Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Student Showcase - Ben Gray Introduces Moonbeam

Ben Gray is in his second year of Animation Games and Interactive Media here at Bucks, and his new game Moonbeam has just been been placed in the Official Selection for the Bucks Enterprise Creative Talent Showcase. He was up against stiff competition from undergraduates all across the University, competing with students from other creative disciplines such as product design, dance performance, stand up comedy, fashion, art fixtures and film-making. We asked Ben to talk about the creation and development of Moonbeam, and how he put together a winning package.

Bucks: Your project "Moonbeam" got shortlisted for the Creative Talent Showcase at Bucks. Tell us about how you developed it.

Ben: Moonbeam started out as a graded University assignment - an introduction to JavaScript programming and environment design in the Unity game engine. So, because of this, it's a pretty simple game as far as the basic objectives go; you collect all the glowing orbs to unlock the end point, and make your way over to it. Looking back, I could easily have done a game with no artistic theme and this same objective on a basic terrain, I might have even saved myself a few headaches, but it never even came to mind at the time.

A still image from Moonbeam

Moonbeam was inspired by an idea I first had a few years ago, while I was on a cruise ship holiday in southern Europe. One clear night, I found a quiet space on the open top deck. We were at sea, so there was no land in sight, and a big, beautiful full moon was out, casting this clean beam of light across the sea. The way I was looking at it, my brain seemed to ignore the physics and the illusion of perspective, and I saw this view sort of like a flat image. I wondered to myself, what if that beam of light on the water was a path that we could walk on?

I guess all of us are here at University because, to some extent, we all have a dream to do great things in our lifetime, and some people dream so big that we want to put our hand to the sky and move the moon and the stars, figuratively speaking. So, give or take, that's what you can do in Moonbeam. The game is set in a world of perpetual night-time, on an archipelago of tiny islands, not much bigger than over-sized stepping stones. By moving the moon across the sky, it circles all the way around you, and naturally, the moonbeam moves with it. You have to set the position of the moon so that the moonbeam acts as a bridge from one island to the next. By doing this, you're able to collect the glowing orbs. When you collect the last one, a tower of golden light materialises on the opposite end of the play area from where you started. You then walk on the path of light towards it, and it carries you up and away into the heavens.

Ben Gray...and a moonbeam
Bucks: How did you create Moonbeam?

Ben: Well, when I came up with the idea, I was not very experienced in the Unity game engine and I knew nothing about JavaScript coding, so I didn't really know what was technically possible. I discussed my idea with my tutor, and tried to put across an idea of having a three-tier play environment consisting of water, the seabed, and in the middle, an invisible walking surface, divided by 3D Studio Max into hundreds of segments. Imagine cutting 300 slices out of one pizza and then running the knife in circles around the inner parts until you're only left with bite-size niblets! I had hoped that it was somehow possible to create a beam of light, linked to the moon of course, and within that beam is an invisible pole known in JavaScript as a "raycast." A raycast can be thought of as a blind person's walking stick, it hits something before the person holding it does, and you can tell your game to perform certain actions when the raycast makes contact. What I hoped to be able to do, was tell the game to make those segments of the walking surface solid, but only the segments that the raycast was in contact with. This way, it could sort of turn and sweep across the sea like the hands on a clock while the moon circles around the perimeter above, and the segments within reach of the raycast would always line up and become solid, to create a pathway.

For technical reasons too complicated to go into, this turned out to be simply impossible. I thought it was funny and typical of me to try and come up with a simple game and end up literally defying the logic and capabilities of the game engine and of JavaScript code itself. So, I was stuck for a while, until a very talented classmate suggested creating the moonbeam as a long, semi-transparent cuboid for the player to walk on, that could then be linked to the moon. It was one of those forehead-smacking "why didn't I think of that?!" moments, and turned out to be the perfect solution, so I really do owe my thanks to him for getting me out of that mess. I've probably just destroyed the illusion of the game, now haven't I? Haha!

I tried to make it look as convincing as possible by experimenting with different textures for this underwater cuboid, and adding a pretty-looking particle system to help show exactly where the Moonbeam was. I also added some carefully positioned lights to create the impression that it is a path of light you're walking on. These lights are positioned over the islands too, so that when the moonbeam passes by, the grass lights up as if this light is actually coming from the moon in the sky. The islands that you walk on come from the Unity game engine's terrain sculpting tools, although they were originally modeled using a crude method in 3D Studio Max, but this not only made the grass texture look like something out of an amateur Nintendo 64 game, it also massively increased loading times. I guess that's why they always say - keep your 3D video game models to a low-polygon count!

I must also give some special mention to two fantastic people who made some invaluable contributions toward the final version of Moonbeam. Lee Brotherton, whose work I've been a fan of for many years and who I'm on friendly terms with was very kind to compose a bespoke original piece of music for me, and he captured the mood and feel of the game so well with just a simple briefing. He's an amazing producer and singer/songwriter who has done remixes and compositions for A-list music stars and multinational corporations, but I'm not the type to start name-dropping, especially on his behalf! You can find out more about his work at . Then there's Nikola Jovic, a friend of mine based in Serbia who is a talented graphic designer, philosopher and possibly the biggest Janet Jackson fan on the Balkan peninsula!! He was kind enough to design a professional logo for my game. You can check out his work at . There's more people I could thank for their help and support but we'd be here all day, they're all in the credits of the game anyway so I'm sure they all know how grateful I am. 

Bucks: What are your career goals? Would you like to break into the games industry?

Ben: In a word - yes. I have felt rather disillusioned with the video game market for many years, since I have never liked the "Call of Duty"s, the "Grand Theft Auto"s and the countless other Medieval-themed/Zombie/WW2 etc. games. They've dominated the Western market for over a decade while at the same time, relegating anything with imagination, or indeed colour(!!) to the little kids demographic, and even the kids seem more interested in the titles with a big red 18 slapped on the box! I just don't think it's right, and it's become the cause of so much controversy and the demonising of video games on both sides of the Atlantic, to the point where a certain generation of people are just completely ignorant and dismissive of video games as a whole. It's really sad. This was demonstrated so plainly when Charlie Brooker sat down with Jon Snow trying to show him the Xbox One, you can look this up on YouTube! There was also that odd Miami-based lawyer Jack Thompson, who lost his license to practice law about 10 years ago for his aggressive behaviour while fighting for his cause to ban violent video games in the States. I don't condone his methods and conduct, and his knowledge of the subject was laughably poor, but nevertheless I do believe he had a valid point.

Because of this over-saturation of the market, I don't actually play that many games these days unless I'm already familiar with the franchise. I grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog among many other character-led franchises and even though I was their target market back then, I don't feel like those franchises are having the same cultural impact these days as they used to. I feel like the games market of today has absolutely nothing for people like me. I used to feel the same way with music, until I started discovering alternative genres and foreign artists, but I have yet to find a gateway like that for games. The rise of the indie game scene in recent years is of course very promising, but it's also kind of made it harder for any one developer to get the attention and financial investment for their games to reach a wider audience. From my point of view, I feel like there's no sense of direction for anyone to start enjoying indie games with. Where on Earth would I even start to look, finding something that I enjoy?!

So anyway, I just think there's a huge gap in the market waiting to be exploited. James Cameron did it to the film industry in 2009 with AVATAR. He transported his audience and immersed them into another world, and persuaded us to see and feel things from the perspective of aliens instead of siding with people 3000 miles across the pond from us! The visuals of Pandora were so amazingly beautiful and surreal, and yet so realistic! I've had a vision to do something similar since I was about 14 years old, but AVATAR helped to validate it - and its position now as the biggest selling motion picture of all time says quite plainly to me that people around the world love and want more of these kinds of experiences in their entertainment, or to speak in "suit" language, they make a hell of a lot of money!

My goal is to bring raw imagination back to the video games industry in a way that reaches a mainstream audience. I'd like to start a movement that will take us back to the old days of gaming where the most popular games were appropriate for, and being enjoyed by people of all ages! I work under the moniker "blaclite STUDIOS", which is a brand identity and creative, stylistic ethos that I created in 2006 to represent my vision and my work. At the moment, I run a Tumblr blog where I post updates about my University work, share things that interest or inspire me, and make occasional additions to what I call the "Blaclite Soundtrack" - songs which fit in with this stylistic ethos and help communicate the themes and messages of what I do. You can come check it out and say hi at . blaclite STUDIOS is also on Twitter, Facebook and Vimeo!

My big idea is to develop a fictional planet of my own, and a roster of characters to go with it. I'm working on developing their landscape, culture and how a fully established video game franchise set in this world might play out. I want to transport my audience to my perfect world. Hopefully Moonbeam is the start of many more great things to come!

Bucks: What are the key skills needed to make it in the games world?

Ben: Don't go on record to criticise the industry at large like I just did!!

Gateway Media Building at Bucks - our creative hub

Bucks: What advice would you give to new students at Bucks to make the most of their time here?

Bucks is still a baby Uni. The clue is in the name! So, while I have definitely enjoyed my time here, there is a feeling that it's still finding its feet. The Gateway building is a very pleasant place to be. It doesn't feel like school at all! If there's something you're not happy about, get in touch with the Students Union or with your tutor, they are really friendly and receptive of any comments. I really feel like me, my views and my needs matter as a student here and that I'm not just a number. I know that sounds like a generic thing to say but I really mean it! The student support here is absolutely top notch, which is essential for me since I have a mild case of Aspergers Syndrome and without the support from the Disability Center and my mentor, I absolutely wouldn't be here giving this interview.

The library and its computers being open 24 hours a day during the working week is also very useful if you prefer to work in a quiet environment, and with such a wonderful view over the hills! I also like how secure the place is. God help you if you ever forget your student card, you won't be able to open a single door!! But that's good, because I feel very safe staying here in the evening to catch up on work.

So, to new students, I would advise you to get involved as much as you can. There's a lot of really cool extras you can take up like all the different societies, learn a language or learn to sing, you can grab yourself free trips to the West End as part of the Student Union's Big Deal, and definitely flash that NUS card around town as much as you can. Student discounts aren't advertised much in High Wycombe, but ask and you will usually receive! But of course, don't let all of this distract you from your work. Don't see your assignments as "uggh, work.." (unless they're essays, nobody likes essays,) but instead try to see them as opportunities to further your skills, broaden your horizons and pursue your interests. Especially if you're on a creative course like me, treat every project as a piece for your portfolio and show reel. Be proud and passionate of everything that you produce, because just being a good person won't pay the bills after all! But, also because this is our one and only life, and it's only ever going to be what we make of it!

(Editor's Note: For more impressive work done by our students and recent graduates here at Bucks, check out the work of Sabah Masood. Also take a look at the work of Andy Thomas here, see our latest commercial project for Rocketseed, our short film done for a global aid agency, and take a look at the excellent work of designer Monika Dzikowicz, architectural visualisation specialist Krsytof Michalski, Alex Whitfield and the 3D artwork of Mike Swan.)

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