January 2021


January 3, 2021

16 days! I suppose this is what I needed. I drank. I regret it, because I hadn't had a drop of liquor since October 17, 2018, the day Canada legalized recreational marijuana. I wonder now, in retrospect, if I'd convinced myself I needed to drink in order to fall down a little bit. You could chalk it up to a number of things. The return to game development, seasonal depression, the emptiness left after accomplishing another semester of post-secondary education. Coupled with the booze, I descended into a place where time and responsibility were irrelevant.

I've come out the other side a few days past that most useless of milestones, the new year. I haven't celebrated it in forever, so this year was no different. I've been trying to convince myself that I need to get back on the disciplined track, and yesterday I got enough sleep to get started. Going forward I'll be logging here whether or not I managed to secure the 4 pillars of good health: sleep, hydration, exercise, and diet. I'm on a near-extreme caloric restriction for the next 17 weeks, along with a ramp-up exercise regime to get back into running form. I'd like to push that further and return to proper resistance training, but one step at a time.

What does any of that have to do with game development? Well, it's difficult to have any development without the developer. I think for a lot of us, the work-life balance is one of the hardest things to maintain. Very few people are fortunate enough to get instruction in the matter, and fewer still develop the necessary discipline to keep it on the level. If there's any "resolution" to be had for 2021, it'll be in this careful upkeep.

I've decided that I want to make "game developer" my professional focus. To this end, there are a few subclass pursuits. Namely writing, alongside visual and audio design. I've dreamed myself sketching again, and I want to manifest that as best I can.

I read chapter 12 of Rules of Play. It contained a dissection of the rules of a game, and classifies them in subsets. First, there's the constitutive rules, the mathematical or essential game logic. Second comes the operational, or written, rules that dictate how a game is to be played. Last there are the implicit rules, those that are implied and allow a game to be played.

There is a translation that occurs among the constitutive, operational, and implicit rules of a game. The magic circle is the context for this translation. The formal meaning of a game emerges through a process that bridges all three levels of rules in a game. (p. 139)

The understanding of these layers is helpful in solving design problems. Not every game is going to strictly adhere to these definitions, but recognizing them and their interplay can mean the difference between clear, unambiguous play, and confusion.

I tweeted a secondary reading that was used as a source for the textbook chapter.

As it was Sunday, I didn't want to get into full work mode, so after the reading was done I completed the Cayo Perico heist in Grand Theft Auto Online. I'd spent most of the 16 days of XMAS break playing GTAO (alongside its Western counterpart, Red Dead Online). It's honestly been the most fulfilling gaming I've done in a long time.

Completed today:

Next day's plan:


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January 4, 2021

There's nothing more important right now than marking these days. Like a scratch made with a stone on a cold prison wall, each tick in this journal is a milestone. It's a journey, and I'm glad to have you along, even if you are only a phantom trailing behind this caravan.

I finally bit the bullet and ordered a Valve Index VR kit. Grant money well spent? That's cash set aside for educational purposes, and I need to get myself learnt on this new technology. Steam said 2 weeks, so I'll talk more about it once it's on the Acre. I've long been publicly against the tech. Anything that gathers a fanatical support base is something to be wary of, and VR certain has its fair share of rabid devotees. Nothing like first-hand experience to dispel or invoke.

I want to create more podcasts, I do. Even just a quick 10 minutes in the morning, Bill Burr style, would be great. But when I sit down to it, I'm filled with negative emotion. It just feels so pointless. I had the same feelings after I gave up on gamedev and tried to do any kind of design, for years after. Perhaps this is some stage of grief I'm going through post-Twitch career.

You may be curious what this radical health kick I'm going on entails. I really should write a separate post about it, but I'll break it down here as simply as I can, in order of importance:

As of this post, I'm 106 kilograms/234 pounds at 182 cm/6 feet. Muscle mass is low, lean, buried under slabs of sedentary fat. I want to get down to 79 kilos and assess from there where I want to go. I've always wanted to be whipcord, farmer-lean like my uncle. If I can maintain the above regimen, I should hit that target around the start of May. It's the 3rd day, and so far it feels maintainable.

I spent 90 minutes cruelly editing my first published short. It needed it. That's one thing the distance of a decade can make. Subjectivity fades and objectivity grows on the face of a clock. I'll "bind" the story tomorrow, and then once I can certify the EPUB I'll record the audiobook version and republish. If you bought the book via Gumroad you'll get the new version for free.

Yesterday, I was wondering how digital games played into the discussion of rules in Rules of Play chapter 12. Chapter 13 filled in the blanks. It's as expected: a digital game is somewhat more restrictive when it comes to interpreting the rules, and takes into account the platform and coding. I found this of particular interest:

As a game designer, it is extremely important to be able to identify the formal structure of any game you are designing. If you can't identify the core rules of a digital game you are hoping to create, you are out of touch with your own design. (p.148)

I farmed so much Reddit karma in 2020 asking whether or not a proposed game design had a formal structure. There are myriad posts from people who have ideas about stories they want to translate into games, or designs they want to flesh out from a basic mechanical idea. Almost exclusively, these folks can't answer the simple question of "how does the game actually work". The ones who can are those who understand what it means to be a game designer. You usually don't find those types of people asking and answering posts on the Internet. They're too busy making games.

I spent a little time in Substance Painter. It had been a while, but it felt like only yesterday I was working on refreshing myself with the software. I banged out a quick lesson on Material Instancing and decided to leave the follow-up until tomorrow. It's a big one, diving into the brushes and hand-painting of details.

One thing that did not feel like just yesterday was working with C++ in Unreal Engine. I'd forgotten pretty much everything I'd learned in the previous half of the course. I diligently followed along with a couple of modules, but it was like listening to a Peanuts adult give a lecture. I have no idea why things happen the way to they do. I'm unwilling to restart the course, so we'll soldier on. There's only one more section until it's done, but it's reminding me of everything I ever hated about doing code.

Completed today:

Next day's plan:


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January 5, 2021

I blew the first couple of hours of the day setting up another Cayo Perico heist in GTA Online. I admit it: I have a crippling addiction to the game.

The binding process for the ebooks went swimmingly. In the past, my CSS (the file that handles the formatting) was a bloated mess. Here's the current code, and it's enough for certification in both .EPUB and .MOBI formats:

h1.title {
  margin-top: 4em;
  text-align: center;
  text-indent: 0em;
}
h3.subtitle {
  margin-top: 1em;
  text-align: center;
  text-indent: 0em;
}
h2.author {
  margin-top: 2em;
  text-align: center;
  text-indent: 0em;
}
p {
  margin: 0em;
  text-indent: 2em;
}
p.first {
  margin-top: 1em;
  text-indent: 0em;
}
p.centered {
  text-indent: 0em;
  text-align: center;
}
p.copyright {
  margin-top: 1em;
  text-align: center;
  text-indent: 0em;
}

That took 5-ish hours to nail down. I should have made it a 2-parter over two days, but once I got into the loop of compiling and verifying I couldn't stop until I was happy. A dangerous habit to watch out for in the future.

I prepared for audiobook recording, and noticed the pop guard on the microphone was nasty. There was a film of trash growing on it, so I tried taking the mesh out to wash it. I ended up breaking it in the process. A new one should arrive sometime Thursday, so I'll aim to start recording once that's in.

And that was pretty much it for the day. It's too easy to forget that a 4AM wakeup means that by noon I'm 8 hours into my day. When considering the risk of burnout, and making sure I regulate and maintain a healthy work-life balance, it's important to know when to just chill. The "next day's plan" will always be a suggested, rather than required, workload.

Completed today:

Next day's plan:


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January 6, 2021

The EPUB template feels as complete as it needs to be for now. I've updated the notes and included a free set of example files. I'll start Tale's EPUB tomorrow.

Whether it's the work of Adobe or Substance, the amount of free learning material for both Painter and Designer is more than enough to take someone from no-nothing to competency. They've recently added a new series on stylized materials, and I was having a debate with myself in the show about the new term. Materials. Back in my day, we called them "textures" and that was good and plenty. Either way, this 5-video series is more of a technique overview rather than a walkthrough on creating Designer graphs. It included the .sbs files though, and my own competency is enough that I can look at those and suss out what's been done. Well worth taking a look just to see the considerations taken when coming up with "hand-painted" textures.

I got a little wrapped up in what was happening south of the border. The next thing I knew, it was the end of the day.

Completed today:

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January 11, 2021

School's back on the menu. This semester is another 2-class affar: CREW 201 and CREW 211, Online Journalism and Intermediate Poetry Workshop. It should be a cakewalk. Here's my current "about me":

I'm Jack (M/45). I taught conversational and business English in Tokyo, Japan for ten years before returning to Canada to get degrees in art/design and game design. I was a full-time game developer for five years before returning to school to learn some "real" computer science. I livestreamed a thrice-weekly video games "news" and "reviews" program (in quotations as it was more for entertainment purposes than any kind of journalistic ambition) from 2016 to the end of 2020. I've self-published 3 science fiction books. I'm currently pursuing a degree in creative writing while independently developing video games. I just got a virtual reality setup last weekend and I've been exploring that weird dimension. I'm extremely fluent with online broadcasting, digital publishing, and social media. I run a personal blog. You can message me on Twitter or e-mail me at darkacrejack@gmail.com if you think I could help you with anything. Best of luck with this course!

I always waffle on whether or not I should mention the "dark years". I kept it light this time.

So, what happened to the last 6 days? I realized that it was the last weekend before external responsibilities took over. I maintainted, for the most part, the sleep, hydration, exercise, and diet. I did a little bit of background gamedev research. I made a small part of a 3D model. I started studying music theory. I also received a Valve Index, and had my first virtual reality experience. I dropped some first impressions on Twitter, and I'll talk about it more in longform later.

pic.twitter.com/PnUvfkyDM5

— Jack (@DarkAcreJack) January 8, 2021

Completed today:

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January 18, 2021

And just like that, a week vanished. Never to return, never to be recovered, unless Hawking was right and the teacup one day reassembles itself and we run it back.

Some thoughts on the Valve Index now that I've owned one for more than a week:

I'm a 3D artist/game developer/writer and while Adobe Medium is cool, it only works as a rough prototyping tool. As for using the head-mounted display (HMD) as a desktop replacement, there's no way anyone can tell me that looking through a sweat-gathering gasket is superior to the open air and a bank of monitors. Let's not even start with how the HMD blinds you to your environment, reduces comfort, and limits basic abilities like quickly handling something in real life (dealing with pets, taking a sip of coffee, having a quick face-to-face with a loved one).

It's seriously just a janky toy at this stage, like a $1000 Wii U with a swampy screen strapped to my face. Just my personal experience with it, and as always: your mileage will vary.

It's now been a full season (3 months) since I last livestreamed. Quitting that endeavor has been, by far, the best thing I've done in terms of "self-care" in a very long time. I've been working on an essay that details my experience with the platform and the act of broadcasting videogame content, but it's slow going. It still feels like an extension of "content creation", something I've fallen very much out of love with, and it's hard not to think of the time, energy, and money sunk as wasted. I would love to see some hard data on any artists who've gotten true, traditional levels of success while broadcasting their processes. My gut feeling is that it's lower than if they'd just focused on their craft in isolation. For me, I maintain that not broadcasting has been a real boon to my mental health. My enjoyment of all things gaming has dramatically increased without the apparent need to perform in front of a live studio audience.

I was just lying on the sofa, getting ready to take my usual afternoon nap, when I decided to produce this:

early alpha orthographic view
It Doesn't Get More Alpha Than This

I'd been putting off assembling this scene since October. I'm not sure why: it was as straightforward as I remembered it. I built a floor and one wall in 3DS Max, started a new project in Unreal Engine 4, imported the meshes, constructed the level, set up the camera, placed the default mannequin, and viola! Well, no. First of all, it seems that if you have a VR kit installed on your development machine, Unreal recognizes it and tries to start it up by default. I'm not sure who at Epic decided that was the way it worked, but the implementation bricked my project. I had to rename the SteamVR folder, restart the project, disable the plugin, and reset. Also the point lights don't render in orthographic view for some reason. I turned on the deferred settings in the project, but that didn't seem to do anything. I'll look into it more next day.

It's been slow here in the mid to latter half of January. I think the preparation for the Spring semester of school took a mental toll, along with this crippling addiction to GTA Online.

Completed today:

Next day's plan:


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January 20, 2021

I'd love to draw more. My last real attempt at hand rendering was during Foundation Art and Design at Vancouver Film School way back in 2008. It's hard to believe that's coming up on 13 years ago, but that's how it goes. During that program I produced dozens of life sketches, a handful of completed compositions, and explored color theory. I know there's a capable draftsperson inside of me. Like everything else, that nascent bud needs the nurturing effect of practice in order to fully bloom. To that end, I purchased Walt Stanfield's "Drawn to Life" volumes 10 years ago. They've sat, collecting dust, ever since. I finally cracked the first volume this morning. Whether this will lead to anything fruitful remains to be seen.

On that note, I'm going to be using this space to write in broader terms about my development. I've mentioned this in previous entries, how the purpose of this document was to track my return to game development. I never made this explicit, though. In all of the site navigation, this is simply a development journal. So I may as well treat it as such.

I know it's been relatively quiet here. After an initial weeks-long burst of activity from October through November, I petered out a little. I think this is usually the way with my creative endeavors. I work in fits and starts, sometimes explosively, sometimes little more than a trickle, and sometimes long stretches of silence. That silence has been both external and internal these last 13 years. I love talking about the things I've done, how I've done them, and what I've learned. So if you're not hearing anything from me, there's a good chance I'm just brooding and not producing. I want to be able to doggedly work, though. I hoped that this journaling would keep me on more toes with that. I still hope that it will.

That's the thing about work: all I have to do is do it. Laziness and procrastination are the results of self-reinforced bad habits, but they're habits that can be broken. A little discipline, a little positive self-reinforcement, and the train is back on the track again.

In 2002 or thereabouts, when I realized I was going to have to save money for the gamedev venture, I started getting my affairs in order. I'd paid off all of my outstanding debt with the earnings from the first couple of years of teaching English. It's wild how lucrative that job had been. Disgusting, really. Regardless, I'd transitioned from being under the crushing weight of student and family loans to a beautiful period of spendthriftness. Spendthrift is a funny word: it means "a person who spends money in an extravagant, irresponsible way", yet half of the word is thrift, which means "the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully". At any rate, there was far more money going back into the Japanese economy than there was into any kind of savings account. What got me on the path to (then) financial security was the establishment of a rigorous budget. Part of coming up with that budget was an exercise where I calculated, down to the second, how much time I had in a day and what I was spending it on. That act, of becoming presciently aware of the sand slipping through the hourglass, led to the greatest amount of self-improvement I'd ever known.

19 years have passed since then, and for whatever reason I decided to calculate how much time I've spent on the planet. I included how much time remains, at least according to statistics. If my Javascript is actually working, it should update daily. Whether this will have the same self-affirming and motivating effect that the 2002 calculations did remains to be seen. It's actually kinda grim, but it fits the profile.

Completed today:

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January 21, 2021

I needed to find a solution to the orthographic camera lighting in Unreal Engine 4. One of the many projects I was working on when I last gave up on the indie gamedev dream was a 3rd-person point-and-click adventure framework. I called it the "Darkventure" kit. It had grown out from my first critically successful Ludum Dare 48 project, "The Child". In that work, I had forced the Unity game engine camera into a flat, or orthographic, projection. I just liked the look and feel of it. It creates interesting artifacts and a strange sense of tension (at least, to me). When I moved to Unreal I'd toyed with porting the framework over, but never got very far. When I set up a test scene a couple of days ago, I was immediately reminded of a major issue with Unreal's orthographic camera: lighting.

unreal engine true orthographic vs faked with perspective orthographic
Left: True Orthographic Projection. Right: Faked Orthographic with Perspective.

In the image above, the left side is the Unreal camera set to orthographic. The camera can be any distance from the scene and still show the same level of zoom. Everything is flattened. The right side is set to perspective, but with the Field of View set to 1 degree (vs. the default 90 degrees) and the camera pushed out 27,000+ units. The scene has a directional "god" light coming down on the whole scene at 45 degrees, and a single dynamic point light in the far corner. We can play "spot the differences" here, if you like.

Orthographic Perspective
Wall Texture Full Detail Wall Texture Detail Lost
Character Rendering with Clipping Artifacts Character Rendering Clean
Point Light Not Rendering Point Light Rendering
No Character Shadow Character Shadow
Flat Render 1 Degree Perspective

This is a very limited exercise for comparing the two cameras, but the clear disadvantage to the fake orthographic is having to push the camera so dang far away from the scene. Any detailing in texturing will be lost. This could work in my favor if I end up using it, as I could paint in broader strokes when it comes to the artwork. Furthermore, losing dynamic lighting in a modern game removes a lot of visual interactivity. I wonder if I could do some weird overlay-like blending, where the lighting is rendered on a perspective camera and the level detail on an othographic camera? Still, it's a prime example of how game development goes: get an idea for something, try to implement it, realize there's at least one major hurdle to making things work.

This should not be a problem at all, though. The last time I checked, Unity's orthographic camera handled dynamic lighting just fine. It appears Unreal is lagging behind in this department. While my particular use of the orthographic camera may be considered an edge case, there are other uses that wouldn't, namely 2D applications.

Reading "Drawn to Life" is paying dividends. Today I felt transported back to Foundation Art and Design, when I was learning something new every day about rendering forms. This practice needs to grow out from just reading about it to actually doing some drawings. I'm thinking a basic Photoshop sketch-to-animation process. First though, I'll finish the two volumes and get the academic side of it done.

Completed today:

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January 28, 2021

I've become hesitant to journal, and that's not a good thing. If don't post, then I'm not accountable for what I haven't done. But I felt the need to talk about my new Wacom Intuos Pro (Medium).

I've had some form of drawing tablet since 1999. I've always been in love with the idea of digital art, yet never have I produced a complete work. I discount the videogames because I'm talking about drawing. Rendering, draftspersonship, whatever you want to call it.

I've also gotten it in my head that I somehow need to be drawing. It started with wistful glances at my copies of Drawn to Life and spilled over into visions during my morning walks. I was starting to form cartoon characters in my head. They even have names and dialogue. And it's not just a writing exercise. It's clearly a drawing exercise.

I've been through many versions of Photoshop, and I had Corel Painter in the early 2000's. I'm not sure when I got my previous tablet, a bulky Intuos 3, but it did the trick for a long time. I just never got handy with the stylus. In order to make the Intuos 3 work on my Windows 10 machine in 2021, I need to install old versions of drivers. This is a pain for numerous reasons, most importantly compatibility with modern software.

Today there are myriad choices for digital rendering. I waffled between an iPad/Apple Pen, Wacom display tablet, and Wacom touch tablet. After dismissing the first two as overkill, I found there were still two choices for the touch tablets: "traditional", and "paper". Apparently Wacom has been working on this tech where you can clip a piece of paper to the tablet and draw with a stylus that records your strokes. Much like VR, this is an attempt to solve a nonexistent problem. Anyway, as I'm not a traditional artists trying to transition to digital, the paper thing seemed gimmicky and unnecessary, so I went with the Intuos Pro in Medium.

After I checked out the product on Amazon, I saw there was a surface add-on in the suggested items panel. I checked it out, and it turns out that the default surface on the Intuos Pro has a grain on it that is supposed to improve tactility. It might, but I've never been one for the "feel" of digital sketching. I care more about the levels of pressure sensitivity and how well the hardware makes that translation to the software. What I do know is that if you have a soft plastic nib and you're constantly dragging it across a toothy surface, it increases the wear and you end up replacing those nibs more often.

Perhaps it's all part of Wacom's evil plan to capitalize on digital artists. Whatever the case, I purchased the "smooth" surface add-on. It arrived a day after the tablet.

Let me rewind a little to when I received and set up the tablet. The unboxing was great. It was clear that this was a premium product. The setup left a lot to be desired, though. I don't get what's going on with these corporations. As with the Valve Index, the Intuos Pro comes with a fold-out sheet of graphics that's supposed to tell the user how to get going. I guess Wacom is saving a bundle on translations, but these graphics can have all kinds of meaning. I ended up looking up some stuff on YouTube. In the end, it was more or less "plug and play", but I didn't want to plug. One of the features of the Intuos Pro is supposed Bluetooth wireless connectivity. This doesn't work on my machine. I suspect it's because my computer's internal Bluetooth antenna is weak, so that's led me to purchase a new antenna. That comes on Friday.

So, the texture add-on. The surface of the tablet is just stuck on like a giant screen protector. The add-on comes with a little spatula-like thing that you're supposed to stick to one corner of the surface and then just lift and peel it away. This did not work the first three times I tried it. I was getting a little anxious and frustrated, as the spatula was losing its adhesion with each failed lift. Fortunately they include two of the tools, and with the second I was able to remove the surface. This did not feel like a normal operation. It felt like I was straight-up breaking the thing.

Once I got the old surface off, it was time to apply the new one. And, just like a screen protector, it was "peel and stick". Despite being laser cut to the exact dimensions of the tablet, I still managed to misalign the new surface. I had to peel and reseat it, all the while wondering how much I was degrading the performance of the tablet. I finally got it down, after much sweating and cursing, and saw that there was a giant air bubble in the middle of the pad. I spent another series of worried minutes pressing that out.

After all of that, it's working fine on a wired connection. It feels great with Photoshop, which is what I'll be using to paint. Here's the result of my first little session with the device:

a quick digital sketch of a tree frog and a crow
A Quick Sketch of a Frog and a Crow

I'm sure you're curious about cost, so here's what I paid in Canadian dollars:

Wacom Intuos Pro (Medium), $559.44 + Wacom Texture Sheet (Smooth), $44.50 + 5GHz PCI Wifi Bluetooth Card, $56.90 = $660.84

It's a good thing I'm not in it for the money, because I can guarantee you that I'll never make that back in art sales.

Completed today:

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January 31, 2021

I come yet again to the end of another month. This time, it's the first one of 2021. And what's been done? It's easy enough to step back through the scattered and infrequent updates on this very page and see that it's been a slow start. I've searched myself for reasons why, and come up empty. Did I blow my load in the run from October to December? Am I seasonally depressed, or worse: actually depressed? Or have I lost interest? If there's a definitive answer to those questions, I'm unwilling to give it. Yet we soldier on.

One of the hardest pills to swallow in my post-secondary education life has been that realizing the things I've learned have only been suggestions of what might work in the real world. Even in the three-ish years of computing science, I felt like I trundled through a bunch of theories that may or may not hold in a given workplace. It's worse now, in creative writing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I'm just relating how much it sucks to know that university is career preparation only by the loosest definition. But I guess if I wanted a color-by-numbers algorithm that directly translated into usable workplace routines I would've gone into the trades. I still think about that, from time to time, as I have ever since I sobered up way back in my early 20's: why not just be an electrician?

I've backslid on the health regimen these past couple of weeks, too. On most of the days where I didn't journal, I consumed more calories and moved my body less. This has resulted in two weeks of no change in body weight. It's disappointing, but it's motivating me to get back to these tasks. I'll work harder and more consistently through February.

Next day's plan:


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