“I’m a problem solver…that’s just, you know…what I do…” – Every Game Designer Ever

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When I say kick it, you kick it with a tasty groove! (Using MIDI controllers to tune video games)

For years, sound/lighting have known that in order to be able to discover and capture the “magic” of their various mediums, having real-time feedback is key and it’s almost asinine that as an industry that sees so clearly how important real-time feedback is for our games, the standard process for scripting and balancing by stopping, adjusting, building and running is anything but real-time.

“Ideas are very important to me. I think that bringing ideas into the world is one of the most important things that people do. And I think that great ideas, in the form of great art, stories, inventions, scientific theories, these things take on lives of their own, which give meaning to our lives as people. So, I think a lot about how people create ideas and how ideas grow. And in particular, what sorts of tools create a healthy environment for ideas to grow.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years making creative tools, using creative tools, thinking about them a lot, and here’s something I’ve come to believe: Creators need an immediate connection to what they’re creating. That’s my principle. Creators need an immediate connection to what they create. And what I mean by that is when you’re making something, if you make a change, or you make a decision, you need to see the effect of that immediately. There can’t be a delay, and there can’t be anything hidden.”

– Bret Victor (Inventing on Principle)


MIDI Controller In UE5
Back in 2012 at Lucas Arts, we created our own interface to be able to live tune various settings by binding the value ranges to various midi controls. The person I worked on this with, @John Ballantyne (Cloud Chamber), currently works over in the other building at 2K as a Technology Directory but after we made this he went to go work for Epic and while there, helped to develop this functionality into Unreal directly.It’s somewhat buried in the UE5 documents but is now available in beta for anyone designers/artists/engineers/directors that want to try it out.


Is it actually useful?
The obvious use would be to use it to control something like meta-sounds or totune VFX live; and our lighting director in particular loved having the ability to run the game and live-tune each room one-at-a-time using a lighting board as the directors did their play throughs back when we first implemented a differed lighting solution in UE3 that let us have 1000s of lights in a scene, but it was also really useful for our systems/weapons/gameplay design and balance.

At one point we even got it working on a live 16-player server for our multi-player project First Assault (the internally developed Battlefront we were working at at Lucas Arts before the Disney buy-out and studio closure) and could use it to live adjust things like move speed, FoV, weapon/camera parameters, etc. during our daily playtests for our multiplayer balance testing. We would play a few rounds, do feedback and immediately adjust, then play again while we silently honed in on the specific set of variables we were A/B testing each day.

We also had this tech on my last project at Hangar 13 that used Fusion (the Mafia III engine) and nobody knew anything about it, but I was able to make a local build with the config for my particular MIDI controller that i have on my desk, an AKAI APC-20, however, only if I run with an old non-IMGui console via a special command line parameter. I used it frequently for various AI tuning and balance and will be setting it up at some point in UE5, including adding an additional Wacom Express Remote for even more convenient micro-tuning.

How do I try it?
If you are someone who frequently has to stop, change values and relaunch to test changes (I found myself doing it hundreds of times a day at one point), then I highly recommend giving it a try. You can get a pretty cheap MIDI controller for under $100 on amazon with various knobs, faders, buttons and toggles (keyboards are cheap but not quite as useful).

You can find the documentation on it here:
https://docs.unrealengine.com/4.27/en-US/BlueprintAPI/MIDIDeviceManager/
https://docs.unrealengine.com/5.0/en-US/BlueprintAPI/MIDIDeviceOutputController/
https://docs.unrealengine.com/4.27/en-US/BlueprintAPI/MIDIDeviceInputController/

Basic setup
There are videos online of how to set it up and I recommend making a template for each thing you want to tune (weapon, camera, enemy) and then keeping it always running/plugged in in case you need to make any adjustments while testing changes.

Once you get used to having it as a tool in your arsenal, you’ll wonder how you ever worked with out it (or at least I did 10 years ago and have been using it since).

Here is a video of us using it to tune the weapons and camera back at Lucas Arts when we were working on Star Wars: 1313.

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Some People Say That I’m a Dreamer. Well, I’m not the only one….

While the past few years have hardly been easy on anyone, and it’s easy to get bogged down by the negativity that encompasses that, we must also remember that only through great trials and strife can we truly and genuinely appreciate the opportunities we have each day to keep on living and sharing this beautiful world together.

Over the past week, I have been working with the team at Take Two Interactive and specifically with Hangar 13 to produce what we refer to as “Dream Week”, an opportunity for people to remember why we all love to do what we do, in particular video games, but the same logic is hopefully valid in any industry where the people who work in it are there by choice and not necessity.

(All names and logos ere the property of Hangar 13™/2K Games™. However, anything written here on my personal website represents my own, sole, sometimes poorly-formed opinions and is not to be re-distributed without explicit written permission).

For anyone not familiar with Hangar 13, their games are published by 2K Games/Take-Two Interactive and the studio is known for their work on the Mafia franchise and have over 400+ employees in over half-a-dozen different countries/regions around the world. That said, the studio has done an excellent job of maintaining a feeling of cohesion and consistently delivers great games with compelling narrative and gameplay that have won many awards for their willingness to make bold statements but also cater to their loyal fanbase.

Peoples’ passion can take many forms. For some it was using the time to catch up on all the games they had missed while fervently trying to keep their task-completion rates high on previous milestones, for others it was a quiet time of reflection to spend, as they do most days, with their loved ones and families but without having to sacrifice precious time spent with either.

For me personally, the week was spent empowering people and offering them the opportunities to learn and grow both along-side and together-with their piers; however, as is the nature with many gamers, several wanted to compete in a week-long game jam making more games; however, games that show their identity and that they can call entirely their own. A call for assistance was dispatched and as a person familiar with many areas of tools, gameplay, and engineering who has previously taught at universities, where we had done several jams in the past, I was more-than-obliged to help.

(I doubt anyone picked up on it but the banner I made for the event was intentionally inverted colors from our normal logo to hint that it would be a foil/contrast to the normal work people do during the year.)

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Life, Liberty and The Pursuit Of Video Games

All opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other organizations.

In a recent discussion, the topic was broached regarding violence in video games and opinions regarding whether acts against specific minorities or otherwise marginalized groups should be allowed. The argument being that such acts perpetuate a mentality that promotes or rewards such behavior and as such, should be banned from sale or distribution.

While I in no way condone acts of violence to ANYONE let alone against marginalized groups, I do have to say that I stand by the idea that it should not be up to the judiciary of the government to enact laws making them the sole arbiters or what is decent or appropriate for sale or consumption.

Explicit Content

In July 2005, in an attempt to protect minors from the dangerous impact of certain video games, the State of Illinois enacted Public Act 94-0135, the Illinois Sexually Explicit Video Game Law, which was comprised of the Violent Video Game Law (VVGL) and the Sexually Explicit Video Game Law (SEVGL).

The day after enactment, the plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, facially challenging the constitutionality of both the VVGL and the SEVGL. The plaintiffs are associations representing video game manufacturers and retailers. The defendants are the Governor of Illinois, the Illinois Attorney General, and the State’s Attorney for Cook County (collectively, “the State”). The plaintiffs are all participants in the video game industry’s ratings system-the Entertainment Software Rating Board (“ESRB”), which rates games on the basis of the maturity/age for which the game is appropriate. At the outset of the litigation the plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction and the defendants moved to dismiss. The motion to dismiss was denied.

Breakdown of the current ESRB system used by the gaming industry for self-regulation (outside government oversight)
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A Look Forward and A Look Back

I can’t express how much I am enjoying my position as Lead AI and Encounter Designer at Hangar 13. We are doing some really exciting work that is utilizing many of the latest advancements in AI and I am looking for even more ways to include them in our designs.

“In general, games pose interesting and complex problems for the implementation of intelligent agents and are a popular domain in the study of artificial intelligence. In fact, games have been at the center of some of the most well-known achievements in artificial intelligence. From classical board games such as chess, checkers, backgammon and Go, to video games such as Dota 2 and StarCraft II, artificial intelligence research has devised computer programs that can play at the level of a human master and even at a human world champion level. Planning and learning, two well-known and successful paradigms of artificial intelligence, have greatly contributed to these achievements. Although representing distinct approaches, planning and learning try to solve similar problems and share some similarities. They can even complement each other. This has led to research on methodologies to combine the strengths of both approaches to derive better solutions.” A Survey of Planning and Learning in Games (2020)

While I can’t discuss our current project while it is still in development, I can say that I’ve been documenting the process and am excited to share it when we can.

Until then, here’s a photo from back when I presented the research we were doing in the astrophysics laboratory at the University of Alabama. I’ve often talked about the work I did in the astrophysics lab but I’ve never written it down before so I thought I’d share all about that experience!

Ben Retan presenting research on "The Formation of an Interstellar Dust Analog"
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Success Story @ GDC

I am honored and privileged to have been a member of the Conference Associates program at Games Developers’ Conference for over 11 years. I started when I was still in college and it has been an invaluable community of highly creative and talented individuals who posses both skill and kindness that have helped me along my journey within my career.

This past year at the conference, I arranged to give a speech to some of my fellow associates prior to our volunteer shifts and wanted to share this heartfelt video with you all.

Nothing but love to my fellow CAs and all the staff and UBM that help us put on a great show for the boss! (the attendees)

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Ben Retan Demo Reel 2018

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Defiance 2050 Beta and Release Dates Announced

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Defiance 2050, a reimagined take on the 2013 shooter MMO Defiance that was revealed to the world earlier this year, will launch on July 10, Trion Worlds announced today. Before it does, an open beta will run from June 22-25, providing players with an opportunity to try out different character classes, weapons, and progression systems.

As a Senior Systems Designer at Trion, I personally have been responsible for overseeing the reworking of the weapons and the implementation of the class system.

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Announcing Defiance 2050

I am really excited that I can finally share with everyone the new project I have been working on at Trion.

As a Senior Systems Designer, I am responsible for the core combat, including base weapons, movement, melee and grenades. I am also working on a new, revamped class system!

 

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League of War Mercenaries Now Live Worldwide!

IT IS 2028. MERCENARY ARMIES REIGN


It is 2028. War has changed. Nations & corporations now employ professional armies to wage war against their enemies. As a mercenary commanding powerful armies for the League, battle for military contracts & build an devastating fighting force to claim victory in the battlefield.

3 GREAT REASONS TO PLAY
  • Highly realistic 3D gameplay & environments
  • A true strategy game with real-time tower assault gameplay
  • Join robust alliances to conquer the PvP battlefield

League of War: Mercenaries Official Website

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