Journal

Photoshop 7 TGA Plug-in Alpha Channel Bug

2007-01-25

A few people have recently been bitten by this bug, and I blame myself for not highlighting it more in my tutorials as it can be frustrating. The bug impacts saving 32-bit TGA files in Photoshop 7.0 — alpha channel transparency doesn’t work. So if you’ve done any of my tutorials and just couldn’t get Alpha Channels to work, my bet is you’ve run into this problem. Luckily all you have to do is download the free Photoshop 7.0.1 update from Adobe’s site.

From the 7.0.1 release notes: “Photoshop now saves alpha transparency data in Targa files in the same way it did in previous versions.”

SL Marketing 102

2006-06-19

Sabrina did a really nice write-up on SL marketing today. It is a good list of all the things a successful SL entrepreneur should do. But I would caution would-be merchants that this list will in no way ensure your success.

The two most important tactics on the list are probably Fashion Shows and Classified ads, because of their in-world nature, and even then, as marketing tools, they’re hit or miss. But they are definitely part of what has to be a multi-pronged effort to market your product.

Currently a very small percentage of SL users use the forums (2-3%, probably lower given recent population numbers) and a small percentage uses Web-based SL outlets (SLB, SLX, Snapzilla, blogs, etc). I’m not saying don’t bother with them. In fact, one section I think you left out, Sabrina, is one on:

Advertising

Grab those eyeballs with advertising on key SL-related Web sites, weblogs, and perdiodicals. For my money I would do banners/skyscrapers on Snapzilla and SLX (I don’t see any adverts on the new SLB). Ads in Metaverse Messenger and Second Style might generate some interest as well. Then check out some blogs your feel might have readership that matches your brand.

That said, don’t expect a lot of conversion from the above methods. I’ve been struggling for a while now trying to figure out the best way to convert those eyeballs into paying customers, and unfortunately it’s a long leap from SL user browsing a Web site at work to purchasing your product. Brand-awareness is nice, but conversion pays the bills.

In-World Marketing

The crux of my post is: don’t underestimate in-world marketing and promotion. I’m convinced the most important marketing you can do are things you do in-world. Until such time as the convergence of Web and SL Client is complete, the virtual world experience is the key to success. The gross majority of users restrict their experience to the Virtual World itself. Once their investment in the virtual world is large enough, I do believe they seek out ancillary content to enhance and extend their SL experience. Many of those people are influential so it doesn’t hurt to market to them. Just realize your marketing to the cognoscenti.

Classifieds

I’ve already discussed classifieds below. Sabrina’s right, you might as well buy a classified ad — just don’t spend a lot of money on it. I see no evidence that justifies the outrageous costs needed to get to the first page of results or the top spot. What you want to do is make sure you are covered for keyword searches. Also make sure your land is listed in the directory for the same reason, so that your keywords hit when people do a Find in-world.

Location, location…

In the olden days, business location was important. If you were near a telehub, many were convinced, there was a chance you’d grab the attention of travellers who might stop into your store. And it was true to a large extent. When the southern continent first opened there were only two southern telehubs, and one was in Noyo. I was lucky to win an auction on land just south of the hub — and just about everyone who TPd to the new continent flew over my store. Sales were quite good until hubs opened further south.

Now — location still matters but it’s incredibly difficult to go about choosing locations. The world’s very big now. Even if you buy some land next to a casino that’s always packed, there’s nothing saying that people will actually explore outside the casino. While I like the convenience of P2P teleporting, I hate it as a business owner. Previously there were de facto commercial areas. Now there’s no zoning at all. But I’ll leave that for another post.

So how do you choose a location? Some might suggest getting into as many malls and renting as many booths as possible. If you’ve got the time to manage it, it certainly couldn’t hurt (depending). People ask me to display in their mall every week. At first I’d travel to the mall to check it out and invariably I’d get there and the “mall” was barely a build at all. Four prims walls and some stalls. I don’t go any more. I’ve got a certain standard I’ve got to maintain for the brand I’ve developed. If that’s not important to you, go for it. Spread-out across the world — it will net you more sales, even if you develop a strip-mall brand.

One suggestion is to choose an area with some established merchants or getting together with some friends and create your own shopping area. Leverage the marketing and promotions of your neighbors. Advertise both your individual shops as well as (if you can) the combination of your offerings.

In-World Promotions

It’s not hard to stand out in the Events list since the majority seem to be for Slingo/Bingo/Ringo. Having an event in-world is one of the most important promotional tools out there. Have events for openings or sales. Hire a DJ or events coordinator. Even if people just come for the party, you’ve got eyeballs at your location. If you can’t convert them then and there, make sure they walk away with a notecard or at least a landmark.

Social Networking

The most important form of in-world marketing? I’m convinced it’s having people wearing or using your product and having those people be socially active. The social butterfly is your friend. One who evangelizes your product is probably the best thing you could ask for. They’re your ‘salespeople’. Someone who’s involved in many groups, who meets new people, who can spread the word. Remember to make it easy for them. Make sure they have a landmark or notecard they can hand out. Make sure you’re in the Find listings so when they say to X person “search for X store” they can find you.

If you do find someone who loves your stuff, who IMs you with kind words, help them evangelize for gosh sakes! Give them some freebies or exclusives, ask them if you can let them know when you have a new product comes out. Keep track of these people and make sure they stay informed about your products.

Ok, so Nicola, you say, if this is the most important form of marketing in SL, how do I make it happen? A lot of hard work. There’s no doubt in my mind that the most successful in-world designers are successful because of word-of-mouth. To be sure some of them are oldbies who have a bit of a legacy (Neph, the Midnights, Aimee, others) but don’t be fooled — they got where they are through hard work. The rest of you are going to really have to work at it. Hiring people is a risky proposition as it’s hard to measure the success of social networking, although I suppose you could try to build some metrics around your hired evangelists (they send people to different stores, etc). My only other advice is — hit the virtual pavement and spread the word yourself. You can do it, it just takes time and hard work.

Customer Service

Customer service as marketing? You bet. Sometimes it can be tough to tell whether someone is trying to bilk or defraud you when they want to return something or say they didn’t get something from a vendor (etc). Use your best judgement. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt. If I do think it was a vendor error or I mis-advertised something, I generally apologize and refund them, if that’s what they want, and let them keep the item. Sometimes I’ll give them additional items. Make sure they feel like they are always safe shopping at your store. Make sure they walk away thinking “she/he was really helpful, I’d shop at his/her place again” without thinking twice.

In conclusion I hope this helps you think through some more marketing options when it comes to SL. Thanks to Sabrina for getting the ball rolling!

Creating a Complete Avatar (Part 1)

2007-02-08

step 0I was approached a couple months ago by someone asking me to develop an avatar based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Victorian gentleman. This came at a great time because I was in the process of doing research on Late Victorian/Edwardian fashions — which would hopefully assist me in creating my line of Steampunk fashions. I decided to record the process with screenshots as I went along with the thought that people might find it helpful and maybe even interesting. This is not a tutorial. Unfortunately I just don’t have time to detail every step I took in creating the avatar. Nevertheless, I hope you find it helpful.

Shaping the Body Mesh

I started the process by finding as many source photos of Conan Doyle as possible. In speaking with the client, he specified that he wanted an older Conan Doyle, to more closely match his own age. Luckily I found some nice photos on the Web that I could use to guide the process.

step 1step 3step 4I started off using a new alt and one of the default bodies, so the process began from a completely vanilla state. As you can see in the screenshots, I did all of my initial work simply using the Second Life appearance sliders. Getting just the right look can take a fair bit of work and a lot of back and forth between different sliders.

step 5I used a separate reference photo for for fleshing out the body. Unfortunately Second Life’s avatar creation system favors perfectly formed human anatomy, so creating a stocky, heavier figure like that of the elder Conan Doyle can be an exercise in frustration. These limitations also impact texture/clothing design because the mesh (the 3d geometry that makes up the avatar) becomes more deformed, as you’ll see later on.

step 6Finally I had a completed avatar shape in Second Life. I added hair and a mustache to his body using the in-world tools, but I replaced those later on with more detailed versions.

Skinning Sir Arthur

To keep costs and design time down, my client decided he did not need a complete body skin, but only the head. For those of you who have never tried your hand at creating a skin, take it from me, it is a challenging process. If you’ve ever wondered why skins are so expensive in SL it’s because their creation really does require a good technical knowledge of Photoshop (or your tool of choice) and a lot of painstaking work (nostalgia alert: I remember the days before full body skins).

Fortunately tools have come a long way in recent years to assist in the creation of skins. Most major 3D applications now cater more to video game designers; there was a time when baking textures was a difficult proposition. Baking is a process which allows the designer to create a texture (for skin, clothing) directly in the 3d application itself. If you’ve ever wondered how a lot of the top designers get great reflections or shadows on some of their clothing, it’s because they’ve baked the texture directly in their 3d application.

step 7I’ve recently moved away from using Maya and am now using Luxology’s Modo, primarily because I fell in love with its interface which is completely intuitive and customizable. Modo also uses a layer-like (think Photoshop) system for its texture mapping/rendering system, as opposed to the node-based system that Maya uses. Being a longtime Photoshop user I appreciated the advantages immediately.

step 8The first thing I did in Modo was import the male avatar mesh OBJ file which you can find on the SL Web site. I then applied the three SL template textures (materials) each to the Head, Upper Body, and Lower Body. I then set up some simple lighting.

step 9Moving to Photoshop I started designing the head skin. To create the skin I used a combination of stock source photos that I’ve licensed over the years (see www.3d.sk). For Sir Arthur I used 3 different images for the various features of his face. I also created a very simple lightmap using Modo and brought that in. The base skin texture was created from scratch; I want to make sure that when I created the matching (but less detailed) body skins, the color was consistent and seamless from Upper Body skin to Head skin.

step 9aAs you can see from the screenshot of my layers palette, I had quite a few layers. I make the best use of both layer and vector masks (more on the power of vector masks in the section on clothing). I also can’t say enough good things about Photoshop CS2’s Smart Objects which allow for non-destructive re-sizing of both raster and vector image data. Even more exciting are Photoshop C3’s enhancements which, among other things, allows for non-destructive filters.

step 10step 11Moving back into Modo, I updated my head texture with the Photoshop file I had just worked on. In reality I did this a couple times to align and position elements on the mesh correctly. The roundtrip between Modo and Photoshop is pretty painless and makes for a great preview of any of your avatar texturing work. The hair was looking pretty good, but as you can see from the screenshot the hairline above the forehead and near the sideburns is perfectly sharp. There are a couple things you can do when designing textures — whether for avatars or other objects — that can really set you apart from the amateurs, as well as many pros.

  • Show no seams
  • Symmetry is boring (and lazy)
  • Tidiness is also boring; make details messy

step 12With that in mind I used Modo’s wonderful paint tools to paint onto the model’s head using my hair texture as the ‘paint.’ If you’ve never painted right on a 3d surface before, it really is next evolutionary step in the creation of avatar skins and clothing. In the screenshot you can see I’ve extended the hair on his forehead, ‘roughened’ up the seams, and extended the sideburns. I also combatted the symmetry of my hair textures on top/back of his head by liberally roughening up those as well. I should mention that I’m not actually applying paint directly to my original texture, but created a separate layer on which to paint. This will allow more flexibility when I tweak my new ‘paint’ back in Photoshop.

step 13While working on the head texture I referred constantly to my source image and noticed that Sir Arthur’s brows were a little bit too low. So I used Photoshop’s Liquify filter to raise them a bit. The red part of the screenshot is the part of the image that’s frozen so that when I stretched the brow up a bit, the pixels that are frozen didn’t move. Those of you who photosource clothing are already familiar with this filter, I’m sure.

step 15step 14After finishing up my work in Modo, I’m back in Photoshop to build Sir Arthur’s walrus moustache, something not unusual in his day. (Note in the first screenshot the additional hair around the top edges of the head texture — that was all painted in Modo.) The moustache I created using the various Photoshop brushes I’ve collected over the years. The shape was created with a layer mask, which I will also use to create the alpha channel for the texture when I export it.

step 16I exported my Photoshop file (which has over 50 layers, is 1024×1024 pixels, and weighs in at 33MB) to a TGA, uploaded it to Second Life, and applied the skin to the avatar form I created in the previous section. You’ll notice that I left some moustache texture on the actual skin itself, even though most of that texture will be on a prim. This will provide a nice background for the prim moustache especially when viewed from an odd angle.

step 17aFor the moustache prim itself I used a simple cube primitive and cut it down to a triangular shape. This worked a little better than a simple flat rectangle because it gives the moustache volume even when viewed from the side. I applied the moustache texture to both sides of the prim and transparent textures to the top and bottom.

step 17Voila! Sir Arthur is looking pretty good so far. In Part Two I briefly cover the upper and lower body skins and then delve into a detailed look on how I created Sir Arthur’s clothing, shoes, and accessories.

PDF Tutorials to HTML

2007-01-07

Finally! I’ve completed moving my PDF tutorial to HTML; now it’s lightweight, accessible, and easily updated. Here’s the last piece:

Creating a Tattoo in Second Life

I’m still looking for volunteers to translate any of my tutorials. I notice a lot of people using Google and Babelfish to translate them. Feel free to contact me if you have some time.