Chris Roberts on Character Tech, Weather System, & Engine Architecture

By Published September 26, 2016 at 10:02 am
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It took us nearly 5000 words to cover the first half of our two-part interview with Cloud Imperium Games CEO Chris Roberts, who joins us now for the second half. In the first part, we dove straight into discussion on Alpha 3.0, plans for unveiling procedural generation V2 at CitizenCon, and Star Marine & Arena Commander A2.6 updates. Roberts' procedural generation plans initially disclosed to GamersNexus in 2014 have mostly been realized, and the team is now working on a second iteration of the internally built Planet Ed[itor] toolset. Much of the new procedural generation technology will be shown at CitizenCon on October 9, but Roberts also teased to us that new character technology would be on demonstration at the event.

This is the second and final half of our interview with Chris Roberts, CIG CEO & Chairman, but not the final interview for our trip. Technical Director Sean Tracy joined GamersNexus to discuss deeper engineering solutions to technological challenges faced by the team, offering some insight to game development that we think our 'regulars' will enjoy from an engineering standpoint. The first half of that content will post on Friday, September 30. The second half will be announced alongside the publication of the first half.

Both interviews – with Roberts and with Tracy – ran about forty minutes in length, and contained a trove of new information related to the title's immediate future. With Tracy, we'll discuss engine architecture, what it actually means to “refactor for 64-bit,” authoring tools, and more.

Alpha 3.0 Plans

The first few minutes of this content was spoiled in our feature from Saturday, where we quoted (but hadn't yet published recordings of) Roberts' plans for CitizenCon. To quickly recap, the CIG team is hoping to demonstrate procedural generation with planets V2, one of the Squadron 42 missions, and offer insight to a more complete gameplay experience. The 2016 CitizenCon event hopes to fuse gameplay elements from all the disparate modules that presently exist, and that'll be done by presenting a start-to-finish walk-through of single-player gameplay. Here's the direct quote:

“Sean [Tracy] is working hard on it with a bunch of talented people, so that's [how] we're showing off the potential of V2 planets and some of the cool stuff and play action that can happen in 3.0. We're […] taking one of the missions that's in Squadron 42 and showing how that would feel, from the briefing, to the ship, to taking off, to the mission, and the combination of flying and FPS stuff, so those are the two things we're going to show. We're going to show full-focus this is what V2 planets can do for you, then this is what Squadron 42 is going to feel like and play like, and this is the experience of a mission in SQ42.

"This is the first time we will show more complete gameplay. We showed last year at CitizenCon the walking around, talking character stuff, but it was very early. Our character tech has come on -- if you look at that and quality of characters compared to last year, it's night and day. I truly feel like our character stuff that we're showing is best in class at the moment. We're going to show a more complete: Here you are, you wake up on the ship, you get your briefing, do your mission. This is what one sequence of events, or what we call 'chapters,' of the game would feel and look like.”

There's some other relevant information that we already disclosed in the fore-linked article, if interested in these topics, but let's talk about the new content.

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Star Citizen & Squadron 42 Character Technology

Squadron 42's momentous campaign unveil leveraged Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, and other Hollywood actors to demonstrate initial character technology. At the time, the team thought the characters looked good, Roberts told us in our recent interview. The truth of the matter is that a lot of temporary cheats and bandaids were put in place to get that demo working, and that the character team has significantly improved upon what was initially shown last year (see: Senate Speech).

Roberts told us that wrinkle maps and lighting have been overhauled from that demonstration, and that new eye posing technology will better align with blends and meshes. When we asked about specific character technology advancements, Roberts elaborated:

"There was a bunch of stuff broken in the shaders, the lighting was completely borked. In the senate speech, when you saw the blend maps and the wrinkle maps and diffuse map, the tangents on them were wrong, and the actual skinning of it was incorrect. It was a linear skin instead of a quaternion skin, so he looked a bit chipmunk-y. [...] The wrinkle maps and blend shapes and lighting were kind of broken in it.

“The characters now are leaps and bounds – we have a process where we scan the actors. They don't have any makeup on, because you don't want makeup on for the process of the photogrammetry that you build a head with. So we didn't have any time to work on those when we did the [demo]. This time, every actor gets a pass, gets essentially made up like a makeup artist would make an actor look good for shooting.”

A lot of these “issues” that Roberts points out are a bit like listening for a wrong note in a piano piece you've never heard – they're not obvious, and some of them you'd have to have a closer hands-on in the engine to even see. Still, we can explain a few of them.

Quaternion skinning ties to rigging and deformations to preserve volume in joints, which it sounds like the team has switched over to from linear skinning. As for the wrinkles, if you really look closely, some of the wrinkles in Bishop's face look to fold outward rather than into the face. That's been resolved with new wrinkle maps.

Eyes have received some of the biggest improvements – we talk about those in good depth with Sean Tracy, to be posted on Friday – and now have a posing system. Eye posing allows for independent eye tracking and movement by the characters for more realistic engagement with surroundings, and can be done in a way that the blends and meshes the around the eyes will now match their movement. We've all seen this in cinematics and cut-scenes before, to some degree, but CIG is hoping to implement this same technology universally in their games. Squadron 42 will be the unveil, and Star Citizen (the expanded universe) will be the benefactor of that character tech.

"There's a lot of work that you dial in at the very end, like with the eyes and the hair and the skin. So, our hair work still has a lot of stuff... we wouldn't be able to have your hair look as nice as it does right now in the engine that we have right now. But we will, […] in terms of translucency. The graphics department has been very busy, they've got a huge long list of stuff and some stuff's been very fundamental."

Aside from hair, eye, and face updates to characters, the art and engineering teams have both been working on sun positioning and movement:

“A massive change we did which people may not think about is that – every 3D engine I know moves the sun. So basically, the sun moves. Well, the sun doesn't really move in our solar system – it stays in the middle and we move around it. It was a massive change in the engine, where the sun is fixed in place, and so it depends on where you are relative to the sun, [that's] where the lighting is. It's not that the sun's moving, you move.

“That's a fairly fundamental, base rendering and shading change. So that was an example of something that we had to do because of what we're doing with our star systems. Night and day cycles on a planet for us will not be because the sun's moving, it'll be because the planet's rotating on its axis. [The system] will also be able to rotate the planet around the sun.”

This is another topic which received further depth with Sean Tracy. The basics, though, are that an FPS engine fakes the sun as just another light source that happens to be in the sky. If there's a night/day cycle, the developers can move that light source across the sky, and the objects below will respond to the positioning of that light. In reality, as Roberts points out, we've known since Copernicus and Aristarchus that we're in a heliocentric system.

The planets will revolve around their host stars, and shadows and lighting will respond to that movement. One possibility, we were told later, is creating binary star systems that actually cast light one would expect from a system with two enormous sources of light. Another possibility is that massive events in space, like the explosion of an orbiting, large ship, can cast light to the planet's surface down below. This latter possibility was one discussed as more of a hypothetical, but provides some insight as to how the new engine can accommodate such an event.

"A lot of the fundamental of the rendering and shading and how we approach has been completely refactored from the way it used to be in CryEngine, because we moved to 64-bit [last year], which was a big deal for the precision. But there's a lot of other things, like moving the sun to be an actual fixed entity that cast its light correctly. Usually, it's sort of a special case in a shader or the rendering pipeline. We're doing this at a sort of galactic scale, so some of the cheats you would use in other cases – it's the same reason for the first- and third-person unification – some of the cheats you would use in games that would be more limited in travel or scope... we could probably short-term get away [with] them, but it'd create all sorts of headaches for us. Generally, we always go, 'OK, how would this work properly? How, systemically, should this function?''

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Star Citizen's Weather System

We mentioned the usage of a weather system in the previous feature piece, explaining that Roberts' vision is to use data stored in procedural generation biomes (for planets) to create an effective heat map of the planet. These maps would store hot/cold data, as multiple biomes can be painted on the surface and edge blended, and automatically inform weather patterns of the planet.

The team has moved away from using flow maps to save artist hands-on time, as Roberts explained:

“A visual FX artist could create a flow map for clouds, and it would look pretty cool and everything, but then you'd have to be creating flow maps for every single planet you do. [...] Whereas this way, if they create the planet and the biomes [go], 'OK, this is a hot area, this is a cold area,' and then the simulation just simulates the wind and weather patterns, which would generate the cloud patterns, then you just don't have to do anything. It takes more work to do that upfront, but longer term [the weather system] allows for a greater range of gameplay and fidelity, and also less work needed down the road.”

The CIG CEO continued to point-out that this is part of the team's core philosophy, a point which Tracy hammered in by emphasizing a desire to “use tools to get you 90% of the way there, then you do the rest.” Roberts informed us that the CIG approach to a problem is to analyze the long-term impact of a solution, ideally avoiding bandaid fixes along the way (other than for stage demos) to prevent a cascade of bugs extending from that bandaid.

“Generally, our approach has been investing the time in the upfront stuff […] we know 3.0 and beyond, we're not building something we're going to release and then play in two weeks. Our hope, anyway, is to be around for ten years after release, in the same way that Eve has been or WoW has been. That's one of the reasons why we're trying to engineer it right, which does mean that it takes us longer to get to the initial stage where we say, 'we have a game ready for you.' Obviously, we're letting people play [the game] as we're building it, but I think it's the right approach to build something for the long-term.

"In almost every case, a lot of – we get the release, like 2.4 or 2.5 out, and an inordinate amount of time is spent fixing and patching systems that essentially generate bugs because they were patched and hacked in a certain way to work in a certain case. In some ways, it takes us longer to QA and get through things than we would like, because there's been a lot of short-term thinking in earlier iterations. Like, 'we're just making a game for this, and it's just a first-person shooter.' [...] Invariably, in all these cases, we say, 'well, it's just not going to scale to what we need,' and we've got to adapt and change things around for that. So we have been, because we've had the support. So. thank you everyone [addresses camera], it's allowed us to go in and do things right, so to speak, which is all foundational for a long-running, robust game that will have a lot of emergent gameplay.

“That, for me, is super important. I really love this idea [of emergent gameplay], and I can already see it in what people do right now in 2.5: seeing the community go out and do things that we weren't even thinking about because the system allows it. So, our thinking has always been about how can we create a system for people, rather than specifically control exactly what they want to do, and say 'let them operate inside this set of rules and system and let it work.'”

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CitizenCon and Beyond

Our first CitizenCon preview contains more of a walk-through of what will happen at the event, but Roberts did recap the plans at the end of this interview:

"Every year we do this event, which is essentially a celebration of when we first announced the project. This [LA office] is actually not the biggest studio, the UK studio is much bigger than this one – it's about 185 people now, I think, so it's about 3x bigger than this one – but we've been enabled by this amazing community that's supported us to do this.

“We're building the best – the game that I don't think I would ever be able to build anywhere else, I don't think any publisher would be crazy enough to invest this kind of money, this kind of time into it. Probably venture capitalists wouldn't have the patience for it, so it's allowing us to build something long-term, so CitizenCon's celebrating how that started.”

Calling back to one of our oldest interviews and catching the pause after “best” in the above, I reminded Roberts that he often uses the quote, “building the best damn space sim ever.” Roberts responded:

"Right. It's not even 'best damn space sim' anymore, it's 'best damn everything sim.' Especially with the way the procedural planets [...] we were able to do that with everyone's support, which allowed us to open up the Frankfurt office and hire up people that are incredibly talented [...] That's the iterative way that Star Citizen works, because I wasn't thinking we were going to be able to do what we are going to be able to do now, but the additional play possibilities that come with it and what players will be able to do by themselves, it's really exciting.

“You've opened up a much bigger palette of things you can do because you have planetary locations, you can do things, recover things, rescue people, create your own little place – whatever you want to do. Whereas before, we were more limited to space and landing areas that were just a certain area, so it's – from a game designer standpoint, someone making games – it's super, super, super exciting, because it means the world is going to feel bigger and more alive. Anyway, so, CitizenCon is where we celebrate everyone enabling us to do that and where we tend to show the next step we're working on, and it's a fun event.”

Additional Coverage and a Reminder on Pre-Release Games

Friday (September 30) marks the publication of our Sean Tracy interview – at least, the first half of it. We'll cover deeper engine architecture topics and detail what's been completed so far, what's in the plans, and how those engine overhauls have impacted game development possibilities.

As a reminder, this is a crowd-funded, incomplete game. GamersNexus takes the same stance with all pre-release games and pre-release hardware, including items which we preview ahead of launch: We recommend waiting to make purchases, especially larger purchases, until after a product has shipped and reviews or user reports are online. GamersNexus encourages that readers particularly interested in supporting a crowd-funded effort take the time to research the project beforehand, and that readers make an informed decision on any purchases. Remember that early access purchasing is a support system for developers to further fund a game, not a sale of a complete, finished product.

If you like our style of objective reporting, please consider supporting us directly on Patreon or following us on YouTube and Twitter.

(Footnote: We know that the Star Citizen community is very eager to share content. We kindly remind readers that copying and pasting entire articles is damaging to a publication's ability to measure the success of content and remain in business, and thus damaging to the ability to fund future flights to make developer tours.)

Editorial: Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke
Video: Andrew “ColossalCake” Coleman

Last modified on September 26, 2016 at 10:02 am
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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