Squadron 42 Update

tl;dr It’s not out, no sign of it, still working on stuff.

June 2nd, 2021

Attention Recruits,

What you are about to read is the latest information on the continuing development of Squadron 42 (SCI des: SQ42).

Thanks to the work of dedicated field agents and operatives, we’ve uncovered information on security guards, Screaming Galsons, and the Shubin Interstellar Archon Station.

The information contained in this communication is extremely sensitive and it is of paramount importance that it does not fall into the wrong hands. Purge all records after reading.

UEE Naval High Command

AI (Content)

The AI Content Team focused on Invictus Launch Week throughout the month, which included polishing the tourist and tour guide behavior, wildlines, Look IK, and completing the required female animations. They dedicated time to the Mannequin fragments animation selection to ensure they correctly fit their context, and the shopkeeper gained more usables that players would expect to see in food and drink shops.

They also started designing possible flow extensions to allow NPCs to serve players differently if they choose to eat in or take away. For example, this will allow food to be given to the player directly or served on a plate and tray.

The security guard was fully designed and prototyped. This behavior offers great gameplay opportunities in an emergent or systemic way as it fulfills scenarios of NPCs acting as law enforcers, information providers, gatekeepers, and greeters.
Affliate
Trackview Blockouts Railing Aciedo

AI Content also continued designing and prototyping background life for the medical room when players respawn, including the systemic janitor and NPCs using the bathroom cubicle and sleeping in the bunk beds.

Specifically for SQ42, the team supported Aciedo station, identifying tactile interaction opportunities and blocking out animations and the usables setup. These usables, working with scripted AI Paths, will help to create mini-scenarios where the AI appears to look for hostages to dry-freeze.
AI (Features)

The AI Feature Team further developed combat, including the ability for enemy fighters to finish off their targets (AI or player) with execution animations. This involved adapting the existing stealth takedown system for use by AI and making it more data-driven so that it supports different types of takedowns with their own settings. For example, the minimum and maximum distance a takedown can be performed from and what quadrant the attacker must be in relative to the target.

For spaceships, AI Features adapted the fighter combat behavior to better utilize missiles. This involves selecting the right type and number of missiles to fire so that NPCs don’t exhaust all of their high-damage missiles on smaller targets. In group combat, this ensures that missiles are spread over a range of targets and are rationed for use throughout the fight. This leads to interesting behaviors where fighters will ‘soften up’ targets with a barrage of missiles before engaging in dogfighting, firing occasional missiles at opportune moments. They also worked on the pilot security behavior to fix issues that occur when a target has surrendered or been arrested.

As part of the larger security behavior, work continued on the weapons training sub-behavior, where NPCs can improve their combat abilities by using a firing range. Firstly, a weapon has to be retrieved from the armorer, with the team updating the existing vendor and patron behaviors to support retrieval and return at the armory. For the firing range, the team had to adapt the existing targeting and firing systems to support non-agent targets. This technology will be used in the future to support the targeting of ‘destructibles’ in combat. For example, the AI might need to take out a computer bank to complete a mission objective. The groundwork for targeting specific parts of the body (eg. headshots) and ‘non-human-bodied agents’ (e.g. animals) was completed too.

Finally for AI Features, the team further developed untrained weapons combat. They also prepared for an upcoming mo-cap session for untrained cover behaviors, responding to dead bodies, hostile reactions in usables, cowering, and surrendering.
AI (Tech)

Throughout May, AI Tech completed and addressed feedback for the tier-0 navigation link work. This involved making improvements to how the cache data is used during navigation links with motion-warp animations but also re-computing navigation link connection points when the navigation mesh changes in its proximity.

On the EVA side, work on NPCs transitioning from zero-g into a usable (and vice versa) was completed. Following on from this, they began developing zero-g collision avoidance for NPCs, which allows them to avoid other characters (AI or player) and small objects while floating. This will use the 3D ORCA that was implemented for ship AI collision avoidance. The team also added new functionality to movement requests.; they’re now able to re-plane designer paths at the end, allowing them to create loops.

Another feature worked on was planetary navigation. The aim is to generate navigation mesh on planets that can be used by NPCs and animals around outposts. This will use physics information, so each time planetary tiles are physicalized, navigation meshes will be generated too.

For the Subsumption editor tool, the team added new functionality allowing them to create or modify multiple Subsumption functions in the same window view. This will be beneficial to the designers when writing mission scripts or behaviors as they will have an overview of all logic in the same place.
Animation

The Animation team spent May working on Vanduul combat, hurt locomotion, firing range behaviors, SQ42-specific level usables, movement between nav meshes, and medical gameplay (including healing and moving players to beds).

They also tested a rig for the Xi’an alien race (both body and face) and supported several story scenes.
Art (Characters)

The Character Art Team progressed with R&D for the Screaming Galsons. Based on the torso-piece tests that began last month, the modular system is looking like a promising way to create a large number of variations cost-effectively. The next step is tightening up and defining rules for other armor types and starting on the bespoke Screaming Galson characters.

The team also wrapped up the polish pass for Trejo’s head and passed it to Tech Animation to update the rig. Her hair is currently in skinning, while her undersuit and helmet are in modeling. Finally, they worked on some characters for Aciedo and uniforms for chapter 4G.
Art (Environment)

The Environment Art Team progressed with the space-scaping and the approach to Aciedo, which not only looks great but also allows interesting flight gameplay. The station interior received lighting tweaks to portray the desired mood too.

Planetside, progress was made on creating interesting and believable terrain that incorporates canyons, which the team had been unable to achieve previously. Development of Archon station’s internal tram system, sewers, social hub, back alleys, and worker’s areas continued, while initial work began for exterior FPS spaces in chapter 13.

Chapter 15 progressed, with Art working alongside Design to build out the environments for key moments throughout the level. Progress was made on the Bengal’s medbay and armory too, both of which are close to completion.
Cinematics

Due to the nature of SQ42’s heavily embedded real-time cinematics, it’s rare for the Cinematics Team to be entirely ‘unblocked’ on scenes and work through them with no interruptions. Blockers can include a scene’s mo-cap delivery needing completion, the state machine for all animation fragments needing to be defined, character assets (like faces, costumes, and rigs) not being ready, and props missing or having incorrectly sized metrics. Sometimes, there are larger issues where level art elements for a set piece or location aren’t solidified enough to give a good understanding of the state machine, placement, flow, or mood.

So, the team develops tools to help them work effectively regardless of blockers, which were further developed throughout May. This included tools to control ship functions, the player’s head, settings to suit a female character, the contents of object containers, and a dynamic per-character lighting rig to give a base illumination quality

A tool was also created to reference and play each landing gear compression spring in the vehicle setup independently. For example, this enables the team to extract or retract a ship’s hind landing skids before the fronts.

Alongside tools, Cinematics worked on specific chapter scenes and sequences, including a key Vanduul encounter and one involving the player hiding among fog and ship parts. Progress was made on the Bengal, including animating the bridge seats and attached screens too.
Engine

The Physics Team finalized their support of tracking floating point exceptions within physics, which began in April. As a side effect, this enabled more efficient vector code generation on the Linux server. The rest of the month was mostly spent on optimizations, including improving the mid and narrow phase of soft body collision detection. There were also several updates to signed distance fields (SDF), such as tile-based polygonization when remeshing SDFs and optimizations in tree traversal when baking SDFs.

The team further progressed with the Gen12 renderer, including submitting improvements to the Scaleform (UI) render path that was established last month. The render graph, which is a key component in Gen12, received initial support for resource transition APIs, split barriers, and resource state validation; all of which are important for next-gen, low-level APIs such as Vulkan and DX12. The debuggability of the render graph was also updated.

Furthermore, text rendering was refactored and optimized and support for image draw helper code was added. More pipelines were enabled for Gen12 by default, including tiled shading, SSR, SSDO, shadow mask generation, and scattering queries.

Additionally, significant low-level progress was made in memory management, which involved various types of buffer and packet allocations moving to a more efficient scheme. Lastly for the renderer, various APIs were exposed via common interfaces so higher-level code can eventually make use of them to prepare and package data in advance and offload the renderer.

On the graphics front, hair rendering received various improvements, such as fixed shadow map generation of view-aligned strands and a new experimental scattering model for better looking blonde hair. Eye shading got support for a normal plus-blend map when rendering specular overlays. The eyeball texture can now also be rescaled to make shared textures better fit varying eye geometry.

The volumetric cloud system received support for density queries so various VFX can be spawned and the game can react to the presence of clouds at given locations. Scattering query support was also added so transparent and forward-shaded objects properly take clouds into account when rendered. The work on SDFs for efficient space skipping continued too.
Features (Gameplay)
May saw the Feature Team take the basics of the PU’s reputation system and create a single-player version for use in SQ42. The live version is a service separate from the game, writing out the reputation values to a database, whereas the single-player version runs as a part of the game itself, storing reputations in memory that can then be stored to the save game system. Outside of that, they made quality-of-life improvements and completed several smaller tasks, such as improving the video comm setup for multiple parties.
Gameplay Story

Last month, Gameplay Story focused on the second walk-and-talk for chapter 5 following successful work on the previous scene. This involved restructuring animations and getting them to work with AI and creating interrupt, idle, encouragement, and rejoin animations.

“This is quite an undertaking, but it’s been great to maintain momentum and see this chapter rapidly taking shape.” -The Gameplay Story Team

Alongside this, they set up a holographic character, created accurate holstering animations, and updated several scenes to include the new medical gun. Support was also given to Design’s work on chapter 13 and a prototype was made for a scene in chapter 19.
Graphics & VFX Programming

Throughout May, the Graphics & VFX Programming teams made significant improvements to several systems.

Work started on a window shader extension to allow views into ‘fake’ interiors with support for randomized room sizes, rotations, colors, and lighting. When live, this will bring extra life to cities and space stations.

The render-to-texture system was modified to allow a more bespoke compositing and post-effect pipeline for the UI Team, which will bring greater visual consistency and higher-quality effects. The level of detail (LOD) merger system was updated so that it can be used in New Babbage and Orison to improve performance and reduce the art burden of creating super-low/distant LODs. Pre-streaming support was added for various game systems (such as vehicle death-masks, muzzle flashes, and quantum travel) to pre-stream any textures required for particle effects before the particles are spawned. This should solve some long-standing visual bugs.

The shield effects setup was reworked to enable a single effect to be used on multiple ships of varying scales, with all effects scaling appropriately. Work on the fire hazard system mentioned in previous reports continued, with May’s focus on the heat management of the room system. The streaming support for gas clouds was also developed to reduce memory use and improve loading times.

For the Gen12 renderer, a new Vulkan extension reporting system was added so that, from Alpha 3.14 onwards, the team will be able to gather data on what hardware and driver support they have for various Vulkan features. This will help them use newer features when sufficiently supported. The team also generalized the GPU-to-CPU read-back system and ported the DX9-era texture sampling code to a modern equivalent.
Level Design

The Space/Dogfight Team continued to ensure the company-wide focus from last quarter’s milestone was applied to the chapters beyond the scope of their milestone work. Some functionality came in late in the quarter and is now being refined to fit what was designed and expected in terms of polish.

The Level Design Team had several detailed discussions regarding non-combat AI and behaviors that are now being put into practice for the pre-combat/stealth elements of the current milestone, with significant focus on combat behaviors within small spaces.

As always, the Social Design Team implemented scenes for the various chapter reviews and sign-offs.
Narrative

Throughout May, the Narrative Team focused on an expanded environmental storytelling pass for the Shubin Interstellar Archon Station, which included additional posters and advertising to help set the desired mood; the hope is to create a dynamic, living station that immerses the player wherever they look.

They also had several reviews of one chapter, discussing how a player’s personal playstyle could impact the narrative and then making sure that the content would react appropriately. These reviews helped highlight a few areas where scenes could be placed differently and additional dialogue could help the gameplay experience. These will be scripted shortly.

Additionally, Narrative planned a mo-cap session to begin getting final recordings of some of the placeholder content outlined in previous reports.
QA

Cinematics continued to rely on QA for recordings of each level for review, while support was given to the various development teams, with their changes and updates to the project tested as needed.

QA also continued to support AI, testing the behavior implementations into SQ42, with a focus on Vanduul improvements. They also pushed to clear out any outdated issues and performed an open bug-sweep to ensure their databases were up to date.
Tech Animation

Tech Animation’s quarterly deliverables and long-standing initiatives progressed well throughout May. The team also invested time into R&D around their animation pipeline and exporting processes.

“Both are bedrocks of our team and now have many nice-to-have features that the Tech Animation and Animation teams have discussed for a long time.” -The Tech Animation Team

They spent time clearing up several animation bugs, implemented animations, and worked alongside the Art Team on asset skinning too.
VFX

Last month, the much-anticipated particle lighting system was integrated into the artists’ builds, so VFX began updating existing environmental effects to make use of the new settings. The new lighting system is much more physically accurate, which allows the artists to make their effects sit more naturally in the environments regardless of lighting conditions. It generally improves overall visual quality too.

As always, the team continued their collaboration with Art and Design on gas clouds. Following on from last month, the VFX artists took a more hands-on approach to the creation of VDBs (previously it was more of an advisory role) along with the gas cloud particle effects.