Sunday, February 3, 2013

A New Start, a New Project, and Keeping Motivated

A lot has happened in the past month, and I've decided I want to keep a fairly regular journal as I move forward.

First of all, I lost my job as Producer at Cricket Moon Media as of January 31st and am now pursuing a new job making games. It was an amicable split, and I learned a ton in my time there and received glowing references from those I worked for and with, but that's part of the risk in the games industry. It is a ton of fun and an exciting field to work in, but it certainly isn't stable.

At about the same time that I learned I was losing my job, Gas Powered Games laid off almost their entire workforce. Chris Taylor, the CEO of GPG, has been very forthcoming about his reasons for doing so, and I was lucky enough to get to meet with him during the Washington Interactive Network's 2013 Power of Play Conference. He's a good man facing some hard times. It seems to be a bit of a trend across the industry - later that week THQ finally announced their final bankruptcy and laid off all of their staff. Scary stuff.

I've been looking for work, applying to various companies in the Seattle area, but it's early yet. To keep busy during the downtime, I am working with my friend and former GPG employee, Vincent Leone, on building a game in the Unity Engine. I am teaching myself more about programming by doing Python tutorials and the excellent C#/Unity Tutorials over at, and have been making fantastic progress.

When Vinny got ahold of me and asked if I wanted to work on something together, I was absolutely thrilled -- this is what I needed! A partner and a project to keep busy, to give me goals to learn new things. It was time to put what I'd learned over the past five years, through DigiPen and Cricket Moon, and put it to work.

My first task was to learn more of the basics of programming from scratch, building on the rudimentary exposure to Python I was given at DigiPen. As an art student, we don't get nearly enough of an opportunity to learn programming basics, so this was a wonderful chance to dive in and figure it out.

I gave myself a project I knew I could handle - building a Dungeons & Dragons-style character builder and combat engine. First I set up a basic dice roller, then used that function to create specific dice roll types, such as stat roll (3d6 six times, pass the results into a list), combat rolls (1d20 + stat bonus, check against target) and similar sets.

By building the stat roller, I could then display each roll result and ask the user to assign the number to a stat, remove the item from the list and repeat the process for the next stat. Once completed, I calculated the stat bonuses per attribute, applied them to various other attributes (health, armor class bonus and other defenses, damage bonus and to-hit bonus), had the player select a race and apply attribute bonuses and/or penalties based on the race, then print the completed character sheet. Pretty sweet stuff! It was great using a set of mechanics I knew by heart and could tweak and hack to teach myself the basics of this new language.

Once I had a character set up, I was able to generate a monster - I pre-set a handful of monsters, like Rats, Slimes, Trolls and a Dragon, and gave each of them various attributes and experience points. Once the monster was selected, the player could encounter them, attack them or run away like a coward. The program would calculate the player's attack first and display the results ("Roll was a 13 + 3, target was a 9! You swing your at the , cleaving into its flesh for points! has / hp remaining."). If the monster was killed it would assign xp to the player and allow them to continue searching. If it was still alive it would attack the player, and so on.

Pretty rudimentary stuff, but it only took a day or so, then another day to completely rewrite it more efficiently once I learned what I was doing. Fun!

From there, I've been taking what I've learned and going through the Hack & Slash tutorial over at Bergzergarcade, which is very much in line with what I had in mind for the roguelike. When Vinny first asked to work together, we got together and planned out what the project would be in as much detail as we could in an evening, breaking the core game down to the most base components and figuring out where our first milestone would be. What would it take to make this thing into a roughly playable prototype? From there, I would take the elements and break them down into further steps while trying to flesh out the details of the entire project as a whole.

I've gone through the first twenty or so tutorials, building a basic movement and AI system just to get the feel for the language and engineering process and how it differs from Python and learning better technique. Next was building the character generation, which required building a series of scripts that others would inherit, then creating instances of them and tying it all into a GUI. That's as far as I've gotten tonight, but tomorrow marks the real start of the project - we're doing daily check-ins at 10 am and plotting out the project and hacking away at it piece by piece. I need to spend a lot of next week working on documentation, planning it out in more concrete detail. A lot of this project stems from a road trip conversation with my friend Karl Parakenings, where we spent three days hammering on and elaborating on the ideas presented in the roguelike as a genre and what they could mean given a certain perspective, then gestating in my head ever since, so there is a lot I want to get down. I find the documentation process to be a lot about discovery and revelation, and there are so many ways this could go that it will be a lot of fun to really tie this concept down and begin building it.

I'm going to try to keep this journal updated as much as possible - at least weekly if not more frequently, and would like it to serve as a development journal for this project.

I'm looking forward to seeing where I'm at this time next week.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Green Man sculpture

For years, my father has been asking me to make him a Green Man sculpture to hang on the eaves of his house. I've done some sculpting, but not a ton, but every time I do I thoroughly enjoy it.

This year for Christmas, I finally had a chance to create one.

If you're not familiar with a Green Man sculpture, I'll let wikipedia do the explaining:

Green Man is a sculpturedrawing, or other representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves. Branches or vines may sprout from the nose, mouth, nostrils or other parts of the face and these shoots may bear flowers or fruit. Commonly used as a decorative architectural ornament, Green Men are frequently found on carvings in churches and other buildings (both secular and ecclesiastical). "The Green Man" is also a popular name for English public houses and various interpretations of the name appear on inn signs, which sometimes show a full figure rather than just the head.
The Green Man motif has many variations. Found in many cultures around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, or "renaissance", representing the cycle of growth each spring. Some[1] [2] speculate that the mythology of the Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout history.
I was unfortunately out of good clay, so I scoured the local craft stores and was able to track down some Sculpey. I tend to prefer Super Sculpey 2, as it is much more resilient, firmer and easier to smooth and shape, whereas this worked much more like traditional tera cotta clay.

I have a lot of tools I use when I sculpt, but my favorites are a simple roller for preparing the clay and a handful of metal tools and scrapers I received by asking a dentist if they had any old tools they couldn't use any more. He responded by giving me a paper bag full of them, and they're amazing.


With the tools in hand, I got out a piece of laminated wood and started shaping out the basics. I had spent a day or two prior sketching out various designs and researching them, and had arrived at one I wanted to go with, so at this point it was just a matter of roughing out the general form to get started.

I kept working on the eyes and brows while shaping the moustache and chin into more leaf-like forms, adding the rest of the beard as well.

Getting the overall shape, at this stage, is far more important than worrying about the finished look. With clay this pliable it is easy to take away shapes or rip them out and start all over.

Next I shaped out the general form for the crown.

Now that the overall form was in place, I added the rest of the details and began smoothing and shaping the details, creating more realistic cheekbones and creating the stylized layering I wanted to achieve, most noticeable here in the moustache. Creating these broad, flat areas overlapping helped create a more stylized look and allow the form to be much more readable from a distance, as it would be hung up at least fifteen feet from where anyone could get close, so fine detail would only confuse the image in the end.

The final steps were to smooth out the clay, add the rest of the vein details and pupils and then bake it to harden. The scuffed areas you see were lightly sanded down to smooth off a little bit of rough area that resulted from the sculpting process.

The piece removed from the board nicely, and was quite sturdy when finished.

The problem that remained, though, was how to actually finish him - I could paint him with acrylic and then seal it in varnish, and that would allow it to weather fairly well, but I was worried about how it would be mounted and what effect it would suffer after a couple years of Washington summers and winters. If it got brittle it could easily crack and fall apart, and if the mounting failed, it would fall and shatter, and was irreplaceable.

I eventually decided that the best thing to do would be to learn how to make a proper mold and make castings of it. I did my research and ended up going with Tap Plastics' Platinum Silicon 2-Part Mold Making compound, as it was extremely easy to work with, didn't require a vacuum chamber or complicated pouring, and was very durable. It also turned out to be very expensive, so I decided that these were going to have to be gifts for more than just my father - I ended up making copies for my brothers, grandfather and father-in-law, as well.

For the casting, I used Tap Plastics 2-Part Quick-Cast Polyeurethane Resin, as it was affordable and extremely durable, and measured out at a 1:1 ratio just like the Platinum Silicon. Nice and foolproof. For the finish, I purchased Bronze Powder, which created a wonderful finish you can see at the end. Beautiful stuff.

In order to make the mold, I first needed a form, so I built one out of a readily-available material.


First I built the basic form.

Next, I sealed the sculpture to the board using putty so that the silicon wouldn't flow underneath it.

The Lego blocks were attached to the board using hot glue.

The hot glue snapped right off of the blocks when I was done and worked out very well.

In order to know how much silicon I would need, I filled the form with rice, then poured out and measured the rice. Neat little trick.

Rice removed, I filled the mold with mixed silicon and let it sit overnight. The silicon sets in a couple of hours, but I figured it was best to not rush it, since this was my first time.

I regret not taking pictures of the actual casting process, but it was fascinating, and I learned a lot. My first couple came out okay, but by the end I had the technique down pretty well.

In order to use the bronze powder effectively and economically, I ended up creating what is known as a slush cast. Essentially I mixed up a batch of resin with the bronze powder that wasn't nearly enough to fill the mold, and then ran it around, sloshing it from side to side, to coat the face of the mold as effectively as I could. The sculpture had a lot of vertical edges, however, so some of the parts didn't take as well, since the bronze powder was so much heavier than the resin, but the final product came out great regardless.

When I first took it out of the mold, though, I was pretty disappointed - it looked like fairly matte chocolate, not the shiny bronze I expected. I sulked for a day or two, researched spray paints and other techniques to get the bronzed look I was hoping for, and then came across a tip I missed somehow - I needed to buff it using fine steel wool!

I dashed to the hardware store, picked up steel wool in a number of grades (from 1 to 0000), gloves and a dust mask, then came home and buffed the first one I did. The difference was night and day!

It was actually extremely metallic and looked beautiful! And the parts that the steel wool couldn't get into created a lovely patina effect, making it look aged just as I had hoped. Perfection.

I buffed up the rest and wrapped them up for Christmas, and was very happy that they were well-received. I was pleased with how they turned out, and getting to share them with my family was a treat. Plus it gave me the opportunity to learn more about the casting process, which is something I'd always been very curious about.