Homage to Just A Geek

Homage to Just a Geek, headline image
A few months ago I read Wil Wheaton’s ‘Just a Geek’ and enjoyed it tremendously. Wil gave an unflincingly honest and humorous look into his life. It made me reflect on mine. This is my little homage to Wil’s book.

An autumn morning a few days ago

Merciless clock and a light breakfast get me going and out of the door before 8am. Often that’s before my wife and 2 year old boy or wife get up, but this morning they do.
I’m at the door when Eino, my little guy comes up to me and says (in Finnish).
– Daddy goes to work.
– Yes, daddy goes to work.
– Daddy drives fast (grabbing my leg)
– Daddy tries.
Then he asks for a hug and kiss, wife too, and our cat begs a nose-kiss, and I’m on my way.

The morning is quite beautiful, crispy. I drive the beach road in Helsinki area with the sea warmer than air whisking up a pale fog. Morning sun turns it to a wall of white, hiding the ocean, where nearby islets show only as silhouettes. Aware that soon enough sun will do the northern trick and stay down most of the day I just enjoy the glare. Gravel crunches under tires of my rather creaky 20+ year old bicycle as I speed up and feel mighty fine.

Just under 10 kilometers away, in Helsinki center, awaits my workplace, an old an respected game company. I have the pleasure of leading art production for a game. We have a great little team. I enjoy it like no job before. But I must say none of this, what I have in my life now, came easy to me.

An autumn morning 9 years ago

I wake up slowly in my singles flat past 11 am. It was another long night of single-player gaming and reading. Since it is late I start the day with lunch, a packet of spinach lettuces with jam which I figure is healthy not realizing how little spinach there is or protein or anything else positive for that matter. Then few meters to my desk and I’m at work, 60 minutes and I’m done. The too rare and random web design and illustration jobs I have are like that. I get by with them, unemployment support and dreaming of winning the lottery.

Soon I’m out of the door. The apartment building I live in is a good lonely distance from Tampere center and offers forest trails right from the front door. I run a lot, it keeps me reasonably sane and unappealingly skinny. The forest is beautiful, dark evergreen with rays of sunshine slipping through the trees and touching ground at pleasant angles. I have an eye for beauty but am not feeling it now – what I feel is discontent.

I’m 27 years old but have no proper profession. I have almost a degree in Cultural Anthropology which I am in no hurry to finish or interested in as a job. I have had a graphic design business of my own for 5 years, on the side of studies, but have no contact network, no success worth mentioning or real interest to continue.

What I do enjoy and think I can do is multimedia/games/movies/animation, mainly the artwork and animation side of it. Still despite my projects and studies(I focused on Multimedia clearly more than my major) I’ve only done some random jobs of the type.

The issue in brief is lack of contacts(most jobs go to people people know), the lack of valid degree and especially(and this is in hindsight) not having that important first trainee position which I never apply for because I think I won’t be valued if they don’t pay me from day one. (Very poor thinking right there)

I moved to Tampere to escape getting stuck in my studies at Jyväskylä University and to do Animation Production diploma course. However the program taught me nothing new and I also failed my personal one-man animation production attempt – was stumped by technical issues and lost the momentum realizing how huge project I had undertaken and how slowly it progressed.

I am restless, disillusioned and worried my life is going nowhere. I have moved 2 times within one year from one shared flat to another, looking for something not knowing what, and finally to border of Tampere to be in peace and alone. Same applies to relationships, pretty much.

In stark contrast my friends are doing so well in their studies, professional lives and relationships that there is no comparison with their lives and mine.

I return from the run with a mild high from endorphins and for some time I can forget all that crap and can think. Standing sweaty and energized in the spartan apartment I feel a need for new approach. I will build an animation production in small steps and make a learning material out of it and will apply for a grant to do it all. And I will forget graphic design and develop my 3D skills with more diligence, especially the hardest part, characters.

Autumn morning in 2010

I walk my wife to the door, kiss her and wish her a good day at work. I put tea on boil, power up my computer and move our pre-teen feline beast off my keyboard. It goes with a flick of a tail and disapproving purr. I check where I was with work last night and it is looking good. I almost forget the tea, going to shop or even cooking for my wife as I delve deep into a project I am optimistic about.

In many a regard things have not changed. I’m still energized by ideas and projects. I’m still more unemployed than not and now officially so as I have recently closed down my company. I’m a partner in another company, we make movies, but that isn’t helping my lack of income. I have a resume worth showing, including 5 years of game work for a high rated (freeware) game, and have made a demoreel and a personal animated short movie. In many ways last 6 years have been a lot better than the low point of 2004.

But things have come to a head. I’m married and we’re been planning on having a baby. This isn’t about me, self development and making just enough to get by anymore. It is about family and responsibility. I feel a pressing need to succeed and have been burning midnight oil for 2 years now.. I pretty much pass out once a week from lack of sleep. We’ve talked I should get a job at supermarket or something, anything.

It is not as if I hadn’t tried. Lately there has been a major Recession which may have stumped my serious attempt with a proper demoreel in 2009. Then again I have found the reel broke a few basic rules, so maybe it was me. Yet I know I am good at what I do. This year I got into GamePro recruitment program and was, in their words, their first and foremost offer to game companies for Art. However all companies initially looking for a 3D artist backed away from the program before it could start.

Regardless of all his my latest venture has me excited and optimistic, once again. I’ve been writing a computer graphics blog on and off for 8 months and it has gathered some momentum. With recent tutorial competition wins I’ve been inspired to create a commercial tutorial about 3D Animation Character Creation. I feel very confident I can make a good product. Hell, I’ve been fiddling project like this since 2004.

Sometime in the afternoon our little catmonster does an inspired rip-a-rip on our sofa and gets me off the computer for a while, chasing her. After the cat is satisfied I still remember her, apparently not caring what type of attention it is, it leaves the furniture alone. Unable to focus I do my customary open positions-check. There’s an UI artist inquiry from an unknown company called Supercell. I do not specialize in UI but what the heck, a quick application can’t hurt.

Next day I have an interview and sign a contract a day later. Work starts in December. Turned out they needed an animator and a 3D artist and I fit both bills. And almost on the same day that I start the work my wife gets a positive on pregnancy test.

I am my choices. (I am not Jack’s colon. I don’t get cancer and kill Jack.)

Even though it was a lucky change that had me meet the right people at right moment, I believe my choices got me here. I chose my focus in 2004. I have done 3D since 1999 but choosing it over other things gave momentum. I chose not do work I don’t have passion for – I rather did projects(often unpaid) that helped me improve. In the end, especially as I was a complete dumbass and never thought about applying for a trainee position, it was my choice to live many years as a starving artist. And in the end it was worth it.

What kept me going was some unfounded belief in myself. Had you told me 9 years ago where I would be now, I would have believed you and said ‘Good, that’s sounds about right’.

So there you go. This is the truth and for me putting it out here it is scary. Like most people who write I also try to show only my good side. But in a way it is a facade even when it is true.

If there’s anything I hope you take home from this is that it is never too late to start anew. And if you are young, say around 27, and don’t yet have a career or are unhappy with what you do now.. if so then please shut up and do something about it.

Thanks for reading and I believe I can take your feedback(with only a little dread) should you choose to give it. Please do. And for a more personal, entertaining and interesting story go read Wil Wheaton’s book. It kicks ass.

Be an Expert

Be an Expert, image
What makes an expert? Why do companies want experts? These are examples and thoughts of a 3D artist working in games.

Lately I’ve been happy to see game industry growing with the expansion of consumer base which has lead to more jobs. This very clear locally here in Finland – the games industry is blooming. There’s a Finland-special in Edge magazine 04/2013 that touches on the bloom. Another even more entertaining read, though not as recent, is this VG247 article which is available online for free: http://www.vg247.com/2012/02/03/scandimania-adventures-in-finnish-games-part-one/

There is demand for artists, programmers (especially server-specialized) and more, and one thing always looked for, and often found lacking, is expertise.

What makes an Expert?

Common definition for an expert is deep knowledge and experience of a topic. 10000 hour rule is often mentioned for mastering a subject. 25000 hour rule also comes up since these days. Have you noticed how many people ‘graduate’ as Doctors these days? Lucky for us working in games and in other creative fields the important bit is actual experience.

Experience and knowledge makes it easier to solve problems and to do it creatively, and more so it gives base for coming up with new solutions and identifying problems that others haven’t noticed or anticipated – even solving problems that have no pre-existing solutions to look up. This is why, in games industry, anything beyond a junior position requires solid working experience. Hobby projects do count – it is a matter of showing you have done the work.

Experts can also communicate. An expert understands the idea well enough to tell others about it and has some social skill to deliver it. The other skilled people, ‘backroom pros’ do still have a place in the games industry, but a social and communication skills make a difference and create leaders.

Finally and I think most importantly experts are good students before anything else. People become experts only because they study, try, work, learn and teach. And a person who is so invested in learning a subject does more than learn to do it – she finds the core information, brakes it down to base parts – gets to the system within. Knowing a thing so well helps her use it effectively and improve it.

In the end it is a matter of curiosity and love for the subject – the things that make you put in the required hours and thinking. I don’t believe in shortcuts.

What about Natural Talent?

I’m not getting into subject of talent or how it would help. Superb Radiolab does it so much better. Listen to Secrets of Success. http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2010/jul/26/secrets-of-success/

Personally I don’t think I have any particular talent for art. I just like creating things and work at learning it.

Why companies want experts?

Experts are people who know their craft exceedingly well and can work together. Working with such people is good. Sure they make mistakes but those are rarely spectacular. And because experts are such great students they can also teach, help others get there. And being students the experts also know that they can’t know everything and don’t pretend otherwise.

There you go, my take on experts. I have the pleasure of working with them 🙂
[clear] [related_posts]

Working Independently or for a Company?

This is food for thought to those comparing solo freelance freedom with employment and teamwork – perspective of a person going from one type or working to another.

My Change for one way of working to another

Since December 2nd 2010 I have been part of a new game company, Supercell, as a Game Artist. My main tasks are character animation and modeling, but since it is small company still I get to do many other things as well. It is teamwork.

Before this I’ve been a freelancer for 10 years, partly on the side of studies. I think it was 2002 when I last worked for someone else, before this. The change is reason for this article.

Company or independent?

I’m biased – I fell in love with teamwork early on at multimedia project on first year at university or more likely before that playing basketball and rinkball with friends. Regardless of this in working life I’ve found myself working far more by myself, for clients, rather than in someones employ. I’ve done everything myself from web pages to 3D-animation and to accounting for quite some time. And even thought some projects I am/have been in are teamwork, like U6 Project in Team Archon, those team are either spread far apart like Archon or work in otherwise scattered manner . It is not the same as in a small team driven game company.

This article really comes down to what feels good – working alone or in a team. That’s the change I feel most meaningful.

Here is a little comparison-table – quite obvious stuff.
[styled_table width=”600px”]

Freelancing Company job
You decide how you work for your client, and when. You’re the creator. Team together or team lead works out the how and when. Team has better changes to come up with more creative solutions.
You handle everything in the project – the tasks you like and the ones you don’t. People specialize – if you are best at something you get to do a lot of that.
The scope of yur project is limited by resources and your skills meaning smaller projects or painfully long production times for big projects. A good team can create pretty much anything and fast – a bad team can spend endless hours and get nothing decent done.
You need to be a generalist – good at many things. Everybody in the team needs to excel at something.
You need to get along with your clients and yourself. All in team need to work well together.
Feedback and rewards are external. Feedback and rewards come from inside and out.
You learn by doing and from following others (i.e. online). You learn from and teach your teammates.

The thing about team is that working together on a common goal gives it more importance and momentum, keeps ideas flying and everybody gets feedback for their work. If things work right, there is a sense of We and Us, together. Capacity to do teamwork really is one reason humans survive and thrive, so it comes no suprise working in a good team also feels rewarding. On the other hand one wrong piece in a team can break the whole machine.

Your choice depends on what you like and what you are like, of course. Not everyone works best with others and not everyone can make it by themselves (nevermind the steady paycheck employment brings). Any good or bad experiences? Would you rather go solo or work with others?

Ultima 6 Project review

Ultima 6 Project was released in July 2010.  Now I’d like to tell you how it has been received. This is not about blog topics but a personal thing – but important enough as such that I want to share.

What is U6P?

Ultima 6 Project is a massive free role-playing game for PC and Mac.  It is an old game classic Ultima VI re-made and improved – our version of it.  Us here is we, the Team Archon.  You can see my part of the project  here, and read my take on the benefits of project like this.  I’m attaching some images from the game(click to view in full).

Ultima 6 Project screenshotUltima 6 Project screenshotUltima 6 Project screenshotUltima 6 Project

After the summer release U6P has been reviewed in a number of places and with quite positive results, too.  I’m linking to the official online reviews below (those that I know of).

Ultima 6 Project Reviews online

Ultima 6 Project Magazine reviews

Pelit-magazine(Finnish) gave U6P score of 90/100.  I’m translating some of the final bullet-points from the review for you, below.  I won’t show any scans from the magazine as that is usually frowned upon.  If you know Finnish, get the mag and check out the full one-spread review. And if you know some other magazine that has reviewed U6P, please write below – let me know.

  • Feels like a real Ultima.
  • Plot takes hold and takes you away.
  • Lots to do.
  • Realtime combat is tricky.
  • Camera plays tricks on you.

Pelit-magazine final words are:  “Ambitious fan-project is a mind-opening experience”.  They also gave the game Pelit Magazine Recommends-stamp of approval.

[box type=”note” size=”large”] If you know of any more U6P reviews, please let me know and I will add them to the list.  Comments are also welcome.[/box]

Interview for Intel

I was interviewed on INTEL’s ISNTV Digital Arts-show. (voice only for my part)

2013 UPDATE: Intel’s Digital Arts Show-pages have been closed for a good time now and this page had broken links, until now. I found the video interviews elsewhere on Intel’s site so the links should work, for now.

Digital Arts does many things, including interviews of people in the field of Arts.  One good example is musician Justin Lassen’s interview (from Intel booth at GDC).  Justin is an exceptional artist and a does well before the camera, too.
Reason why I got on Intel’s radar was winning their Digital Art Tutorial Challenge a few times in a row.  Other than that I’m guessing my blog and big projects raised a few eyebrows.

See the interview at ISNTV Digital Arts show.  Host of the show is man of many titles, including Intel Artist and Animator Community Manager, Steve Pitzel – a terrific guy.  We had a good chat, both on record and off.  I manage to sound reasonably sane most of the time, so I call it a success.

Go see and listen and leave some feedback below, if you like.

Ultima 6 Project Released

I’m happy to announce that our massive freeware role-playing game for PC and Mac is now released!
Go explore the huge living world, meet curious individuals, go on grand adventures, sail the seas, delve into massive caves and forest and try to make it out alive.  And if you happen to remember the main quest, try to help Britannia deal with the mysterious gargoyle race and the war.  For more info and the download go to http://www.u6project.com

U6P has been my part-time job for well over 4 years and many on our team have worked on it harder and longer than I have.  You can read about my part here.  I’m very happy for the release, positively glowing, and hope old Ultima fans enjoy our take on the classic and that the game captures new fans as well.  Go take a look!

Got a comment on our game or on freeware game projects in general? Feel free to write.

Stay Motivated

Hey all dear sentient beings out there.  I missed the update last week – sorry about that.  I have fever but damn me I won’t let this week pass by unblogged.  So here is little something that’s been on my mind..

How to stay motivated? This was one of my problems several years ago but I didn’t recognize it as such.  What I knew is I kept starting on ideas but finished very few.  I thought it was matter of technique, that either I wasn’t fast enough or just did something important all wrong.  That wasn’t it.  Rather I didn’t have proper motivation.  Motivation is what makes you productive, keeps you going and pushes you to finish.

For most folk motivation is the pay they receive from work and that’s that.  For most creative people it is the work plus the pay.  For creative people starting out there is no pay, just personal work, and unfortunately often that isn’t enough.  So, what to do?

Ways of motivating yourself

  • Don’t get discouraged.  You don’t know if you’re cut out for it or not until you give it your best shot, and you can’t do that without strong motivator(s).  Well, some rare people have discipline and faith in themselves to keep personal work rolling like clockwork just by deciding to do so.  You don’t have to be one of them to succeed.
  • Find colleagues, a group with similiar interest. For those lucky enough to have a suitable school around that is your best ticket.  Number one benefit I hear from people that have had the schooling is the connections they make while at school.  That’s networking for future jobs and those are the people that you can work and compete with – kick each other forward.  If there is no school to be had, why not join some active online community for artists?  I see lots of people making friends of sorts online and collaborating, giving each other feedback and critique.
  • Develop goals, an inside motivator.  Simply write down your short and long terms goals and then sub-goals, tasks, that push you towards the major goal.  Then do a task-list for, say, a month.  Set deadlines.  Likely you will at first have too high aims and fail, but that’ll just teach you make the next list better.
  • Join projects, competitions and the like, get outside motivator(s). There are lots of quality game and other collaborative art projects online.  Many are willing to take on people, even folks with limited experience, to help them grow and go forward.  Even better if you can have project like that with colleagues you already have.  There is nothing like a common goal with a producer breathing down your neck or team members waiting your contribution to get their task done.  If you can’t find or get any of these, try joining a competition like CGchallenge.  That gives you a goal, competition, possible rewards and critique for your work.  Or start something like a scetchbook thread on a forum with strong critique and put new work on it as often as you can.  Granted not all who comment are pros or good educators, but on the whole it helps.  And the thread and the people there are your motivators.
  • Find a mentor for the best critique. This is an option for only a few, sure, but those of you who spot the change to connect with a professional do yourself a favor and jump for it.  There is no critique like that of a pro you know.  That feedback and advice will keep you going for a long time.
  • Blog about your work. Blog is an easy way to document your work and to setup a personal gallery.  Blog also nags on the bag of your mind to keep on updating and the more followers you have the worse(=better) it gets.
  • Send your best work out to competitions, galleries and such and hopefully get accepted/rewarded.  Some recognition goes a long way in keeping your creative engine eunning.  And if all you get is no reply at all, perhaps it will piss you off enough to make you try harder.
  • Find someone to share your life with, the significant other.  There is hardly any better motivator to improve your craft and to find a job than having someone to take care of, possibly also financially.

Certainly there is many other ways to keep your motivation up, but that’s what I got right now.  Feel free to add what I forgot or critique things listed.

Low-poly 3D for Ultima 6 Project

I’ve finally compiled a video about my low-poly 3D work for Ultima 6 Project.  You can watch it below or in HD at Vimeo.  All shown in the video is low-poly to fit the game engine limitations and overall design.  These days low-polygon 3D, the likes of what I’ve made for U6P, is used more on mobiles and portable gaming decives than on PC.  Funny how fast things change.

Ultima 6 Project is  a soon to be published freeware role-playing game for PC(works on Mac, too, with some tricks.)  For me the project was first like a training ground for low-poly 3D game assets, though without a teacher, and later became a job just like any other.  I’ve been working on U6P part-time, on and off, since early 2006.

My contributions are items, creatures, characters and structures – most notable being the gargoyle race.  I’ve also done one cinematic and some 2D-stuff like the ingame-journal graphics(actual content, incl.images, is by our great team).

Ultima 6 Project is a remake of an old classic game, Ultima VI(by Origin).  Like U5 Lazarus, a remake of Ultima V, we bring a classic to modern computers – with a lot more than just visual improvements.  1.0 release is coming.  U6P is free to play, but you do need the game Dungeon Siege(1) to run it.  DS is an old game and should be available at a very affordable price.

Any comments or questions regarding low-poly 3D or Ultima 6 Project are welcome.

Learning by Teaching

I blog to teach about characters and animation and help people teach themselves.  What may not be apparent is that I also learn by teaching.

When I choose to write an article about something, I have to build examples and/or research the topic more to ensure I’m not in error after all or that somebody else hasn’t already said the exact same thing.  Of course nothing can be confirmed to 100% certainty, but I do my best.  Doing these checkups and examples I learn more about the topic.  It all takes a good amount of time, especially with the more ‘researchy’-pieces.

I also learn while explaining.  I don’t usually plan ahead with something like modeling – I just do it and make decisions while working.  Having to come up with logical steps, something explainable, forces me to examine what I do.  Then writing it down helps me organise my thoughts better.  Writing things down helps me learn them  ‘on another level’, as silly as it may sound.

Finally doing a tutorial on the subject, like modeling or lighting, forces me to apply the logic and try look for the shortest and simples steps to get it done.

I believe the more you teach the more you learn.  Explaining something well to others you have to first master it – just being able to do it on your own isn’t enough.  What do you think?  What type of learning works best for you?

Blogroll – sharing is caring

I think I should promote other good CG learning blogs on the net.  I have these currently in my Blogroll(=the list of links available on this site).

  • 3D Ninja is learning blog gold by Wes McDermott.  He covers game design/development, digital compositing and writes about the following software and lots of tutorials for them too: modo, Maya, Mudbox, Toxik and Unity iPhone Game Engine.
  • Intel Software Network Artist Blog got my interest because they have interviews from Project Offset developers, the inside story in a way.  Intel has been growing a huge community or more like communities around varied topics and CG is one of them.  They have a very nice way of making people active, a competition that I would recommend:  Animate This!  Digital art tutorial challenge.  Get rewarded for writing a quality tutorial.  Maybe you have a suitable material sitting on your computer already?  Check it out.  I’ve won and have bagged one gift voucher myself.
  • Reanimators Podcast is bi-weekly show featuring guests working in game, comics and film.  Really good listen, topics such as Animation Acopalypse which features animation critique.  The guys chat about many topics, a lot about games and and animation as they are all game animators.

Very short list, don’t you think?  Maybe you can help me out.  I would wish to add only quality learning blogs, or some quality blog close to being a learning blog, and keep the list somewhat short – only list the best.  Please, share you favourites.  Edit:  CG learning blogs only, thank you.