tl;dr still not out
TO: SQUADRON 42 RECRUITS
SUBJ: DEVELOPMENT UPDATE 09:07:2022
REF: CIG UK, CIG DE, CIG LA, CIG TX,
FAO Squadron 42 Recruits.
Welcome to August’s Squadron 42 development report. Enclosed you will find details on the latest progress made across the campaign, including updates to cinematic scenes, the game engine, and character art.
Thank you for your continued support of Squadron 42.
Last month, AI Content focused on new medical behaviors, creating three new usables:
Sitting Angled Console: This is a desk where NPCs can sit and do admin work, such as checking on patient’s medical records
Examine: These spots on either side of the medical bed allow doctors to approach a patient and diagnose their condition. This will include the use of both datapad and hand scanners
Medical Fridge: This is where medicine is stored. For now, NPCs will visually inspect the stock level and enter the information on the datapad. Eventually, they will restock it when quantities are low
The team also continued to work through numerous bugs on the chowline usables, which was challenging due to their complex nature, and resumed work on the food vendor from last year.
Alongside this, AI Content continued to improve general locomotion realism by taking the overlay animations worked on last month and categorizing them by frequency. For example, coughs and sneezes will play 10% of the time, head stretches 40%, and more extensive, bolder actions like checking the mobiGlas will happen 30% of the time. They’re currently designing a priority system to trigger these animations.
Last month, the AI Feature Team continued implementing the traits system, which allows them to specialize AI characters using behavior logic by either limiting or favoring certain behaviors. For example, an AI with the ‘cautious’ trait will prefer moving from cover to cover when approaching the target, whereas with the ‘aggressive’ trait will directly move towards the target ignoring available cover. Other traits include ‘gunners’ who prefer using turrets, ‘medics’ who aid allies by healing them, and ‘addicts’ who use stim drugs whenever available. The core system has been implemented and several traits are now in place. Further traits will be implemented once the corresponding behaviors are developed.
With the basis of the ‘investigation’ behavior implemented, the team moved on to implementing group investigation, which involves sharing potential hiding locations between AI characters searching for the same target. This behavior is built from the token system that allows multiple AIs to collaborate by pooling resources and was developed with future use in mind. The generic shared data, in this case hiding location, can be specialized for specific use cases. As the NPCs move around the room, they determine and share which hiding locations have been seen so that the other NPCs won’t revisit them. From a simple implementation comes quite complicated results, with NPC’s now moving to cover the room as you would expect them to do in real life.
A new system related to both features was also implemented last month: the firing token. When several AIs are targeting the same character and want to fire, they request one of a limited number of shared tokens. If they’re successful, they will be able to fire. However, if there are no tokens available, they will not be able to fire and may consider alternative behaviors, such as moving to cover. This allows the team to further control the pressure placed on the player while also generating covering-fire behaviors, as some characters will fire whilst others are moving.
Traits were also implemented to suppress requiring the firing token in different ways. The first is to ignore the firing token completely, which means that the character will always be able to fire without reducing the number of available tokens, which can be used for boss characters. The second is to allow a specific AI character to always get a firing token, giving them firing priority without increasing the number of firing enemies.
Development of the AI perception system continued throughout August, ensuring that the escalation of threats in the perception meter can be controlled by tweaking the setup in Dataforge. A new sixth-sense perception range was also developed to control gameplay when the player is sneaking up behind enemy characters. The perception meter now allows the devs to generate gameplay for stealth kills, rather than stealth killing being an easy option, as the player must minimize the amount of time they’re in close range before they’re noticed.
On the animation side, AI Features polished female Human combat animations and created block-out animations for the improved sharp-turn functionality. They also continued polishing Vanduul search-and-investigation animations, including specific search locomotion animations.
“The AI Feature team have been hard at work developing lots of different features. This is partly due to the strong foundations of our AI code that were developed by spending a long time thinking about future functionality. As a team, we’ve also grown and have been improving the communication between our team and the designers through shared language, documentation, and regular meetings. Through this, we’ve able to take their vision and make it a reality” AI Feature Team
During August, AI Tech continued to extend and implement new functionalities for NPCs traversing navigation areas. One improvement allows the designers to specify the opening width for a door navigation link and use that information during the pathfinding step. Now, NPCs will use the entire width of a door, not only the center.
They also began extending ladder functionality by creating new navigation link adapters and movement blocks so that AI characters can use them in similar ways to the players.
AI Tech also progressed with the NPC movement refactor. Specifically, they worked on a better separation of how logic is processed when animated character and actor states are updated. This allows them to correctly handle the actor LOD system, which can have both parts of a character updating at different rates. The overall movement refactor also went through a review process and intensive QA testing in preparation for its release.
Further iterations were made on the NPC seamless transitions prototype. This involved ironing out the small position and pose pops when handling animation control between different systems and adding support for selecting the best usable enter animation based on which has the best enter pose requiring the least warping.
The Subsumption editor tool was opened up to more designers so that it could go through more intensive and in-depth functionality and performance testing. Bugs and feedback from users were addressed and performance improvements began when loading bigger mission graphs.
A new feature for ship combat behaviors, ship-pilot perception, was extended to include vision alongside radar signals. This will allow AI ships to react to hostile characters on foot and engage them in combat.
Finally, AI Tech continued developing and improving reinforcement and disembarking behaviors. Part of this involved allowing missions to designate points where the squad group will go and investigate in case hostiles aren’t visible.
Animation worked on useable first reactions, ensuring all useables have a reaction set assigned to them. They also continued with the female-spec-ops work to get female buddy and enemy AIs in-game.
EVA and zero-g were further developed, with focus on attaching characters and moving through tight spaces. Work on helmet use continued, as did ladder improvements.
Vanduul searching for players, the chowline, medical bed, and custom animation locomotion work progressed throughout the month too. Tasks were completed for worker facial animations and scenes, including assets for the med table.
Finally, while part of the team continued to solve mo-cap from their backlog, the majority worked on the stage build and prepping for Narrative and Marketing shoots.
Character Art and Tech Art continued to develop the Screaming Galsons armor and the remaining Navy uniforms. They’re also working on an internal head-scan and cleanup process, proving out a new pipeline using tools developed by the Tech Animation team.
Weapons Art continued to develop the Volt weapons mentioned in last month’s report, with the main modeling pass completed in August. They then moved on to refining the iron sights to improve the onscreen positioning.
New Screaming Galsons melee weapons were greyboxed and are currently having their setup and initial animations worked on to ensure the new metrics work well.
Several new skins were kicked off and the team also converted a number of weapons to the current tint system to allow for the creation of future skins.
At the beginning of the month, Cinematics completed the implementation work for major sequences in chapters one, five, and seven. This included lengthening the opening shot of the campaign.
The Vanduul movement style was also finalized and prior block outs received more fluid motion and precise timing. Adjustments were made to a few scenes on the Javelin bridge, which was recently lengthened for FPS combat. Further work went into the timing of a large weapon too.
For chapter five, further work was done on a tram ride, with the team working alongside the physics programmers to get litter, handles, and characters to sway when the tram accelerates. Other work involved a mining tick landing and walking to be unloaded, a meet up with a friendly character, an elevator ride, and a tram accident.
A scene in chapter seven received polish, which included a lot of smaller details. These included handcuffs, a Multi-Tool folding out and cutting, and the handing over of a med pen that required a small amount of new code from the SQ42 Feature team.
“Usually, when creating scenes with characters grabbing, unholstering, giving, or using items, we aim to solve it with proper systemic implementation. So, the actor action track in the sequencer tells the character to actually unholster the item, grab it, then hand it over to the other character. In this scene, we had the added difficulty of a stocked weapon being held while giving the med pen. In this instance, the user action confused the giver and given hand, so we often ended up handing over a rifle instead of a med pen. A small code fix to specify left and right hands for both giver and receiver fixed this.” Cinematics Team
The team also further worked on chapter 11, which needs multiple destruction set pieces. So, the VFX team provided sophisticated Houdini-authored simulated destruction ‘.CGAs’ that can house up to a thousand debris pieces and still run relatively lightweight vs a typical brute-force Alembic cache. They were then added alongside adjusted camera and timing shots to frame the scene.
In August, the Physics team continued code optimization. For instance, the binding of sim topology skinning data across skin instances is now shared, which reduces loading time and memory consumption significantly. Also, reposition queue processing was sped up significantly. Each time a dynamic physical entity moves, a search of the physical environment needed to be performed to find and inform surrounding entities that something has moved. A change was made to separate out the moving and subsequent awakening into distinct phases so work can be efficiently processed in parallel.
Brushes no longer awaken their environment when they spawn in, are repositioned, or are deleted. This has reduced stalls significantly as there are no longer storms of brushes being spawned or destroyed. In the rigid time step code, dead or disabled colliders of active rigids are filtered out before being added to the lists of inter-colliding groups of entities. Mass tracking was restricted to grids that are on vehicles (spaceships/wheeled vehicles). Moreover, support was added to allow primitive world intersection to detect overlaps/intersection with an entity’s local space OBB. Lastly, the calculation of planar skinning info was optimized by utilizing an AABB tree to reduce the search space when finding the best tetrahedron for a skinned vertex.
On the renderer, the transition to Gen12 continued with numerous render node types ported over to the new APIs. The RTT Gen12 pipeline was enabled by default and MIP map generation, gas cloud processing, and forward and tiled-forward rendering were transitioned. Support for transient graphics render passes was added, which various render sub-systems already take advantage of, to simplify code. Also, the compilation of fallback pipeline state object caches was optimized by allowing for more parallel execution. Lastly, the sorting code for draw packets was unified.
The Gen12 port of atmospheric rendering was completed, and the port of volumetric cloud rendering is currently being wrapped up. Work will then commence to further improve the rendering of volumetric clouds.
On the core engine, the team implemented a more cooperative threading approach (instead of an update thread) that utilizes the parallelism of calling code to update different zones at the same time. Also, the entity lifetime changes introduced last month received further improvements. All entity components were switched over to use the new custom weak pointer implementation that was submitted in July.
August saw Gameplay Features working on a new framework for the mobiGlas, which will make better use of Building Blocks and the new UI cards the Tech team have been developing. This will then host all the new apps being built for SQ42.
New functionality was added to determine when players are in social areas and change the field of view to differentiate them from combat situations. For player hints and tutorials, new conditions were added to give the designers additional flexibility when they want to trigger them.
A new system is also being developed to allow the player to control overhead cranes. This could be expanded to allow players to remotely control moving drones too.
Gameplay Story spent part of last month organizing completed and upcoming work, which involved creating Confluence pages for scene notes and change logs as well as updating ShotGrid and Mannequin.
They also worked on two new scenes: The first being a piece that connects to a cinematic scene and features marines cheering. The second involves a medic helping a wounded miner.
Following feedback, they also created a new tram arrival with mo-cap being planned to allow two key characters to board it smoothly.
Graphics & VFX Programming
Work on the fire hazard feature continued, with focus on implementing requests from Design to improve the extinguishing experience. Several bugs highlighted by auto-tests were fixed, while improvements were made to the particle tools, auto-tests, and how wind volumes affect particles.
Progress was also made on porting particles to Gen12, including mesh and submesh particle rendering and bringing them to feature parity with legacy particles. Several lighting and shadow update passes on gas clouds were also ported to Gen12.
Optimizations were made to the clip volume submission and inscattering injection stages for volumetric fog. Now, the artists are able to tag mesh sub-objects as interiors or exteriors to better handle lighting around turrets and doors. Progress began on an edge highlight rendering mode for objects that would normally be occluded/culled by walls to support the FPS scanning of other players and NPCs.
A tool progressed that will allow the team to perform multiple jittered captures of a scene and interleave them together to output an ultra-high resolution image. The rastar tool also received a useful tech refresh to make it usable with built-in editor tools, while additional efforts were made to improve stability, usability, and responsiveness.
With multiple improvements recently made on river tech, the team received a QATR report that allowed them to find new issues.
Finally for Graphics, the team began the initial tasks targeting CPU offloading of planet tech code. The goal is to provide equivalent functionalities of ground-level scattered objects with compute shaders instead of relying on the slower CPU path. The benefits are significant, with the team able to spend the saved computational budget on other purposes, such as gameplay and tech.
In August, the FPS team began taking five chapters to a more complete state with a continued focus on stability. They also tested the first third of the game, with the intention of giving players a seamless playthrough.
Like the FPS team, the Space/Dogfight team continued to focus on getting a large part of the game fully playable with functioning systems and mechanics. Alongside creating a seamless experience, they continued with scene set-up, bug fixing, and addressing review feedback, though the main focus was on refactoring and streamlining several interstitials to the required standards. This will make all tasks easier, from working on chapters to devising checkpoints.
The Narrative team continued to meet with Design as more sections of gameplay were iterated upon to review all existing and placeholder content for tone, character, and clarity. They also wrote scripts to fill in gaps that came up in reviews and provided placeholder recordings so the team can hear the content in situ. This included working on additions to the weapon quartermaster’s lines.
On the production side, the team organized a list of all content that needs to be captured and began blocking out capture sessions to record any vetted and approved scenes with professional actors. The team also prepared for an upcoming shoot to capture some of the NPC vignettes that have been prototyped into the levels.
As mentioned in the previous month’s report, Narrative continued to work closely with the AI team to develop the dynamic conversation system.
“Looking at the current use-case for the tech, it’s been an interesting exploration. We have sections that are intended to have a very specific tone as opposed to some of the other levels, so there have been discussions of how to tackle these unique situations. For example, whether they should have a dedicated group of characters and lines that are specific to that one chapter or whether that content is just incorporated into a generic background character’s line set. In short, both teams are trying to find that point on the spectrum between specific and systemic where these behaviors will live.” Narrative Team
Cinematics continued to rely on QA for recordings of each level so they could ensure scenes were working and of the expected quality. Dev support continued too, with changes and updates tested.
QA also tested behavior implementations in the campaign, with August’s work focusing on the recent Vanduul AI improvements. In addition, the team pushed to clear out any outdated issues and performed an open bug sweep to ensure their databases were up to date.
Alongside long-term planning, Tech Animation approached the release of the revamped loadout pipeline in Maya. This will dramatically speed up the loading of complex Maya assets and accurately reflect their current state in-game.
“It’s a win on every level and we’re excited to share it.” Tech Animation
Further to this, the team began consolidating all the new heads they would like to appear in-game. This involves processing a lot of old and new data along with alignment to deliver on the requirements for both parts of the game. So far, 60 heads need to be scanned, created, rigged, and integrated into the DNA gene pool to achieve the vision.
The UI team continued to push forwards with features on the new Starmap, including 3D text and shader effects for space clouds.
The artists progressed with a range of concepts for terminal screens in different locations and handed them over for implementation, while the programmers worked on a variety of core features for highlighting interface elements and interacting with holographic displays.
Last month, the VFX team resumed work on a cinematic sequence that forms a major part of the story in the early stages of the game. Due to the complexity of the sequence, the team experimented with several creation methods in Houdini to help deliver the effects to a high standard.
VFX Concept Art completed the first pass on new weapon effects and helped the artists visualize a complex scene involving a powerful energy source. The artists continued working closely with the Art and Design location teams too.