Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Gorge

In The Family Starr we want the player to go on an adventure through a rich and varied world. I'm naturally drawn to wild locations with lots of personality, and love to draw plants and woodland. I wanted to get a recurring image I had in my mind down on paper, a figure standing in a deep mossy gorge, so I created this piece over a couple of days.

My process for creating these very early pre-production images is quite traditional. I draw in 2B pencil on Strathmore bristol board, which is a heavy weight paper, almost like a card, that has been cold pressed to give it a very smooth surface. I am able to make lots of alterations and repeatedly rub out elements without damaging the paper. I work on the layout sketch in pencil until I have something that I am happy with. This layout sketch is based on a series of smaller thumbnails (not shown here), which efficiently help to choose a composition.

From there I work over the top of the pencil with a pen and ink and a brush. I use a Speedball B5 1/2  pen, and a smaller crow-quill pen though less frequently. I find I can get all the line variation I want from the Speedball. I also use a sable no 5 brush to block in the blacks and do any spot blacks, though I tend to keep these to a minimum. 

After I've inked directly on top of the pencils, I let the work dry thoroughly, before erasing all of the pencil work leaving the sheer ink-work behind. For this image I used Parker Quink, which I wanted to experiment with. It's a writing ink rather than a drawing ink, and I think it wasn't so great all things considered. A conventional indian ink performs better with this kind of work. After all the pencil is erased I do any corrections and white out anything that I feel doesn't work using an opaque white gouache, thickly applied for maximum coverage. 

The image is coloured in Photoshop, with the line selected and isolated on its own layer to enable me to manipulate line colour. Finally I add more texture to the image with some hand made textures, using black graphite powder rubbed into some scrap cartridge paper. A few more final adjustments and it's done. 

Friday, 11 January 2013

On Prototyping & Writing

Hello! I'm Paul Callaghan and I'm part of the The Family Starr team alongside David and Ian from Pachinko Pictures, and I'm working on writing & coding.  It's a return of sorts for me to a big project having spent the past few years freelance writing & designing, as well as the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.  In that time, development has changed so much - and my own attitudes, theories, and experiences have too - that I'm really excited about seeing all of that from the inside again.

I'm also really excited about working with Pachinko Pictures. We've spent a lot of time talking about our ideas for indie development so we know our sensibilities match, and I've been hugely inspired by the branding work they did for Freeplay, that it's a real privilege to be working with them on an original title.

As Dave has already said, we just had a week of pre-production. What that meant for me was  fleshing out with the team our story ideas, and then implementing the first gameplay prototype.


At this stage of The Family Starr, we know the beginning and we know the end, but the middle is a mystery.  It's rare for me to work knowing the end-point of a story.  Whether it's my own or a client's project, normally I write forward, feeling my way through the ideas and the shape before taking a step back and working out how to tie the threads together. Having a new way of thinking about things means I'm looking forward to seeing how this impacts my own process and the rest of the project.

The beginning came from the original premise & pitch of the game, and the ending grew naturally out of conversations the three of us had about the general shape of things, the themes we wanted to explore, the locations we wanted to cover, the characters, and a sense of what statement we wanted the game's story to make.  With both in place, it creates a spine for our ideas and makes it easier for us to flesh out the characters - the first of which is up here in sketch form - and work out the shape of our plot.

And just like the shape we currently have, this approach is quite different to other game projects I've worked on.  There, most of the spine is already set and my job is simply to fill in the middle or write dialogue for characters.  Here, we're spending a lot of time up front sitting with themes and metaphor and establishing the relationships between the world of the game and the fictional framing for the mechanics so that the story carries weight and really meshes with the player's experience of the game.


As this is the first time we've worked together, we're still figuring out some of the rhythms that are going to work best for us, but after a day or so of working on story, it was clear that we needed to step back and transform the energy into something a bit more tangible.  For me, this meant prototyping the first mechanics for the game based on a pitch video done to secure Film Victoria funding.  Having the video there meant that we could all see how the game was supposed to work, how to communicate some of the ideas, and what the overall pacing should feel like.  Just like the story & pre-production phase, this is quite different to other projects. Normally, I've worked from a detailed game design or technical design document to implement mechanics or systems. Having a visual reference like this is significantly easier, and I suspect will form a core part of our design & production pipeline as the project progresses.

Some horrible prototype code

In a past life, I worked as a programmer at a bunch of games studios and over the years I've put those skills to some sort of use, even as my day jobs have focused on other things. I'm still a little rusty, but in the years since that past life, technology has reached a point where it's so much easier to focus on high level content and ignore the minutiae of just getting an image on screen.

For Family Starr, we're using Unity, which I'd dabbled in a little bit late last year, and which Pachinko used to create their previous game Take A Walk.  It's quite a different environment to creating for consoles or PC, but close enough that I picked it up quickly. Coupled with a 2D plugin for handling sprites and another for handling tweening, we got the first 3 mechanics up and running in a matter of days.

Some of our prototype sprites (the 2nd one is very small!)

At this incredibly early stage though, it isn't a glamorous thing at all. Just circles and blocks moving around on a screen, but it's enough for us to confirm for ourselves that the core interactions for the game are fun and that we're on the right track.

Next steps

Pre-production is all about answering the open questions about the project, and that's what we'll be working on in the coming weeks. Fleshing out details of character & location, symbolism & metaphor, plot & action for the story; finding the edges of the mechanics for the gameplay. All the while collapsing all of our ideas into the ones that will eventually make it into the final game.  Over the coming weeks, I'll write more about how we're approaching storytelling in The Family Starr, how that meshes with other disciplines, and how we're using our prototypes to figure out as best we can with months of work still to go what we hope the game will become.

Character Concept Sketches #1

We've started preproduction this week on The Family Starr. One of my roles is art director and visual designer for the project so, in parallel with the development of the first prototype, I've kicked off with the development of some of the characters. Posted below you can see some of the very first basic sketches for one of our principle characters. 

I start the process by thinking about the basic character biography and role, and try to find a face that I think fits and inspires me. In this case we're creating a young male character, who has a lot of responsibility. After several drawings that are pretty mediocre and act as 'warm up' I start to get a better sense of what I'm going for. From there I will isolate and repeat the design that I like, refining the features and making notes of the thought process that I'm having at the time if its relevant -- this sort of thing becomes very useful later on when you're trying to get back into the character during animation. 

After I've refined the face a bit more, I start to do more dynamic drawings that show the character is situations and poses that fit with our predetermined biography and personality. At this stage you're really trying to bring some emotion and personality into the character and at the same time remember that because this is an adventure game, the character needs to function amongst other characters. It can't be too extreme or over-designed because then the rest of the visual treatment will have to match that tone for consistency. 

These are just very preliminary drawings, that will definitely go through another set of big revisions before we arrive at anything final. The most important thing at this stage is to take several characters and locations to this stage of basic pencil sketch development so that you can see how the designs work together. I want to keep things really fluid at this stage so that as we discover the game through prototyping we can tailor the broad character types closely with the gameplay.    

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Before Production, Pre-Production!

Welcome to the production blog for our new game, The Family Starr. We're really excited to be working on a new game, and wanted to show the process that we go through when developing the project.  Our last few games and animations have been made behind closed doors, aside from a few clips or pictures posted here and there, on our Pachinko Pictures twitter and facebook pages.

We kicked things off this week, and started by reorganising the studio to accommodate all our books and games that had arrived from the UK. When we moved to Melbourne from London in 2010 we deliberately moved with minimal stuff, in an effort to keep things simple while we found a place to live and set up a studio. Now that we're all set up in our new space, we thought it was a good time to have our books, games and films shipped over. After working for a couple of years without that stuff, I really started to appreciate how useful it is to have reference to hand when developing concepts.

The Family Starr is an action adventure game that will occupy us for the duration of 2013. I'm going to talk more about the concept over the weeks and months that we develop the game, but the idea came about after we created Lol-a-Coaster, a client game for iOS for Chupa Chups. When we got to the end of that production, Ian and I had a lot of ideas about how to do action gameplay in a new way. We let the idea simmer away for about 10 months, and the decided to put some time into developing a pitch for the Film Victoria game development fund -- a development grant available here in Australia.

We were successful in pitching for the 2012/13 Screen Development fund, which supports Australia-based game developers who are looking to create a new original title. As an indie studio, Pachinko spends most of the time working on client work to pay our studio overheads and personal expenses. We've been looking to work on our original game concepts, but needed to secure some principle funding to pay the baseline costs. The grant from Film Victoria frees us up to chase our crazy game idea.  

So today we had our first full day of pre-production development on Family Starr. We're going to take our time and really enjoy each stage of the process, and we're collaborating with some really excellent development talent that we'll introduce soon. We're not adopting any concrete conventional game production process, at least not explicitly. Instead we're approaching the production as we would an animated film -- immersing ourselves in the story and the concept and nutting out all the characterisation and logic. It feels really good to develop characters from the bare bones of a concept, and establish a world. We have a great core mechanic, and we want to match it with a great story.

You can expect us to put a whole bunch of different stuff here on the blog, and see everything take shape from the bottom up. If people are interested, we can also talk about the process of applying for public funding for game development here in Australia. You can ask us questions here in the comments, and also on our Family Starr facebook page and twitter.

We're so excited about 2013, our year dedicated to The Family Starr.