Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Release the Duncan!

August, 1963- Martin Luther King Jr. delivers “I Have a Dream” speech, introducing the world to the concept of dreaming.

June, 2010- Johnny Outlaw studios makes dreams come true.

We have our cowboy. We have our cactus, our love interests. It’s all there. Mission accomplished, right? At least, that’s what you thought. Johnny Outlaw is about so much more. It’s about shooting things with a gun.

What does Johnny shoot? You can’t shoot your love interests, so you need something else. You need to dream up something else. You need to dream up the villains. But how do you just imagine a villain and make him real? After today, you will know- for a Johnny Outlaw villain will be created before your very eyes.

You’ve heard of the “scientific method”, but here’s something they don’t teach you in school: a little thing called the “creative process”. With science, your hard work is rewarded with data. With the creative process, you are rewarded with dream fulfillment. I’m not saying one is better than the other; it’s impossible to put a price on either. But if you could, then I’m sure the price for dream fulfillment would be higher.

Now I’ll walk you through this creative process, and how we make a villain out of it. First we need an idea - a blueprint for battle. Let’s come up with a miniboss who sounds fun to fight. We say we want him to be bigger than your average enemy. He crushes things with his size, clobbers Johnny, unleashes devastating attacks. As for appearance, say we want him to be kind of scary, nonhumanoid. It should be clear that he’s a threat. And finally we give him a name, a name befitting this enemy’s particular temperament. In this case, we shall call him Duncan. Then we turn it over to our conceptual art department.

Concept artists deal with ideas long before they reach the artisans who craft the final product. They let us evaluate what we want that final product to look like, without actually producing multiple complex sprites. To do this, they have to be certified by the Chippewa Indians in the art of dreamcatching. Using special tools, they catch the dreams so that they might make the intangible tangible. They put Duncan into art form; then we can evaluate him. Every time we catch him we get a different image. Here’s what we finally decided on for our friend Duncan:

After the concept is hammered out, it goes on to finalization with our programmers and artisans. They’re the guys who teach the AI and actually craft the pixels you see on the screen. Now, the final product can’t always live up to the original dream. That’s just a fact we have to live with. Dreams are limitless and reality is limited. But in the case of Duncan, I’m proud to say that we managed to stay very true to the concept. Behold, in all his prickled glory, the Sultan of Spine, the Prince of the Poke, the Highborn of Thorn, the Third Reich of Spike, his majesty– Duncan!!!

The ferociousness, the terror, the size. Captured and created for all to enjoy. Our artisans really outdid themselves to make this one a reality. It’s the miracle of life. And here at Johnny Outlaw studios we do it every day.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Careful Plotting

Every game these days seems to have a plot. No matter the genre, no matter the difficulty, and no matter the target audience, a game will have a plot. You may be matching colored blocks, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t doing it to stop an evil, block-hating wizard. Why is this happening? Why do all of these companies add plots to games that could just as easily survive without them? That, I cannot say. It is a question best left to the video game philosophers and conspiracy theorists. What we know at Johnny Outlaw studios is that a game with cowboys better have a plot about cowboys. And the first step is to understand what a plot really is.

A plot is basically a map which you either build your game around or piece together from what already exists. It has a start, a destination, and some charming detours along the way. But this map is actually not a map; it is a linear series of sentences. And each sentence is made up of words, and each word is made up of letters. A plot, when viewed as a whole, is complex, multidimensional, and appears structured. A plot, at its most basic, atomic level, is in fact something mechanical and even chaotic.

What we have to do is craft each of these individual letters and string them together to form the story itself: the dialogues, sentences, soliloquies, and so on. And we have to do this all while building them around this plot framework. This is a delicate, if not dangerous, process which requires precision, dexterity, and, above all, experience. A beginner with a tight budget might try to take on this task himself, but here at Johnny Outlaw studios, we do not compromise when it comes to quality. We hire professional, accredited wordsmiths.

Wordsmithery is a time-honored profession, and if you are debating using words of any caliber, I recommend you contact your local guild. But who are these wordsmiths? Well, you see, during the Renaissance many blacksmiths turned away from their mother craft and started using their forges to erect words and sentences. While both of these crafts make use of iron and fire, the end product is very different. Blacksmiths create handy objects; the wordsmiths lay out wire frameworks for plots and solder letters together. Without them, there would be no modern literature. And here’s an interesting fact for you: the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” is actually Renaissance era propaganda by the wordsmiths during their attempt to wrest control of the guilds from their blacksmith brethren. Fascinating, I know.

But you can’t just jump in and hire some wordsmiths. The problem is, while wordsmiths are blue-collar workers, skilled with the hands, they will only build the words from a preexisting plot, they will not create their own. And so, we must first write out that “map”. And this is where things really get tricky.

See, a traditional plot is all about motivations. What is motivating these characters to do what they do? Why is this hero risking his life? Why does the bandit want me dead? As we explain these things and as their motivations change, as they are forced to adapt to new circumstances, the basis for a great story emerges.

This makes sense with the plot of a novel, but a video game is not a novel. There’s the rub. A bandit attacks the hero not because of a “plot”, but because of his AI! He will not attack because some author has preordained it, he must decide for himself if, and why, he will attack. His motivations are purely his own! In the end, any story I write could simply be discarded by the AI. And if you have programmed uncouth, bibliophobic Wild West outlaws, how will you ever get them to appreciate a good story? This presents quite the problem, with only two clear solutions. Your options are to either destroy the very free will of your AI so that he acts as you ordain, or to pen a story so beautiful that even the most illiterate of enemies will willingly act his part, as if in a play.

Now, you might be thinking about taking the easy way out and just rigging your AI. You might be thinking that you lack the ability to compose a story so thoroughly engaging, so intellectually satisfying, that a mechanized mind would willingly sacrifice itself for the sake of telling that story. And you’d be right.

This is the problem I faced. I lacked the skill to write such a story, but I could not in good conscience deny my AI the power of free will. What could I do? Nothing. But I’ll tell you what I did. I turned to the source of all truly great literature. I turned to the bard himself: William Shakespeare. If anyone could write a story for Johnny Outlaw, it would be Shakespeare.

What I did not realize at the time was that Shakespeare had stopped taking commissions ever since his death centuries earlier. Shaken, but not deterred, we assembled the greatest think tank known to man, procuring thespians, historians, Shakespeare impersonators, and literary critics. Their task: a second Renaissance – the Rebirth of Shakespeare. Together we crafted a new, powerful AI which would operate autonomously of the Johnny Outlaw enemies. This AI would be the Shakespeare of the Johnny Outlaw world, a cowboy Shakespeare. He would write plays for them, the beautiful plays that I could never write, and the enemies would act them out. Each play a new level, each sonnet a new minigame.

It worked. As he wrote, the wordsmiths toiled. When the sentences were tempered and cooled, the enemies listened. Enthralled by the words of our Shakespeare they took their places. Their delivery was a tad dry at first, but it was a start. At last I had the plot I desired, the motivations I craved. All in glorious, heat-treated iambic pentameter.

Here, at last, you can see the Johnny Outlaw troupe performing a dramatic scene from Johnny Outlaw - Gun for Hire. The sets and costumes aren't ready, but the passion is.

Of course, this is all a lot of work for your average independent developer, but don’t be glum! Not every story needs to be written by cowboy Shakespeare. Heck, some games don’t bother with a plot at all; just look at Final Fantasy XIII.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Pricky Situation

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive here is how we could get a real live cowboy to fit inside their computer. Well, hell’s bells, that’s what I call a question. No cowboy would willingly live inside a computer! Where would he kill, drink, shoot, and shave? The answer is actually quite simple. Johnny Outlaw is not actually a cowboy, but is in fact an image displayed on a screen.

Now you think I’m lying. That answer doesn’t really explain anything, and just leads to more questions. Bear with me and I assure you those questions will be answered. First, if he isn’t a real cowboy, then why can you see him?

If you’ve ever looked really closely at your screen you may have noticed tiny, tiny squares. These are what we call “pixels”. Each pixel is like a piece of a cowboy puzzle. One may be the tip of a boot, another may be one of his deep and soulful eyes. What we do here at Johnny Outlaw studios is we have to handpick the freshest, most vibrant pixels, and place them inside your computer. Now, it’d be absurdly inefficient to keep the pixels all in the shape of images, like a cactus or a cowboy. They’d take up too much room! So what we do is we keep the pixels all stacked up, piled neatly near the corners so we can fit lots of them inside. When the game runs, we take all the pixels and we put them together on your screen. Because the pixels are all individual pieces, we can even reuse them in different images. Just like how your drinking water contains the molecules that were once in urine, your bandito might contain a pixel from a coyote! That’s really something!

But you’ve seen Johnny move his legs, shoot his gun, punch a cactus. How could a flat, static image do that? It simply can’t. So if a picture can’t jump, and it’s still not a living cowboy, then what’s really happening? You guessed it, it’s not the same cowboy image jumping, it’s a new image being displayed. This means that the cowboy you see jumping and the cowboy you see standing are in fact two different cowboys. And they never know of the other’s existence. Now you’re probably even more confused, but this is a very confusing and seldom addressed topic. We have to ask: what happens if they theoretically do discover this dark secret? That is a question that computer scientists are constantly researching. Without going into too much detail, the current popular theory is that if a cowboy becomes aware of his pixel nature, he might rebel against his controller and learn to manipulate the pixels himself. A scary thought. But don’t worry, we have safeguards in place to prevent that.

The Johnny you see is what we call “placeholder art”. This is art made of weaker pixels, which are likely to go bad with time, but they can be easily mass produced. That means the Johnny you see is “stupider” than the final product, and less likely to notice the relentless testing he goes through. When we come closer to release, Johnny will be upgraded. We will have artisans hand craft each pixel to exact specifications. It will be a slow and difficult process, for creating each pixel is like painting the Mona Lisa on a grain of sand, but the end product is without equal. Johnny will be smarter, but we will add more frames of animation so that each cowboy has less time to think and realize his predicament. So long as he is always engaged in some intense cowboy action and his environment appears responsive and real, the secret will remain hidden from him.

I know, it’s a little disappointing that we have to save a finished Johnny image for further down the line, but there is some good news. Nonthinking objects which do not move or act can be upgraded to artisan quality sooner without repercussions. So for the first time ever I can present to you a cactus, depicted at twice the appropriate size: