly. If you’re inside this room on a certain turn, maybe down to moving parts, you can die, all these things are things that we could explore in a computer game. That’s the kind of campaigns we want to make. Also to differentiate ourselves from what the community can make with the level editor.

Since moving onto your own campaigns have you found it more fulfilling when compared to recreating someone else’s game?

In some ways it’s a super cool thing just to take a rule book, take the campaign, and say that’s cool someone else thought this up and I “just” have to recreate it.

Just slap it on the programmers desks and tell them to get on with it.

While it’s not that simple it’s still a great thing because everything is balanced, everything is setup already; you know that this works. There’s are lot of creative parts that can still work inside that frame though. For example, in the board game there are no walls, no ceiling, there are no real adornments. What does it look like? The animations as well, the audio side, those are the areas we were given pretty free reign on by games workshop to say “how do you want a Space Hulk to look like on the inside?”

We had the old EA games on the Amiga but those pixelated graphics don’t really say so much these days. So that’s where we sat down and looked at the interior of gothic churches, a lot of skull graves, imagery from different places and tried to put that into the game to give a visual reference, mixing it up with other Warhammer 40,000 fluff, purity seals, and the whole tech priest look. Telling little stories with level design: blood pools here and skeletons in corners with small candles, a small alter somewhere underneath a cog symbol. Really, really small things like that but it gives you ambience.

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Now that that has been done we are free to explore also beyond the board game limitation and rules and settings. We’re looking into creating new rules new additions, new weaponry. For example, the Genestealers; taking up their codex for Tyranids there are Genestealer variations like feeder tendrils and fleshhooks, why not take some of those parts and put them into Space Hulk. It’s ok to say that one thing is 40k and the other is Space Hulk but just taking some of these things and saying if you have feeder tendrils what would it be cool to do there? If you have scything talons does that mean you’re a little slower but when you hit you get an additional dice? That could be some of those thing that would be really cool to sit and explore. Also give variations to the Genestealer player during the campaign so that kind of creativeness can come into it. We’re very looking forward to doing that.

You touched upon previous Space Hulk video games, have you taken any inspiration from them or did you want own vision?

One of things that we took in, if you’ve seen the game you’ll see this shoulder camera up in the corner which in many ways is inspired by the old EA games where you had the five screens. Where you had to quickly shoot and click. We were thinking you could take the interface as Raphael sitting back in the strike cruiser outside the Space Hulk, directing the troops and what he sees is this video feed from the sensor array on the Terminator suit.

Also in the briefing scene we definitely wanted to pay homage back to how EA did it with the map and having the same kind of voice over going on barking out instructions. That kind of stuff was heavily kind of inspired by the old Chaos Gate and the old EA games because we thought it was cool and it would pay back to the old games. As a small indie studio we cannot make a huge game but we can make these small things that pay tribute.

Has Space Hulk changed your studio at all? How many board gamers did you have before and after?

There are a lot of the crew that are board game players, also 40k players. We have display cabinet where everybody brings their models to show off, some of their own personal armies, in the studio. We do play some games too but lately we haven’t had time to play.

There’s always been in the lunch breaks people playing Dawn of War or similar stuff but it’s been fun to see how through the project that was replaced by Space Hulk. Not only for testing but for enjoyment.

We continue talking to Thomas later this week about Jagged Alliance. Space Hulk is available now for Windows and Mac through Steam.

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Lego City Undercover ::: Hands On

We’ve all seen the Lego games. We know what Traveller’s Tales can do when given a tight, controlled level to fill out with their own brand of stud-based entertainment. But how are they with an open world?

Join us as we delve into the life of an undercover Lego cop, pushed to the edge, willing to dish out his own brand of justice… dressed as a gladiator and continually distracted by a festoon of collectibles.

Complete with Wii U gamepad picture-in-picture.

More adventures in dough

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The recently experiments have continued, and this time we’re pushing out away from the standard loaf.

Above is my entry into work’s charity bake-off. An attempt to balance the countless sugary delights with something a little more savory: cheese scones. As with most of my initial stabs they were a tad dense but they seemed to go down ok as nary a crumb was left at the end of the day.

Below is my Easter effort. I have always loved hot cross buns and am quite happily to pick them up in early January as soon as the supermarkets put them out. Yes, I am complicit in that most hanous of activites – launching festive holidays early – but next year I might be able to bake them myself.

As with most of my baking so far I was suprised how simple both were. They’re not perfect but as soon as I’ve nailed how to make my recipes slightly lighter I’ll be happy.

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Four Kay

Where do you stand on 4k tellies? You know, about the only thing to make a big splash at CES this year? The television with four-times the definition of 1080p? Safe to say they’re still in their infancy, costing multiple thousands of pounds, but it doesn’t stop the tech lover inside me lusting after one.

As soon as the current HD standard dropped below a certain price point I leapt at it, and I can still remember that joyful day that I took off from work awaiting its arrival. At the ready to test it I had the original Dirt, the much maligned Shadowrun, and the company’s HD-DVD player complete with King Kong. Though I’d experienced HD content first-hand many times before, the fact that it had now made its way into my living room made me incredibly happy. The crispness of Dirt, the clarity of the panoramas in King Kong: oh my.

But will it be the same for 4k? Will there be that noticeable leap there was as we went from CRT to HD? Sadly, I don’t think there will.

After poring over the specs, ignoring the prices, and wondering what a suitable size television would be to complement the newly installed rabbit hutch in our living room, someone pointed me towards this article.

Relief for my wife as 4k appears to be completely unnecessary in normal living room conditions. Scientifically speaking, at a normal viewing distance, your eye will not be able to pick up the individual pixels on offer at such a high resolution and thereby wasting its efforts. Worse than that, most people cannot tell the difference between 720p and 1080p; and I’d probably have to lump myself into that category too, in most cases.

The new spec is really only going to benefit those with huge 60” plus televisions, but my fear for the forthcoming console generation is that it won’t matter a jot.

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Looking back over this current generation then we see consoles boasting 1080p capability – remember the ruckus at the start when Xbox “only” supported 1080i? – and yet how much has that actually been used? It seems most games are quite content to render at a far lower mark than that and use the internal upscalars to produce an ultimate 1080p output.

My worry is that without the dream of 1080p fully realised, a distraction by 4k could once again lead to unfulfilled potential. With the more glitzy devs striving for “Full UHD” rather than concentrating on what I hope will be the next generation goals of building richer worlds and not just higher-def’ed ones. With the increase in the power in the next generation I’d much prefer to see it spent on more interesting AI, more populated cities, deeper experiences, rather than yet another lick of paint.

Probably the saving grace will be that 4k will simply be beyond most games as the sheer power required to handle such a signal is deeply meaty. Let’s say most games render natively (before the upscale) at 720p; to render at 1080p uses roughly twice the number of pixels and therefore twice the power. Using the same logic for 4k, that’s a further four times the umph required. That’s going to be a hell of a rig to power that. And just think what else could you be using that for?

Still, I and others can pour as many numbers at you as we like, but nothing quite dampens the allure of a shiny new screen. Why let facts get in the way of a potential new toy.

Hershel

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It’s about time we introduced the new member of the Thomas family to you. Please welcome Hershel, out new little bun.

After a long while without the pitter-patter of fluffy feet around the house we felt it was time to rectify that. So in a whirlwind week, that saw us going from indecision to rushing between pet shops and garden centres before closing time just to get the right hutch in time for a Sunday bunny delivery, we’ve adopted this littel lop eared fellow. And we do mean little; he’s only ~8-10 weeks old.

Once again there’s a hutch dominating our living room but the loss of space is more than made up for by Hershel’s first timid steps round the living room. Or at least the couple of square foot in front of his hutch.