Posted by on May 19th, 2017

Hi everyone!

Jake (theFlying3.14) here, Lead of Tool Development here at Nerd Kingdom. Several powerful systems have begun to come online in the Eternus engine recently. To support these systems we’ve designed several tool prototypes to aid designers in creating content. Today I’d like to share one of the more important systems that are being reused in multiple instances to provide a comprehensive functional experience going forward: the Visual Node Programing platform, or VNP.

VNP is a node programming platform that allows users to script functionality across different aspects of the game. The system is already being used in a few early tool prototypes: the biome tool, the animation web, and an AI behavior scripter. Future tools such as the material editor, shader creator, and quest editor are planned for VNP implementations.

The early days – Our first implementation of ThreeNodes.js before the VNP system was designed.

Developed from the MIT licensed ThreeNodes.js – a WebGL shader tool – we heavily reworked the basic data structures and assumptions built into the library. Although there is still a lot we would like to do with it, what we’ve ended up with gives us great scalability.

The Visual Node Programming platform exists as an abstract application that we employ within each tool implementation, customizing it to fit the context. This means when you open biome tool, you will be greeted with a similar experience as the animation web. However, in reality, each tool might need to operate slightly differently. For example, the biome system reads the node graph from right to left, whereas the animation system reads “state strings” from left to right. To accommodate this each implementation of VNP has its own override of several fundamental objects: nodes, connections, workspaces. This allows great flexibility when developing and updating tools developed with VNP.

Integrated – An instance of VNP running inside of the Asset Manager. This is the Animweb

“So great another node programming tool….”

Obviously we are not the first to do this. There are, however, benefits from a node programming system being used alongside Eternus that you don’t see many other places. First, all of our current prototypes, including VNP are all written in javascript/typescript. This allows for extreme extensibility and accessibility versus platforms written in lower level languages. Another aspect of node programming we wanted to tackle was large groups of functionality – trying to make large graphs manageable. To do this we completely redesigned how groups worked in the original library. Providing the ability to group nodes on the fly, and use those groups in multiple webs across a project. We hope this significantly cuts down on development time.

Building worlds – the biome tool uses VNP to create complex terrain and place objects procedurally.

 

Over the past several months we have gotten to experiment with a few different approaches to VNP integration. The first approach we took was to build the node graph, save the data models needed specifically for the node graph (like node.x and node.y, etc), and then grab just the data we needed for the engine resource, and send it in one big packet. Of course, this worked until we started building big graphs. Once the save packet got too big to pass between the frontend to the backend we smartened up.

The animweb tool took a different approach: each time a node is connected to the graph, the system evaluates where it is and dynamically adds it to the resource. This resulted in live coding. Being able to edit a resource’s node graph and see it change immediately. It also resulted in a lot of edge cases that are still giving me nightmares. For example, deleting nodes or removing one connection from a node that’s still connected to another field become really tedious.

Our overall goal for user-facing tools is to create simple interfaces that developers at any skill level will be able to leverage. VNP provides a familiar interface for designers as similar platforms are used in engines like Unreal and Unity. While programming with nodes can easier than scripting, this is not our final destination. We decided to tackle VNP first to provide us with a clear functional foundation of what designers need. Since nodal programming lends itself to so many situations, we can provide a consistent feeling experience across the game development workflow. Then later we can develop more specialized tools to streamline certain common practices and make it easier for less experienced devs.

I hope you enjoyed this look at our Visual Node Programming platform, and I’m excited to get our tool suite ready for feedback from our awesome community.

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