Friday, December 25, 2015

Tower22 - 2016

For those not too deep into technical engine stuff; you may wonder where the hell the nice screenshots have been. Once upon a time, I was able to post a few pics (almost) every week. And then... cowboy mouth-organ playing... not much. There’s lots of talks about new engine this, Fuel22 system that, new strategies, and pooh-hah. But, the question remains; You can Talk the Talk, but can you Walk the Walk?

No pics = No good. Usually. Unless we're like Valve working super-top-secretly on Half life3. But no. I certainly won't reveal Tower22 in-game details, but other than that, I'm pretty open about the whole development cycle on this blog. In fact so open, that I'm still planning to release the whole source code + editors. Huh? Where to find it then?

Well, so far nobody really replied on that, and if nobody is dying to give it a try, I'd rather perfect some things further first. You know, putting your baby on the world brings some responsibility as well. Putting people on-Hold forever won't give this engine a boost, but neither does a 3% finished product. And as you may know, finishing 100% is impossible when it comes to writing software. It works like a mathematical graph that climbs very fast at the beginning, then starts to flatten, and never really reaches the 100% target. 99,9 at most. There is always something to fix, to change, to improve, to add. And to drop & redo if you wait long enough.

Anyhow, another year flew by. Our little new born guy went from a never-sleeping crying monster into a walking demolishing monster, and I've been working on the new Engine22 (in a newer Delphi XE3) as well. So, SITREP? Pictures? Good news?

ARRHH *Squeezing* Pressing * Pushing *... And there we have a new Engine22 full-coloured turd. If you blur, colorize and rotate the camera long enough... Then even a quick & dirty dummy corridor like this may do the trick. A little bit.

Thou shall not steal
Let me get back on the pics first. The main reason there were a lot more "back then", is because I cheated, "back then". One of the most important things you'll need to get a 3D scene in shape, is a good pair of socks, textures I mean, and an idea of course. Without proper floor/wall/ceil textures (that nicely fit together as well!), it's pretty much impossible to get any applause. With cheating I mean that I borrowed a bunch of textures from games like Half life in 2010. Allowing me to get somewhere, even without any artists.

Being a good boy with guilt, I knew these assets had to be replaced ASAP with genuine, homebrew, T22 content. But generating a *good* set of textures (seamless, sharp, enough detail, normalMap, glossMap, ...) is an art on itself. I can do some 3D modelling, but textures... Thankfully, some people who saw the first T22 demo contacted me and offered help. Whoopy! Now I could get my very own T22 texture-set, without stealing! And sounds, and better quality 3D-props as well!

And I received some fine stuff indeed. Especially for a hobby game project. Now my goal has never been to defeat John Carmack, or to achieve photorealism. But being able to put the bar high, was exciting. Can't deny, I just like eye-candy. Sure I can play Super Mario with 8-bit graphics, but a horror-game like T22 should look atmospheric and believable at least. This genre simply requires compelling visuals and audio, and relies less on solid gameplay mechanics. In my opinion too many Indy games try to get away with simplistic graphics by putting a "Retro-look, duh" label on it.

That introduced a problem (or two) though. Plus some understanding for the simple Indy graphics. Who's gonna make all those high-quality assets?! Only few guys helped me, and only a few of them REALLY helped me, meaning they could deliver on a more regular basis. Although you can forget the word "regular" here. Somehow, usually only one person at a time, had some spare-time for a week or two. Which resulted in really nice textures/props/sound/drawings. But all in all, the progression tempo was worse than a mobility scooter stuck in a trench.

So there you are. Thou shall not steal anymore, albeit thou won't get new awesome assets either.
And I'm waiting, waiting... waiting for a world to change. But it doesn't change, and I can't blame
the people helping me. They have their own things going on, and especially when putting the quality-bar so high, it takes them a lot of energy to produce those assets. On top, you won't find a lot artists that are willing to share that degree of talent for free either.

You may recognize some HL textures in this old Tower22 shot... Although I did make the TV & glass thing (and map geometry) myself. But yet another problem arises here; it was good enough in 2010, it stinks in 2015. That damn bar keeps lifting itself up. Help!

Fuel22 Strategy
Time to re-evaluate strategies(one year ago). Money. Lead. Guidance. Targets. Tools. Money. Those were the missing chain links. Indy and no money, ok. But high-quality, lots of work and no money? That's a no-no. There are ways to generate some money. Crowdfunding, Kickstarter. But before heading that way, I want some guarantees. I won't announce a super-turbo-project without some basic team & fundaments first. But... how to get a team/artists first, without money? Chicken & Egg story. That's where came around. I won't explain in too much detail here (has been done before: link). But in short, it’s a webshop. Hold on! A little bit different compared to other existing (big) ones though. It has a planning component that should tackle a couple of the other weak spots; Lead, Guidance, Targets. You see, the idea of this webshop is not to get rich, but to accelerate development. Listen up.

You can hire a bunch of skilled construction workers, but without blueprints and supervision, they
won't do shit except whistling at girls. Instead of mailing artistX, asking if he or she can make a medieval sofa "some day", pretty please, I'll put these tasks + explanation on the webshop. Now basically anyone can (try to) make it. This way it gets more clear what has to be done. And non-secret tasks could be viewed by any visitor in the shop as well. So if you feel you can bake that pavement texture or record crying monkey sounds; be my guest.

BUT, once accepting a task, the clock starts ticking. If you deliver bad work, or not in time, the tasks gets rejected. No more computer-crashed, dog-ate-my-homework, girl-got-pregnant, too-busy-with-FIFA17 excuses. Fuck that, I'm trying to make a game here, don't waste my time if you can't help. But also -fair and square- you get your money reward in return if you did a job well-done. Your asset will be bought via the Fuel22 webshop. By me. And hopefully, by some others as well. Most of the profit shall go directly to the artist, and a small bit goes back into the T22 depot, so I can keep buying stuff from my artists. Hence the name "Fueling"(22). Good for you, good for me.

Will it save Tower22? Who shall say. But some structure and reward(& punish) system is better than nothing at all, right? Only problem is... once again, I'm relying on some charity here. A guy is making this website for me, for free. So, you'll get the usual computer-crashed, parrot-shat-on-homework, floppies-missing excuses. Nah, just teasing. But yes, it's taking too long. Probably I just shouldn't be so picky, and pay the guy. Or let somebody else do it (you know anyone?). For money. In 2016 it's time to kick-ass and chew bubblegum, not to keep waiting forever.

Engine22 - 2.0
I wasn't too much in a hurry last year though. Put T22 in a dormant state, and focussed on rewriting the Engine + Tools. Because that's the other side of the coin. If Fuel22 was finished today, and some artists would be happy to help tomorrow, then... then what? To use the Construction Workers example again, if we have 8 handy hairy bulky chaps on the site tomorrow, you'd better have your materials ready as well. Bricks, hammers, drills, cement mixer... If you don't, they’ll walk away angry again.

One of the problems with the previous Engine/Tower22 build, was the lack of "do-it-yourself" tools. I spent a lot effort in explaining the wishes, helping, and reviewing their work. That wasn't the issue. But they didn't have the Map Editor or game executable. Basically they modelled/painted something in Photoshop, Blender, Maya, Max or whatever program- sent the raw files to me, and then a day later I returned some screenshots + comments. In times where any hobbyist can download Unreal4 and develop & test, this just isn't a playful, efficient, motivating way to get things done.

It's not that I didn't want to give them the tools, but these programs were error-prone, not very user-friendly, and a (proper working) game.exe was missing. Reason? 95% of my energy went into graphics, and trying to complete demo movies (myself mostly), instead of gameplay mechanics, user-friendly editors, and other ingredients a game needs. That had to change. And that was one of the reasons to redo the engine + tools, as well as to open up the source for you guys. Of course I'm a bit afraid people may steal my ideas or code. But then again... What can they steal really? As long as Tower22 isn’t much more than a few demo movies, there isn't much to steal to begin with. Why transform your home into a fortress, if there aren't any visitors?

Maybe I should try to get some visitors (back) first, and loosen up. So, what did 2015 bring us? Some pictures finally?! Well, as I was trying to explain, without any artist input (except for Cesar Alvares audio-track on the Subway demo movie, thanks man!) this year, there aren't any new rooms to show either. Not that aren't new rooms though. In fact, I began modelling the environment for a real playable demo a few months ago (yes, a downloadable & playable demo is the next station, no more movies!).

But those are "placeholder" maps. That means I do a quick & dirty first version, mainly to show how & what, and to test some proportions and geometric shapes. These maps are filled with "hints" (kinda cool new feature if you ask me). I can place text & pictures or website links in my dummy maps. Then a real artist will fly through these maps later on, look at the hints, and replace the ugly textures, poor maps with professional content. But in other words, the new environments pumped into the new engine so far, suck:

I warned you. It's up to the artist to transform this "bunker" into a real room some day, as shown in the hint sketch.

And no, a new engine with fancy shaders won't save the day either. In terms of visuals, the new engine doesn't have very obvious improvements anyway, except that things are done better, easier, smarter, and also faster (FPS went from ~20 to ~55 on my laptop, though it will drop again when more is added, I'm sure). In fact, quite a lot features from the old engine, like particles, water, DoF, or real-time reflections didn't make their way back into the new one yet. But to give you an idea nonetheless:

OpenGL 2.x --> OpenGL 4.5+
Cg Shaders (dead) --> GLSL
OpenCL Compute Shaders --> GLSL
Custom parameter system --> Physical Based parameter system
Lambert & Blinn shading --> Lambert & Cook Torrance
Baked probe lighting (for GI) --> LightMaps + IBL probes + influence maps for semi dynamic lights
RLR + 1 realtime cubemap (for reflections) --> RLR(realtime) + IBL probes (static)
Shitty HDR --> Better HDR (better color balance)
Fake parallax (POM) effects --> True tesselation shaders & POM
Deferred lighting --> Tiled Deferred lighting
Simple linear fog --> Fog with light volumes
Layered materials (with Vertex Painting)FXAA Anti Aliasing 

Furthermore (todo) Light-beams ("volumetric fog") via raymarching, Water mirrors, RLR (realtime local reflections), Compute Shader particles + editor (rebuild old system into GLSL), DoF, Lensflares post FX, Sprites, Cascaded ShadowMaps for long-range lights...

Alpha Beta Test
In potential, the new engine should look better. But it's hard to compare at this point, without having a "finished" room & PBR compatible textures. Also, the old engine was tweaked and understood (by me at least). The new engine is still bare-bones, and especially the Physical Based approach may need some time getting used to.

But as said, I tried to focus more on other parts. Graphics are cool, but dated quickly, and not mandatory in such an early stage either. More important is to provide a *working*, fun editor for the artists this time. With a game.exe so they can actually run through their own creations. Therefore the main improvements aren't in the graphics section so far, but in game mechanics like LUA script support, the code fundaments and Map Editor. I can honestly say the map editor feels a lot better, and also the fresh, new, cleaned up code is a huge relief. It just smells more pleasant overall. There is still a lot to do, but adding new features just goes a lot quicker and cleaner, compared to previous work. On the longer term, it should pay back.

Just as important as "looking good", is how to get there. Picking entities, UV-Mappers, shortcut keys, easy to follow buttons/symbols, import/export tools, quickly previewing things, and so on.

Maybe more interesting for you; I "released" the Map Editor one week ago. Not to the public, but to an artist. And I need one or two more artists extra. Before I invite the rest of the world, I want some artist feedback first. I'm pretty sure he can crash the whole damn thing in ways I could never imagine, and instead of trying to code *everything* at once (which is impossible of course), I'll do things on demand. If he says "Rick, these shadows look like puke!", or "Really need some bloody particles here!", I'll give that priority. If he can make some cool-looking Tower22 rooms (for the playable demo btw) with it, we're back in business. Till then... Erh, play some other game ;)