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  • 12 February 2017 14:54:04

    The Sunday Discussion - SmartBlueCat - Author of 'Inigo'

    posted by BlindJudge Interviews
    Wednesdays 'Staff Picks' featured two exceptional follower/companion mods that were nominated by our users. One of these was Inigo, a Khajit follower with a great sense of humour and of course, Mr D. I got to chat with SmartBlueCat recently and found out some of the inspiration behind Inigo, where he draws his humour from and what we have to look forward to in v3. Enjoy.

    Hey SmartBlueCat, thank you very much for chatting to me today. To begin with can you tell the community a little bit about you please?

    I'm 36, I live in Glasgow Scotland, and I'm a freelance digital artist who also teaches art part time. I enjoy learning and experimenting with almost any artistic medium I can get my hands on. Over the years I've written music and fiction, worked as an illustrator/graphic designer, completed various video projects, and worked in CGI/animation. Modding is my most recent creative endeavour.


    I have to ask, where did the name SmartBlueCat come from?

    It was the first combination of words that came to mind when I created my YouTube account back in 2006. I like things that are smart, cats, and the colour blue. I should probably make up a more interesting origin story.



    Before we get into the modding side of things, would you mind telling us all a little bit about your gaming history?

    I first developed a love of gaming playing on systems belonging to friends. I played a lot of Atari 2600, Spectrum, and Commodore 64 in the late 80s. Waiting 15 minutes for a C64 game to load only to have it fail really helps you value your active game time.

    My first console was the Master System 2, which at the time came with ‘Alex the Kidd in Miracle World’ (curse that second castle level!). From then on I was a Sega guy until I saw a Playstation 1 running Final Fantasy 7, it looked incredible so I saved up and nabbed myself one. Later I moved to PS2, then finally to PC in late 2005. I haven't owned a console since.


    If you had to try and choose a favourite game, or at least the one you have the fondest memories of, what would it be and why?

    That's so tough! Can I cheat and give you a couple?

    Ico was a real revelation for me. It's a beautifully haunting experience. I'll never forget the moment I first took Yorda's hand and felt a tangible sense of responsibility. That was the first time I truly felt emotionally connected to a digital world and a companion. Ico makes you feel small, overwhelmed, and needed in numerous clever ways. To this day it has more heart than 99% of current titles.

    The Witcher 3 has to be high on the list too, somewhat predictably I am sure. It's an improbably good game. I can't remember the last time my actions felt so consequential within such a well written narrative. The character building, the art direction, the story, the mechanics. It's an embarrassment of well crafted riches, and in my opinion, the new high watermark for narrative driven RPGs.


    Thanks a lot for Inigo by Urshi


    Team Ico also released ‘Shadow of the Colossus’, did you get a chance to play that?

    Yes. I loved every awe inspiring moment of that game. It's a wonderful example of Fumito Ueda's design by subtraction. Those beautiful but sparse landscapes enhance the core themes of the story elegantly and without fuss. Very clever stuff. Ico hit me harder though. It feels like a slightly more focused experience overall.


    Considering ‘Ico’ is one of your favourite games, does ‘The Last Guardian’ tempt you to go back to a Playstation 4?

    Reviews are mixed but I'm fairly sure I'd enjoy it. It's not enough to tempt me to get a PS4 though. If I already owned one I'd certainly pick it up, but sadly I can't really justify spending that much money on an eleven hour experience.


    What were your first memories of playing games on the PC? What game did you start with?

    I remember playing the original Prince of Persia and Battle Chess on PC at a friend's house when I was very young. Later when I was in High School someone installed Doom and Day of the Tentacle on the art department's computer so a bunch of us would sneak in there at lunch to play. The first PC game that totally consumed me was Thief: The Dark Project. A friend bought it while we were in college and we took turns tackling it life by life after class. It's still one of my favourite games to this day. When I finally got a PC of my own I bought The Orange Box, Thief: The Metal Age, and Morrowind. I think I ended up missing quite a few work days that year.



    Okay, so I’d like to chat about your mod Inigo - where did the inspiration for Inigo come from?

    That's a tough one to pin down. He's not based on another character or person entirely, but various influences certainly play a part. A lot of his wordplay comes from a personal love of poetry and layered phrases – something I've played about with a great deal in my music. It felt natural to carry over that kind of writing to Inigo's speech.

    The biggest singular influence may actually be the character ‘Wolf’ from the novel ‘The Talisman’. Wolf's sense of smell, like Inigo's, allows him to experience the world from a unique perspective. There's a scene in the book where Wolf says he can smell that the main character finds something amusing. While Inigo and Wolf are very different in many regards, I gifted Inigo with a similarly intuitive sense of smell, expanding on the idea a little. Inigo can smell when you're unwell, when there's trouble, and can determine your inventory with his nose alone.

    Somewhat loose comparisons can also be made with his namesake from the Princess Bride – a deep sense of honour, a need for redemption, his scars, etc, but really Inigo is an amalgam of countless parts and ideas from too many sources to mention, many of them real-life experiences. To a large extent, he's also very similar to me. I love the rain, a good story, and wordplay.


    Just quickly, ‘The Princess Bride’ is one of my all-time greatest feel-good movies! Sounds like you enjoyed it too - if you had to choose, what would be your favourite scene?

    The battle of wits/Iocane powder scene is probably my favourite, closely followed by the To The Pain sequence. That film is pure brilliance from end to end. The book is wonderful too.




    Did you have a specific goal when creating Inigo? Did you have any previous experience?

    I'm a little ashamed to say before starting work on Inigo I'd never used a mod, let alone created one. I grew up without a PC and I didn't have the internet until around 2006 so modding didn't appear on my radar until quite late on.

    I always wanted to learn more about game design though, so when I heard about the Creation Kit I thought I'd try it out with the loose goal of creating a simple follower with a bit more dialogue and consistency than the vanilla options. I had enjoyed my time with the vanilla companions, but I guessed there was a lot more that could be done to flesh out npcs using the systems they used to decide when to speak and what to say. I wanted to add someone who had heart, who would repeat themselves less, and (hopefully) aid the player's immersion through their conduct and custom reactions.

    Inigo's presence as a person has always been more important to me than him successfully filling the role of a follower. Once I had the basics working I began to use the little knowledge I had to make Inigo more 'alive' piece by piece. Consistency and a lack of repetition were major goals from the beginning. Over time Inigo has expanded in scope, but his prime directives remain unaltered – stay consistent, don't repeat too much, aid believability.

    I also really wanted to build a personality that continued to expand under scrutiny, someone who opened up organically to players who showed an interest. This has become somewhat of a double-edged sword with players who use him casually often never really getting to know him despite travelling with him for months. I sometimes hear people who clearly haven't experienced very much of what he has to offer describe him as if he's just an amusing cat who's good in a scrap - judging the mod on this thin veneer instead of what lies beneath. This is fine of course, I never want Inigo to impose himself on the player, but his humour is a fraction of what defines him and if you get to know him his fears, doubts, and regrets soon bubble into view. Fashioning this organic character progression for people who decide to explore the mod more fully soon became another important focus. Over time Inigo's dark past and self-doubt hopefully re-frame his humour as something a little deeper, while also allowing me to believably introduce themes of loss, fear, depression, and regret, which along with various lighter topics hopefully help form a far more rounded personality. I really don't like number based relationship systems and I felt that by using optional branching conversations to gate certain sides of his character instead I could perhaps give the mod more impact while maintaining Inigo's believability. Unfortunately, this means that players who never choose to get to know him only end up seeing a sliver of the real Inigo. I'm alright with that though, it makes him more special for players who take the time to dig deeper.


    more than a follower by Lashdown10

    With Inigo being your first mod, you must have required some help. Which resources did you turn to in your quest to create your mod?

    In the beginning I was completely bewildered by the CK. I did some googling and eventually found the Deck16 guide to creating a custom voiced follower which really helped me grasp the basics. That said, it wasn't long before I ran into issues that were seemingly entirely undocumented. That's to be expected of course. We're all trying to make something slightly unique and we all come up against problems other people haven't encountered as a result. Rolling up my sleeves and jumping in feet first was the only option.

    I made regular back-ups and started experimenting, making huge mistakes more often than not, but also making progress. Later, when I finally realized that Nexus was a thing, I found the forums to be a wonderful place to learn from those with more experience. I still find myself checking the forums, the CK wiki, and various online tutorials from time to time, but for the most part it's trial and error... mainly error in my case. For every feature that ends up in Inigo there are two or three that never quite make it. A lot of people seem to think that adding a new feature is as simple as hitting Ctrl F. The reality is that a huge amount of effort often goes into the seemingly simplest thing and no one is born knowing this stuff. You need to put in the work and make plenty of mistakes along the way to get good results. In my experience no amount of tutorials or hand-holding is a substitute for getting stuck in.

    When I moved from traditional to digital art I learned in much the same way I later tackled modding – I did some research, rolled up my sleeves, and experimented. That was harder in many ways since I didn't have internet at the time. Instead I took to visiting the computing section of local book shops with a notepad and copied down things to try when I got home. I spent a few years making a series of thinly veiled audio/visual tests which were rough but taught me a lot and eventually led to paid work. Learning how to create Inigo has been a very similar experience, the main difference being that all my successful modding tests are housed within a single project. A companion can be a wonderfully accommodating canvas, especially when they introduce new areas, other npcs, and quests. There's always more I can add and learn.


    With Inigo being a fully voiced companion, did you advertise for a voice artist, was it a friend or did you take the part?

    I voice all the male characters in Inigo. He started out as a side project while I was in pre-production for a film. At that time he was just a personal undertaking I didn't think would go anywhere so I never thought about contacting anyone else to do his voice. I had never acted before but I had directed actors and written a great deal so I thought I'd give it a shot. The cadence has changed since his earlier versions, but the core of the performance was always there. I chose to give him a backstory that freed him from certain khajiit characteristics – third person pronouns, etc. This made him more fun to write and, along with the colour of his fur, gave him a degree of narrative latitude that otherwise wouldn't perhaps exist.


    Raging Flames by corpsehatch

    It must've required a lot of planning in order to get Inigo working correctly with everything, how did you ensure that he didn’t get in the way of the player and avoid traps, etc?

    Inigo has the same AI update time as any other npc, but a lot of people seem to think he's better at getting out of the way regardless. This may be down to him vocalising his player avoidance more often and politely. It perhaps gives the impression that he's more aware of your position. I also added the ability to move him out of your way at will with his whistle power. If you whistle when you're nose to nose with him it fires a scene that forces him to run away from your position until he's put 200 units between you. That probably also helps.

    Other than that, he has the ever-present ‘Light Foot’ perk used by most follower authors which prevents him from triggering pressure plates, and all of his hit/hurt lines are conditioned by health percentage- when you're sneaking he won't react to pain until he's been at least moderately wounded. This means that, for the most part, he doesn't signal when he's made a silly blunder behind you in sneaky situations.

    It all adds up, but I think a lot of the things that people positively attributed to Inigo are a side effect of his personality. For instance, I regularly see players commend him on lines I know don't exist, as if he's somehow gained sentience. Come to think of it, that would certainly explain a few things.


    Did you expect Inigo to become as popular as he did?

    Not at all. He's everything a popular follower usually isn't, and he requires an unusual degree of attention from the player if they want to get the most out of him. I never expected that he'd attract the popularity he has. It's been wonderful seeing so many people embrace him over the last few years. I've heard players say that he's a follower for people who don't like followers fairly frequently, so perhaps his differences are his strengths. Whatever the case, it was a complete surprise when he gained a following.


    Seems you are a jack of all trades (master of many), very talented indeed - gifted or hard work?

    I don't think of myself as particularly gifted, but in my experience, more often than not, talent is just a lot of sheer bloody mindedness and a need to push yourself and your work further. Natural ability is a factor, but a minor one. During my time teaching art I've encountered hundreds of children who perhaps have a greater amount of natural talent than their classmates, but no matter how gifted a person is most individuals quickly give up when the going gets tough. It's those who love the process enough to keep pushing themselves that end up maximising on their potential. It usually doesn't take long for hard work to outstrip raw talent. I'm not naturally very good at anything, but I know what I like, I'm my own worst critic, and I love what I do enough to keep picking myself up after each failure. I'm sure most people with a perceived gift would tell you the same. You don't get anything for free. I often wonder if talent is actually just grit and appreciation for the goal you're trying to accomplish. I fail as often as I succeed but I persevere when things aren't fun or going as planned and I try to say “that'll do” as little as possible.


    Do you have anyone that you can turn to if you ever get stuck with a certain aspect of a mod?

    Mostly I fumble through everything alone, but when it became clear I needed to move Inigo off the vanilla framework to give him the character consistency I wanted, I began working with a code specialist to help realize that and other more complex features that I wanted to implement.

    CdCooley has been handling Inigo's more hardcore coding since V2.1 and he's the first person I go to when I'm not sure if what I'm doing is the best way to do it, or if an idea is beyond my current understanding. In a lot of cases I'll run ideas past him for a simple yay or nay - “If I do X this way will I destroy the universe?” His contribution to Inigo is far greater than that though. He really gets what I'm aiming at and has added to Inigo in numerous little ways that greatly expand his believability. For example, ages ago I had thought about how cool it would be if Inigo got annoyed when you left him in a clearable area, complaining about it when you next met. It was one of many ideas that fell by the wayside over time... then months later CdCooley suggested a vastly better version of the same idea without me even mentioning it. After a brief discussion he created the appropriate framework so I could add Inigo's reactions factoring in location type and times left, etc. The guy's a genius, and, more importantly he really understands what I'm trying to accomplish with Inigo from a character standpoint. So, if there's ever a problem he's the person I go to first. I count myself very lucky to have him on my side.

    I also have to mention Eolhin and MonkeyMakesBrain. They both help out other users on the Inigo forums so I can spend more time working on Inigo, but I also run certain ideas past them every now and then. They both do the occasional bit of testing here and there too. They have become invaluable members of the Inigo 'team.'


    Thanks a lot for Inigo by urshi

    Do you ever check out other mod authors work, to either learn or gain influence from?

    Not as much as I probably should. Most of my influences come from areas outside of modding, through circumstance rather than design. I like to keep my data folder as clean as possible while I'm working and I'm almost always working on Inigo, so sadly I haven't had much time to spend with other Skyrim mods.

    That said, I try to grab a few weeks here and there every year to play with mods that pique my interest, but never for very long. I now mod Fallout NV and Oblivion quite a bit though. I keep up to date with Skyrim modding vicariously through YouTube let's plays and reviews for the most part. I can't wait until I finally finish V3 and can mod Skyrim properly!


    Even though you don’t mod your game a great deal, do you have any Mod Authors that you look up to or who inspire you?

    So many. The entire Vilja team for starters. I wasn't going to release Inigo initially - doubting anyone would be interested in such a character focused companion (not being aware of the Nexus, I only had questionable offerings from the Steam Workshop to go on at the time), then I saw Vilja and realized that there could be an audience for someone like Inigo. So the only reason anyone has met Inigo is because Vilja convinced me to release him.

    Emma, Amgepo, Lycanthrops and co have really created something superlative with Vilja. She's a complete trailblazer in terms of what a follower can do. When Emma contacted me about getting our characters chatting with each other I felt incredibly honoured.

    I also deeply appreciate CdCooley's work (not just because he increased the IQ of my cat) – In all his work he has this knack of artfully filling gaps in the game you never realized existed and his code is as clean as a whistle.

    Chesko is a genius. Every time he releases something I always think “Wow, that's clever.” shortly followed by “Why didn't anyone else think of that?”

    Darkfox127 produces content that is consistently imaginative and well executed. Caranthir Tower Reborn is a beautifully intricate yet robust masterpiece.

    Other honourable mentions would have to include the endlessly creative FadingSignal, the fantastically resourceful Elianora, and the astoundingly hard-working Hothtrooper... just to name a few.
     

    You mentioned CdCooley has taken over the hardcore coding of Inigo, do you still get your hands dirty on the code or do you concentrate more on the other aspects of Inigo? Do you have a team of people to assist you?

    CdCooley completely re-wrote Inigo's framework code in V2.1 and has contributed a great deal in that area (and others) since, but apart from that I handle all aspects of the mod and created Inigo alone until V2.

    I'm a bit of a control freak when it comes to my creative work. I'm regularly called upon to be a team player when working as a freelance artist, but when it comes to personal projects I'd much rather learn how to do something myself than have to rely on a team who may not share the same vision, or who, more often than not, aren't ready to put in the amount of work I perhaps would. I do the everyday scripting, ai procedures, voice recording, texturing, writing, story, acting, area and quest design.

    Complicated coding remains beyond me though. I've managed to learn the basics and I'm slowly gaining more understanding, but I still find a lot of it prohibitively abstract, so I'm very lucky to have CdCooley to take care of that side of things if the need arises. My lack of ability in this area has however forced me to come up with some unorthodox solutions that, while probably not the smartest way to go about things, are certainly more fun for me than immersing myself in papyrus. For instance I'm often asked how I scripted Inigo's looting and unaggressive combat behaviour, when in fact his combat relies entirely on conditioned procedures, and his looting is essentially just a collection of X markers being enabled and disabled, then checked in dialogue with more conditions. Honestly, when you're as inept at coding as I am, X markers and conditions solve most problems.


    Mr D thinks I am looking good in this armor by Falki

    Speaking again on CdCooley, I noticed he helped you put Mr D on Inigos belt in Skyrim SE. Was it easy converting Inigo over for Skyrim SE? Did you have any hiccups?

    CdCooley first implemented a wearable Mr D for the original version of Skyrim as a part of his wonderful INIGO MCM add-on, using the custom jar and dragonfly textures I had already created along with a variation of Chesko's torchbug lantern meshes (cheers Chesko!). When I was approaching the SE release he suggested we include that part of the add-on in the main file and he re-worked it to function without the MCM. This means that players can see Mr D on Inigo's belt by default no matter what platform they're using. In addition to this I added a number of new dialogue options and scripts that allow people to reset aliases, stop scenes, etc manually should anything go wrong. This way Xbox users, who obviously don't have access to console commands, have a way to fix Inigo if something goes awry.

    The wearable Mr D jar meshes were actually the source of the only real bug on release. While I was updating tangent spaces I missed a couple of the jars during conversion. This led to random black squares after certain fast travels, but that was caught by the community very quickly, verified, then fixed within 24 hours. Other than that the pc SE release was fairly smooth. I spent a great deal of time testing before uploading so there wasn't anything major. The Xbox version had a bigger problem though. I don't own a console so I couldn't test before release. Inigo lost all his lip files because the game couldn't read them on that platform. After some frantic searching and a few quick messages to another author (thanks again, robbobert!) it became clear I had to convert all his dialogue from xwm to fuz. This increased the file size but fixed the issue and everything was working properly within 48 hours. Phew!


    How do you take criticism from users? Do you find it useful or frustrating?

    Both. I embrace valid criticism and always do my best to fix things that clearly aren't working, but I go my own way when it comes to more subjective matters. I can't please everyone so I tend to make choices based on what I personally feel is most important. If I incorporated everyone else's ideas of what Inigo should be he'd quickly dissolve into a far less focused and watered down experience.

    I certainly get my fair share of nut jobs, trolls, and entitlement, and every day I spent far too much time quoting information already provided on the mod page and in the user guide video to players who don't pay attention, but all that comes with the territory. Overall Inigo seems to attract a particularly polite and thoughtful audience, and the little community that has formed around him is consistently supportive and helpful to newcomers.

    Seeing my work misrepresented (often with a heavy dose of faux intellectualism) bothers me far more than dealing with insults to be honest. People occasionally post outright falsehoods about Inigo – stating that he's pure whimsy, script heavy, lore breaking, etc. Of course Inigo isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I find it extremely frustrating when people fabricate reasons that don't exists to bash him. Sometimes these ill-conceived opinions snowball and then become fact for others who haven't ever tried him, which in turn leads to more work on the forums explaining why various silly claims are nonsense. All that said, what I deal with is probably nothing compared to a lot of mod authors, and overall the support Inigo gets from players who actually know him far outweighs the hokum.


    Do you worry about mod compatibility when you develop?

    Yes. From a purely practical standpoint it makes sense to attempt to be aware of what else is out there, how it could affect your work, and vice versa. Since so many people use mods which alter companions and add behaviours contradictory to Inigo's character, preventing their access to Inigo, then providing replacement features that better suit him became a priority early on. I try to support features from other mods whenever I can as long as it's something I can accomplish without personally creating patches (that's a bottomless pit). Inigo will comment on a variety of situations that are not possible in an unmodded game – followers on horseback, players not experiencing the vanilla intro, Inigo being invisible, etc. Hopefully these little touches reinforce his believability within whatever custom version of Skyrim a player chooses to play.


    Visiting the Thieves Guild by EmoryDelano

    Before we wrap up, can you give us a little glimpse into what to expect from Version 3.0 of Inigo?

    V3 more than doubles the current amount of content. It contains a lengthy personal quest for Inigo which takes you to new places, introduces you to a variety of new characters, and has several branching outcomes. I've had most of it figured out since V1 so it's wonderful to finally see it start to take shape. It's a massive undertaking and there's still a very long way to go, but it's the conclusion to Inigo's tale I feel he deserves and I hope that his supporters will be satisfied with the final result... if anyone is still playing Skyrim by the time it's finished. The screenshot below shows one of the new area's you'll be visiting.



    If you could offer any advice to our users who want to get into modding what would it be?

    Start small, back up often, have fun, and get stuck in as soon as possible. When you're new to all this it can be tempting to delay taking practical steps until you feel an idea is fully planned out, but this is often a mistake. You're mod will inevitably change in numerous ways once you gain an understanding of the tools and the best way to see if an idea is really working is to test it in game. The sooner you start making mistakes the sooner your work will improve. With Inigo I started by designing his look with only a vague notion of what his character would be. From there I focused on making him a follower and adding a few basic lines. He grew and became more defined as my knowledge of the Creation Kit expanded. I got to know him and what was possible during endless testing sessions. Only then did I start laying out more solid plans for where I wanted to take the character, but I never let planning delay my work on the mod. I knew from experience that if I waited until I thought Inigo was a hundred percent fully formed in my head before beginning I'd either never start, or I'd waste time changing a lot of it along the way when I came to the practical side of things.


    Thank you for chatting with me today it's been great.

    It was my pleasure. Cheers for inviting me to do this, and a massive thank you to all the Inigo supporters out there. Take care and look after Mr Dragonfly.

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