Ethereality News & Weblog

March 27, 2010

My Zendrum videos (performance, mapping, techniques)

I promised before that I’d do some Zendrum videos, and I finally found a bit of free time to do them. Here are the first two–probably will do more in the future.

Short performance on the Zendrum LT:

Explanation of the mapping and how I play the Zendrum:

I don’t know about you guys, but when I watch movies or TV shows, one thing that has always irritated me to no end is the really cheap and illogical usage of misunderstandings between characters. For example, recently when I was watching the reboot of the V TV series, and I was so annoyed by the fact that the lead female character (Erica) couldn’t spend ten minutes to explain to her son why she wants him to stay away from the visitors, and this is after she’s already learned of the truth. What kind of mother does that? Why in the world would she not tell him the truth as soon as she found out? That kind of information is exactly what would save his life, yet the writers of the show decided she should withhold this information, which leads to his son getting even more involved with the visitors.

What annoys me about this kind of writing is that it’s a cheap way to create drama, and it’s cheap because most half-way intelligent people wouldn’t do it. We all know that the more we inform those we care about, the better protected they are, even if it’ll distress them. When choosing between potentially saving their lives by informing them of pending/potential danger and not wanting to distress them, there shouldn’t be any contest whatsoever. I could understand if there’s a legitimate reason where one character simply cannot tell the truth–whether it’s to protect those he cares about, out of shame, or for some greater good, but too often in movies and TV shows, the withholding of information or the refusal to explain oneself is totally arbitrary and a cheap gimmick to create tension and drama based on misunderstandings. Most of the time such actions are out of character as well. Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, pay attention–you’ll see this cheap trick being used by bad writers, and you’ll also notice that good writers don’t pull that shit. When good writers depict misunderstandings, there’s always a logical reason why it happened.

I finally got around to playing a bit of Left 4 Dead 2, and I have to say, I was kind of disappointed. It really felt more like a 1.5 update than a sequel. The addition of melee weapons really doesn’t add or change the game significantly, and the new enemies are kind of forgettable, except for maybe the spitter. The characters are also kind of flat, with the exception of Ellis, who’s probably my favorite survivor character so far. I haven’t played through all the campaigns yet–just the first one, so maybe my feeling will change.

March 25, 2010

Post apocalyptic zombie MMO

For those of you that couldn’t make the first run of my workshop, Becoming a Better Artist: Critical knowledge and techniques for today’s artists, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll rerun the workshop again in early June, so you might want to plan for it now so you don’t miss it again. We’re into the third week of the workshop, and the students are telling me that their minds are totally blown from all the new knowledge they’ve gained. Comments like that makes me feel like all the hard work I put into putting together the workshop is all worth it.

I contacted Jeff Strain of Undead Labs a few months ago about the zombie MMO they are working on, because I have been working on a zombie MMO idea for a few years now, and wanted to contribute in some way to their project. I’m not the business type and have no interest in fund-raising millions and millions of dollars for such a massive project, and since I’m not looking for a job, I figured I could just share my design ideas with them so I could at least one day see those ideas come to life in some form. Jeff returned my email and said the best thing for me to do is to share my ideas via their website/blog’s comments section and later on in their forums. I took him up on the invitation, but then he was concerned about legal issues of me posting my design ideas. So I told him I’ll just post it on my own blog, and his team could read it and take whatever ideas that could help improve their design. Anyway, this was what I originally posted on their site, but they couldn’t let through out of legal concerns:

“Hello Team Zombie!

I was told by Jeff that the best place to post suggestions for the game is here, so here I am. I had been working on a zombie MMO design for years now, and since I’m not the business type and have no interest in dealing with fund-raising and all that nitty gritty stuff, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see my zombie MMO idea come to life, so instead of letting it sit on the shelf and collect dust, I’ve decided to just offer it up to you guys, hoping I’d see my ideas end up in a proper zombie MMO–one that I’ve been dreaming about for all these years (I started working in the game industry in 1998, and have worked my way up to studio art director).

The most important core of my design is based on the following:

-The allure of the zombie genre isn’t just about killing zombies–it’s about how humans interact with each other in a post-apocalyptic world, where resources are dwindling fast and technology is failing. Gather resources to survive is an important component–fresh water, food, medical supplies, weapons, can-openers, flashlights, two-way radios, batteries, gasoline, power generators, vehicles (including helicopter, though fuel is very precious and limited)…etc. Various items could also be rigged together to construct new tools/weapons/traps.

-Different human factions will fight each other to acquire/control these precious resources–raids, defending your safe houses, bartering, invading…etc, all the while with the zombies as a constant threat.

-Environments are dynamic. Barricades could be erected by using furniture, scrap wood, bricks, disable vehicles…etc, and can be torn down by both other humans and zombies (though zombies have limited intelligence in how they tear down barricades). Ladders, rooftops, and ropes further add to how players strategically move in this dangerous world. Traps and rudimentary warning systems could be rigged to defend your safe house against zombies and other humans.

-Vehicles could be used to ram down walls, run over zombies, transport supplies/equipment, and rescue fellow survivors. Gasoline would run out and would need refueling. You can also reinforce/modify vehicles for better defense/offense/storage capabilities.

-You can choose to go lone wolf, but it will be hard. Most likely players will band together into factions and try to secure/barricade a safe house and defend it. Factions can form alliance or become enemies

-It will be stupid to go guns blazing and axe swinging all the time. Some zombie hordes are so large that you must rely on stealth or using other strategies like distraction.

-To survive, you need to replenish your body’s basic needs–water, food, rest, medicine…etc, and when you’re hurt you need to heal, and that takes time. If you hurt your leg, you will limp, and will need to clean your wound, use medicine, and allow it time to heal. Finding a safe place to attend to your body’s needs is important. (Amputation is a possibility when infected with a bite, but might make gameplay less fun.)

-Depending on the premise of the game, the zombies could be the result of a virus, and that virus could have an antidote. Researching of an antidote and manufacturing them could be part of the game mechanic. Then you’d have to actually administer the antidote to zombies that are still fresh enough to be saved (changed back to human). The zombies that are too far gone would have too much brain/internal organs damage to be saved. The zombie virus could mutate, and new antidotes would need to be researched to keep up with the mutation. Researching antidote would require obtaining flesh/organ/brain samples from recently mutated zombies. You can’t visually tell when zombies have mutated–only when an antidote fails would you know, and then you’d have to extract new samples to make updated antidotes.

-Players who get infected by zombies (bites, fluid contact to open wounds or orifices) will turn into zombies, and how long it takes depends on severity of the infection (how close the bite is to the brain/heart, how much zombie fluid is splattered on you…etc). If you splatter a zombie, the chance of its fluid infecting you is calculated by your distance to the zombie, and the amount of open wounds you have (and you could also cover up your open wounds/orifices with proper protection).

-When playing as a zombie, you’ll need to feed on animal flesh—preferably human flesh, as they help keep you functional and deteriorate slower. When you first become a zombie, you’ll retain some of your human motor skills and will be as fast as a normal human, except your finer motor skills no longer works—you cannot open doors, operate machinery, tools…etc (but can climb ladders/chain link fences/low walls). As the dead flesh deteriorates, you will become slower and slower, unless you feed well and often. If you don’t feed enough, your body will eventually rot so badly that it’ll fall apart and become immobile. When you rot to the point of immobilization, you’ll be collected by humans sweeping for immobilized zombies and either destroyed or revived with the antidote; however, the severe deterioration of your zombie body when revived will become a very weak human body, and you’ll also lose some of the skills/points you had prior to becoming a zombie.

The more you have fed as a zombie (quantity and quality—human brains are the highest quality flesh, and animal flesh the lowest), the stronger you will become as a zombie. If you feed enough, you’ll become a super zombie—a terrifying creature capable of superior strength, speed, stamina, and improved motor skills that allows you simple uses of melee weapons and tools (at the level of a primate). Super zombies can issue simple vocal commands (moans, grunts, and other noises), while the lower leveled zombies can only moan. If a super zombie gets revived back into a human, he will be a very healthy human, with strong stamina/strength (but not super human—just at the top of the human scale).

-If your brain gets destroyed as a zombie, your character will die and cannot be revived. If a player does not want to play as a zombie any longer, he could simply choose to commit suicide by jumping off from a high place or impaling his head on some sharp object. When that happens, the player could start as a new human survivor, but all previous skills/points are gone

(The ability to play as zombies is a complex matter and must be carefully balanced. For example, zombies are not intelligent, but the players are, so players playing as zombies will still think like humans, therefore would use strategies that are not possible for the zombie intelligence.)

So there you go–that’s the core of my zombie MMO design. I hope you guys will find it interesting and adopt whatever aspects you find compelling or useful. Once your forums are up, I’d love to communicate further with you guys and the community to refine/add more ideas.”

I hope my suggestions will be incorporated into their design, or better yet–that they are already on the same wavelength and already are moving in a similar direction, and the result would be even better than what I have imagined.

Wikipedia was banned in China for something like a day or two, then it was unbanned. I’m sick and tired of all this crap–banning Youtube, Vimeo, major blog sites, Facebook, IMDB…etc. A government that could only maintain control by keeping its people in the dark is a government not worthy of respect. Only a completely corrupt government would fear its people knowing the truth. Having to use a paid VPN service is pretty annoying, since the speed is often very slow, or the connection is unreliable. I hope these major sites are unbanned eventually, because it really does make my life more difficult.

Recently, the sewage oil has been the hot topic in the news in China. If you don’t know what sewage oil is, it’s basically unethical restaurants and food manufacturing facilities skimming off the oil that’s on top of sewage water, then boiling and filtering it so that they could reuse it to cook with–thus saving money from having to buy cooking oil. No, I’m not making this up–it’s been going on for so many years, but just recently it’s really started to break in the mainstream. Look, if they could poison babies with toxic milk, then they have absolutely no qualm about poisoning everyone else.

I finally found a bit of free time to show a little love for the Xbox360, and I’ve started Resident Evil 5. So far it’s OK, but not as compelling as I had hoped. I kind of enjoyed RE4, but not enough to finish it, since some of the game design was just so dated and lazy, shining a spotlight on all the things I hate about the design approach and the campy writing of that specific style of Japanese games. RE5 seems to be a lot less campy so far, and that’s a good thing, because I really can’t stand the brand of campy vibe that some of the Japanese developers have (for example, Dead or Alive series, Tekken series, Resident Evil series). It’s not that I don’t like wacky Japanese humor–I mean, I grew up with anime and manga, so of course I “get” it, but even among the Japanese there are different sensibilities. The kind I specifically dislike is when the humor and the camp feel so out of context with the visual style, the premise, and the general atmosphere. I can sit there and watch FLCL or Golden Boy and laugh my head off, but the inappropriately campy Japanese games just make me cringe.

Although the inappropriate camp is gone in RE5 (thus far), I noticed some of the really stupid design approaches are still there. For example, the pottery and the treasure chests in the native tribes’ villages would have various ammo for different kinds of guns in them. Why the hell would there be gun ammo in them? That’s completely out of context and illogical. Then there are the clipboard notes on gameplay left around the levels. That’s also such a lazy design approach that’s totally out of context with the premise of the game. Why the hell would you find clipboard notes about the game controller in the actual game world? And don’t get me started on using objects that you should easily be able to jump over or push down as level barriers–I really hate that kind of lazy design approach.

I gave Bayonetta a try and it really didn’t do anything for me. I guess it belongs in the same category as the above mentioned type of campy and crassness that I dislike. There’s wacky and hilarious, and then there’s crassness, and I think some of the Japanese just don’t understand the difference between the two. I have never been a fan of that genre of beat ’em up games anyway, so it’s just not my cup of tea.

I pretty much only finish games I really like (unless the game is so hard that I get stuck at a certain point and cannot progress any further. System Shock 2 is perhaps the only game I really loved but couldn’t finish as I just didn’t have enough health to go any further and I didn’t want to go back to a previous save point). On the Xbox360, there are currently a few games that I know for sure I’ll never finish because despite each having some elements I really liked, there are also some glaring problems with the gameplay that I just don’t want to deal with anymore. The list of games I know I won’t bother finishing at this point are:

The Darkness – The story seems interesting, but the actual gameplay is so clumsy that I just couldn’t continue.

Far Cry 2 – Nothing like the first game, and it’s so repetitive and pointless that I’d much prefer the Valve school of game design, where everything is linear but much more entertaining and better paced. When the hell are game designers going to realize that a compelling pacing needs to be crafted, not left up to the player.

Assassin’s Creed – Excellent presentation, but really repetitive.

Fallout 3 – Some of the most horrible character animation I have ever seen–in fact, it’s like the kind of game character animation we used to see in the mid to late 1990’s. The world if vast, but it also has the problem of lack of well-crafted pacing. I think these big open worlds and sandbox games are noble ideas executed badly.

Mirror’s Edge – Really beautiful art direction (except for the cinematics, which are really bad and totally out of context in visual style), and some elements of the gameplay are really compelling, but it’s just too frustrating to play a platformer from first person view–you die way too often and you just give up after trying to make the same jump over and over and over.

I just bought Mass Effect 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Bioshock 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and as soon as I popped in Massive Effect 2, I just lost the interest to continue with RE5. I’m a story-first kind of gamer, and the RE games aren’t exactly known for their storytelling, so it’s no surprise that a Bioware game would totally suck me into its story and make me want to put RE5 on the shelf for the time being.

I’m enjoying ME2 so far, and I thought it was very clever for Bioware to allow you to import your character from the previous game, along with the decisions you had made, which will continue to have an effect in the sequel. I don’t know if this has been done before, but it’s the first I’ve encountered it in a game. When offered the change to reconfigure my character’s face, I went for it, and I was surprised to see that after doing it this time around, my female Shepard looks similar to the one I configured for the first game, except this time I went for brunette instead of blond, and I think she’s in general more attractive than the previous one I configured. This is what my new Shepard looks like:

I don’t know if this says anything about my taste in women, since the provided parameters are very limited, and there are lots of shapes I would have preferred but Bioware did not provide, such as for the eyes, the eye brows, the lips, the forehead, the hairline, hair style…etc. The choices they provided for the eyes, brows, and lips are particularly bad–if I was the art director on that project I’d have provided much more usable and diverse shapes.

Now that the workshop I’ve been working on for so long has finally gone live, I’m beginning to feel the impact of over-ambition. I tried to make the workshop as comprehensive as possible, cramming in all the most important knowledge I have acquired in my artistic life thus far, and also designed the assignments to really challenge the students to step outside of their comfort zone and challenge themselves, but the consequence of all that is me being totally overworked during the workshop, as I’d have to really nurture and guide the students to make sure they really understand the lessons and could apply the new knowledge to the assignments. Doing that for around thirty students every day is a lot more work than I had anticipated, and in the first week, I was spending anywhere from eight to ten hours a day just answering their posts and critiquing their assignments. I wanted to really make a difference in the lives of passionate aspiring artists, and this is what it take–total dedication. Luckily it’s looking like the first week was an anomaly due to the complexity of the subject matter, getting to know everyone, and the amount of reading and writing required for week one (for both the students and myself), and the rest of the weeks would likely be less hectic.

I recently jumped on the Steven Slate Drums EX no-brainer promotional sale–for only $20, it was just too good of a deal to pass up. The sale itself was a disaster for the customers, as people didn’t get their passcodes for the product because, Steven Slate, and Native Instruments seems to have underestimated the amount of sales they’d make, and they didn’t have the bandwidth to handle all the customers. After two weeks of nothing from them, I contacted their live-chat rep and finally got my passcode.

My current go-to drum library is Addictive Drums, as it’s by far the most user-friendly, flexible, fastest loading, powerful, and very competitively priced drum library on the market, not to mention it sounds really good. With the 1.5 release, it got even better with the keymapping and other awesome new features. I sometimes use EZDrummer and a few of its expansions too, but it’s not nearly as intuitive to use as Addictive Drums. Prior to AD, my main go-to drum library was Artist Drums, and whatever other half-way decent drum sounds I could scare up (from my Korg Triton Le, Native Instruments Battery, various GM-type ROMplers). At the moment I’m quite happy with Addictive Drums and I don’t really feel the need for anything else, but what impressed me about Steven Slate Drums was the sound of the drums–they were really punchy, beefy, and powerful–more so than just about any of the drum libraries I’ve heard–from the el cheapo ones to the insanely expensive ones. Unfortunately, as good as the sounds are there are a few issues I have with it. Anyway, here some thoughts on the library:

1) I find the way the snare is programmed to be illogical. You get a rim-shot, then an open hit that turns into a rim-shot in higher velocities, and that makes no sense to me. Why can’t I have an open hit that does NOT turn into a rim-shot? What’s wrong with having a loud open hit if I want it? Now I can’t do the kind of drumming I usually do where the rim-shot is the accent and the open-hits are the driving force. I’m not happy about this at all.

2) The GUI is also kind of a pain compared to much more manageable yet still powerful GUI of Addictive Drums. I think this is always a problem when a developer license a generic sample player instead of one designed especially for the product. I would not be surprised if eventually all sample developers end up with their own sample player and drop the generic one (which is expensive to license anyway).

3) The sounds themselves are quite good. The metal kits are by far the best of any drum library I’ve heard so far. Most metal kits in other libraries sound kind of wimpy and the kick is always too limp and clicky. In SSD, the kick for the metal kits are not only articulate and punchy, but very powerful and full-bodied too.

4) This point is related to most drum libraries, not just SSD. I don’t understand why when drum libraries include the snare roll (many libraries don’t have any snare rolls), they only provide one roll. Why not give us more–for example, one that is much louder/harder hitting, or one that doesn’t accent the first hit and sounds consistent so we could do a seamless roll, or rolls of different speeds.

5)Another glaring problem is that SSD has no samples for the bell of the hi-hat, and I use it all the time in my drumming.

I suppose for $20, I shouldn’t complain.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Avatar (season one) – I was unsure if I wanted to finish watching season one, since even though I think it’s a really well-made animated series with excellent writing, it’s still aimed mostly as a young audience–unlike The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim stuff I much prefer. I’m not sure if I want to watch the second season, since as great as it is, it’s still a bit too tame for my taste.

V – I like the episodes shown so far, but it doesn’t feel like a first rate show to me–there’s just something lacking in its production and execution that’s less compelling than other big sci-fi shows. There were also a couple of plot points that annoyed me–for example, how is it possible that there’s no security camera in the medical chamber where Dale was murdered, especially when there’s a rebellion going on? And why it is that Erica never even asked about why the Fifth Column is rebelling and what they have to gain? She certainly isn’t the type to hold her tongue, and I find it impossible that the question never crossed her mind. We’ll see if the show makes any more fumbles, or gets better.

Vampire Diaries (season one) – Although this show got progressively better with each episode, I really hated the first episode because it just reeked of the copycat stench (Twilight, True Blood), as well as propagating the annoying formula of using the same kind of safe and boring mainstream pop/rock songs in every goddamn scene, as if we couldn’t possibly understand the storytelling without those annoying and whiny songs instructing us on how we’re supposed to feel. I find that today’s use of songs in TV shows and films have totally lost its meaning, and it’s a real tragedy (in fact, this stupid trend really took off right around the time of Kevin Williams’ previous hit show, Dawson’s Creek). It used to be that when a song is playing in the background, it meant something special for the scene. Now it’s just an excuse to sell CD’s.

I also really hated the whole mysterious hot guy getting all puppy-eyed for some cute sad chick shtick. Don’t we have enough of that already? Can’t these people be more original and creative? Obviously they know this stuff sells to screaming teenage girls and bored housewives, so they just keep milking it. Fortunately, the hilariously bad first episode was an anomaly–it picked up and got better and better with each episode. When the evil brother showed up, thing up interesting, and it kept getting more and more interesting. I think Kevin Williamson really fucked up the first episode, but then again, I was never a fan of his anyway. He’s certainly not the kind of talent I’d put on the same level as Joss Whedon (and may God forgive him for Dollhouse) or J.J. Abrams.

I have to admit though, Nina Dobrev, who plays Elena, is ridiculously cute, with beautiful doe eyes, and a nearly flawless face. They guy who plays Stephan (Paul Wesley)–he sometimes looks like a Cro-Magnon or maybe Frankenstein, with his very low and huge brow-ridge. When the other characters referred to him as hot, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance (but then again, I never understood some of the mainstream’s idea of male attractiveness). Bonnie Bennett, who plays the black best friend (why does this have to be just like True Blood?) has a severely lopsided face. One side of her face looks like it’s sliding off her head, and you can clearly see that her right eye is significantly lower than the other–to the point where she just looks “wrong.” Kayla Ewell who plays Vicki also has some really fucked up donkey teeth and a really long chin. Whenever she opens her mouth, I can hear Donkey from Shrek laughing. Where do they find these odd looking actors? I actually didn’t recognize Ian Somerhalder, who played Boone in the early seasons of Lost, and he’s actually pretty good as the evil brother.

At this point, I’m actually more interested in where this show is going than True Blood, which I found to be kind of annoying in its adamant use of campy tone that really cheapens the vibe of the show, and a lead female character that I have no idea why anyone would find interesting.

The Cove – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love dolphins, and I thought this documentary was quite compelling–especially that the man fighting for the cause is the man responsible for creating the demand for dolphins in the first place.

500 Days of Summer – I enjoyed this film, and thought it was executed very well. I almost wish the film could’ve shown us the kind of man Summer did end up with–what he’s like, but then I think we’re supposed to feel as confused as the protagonists, sharing his point of view.

Chinatown – I finally watched this film, having heard so much about how it’s one of the very few most perfect films ever made. I was completely underwhelmed. Maybe for its time it was amazing, but seeing it now, it’s just very slow and boring. There are certainly classics I love, such as Casablanca, Sunrise: The Song of Two Humans, including a few other Polanski classics, but Chinatown just didn’t do anything for me at all.

Up In the Air – I thought Anna Kendrick really stole the show–she was amazing as the naive but smart young upstart. In some ways I could identify with Clooney’s character, since I’ve been a lone wolf my whole life, and although part of it is my personality, part of it is also just the cards that life has dealt me, as I have been moving around all of my life–to the point where it’s hard to maintain friendships and familial relationships. The internet has helped some, but it hasn’t changed the fact that I’m still the perpetual lone wolf in life (but luckily I have a Mrs. Wolf by my side now).

The House of the Devil – Pretty good retro styled horror flick. I liked that the girl’s not some helpless idiot and really fought hard–which is something so many horror films get wrong. The pacing was perhaps a bit slow to today’s cinematic climate, but it’s supposed to be a tribute to the old horror films, so it was definitely intentional.

Monsters vs. Aliens – Run of the mill animated film that had moments where I just couldn’t believe someone actually green-lit such bad dialogues.

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen – It’s a Michael Bay film, so you go into it with your intellect and taste checked at the door, and you just enjoy the stupid fun. There’s absolutely no other reason so ever watch any Michael Bay films. I mostly do it because I feel I need to keep up with what’s going on in the mainstream world, so that I don’t become too out of touch with the lowest common denominator in cinematic taste.

The Taking of Pelham 123 – The dialogues between the two leads felt so fake and forced that it really ruined the believability of the situation. It’s such a stupid fantasy anyway that there’s not an ounce of it grounded in reality.

Observe and Report – I knew it would be a hilarious low-brow movie, and for the most part I was right. I used to think it was kind of sad that Ray Liotta’s career didn’t seem to go anywhere after Goodfellas, but now I’m kind of happy to see him in these silly but hilarious comedies.

Public Enemies – I thought it was pretty good, but one of the weaker films from Michael Mann. I actually far prefer to see Johnny Depp playing a normal human being instead of some eccentric or cartoon-like character. I think he’s got really good acting chops, but all those wacky characters he plays just masks his dramatic potential and turns him into a gimmick.

The Blind Side – It’s kind of interesting to me that if this film wasn’t based on a real story, critics would be tearing it to pieces, calling it all sorts of names and using terms like “white man’s superiority complex,” but when it’s a real story, they love it and call it inspirational. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Donkey Punch – It was overall a pretty good thriller, with a plausible premise and a convincing plot.

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