Hello everyone! The name is Duane and I am the Animation Director here at Nerd Kingdom.
During my lengthy career in game development, I have certainly been here before. Well, not really here, as here is a bit different. However, in some aspects, it is almost entirely the same. The outstanding difference is the Eternus Game Engine currently under development at Nerd Kingdom. Built from the ground up, Eternus holds the promise of a groundbreaking game development engine and tools upon which its flagship product will be developed. So, it’s deja vu all over again…or is it?
The first time I heard the term “virtual reality” was when I began my career in 1994 as a Lead Animator at Virtual World Entertainment (VWE). The Chicago game studio made two products, a first-person shooter (FPS) “walking tank” game called Battletech and a “hovercraft racing” title called Red Planet.
Each product was built from the ground up on a proprietary game engine, completely unique to the requirements of gameplay for a multiplayer FPS and space-based racing title respectively. Each engine included its own set of development tools and export processes, designed and built with essential integration toward the support of an efficient iterative creative process. Nothing was borrowed or modded, and middleware was non-existent. All of it was brand new, completely from scratch. (Ok, truth be told, some code between Battletech and Red Planet was recycled. But, I’m trying to make a point here.)
Fresh out of college, I was the studio’s first and only Lead Animator and it fell to me to collaborate with a newly hired Junior Programmer to design, test, and implement an integrated LOD Texturing tool. The sky was the limit and… “What the hell is an LOD anyway?”
So, there I was, tasked with one of the most important art tools for Battletech’s and Red Planet’s CG art development. Not because I was particularly suited for the role, but because I was “the new guy” and no one else wanted the job.
If you’ve ever wanted to make games for a living and knew nothing about the process, I knew exactly what you did when I began my career. Lucky for me, this first challenge was a remarkable Art Tools design experience and quite an education.
Trial by fire, I learned how to make LODs by hand expeditiously, a method of reducing an object or character’s total number of polygons while maintaining its shape and silhouette. I made four Levels of Detail (LOD) for each of the 20+ Mechs (aka “walking tanks”) and 12+ VTOL (“vertical take-off and landing”) racing craft. That’s 128 LODs plus the original 32+ models.
Then, I learned about creating UV Maps followed by applying textures via Planar Projection mapping for the many texture groups within a single model. At the time, Planar Projection mapping was all that this tool would provide.
The number of texture groups per model was exponential. I had to rotate and place each Planar Projection, an intermediate object represented by a 3D Plane, over every single polygon group or group of facets (aka “face group”). It was meticulous work. But then, that’s why we were developing the LOD Texturing tool in the first place, to expedite this laborious process. Ultimately, our efforts allowed Artists to texture any 3D model and all of its LODs based solely on the original models UV textures. It was a profound success and increased my passion for making games and inventing game development technologies, in general.
By the way, is it really work if you love what you do for a living? For me personally, animating for games is truly a dream come true. I remember when a Tippett Studios’ VP at Siggraph once said, “These guys will work for nothing and do it all night long. They love it! They’re gamers and artist.” I thought, “Holy sh*t, she knows our secret!” But, it’s true. Game developers will work long after their salaries have exhausted a full day’s work. We are habitual over-achievers with a relentless work ethic. Like some kind of digital junkie, looking forward to that next first moment of realized innovation in VR immersion. It’s addictive! That’s why most of look the way we do…trying to score that next (top-selling) digital hit. Thank God mobile game development offers the same euphoric affects at smaller doses. And, with the recent debates over VR/AR/MR, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality respectively, the digital chug-wagon continues.
I remember when I was in college, learning Alias|Wavefront software on a Thompson Digital Image machine back in the early 90’s. No one knew what they were doing. The teachers that were teaching the 3D Art and Animation curriculum at Columbia College Chicago had no clue what 3D was or even how to teach it. Every student dove into the manuals and surpassed their instructors before the end of the second week, too impatient to watch some “old dude” struggle to understand the poorly written tutorials.
Anyway, I digress, back to the topic at hand.
Other things that haven’t changed in game development for decades? How ’bout the division of labor across three main groups – Programmers, Designers, and Artists. At VWE, I learned about five disparate teams the studio employed in their game development process – Owner/Managers, Programmers, Designers, Artists/Animators, and Testers. And that right there was the pecking order by status and salary. How little has changed in the industry as a whole.
Each of these teams worked in silos as focused but independent specialists prior to pre-production and were brought together as one homogenized unit as the pre-production “vertical slice” neared completion. No, “vertical slice” has nothing to do with bread or ninja skills – Google it.
Over the years, the terminology for “development meetings with prioritized schedules or milestones” mutated into words like Sprint, Scrum, Agile, and Agile/Scrum. Call it what you like, it has been the same process since the dawn of game development. In its most basic form, it goes something like this – create a series of meetings based on a prioritized schedule of milestones around the topics of concepts/game ideas, dev, design, art, scope, and schedules. Then, build and test the plethora of advancing software. This is usually followed by cycles of wash/rinse/repeat. Critical to the successful development of this cycle is smart, honest decisions by talented and experienced key team members…and yadda, yadda, yadda – it’s boring stuff, but absolutely necessary.
Another enduring oddity in game development is something called “studio culture”. Here’s a checklist of things that, in my experience, have existed in every studio I’ve ever worked for:
⦁ Very smart, technical/analytical problem-solving academics who love games and are “kids at heart”
⦁ A fascination with technology trends, games, movies & music, art & animation, and science fiction/fantasy.
⦁ Communal eating spaces/kitchens with free drinks – a game developer’s divine right.
⦁ Tattoos, piercings, long hair. Occasional bad hygene? Perhaps.
⦁ Action figures
⦁ Nerf guns
⦁ Darkened work space that are quiet, but at times rowdy on a good day (aka productive day).
⦁ Flexible 8 hour work schedules
⦁ Casual clothes – bare feet (aka sandle or flip-flops), bare legs (aka shorts), baseball caps, and enigmatic t-shirts.
⦁ The mention of manga/anime, Weird Al (Yankovic) for some reason, and anything sci-fi…most likely a Star Wars reference.
And then, there’s the “proximity task”. Happens all the time in game development. It can usually fall to the person who is simply absent at the wrong time during a formal team meeting. But when it’s an informal discussion, simply sitting at your desk near one can get you saddled with a task that no one wants. Like today, for example, when I was asked to write this blog. Happy reading!
By the way, if you’ve made it this far into the article, then bless you for your unwarranted attention. You are a saint! Take heed, I’m almost done.
One last thing that is ever present in this industry are the abundant proprietary processes developed and never shared by the multitude of game developers the world over. With most new games and especially with innovative immersive AR/VR experiences on new hardware, a new engine, SDK, and game product are under simultaneous development. In my experience, the lineage of this simultaneous development started on PC, followed by the original Xbox console, then Xbox 360, Kinect, HoloLens, and Magic Leap.
And now, finally, “Back to Eternus”. Sounds like a great sci-fi epic, doesn’t it?
Here at Nerd Kingdom, I ran into an old friend of mine not mentioned above, good ol’ Mister Frame Rate. “How have you been, Old Chum? It’s been awhile. Wife and kids? Goooood.” Ever the divisive arbiter of quality graphics versus render speed, Frame Rate could often be an allusive collaborator. But last week, he sauntered up to me with a drink, “Here, knock this back. Oh, I forgot. You don’t drink. (Chug! Slurp.) Let’s talk, shall we?”
So, after closing time, there we were, old Frame Rate and I, talkin’ ’bout the Good Ol’ Days and the mischief he put me through as a Director of Animation under fire for the largest memory footprint that character animation had ever occupied in VWE’s history. Now, I can’t say that I remember those days with as rosy a resplendent recall, but I do remember the relief I felt when we were able to solve the issue with a technical art solution, an animation export tool, that we could all agree upon.
Allow me to blather on in detail about this very familiar topic. In the early days of game development, when you would export a character animation for a game, whether authored in Maya, 3D Studio Max, or some other CG software of choice, the animation asset was exported as a linear keyframe for every frame of motion exhibited by each joint or node in a character’s skeletal hierarchy, regardless if its value changed or not, for the duration of the motion.
Well, as we research a popular export format, it is creating a similar result – a keyframe on every frame. And so, it’s not surprising that discussions about frame rates and reducing file sizes have stirred this air of frame rate nostalgia. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of keyframe data that can be filtered and omitted from animation assets that will reduce the size of every animation file, thereby reducing its memory footprint, load times, and in turn increase frame rate.
The last time I helped solve this puzzle, we decided upon a proprietary export tool that would allow the Technical Animator or Animator to provide an overall attribute value, as well as an attribute value per joint (per axis) to influence the total number of keyframes that would be generated along a curve. These attribute values would then generate a range of results, interpreting the motion (based on angle deviation) as “a keyframe every frame” to “a reduced or filtered key set based on the degree of change (by angle deviation) along a curve” to “omitting keyframes completely”.
Said differently, the algorithm inspected the curve and re-created it as a slimmer version of itself (in bits). Where there were more changes in value, more keyframes were exported or maintained along that portion of the curve. Where there were fewer changes in value, the placement of keyframes was farther apart. Whatever solution is devised for Eternus, we are certain to surpass the current state of our technology as of this writing. And, I can’t wait to revisit that feeling of overwhelming accomplishment when the motion in-game is identical at less than half its original file size.
Oh, the nostalgia for innovative thinking. All of it, in pursuit of making great gaming experiences with Eternus that will entertain and occupy the masses. I guess you can go home again.
All that’s old is new again – for the first time. May you enjoy playing our product in its many pre-launch versions. And may the God of Shipped Titles smile upon us as we run head-long into the many game development cycles of deja vu and repeated timelines. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Game.
Have a wonderful weekend!
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.
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.
“So great another node programming tool….”
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.
Hey all! This is Northman from Nerd Kingdom here to share some AI bytes with you. Specifically I’d like to talk about Pathfinding and how it relates to TUG and our characters.
Pathfinding is the act of finding the best path between two points in the world. The key word there is “best”. The definition of best depends on the type of game you are making and the type of character you are trying to find a path for. I think a small thought experiment helps to clarify the set of problems pathfinding tries to solve:
Imagine a mountain goat and a human facing a mountain that extends as far to their left and right as their eyes can see. Directly in front of them is a door. On the door is a sign that reads: “Tunnel to the Other Side”. The human does not have any climbing gear and the mountain is far too steep to for the human to scale it without proper equipment. If both the human and the goat want to get to the other side of the mountain what do they do? The goat does not have hands to open doors nor the ability to read. However, the goat is a sure-footed climber and does not have any problem scaling the mountain so it goes on its goaty way over the top of the mountain. Conversely, the human does have hands and can read so they take the tunnel. The path the goat and the human found are both the best path they can muster by their definition of best even if they are both very different.
By Darklich14 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
*Insert funny remark about goats here.*
“Ropes? We don’t need no stinkin’ ropes!”
So now that we have defined Pathfinding and talked about what “best” means we can look at what tools we have for finding paths. Most pathfinding techniques break up the world into spatial subsections (nodes) and store information about how those nodes are connected (edges). In Computer Science we call a set of nodes and edges a “graph”. Graphs are cool because they have been studied by mathematicians since the 18th century (check out the Seven Bridges of Königsberg). What this means to us is there are well known techniques, also known as algorithms, for dealing with graphs and finding best paths on them (see Pathfinding on Wikipedia). One of the most common algorithms used in games for pathfinding is A*. I won’t get into the details of A* in this post because it gets technical very quickly but the image below provides a good visual representation of a typical A* search.
By Subh83 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
An illustration of an A* search. The initial red node indicates the starting position and the green node indicates the goal position. The gray polygon represents an obstacle. The goal is to find the shortest distance path from the starting node to the goal node while avoiding the obstacle.The path found is highlighted in green at the end of the animation.
We are currently exploring algorithms and graph representations for our world in TUG but so far we have implemented a navigational grid. In graph terms the grid is made up of nodes that all represent the same amount of space (one square meter) and each node has edges to its immediate neighboring nodes (grid cells): top left, top, top right, right, bottom right, bottom, bottom left, and left. These cells can be blocked by obstacles (shown in the image below in red) or open (shown in the image below in blue). This allows us to run A* searches to find best paths for our characters that avoid obstacles.
Blue Cells: Areas a character can navigate in.
Red Cells: Areas blocked by an object.
I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to pathfinding. Pathfinding is a large topic with many different techniques available depending on the pathfinding problem at hand. If you have any questions please feel free to email me at “northman at nerdkingdom dot com”. We are working hard to refine our pathfinding approaches for our characters and look forward to sharing more with you soon!
Have a great weekend!
Happy Friday! Cambo here to kick the weekend off by bringing back the dev tech blogs. We plan to keep them coming at least once a month as we make more progress on development. In regards to the Q&A, most of them are answered and I’ll be sure to post it in our next update blog. For now, here’s our infrastructure dude, Maylyon!
Hey everybody! Maylyon here with a new non-game related, non-engine related, non-tools related tech blog! Hint: this is your tune-out point if those are the topics you are looking for. 3 … 2 … 1 … Still here? Excellent!
After literally years of silence about Devotus, I wanted to follow-up with a snapshot of where Devotus is today. If your memory is a little rusty, Devotus will be our mod content distribution pipeline to help mod authors create and manage their home-brewed content and deliver it to end-users. To get context for this blog entry, you should definitely read those first two blogs. Without further ado, the “what has been happening?” (aka: “you guys still work on that thing?”).
In case you didn’t know, there were mods on Devotus’s developmental servers from a TUG v1 ModJam in early 2016. Don’t go rushing to find them now; they’re gone. They were sacrificed to the binary gods in order to make way for…
Suspend your understanding that the term “serverless” is a lie because there are always servers somewhere and play along for a bit. The old Devotus architecture was built on AWS EBS-backed EC2 instances running a mix of Node.js, C++, and MongoDB. It looked a little bit like this:
The primary detriments to this approach were:
1. Paying for these servers (even extremely small servers) when nobody was using them,
2. Scalability at each layer of the stack would incur even more financial cost and contribute to…
3. Complexity of the implementation.
Moving to this setup allows us to:
1. Greatly reduce the costs associated with Devotus (especially when nobody is using it),
2. Offload most of the scalability problem to AWS (less work = more naps),
3. Synergize our implementation with the other microservices we have been developing on the Infrastructure team.
Devotus now allows mod authors to create git repositories on GitLab in addition to GitHub. It’s actually been there for a while but wasn’t there in the last blog I wrote. By supporting GitLab and their awesome pricing model, Devotus allows a mod author to choose whether they want their mod’s git repository to be public or private at mod creation time. This choice does not apply to mod’s created on GitHub because their pricing model is less awesome (but still pretty awesome) and I’m cheap (see previous section for proof).
In the “bad old” days (read as “a month ago”), mod download count was just an unsigned integer. Download request comes in, number gets incremented by one. Commence spamming download of your own mod to falsely inflate its popularity! Everybody wins! … Except for the people who want to use the system.
Now, in the “brave new world” days, mod downloads are tracked per-user, per-version. This allows mod authors to track their mod’s popularity throughout its release history and allows end-users to trust that a mod’s popularity is probably because of an amazing mod author rather than a mod author’s amazing spam-bot.
That’s all I have for this installment. I (or somebody from my team) will be back with future Infrastructure updates as we get new and/or exciting things to share. In the meantime, be sure to jot down all those cool mod ideas you have kicking around in your brain into a little leather-bound notebook so that WHEN TUG v2 is launched and WHEN Devotus is client-facing, you will be ready!
Have a great weekend!
Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No! It’s a flying dessert?
Hey folks! Time for another new face: Flying3.14 is the name, full stack is the game. I wandered in a few months ago and have been banging on things behind the scenes; recently, I’ve been focusing on the user experience of the new modding system that Maylon introduced us to last blog, Devotus.
Access to this new mod system comes in two parts: a web portal and the game launcher. This blog will be focusing on the development of the web portal which will facilitate mod creation, versioning, and multi-author management. We’ll go over how to create a mod with Devotus, upload the source to GitHub, how to tag that code as your first version, and download the mod for the first time!
To create a mod, users must have both a Nerd Kingdom and GitHub account. After providing some basic information about the mod, the front end sends the create request while the user is free to browse the rest of the portal. On the backend, Devotus is busy creating the GitHub repo and preparing the customizable marking page. After a few moments the mod is created, a push notification is sent to the user and the new mod is available from the My Mods page.
All mods are created with an empty git repository, just waiting for awesome code. To add source to your project you’ll need to clone the repo and commit as usual. If you are new to git or GitHub, here is a resource to get you started. Helpful links such as the mod’s GitHub page can be found on the Management page. Here you can edit the basic info entered earlier, add authors, add dependencies, add media, and publish updates.
As explained in the last blog, one of the common problems we wanted to solve was mods with multiple authors. The Authors tab within the Management page allows you to add multiple authors, and Devotus will do the footwork to make sure GitHub knows who can access the repository.
Once everyone is on board and pushed their code, the Versioning tab will help you tag your release. Updates are made simply by creating a tag on any commit in the master branch. You can do this by visiting the GitHub Tags & Releases page via a link located in the Versioning tab. The tag must be formatted like so: vX.X.X-release. In most cases Devotus will be listening for these tags and will automatically start building the new download package in the background. In the event a manual check of the tags needs to be made, a link is provided in the Versioning tab.
Once Devotus is finished creating the download package, the status in the Management portal will update, and a ‘Test Download’ link will be available. Wa-lah! A single .zip package that contains your mod! Soon the Launcher will be collecting these, installing and managing the updates automagically!
Each mod comes with a marketing page that can be customized using the Nerd Kingdom Page Editor. Share this page with players and followers on social media to give a detailed insight into what your mod provides. This tool is found on the Management page and runs off the same media and information provided throughout the portal. Change the look and feel through the theme menu, and add images or YouTube videos in the media manager. Entire new sections can be added containing multiple types of content including lists and tabs, allowing you to fully explain the features and usage of your mod. We believe by providing modders with an easily customizable interface to reach players, each mod’s presence can be a little larger than the typical profile page on a mod management service. To try out the Nerd Kingdom Page Editor head over to the ExampleMod page where you can fiddle to your heart’s desire.
The frontend is still a work in progress, but it demonstrates the direction modding is heading, and we are excited about all the opportunities that brings.
Maylyon here with a new blog! If you just rushed to your “Nerd Kingdom Trading Cards” deck and didn’t find me there, don’t fret; I joined the Kingdom in March and have been quietly working behind the scenes as the Lead Infrastructure Developer. (On a side note, if those cards don’t exist, we should change that … .)
One of the things that has impressed me the most since joining the company is the perseverance of the modding community. You guys have such amazing ideas for ways to enhance or improve the gameplay of TUG, but the journey from “concept” to “deployment” seems fraught with needless perils:
The last may be a lost cause, but the answer to most of the other questions right now seems to be “the forums”. The forums are a great tool for fostering discussion in the community, but they seem like a less-than-ideal fit for the challenges that face a modder. Towards that end, we are actively working on Devotus!
Devotus will be a mod content distribution pipeline that facilitates the creation and deployment of mod content by the mod authors for the end users. With Devotus, we hope to allow the modders to focus the majority of their efforts on creating amazing content that pushes the boundaries of what Eternus can handle and stop worrying about the nuts and bolts of deploying a mod. The rest of this blog will focus on answering, “What does Devotus provide?” The next tech blog will focus on answering, “How can I use Devotus to be awesome?”
The first step towards admitting that you have a modding problem is registering your mod with Devotus. When a mod is registered, a blank git repository is created on GitHub; this will be the main home for the mod content that you create. Utilizing a third party git repository site allows us to leverage a proven implementation without the development time and risks of building our own in-house solution. Git repositories on GitHub should help mitigate frustrations 1 – 3 above:
I am definitely not providing a comprehensive feature set list of GitHub; if you want more information, hit up their website or contact me at [email protected] and I’ll do my best to address your questions/concerns/loathing. A few items to note here are:
Another feature of registering your mod with Devotus is the creation of a GitHub IO page. This page is yours to brag about … er, explain … your mod to the community at large. I’ll let the next blog cover the features that are being worked to enable you to create page content highlighting your epicness; I just wanted to provide a teaser to hopefully pique your interest and incentivize you to read the next blog … .
The second step towards admitting that you have a modding problem is publishing mod content for end user consumption. When you tag your git repository with a release tag in the format “v<Major>.<Minor>.<Revision>-release” (e.g. “v1.1.2-release”), a GitHub webhook will push an update command to the Devotus server that will revise the mod information within Devotus and build a ZIP file of the mod repository contents. The intent here is that you will perform a trivial action (tagging your repository) and Devotus will take care of the legwork necessary for that content to be available for download by the end users.
One hurdle of publishing mod content that Devotus attempts to mitigate is mod dependency resolution. Mod authors can indicate that their mod depends on another mod, and Devotus will provide a single download package that contains all the files necessary to use the mod. This feature could be used to develop content that depends on a utility mod (such as Johny’s “CommonLib”) or to develop a mod collection with a single-click installation ( “DaBoom” that contains all of UFIOES’s mods, including “Thermobarics”). A limitation here is that the mod that satisfies the dependency must also be registered with Devotus.
The final step in admitting that you have a modding problem is sharing that problem with others! Tech is planned to incorporate a Devotus browser into the Nerd Kingdom Launcher to mitigate frustrations 4 – 5b above:
This tech is the biggest piece of the ultimate goal: getting a mod into the hands of users.
So that’s it for me rambling about Devotus and scratching the surface of what we are working towards. @TheCamboRambo suggested that blog readers enjoy pictures. The backend isn’t visually interesting, but I want to make the audience happy, so I’ll end with this:
In the meantime, check out the latest NK Cribs video from Josiah!
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