23 Oct 2009

Drakensang River Of Time Intro

Here’s the intro video of our new Drakensang game (River Of Time):

(Go here for the bigger version)

The cutscene has been created in-engine with our new cutscene editor tool described in one of my former blog posts, and then captured frame by frame and encoded with Bink at 1280x720 (the YouTube version unfortunately looks quite a bit darker then the original if I’m not mistaken). The characters have higher resolution meshes and textures created especially for the intro video, but the underlying joint skeleton and facial animation system is identical with the ingame-characters. The decision to encode the cutscene into a video stream instead of running it in real-time was done early in the project to remove a few risks. We couldn’t be sure what the performance would look like with the high-res assets and all the dynamic lighting, and whether or not a lot of post-processing would be necessary after capturing the raw frames. Turns out that the real-time cutscene looks so good that no “cheating” was necessary, so in future projects we will probably do everything in real-time from the beginning.

The advantage of building and tweaking the cutscene with an instant real-time preview can’t be stressed enough. The intro to the original Drakensang was done the traditional way, short scenes have been built in Maya, rendered over night, and then arranged and cut in some video editing tool. The massive turn-around time between tweaking something and seeing the result was a huge problem and in the end we ran out of time. Creating the new intro video was completely painless and straight-forward. The artists actually had fun creating it (at least that’s the impression I got watching them from time to time hehe), and I think that’s clearly visible in the result :)

10 Oct 2009

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2

I’ve played halfway through the campaign of NGS2 yesterday evening, with mixed emotions. It’s very obvious that the director of this game has a very different vision of Ninja Gaiden then Itagaki. Sometimes for the better, but most of the times I would not call the changes actual improvements. It’s surprising how many gameplay elements which worked well have been removed. I hope that some of the shortcomings will be fixed in the higher difficulty levels (I’m currently playing on Warrior difficulty).

The Good:
  • Graphics have improved dramatically! The game generally looks a lot crisper (I guess that NG2 was upscaled, and NS2S is native 720p), textures seems to be higher resolution, normal mapping and specular highlight effects have been tuned, it’s really a difference like night and day (in some cases literally, when returning to the Ninja village in chapter 2 it is now broad daylight, not night time). This is what the original NG2 should have looked like.
  • New minions: There are a couple of new enemies in the game, some variations of NG2 minions, and some variations of original Ninja Gaiden monsters.
  • New and tweaked bosses: There are a couple of new boss fights in the game which are variations of the final boss in the original NG2. The Genshi fights are more interesting (you can now do an Izuna Drop on Genshi for instance).
  • Excessive rocket spam removed: that’s about the only good gameplay change, almost all of the “unfair” rocket spam has been removed.
  • Mission Mode now included in the game, plus Coop: Since the original NG2 wasn’t released in Germany, there’s also no downloadable content on the Xbox Live marketplace (damn you Microsoft). NG2S includes a mission mode, and adds 2-player-coop to those missions.

The Bad:

  • Much fewer enemies on screen: this is most painful change. The oh-shit-moments of NG2 when 15 blood-thirsty spider-clan-ninjas where rushing down a hallway, running into Ryu which is starting an Ultimate Technique, turning the whole screen into a mess of flying body parts, and then cleaning up the survivors with a series of Obliteration moves. That’s no longer happening in NG2S. Typically, there are no more then 3 or 4 enemies on screen. Generally, combat encounters are much shorter and easier then in NG2.
  • Slowdown, tearing and in-level loading still there: The dreaded slowdown from NG2 still happens, it’s not happening so often as in NG2, but only because the number of enemies on screen and rocket spam has been reduced. When the slowdown happens it even kicks in sooner, with less on-screen action, then in the original NG2. This is a big let-down. There are places with screen-tearing even when there are no enemies on screen, and the game still pauses mid-game to load data. It’s not game-breaking but disappointing considering that the team had over a year to tweak and optimize.
  • Empty hallways: A lot of combat encounters have been removed from the game, locations which were packed with enemies in the original are desolate in NGS2. I really hope this is just a difficulty level thing, and that there are more encounters in the higher difficulty levels.
  • Fewer choices: some of the design decisions are downright stupid:
    • Weapon upgrades are now limited to a few shops, and the first time any weapon can be upgraded to level 3 is very late in the game (at the start of the Moscow chapter). Weapon upgrades don’t cost any money now however, sounds good at first, but money and shops in general quite useless now (at least in Warrior difficulty).
    • Life Of The Thousand Gods is now immediately activated when picked up, and no longer refills the life bar. This removes a very nice tactical elements from the game (should I use the immediate benefit of having a longer life bar, or should I use it as an additional health potion during the next boss fight)?
    • Same with the Life Of The Gods items, it’s no longer possible to manually activate them when needed, instead they auto-activate when picked up.
The Rest:
  • I actually like the new blood-effect-replacement and toned down violence, it makes the game more arcady and more enjoyable (IMHO).
  • One really starts to appreciate how good the 360’s controller is after 5 or 6 hours of playing with the PS3 controller. My left hand literally hurt after the session.
  • The additional campaign chapters with the new playable characters are disappointing. It’s too little to feel comfortable with the new characters and their moves, they’re limited to a single weapon, and the levels are mostly reused from the original game.
  • They actually tried to fix the story LOL. There’s a “prelude comic” during installation and a few fixes to the cut-scenes during the game to make the story more comprehensible and give it more of a background… as if anybody gives a shit about the story in a Ninja Gaiden game. The result is a complete mess. I can imagine a game featuring ninjas where story actually plays an important part, but not in the Ninja Gaiden universe. It’s really too late for that hehe. The only thing that’s really missing in Ninja Gaiden are pirates, oh … and zombies of course.

If NGS2 is an indication of what the future of Ninja Gaiden looks like without Itagaki then I’m out. The game looks shiny, but the changes to the core game-play are all aiming into the wrong direction for my taste. I was hoping that NGS2 becomes what Ninja Gaiden Black was to the original, a real improvement to an already great game, and if there’s any game which really needs a good polish, it is the original NG2. But NGS2 adds only very few improvements, and abandons too many good ideas from its predecessor. It’s just different, not better then NG2.

6 Oct 2009

Tools of the Trade

We have ramped up tools development at Radon Labs considerably during the development of the two Drakensang games. Traditionally we have been (and still are) a bit conservative about inhouse tool development and try to avoid re-inventing wheels as much as possible. Each new custom-tool requires permanent maintenance work and if a “standard industry tool” exists for a job it is usually better to just use this. But especially in the domain of “game-logic stuff” there are basically no standard tools, so the situation is much more dire compared to graphics or audio tools.

We have traditionally been using Excel tables and XML files compiled into an SQLite database for “game data”. This works pretty well if the number of “work items” is around a few hundred. But for complex RPG games, the number of work items is in the range of tens-of-thousands (quest tasks, dialog takes, voice over snippets, graphics objects, textures, items, NPCs, monsters, behaviour scripts, and so on…). Excel tables and raw XML files don’t scale up very well because they lack game-specific features for filtering, searching, statistics, and of course the possibility of human error is very high, and finding and fixing those errors isn’t much fun either.


The Texture Tool

The very first custom tool in C# (to try the waters so to say) was a simple replacement for an Excel table which defined texture attributes (stuff like the size and DXT format of a texture, mip-map quality and so on). The Excel table allowed to give each individual texture its own set of attributes. For a small project with a few hundred textures this works pretty well. Drakensang has around 15,000 textures however, and this is way beyond the territory where Excel is starting to become a pain in the ass. Thus we wrote this:


The tool manages the same information as the Excel table it replaces, but has much better filtering and manipulation features. The left hand sides gives a tree-view of all texture categories, and it’s possible to either display all textures, or textures of a given category, and it’s also possible to further filter the textures by a pattern (for instance to display all normal textures of the “armor” category, click on “armor” in the tree view and type “*_bump.*” into the top most line of the “File” column. Entering a value into one of the other top-most column-entries will set this attribute value to all displayed textures. It’s a very simple tool, but it’s easy to use and scales up very well to tens-of-thousands of textures while still making it possible to find and tweak a single attribute of a specific texture with ease.


The Story Editor

When we started planning Drakensang, we knew that we would need new tools for creating quests, dialogs and game logic scripting. On the surface, these 3 things are something completely different, but for the game core, quests, dialogs and scripts aren’t that different (the common element is the use of Conditions (small C++ objects which check whether some condition in the game world is true) and Actions (similar C++ objects which manipulate the game world)). Thus the Story Editor was born (actually, it’s a Dialog/Quest/Script editor). The Story Editor loads and saves XML files, which are compiled into the game database during the build process, or directly from the tool to immediately check the results in the game. We couldn’t anticipate all required features for the story editor at the start of the project, thus the editor was constantly worked on during the development of Drakensang (we added a lot of features to improve localization, proof-reading or voice-over integration for instance).

Note that the Story Editor currently suffers a bit from the typical “inhouse tool UI aesthetics problem” ;)

Here’s a screenshot of the Story Editor when working on a simple quest:


On the left is the simple linear task list, the panels on the right show the attributes of the currently selected task (for instance the conditions and actions associated with the task).

Here’s the screenshot of the Story Editor with a simple action script:


We opted against a traditional scripting language, but instead used a “point and click” approach. A script is just a simple collection of Conditions and Actions. These could just as well be wrapped into LUA functions for instance. Our current approach is probably not as powerful as real scripting system, but definitely less error-prone and easier to control.

Finally here’s the Story Editor when working on a dialog:


Dialog takes can be associated with Conditions (to show or hide dialog takes based on some in-game condition), or Actions (to manipulate the game world as the result of a conversation). The Comment tab on the right side is most useful to add instructions for audio recording sessions.


The Sequence Editor

In the first Drakensang, in-game cutscenes had been hand-scripted by defining a sequence of Actions in the Story Editor, basically in the most un-intuitive way imaginable. For the new Drakensang, we wrote a whole new “Sequence subsystem” along with a new tool (the Sequence Editor) which gives control over cutscenes back into the hand of the artists and provides a very intuitive workflow with instant turnaround times (resulting in a dramatic quality improvement if I may say so). Here’s a screenshot of the Sequence Editor in action on a dual-monitor setup:



On the left-hand side is the actual editor, on the right-hand side is the ingame-preview. Tool and game communicate through XML messages over a TCP/IP connection, changes in the tool immediately show up in the preview. The other direction works as well, for instance it is possible to set keys for the camera or objects directly in the preview window, complete with snap-to-ground and other time-savers.

Here’s a more detailed shot of the Sequence Editor:


“Trackbar Elements” from the bottom area (Play Sound, Depth Of Field, etc…) can be drag’n’dropped into the timeline area above. Every trackbar element comes with a number of attributes, most of them can be animated over time. Trackbar attributes are displayed in the right-side column (in the screenshot, I have selected an “Ambience Bubble” element which allows to manipulate the ingame lighting, posteffect parameters, and other stuff which is important to set the visual “mood” of a scene). Animated parameters are edited in the Graph Editor which looks and feels very similar to Maya’s graph editor window:


It’s important to note that complex character animations are not created in the Sequence Editor, instead the sequence system will usually only trigger existing character animations from the character’s animation library. How complex character animation tracks are is up to the cutscene designer. Sometimes its better to fire a lot of small, generic animations and do the path-animation in the Sequence Editor, sometimes it’s better to generate one big motion-capture animation for the entire cutscene, complete with the actual character movement.

One very cool feature of the sequence system is its extensibility. Simple trackbar elements, like “Depth Of Field” or “Camera Shake” can be implemented in under an hour by extending an XML config file which describes the attributes of the new element to the editor tool, and by writing a very simple subclass in the engine which connects the animated values of the trackbar to another subsystem (for instance the PostEffects subsystem in case of the Depth Of Field trackbar).


The Table Editor

The new Table Editor is aimed at finally replacing the Excel tables for game object template data. In Drakensang (or Mangalore in general) a game object’s persistent state is simply described by a collection of typed key/value-pair attributes. Different game object categories have different sets of attributes. For instance a Monster game object has a different attribute set then a Weapon game object.

Traditionally, we had one Excel table per game object category, and one line in the table per game-object template. The value of some of the attributes (instance attributes) can be set in the Maya level editor to a different value for each game object instance.

Some of the bigger game object tables became a really critical bottleneck during the production of Drakensang, since only one person could work at a table at a time. Also even though the tables were saved in XML format, both CVS and SVN are pretty much useless for merging.

Thus the idea was born to move the game data tables into a true database backend, and then create one generic “Table Editor” and later on, several smaller, specialized Editor tools which basically provide a different view into the database. This is also the very first step of moving away from Maya as a level editor towards a truly collaborative level design environment.

Here’s a screenshot of the generic Table Editor tool:


On first glance, this just looks like a nifty Excel replacement, but under the hood it is much more:

There’s a complete user system with login and access rights (in the screenshot above, I can see that I am currently logged in as “floh”, and that 1 other user is currently editing the Weapon-Table).

Then there’s a complete revision control system. The table basically extends into the time dimension, and it’s possible to inspect the table at any point in the past. There’s also a very detailed change-log, which not only tells me who modified the table at what time, but also all the changes made to the table:


Of course it’s also possible to revert the content of any cell to any point in time.

When a level designer changes values in a table, it will only happen in a local sandbox (the changed values already live in the central database, but are marked as local data of the user). This allows a level designer to mess around with the tables without affecting the other users. When everything works as expected, the changes are committed into the “global domain” and the new values are visible to all.

The generic database table editor tool is very powerful, but the whole system really shines with specialized front-end editors like this:


This is basically just a different frontend to the global game database with a specialized GUI for efficiently equipping characters and chests in the game. The general idea here is that such a specialized editor tool is written for tasks where working with the generic editor is not desirable because it would be too cumbersome, un-intuitive or error-prone.

There’s also a lot of interesting work going on in our build-pipeline at the moment, but I’ll leave this to another post :)