Meet a High 5-er: Chatting with H5G’s Director of Game Development Peter

Peter Headshot
What are your responsibilities here at High 5 Games?

I’m the head of the game development team, which is responsible for writing the first versions of all the games. It’s a collaborative process; while we are programming a game, we first work with the math team to get all the gameplay right, then we work with the art team to get all the static art and animations in. There’s a lot of back and forth between the artists and the programmers. The artists will put some art in, then the developers will look to see how it plays in the game and say, “Oh, this needs to play a little earlier, or you need to loop the animation a little longer, or it’s not correctly synced up with the gameplay.” Then, when the art team’s done with the prototype, it goes on to the sound team. The sound team creates each bit of audio individually for each animation, but then they have to see how it sounds in the game, because sometimes more than one sound plays in the game and it sounds jarring. Again, there are more adjustments going back and forth between the artists and the programmers, then it gets passed on to quality assurance – the testing department – and that’s another collaboration. They find bugs and tell the programming team where the bugs are, then we fix the bugs, they test it again, and we have a finished product.

How long does that process typically take?

It could take months. It’s not always a consecutive, linear development process, but I guess if math, art, sound, and QA all go one right after another we could possibly have a game in a couple of months.

How was the game development team involved in the launch of High 5 Casino?

Well, a large amount of our Facebook users are slot machine players in casinos, and a big draw of our site is that they are the same games that you find in casinos, so it’s very important that the games match. The Flash programmers need to see a version of the original game so they can be sure to match it. That’s where we come in – we make protoypes of the games so that the programmers can check to make sure the social game matches the original title.

What’s your favorite part of working at H5G?

I love the people who work here, and it’s exciting to be part of such a successful company that is growing so fast. I look forward to coming to work every day!

Meet a High 5-er: Chatting with H5G TA Manager Brian

Haykin Head Shot
So what exactly does the Technical Artist team do?

We’re sort of in the middle of everything – the gearbox in the middle of the company. We work with the math guys, the engineers, the artists, the animators, the sound designers, everyone. We’re basically there to make sure that our games meet the technical requirements given to us by our clients – whether that’s Bally, IGT, or whomever.

What would some of those requirements be?

Slots are essentially weak computers without lots of memory or processing power, so we need to optimize our games so that they still look and sound amazing while being able to run on these cheap machines. For example, an animator might come up with lots of fancy, elaborate animations that look great but won’t run on a slot machine, so we figure out ways to keep as many of those visual flourishes as possible while minimizing their impact on the machine. Same with the sound guys; we find out when and how they want sounds to play, and we work with them and the engineers to make sure their original ideas make it into the final product.

What is the process of optimization and searching for bugs like?

Basically, we review the builds we get on a machine, and play them to make sure the known issues were resolved and no new ones have popped up. When we know it’s ready, we have producers, art directors, sound guys – everyone comes and plays and looks and listens.

Do you work on one or multiple games at a time?

We work on all the games as they’re made. Other departments finish a game, send it off, and then they’re done, whereas the TAs might go back and forth for months with the engineers polishing the product. Even when everything is done and the game is sent to the client, the TAs are still not even close to being finished because then we’re going back and forth with the clients. It’s the nature of the beast; we are in constant contact with the client, because we have to make sure they have the content they need in the format they need it in.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part is all the problem solving I get to do. I love trying to figure out how to optimize the games so they look and sound exactly the same but run as needed.

Behind the Music: H5G’s Sound Department

Sound Department
Sound plays a subtle yet vital role in the overall aesthetic of slots. High 5 Games’ sound department must be able to rapidly switch between different genres of music in order to properly capture the spirit of a game. “Sounds really affect our emotions, and they can be very helpful in establishing the themes of a game and what universe it resides in,” said Aldo Perez, H5G’s creative sound director. When the sound department does its job properly, the music and sounds in a game join with the visuals to create a unified whole. “Foxy Dynamite, for example, just plays really well, to the point that the player may not even recognize the sounds are separate from the visuals,” said Matt, who as H5G’s resident audio wizard probably has the coolest job title in the company. “It takes a lot of work to make it all seem effortless and coherent.”

It typically takes three to four weeks for a game’s sound design to be completed. “I look at all the projects that are coming in, and I do a sort of pre-production evaluation on them so composers aren’t groping,” said Aldo. “I have an initial back-and-forth with art and math to understand how the game functions and what’s special about it. We think of every game like a film, and try to tell stories through sound. Once you figure out the setting of a game, what world it lives in, you can begin to zoom in on the story.”

The games then move onto the sound designers and composers. “Typically the first step is to write the underscore, which is the continuous soundtrack that plays in the bonus round,” explained Matt. “The underscore captures the theme of the game, and then it becomes your palette for the rest of the slot. From the underscore we create little bits of sound for animations and what not.” The sound department, which makes music using an even split of real instruments and computer programs, tries to compose the underscore using musical styles and instruments that fit organically in the game’s world. This is the most collaborative stage of the process, with everyone pitching in to provide constructive criticism or serving as session musicians translating a composer’s ideas into reality.

Aside from composing and recording the underscores, there’s also the task of creating the incidental sounds that further draw players into H5G’s releases. “Maybe you want one of your animated characters flicking a lighter,” proposed Matt the wizard. “You record a flicking lighter and it doesn’t sound anything like it needs to. You have to make it bigger than life, so people recognize what it is. So you pull out a bike chain and slap it against metal, and then mix that with a scraping sound, and all those things will go into the sound of a lighter. It reminds me of animation, where all this work is put in for a character to move for 10 seconds. You have to be so meticulous to make it look effortless.” Sound design is a thankless but crucial job, in that the better the wizard works his alchemy, the less likely anyone is to notice it.

The final step of the process is post-production. “We make sure that everything sounds the way it is supposed to once it gets in the game,” said Patrick, H5G’s technical sound director. “Once the composer is finished, I load everything into the prototype and go through it to see if any artistic or technical changes need to be made. Does it sound right? Is it mixed correctly? Once that’s sorted out on all platforms for all clients, we master it, which essentially means we make it all sound like it’s of the same package.”

Recently released High 5 Casino game Jazz is one of the titles the sound department is most proud of. In the future, even more High 5 Games slots will have their themes driven by sound. For now, though, the members of the sound department will continue to produce music that sounds great, and effortless, and likely coheres so well with the rest of the game that players barely notice it. And that’s how they’ll know they did their job.

Which H5G slot has your favorite music? What type of music would you like to hear in future H5G games?

Model Behavior: H5G Strikes a Pose

High 5 Crew
Today High 5 Blog correspondent Nikita takes you behind the scenes to a recent H5G photo shoot for some of our upcoming games.

7:56 a.m.
Can someone please explain to me why I’m staring at a monkey holding a skull? Ok, it’s just a mural, but still, it’s way too early for this. I can’t worry about the meaning behind this oddly creepy painting right now though, because I’m a woman on a mission. Mario, the art director of H5G’s 50 West studio, has decided to let me join his team as they shoot footage of models for a few upcoming games.

As I walk into Acme Studio in Brooklyn, I’m excited and terrified, but my worries are quickly dispelled when I see that a number of H5G artists are already there. I expect to be regarded as an intruder, but instead my fellow High 5-ers offer me an earnest welcome.

8:10 a.m.
Before long, the rest of the H5G crew arrives on the scene. We take the opportunity to check out Acme Studio while waiting to get started. The studio and prop shop, which has hosted events ranging from high-fashion photo shoots to star-studded launch parties, is pretty awesome; you walk in and instantly get the sense that many cool things have happened here. Everywhere you turn, in every nook and cranny, there is something new to discover. The multitude of stuffed and mounted animals adorning the walls makes it seem like a mystical junkyard curated by some wacky taxidermist. Even a trip to the bathroom is like falling down a rabbit hole and landing in some macabre Wonderland where golden skulls and porcelain cherubs commune together. If there ever was a place created to foster creativity, Acme Studio is it.

8:17 a.m.
Time to get to work! The production is on a tight schedule, and who better to make sure everything runs smoothly than Lori, one of H5G’s project managers. She’s a time-management pro; calm yet assertive, she gets the job done. (Disclaimer: I was paid with baked goods for this endorsement.)

The goal of the shoot is to photograph and film professional models who will be used as characters in two upcoming games. The slots couldn’t be any more different: one transports players to the roaring ’20s, while the other is an adventurous tale of a hidden world inhabited by mermaids.

In just eight hours, three things need to happen. First, Alina, the photographer, needs to shoot eight different models, individually and then collectively. Second, the crew needs to film green screen videos of each model. Third, they must get reference shots for an additional game they’re working on. Of course, none of this is possible without the glamour squad first working their magic to transform the models into characters straight from the games.

8:55 a.m.
Scott, an H5G digital illustrator on set, gets down to business. He has approximately one hour before the real photo shoot begins to get all the shots he needs. Two models, John and Angel, have just arrived on set, but the pros are ready for business. John loses his shirt while Angel strips down to a bikini ready to model for Scott and I watch as he directs them into making the various poses he wants. Click. Click. Click. He swirls around them snapping shots from different angles. As a digital illustrator for 50 West, he will refer to these photos when illustrating characters in order to create the most lifelike poses and facial features.

11:45 a.m.
The team’s efficient use of studio time and space is quite impressive. Right now, there are two shoots going on at once. To my right, Alina is photographing Ava, one of the models, who has been transformed into an iridescent mermaid. To my left, H5G animators are filming John, who is decked out like Indiana Jones, in front of the green screen. This particular footage will be used by H5G’s marketing video editor to create a game trailer.

2:00 p.m.
After a fast-paced morning, things have started to slow down. It’s time to change games. Thanks to the creative powers of Alina and Mario, who had expertly create an impromptu set with props from around the studio, the atmosphere quickly changes from that of a high-energy action film to a subdued elegant 1920s parlor. To top it off, Mario sets the mood and shows off his DJ skills courtesy of an old-time jazz station on Pandora.

3:22 p.m.
I find myself off to the side watching the action as Mario approaches. For the second time today, he asks me what I think of the shoot, and I reply that everything is looking great. “This is what I envision when I think ‘Play Real’,” he says with excitement while gesturing toward the models being photographed. As he explains how playing slots made with real people instead of animations will add another dimension to the games, I can’t help but become just as enthusiastic. I get the feeling that it’s moments like this when Mario really loves his job and I realize that it’s passion like this that makes H5G such an industry leader.

5:16 p.m.
That’s a wrap! It’s been a long day, but it’s finally time to pack up and head out. There’s no way we’re leaving without having a little fun of our own, however. We gather for a group picture, and suddenly everyone is channeling their inner Heidi Klum. Who knew there were so many aspiring models at High 5 Games?

5:35 p.m.
The time has come to bid adieu to the team, Acme Studio, and Brooklyn. The best thing about today was getting to watch my colleagues excel in their professional element. The amount of talent and enthusiasm for the work being done was palpable, and it was simply an honor to witness it first-hand. I know the finished products will be well worth the hard work.

Meet a High 5-er: Chatting with H5G Animator Kori

Kori 2

What’s your role as an animator here at H5G?

I take the art from the illustrators and I make it move around in a pretty and pleasing way. That’s the bare bones of it, but it’s different every time. I just finished working on a Hayao Miyazaki-inspired game; he’s a Japanese filmmaker, like the Walt Disney of Japan. It was super fun because it’s cartoony and I really like animating in that style. Lots of H5G’s stuff is photorealistic and gorgeous, but Miyuki and Friends, which is the name of the game, is a totally different style. It’s just nice to do something different. (Editor’s Note: Miyuki and Friends is available at Shake the Sky!)

Do you work on one game at a time, or is there a bunch of stuff on your plate constantly?

I work on a bunch of different games at the same time. I could be mainly animating one game while fixing animations on another, planning what we’re going to shoot in a live action game, coming up with game themes, and working with the starting artists to make sure we get the right elements. I’m all over the place — all games all the time.

Are there any games you’ve worked on that really stand out to you? Any upcoming projects you’re really excited about?
Miyuki has been the best game I’ve worked on so far, I love it! If I look at the animations I did when I first got here, I’m like, “Oh god, that’s awful,” so now I’m finally getting into the groove of things. Maybe that’s why I like Miyuki the most. I really liked working on Silk and Steel, and Lucky Animals too. Tall, Rich and Handsome is the one live action game I’ve done so far. It’s an Asian game, there’s a girl with four different guys trying to date her. It’s really cute. Going forward, I’m really excited to do more Wu Xia games, which are martial-arts style. We’re shooting martial artists and cloth with a high speed camera for Way of the Blade, and it’s going to be super cool. (Editor’s Note: Silk and Steel and Tall, Rich and Handsome are available now at Shake the Sky, and Lucky Animals and Way of the Blade will likely debut there later this year.)

What’s your favorite and least favorite part of being an animator?

My favorite part is the end product — once the game comes through the animation stage it looks amazing and really comes to life. Animation is where a lot of the emotion happens, so I like that I’m in a vital stage. The worst part is that it takes a really long time to get it to look right.

Play Shake the Sky: