Saturday, December 17, 2016

More Historical Artifacts from Tyria

About a month or so ago, I posted some old artwork I'd found in my stash of files from my time as an artist at Arenanet back in the early days of the development of Guild Wars, and it was one of my most popular tweets ever. I had more than a few requests to do this again, and since I'm a bit of a pack-rat when it comes to my digital files, I figured I would dig up some more images to share with you all, but since Twitter's character limit doesn't really give me a chance to get into the background of the images I'm about to share here, I thought a blog post would better suit my needs. So without further ado, here's some more artwork from the early days of Guild Wars!

Arenanet Color Tests

This first image is just a color test, which shows the original Arenanet logo I designed in various color schemes. We didn't just go to red/black/white, for a while the red/yellow was popular as were the slate blue pairings one row up from the bottom right. Ultimately, the current logo color scheme was chosen for its readability on both black and white backgrounds. The "planet" swoosh in the background survived up to about our first E3 I believe (some of our original dev swag, like the E3 polos have this version of the logo), but was trimmed out for simplicity before we launched Prophecies.

Guild Wars Banner Logo

Guild Wars Banner and Spears Logo and Box treatment
The above images show a couple of the logo treatments we experimented with for Guild Wars. Amazingly, we all fell in love with the font treatment pretty quickly, and it really didn't deviate much from concept to production, but we went back and forth a lot on adding other elements to the text to make it stand out. The concepts above were rough layouts to get a feel for how other elements might complement the text, but ultimately we fell back again on simplicity and had the plain text embossed and "sexed up" with shine and high end rendering, and left to stand on its own.

Tyria Roadmap
The graphic here is a texture that was applied to road signs in Ascalon in the original Prophecies. In addition to being one of the few in-game assets to actually show a partial map of Tyria, what makes this texture unique is that it was the first use of one of the in-game alphabets that I "authored": Ascalonian. I wanted to have text on the map so that eagle-eyed players would be able to "read" the map. In practice it was probably not very readable given the size of the assets and the texture compression of the original game, but even so I didn't want to just write the names of the places on the map in English, so I spent a weekend researching old scripts and "stole" the Phoenician letters for use as our Ascalonian alphabet. In hindsight I wish I'd used this as a base to craft our own unique alphabet, but as I had no aspirations to do more that this single map at the time, I didn't put much time into this effort.

Unused Alphabet
Speaking of alphabets, the image above was a test I began doing around the time we started working on Factions, for an alphabet that we would have used for the Kurzicks and/or Luxons. However, we dropped this alphabet in favor of building out the Canthan ideograms instead, since that was a much more complicated but ultimately we though more rewarding language challenge. I've returned to this image now and then in case it made sense to do another alphabet, but it never found a home, so here it is, shared from the cutting room floor.

Sacred Geometry
So you can probably tell I'm a bit of a nerd in terms of how I approach creative challenges, and the above image I'm sharing because it demonstrates how I get sucked into the details of environmental storytelling quite a bit. The above texture is from structures inside the mesa at Augury Rock, known in Prophecies as the "Hall of Ascension". Within this space, your player would face the ultimate challenge: yourself, in doppelganger form, in which defeating your shadow self enabled you to "ascend", and become closer to the gods. As an atheist, I wanted to represent divinity through the majesty of science and so I loaded the Hall with representations of "sacred geometry" which is the result of math and art coming together in beautiful ways. If you look closely, you can see the "golden rectangle" repeated throughout, and other shapes that employ the golden ratio, a mathematical term for when the ratio of two quantities is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. It's all very nerdy, but I was always very interested in the confluence between science and art, and how geometry is used (or misused) to construe divinity from order and natural law.

Mantle Housing
This next image is a texture that was used in an unusual way - In most cases, textures are applied to objects at small scale, and repeated so that it can be used at varying distances and sizes. This one was applied to large structures outside the play space around the Krytan region, to represent cities off in the distance, out of our player's reach. In a way it acted more like a matte painting, though it couldn't have depth cuing because of the different ways in which it was used. I can't say I think this technique was highly successful, but I include it here more as an interesting look at how we used to have to do things in the earlier days of game dev - nowadays you would just model all these things and build them into the skybox!

Screen to Texture
Here's another process oriented image. In the days before we had 3D sculpting software like Zbrush and Mudbox, to get detailed 3D elements onto textures it was all hand-authored in 2D and we used a variety of techniques to accomplish this. One thing I did was use the game as a rendering engine...I would set up scenes in the game and screen-capture them. Then I would isolate the elements I wanted, such as the figures from the background, and run them through some old school Photoshop filters (to make them look embossed). I would them take that, composite them together and spend a couple hours touching up the result (since when scaled down onto a 256 x 256, or 512 x 512 texture sheet, a LOT of details just get lost). Nowadays, texture sheets are 2048 x 2048 and up, and creating them usually involves starting with a sculpt in Zbrush.

Wine Bottles
Durmand Priory Books
I'll end this post with some of my favorite kinds of textures and these are from Guild Wars 2. It was probably pretty obvious by this point in my career that I was more interested in the lore and storytelling side of game development than in just straight up being an artist, because whenever I was assigned to do detailed work like wine bottle labels and books, I spent WAY more time on them than was necessary. For the wine bottle labels, I took concept art that was created by our amazingly talented concept artists, and graphic designed them with my alphabet for New Krytan. And when I got assigned to make book objects for populating the Durmand Priory library (or wherever books were needed), I went to town, designing book covers, drawing charts, writing paragraphs (or copying them from the lore pages of our wiki) and just generally indulging my inner lore nerd. Even though I knew most of the text would get compressed and scaled down to unreadability, it didn't stop me from putting all those details in when I authored the books.

So there you have it. Some more art background geekiness for your viewing/reading pleasure. Hope you all enjoyed it. :-D

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Chronic Depression

Chronic depression is when you wake to a new day feeling refreshed and rested, but nonetheless feeling like the best thing that you can do for yourself is to crawl back into bed and not come out. Ever.

Chronic depression is when you become overwhelmed with sadness at the idea that your body won't allow you to sleep like you want to, because it's already had enough rest.

Chronic depression is when you snap at your wife simply for offering her help and standing up for you to solve a trivial problem, but because of the irrationality of the feelings that are overwhelming you, this only makes you feel even more futile and useless.

Chronic depression is when your son tries to engage you with something that you both share in common and all you can muster is a one-word response, or worse yet, with a yell to leave you alone because they're not yet equipped to recognize how agonized you are at the moment.

Chronic depression is focusing on every mundane task you can, because there is order in that, and you can make some sense of the world.

Chronic depression is chronic, and no matter how much therapy you receive or how much support you have...some days you will just be a complete and utter mess.

Chronic depression is me.

Chronic depression will recede like the tide, and I will grab onto the moments that matter when it does.

Chronic depression is waiting.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

HeForShe and HeAndShe

Recently Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations to unveil and describe her HeForShe campaign, which is asking men to sign up on their website to show a commitment to supporting gender equality. There have been the usual critiques of the ideas which she presented, and of the motivations of Ms. Watson herself (as well as some pathetic attempts to shame her with threats of leaking compromising photos of the young woman), and even some who have suggested that we should instead use the "HeAndShe" hashtag as a more appropriate banner for the fight for gender equality. 

While I do not often describe myself as a feminist*, I take issue with the central arguments behind those who have offered the HeAndShe alternative, as it implies that men and women can advocate for equality equally. But that's the problem, isn't it? If women and men could advocate for themselves and each other equally, we wouldn't even be talking about equality - it would have been attained. 

The reason HeForShe is important is specifically because we aren't equal yet. I may choose to say I am a humanist rather than a feminist, but my objection to the term is purely semantic, as I believe it's important to support feminism's guiding principles, even if I don't always agree with every feminist. 

To best illustrate my point, I think of it in the following way:

A man and a woman begin a journey together.
As they walk, their paths deviate.
Eventually the man ends up at the top of a hill, from which he can see far off into the distance. He remarks about the breathtaking view.
The woman has tried to climb the same hill, but there were challenges she couldn’t overcome, and the man did not always reach back to help her, so she is only halfway to the top.
She wants to climb up to the top of the hill to be with the man and see the view for herself, but the constant setbacks and challenges have worn her down, and she knows it will take much, much longer to get there on her own.
She waves and calls out to the man, asking him to help her get to the top of the hill.

HeAndShe implies either that the man does not need to help the woman get to the top of the hill, or worse, that the man and the woman are already on top of the hill together.

HeForShe stands for the man doing whatever he can to help the woman get to the top of the hill.

There are those who say that HeForShe puts "women and children first". No it doesn't. It means that men should be active participants in achieving equality for women, so that they can both enjoy the view from the hill. Sure, we could just dig in our heels and let women fight their way to the top on their own, but what does that say about us? I won't stand idly by if someone, anyone, is genuinely asking for the same rights I, and others, already have and I am in a position to help. 

This was a deliberately simplistic example, and no I don't pretend to have all the answers or to imply that men aren't also suffering in certain areas or face no gender bias, or that those who are transgender or questioning don't have their own unique challenges. All of those problems exist, and it's not going to be an easy solution, but I agree with Ms. Watson's overriding philosophy, and I feel that we need to start with the most obvious problems first, and right now if we're going to expect women to advocate for both genders equally, we first need to help get them up the hill. 

If you still support #HeAndShe, I have a suggestion for you! Perhaps we can and should re-purpose the #HeAndShe hashtag as the rallying cry for both men and women to advocate equally for those who are transgender or questioning. Imagine a world where everyone stands on the hill together, regardless of who they identify as. What a world that would be!

If you are a man who believes that we need to be active participants in securing equal rights for women, you can sign up at the HeForShe campaign's website here: HeForShe's Website
* I personally prefer to champion gender equality under the umbrella of humanism, because gender equality is a HUMAN right, and also because I don't see the issue as a binary equation but rather I believe people's identities exist on a three axis spectrum of gender, orientation and biology. I don't dislike the term feminist, I simply find it doesn't adequately describe my own philosophy.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Barefoot 365

Last year, I started seeing some of my friends and colleagues posting some of their personal photos to their social media feeds with the hashtag #Project365. Being a bit of a voyeur, I always enjoy seeing pieces of other people's lives, and some of the images my friends had posted were quite breathtaking. I looked into it some more and realized that this was not just a random thing my fellow tweeters and facebookers were doing, but there was actually an entire website based around this concept of taking and posting an image a day for a year.

When I thought about the scarcity of my New Year's resolutions for 2014 (see my previous post below), I made a pledge just over a week ago, that I would participate in my own #Project365. But being that, as a barefooter, I have a rather particular and unique take on life, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do some outreach as a barefooter, and have launched #Barefoot365.

My project is deliberately designed to show a year in the life of a barefooter. Most times, my barefooting is mundane. But other times, it's not. The point is not for me to show how "cool" or how "brave" or how "smart" barefooting is. My goal, is to show just how "ordinary" being barefoot is.

People who don't know me, and who meet me for the very first time, are almost always full of questions about my barefooting:

How do you do that?

Why do you do that?

What is it all about?

And I sometimes feel like these questions are really, really unusual. Because I honestly cannot see how someone can look at me doing something that is completely natural for our species, and ask such questions seriously. In truth, it kind of saddens me that we have climbed so far away from our origins that questions like this seem necessary to many people when they're confronted with something as innate to our species as living barefoot.

But, I also understand and am sympathetic to these questions, and that is why I am hoping that my #Barefoot365 project will show just how usual my unusualness really is. :-)

You can find and follow this project at the following link: Barefoot Matthew's #Barefoot 365

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Looking Forward to 2014

As I look ahead to 2014, there are two major things that I hope to accomplish this year, so I guess you could call them my resolutions. They are:

  1. Finish writing my book.
  2. Get back into yoga.
I posted these to Twitter, but Twitter is so fleeting that I felt that I needed to also record them here if I was to have any hope of garnering the willpower it will take to accomplish these goals. Fortunately, I'm already well on my way with the first goal of completing my book, as I've used the two weeks that I've had off of work to get really deep into editing the first of the dozen chapters I've already written. I've also been brainstorming the rest of the chapters to get the book to the stopping point that I would like for the first volume. Yes, volume, as in I hope to turn this story into a series of books. I am not focused on that longer term goal yet, though. I first want to get one book written, see how well it's received and then go from there. I like my own writing, and the few people who have read some of my work have consistently complimented me on my writing, so I'm hopeful that this hobby will take off and maybe even launch me in a new direction. The cosmos knows I've been needing something like that for a while.

I'm not going to reveal much about the story of my book yet...even though I've written a dozen chapters (technically there are more, but some of them exist only in a Molskine notebook on my desk) I feel as though it's still too early in the process, and the feedback I've received and hope to continue to receive will likely shift the details of my story somewhat. But I can say that thematically it's a story about holding on to one's humanity; to hope and love and strength in the face of overwhelming challenges.

The second goal shouldn't be too daunting, but I've been procrastinating about it already for a while now. It's hard enough to find physical activities that I enjoy anyway, but I think part of the reason I've been sitting on my hands on this goal for so long is that no matter what physical activity I attempt to get into, I invariably end up with some kind of chronic injury that sidelines me temporarily. Then once it heals up, which usually takes at least a couple of months, my motivation to get back to it has completely evaporated. Example: Three years ago, I was doing yoga once a week and I began to notice a pain in my wrist when doing the downward dog or plank pose. When I checked it out with my doctor, it turned out I had developed a painful cyst in my wrist, and had to get it excised by a surgeon. Recovery took months, including physical therapy to regain the strength I'd lost. By then, I was gun-shy about going back to it.

I know it's entirely possible that the two incidents were unrelated (my cyst could very well have simply been work-related), but this was just the latest in a very long string of injuries I've sustained or noticed while trying to be physical. It's been so bad that I sometimes come to think of myself as "Mr. Glass" from the movie Unbreakable. I should probably take a lesson from my first goal and not get discouraged like that, and work harder to get past my challenges in this regard. I just don't know what I can do when my body is consistently and clearly telling me that being active is a surefire way for me to get hurt.

I guess from the fact that I now feel better about my year ahead, just from having blogged about all of this, maybe I should add "Blogging more" to my list of resolutions this year. I've been somewhat reserved with my blog because a lot of the things that are on my mind end up crossing the line into either the realm of my personal life, or my career, and I don't know that anyone cares to read my petty complaints and observations about my life or work. 

With regards to personal stuff, I never like talking much about my family life to the Internet, as it just feels disrespectful to them for some reason. So when I talk about personal stuff it's usually about things that affect only me, but then if I post like that all the time I feel like people will think I'm just pining to be "swinging single guy" or something, which I'm not. I think part of the reason I fear these things is that many of my most intense interests tend towards the more controversial subjects, like religion, sex and sexuality, and politics. It's tough to find the balance in my blogging between showing myself as a responsible husband and father, and speaking out about the things that interest me most.

Nor do I necessarily want to paint myself as a troublemaker if I am griping about something to do with my job or career (of which there are plenty of topics to choose from, unfortunately), or even if I'm saying something positive, I often feel like I might say something that I probably shouldn't say outside of official channels. I've got drafts of posts you wouldn't believe in this regard. But I'm extremely protective of keeping my job, and so I say nothing at all. 

And lastly, I'm a wordy person. I write a lot. I write, then I edit, then I write some more, then I edit again. Literally, it can sometimes take me an hour to write a single email. Not kidding. I'm not particularly good with communicating my thoughts the first time, so I iterate a lot. The same holds for me when writing blog entries, and so I expect that writing a single blog post will take a minimum of an hour, and I don't always feel like I will have the time (This one clocked at just shy of 40 minutes - hey, that's improvement!). But as I am now writing more with my book, maybe brevity is a skill I'll begin to pick up on soon.

So, maybe between the two goals outlined above, I'll have more than enough other good things to blog about here besides work this year. I hope everyone had a Happy New Year and is looking forward to a good 2014.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

2013 By The Numbers

As we get close to the end of 2013, I feel like taking a look back at a very incredible and crazy year for me and my career. 2012 was almost entirely wrapped up in one single thing: shipping Guild Wars 2, while 2013 was a hodge-podge of various experiences and challenges, and I feel like I've grown more in this past year as a designer than in the three years previous! :-D So here, for your perusal, is my "hit list" for the year.

January - (TOP SECRET) Sorry, I can't talk about what I did for the close of 2012 and beginning of 2013. Suffice it to say that some of the things I was involved with during that time have been or will soon be in development.

February/March/April - Living World: Flame and Frost Retribution. In February I joined the Living World teams to work on Flame and Frost Retribution, specifically as the main designer on the Molten Weapons Facility. I designed most of the main path through the dungeon, scripting all of the encounters and writing scenes and dialogue. The only parts I did not work on in this dungeon were the mid-boss fight against the "computer" and the final fight with the Dynamic Duo. Those two boss fights were implemented by designer extraordinaire Leif Chappelle. I was really happy with how the two of us collaborated to create a story dungeon that IMHO had really great pacing, strong boss mechanics and I also created and implemented the "Sonic Periscope" turret for the release prior to that, but the less said about that, the better. ;-P

May/June/July - Living World: Bazaar of the Four Winds/Cutthroat Politics. After Flame and Frost, our Living World team moved on to tackle the Labyrinthine Cliffs and the Bazaar of the Four Winds. When our team was told that we would be building out a new public map that was based around a bazaar, I just about flipped my shit. As the most experienced city builder on the team, I was chomping at the bit to get back to flexing some of those muscles. But because this was an open world explorable map instead of a hub I also got to add some fun flavorful events around the area. I worked on the marketplace spawns, conversations and events, though for most of the really memorable characters I give all credit to our amazing writers. For Cutthroat Politics, I worked on the Candidate Trials. While I think that there were some interesting ideas that I was experimenting with in this content, I don't think this ended up being as successful as I would have liked it to be. Maybe it's a concept that I'll be able to return to at some point and prove it out more successfully.

August/September/October/November - Living World: Tower of Nightmares/The Nightmares Within. After working on a bright, happy release like the previous BotFW, we took a step into darkness as a team and began to work in earnest on building the Tower of Nightmares. One thing that was an immediate difference in this cycle was being moved up to Principal Designer. At Arenanet, that's a "temporary" role but it equates to being something of a "junior" lead designer for a release. A principal designer is responsible for overseeing the release's design, so I got to write the design document for the release, and then oversee the execution of that design and work closely with the design leads and directors to ensure the release aligns with the core pillars of our design philosophy. This does entail more responsibility for managing design, so I took on less actual implementation work this time around. But I did schedule myself to create the opening "The Nightmare Unveiled" story instance, and also implemented the krait obelisk shard scavenger hunt. For the latter I worked really closely with our writing and narrative design experts to ensure that the lore for this was really well thought out. And for the former, I relished the chance to finally be able to build a solo instance, and I had a ton of fun creating something that was exactly the kind of content I enjoy playing. I'm also working on something else that I won't talk about quite yet as it hasn't been released yet, but I'm really proud of as well.

December - ??? I can't say anything about my next plans yet obviously, but you can be sure it'll be something different based on how the rest of this year has been.

So that's it for 2013. I'm really curious to see what 2014 will bring for me and my career, but I hope it's as interesting as this year has certainly been!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

First Impressions of the Sensori Venture minimalist sandal from Xero Shoes

Last week, Xero Shoes announced that they were branching out beyond their "Do it yourself" huarache kits by introducing a new line of "barefoot" sandals which they named the Sensori Venture. The introductory video posted to their website pegged this new sandal as something that was designed to "sit in the middle" between more expensive varieties of minimalist footwear and cheap flip flops and sandals.

Having given them a few days of road testing, both running in them for 30 minutes and wearing them to work with me, I can honestly say that this is exactly what they promised it would be. :-)

I received them quite quickly (two days shipping) and I opened the package excitedly. I got the charcoal in a men's size 8, which I was a little bit nervous about, because my normal shoe size is between 9 and 10, but according to their sizing guide, these sandals are slightly different from an ordinary shoe's sizes. And they're mostly right. I printed out their sizing chart and according to this, I should be wearing an 8. When I first opened the package, I thought I had made a terrible mistake. The sandal straps looked like they would be WAY too tight. I slipped them on and sure enough there was absolutely no give.

Undaunted though, I decided to mess around with the locking straps a bit, and that's when I realized that there was still about 3/4 of an inch of slack. I adjusted the straps, which admittedly wasn't easy but this was most likely down to the newness of the material more than it was any design flaw. It took maybe 15-20 minutes of noodling, but I finally got the straps to a point where they were comfortable. I will say, this is a case where I am right on the edge in terms of sizing. I might at some point pick up the next size up to see if those feel even better, but as they are, it might not be a bad thing for them to be snug.

That afternoon I took them out to a light run around my neighborhood, and I could tell right away how amazing I'm going to find owning a pair of these. First, a disclaimer. If you know me, and have followed me at all, you probably know I'm a barefoot "purist". Meaning, there's very, very little in this world that bothers me enough to feel a desire to put on shoes. I will tolerate shoes when I need's just that I'm lucky enough that I almost never need them.

But there is one exception to that rule, and for me that rule is cold, wet ground. Standing on wet asphalt isn't awful for short stretches, but where I run into problems is when I have to be on cold, wet ground for a sustained amount of time. There are two main problems with this for me:

1. Skin Erosion - I don't know if other barefooters just deal with this, but it really bothers me. The constant moisture in our area seeps into the skin, and after several minutes of exposure, the skin begins to break down. When it does this, I find that it no longer matter how thick or tough my soles are...I will get blisters, or breaks in the skin, or peeling, or any number of skin-related issues that can quickly sideline me from activity.

2. Stinging->Numbness - One of the most frequent questions that I get from non-barefooters in the winter time is "Don't your feet get cold?" Well yeah, of course they do. When you go outside your hands and feet get cold. So do your ears, and your's a rather silly question honestly. But getting cold feet isn't really a detractor in and of itself. What IS a detractor is that if you spend any amount of time on cold, wet ground like what we experience a lot of during our winters, you do feel the stinging of the cold air/water. But even this is not really a bother by itself. The danger for me really lies in what can happen once you get used to the stinging, and that is numbness. Although your body does have a defense mechanism for dealing with cold extremities (the process is called vasodilation; your body begins to open the blood vessels in the lower legs to shunt additional blood to the digits, turning them pink), it's a cyclical thing, and your body tends to alternate between vasodilation and numbing. It can also be cold enough that vasodilation becomes ineffective, which is when you run the risk of frostbite. For me, whenever I've had any kind of nagging injury from running barefoot, I attribute it to sloppy form, which is almost inevitable when you spend part of your run unable to feel the ground.

Slipping on the Sensori Venture completely removes the above two issues while still giving me enough ground feel to still get the sense that I'm barefoot. I own another pair of the standard Xero shoes huaraches, but I never really grew to love them because they really were a pain to lace up and they felt really floppy on my feet, like they were going to fall off or fold up under my foot, causing me to twist an ankle. But the Sensori Venture is nothing like them. It fits like a glove, without the confining feel of one. I've never had any interest in trying a Five Fingers type of running or sport shoe, but I always appreciated that they wouldn't have those instability problems of the huaraches. But I never once felt the Sensori Venture move apart from my felt like an extension of it.

The Sensori Venture is a really well made sandal, in my estimation, and I do think that they'll be my "go-to" footwear, even for just casual wear. You can even flip the heel strap around and wear them as normal, albeit unusual looking, flip flops. There's only two negatives I have to say, but both are really minor. The first is what I mentioned before about the straps being kind of tight in the beginning. Some of that may get better as I break them in and go for longer and longer runs. The second issue I've had is more of a mind-body error on my part. One of the features of the Sensori Venture is that it has a heel cup. I'm still a little unsure how I feel about this feature. It's supposed to be designed to keep your foot from slipping and sliding on the footbed. Since I've not felt any slipping or sliding, it may very well be doing its job brilliantly. But it also has a heel strap, and that heel strap is covered in a really sift material which is designed not to abrade, but this also makes it so that you don't really feel it at all. And as a result, in my initial testing, it feels to my brain, like the heel strap has clipped down and is now resting UNDER my heel. But it hasn't...I'm simply feeling the heel cup. This is a pretty minor complaint, all things considered, and I may just get used to both of them.

Either way, I'm really excited by this new line from Xero Shoes. I hope it does really well for the company. The world could only benefit from more people trying to live barefoot, or at least the next closest alternative. :-)