It’s not always sunshine and roses

So far we’ve always been on the ready with exciting updates, new breakthroughs, and professional screenshots. But it’s not always sunshine and roses with the development process. This post is going to be a short bloopers reel to share some of the funny and constant roadblocks that we’ve encountered along the way.

This poor student is supposed to be sitting at a table in the library and studying. Instead, we take screenshots during playtesting and write witty comments.
This poor student is supposed to be sitting at a table in the library and studying. Instead, we take screenshots during playtesting and write witty comments.

The above picture is repeatedly the situation that we have found ourselves in. We make, test, and re-make objects over and over again until we get them right. Sometimes we get errors when handing files from one team to another, or actually implementing them into the Unity game engine. It’s been a bit like herding cats.

Sometimes the objects react in completely unpredictable ways, like the characters’ eyes flinging out of their heads on every second step. Or sometimes the bone structure of the characters just wasn’t implemented in the proper hierarchy, so things get a little bit strange when we test out the animations in the game engine. For better or worse, though, it’s all part of the process of fine tuning all of the characters and animations of the game. We hope you enjoy a few of our struggles along the way.

Character's eyes popping out of the head
In the top photo, this character’s eyes shoot out of her head ever other step; have no fear, though, because they always come back. In the bottom photo, we just have overlapping text.
Just a few hiccups in the animation process
Just a few hiccups in the animation process

Who, and what, is in the line-up?

The countdown for the release of Harvey has begun. So as we head into the final two weeks, we thought it was time for the complete show-and-tell.

the line-up of Harvey character models
The “Harvey Army” created over the course of this year by the character-artist team

The character artists have been nose-to-the-grindstone all year, and we’re proud to announce that Harvey is going to be quite a diverse environment. We have a great line-up of historical characters: Minnie Becker, Stout Secretary; Bill Neubauer, elevator operator; L. D. Harvey, first president of Stout; Lillian Froggatt, head librarian; Mary McCalmont, chemistry teacher; Verne Fryklund, third president of Stout; and Cal Peters, artist-in-residence. As for background characters, though, you’ll see more than 30 different characters wandering the halls and filling the classrooms. We’ll have fresh faces and tons of background chatter to keep the Harvey environment new and interesting.

The classroom and environments line-up is even longer. We have 10 rooms and hallways fully populated with characters, objects, and games ready for you to explore. On this 10 room list is the theater, President’s office, textile room, sewing room, millinery classroom, library, tea room, food lab, chemistry lab, and Cal Peters’ studio.

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Textile room
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Theater
First floor hallway, main entrance

Action!

Hello! We’ve been hearing a lot about what the 3D artists and digital humanities students have been up to lately but not much about our digital cinema students. This post, written by Ava and Rachel, brings us up to speed.

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Digital Cinema students Tyler Anderson and Tony Pha reviewing takes.

The creation of a work of film is separated into many stages. Speaking most generally these stages are pre-production, production, and post-production. Over the course of two months, we have worked heavily on the pre-production stage, including location scouting, storyboarding, creating wardrobe and prop boards, as well as blocking out shots on location. In a concentrated story form like we are creating for the beginning of the Harvey Game, this stage is essential. Since we are shooting on an off-campus location, the Mabel Tainter Theater, communication between the teams, within our team, and to those at the Tainter, all have to line up and be worked out before anything can be done.

The first time we are able to work on set, different challenges became immediately clear. From our initial storyboards, we had a clear idea of how our video would look, but often it’s a bit more difficult to actually create these ideal images. The spaces within the Tainter also posed interesting problems to solve. For example, the “Rare Book Section” is actually a few closely-packed shelves in a back room. Sometimes our initial storyboards had to be tweaked, or we came up with new ideas on the spot. The most frustrating part of filming is actually the communication stages. Having everything planned, yet waiting for the “Okay” is difficult to have patience for, but is worth it in the end.

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Sara Westman temporarily acting as the protagonist for the short film; pre-production is painstaking.

Our next steps will be to shoot the final version of the film with our actress, and then work on the post-production stage. This will include a lot of color correction, as well as some digital compositing of shots to really give the feel to the library we’re looking for. Sound design will also come into this stage, as sounds will be added and edited, and some music potentially added to heighten the mood. We’re looking forward to seeing our short film integrated into the Harvey Game.

Old Bill

So whose in our lineup for new characters in Harvey? 

How about a heartwarming, German speaking, advice giving, jovial little man named Bill!

Introducing William F. Neubauer.

Bill Neubauer closing the elevator doors. Students crowd around him.
Bill is the one that looks more dapper than the rest.

William (Bill) Neubauer started his career at the Stout Institute in 1931 as a 30-day temporary elevator operator. The first 30 days seemed to work out quite well, so Bill carried on as the Stout Institute’s elevator operator for the next 23 years, finally retiring in 1954 when an automatic elevator was installed. He didn’t have any hard feelings about it, though.

Bill was very well known and admired by the students. According to Stoutonia newspaper articles and many students, Bill was always happy. The daily elevator riders always looked forward to his cheery conversation, hearty greetings, and his even disposition. He is remembered as one who was always willing to help students in any way that he could. He always gave great advice. Bill had moxie. His frequent greetings in German led many students to believe that he grew up in Germany, but he actually moved to America by the time he was two years old. Old Bill perfected his German speaking skills in Wisconsin.

Black and white photo of Bill Neubauer standing in the elevator.
Quite the gentleman.

Some of the most mind-boggling aspects of Bill’s career at Stout are his estimations of the number of students he has transported in his trusty elevator. Bill himself estimated that every day he would travel roughly 8 miles in his elevator. He made between 500 and 600 trips every day, and each trip averaged 6 passengers, bringing the total to about 3,600 passengers daily. Over the duration of his career, Bill estimated that he transported 15 million passengers over the course of 48,000 miles.

We dug up an old Stoutonia article that opens a window into Bill’s life, providing just one anecdote. It reads, “The funniest experience that Bill told about his work is when a girl came running up to the elevator when it was stopped in the basement shouting, “take me to fourth Bill.” She counted the floors as they were going up, “two, three, four,… oh, my gosh Bill, we just passed fourth, where to now?”

Presentation and Playtest!

Come one, come all!

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You are invited to an in-progress Virtual Harvey Hall presentation and playtest, this Thursday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in UW-Stout Micheels Hall 290. Now in its second semester, the project has grown to a three-class, 45-student collaborative transmedia project (overseen by Mitch Ogden, Kevin Pontuti, and Dave Beck). While this presentation will still be an in-progress view of the experience, we hope to gather more feedback from all of you as we move into the final stage of the project’s development.

The key area of feedback that we hope to gather is in the “playtesting” phase – giving you a chance to sit down with the project and experience Harvey for yourself!

Swing by to hear a short presentation on the current build of Harvey and and sit down to a computer to play the game yourself. We want feedback from anyone and everyone!

Weaving in a Story

The Library reading room of the Mabel Tainter.
The Library reading room of the Mabel Tainter.

After a long winter break and a fresh start to the new semester, the development team is back in action, with a few new gadgets on our swiss army knife. We’ve got loads of new and talented people working on Harvey this semester. This project has many facets. We have taken in a class of Digital Cinema students, many new 3D artists, and a graphic designer. We’re working on branding, short films to serve as cutscenes as well as trailers, and even a coffee table book to augment the project.

One of the more exciting announcements we have is that we’re finally hashing out the details to the storyline to drive the player through the game. We’ve created a Narrative Team that’s broken up into several small teams of students from all three classes to write the story for the opening cutscene, an in-game animatic, and the individual events that turn the narrative.

Picture this: A student is studying alone late at night in a library. Lightning flashes outside the window. It’s raining heavily. The student is digging into the history of UW–Stout for a class project. The library is near closing. She has been working hard and is very tired. Down the hall she can hear a door close, then another. It’s the custodian locking up for the night. He looks familiar to her for some reason, but she doesn’t know why. He is a bald man. She sees the man walk past her and approach the doors to the stacks containing the library’s collection of rare, old, and protected books. He locks the door. At least she thinks the custodian locked the door… There is light coming from a crack in the door. The student packs her book bag and stands up to investigate. She approaches the door cautiously. She is scared. She places a hand on the door and it swings open with a creak. She enters the room, and the door swings shut behind her. It’s locked. Inside, she finds the source of the light. It’s coming from high up on a book shelf. The student climbs an old ladder to investigate. She finds a book emitting a faint blue glow. She is stunned. Lightning cracks outside. Thunder booms. A window is blown open, the student is startled, and she falls. The book falls with her. She closes her eyes… But when she opens them she is standing face to face with Lorenzo Dow Harvey. The time is 1917.

That is the brief and general story of our opening cutscene. We are considering locations for filming, too! Right now, the backstage area in Mabel Tainter Theater—that once housed a public library collection—looks like the perfect set.

Vault Door to Mabel Tainter stacks
Vault Door to Mabel Tainter stacks
Ladder in Mabel Tainter Stacks
Ladder in Mabel Tainter Stacks

Minnie’s Mini-Game

I am Kayla Black, Lead for the Digital Humanities Content team, and I am working on the dialogue for Minnie Becker and the mini-game that involves having a conversation with her. I have been spending time in the archives on the microfilm machine looking at the scrapbooks that Minnie put together during her time at Stout.

microfilm set up

Minnie Becker was a president’s secretary for forty years at the Stout Institute and served for four Presidents. Minnie is one of the historical characters in Harvey. She was chosen as a character for the game because she was at Stout for such a long period of time and also was very involved and knowledgeable about things happening on and around campus. She created scrapbooks from collected newspaper clippings that had anything to do with Stout, Menomonie, or even Wisconsin. The newspaper clippings mostly came from local papers like Eau Claire and Twin Cities papers.

These scrapbooks were captured on three reels of microfilm:

mircrofilm scrapbook

We want to create a mini-game that involves gossiping with Minnie. The player will find her in the President’s office, where she spent a lot of her time as secretary. I have found these scrapbooks to be a great resource to create conversation that Minnie would have had with students. She cut out and pasted all of these articles, so surely she would have talked about the stories she was collecting. Parts of the scrapbooks will also be built into the game so that player can flip through some of the pages. This mini-game is a place where we can tell stories from the past, without having to reenact them in the game. For example, when JFK came to speak at Stout Institute, Minnie was there and will be able to tell some details about when he came and spoke in Harvey Hall.

It will also be a place where we can tell stories from around campus, not just in Harvey Hall. I found an article about a Fraternity house that caught on fire back in 1958. It gives the address of the house, which was on 6th Street, where Frat houses remained until they were torn down just this past summer in 2014.

Frat Fire-Micro film

There are too many clippings to add all of them to the game, but I am working on picking the most interesting stories that will represent Stout and Harvey Hall as it should. We’re very excited to write dialogue for Minnie and build this interactive character.

Mustachioed Lorenzo D. Harvey

President HarveyRecreating and bringing to life historical characters is intimidating. What did their voice sound like? How did they speak? What were their quirks? What was their sense of humor? There are a million-and-one things that could play a role in how we write the dialogue for a historical character, especially one as important has Harvey. Dialogue is one of the most important features of a character. It brings the player in and helps the player relate to and understand the narrative. So how do we give a voice to Harvey and the rest of the cast?

The work begins in the UW-Stout archives, a place where the Digital Humanities students are getting quite comfortable with. Step one is usually to approach Heather Stecklein, the ever-busy archivist, and ask her what kind of content the archives is holding related to the characters we are interpreting and recreating. In Harvey’s case, this means many large boxes of papers, books, files, photos, and articles–good news for us.

The most time consuming portion is the collection and analysis of source material. If we want to create a convincing Lorenzo Harvey, we have to read his papers, speeches, and reports. We have to read the biographies written on his life and pin down his personality and characteristics. After getting really comfortable with his peculiarities, the verbs and nouns he used as well as the structure of his language, we can begin to write.

But we can’t just turn to the sources that surround Harvey and stop there. We can seek reference from other people from his time. Particularly useful to us are audio recordings. The catch is that there really are not many audio recordings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. But since Harvey was regarded as a very serious, accomplished, and stately man, listening to presidential speeches might not be too far off the mark. From these audio recordings from Presidents William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, we can learn the cadence and manner of speaking. These will help our voice actor recreate the mustachioed Lorenzo Dow Harvey.

All of these elements are drawn together to create the Historical characters you’ll encounter in Harvey. 

Many Programs, One Product

What are we using to make Harvey? The game engine that we are using to compile Harvey‘s virtual environment is Unity. Before they find their place in Unity, though, our characters, animations, and models spend countless hours incubating in many other programs. The programs under the hood of Harvey are Autodesk Maya, 3D modeling and animation software; ZBrush, a 3D digital sculpting and painting program; Adobe Photoshop, for texturing and image creation; and Quixel Suite, a program that helps to create more realistic looking textures.

We’ll start with Maya. If you take a look at our first post, you’ll see an exterior image of Harvey Hall and a model of the library. These models were created using Maya. In case you missed it, here is another example. This is the 4th floor of Harvey Hall.

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Art created by Sarah Benson

So this model looks great, but that is definitely not what tile floor looks like. Enter, Adobe Photoshop and Quixel Suite. We use Photoshop to add textures to the model and make the details in a process called UV mapping, which is essentially transforming a 2D image into a 3D model. During its creation process, the model is broken down into a 2D image, which is then overlaid with a UV map that supplies all the textures. We also use Quixel to help give our models texture and create the illusion of depth when you’re really looking at a flat plane. All of this information is then brought back into Maya before it can finally be exported as a .fbx file and dropped into Unity, where it finds a home in the game.

ZBrush, like Maya, is used for 3D modeling. Z-Brush is a lot better with organic curves and models than Maya is, so we use ZBrush for our character modeling. Here’s what an in-progress ZBrush character can look like.

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Art created by Kalan Tix

After the character is modeled in ZBrush, it is brought back into Maya, and brought down in the polygon faces. This model is using millions of polygonal faces, which cannot be used in our game because there is simply too much information. Sadly, this means that we usually have to say goodbye to all of those very smooth lines and curves because Unity can not feasibly render a model with millions of polygons in real time. We also bring the models back into Maya because our animators use it to make our characters walk, talk, and dance.  Here’s an example of how a ZBrush model is handled in Maya. There’s much fewer polygons here, making the model easier for Unity to handle and render.

Art created by Kalan Tix
Art created by Kalan Tix

After models are created and textures are mapped, we let Unity–and our game mechanics team–take it from there.

The Inspiration and the Art

For this post we’ll be discussing Harvey‘s character art style, some of the choices the artists have made along the way, and also the inspiration behind those choices. Because we have many artists working on the same project, we had to decide on a general style to work with, and more or less standardize it for this project. The first step was to cast our nets into the waters of already existing games and animated films. The art team came back with dozens of possible styles and scenarios, but–more or less–the first two images shown below depict our inspiration in a nutshell. The first image is a shot from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is an animated T.V. series, and the second shot is from a game called Back to the Future, developed by Telltale Games.

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We chose to build from these styles for several reasons. We wanted a style that we could use to create a character in a relatively short amount of time but also something that looks semi-realistic and something that can still portray facial animations and emotion effectively. The decision to create simpler, more stylized characters also helps to keep the characters in Harvey from becoming dated as game development technology moves forward. Next, you’ll notice that the eyes are a bit enlarged. This will help our animators bring out facial expressions and emotions more effectively. The above examples mostly influenced how our artists created eyebrow shape, nose shape, the chin, and hair.  The chiseled nose and chin gives the character a distinct style and clear definition while simultaneously keeping the model simple and easy for the game engine to render. The hair is handled in chunks for the same reasons. Keeping those features in mind, the artists moved forward onto the concept art for Harvey.

An example of concept art is shown below. The man featured here is the star of the show, Lorenzo Dow Harvey. We anticipate that the player will have a good deal of interaction with Harvey.

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Concept art created by Kalan Tix

Moving on from concept art, then, the artists began to create and model generic background characters. These are characters within the game that the player will see from a distance, performing daily activities like reading, walking around in the halls, chatting with others, sewing at a sewing machine, etc. We don’t expect the player to have very much up-close interaction with these background characters. The model shown below is finalized for the most part, but it is still basic enough that the artists can go back and change certain features without too much hassle if necessary. Keep in mind that this shot was taken before the animators could get their hands on the model to really bring her to life with a casual wink and a smile.

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Model created by Kalan Tix