Sunday, August 29, 2010

Manifest Panel Transcript

Lawls from our IRC channel made a transcript of the Manifest katawa Shoujo Panel, and I (Suriko) edited it. Many, many, many hours later, it's finally done.

Edit: And it's on the forums. Way too long to post here.

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The Sorrows of Young Climatic

Since the release of Act 1, we've added a new class of visualization to KS, called "cutin CGs". They are basically images somewhere between sprites and CGs, not full screen CGs but also not a part of the bg + sprites system. Artists like doing small, focused pics and they are useful to stick here and there, where script describes an object of particular interest, or something apart from "two people talking to each other" happens.

However, the fascination with these small flavourful pictures has its downsides too. Just because something can be a cutin CG, it doesn't mean it should be. Sometimes the cutin CGs end up causing conflicts with script or direction. Sometimes they are too superfluous. And sometimes... producing art can just become an unexpectedly difficult task, truly the opposite of the nice and refreshing breather that they are supposed to be for the artists. To showcase, here's the woeful story of that one time when Suriko asked climatic to draw a cutin CG. Delta had made a note in the script of a scene where Hanako plays chess against Lilly that it could be nice to have the chessboard depicted, so Suriko goes to climatic for it.

"I note that the chessboard they're using has holes in the middle of each square and pegs on the bottom of the pieces, and has each dark square slightly raised."

That's the description, from game script. It's the kind of chessboard that makes playing easier for blind people, something you'd expect to find at Yamaku. Climatic says "yeah sure, I'll do it", the five words he regrets saying the most this year, and sets out to work. This task proves to less simple than what it would seem to be. In fact, turns out it's very complex, one could even describe the effort required to make a chessboard that meets climatic's own standards "colossal" or perhaps "gargantuan". First, climatic quickly models the board in 3d because the raised squares make its geometry a bitch at the angle he's drawing.

<climatic> asdfasdga
<climatic> agfakfhgadrgra

However, once he moves to the painting phase, every single one of those raised squares still has to be drawn individually, and despite having the model helping, it's excruciatingly detailed and exhausting work.

<climatic> AAAAAAA

After the board is complete, it needs the set of pieces. 32 pieces of 12 different kinds, each has to be drawn individually. And now, every single of those pieces and every single one of those raised squares needs to be lighted (individually) and shaded, you guessed it, individually.

<climatic> there is no end in sight
<climatic> for this fucing cg
<climatic> askdjkj

All in all completing the chessboard takes almost three months (mostly because massive lack of motivation, understandably), and it's only completed because climatic finally gets so frustrated that he refuses to finish it.

<climatic> goddamn
<climatic> ahsdd
<climatic> adsnkljlgf
<climatic> I do not care anymore

Luckily the board itself is fine by now and moekki quickly adds some effect layers on it to finalize it and it's ready to be inserted in the game. However! At this stage we find out that there's been several critical communication breaks and incomplete information relayed to climatic. Turns out delta has meanwhile directed the scene so that the cutin is not really needed, but never removed the request. Also, not only the chessboard doesn't fit the description (it's missing the holes) but also is heavily inconsistent with another pic of the same chessboard that already is in the game. So now climatic has spent three months drawing a picture that doesn't fit its description in the game and doesn't fit the second image of it in the game. Also it doesn't fit in the game. This hopefully teaches you to check and doublecheck with everyone involved before you even cough in the direction of game files.

<climatic> thank you for wasting several hours of my life, suriko
<climatic> I need to go stick my head in an oven

Not to worry! Moekki edits the second image of the chessboard to fit climatic's cutin CG (she has to redo it twice because she forgets to save), weee adds the holes in the cutin itself and delta tweaks the scene direction so that everything plays more or less together.

And the end result after all this blood, sweat and tears?

Wow! All that effort paid off tenfold. There's a bunch of other cut in CGs in the game, such as this cute plushie Hisao wins for Shizune at the school festival (I call it the Eggplant Cat)...

... or this mysterious box!

...I guess if development always went smoothly there would be nothing to blog about.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Katawa Shoujo Panel at Manifest (Now in TechniAudio!)

As most of you probably know by now Suriko and I attended the Manifest Anime Convention this weekend, where Cemex asked us to come and do a panel.

I'll admit, judging on previous panels that I've been on, I wasn't expecting much. Considering that KS is a niche market of a niche market of a niche market I figured that there would be all of about 3 people that were going to show up.

So when people started piling IN to the panels room as Suriko and I were setting up I was just a little surprised (Suriko edit: And all the more surprised when a good 90% of people there already knew about KS).

Full Disclosure: Neither Suriko or I really bothered practicing for the panel. Well, at least I didn't (Suriko edit: I didn't either). Thankfully a good half of the audience knew what I was talking about from the get-go, and that made it easy.

I won't go into the details of the panel too much; all of that is there in cold, hard, MP3-encoded 1's and 0's, however I would like to say a couple of things.

Firstly, thanks to Manifest for inviting and hosting us. They even went to the trouble of getting the presentation past the Australian Censorship Board (quite possibly the strictest Board outside of China). We were rated "MA" (15 years) but were told that we were "Quite Tame". Woot.

The number of people was quite inspiring, really. And thanks to you all too; it was good to see a couple of you getting vocal and no-one falling asleep. One thing that threw me was a couple of questions about the game that were a bit further reaching than "What's Misha's Disability?" (although I had an answer for that prepared).

To the guys that wanted copies of the game I will get those out to you next week. To the guys that gave us thumbs-up, that's cool too.

All in all it was fun. Actually meeting a couple of you has inspired me a little, and hopefully the other devs that are listening will be a little inspired (and entertained). And for those of you that listen to this online I hope it gives you a bit of an insight to the way we work (as if the blog post up to today weren't enough).

In addition to listening the recording here, you can also download it for your iPod or whatever.

Here's the presentation. Please note it's in Powerpoint 2007 format (if you don't have Office 2007, you can download a free Powerpoint Viewer 2007 from Microsoft's site).

- Crud (and Suriko)

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Katawa Shoujo Manifest Trailer: Spin

Crud and Suriko held their KS panel at the Manifest anime convention in Melbourne, Australia today. First impressions were that it went "all right, I guess", good job! A part of the panel was this snazzy video trailer, and there's an audio recording incoming later along with the panel report. Enjoy.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

What exactly are we making here?

I don't remember who brought it up first yesterday, but we were discussing the tricky problem of immersion in the dev channel yesterday which led into a bigger discussion about what exactly we'd classify a visual novel as.  This came from one of our favorite topics of conversation, which is what in the world is wrong with visual novels--or rather, why they can't seem to become a pop culture sensation (spoilers: they will probably never be a pop culture sensation).

The problem is that Visual Novels seem to be caught between being games and being novels.  Looking at some of the debates surrounding other developments on the VN scene (specifically some of the commentary about that novelstream thing that I refuse to have an opinion on) you can see would-be developers listing things they want their VNs to do while remaining blissfully ignorant that what they're describing isn't a VN at all and is more like an RPG.  Part of the problem comes, I think, from not having a definition of a VN, so let's lay that one on the table right now:

Presenting The Hivemind's Definition of Visual Novel:  A standalone form of electronic literature (that is, not requiring the internet), characterized by a combination of text and  sprites, photographs, or animation to tell stories (i.e. a visual element combined with text to tell a story).

This is a pretty wide definition, and leaves a lot of how the story is told up for interpretation.  The problem with narrowing it down would be to sacrifice room for innovation.  It also would introduce a bias--I had to say 'not requiring' the internet because while there are web-based VNs out there, they aren't the only VNs.  You might also notice I said nothing about any sort of reader control over the narrative, because that is also not a part of what is necessary.  The only two core components of the medium are right there in the name: the visual aspect has to be there, and the textual aspect has to be there.  Adding game elements makes it something else, not a visual novel, but maybe a different form of electronic literature.

While I'm defining things I guess I should define electronic literature--I'm gonna actually cheat and just use some other academic's definition (although they call it 'digital fiction' the definition works for electronic literature so I'm using it here): 'fiction written for and read on a computer screen that pursues its verbal, discursive and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium, and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium.'  Visual Novels would lose the movement of sprites, or the addition of music--some VNs wouldn't lose anything at all if they were presented as a book with pictures, but the fact that some would is enough.

Right.  That's got our definitions sorted out, so let's go a little deeper.  Let's examine what happens when we read something like Katawa Shoujo.

What are we presented with?  Well, KS is a story told in first person.  Not only that, but the reader is able to choose how they want Hisao to respond to particular situations, which in turn will result in different stories being told--just like a CYOA novel (remember the Apollo 13 CYOA?  Anyone?).  Does this make KS a 'game?'  Again, it comes down to definitions.  Games generally have conditions for something they define as 'victory.'  The player achieves victory by acting within the rules that the game has set out.  KS has no such victory condition--some endings are 'happy' endings and some are 'sad,' but we do not define any one such ending as the 'right' ending.  Hisao either winds up with a girl or he doesn't.  The 'sad' endings in KS are no more than the bad endings in a CYOA.  You go back and make a different choice and see where that gets you.  However, the first-person narration coupled with the ability to choose some of Hisao's responses makes a reader of Katawa Shoujo feel more like they are Hisao (an effect that climatic refers to as the 'IT'S LIKE I'M REALLY _______' effect).  This does not make KS a dating simulation, however, because you don't actually have to work within any set of rules to get the girls to like you beyond choosing the branches of the story that we as developers have decided will lead to a happy ending rather than a sad ending.

So VNs are not games--and those that market themselves as such are either not actually visual novels or are misrepresenting themselves.  Furthermore, VNs (and I feel like this is stating the painfully obvious) do not have to be romantic at all.  It is a more story-heavy bit of electronic literature rather than game-heavy.  Game-heavy examples of electronic literature would be something like Mass Effect, which also tells a branching narrative (this is a bit of an oversimplification but to really get into things would make this even longer than it already is) while also having skill-based challenges for the player to overcome (as well as all the character building and equipment selection that has no effect on the story but does make the skill-based challenges easier or harder).  Personally I'd love to see more VNs told in the third person, or VNs that tell stories that aren't in some way romantic.  The thing that is holding back VNs (apart from the stubborn insistence that they are games, which they are not) is a lack of experimentation with the stories.  We're still finding our feet--and I lump KS in with a rather ignoble list of derivative VNs that rely too heavily on romance and anime cliches (we have tried very hard to avoid this, but the setting itself is so heavily played out that the chances of it being original were crippled from the get-go).

I'm not saying such VNs don't already exist--I can think of a few off the top of my head, and I'm sure that you all can come up with a hell of a lot more than I can--but certainly they don't appear to be the norm.  Until then, VNs are doomed to be little more than occasional curiosities, eclipsed by stories that take more advantage of their formats.  The strength of a VN is that it can tell a complex narrative as well as blend it with impressive art.  Unfortunately, the format has so much baggage attached to it that it can really only thrive by making a clean break with its roots and spinning itself as something else.  'Electronic novel' has a ring to it, don't you think?

--The Hivemind

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Day in the Life

This is kind of a sequel to the previous blog post. I'm going to record one full day of KS development and make a blog post of it. I'm going to present it in a single timeline, intertwining the events in different channels (colour coded for your convenience). All times are my local time and the timeline goes from 0:00am to 11:59pm on August 1st, 2010.

0:00am: The date changes. It's now August!
0:12am IRC: delta ran into a problem with directing scene L20. It's supposed to be visualized with a single CG ("ltrni.png"), but the image assets we have are completely inadequate for the scene (it has too much dialogue for a static image direction). The situation is a clusterfuck and he's miffed that nobody foresaw the problem. He and I discuss briefly about possible solutions and Silentcook joins as he logs on IRC in the middle of it. We have three options: requesting more art, moving the dialogue to another scene or trying to get a new background so delta can use sprite directing in the scene. SC comes up with a fourth idea about outsourcing pseudoCGs to a friend of his but as it's highly uncharacteristical of KS it would probably not be used and the idea is dropped. We end up with a creative mix of the first option and some sleight of hand.
0:46am SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2100 by delta: Delta edited "ltrni.png" to fit a daytime version of the same image better. Part of the solution mentioned above.
0:49am IRC: delta expresses satisfaction at the asset status of Lilly path Act 3, and hustles climatic to complete a CG he was supposed to be working on. Climatic claims that delta approved a version of it already (he says he did not). We laugh at a certain CG that has been in production for two and a half months and the discussion segues into a more general commentary about the asset situation, with frowns all around at the Emi path (it's a bit of a problem).
0:56am IRC: While I'm reading through the script of scene L20 trying to get a grasp of delta's dire situation, delta mentions a certain word choice and challenges its usage (<Delta_Kurshiva> does anyone ever say "perverted" IRL?).
1:05am IRC: I ask for a round of feedback for [classified information] because it's close to being completed and because of its curious nature it's very important that nobody comes up with a critical clusterfuck flaw AFTER it's called final. Delta and climatic give feedback and I make note of it.
1:20am IRC: I, being the writingminded person I am, latch onto delta's earlier remark about "perverted" and open a discussion about the general word choice paradigm, specifically the usage of phrases that are easy to latch onto and instantly recognizable to people marinated in the anime subculture. All four people active on the channel participate. Delta is heavily on the side of getting rid of any "animeisms" as he calls them, climatic kind of agrees, and considers them pandering of fanbase (after SC brings up the point that they are more satisfactory to the reader than the writer) and I just can't decide (<Aura-> the artist in me tells me to destroy everything, but at the same time I like it if people are entertained). Everyone tells me the best line I've wrote for KS I wrote 2 years and 4 months ago so I become depressed and go to sleep, leaving delta to wrestle with directing and Silentcook with editing.
2:31am SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2101 by delta: In the past two hours moekki had drawn some additional upgrades to "ltrni.png" so delta uploads the fix and 11 H CG variations for Lilly path that he had lying around.
2:32am IRC: Suriko logs on, and obviously being sweettalked into it by the artist girls, asks delta about installing an oekaki application on our server. Delta tells him to go fuck himself, refusing to have anything to do with the idea, then asks why on earth we even need an oekaki application. Not daunted by the mildly negative response, Suriko goes on to install it himself.
3:44am SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2102 by Silentcook: SC has edited a part of scene R18 so he uploads the changes for the other editors and me to see.
4:12am IRC: delta is horrified at the huge filesize "ltrni.png" and wants to compress it to make it more sensible. He also tells Suriko that two lines in his text make no sense when you add directing and is told to just remove the offending lines.
4:37am SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2103 by delta: Delta directed scene L20 and uploads the script cues plus the related event CG variations of "ltrni.png" for everyone to see. A completed scene direction is a pretty big event, because it basically makes the scene "final", and you will see something very much like what delta committed here in the final game.
4:40am IRC: commentary on the direction of L20 from the devs active on IRC. 
4:42am SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2104 by delta: Delta uploads a version of "ltrni.png" compressed with pngcrush for L20. It's not really that much smaller and he's not satisfied.
8:23am IRC: A22 and Suriko discuss about getting a third dev to work harder
11:58am forum: Suriko makes a thread about the oekaki application
0:23pm IRC: Suriko finishes installing the oekaki application. A22 asks why on earth we got one.
0:32pm forum: Suriko makes a public thread about the oekaki application
2:32pm IRC: I log on and ask why on earth we got an oekaki application now.
2:38pm IRC: While I've been away, [classified information] first version is completed. I think it's pretty great and discuss it briefly with Suriko. While rummaging through our ftp, I find our server logs. The numbers in there seem too big to be real. Throughout the afternoon I try to make sense of them, to some success. Apparently KS website is a great deal busier than we thought, and the game has gotten a lot more downloads than we thought.
2:42pm shimmie: Shimmie image 1758 uploaded by Aura. I received a fanart picture in a forum PM, apparently from a 4chan original art thread. It's a crossover picture of Emi and Poplar from Working!!
3:09 pm forum: I make a post in the development thread for [classified information].
3:10pm IRC: Three discussions intertwine: A22 continues talking to Suriko about the dev they were discussing earlier, I realize I need to do some groundwork for [the son of classified information] and we discuss about [classified information], with feedback from Suriko and A22.
4:18pm IRC: I'm really struggling to get my work for [the son of classified information] done, but delta logs on conveniently and tells me he will help after he finishes an idea he got, a new way to compress "ltrni.png".
4:20pm forum: delta replies to my post about [classified information] and we exchange a few forum posts about it
4:42pm SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2105 by delta: Delta uploads the new version of "ltrni.png" now a great deal smaller filesize. Success!
4:43pm IRC: delta and me discuss [the son of classified information] at length, brainstorming a lot of stuff that I pick and compress further until I'm satisfied with what I got and write it up. I also check out the direction of L20 that delta finished last night after I went to sleep and tell him I like it.
5:37pm SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2106 by delta: Delta uploads a new sound effect file and its implementation in the script files. He was pestered into this by weee, apparently to his dislike (revision comment has the >: | emoticon)
5:43pm public IRC: Novelstream is mentioned and the public IRC channel starts a loose and lengthy discussion about VN distribution, various VN engines, alternative development models, development communities and shit flinging.
6:04pm IRC: climatic logs on and I ask him to paint a new artwork for Rin path. We briefly discuss the specifics (most of the time, climatic just does what he wants. It works really well) and he sets out to work.
7:38 public IRC: the discussion mentioned above finally ends.
8:26pm IRC: I float the idea for this blog post to general but unenthusiastic approval and start writing it.
9:20pm SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2107 by Silentcook: SC has finished editing scene R18.
10:45pm SVN: Katawa Shoujo revision 2108 by delta: delta prepares to direct a Lilly path H scene by sorting its art assets (the ones he uploaded in revision 2101) and making preliminary entries for them in script and code files.
10:56pm shimmie: Shimmie image 1759 uploaded by climatic. Instead of working on the artpiece I asked him to, it seems climatic was drawing boobs.
11:13pm IRC: [classified information] is going through finishing touches so we discuss it with delta and climatic as well as act title cards. Climatic reads the draft of this blog post and says its funny.
11:14pm forum: I make a post about the progress with [classified information], asking for comments to an issue from Pimmy.
11:38pm IRC: brief discussions about a variety of topics such as Rin act 2, Act title cards, cold hands and working harder.  Climatic shows a work-in-progress of the artwork he started earlier, and moekki shows a work-in-progress of an Emi path event CG she's working on. There is a critical flaw in the CG and we ponder how to best fix it. The issue with [classified information] is left unresolved because Pimmy is not online, to my annoyance since I'd want to keep pushing it as hard as possible.
2nd Aug, 0:03am: I notice the date has changed, write this line and post this blog post.

There you have it. 24 hours of Katawa Shoujo time. I think it's pretty representative, although today was a somewhat more active day than average. Then again a dead day would've made for a super boring blog post. It was Sunday so no work/school for anyone, SVN was active because delta was directing today (it is the single biggest activity contributor), Suriko installed that oekaki thing and IRC was somewhat active as well. Public IRC channel had obviously a lot of offtopic conversation that was not worth recording here and if someone did work they didn't talk about, it doesn't show up either.


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