Friday, 15 May 2015

Alice in Wonderland; Post Mortem

It's important to reflect on projects, to think through and document all the lessons learned- both practically and emotionally, and now that we've had a week to cool off from our hand in, it's time to do just that. Our Alice in Wonderland project was the largest group project we've been allocated; spanning 10 weeks (+3 unofficial Easter weeks) and it was also the first time we've been dictated random groups in accordance to our specializations. I think this is where I learnt the most- not necessarily in technical skills where I feel I've made bigger leaps in other projects, but rather in management and communication. Especially so, since this is the first group I've been in where it's been an issue. I'll revisit this shortly though, let's start with the positives.

What went well is the overall atmosphere we managed to create in our two, highly contrasting levels. I think our forest beautifully managed to strike a balance between a grounded Oxford forest, and still have that Alice in Wonderland flair- through the use of assets like playing cards, books, and clocks as platform pieces intermingled with the vibrant greenery of the large leaves in comparison to our shrunken Alice. We accomplished some nice vista shots, that I like to believe are largely down to my highly detailed composition planning of the forest level. Especially so since this was an area that I conceptually worked on alone and was responsible for the design of the most of the assets within it.

 It was a strange system though, where our original three levels were divided up into three people managing them respectively. Myself for the forest, Jake for the Hallway, and Christy for the Canal. The dynamic was effective and efficient during white boxing and early engine/mechanical stages and worked nicely as a system, where I felt in control and the workload was divided up equally between people who were conformable with engine.  However our system fell apart heavily when it was deemed necessary to take the engine files and merge them into one cohesive level. Logically this makes sense and I accept that it was required, but once it was done my input on the area I had brought this far was taken out of my hands and my input became more verbal, aside from the occasional day where I would be able to work with it personally. 

Aside from that this had a huge knock on of side effects, it meant that Jake was now managing all three areas which is a huge amount of responsibility, and there wasn't much we could do to help, since only one person could access it at once, but this meant that the fine details in our levels fell apart a bit since it was too much for one person. For example I made 4 rocks that could easily be manipulated in size and scale to form nice walls and rocky banks almost seamlessly, but as the engine person wasn't as familiar with how they worked as I was, I feel they were laid out in a way that didn't maximize their potential. I mentioned it a few times, but it was a low priority task and by the time it became and issue, they were all already placed and it would become a huge job to reorganize them. I know other people felt the same way about their assets as well, but because it was all funneling through one person, time wasn't allocated to nicely placed population as much as it probably should have been. 

It's easy to say that we could have avoided this by keep the engine files unmerged, but this would likely also lead to more problems later down the road,  instead trying to merge already delicate and nice engine files together. Not sure how- but I'm certain something would have gone horribly wrong here. What we could have done is just have days where the engine was free and accessible to everyone to just adjust, fix and make small changes to their assets and the level before it became too late to change. 

The fact that I only now realize people had a problem with the way our group was structured speaks largely for itself, the group wasn't hostile or uncooperative, it was simple generally splintered. Problems that people had weren't addressed and because of this communication suffered and the overall quality of the level went down. The ironic part is we were all in labs everyday, and mostly the same room- and this was still an issue. My problem wasn't specifically with communication since I had a lot of contact with the team, both teaching and learning. I should mention that everyone was great at being prepared to listen and adapt to new techniques, as well as sharing freely any information or tricks. I think Christie stood out as someone who taught the group a lot of technical skills. No, my problem was with formal criticism. I think that while most of us talked a lot, it generally wasn't as formal as it could and should have been. It felt more like everyone was just 'updated' and aware of what people were doing, but not criticizing or being critiqued. In future there definitely should be a daily meeting where we talk about how to improve everyone's current assets. 

What I think worked well was the quality standard that people reached for and attained. While our art style changed dramatically from the ‘set’ style, everyone adapted as we went along and we still arrived at the same style, but without all the stylistic trims we’d planned to do. This was mainly due to how the ideas changed while we were whiteboxing. Despite the change, no ones assets were out of place or looked like they didn't belong, this was mainly because we were abiding by a realistic style standard. However once again, while the assets people made were realistic, sometimes- and I'm guilty of this as well- took criminally long. I'm going to specifically mention Sarah and Hannahs Rabbit and Caterpillar. I don't think these assets were relevant enough in the level to take up the time spent on them, which was the majority of their time, even though each character was only on screen for about 12 seconds each! The problem though is that they wanted characters for their portfolio (as they are charter artists- which we had three of) on this was their final project of the year- which is entirely fair. Our decision to let the caterpillar and the rabbit become major modeling characters was a mix of obligation to abide by the specialization list, and the knowledge that in these early stages of the project we wanted our group to fundamentally work happily together. It seems unavoidable really, you can't expect someone to not want to spend eleven weeks working on something that's going to help them get an job/internship in the department they want. 

I feel the best way to have worked with this would have been to set much stricter deadlines, because while there was deadlines on texturing and certain assets, they were all entirely ignored and this was never addressed as a group. People just worked at their own pace which left us in the frantic mess that we were at the end of the project. We definitely needed stricter deadlines.  

We had to cut out level down in raw length multiple times this project, using only a third of the original cave plan, and cutting out the canal entirely (which was a sad day for all) and our level was still too long. We should have started with a much smaller concise level plan, and just expanded after the DMU hand in, for the separate Off The Map hand in, which we still have a long time for. This would have meant we had a high quality level to showcase our artistic abilities, then afterwards, we could work more on having a fancy game. The fact is, by the time we knew we had a level that was too big, all the individual stages had already been worked into too much for it to be worth cutting. The work we would lose just wouldn't compensate for the extra man power dedicated to one level with the remaining time frame. All we needed was a better schedule and less characters being made. 

Integrating mechanics naturally and organically into our level was also something we had relative success in. The falling leaves and house of cards were two simple puzzles I made that helped the player feel involved with the level without breaking the flow of the game- it also meant I had a blast stacking physics based cards for a few days. The more complicated puzzles in the hallway that Jake and Christie did also hit their mark as they were all very integrated into the scene and felt like organic puzzles. 

In fact as an entire game it felt very fluid and cohesive, aided by dynamic cameras- although maybe too many for my liking- and matinees for cut scenes and explanatory purposes that made the level feel more like a game.  I especially like the underwater cut scene and the teapot one, as they were both integral for explaining the scene. They also looked cool. Props to Jake on that one. 

On a personal level, I'm pleased with the quality of the assets I created, and also the processes I learnt- there's more detail on that in prior blog posts. But despite this, and the fact that one way or another- everyone worked really hard on this project, I just don't think it lived up to our expectations. It's hard to point out whats makes the level so disappointing for me, individually everything looks great but I think the we just missed out on the fine details, and ironing out the strange camera and buggy behavior.  It's a shame because I was proud of the project until about the last week, when it struck me just how much work still needed to be done with it. It was a challenge to stay positive after that. I also think every was just tired with it in the last few weeks, peoples motivation was lower, especially after our character redo and essay hand in.  I think the most important thing to learn from this project is organisation and scheduling, in groups I've been in we've managed to get away with only having a loose schedule because we worked so well as a team and were constantly helping and being involved with each other. It wasn't the case this time, so I feel we needed stricter deadlines and to be formally critiqued on our assets on a daily basis. 

My action plan for Summer is pretty solid, I'm already stuck a new student contest that I'll talk in more detail about another time, and I've got a small game art team together working on making a fully functional co-op platforming boss fighter game- we even snagged a programmer for that one. So yeah, summer will no doubt keep me busy and focused. In terms of Alice we're unsure. The plan was always to work past the deadline but now that it's passed and the general negativity about it, I feel everyone, or at least most people, will be to burned out to continue. We've decided to give it a few weeks to take a break, and see how we feel after that. 

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