Darkness and Noise: Open Game Development

‘Open game development’ is an oft quoted but somewhat nebulous maxim of Unknown Worlds, and many other indie game developers. Perhaps it can be defined as: “Game development in which the decisions, processes and people inside the developer are visible to consumers and other outside parties.” Yeah, that will do. But what does that mean in practice?

Cameras, microphones, writing, and social media. Truly, the practical application of open development is about communication. The media you use will invariably be blogs, videos, pictures, tweets, and other social posts. The degree to which you master those media will dictate the degree to which your development is ‘open.’

Unknown Worlds Brian Cronin

Recording Brian giving a programming talk – A very dark and challenging environment for film.

This does not mean PR. Far from it. The key elements an open developer is trying to communicate (decisions, processes, people) are very different to what traditional PR targets: Features, gameplay, screenshots, trailers, and making-of-videos. The traditional PR method is to make ‘whatever it is’ look good. The open development method is to just make ‘whatever it is’ publically visible, warts and all. Rather than showing the audience the product in the best possible light, open development makes the developer part of the product. Their struggles, successes, trials and tribulations become just as valuable to the end-user as the product the developer produces.

An ‘open’ developer that does not master communications media is simply a developer sitting in their office, telling themselves how different they are to traditional triple-A publishers. There is no point in having a philosophy if you do not deliver consumable material via media your audience can engage with. And so to the point of this post: Darkness and noise. Having established a broad theme, let us narrow down on a particular piece of media: Videography.

Brian Cronin Tim Keenan Unknown Worlds

Live streaming developer discussions is a great way to ‘open up.’ Here, Brian and Tim Keenan discuss the process of game development, while taking live questions from viewers. Lighting is crucial!

Putting your game development on film is one of the most powerful ways to deliver your team to an audience. It feels richer than blog posts, and adds substance to social media engagement. Tweets and Facebook/+ posts with rich media content are significantly more likely to be engaged (retweets, likes, shares) than plain text or weblinks.

Video content does however involve an investment in both equipment and skill acquisition. As good as phone cameras have become, their miniscule sensors and tiny lenses mean that creating good content with them is hard. Not impossible, but the creative possibilities opened up by proper equipment are significant.

Rather than ‘picking winners’ and having UWE act like a product review site, here are some basic first principles to consider when looking at camera equipment. The most important point to consider is, ‘where will this camera be used?’ Likely, in a dimly lit nerd-den (otherwise known as a game developer’s office). When not in the office,  probably dimly lit trade show halls and maybe other people’s nerd dens.

Natural Selection 2 Rezzed

Trade shows such as PAX, GamesCom and Rezzed are dark environments unsuited to outdoor lenses and small sensors

This means darkness, lots of it. When you combine darkness with the wrong lens and wrong sensor, you get the effect that plagues countless amateur office video productions: Noise. Noise is a camera upping its ‘Gain.’ Gain is an increase in voltage applied to the sensor, to electronically amplify its video signal. And it absolutely sucks.

Gain allows consumer cameras, phones and other smaller devices to make a scene appear brighter than it really is. Hence why when looking at your iPhone screen, the office looks fairly bright. It is all a lie, when played back the fuzzy, colour sapping noise makes up a significant part of the difference between good looking office videos, and  your usual amateur fair.

How do we conquer the darkness and get rid of the noise? You can only do this when you buy the camera (and lens, if lenses come separately). The equation is simple: Assuming you can’t move a lighting rig around your office, the only way to improve the quality of your image is to increase the size of the sensor, and / or decrease the amount of light stopped by the lens.

Natural Selection 2 PAX Prime 2012

Videographers will often bring lighting to shows to compensate for the darkness

When considering your office purchase, look at the sensor size. If it is smaller than APS-C, you are likely going to struggle to get enough light onto it to avoid the dreaded noise.  Look out though. Go larger than APS-C (‘Full frame’) and the price is going to start getting crazy! Next, the lens: How much light does it stop reaching the sensor? This is determined by ‘aperture.’ Inside the lens, blades are arranged to form an iris. The larger this iris can open, the more light reaches the sensor and the darker the environment you can film in.

Aperture is measured in ‘f-stops.’ A lower number denotes a wider iris opening: f/2 is wider than f/4. Aperture is a big problem for us at Unknown Worlds. The camera we use to film the office has a nice big sensor, but the lens is designed for outdoor and well-lit scenes, its maximum aperture is f/3.5. Right now, a lens with a larger aperture is beyond our budget and our show videos / live-casts and office videos suffer from the dreaded noise caused by gain.

Obviously, there is much more to videography than sensor sizes and apertures. Form factors, shot composition, microphones, bitrates, encoding, focal lengths, clean HDMI out, tripods, image stabilization, shutter speeds, frame-rates, audio noise reduction… It goes on and on. But none of this matters if you don’t have light. At the core, video is about getting light from your subject onto storage media. Without the right sensor and lens, you don’t have light! Face it: Filming video game development is a dark business, so make the right purchasing decisions early to avoid the noise.