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Why a graphics specialist gave up Hollywood for games development - MCV

Why a graphics specialist gave up Hollywood for games development

Karolis Mikalauskas talks us through his journey from computer animation in films to making games independently
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The lower-than-ever barriers to games development have turned the heads of many aspiring game-makers, not only within our own industry but also in other fields of entertainment.

Karolis Mikalauskas falls within the latter. Despite life-long dreams of developing video games, he found himself working in the movie industry, contributing to the releases of some of the biggest films in the past few years –including a handful of Marvel movies.

But Mikalauskas has finally been able to work on what he has always wanted to: mobile games. Towards the end of last year, he ran a successful Kickstarter for his debut title: Dream Dodger, an endless runner in which an old man dreams of escaping his retirment home.

As he plans his next move, we caught up with Mikalauskas to find out more about his transition from Hollywood to the games industry.

Tell us a little about your background in computer graphics for film. What movies have you worked on and what were your contributions?

My biggest strength in computer graphics is character rigging. It’s pretty much turning a 3D model into a 3D puppet so it can be handed off to the animators. However, I didn’t get to do any character rigging work for movies. Most of that type of work that I’ve done has been for commercials and animated shorts.

I did work on 14 movies as a stereoscopic conversion and compositing artist, though. In other words I converted regular 2D movies into 3D movies. Some of the movies that I’ve worked include Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Godzilla and Need For Speed.

What first tempted you into the world of games development, and what finally enabled you to explore this opportunity?

The idea to make games has always been on my mind ever since I was a kid. I was a big gamer all my life and my mind has always been amazed by the way all these games were created. I was always very computer savvy but game development just seemed like rocket science to me.

When I was 18, I started getting into movies a lot more than games and it was about time to go college so I found a computer animation school and went for it. After graduating, I got a job in San Diego and later on in Los Angeles, where I built most of my resume – but game development still seemed above my reach.

While working 80+ hours a week for eight months straight on a few movie titles at once, I realised that this is not the life that I wanted or expected. I kept thinking how can I reach independence while still doing what I enjoy. One day I was showing my personal work to one of my co-workers and he told me as a joke “you should make a game with the old man character trying to escape a retirement home”. We all had a good laugh but the thought stuck to me.

I knew how well the mobile app market is doing and how popular running games like Subway Surfers are, so once I connected all the dots in my head I got an extreme rush of motivation that started running through my veins ever since then and has never stopped. I knew I had something big, I just had to do it.

Immediately I started looking for a game engine that would suit my needs. Once I narrowed it down, I started watching tutorials on my breaks, lunches, dinners and late at night after work.

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While working 80+ hours a week for eight months straight on a few movie titles at once, I realised that this is not the life that I wanted or expected.

What did you know about games development going in? Was anything easier/harder than you expected?

Going in, I knew almost everything about asset creation for games development but I didn’t know anything about game programming or game engines – that’s why it has always seemed like rocket science to me. Once I started learning about the game engine of my choice (Unity3D), I realised that it’s easier than I thought it would be.

However, the programming part was the challenge that I had to overcome. In college I didn’t learn much about it, except for MEL (Maya Embedded Language), which is used to create scripts in Maya to help with the animation production pipeline and character rigging – which, again, is my main specialty. After writing a lot of 'broken' and 'dirty' code for the gameplay I have built a pretty good knowledge of how to structure the code, what makes it efficient and I started thinking like a programmer. Now I am safe to say that gameplay programming has become my favorite thing, professionally speaking.

How did you prepare for the move to games development?

To move from film to games development, I knew that I have to have more free time and working 80+ hour weeks wasn’t gonna cut it. I started looking for a new job and after some time I got hired as a part-time game development professor in Miami, FL which was perfect for me because my girlfriend lives there. After moving to Miami, I had a lot more free time to work on the game and keep learning about the development process every day. Digital Tutors has been a great help.

What did you plan to accomplish? What genres/platforms were you targetting?

My goal has been very straightforward since day one: I wanted to create a mobile game for iOS and Android platforms and build a great team that would help me along the way and eventually turn into a company.

How did you gather/recruit your team?

To recruit my team, I had to convince them that this project won’t be a waste of time. To find the actual people was quite easy because I went to college with a lot of talented artists.

At first, I went to two of my closest friends who liked my idea and trusted me because I was already making a name for myself in the film industry. A few months into production, I realised three of us won’t make this happen as fast as we would like because all of us had other obligations outside of our game development. I started contacting other artists that I went to school with and after some time the word has spread and people were contacting me and asking me to let them be a part of the team.

Eventually I had to start rejecting everyone because we were simply full. We had enough artists. We will be recruiting more people as time goes by and we near the end of the project as new positions open up for various fixes and improvements of the game.

I started contacting other artists that I went to school with and after some time the word has spread and people were contacting me and asking me to let them be a part of the team.

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What makes your first game, Dream Dodger, stand out from other endless runners? How does it show what you will be capable of as a team/studio?

Dream Dodger has a different take on endless runners. In most running games the player has to avoid obstacles but usually they are just objects like trains, boxes, pipes, bombs and so on – but almost never other characters. That’s exactly what we are concentrating on. A big portion of all the obstacles in Dream Dodger are other characters. It requires a mastery of the skill to get through them but that’s what makes the game more addicting – the challenges that come with it.

Since the action takes place in a dream our creative possibilities are endless. 99 per cent of games take place in a specific location and time in history. We don’t have to rely on that factor so it allows us to bend the rules that other games aren’t able to. We are taking advantage of that by creating unique characters and environments.

Laws of physics don’t apply to Dream Dodger either, so be prepared to see original and funny power-ups in the final release of the game. Humor is also very important to us so we are working on implementing funny moments all over user experience. From hilarious looking characters to ridiculous voice over comments, it will bring a lot of appeal to the end player.

What's the next step now the Kickstarter has been successful?

Now that the Kickstarter has been successful we will be forming a company and getting all legal matters taken care of. However, we will be launching multiple Kickstarter campaigns to raise more funds that will help us market the game once it’s complete.

What is the biggest thing you have learned about games development so far? How will you use this on your next project?

The biggest thing I learned about game development is that you should work out all the details about your game from ground up before you get into the development process. It is very important to have a plan to follow because it will save you a lot of time in the long run so don’t rush to get out of the pre-production process too soon.

Besides that, it’s also very important that your game is polished and fun to play. On our next project, I will make sure to work out the bugs and improve the user functionality as early as possible in the development process which will allow us to keep adding content to the game smoothly. We will also spend more time brainstorming and coming up with a 'master plan' before we start digging deeper.

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In films, you are trying to create characters with as much detail as possible without worrying about the poly count – the more the better. In games it’s almost the opposite: the less poly count the better.

From your experience, what is the biggest difference between film and game development?

The biggest difference between film and game development is asset control – especially when it comes to mobile games.

In films, you are trying to create characters with as much detail as possible without worrying about the poly count – the more the better. In games it’s almost the opposite: the less poly count the better. However, the challenging part is that you still have to make sure that your assets – characters, props and environments – still look good with the limited amount of polygons that you have available to create them with.

Some say that the line between movies and games is blending and that is somewhat true when it comes to PC, PS4 and Xbox One, but it’s still very far for mobile games. You can only fit so much hardware in a tiny phone or tablet. Besides that, game development requires a lot of programming when movies require a lot less or none at all.

In movies, you can cheat a lot more, too. You only have to show whatever is on screen. In games you can’t do that. The character has to be able to move around for a full user experience and interact with other assets in real time.

Are movies easier to make? Absolutely not. In fact, they require a lot more people to produce, generally speaking.

Anything else you'd care to add about the transition from film to games?

The only other thing that I would like to add about the transition is that I love it. I am having way more fun working on a game than I had when working on visual effects for a movie but then again, I am in charge of everything so I my answer comes to you not just as a developer but also as a founder of my company.

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