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May 30, 2008

Being Indie, Being Resourceful

Being indie can definitely be tough sometimes. I've often said that indie game projects are kind of like fish eggs: thousands are laid but few manage to survive to adulthood. Content for a 2D or 3D game, whether it's artwork, music, voicework, or animation, can be a real problem for a small team on a shoestring budget. It's no secret that content, specifically character animation, has been the biggest challenge for Vespers.

Sometimes, it takes a little creative thinking to figure out ways to stretch those limited resources.

A while back, when I was looking for help with voiceover work, one idea I had was to try tapping into some good but inexpensive local talent -- theater students at the University of Utah, where I work. The casting call I posted ended up being picked up by a local talent company, which brought in a lot of additional talent, but the end result was exactly what I needed: great people with great voices who enjoyed working on a fun project for what essentially amounted to peanuts.

Animation, however, is a different beast that requires a bit more of a commitment, so I was never very keen on trying a similar approach. Nevertheless, recently I learned that the University of Utah also has a new interdisciplinary program for undergraduates called Entertainment Arts & Engineering, which is a joint program between the School of Computing and the College of Fine Arts. It's basically a curriculum to prepare students for careers in the digital media and entertainment industry, specifically for videogames, digital animation, and computer-generated special effects. How enticing.

So I contacted one of the program directors and told him about Vespers, to see if it might be possible to work something out with a few of the animation students who might be looking for some experience and a chance to showcase their talent. He circulated it among the faculty, and before long I had an informal face-to-face with one of the teaching faculty who specializes in graphics and animation, and has worked in the computer graphics industry since 1985.

The meeting went very well. He seemed to like the idea behind Vespers, and thought it would be a good opportunity for some of his students, many of whom he thinks would really appreciate the chance to work on something like this.

What I found just amazingly generous is that he essentially volunteered to be something of a faculty representative for the students, and take on the tasks of finding interested students, teaching them the pipeline, providing help when needed, and holding them to the task. It's difficult to overstate the value of someone in this position; having a person that knows all the details about the animation, exporting, and file preparation process, and who also knows the students and is in a position to manage and organize them, is worth more than I can imagine. I'm still just astonished that he is willing to take on this effort.

It will still be some time before things get rolling, though. The biggest issue is that we've done all of our models and animations to this point in 3DS Max, and he and the students basically work only in Maya. So first there is the issue of converting our character models to Maya format, which is not nearly as simple as it should be. Then there's the task of getting him familiar with creating and exporting animations from Maya to files that work with the Torque Game Engine, which is a quirky process that anyone familiar with TGE will tell you requires some time to learn. Once we reach that point, he can then be in a position to get the students up to speed, and so far there are at least a handful who have expressed interest in working on the project.

I'm really excited about the arrangement, and if things work out it could be the real boost this project needs. I'd also like to think that it could lead to other projects down the line, since it seems to fill a need on both ends. We'll see how it goes.

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