Sunday, 1 May 2011

Specific or General Skills?

What do game companies want from graduates?

Firstly, all game companies want experienced individuals. A good course should offer and encourage internships. Without this we have a choice between candidates with specific tendered skills and those from a general art background. We can further divide these categories into those who are competent at and those that are not. Competence/proficiency at art is only nominally effected by university. Regardless of the resources and teaching provided, it is still up to the individual to knuckle down and apply themselves to improve their craft.

So, do they want specific skills or a general art background? Ideally, both. Unfortunately the problem is actually the lack of Universities which offer both. I feel that the DMU course is one of the few courses to actually provide this.

In the absence of courses that offer both, what advice would I give to a student about to choose between the two? Go for the general art background. Anyone can use Photoshop, 3DSMAX or UDK etc if shown how. The knowledge of art is priceless. It takes time to develop your eye, be able to create nice compositions and understand colour/light. Three years of university are far better spent on this discipline. Especially as art skills are transferable to a range of careers. Game art technical skills are very specific in their nature and whilst they are still transferable they are not nearly as versatile as a solid grounding in art.

Game art skills should be as relevant as possible to the current industry. Learning future skills is useful but should not be pursued at the expense of current skills. It is much better to equip graduates for the industry they will be primarily entering. As times change they can augment their skillset on the job. This is how many current veterans learned how to use programs such as MAX and Maya.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the attitude of the student. Many students are unaware of the full scope of the industry and underestimate what is actually required leading to poor course choices. These keeps many of the 'easier' courses in business. If a greater proportion of students made informed choices then some of the ‘mickey mouse’ courses might start to disappear.

So in summary, companies want either experienced individuals or a solid grounding in art fundamentals. Not all courses have internships available so choosing a course focusing on art instead of technology is important. This would help to extinguish the spattering of 'mickey mouse' courses and graduates would be better equipped for their chosen industry.

Unfortunately, I doubt this will happen.

The existence of Creativity

Returning to the topic of creativity I have decided to focus on why we define such concepts rather than how it manifests itself altogether (see my earlier blog post concerning it

Definitions of creativity arose out of the human need to name, measure and quantify aspects of life. It is in our nature to think about the world. Technically, creativity occurs the moment you infer knowledge. With this definition it is difficult not to be creative. If I explain a phenomenon to you but regurgitate nothing more than learned information, I am not being creative. However, if explain the same phenomenon and go one step further and explain the implications combined with various aspects of my knowledge, that would be creative. This creates a ‘new’ piece of information or idea. I say new, but I don’t mean original. With more than 6 billion of us on the planet the chances of originality are extremely slim. However, is credit not due for ideas that form organically regardless of their originality? Creativity has still occurred in the brain.

I feel this is creativity broken down into its simplest form but it is clearly not a widespread opinion. To the average person, their understanding of creativity is built from the media and their peers around them. If we ask the layman what creativity is, they will probably respond with originality or innovation. Or maybe being good at something, or even just being good at a form of art. 

Upon closer inspection creativity might appear to be the way you express yourself and utilise your mind in response to the world around you. This is a better description. But if the answer is so simple then why is there so much discourse regarding the true nature of creativity. I think the answer lies in why we define and obsess over it in the first place.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t define concepts - there is nothing wrong with attributing a name to a phenomenon. But the problem is similar to that of celebrity. It is desirable to be a celebrity, and consequently fame and the media are becoming an increasingly obscene mix of contrived ideals. Similarly, creativity is desirable. Due to the inherent complications involved in separating originality, innovation and creativity (not to mention 'talent') we have gotten to a point where creativity is quantified and valued. Instead of simply existing, it has value and comes under scrutiny.

Employers want creative talent. People are impressed by creativity. This has lead to the deconstruction of creativity in order to cultivate and exploit it. This narrow bottleneck has led many people to think they don’t have any creativity, hence the question ‘what is creativity.’ This is asked in order to distill it's essence so that it may be grasped at once more. It’s a vicious circle which takes us further and further away from the original simple premise. The idea has been diluted so much that we can’t see through the abstract and continue to re-evaluate what creativity really is.

In regards to the games industry, employers express the desire for talent but what they really mean is that they want skilled workers. Talent manifests itself as the result of hard work. From that then, we might say talent is skilled work (in this instance at least). This is why I am not compelled to question my own creativity and instead focus on honing my craft.

It’s interesting that my skills should be limited by technology, in terms of how they reveal themselves. As technology improves we can produce better art. As someone who is considered ‘creative’ I sometimes feel the need to 'perform' and life becomes a constant balancing act between my own bar and everyone's expectations. 

I can guarantee my bar is higher though.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Interaction in games

Whilst researching the history of the game controller I found the dynamic between the games and their many controllers of great interest. There is a tendency to just assume a console is developed along with a controller and handed off to developers to make games. Digging a little deeper reveals that all significant control developments are related to the evolution of games themselves. For instance why would we change from a joystick to a dpad? A joystick is an analogue method of control offering variable sensitivity to the user whereas a dpad significantly reduces ones options. At least, that’s what it seems. Surprisingly, the original joysticks were not actually analogue like their flight simulator kin. They were in fact, digital and only offered 4 means of direction meaning it actually made the joystick highly inaccurate due to the possible ambiguity of diagonal movement. Thus the dpad surfaced with the onset of 2D platformers which required accurate inputs in only 4 directions. Although the Nintendo NES is widely regarded as the first dpad, apparently Atari did produce an unsuccessful one first.

In my mind there are a few significant leaps forward in controllers with the change from joystick to dpad being the first before the following change to a truly analogue stick. Next I would say the addition of shoulder buttons and a second analogue stick were rather important. The second analogue stick was developed as a solution to the poor attempts at automated camera control in early games. This is a good example of a problem being solved at the hardware end rather than in the game itself by the developers. Lastly and more recently we have the onset of motion controls and touch screens to consider.

Fittingly, the pioneering face of both technologies is Nintendo. Ironically the company that first populated the joypad has become the first to leave it behind. Actually, is that ironic? I guess you could argue that Nintendo are continuing to innovate and increase level of interaction in games. Unfortunately I tend to disagree. I have to give my subjective opinion on the matter simply because being object isn’t exactly helpful regarding an immersive interactive experience. Unfortunately then I should preface it by saying that I am not a fan of this new direction...

I was there, launch night of the Wii, ready and willing to receive the next evolution of games but unfortunately I was unaware that I would in fact be experiencing the devolution of games, more so an ‘evolution’ in interactive technologies. Nintendo are geniuses, don’t get me wrong, as far business goes the Wii and also the DS absolutely hit the nail on the head. However they gave themselves away right from the start. From the day one the Wii has been unashamedly advertised toward people that don’t play games. The old, the really young, and not that I want to sound sexist, but girls. Nintendo have held true to this mission statement. Admittedly it made them a ton of money but now in the last year, sales have finally started to fall. The Wii was and still is simply a toy. It was the big craze ‘that’ Christmas (and maybe the one after).

In creating a highly accessible controller they have sent games back to their origins in simplicity. Wii sports, for example, whilst fun is about as engaging as a yo-yo. In an age where other games are becomingly increasingly sophisticated and poignant the Wii is in insult to everything real gamers stand for. It has taken years for games to get to such a level of media and entertainment that they now rival even films. Games are less considered as childish and immature (although not totally). But the Wii is doing nothing for that image. I am aware that my opinion is rather elitest. There is of course a place for the Wii in the industry, but I still feel that it is a toy; a gimmick.

As an artist and a consumer I have encountered the social stigma sometimes attached to gaming. The Wii has had both a positive and negative influence on that stigma. The Wii is not a bad thing. Arguably it has done some good in opening some eyes to the world of games. For games themselves though it is almost a step back rather than forwards and in my eyes is paving the way for the evolution of something different, not of games as we know it. My problem is not with the Wii rather it is with Nintendo for advertising the Wii to the public as a toy but to the industry as an evolution of the games we currently play. I feel that this is a mixed message. I sold my Wii after realising that there would never be more than a few games which would have any significant depth to hold my attention for longer than 20 minutes. Admittedly we can blame developers for not making these games but I feel as if Nintendo portrayed the Wii as being able to sustain these types of games when in reality it simply cannot. The control system is not developed enough to allow much more than swinging and pointing. All other controls can be found on normal joypads. Hopefully the Wii’s successor will remedy this if Nintendo really does care about evolving gaming

Lastly I want to touch briefly upon the new development in technology and games that is 3D. What started off as 3D cinema has now spread into modern gaming. There have been attempts in the past to create augmented reality and 3D/ virtual games, but for the first time the technology is stable and affordable enough to become mainstream. It remains to be seen if it will though. Personally I think the use and originality with which it is applied will be a major factor in its uptake. If it simply adds depth to the screen I can’t see it having much longevity but if developers are able to glean some sort of new gameplay element from it there might be life in it after all.