Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Meet the Devs: Jim 'Alabaster Knight' Bishop

What's your name (or stage name), how long have you been involved in TPP, what role do you have, and what does it involve?

My real name is Jim Bishop and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. I have been involved with The Phoenix Project since the last week of November when after much gnashing of teeth over losing CoH, a work friend informed me of the activity over on the Titan Forums. I had been looking for such a project to collaborate on for a while, and amazingly Titan was there.

I am the Game Architect/Game Architecture Lead for the TPP. My team handles all of the concepting of rules and systems that inform technical and artistic producers the requirements of in-game systems after log in. My responsibility is to oversee game processes from character generation through endgame, including but not limited to character generation, alignment and faction, level progression, combat systems, powers design and frameworks, currency and exchange/auction houses/vendorsystems, mission design, and endgame content/nemesis systems. We are not involved in front end systems that have to do with business organization like accounting, PR, and advertising. Many of the design decisions we make are both impacting and impacted by Lore/Story, and much of what we do informs the Tech Lead and his department This requires great communication to keep each other informed of all our needs since it involves both of their areas heavily.

What other MMOs/games have you played in the past? What drew you to them? What makes a game enjoyable to you?

City of Heroes/Villains (beta), World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Age of Conan, Champions Online, DCUO Online, and Lord of the Rings Online. I tried Anarchy Online, but the stone age graphics (even for that time) graphics turned me off quickly, tried Ultima Online for a friend: Couldn't get into it. Tried Eve Online, but the mentality of the PvP population on that game made me understand what PvP should -not- be about. I didn't stay with it long at all - like a week.

What server did you play on in COH? How long did you play for?

I played proudly on the Protector server after participating in Beta and then playing for almost 7 years after. Then I became disillusioned with the game as it seemed to be repetitive; I came back for Going Rogue as a VIP for a while, but in FTP toward the end, the characters we had most loved to play were not eligible for the incarnate content, so the game again quickly became repetitive. Hopefully that's something I can address now.

How did you get your role – did you volunteer, were you seconded and did you expect to end up with such a senior role? Do you have any experience/qualifications that make you perfect for this role?

I have a lot of project management experience, credentials in the RPG industry, a degree in design, scathing amounts of design experience, and fundamental belief in the right tools and people to make strong teams. I spoke up and was sought after as an unknown when I reached out to the Plan Z people on Titan. It was strange as this was when the split happened where the Heroes and Villains project had broken off; Golden Girl had contacted me at the same time, and I didn't have an opportunity to speak with her, so I opted to place emphasis in the Phoenix Project. I could have easily wound up in that camp, but I'm glad I didn't.

Special skills or qualifications? Hmm... I've had some good fortune to be in places as a project manager/design manager; I've managed projects, production rooms, and branding for major companies, state government departments, and start-ups. I had a comics studio for 5 years that was completely a volunteer effort that lost its funding to launch due to 9/11/01. Our studio had major well-known and talented comics artists lined up to go into production; it was all very sad when we had to close up shop in April 2002. It would have been a spectacular universe and now it sleeps in my closet in my home office.

Describe an average day working on TPP for you.

Conceptually speaking, it's a monster. The scope is vast and there are a lot of chefs. The Skype chat is rolling thunder; channels are ripe with discussion and development. It's the kind of thing where you really have to analyze for the white noise that inevitably finds its way into threads and block that out so as to focus on what is relevant.

I am an anomaly in the management structure in that I prefer VoIP chat on Skype. Our team has so much to talk about on any given meeting day that using the chat only function in Skype, as nice as it is for "minutes", turns what could be a 10 minute conversation into an hour of back and forth typing that is often ambiguous at best to at least half the participants and also people don't always type chat in chronological order. When you're not only discussing topics, but trying to keep everyone on the same page with no confusion, it's much more effective to have a live note document on Google docs that everyone can see and note on in real time if needed and use Skype to have good communication with clear context and understanding. Less chaos, more dev time.

What's the best thing about working on TPP? What about the worst?

The best thing about working on The Phoenix Project is the prospect that we will be able to release a game the CoH community needs to have. It will never be CoH/V, but if successful it may be even better. The worst thing is the time away from spending with my wife and kids; they make so many sacrifices allowing this time.

What are you most excited about in creating this game? What makes you most nervous?

I'm excited to help. We work with a lot of people of varying skills and levels of ability. It's nice to be a part of something that means something to so many people. I get nervous when I think of how many people we'd be letting down if we fail to follow through.

I am excited about how cool this game will be if we can get some of the ideas to pan out. It will feel like CoH if we do this right, but it will also feel like so much more, almost like a CoH2 might have been someday.

What's the first thing you'll do once the game goes live and you've logged in to the city?

Fly around the city taking in the excellent views and hard work of the 3D art teams.

Why should people be excited about TPP? Why should they trust TPP over any other MMO?

We are designing a game with the community in mind. We don't want to make the game something that disappears if MWM should successfully launch and then a few years later have to close. I think the sting of what a certain other company did drives a lot of the motiviation. Asking for trust is probably not the right focus - it's implying something that shouldn't be assumed without a reason to place it.

We have an obligation as a company to practice in the marketplace with ethics. There's already an implied trust in the value of the product. If a customer buys our software, we need to support it and make sure if we're not around anymore to support it, that the box we made them pay for still has value. Can anyone play CoH now? I seem to remember spending some dough on discs that sans a server apparatus supported by a developer, should have some sort of lasting value: But they don't. If someone wants to trust anything, they should trust that we know that isn't the way to do business.

Even if outmoded, outdated, inferior, or otherwise undesirable, if you paid for it, loved it and continue to use it, as long as your computer is running, our game should be running in one form or another for as long as you want it.

Give me one random, or interesting fact about yourself.

I played keyboards in a rock band. We played in clubs and other venues all over town in the early 90s. Great fun.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

From imagination to conception - character concept art.

Hey there, internet people. So I wanted to write a quick blog (which means this will turn into eight pages) of how we're handling character concept art for "The Phoenix Project."

When a character (or group) has been written and vetted and finalized by the Lore team it is considered ready for the concepting phase.

Our Lead Character Artist and myself meet with the Lore Lead and the relative writers, and we have a meeting to go over the character. We quickly get a gist of who the character is, key details of their appearance (do they have an armguard? a specific hat? are they missing a leg?, etc.,) and we eventually come to an idea of what the overall look should be.

Sometimes before this meeting the writers might ask for a quick character to look to help them visualize the character and better help them write. For example:

An early concept image created to help the writing team
We'll use that early concept piece as a starting point for the character look but most of the look will be discarded or revised.

After our first meeting one of our character concept artists will produce a battery of looks on a character sheet. Usually I'll give the artist an idea of the look we want but I'll also ask them to go in the opposite direction of that too. I believe sometimes you have to get an idea of what you DON'T want to really understand what is you DO want. 

A series of looks covering a wide range of styles.

Once the character sheet is turned in, the Lead Character Artist, the relevant writers, and myself will go over it. Sometimes we find one look that is really exciting or we find a few of the looks have elements that we want to incorporate into the final look. At this point we begin to really firm up the visual we want for the character and how that look is going to work in game.

In some situations there are technical limitations - as you can see in the earliest concept art the character had a long flowing ponytail but we realized it was going to be hard to get that to work and behave realistically within the game. We discussed adding a skeletal system or cloth/hair dynamics - but ultimately we realized it wasn't feasible to do convincingly so we looked at shorter hair styles.

After narrowing down the elements we liked from the wider range of looks our Lead Character Artist produces another character sheet that focuses on the elements we liked - looking something like this:

A character concept sheet of looks narrowed down from a wider selection. These looks cover the different outfits this character might be seen in - from combat to casual to formal events.

During this phase we also produce additional costumes for the character - their out of combat attire, maybe they have a more formalized uniform they wear for special events, and their "average" look. Some characters won't have these additional looks but for some characters we do plan for them to be seen "out of uniform."

We'll go over this character sheet again and narrow down the looks. In most cases we'll find a look we like and agree on and tweak it a bit more - like this:

Adjusting one of the concept looks after review.

Our goal is to find a look that represents the character best and what will work in the game. In the case of the character art shown in these examples we were looking for a combat appropriate costume. The original early concept piece was a very classic comic book super heroine but as we developed the character visually we looked to current movies and explored a more tactical look for her costume.

After the character goes through a few more final iterations we produce a final character piece:

A final rendering of a character look.

When we reach this phase the character look gets reviewed by the development team and any minor adjustments are made. From here the character goes off to be turned into orthographic reference art which is used by our modelers and texture artists to produce the final model.

In some cases we have to go back to the drawing board when we are not satisfied with the character look or we feel it doesn't embody the character that was originally written.

The positive part about this is it helps to really get the look we want for a character and in some cases produce looks that might fit other characters or enemy groups better.

And that is the quick and dirty version of the character concepting art phase. In the future I'm hoping (with permission) to do in depth blogs on specific characters.

Art Team Leader
The Phoenix Project