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June 30, 2014

Coming Distractions (AKA Voltech the Dumb)

Whew.  Looks like I finally got over those Watch Dogs posts.  Finally.  I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: in a lot of cases, I don’t intend to write thousands and thousands of words on a subject.  It just sort of happens when I sit down to make a post.  It’s problematic, I know, but if nothing else I’m comprehensive.

But whatever the case, I’m done with Watch Dogs.  I’m tired of thinking about it, and I’m ready to move on to bigger and better things -- on the blog and off of it.  (I’m on my way to Ni no Kuni City, baby!)  I mean, I could go for a little bit of a cooldown period.  Maybe lighten up the load on things here, so I can redouble my efforts on other stuff.  I mean, it’s not like I can make good Let’s Discuss posts without playing games.  And beyond that, I --

*checks Blogger dashboard*

*notices that a major milestone is coming up*


All joking aside -- well, most of it, anyway -- I’ve actually seen this one coming for a while.  And as such, I’ve been planning for it and preparing for quite a while.  In all honesty it’s still going to be QUITE A WHILE before I deploy my salvo in full, but I’m getting close to a point where that can be the next big thing here on the blog.  And beyond, potentially.  I’ll explain more once that post goes up, but I’m hoping that you won’t walk away disappointed.  Or wheel away.  Or fly away.  Whatever.  Semantics.

I’m going to stay quiet on that story for now.  What’s important -- i.e. what this post is for -- is so I can do a little housekeeping.  Or to be more precise, I’m going to pull back the veil.  And by doing that, I’m giving you -- yes, you -- a chance to weigh in.  Your comments here could help me make some much-needed adjustments.  It’ll give me the guidance I need to better serve you, and/or give me a guideline to follow. 

So let’s start by invoking a dreaded specter.

See what I did there? 

Longtime fans of Cross-Up -- all six of you -- may remember that once upon a time, there was this feature I had called “Spirit Showdown”.  It was, on the surface, a showcase of my top ten characters -- the guys and ladies I’d come up with and wanted to push for in the writing world.  Of course, it was more than just a chance to go “HEY!  LOOK HOW COOL MY ORIGINAL CHARACTERS (DO NOT STEAL!) ARE! AREN’T I COOL BY PROXY?!”  Even from the outset, there was a story arc taking form.  It was going to be simple, and straightforward, and easy enough for people to get into -- and through -- without reading a million billion words.

Too bad I botched it.  Hard.

I’m not wholly convinced that people cared about what I put out, because I’m not wholly convinced that I cared.  I can remember times when I dreaded making those posts, because up until the last couple they were just absurdly-long bios.  They illustrated a point, sure, but did anyone really care?  My gut instinct says no.  And the posts didn’t serve me nearly as much as they should have, which means that even if it WAS a vanity project, it offered no benefits greater than an hour or two spent jotting down notes in a spiral notebook.  So no, I’m not satisfied with those posts the way they are now.  That’s why I had to put it on hiatus, and figure out how to proceed from there.  I actually came up with some solutions, the most obvious one being putting the characters at the forefront.  I need to let them speak for themselves, and I need to give them a straight, simple story arc to do so.  And I put in a lot of time to make that happen.

And then I Xrd’ed it.

I’ve pretty much added the term “Xrd’ed” to my mental dictionary.  It’s not just to honor Guilty Gear Xrd (not entirely, at least); it’s my go-to term for taking a story of mine, deciding it’s garbage, and starting over -- taking the basic framework and rebuilding it from pretty much step one so that the final product is something I can actually be proud of, instead of nervously glancing at it as I would some incoming spider.  I’ve already done it once with…that story…and I am EXTREMELY satisfied with how it’s shaping up.  So the question that follows is, “Why not Xrd everything?”  And seeing as how the answer was “DURRRRRRRRRRRRR”, I figured I might as well.

So I did.  I’m Xrd-ing everything.  Everything.  Some changes are more drastic than others, but the potential is even stronger now than it’s ever been before.  And seeing as how I’ve had some of these characters and stories in my mind for the better part of my life, that’s saying something.  The only issue is that it’s going to be tough figuring out what needs to change, what needs to stay, and how to reconcile the original intent alongside the new paradigms.  But that’s still doable…though it brings up another problem, now that I think about it.

Pretty much everything I have right now is useless.

What I’ve got planned isn’t exactly something you can pound out in a night.  To wit: the last SS post -- not counting the 400th post -- was sometime in February of 2013, IIRC.  I didn’t compile all the assets I wanted -- and not even all of them, by that point -- until the tail end of June.  And I made the 400th post (pics, videos, and all) WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY in advance of it going live on the blog…which is to say that even though it went up in September, I was pecking away at it long beforehand.  More than a few files date back to that August, at least.

The trick behind the new SS -- assuming that I ever finish it -- is that it’s going to take some different formatting than the usual post.  That’s the problem I ran into last time; sure, the old posts were readable, but they were hardly intuitive.  And I definitely can’t use the same format for what I’ve got planned.  Beyond that, the intent was (and still is) to put in the work making those assets so that from then on, it would just be a matter of plugging in this and that and moving on.  You know -- work smarter, not harder.

I’ll cut the explanations on that for when (if?) I have something to show for it.  But for now, I’ll switch gears and offer up something different.  Namely, what I’ve got now…and an idea of what goes into my plan.

We’ll start with this.  Everyone, say hi to Shino.

This is what she looked like back in 2012 (June of 2012, according to the file I’ve got).  And likewise, this is what she looked like during her SS post.  It’s a little embarrassing to think that once upon a time, I would have said that that was the best she’d ever looked -- in accordance with my art style, skills, and use of GraphicsGale to turn her from drawing to computer-colored -- but for what it’s worth, that was one of the first instances where I felt like I got her look, and the others’ looks, down.  (Plus it looks decent enough if you don’t zoom in…and un-focus your eyes.) 

But as time passed and 2013 got in full swing, I realized that I couldn’t use that version of Shino -- that design, or that drawing -- forever.  I had to rework the SS, which meant that I had to rework her -- especially if it meant following through on DA PLAN.  So I did.  I made an updated version of her to use as a general art asset.  The picture would have its uses in posts to come.  And beyond that, I REALLY needed to make some better looking art.  Seriously, some of those pictures are pretty damn wonky, and I can’t just blame GraphicsGale for that.

So.  Here’s what she looked like in mid-2013, when she was on-track for the revival.

She’s wanting for shading, I know, but that was part of DA PLAN.  I’d use that picture for general purposes, and make some more art somewhere down the line if need be.  And beyond that, there was more; in addition to that picture, I whipped up a “default icon” for her (and everyone else) that I could add in throughout the posts.  Plus, since I had that basic icon, I could alter that as needed to create more.  Give her a string of expressions and emotions, so that I could have her picture match up with the text.  (If you’re familiar with Something Awful, then you might have already guessed what shape the format will take sometime in the future.)

Whatever the case, here’s that…which, of course, is also useless now.

All right, so what DO I have now?  Well, I’ve got something that actually threatens to look good.  But first, let me run you through the process.  Maybe that can help shed a little light on things.  (And also my laziness.)

First, I draw the character by hand.  No need for fancy paper or pencils or anything (even though that would probably help immensely); just a standard mechanical pencil and notebook.  It’s here that I try to get in all the good details my skills will allow -- not just the look and design, but conveying the character’s persona as best I can.  (Flubs and fine details will get edited out/in later.)  The end result, assuming it’s OK-ish, is this:

The next step is to take that picture and get it into GraphicsGale.  Ideally, it’s a program used for sprites and pixel art, but it still doubles as a solid image editor and Photoshop Lite.  So it’s not all that difficult for me to have it do what I need it to do -- in this case, make a new layer and use the tools therein to draw an outline.  This is a more critical stage than you might think; the problem with the 2012 art was that I didn’t add in anything but a basic line atop the actual drawing.  Because of that, the finished result end up looking super-janky

So, here’s the end result of the proper step: 

Now that I’ve got that set, I can fill in the colors with a few clicks of a button.  This is a sort of experimental stage; by that point I’ve got a basic idea of the character’s color scheme, but I can make tweaks before jumping into anything else.  Very useful.  Again, this is a crucial stage, and highlights the problem with the 2012 art: because I didn’t bother with layers, it made coloring the picture in twice as difficult.  The drawing had multiple shades that the flood fill tool would/wouldn’t register, so I lost a lot of time messing with the tolerance and trying to fill as much as I could in one go before manually trying to color the holes.

When that’s all done (barring changes later on), it looks like this:

In all honesty, I like the look of the heavy black outline, so I’ll probably find a way to implement that style later.  (I’ve got plans, you see.)  In any case, it’s time for the next step: giving those outlines the appropriate colors, and after that starting the shading.  In the case of this art -- and the others -- I need five different colors: the light hue, the basic hue, the first shade, the second shade, and the outline hue.  It helps make for a more dynamic picture, I’ve found.  On top of that, I use the light hue as a highlight; adding a strip of it on the picture’s darker side adds in some much-needed visual flair. 

It’s not exactly a difficult process, but it is a tedious one.  I pretty much have to apply that to every part of the character which is about as fun as cutting your nails with a spoon.  But even from the outset, you can start to see the difference it makes, and get a pulse on what it’s going to look like once it’s all wrapped up.

And speaking of wrapped up, I’ll show you what the final product looks like.  For a few finishing touches, I change the background to jet black, and add in an outline in accordance with each character’s color.  (Because every character needs to be color coordinated -- a lesson well-learned from the myriad Power Rangers/Super Sentai installments.)  In this case, Shino gets bright green.  And with that, the file’s done.  All that’s left is to make a copy of it and store it in the proper folder.  (For those looking to give GraphicsGale a shot, here’s a VERY important point: work on your pictures and such as .GAL files, so you can come back to them later.  ONLY save it as a JPEG when you’re all done.  That will save you from shedding all of the tears.)

So, here’s Shino in the basic JPEG form.

The final step is an optional and cosmetic one, but I kind of like the look so I tend to do it.  I take the image and run it through Imgur’s editing suite.  Nothing too extreme; I just want to try and smooth out some of the more granular edges, and give it a bit of shine.  (And change the pic’s dimensions, if need be.)  So I give it a soft focus, crop out some of the black background, and I’m done.  Load up the picture on a separate page, right-click-save-as, and I’m done.  

Here’s Shino in her final (?) form.  Done and done.

Don’t ask me how many hours it took, because I don’t know.  I can ballpark, but you won’t like the answer.  And I won’t, either.

So here’s some good news: I’ve managed to wrap up more than just Shino here.  She’s one of FIVE drawings that are ready -- which puts me at halfway done.  But it gets better.  I’ve got five out of the ten characters done, but for what I’ve got planned in the short-term, that gives me a shot at spinning out a solid ten posts.  Ten quick and (in theory) easy posts.  That’s something I wouldn’t mind having right about now, because there are certain things I want to try and finish up -- and doing so will be a lot easier when I don’t have to worry about explaining why terrible games are terrible. 

But if I’m going to do this, I want to do it right.  That was the problem with the original SS -- I just did whatever without keeping a pulse on what people would actually want to see, and unsurprisingly it freaking sucked.  So this time, before I do anything (besides get the art ready, which -- quality aside -- will be the lynchpin of both the posts and future endeavors), I want to get some input from others.  Obviously, I have a plan this time around, but it’s better for me to get off on the right foot.

So I guess I’ll open the floor and ask this: what would you want to see out of these characters?   

I’m asking this more as a fan -- as a gamer who’s always itching to get data on the latest Smash Bros. characters and systems -- than I am as a would-be writing hero.  Characters do more than create opportunities; they generate hype.  So my overarching goal (besides making some MAXIMUM FILLER) is to use these characters as a gauge for interest.  See how people respond to them.  Find out who people like or dislike, and try to zero in on why.  I think I have a more effective way to gauge that than last time, but I’m just one guy.  There could be things that people want to see, and need to see, that I would never have considered.

So let me hear it.  If you’re willing to let it ride, then that’s fine.  Rest easy knowing that I’m going to do my damnedest to give you readers something worthwhile, as thanks for spending even a couple of minutes here on Cross-Up.  BUT if you have a suggestion -- if you’ve got some opinion, or some desire, or some point of reference you feel like you have to bring up, by all means do so.  I’m willing to put in the effort, but only if it’s in service of (and entertainment for) others.  That’s what it’s all about.

And that’s about where I stand.  I’ve got a few more things that need to be addressed, but I think I’ll hold off for next time.    It’ll be a lot more…shall we say, appropriate if I do it there.

So I guess I’ll see you guys soon.  Here’s hoping it all comes together -- because I SERIOUSLY need to explain who that pink-haired girl in the header is supposed to be.

And also, I’m still canonically dead.  So there’s that.

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