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July 9th, 2013

Penguins, Jazz and a party

Before we get started, a notification on our Twitter; No, we haven't abandoned Twitter, on the contrary, the most recent mini updates have been posted there. It's just that the widget we used for embedding our Twitter feed to our front page no longer works. Right now the only way to embed the feed, it seems, is via Twitter's own embed app, which is one ugly eyesore and you can't meaningfully customize it. I'm currently investigating if there are some CSS tricks or some such to bypass the horrible Metro-alike layout of the app, but in the meantime check our Twitter feed at – where else – twitter.com/PenguinDT

What am I doing right now?

Right now I'm the process of totally re-writing the way we handle sequences. For those unfamiliar with TAGAP modding, in TAGAP Engine sequences are in-engine run-time events that aren't interactive, in other words everything from cinematics to extra menus and title screens.

To be honest, the way we did this in TAGAP and TAGAP 2 was horrendously clunky. I originally didn't plan to have full-motion in-engine cinematics, only retro-ish motion comic style content. But plans evolved and I kept stacking stuff on top of the existing sequence engine. It works and quite well at that, but in order to do things in TAGAP 3 properly we have to abolish the entire mess.

For example; The old system allowed only up to three cuts within a sequence – left-over from the first TAGAP that supported no cutting at all, being originally designed for slightly moving comic panels. So, in order to build more complex scenes, the sequences had to be split into multiple scripts, each taking a tiny fraction of a second to load. On slowest-of-the-slow computers this means longer the cinematic, more the audio streams and content get out of sync, forcing us to do some creative editing to mask the re-sync points... which again put more limitations on how Petja would have to compose the score. So yes, it's a mess.

While we got by with it, for TAGAP 3 I decided to rebuild the entire thing from scratch, regardless of what kind of cinematics we end up having – that's an open question still, BTW. First thing I did was to throw away the screen orientation controls of old, which were based on the same code as the image manipulation stuff. Now, instead of arbitrary and vague control values, we have camera cuts. Each cut can have it's own properties, from positioning to movement speed, from zoom to focus and – in near future, bloom. Right now we can have 16 cuts, but that's just a test value for debugging purposes and there's nothing stopping us for going higher.

Right now I'm re-doing the image manipulation system. You can still manipulate the image layers via movement, scale and so forth, but all the commands have been made simpler and easier to script. For example fading is no longer a vague mess of cyclic values, but simply 'starts at x MS and takes y MS to fade out', similar to how we do the parametric sprites.

And obviously, to wrap it all up we have the already-implemented parametric skeletal animation system and HD sprites, meaning we no longer have to create special versions of the main characters for certain poses. For example the ending of the first TAGAP had all the close-ups of Pablo and Pedro as separately created image layers, moved about with the sequence scripts. Thank the Old Ones this is no longer the case!

But wait, why am I doing this now if we haven't even started thinking about cinematics yet? Well, we do need the system in place in order to create things like title and game over screens. I'd rather do these things once than use the old system and later port it to the new one. And even if we decided to go all extreme and use video formats (if so, it'll be Theora), we still would likely create the content for those, at least partially, in-engine, so I'd rather work harder now to make things easier in the future. Heck, at this point we haven't written off the possibility of doing the whole motion comic thing instead, but even that would be easier to pull off with the new engine, so it's a win-win all round.

Music and trailer

Both Petja's soundtrack and the trailer are taking shape. We have a solid script / plan for the first gameplay teaser-trailer ready and now all we need to do is to record all the material. Half of it is in the can, the rest will follow this weekend. My old-as-boots PC can't bare to both run the game AND capture the footage via FRAPS in full-HD without serious framerate hit, so we'll do the recording on Petja's gaming rig. Don't fret, though; While TAGAP 3 requires a lot more horsepower than the previous two, it's still very playable on my laptop which was used to develop the previous titles. It's the real-time HD recording thrown on top of it all that makes it a slideshow.

Anyway, as the moving pictures début closes in, so does the soundtrack début, obviously. The song we're going to use in the teaser is a remix of one of the tracks composed for the game, cut to fit the running time and accentuated appropriately in places to suit the theme we're going for with this trailer. So far so good.

Speaking of the music in general, we've finally laid full outline for the entire soundtrack. The most interesting bit is how we're approaching the on-the-fly dynamic nature of the music. It was actually pretty tough, as every song needs two distinctively different versions that still have to progress the same way, to the beat. We're still prototyping this concept and things may change, but right now the action version of the music is similar to the TAGAP soundtracks you know. However, when the action tunes down a bit, i.e. when returning to hub areas or retracing your steps, the music will crossfade into more acoustic version with generally less going on. So far it has been really effective and once we've finalized the details I'm hoping to throw a demo of this your way via SoundCloud.

SteamJazz

Speaking of clouds and music, one project I've been contributing to is non-TAGAP, non-PenguinDT and even not a video game; SteamJazz, a steampunk pen-and-paper RPG being created by Timo 'voice of Primo' Liimatta, Heini 'the guest artist' Liimatta and Eetu Pykäläinen. The artwork side of the project is spearheaded, naturally, by Heini and she divided specific aspects of the art to different folks – and the duty of creating clockwork-based automatons became mine. I was also involved in writing the rules and description of the automatons, so I luckily know pretty well what I'm supposed to draw.

One thing that has been really exciting about this is the fact this is the first time I've gotten the change to work with proper digital drawing tablet and pen. Yep, until now I've coloured all my pencil drawings with shaded, textured vectors. It's obviously very different approach to anything I've done before, as you can't even compare it to traditional, physical arts as there are always the layers, effects, infinite undos and other niceties of digital workflow. Huge thanks to Heini for letting me practice this with her equipment.

So, here is my first illustration to the project SteamJazz – and my very first drawing coloured via digital painting techniques.

While I'm having a blast with this project, some of you might be worried if working on SteamJazz mean I have less time to work on TAGAP? Perhaps a bit, but all this is actually beneficial to TAGAP 3. For one, working on something else is healthy and inspiring, preventing from getting an artistic burnout. Secondly, while TAGAP is so hi-tech it couldn't be much further from steampunk, playing around with very different concepts is inspiring nonetheless. And finally if I really get the hang of this digital painting thing, you can expect to see some cool bonus content and concept art done in that fashion.

In the end of July the crew of SteamJazz is heading to RopeCon to demonstrate the game, so if you're planning to head there, be sure not to miss it. I won't be there as RopeCon coincidens with the 'TAGAP Day' and our planned gameplay video debut, but the core crew will be, so feel free to say 'hi'.

SteamJazz will be distributed under Creative Commons license, meaning it'll be free for you download, play and even expand upon. For more information on SteamJazz, keep an eye out for SteamJazz.net.

Gaming front

No rest for the wicked, at least if you try to keep up with video games all the while developing them AND having a dayjob. So, recent nights have gone by both cleaning up the backlog and diving into most recent games.

First one since last post was Sleeping Dogs, formerly known as 'True Crime: Hong Kong'. It was an enjoyable romp through the mean streets and high-rises of Hong Kong. I really liked most of my time dealing with everything from police heists and triad wars to shopping wedding dresses and singing Karaoke – which is more I can say for all the extracurricular activities of, say GTA IV. Still, when it comes to dramatic writing and storytelling, Rockstar still has the edge over United Front. When it comes to hand-to-hand combat in an open world game, however, only Batman can go toe-to-toe against Sleeping Dogs.

Next up was Dead Space 3. My views on this third game are really mixed; It's still the Dead Space I know and love, yet many of the elements I liked the original for have been diluted or mixed into something else, lessening the impact. I guess it's a classic case of sequelitis; It got bigger and bigger until the intimate and claustrophobic horror tale got buried under tons of boombast, wise-cracks and co-op bromance. I stress it's not a bad game, but I do feel this was the least amazing entry of the franchise. And no, I didn't purchase any microtransaction boosts, nor should you; They are unnecessary.

Speaking of horror games with bad rep, I went bargain bin diving and found Resident Evil 6 for a cheap price. I didn't like RE5 and I had pretty much zero hopes for 6, but when we fired it up for a co-op session with Petja it actually wasn't that bad. I'd go as far to say I really, REALLY liked it. Granted, we haven't gotten far, we're still in the Leon-campaign which everyone and their mother calls the best part of the experience, but so far it seems great. I'm not sure it would work in single player, but if you can find the game for cheap and have someone to share the experience with, you might want to give it a spin.

And on topic of Capcom, I just finished the descent into masterfully realized Neo-Paris in Remember Me from the new-comer developer Dontnod. While the games are nothing alike, I'd still compare this to Mirror's Edge; Both games have some big issues, but the charm and uniqueness of it all makes it really easy to forgive all the shortcomings. That, and the soundtrack is one of the best I've heard in a while, combining glitchy electronica to classical orchestral motifs, just like the art design combines abstract sci-fi shapes to classic architecture of Paris. It may not be perfect, but it's one of the more memorable experiences of the year – no pun intended.

Right now in progress; Saints Row the Third. I really didn't like the first one, so I never took the second one for a spin, which I think in retrospect was a mistake. Saints Row the Third however seemed like the open-world bastard cousin of Duke Nukem, from the developers of Red Faction Guerrilla no less, so I jumped on board. This game has been sitting in my to-play-cue for quite a while now, but after I saw the trailers for the Saints Row IV, I just had to get into the action. Seriously; Saints IV looks exactly what I wanted Crackdown, one of my favourite games of this console generation, to evolve to. I just need to familiarize myself with the setting before getting on Saints IV train, so here comes The Third. Given how much stuff has been going on lately, I couldn't think of a better game for winding down.

Doctor Who front

Yep, it's been quite a while since I made an update on this front, but seriously, there hasn't been much to update. I'm up-to-date on all the stories released on DVD so far and sadly I haven't been able yo keep up with Big Finish stories, but I'll try to catch up by the November.

But oh boy, now there is something to talk about, as I finally had the chance to see the second half of series seven, introducing the all new companion Clara. The whole purpose of this run was to raise the stakes for the 50th anniversary special arriving on November 23rd. And oh boy, it does so splendidly. In fact if I didn't know Moffatt had something really special (as in, Tennant-special) brewing, I would've totally accepted as the last episode of this run as The Special. It's that good, grand and possibly game changing, at least to those who don't know all there is to know about The Doctor.

And to top it all off, I was able to secure tickets to the official Doctor Who Celebration on the November 23rd. That's right, me and Petja are actually getting the honour of attending the most epic 50th birthday party in the history of the universe – and possibly get the chance to meet some of the Doctors! Not only that, but we've planned our trip so that we get to visit London Zoo as well, meaning I get to meet real penguins for the first time in my life! I can't even begin to describe how excited I am for this, it's like counting days to Santa Clause when you're a little kid, only billion times more epic!

Until next time,

Jouni Lahtinen, the head penguin