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< Piro >

Pochiyama-san (by Yoshitoshi Abe)

"Pochiyama-san"

Tuesday - May 6, 2008

[Piro] - 12:37:44 - [link here]

You probably remember back in February when, after a few months of settling into the new reality of being a dad, I shook myself out and tackled the task of getting back to work. I wanted to find more reliable and efficient ways to produce better work, since my old methods were not what anyone would call ‘efficient.’

It’s been much easier said than done. As so often happens with ventures into the new, I found myself turning back to old ways of doing things just to get them done. What I’ve found, however, is that with some perseverance and some fortuitous equipment failures, the old ways of working can be put away for good.

One of these new ways of working that I’ve pursued vigorously in the past month is going fully digital with my drawings. You can judge my success with this by the fact that every comic since 1110 has been drawn entirely on the computer. There are a lot of benefits to this method - no clean up, the ability to work with layers of rough sketches and underlays, the ability to move things around and scale them up and down, etc. The more I work with it, the happier I am with the potential.

My first experiments with drawing digitally were actually back in Febuary last year, right after I got my Cintiq. I did a few comics using Alias Sketchbook Pro, which had a very natural feel to it (unlike Photoshop, which to me had the sensitivity of drawing with an ink bottle). The program crashed a lot, and in the end the process was actually taking longer to do than by hand.

A little over a month ago, I started poking at the idea again, which was natural given the fact that I was experimenting with digital hatching. The fact that most of the recent comics have not been hatched is because I was still trying to figure out the best way to get the look and feel I wanted. The search for this had to go on the back burner as I tried to get comfortable with the drawings themselves. The hatching methods would flow from whatever drawing method I settled into.

At first, I was using Painter IX to draw, which was giving me reasonable results. After a while, with a little practice and a lot of tweaking, I was getting more and more satisfied with the results. I was working on a fairly slow computer, which caused me much grief sometimes, but it worked, and as long as kept the load off the CPU, my old 1.25ghz G4 Power Mac was doing fine.

That was until two weeks ago, when Reki, that G4 Power Mac I’ve been working on since February 2003 started throwing up some signs that she was thinking of taking her day of flight.

I’ve been having some odd problems with some of my external hard drives not mounting properly, but I was more than a little puzzled when the main hard drive, the one I boot from, was ‘missing’. Everything ran ok, and I wasn’t keeping any data on it, but there was something spooky about not being able to access any of the files on the hard drive that the system was actually RUNNING off of. I had planned at some point to get a new drive and do a fresh upgrade to Leopard, and it looked like that time had finally come. The main drive is original to the machine and I’ve never done a fresh install (all upgrades) so i'd say she's due. Says a lot about how nice OSX is to work with. Try that with Windows :P)

As I set off to get a new drive and purchase Leopard, Sarah asked me how old the machine was, and wondered if maybe it was time to upgrade. I wonder if I looked forlorn or just sad as I shuffled off to the computer store... She took pity on me. After a trip to the local Apple store, I came home with a brand new dual 2.8 Ghz Mac Pro G5. I have called her Pochiyama (a rather quirky character in a doujinshi by Yoshitoshi Abe who runs a pharmacy and communicates by writing notes on paper rather than speaking :)

It took a while to get things set up, as you might imagine. There were all sorts of little problems, from having to find that DVI-I to DVI-D adapter that came with my Cintiq to get it to work in something other than VGA mode, the fact that I could not just plug my ATA drives into the new machine because it took SATA drives (easily solved, just got a big SATA drive and stuck it with my existing SATA drive in the machine and shuffled files around). I also upgraded to CS3, which resulted in my Canon 8000F scanner not working with my new machine... You get the idea. When you’ve been using one machine for almost five years, replacing it is a fairly major deal.

The thing I’m most happy about is the result of a small glitch in the system that was easily fixed by a reboot, but made me reconsider the use of Painter for drawing. After some frustrations with what appeared to be a non functioning Pan command, I fired up my new version of Photoshop (CS3) and started poking at the brush controls. What suprised me was that I was able to tweak texture and some other settings in ways that gave me a REALLY satisfying pencil brush. What I love about this is that I can draw in an enviroment I am very familiar with and one I LIKE to work with. :) All of the comics since 1114 have been done using these brushes and Photoshop CS3. The Hatching issue is almost solved as well. CS3 is full of much win and love.

One other thing I did was step back from my two monitor setup and go to using only the Cintiq. Part of this was because I’d need to get an adapter to run my 23” ACD on the new machine, and part because I still have it hooked up to Reki, but what I’ve found is that I LIKE not having that second screen there full of distractions and taking up desk space. Some of my friends thought I was crazy going back to a single monitor arrangement, but since so much of what I use for reference is analogue anyway... Having a more open desk is a bigger benefit.

Reki still works, and I can access the files on the main drive remotely (which is so damn odd) and at some point I’ll use one of these freed up ATA drives to rebuild her, but for now she’s resting happily.

I’ve been working on two other projects during all of this, which has also had an impact on my schedule, but as of today I think things will level off a bit. I’d like to thank everyone for their patience with me and the schedule in recent months, and for my lack of communication on just what exactly is going on. This long and eventful chapter is coming to a close and I’m looking forward to wrapping it up and moving on to an omake.

I have a few ideas I’m working on for that, we’ll see which way I go. It will depend on how off the deep end i feel at the time. (Chuckle)

< Dom >

"The Frustration Point"

Friday - June 13, 2008

[Dom] - 11:29:21 - [link here]

Well, it's been long enough for me to pass judgment on Ninja Gaiden II, and here is my review in a nutshell: I wish I had bought Lego Indiana Jones instead, and I am going back to playing Devil May Cry 4 on Son of Sparda difficulty instead.

The easiest comparison to make is between NG2 and DMC4, so I'll mostly use DMC4, an enjoyable game for the most part, as my reference.  The key to my replayability of DMC4 is that DMC4 loves me and wants me to be more awesome.  As such, it has a lot of tools that are just plain fun, a concrete way to measure how badass you look, and every upgrade you earn feels concrete, enjoyable, and above all, useful.  NG2, a largely unenjoyable game for me, wants to restrict me and constrain me, since most of the upgrades are hard to see and mostly useless thanks to the Move Funnel, where you essentially only use about 4 or 5 moves per weapon (this comes up often in games like Soul Calibur, where your character has about 20 useless moves and 5 good ones, while games where you have only 12 or so moves like Street Fighter usually have less filler).

Let's start with my first gripe, which is the camera.  NG2 has a player-controllable camera, which would be great if less moves made it shudder and shake.  As pointed out by many other reviewers, the most powerful move from the previous game, Flying Swallow, is strong but punishes you heavily by turning your carefully crafted camera angle into a steaming pile of crap.  I can't count the number of times I've beheaded a ninja by counter-attacking with my move of choice, then realized "oh shit, I can't see anyone" and been suicide bombed by some legless goon.  I don't fault them for this overly much - the DMC4 fixed camera system is inherited from the Resident Evil series, and it took them until around Code Veronica to get it right, so maybe in a few iterations they'll get the formula working.

But before the camera ceases to be a problem, the level design needs to improve. If the game took place in courtyards and rooftops and city streets, there wouldn't be much of a problem.  However, there are way too many small, tight corridors in the level design, which causes the camera to bump against walls spastically and essentially restricts you to two camera angles, Looking Forward and Looking Back.  Since enemies never come from just one angle, you're left with the Dynasty Warriors problem of the camera leaving gigantic blind spots.  Dynasty/Samurai Warriors games mostly take place in courtyards and fields and large, open corridors many times the size of your character that minimize the impact of this - if you can't see someone, you run around and turn around so you have everyone in front of you.

I'm not done harping on the level design, though - levels in NG2 are designed obtusely, and often I spend a minute trying to figure out where the game wants me to go.  I spent a lot of time asking myself questions like "I'm supposed to go through the fire and over that wall?  How am I supposed to know that?" or "Everything looks the same, where am I supposed to go?"  DMC4 has its problems with guidance, but it also tends to send the camera on long, loving pans of your next objective, and it tries to avoid the backtracking problem by giving you a relatively useful mini-map with a blaring "HEY IDIOT YOU JUST CAME FROM HERE" icon for your reference.

One last jab at level design: water levels in 3D action games haven't yet been pulled off well (please provide me with counter-examples that don't involve vehicular action games).  Devil May Cry learned its lesson in the first game.  No one liked the water level there, and they never tried it again - a decision I wholeheartedly agree with.  Plus, it just looks silly when you put a hand-cranked harpoon gatling gun in your ninja game.  After spending hours crushing bones, slicing off limbs, and tearing off heads, it feels silly to spin around in the water cranking a harpoon gun as if it were a '20s-era movie camera.

Enemy spawn patterns need a lot of work too - there are strong visual cues in the DMC games when enemies spawn, while often enemies will just sneak up on you and stab you because the camera is pointing the wrong way in NG2.  While I don't mind this TOO much when the enemies are ninjas, it's just odd that I have no indication that there's a giant wolfman behind me trying to chuck the torso of his fallen comrade.  The bosses and newly introduced monsters are especially bad at this, where you have to come out of cut scenes or load screens blocking or you'll eat a third of your life bar via a throw or Screen-Eating Attack that happens within a split-second of you regaining control of Ryu.  Ranged fights are also a party killer, where you have to take some time out trying to find where those damn archers are, then trying to figure out if you can get to them instead of trying to use ranged weapons against them and slowing down the game.

All this negative commentary said, I still really enjoy combat in NG2 - but a lot of other factors drag it down.  In short: too much time spent trying to look cool, not enough time being fun.

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