Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!

Hey all — Chris here.

We’ve hit a juncture point with AI War 2. We’ve built a lot of cool things, learned a lot, and now it’s time for a soft reboot. The current plan is to pivot the gameplay to very closely resemble the original AI War, but on our new engine, and then build up from that foundation.

Achievements So Far

So very much is going right with this game, from a technical level and an engine standpoint.

  • The game is crazy moddable.
  • It’s multithreaded to take full use of modern computers.
  • The 3D aspect is working out well.
  • We’ve figured out a variety of new tricks that definitely do improve on the first game, and can be kept.
  • The UI has already been dramatically improved by the introduction of a tabbed sidebar in the main view, and streamlining of several other mechanics that felt very difficult in the past. Eric (as a volunteer) has been a godsend for the UI, and we have pages and pages of more designs from him that we’re going to be working on in the next two months or so.
  • Badger (as a volunteer) has been an incredible tester, volunteer developer, and general help to getting us this far at all; he’s created the Nanocaust faction, as well as a new and better implementation of both Human Resistance Fighters and Human Marauders, among many, many other things.
  • Folks like zeusalmighty, chemical_art, Draco18s, and Magnus have been wonderful sources of thoughtful feedback, commentary, testing, and even map creation.
  • We’ve got art for over 130 distinct units (not counting different mark levels), and we’re set up well to finish off the rest of the art despite the staff changes noted below.
  • We’ve got over 1500 lines of spoken dialogue from more than 25 actors, focusing primarily on the human side at the moment; we have a few hundred lines of AI-side taunts and chatter, some of which is recorded but just not processed yet.
  • There are hundreds of high quality sound effects for a varied battlefield soundscape (with distance attenuation if you’re far away, and positional 3D audio if you’re down in the thick of it), all routed through a tuned mixer setup for optimal listening to all the various parts.
  • We have a set of music from Classic that is over four and a half hours long, and the new music from Pablo is partly in, but mostly set to be mastered and integrated within the next week or two.
  • There’s also a ton of map types, many of them new, and with a lot of sub-options to make them even more varied.
  • We’ve created half a dozen custom Arks as backer rewards, we have another four in various stages of completion, and there’s a lot of cool variety from those folks.
  • With a lot of the other custom art-related rewards (custom flagships, fortresses, and gold merc paint jobs — 21 backers affected in all, when you include the custom Ark folks), since we’re having staffing changes in that particular area, we’ve offered alternative options to those backers, yet said we’d honor the original reward if they prefer. We’ve had a mix of both responses, both of which are fine, and things are proceeding well there.
  • Other backer rewards are either already delivered (game keys of all sorts, many of the custom Ark rewards, backer badges, antagonistic AI voice line writing), or something that are still on the todo list but easy to handle prior to 1.0 (custom wallpapers, planet names, cyber ciphers, antagonistic player voice lines, custom AI personalities, and other non-art merc bits).

New Teaser Trailer!

On that note, here’s an excellent new teaser trailer that Chris and Craig created together. It’s light on details, but it’s just a teaser, after all:

The Sticking Point

The new game just isn’t living up to the first one’s legacy. We started out with a lot of design shifts away from the original AI War, and the design just hasn’t been as robust or fun as the original.

  • In AIW2, so far, there was no real sense of logistics. Things felt too simple.
  • The combat was basically getting you to just “fleetball” all the time, though that wasn’t our actual intent.
  • The defensive options felt too limited no matter what we tried, and player Arks wound up sitting away in a corner with their offensive fleet having to return home frequently to help with defense.

The Two Paths

We’ve done quite a lot of engine work to make the actual game that runs on top of it mostly data-driven, so we have a pretty decent amount of flexibility here. For the last few months, we’ve been chasing various issues in gameplay, trying to tidy those up, but it just kept feeling less and less “like AI War.” So, we had two options:

  1. Keep doing that and hope for the best, particularly that it magically starts feeling “like AI War” again.
  2. Go back and actually make AI War again, at least the base game, and then build from that foundation rather than starting way off somewhere else.

As you have likely already gathered, we’re going with option 2. As players, Keith and I have been really let down by how different certain sequels felt from their predecessors, and we really didn’t want to do that to you folks.

We want this to be the sequel you truly wanted, that takes the original game and then goes forward in a refinement fashion. Total Annihilation turns into Supreme Commander, not SupCom becoming SupCom 2. Age of Empires 1 begets AOE2, not AOE2 morphing into AOE3. All of those games listed are good, but there’s a reason that the second in each series is typically more acclaimed than the third.

Future Growth

We do know that some of you backed for something more radical in departure from the original game. Why have the same old experience again? That’s certainly a valid point, and that’s why we talk about this as being a foundation for future growth.

Look at how much the first game grew from version 1.0, way back in 2009, through six expansions and version 8.0 in 2014. They’re radically different games. That said, we were constrained at every turn by an engine that was designed for street racing, and that we were trying to take offroad. That just doesn’t work.

The new engine for AI War 2 is so robust and flexible that we can take it street racing, offroad, or underwater. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too, at least eventually? Based on the underlying engine, there’s nothing stopping us from having n factions, xyz ships, and all sorts of new sub-games and mechanics on top of it if the response to the baseline is positive enough.

One example: We’ve floated a variety of crazy ideas about hacking in the last few weeks, for instance; and while those are Way Out Of Scope right now, there’s nothing stopping us from implementing those exact systems or something like them a year or two from now, once we know the baseline game is fun and feels “like AI War.”

Second example: in the preliminary design document we’re working on, check out the section way at the bottom about using Arks as champions. That’s something that we want to attempt sooner than later, and it could be an enormous leap forward on the “radical new ideas” front. Same with the mercenaries section in that document.

Schedule Changes

At this point, we’re looking at Early Access (the “fun point” fulcrum) being sometime in July. That will give us a lot of time to further implement Eric’s UI and refine some visual elements and whatnot while we’re at it. Obviously, schedules change, and this is a tight one on the side of Keith’s core gameplay work.

THAT said, the transition toward the fun point is going to come in 5 overall waves of core features from Keith. The 1st wave being minimum set of units to have a functional, winnable and losable game; the 2nd focusing on core variety; 3 and 4 focusing on various toys on human and AI sides; and 5 wrapping up the last toys as well as adding the minor factions noted on the design doc as being pre-fun-point. (Nemesis and Spire are both post-1.0)

Hopefully we’ll have a general idea of our progress, and people’s reactions to it, throughout those five waves.

After Early Access starts, there’s a bunch more stuff to add and tune, and we think the 1.0 can still be October. Some of the stretch goal content (Spire, interplanetary weapons, possibly some merc stuff) may be after 1.0, but that was always the plan, anyhow.

Staff Changes

All the above said, this is not coming without cost; it’s a major financial blow to the company, and unfortunately we can’t afford to keep our longtime artist Blue after April. She’s been with us for five years, and will be sorely missed, but we’ve known for a while this might be something that had to happen (as did she).

We’re basically folding back down into a quasi-one-man company, although that’s giving me too much credit. I’ll be the only full-time employee, at any rate. Keith is part-time and has been for some time. With the AI War 2 project being almost a year over schedule, something had to give. For myself, I’ve taken on a lot of debt, and am about to take on more.

We Remain Committed

You better bet that the game is going to come out; we’re working hard to make this truly shine, not just as a half-baked, unenjoyable mess. We’re determined that this will arrive at 1.0 as something that we can be proud of and that you can enjoy for many hundreds of hours.

This Isn’t an Engine Overhaul

We want to emphasize this! The AI War 2 engine framework isn’t changing much. The engine we built basically kicks butt, with all the moddability and support for advanced UIs and multi-threading, and so much more.

What’s changing is what we do with that engine, back towards something we know was fun on a different (much worse) engine. That solid baseline will be something we can have confidence in, and will be a great place from which to grow.

Example question: “Is the engine is flexible enough to go back to the original vision of mobile Arks as your king unit, and no stationary home command station?” Answer: an emphatic YES. The engine is so flexible that you can designate a king-unit option in XML and select it through the interface. That king-unit could be a squadron of fighters if you want, or the largest spirecraft with steroid stats. All of that can be done, at this very moment already, without any need for more than XML edits.

The 40+ Page Design Document

Measure twice, cut once. We’ve just spent the last week going back and planning things. Here’s the detailed design document.

In general there are a few upcoming stages:

  1. Working on getting it to match the AIWC base game. (The Pre-Fun timespan.)
  2. Players declare it is as fun as the base game of AIWC was. (The “Fun-Point.”) We may take it to Early Access at this point?
  3. We start bringing in more features. (The “Post-Fun-Point.”)
  4. We release the game to 1.0, probably in October.
  5. We do more stuff to meet our obligations as well as our personal goals. (The “Post-1.0 period.”)

At this point, Keith and I are feeling like the feature set as planned for the pre-fun-point is pretty darn huge on its own, and then there’s a variety of stuff planned for pre-1.0 that makes it even larger. We weren’t trying to expand the scope, but such is life.

There are also a number of ideas of varying tentativeness for after the fun-point that we want to try, such as bringing Arks in as a champion style. Things like that should really make the game feel like it has been taken to the next level compared to the first.

Looking for Modders!

Did you know:

  • ALL of the game data is in XML in AI War 2?
  • Adjusting ship stats is as easy as using a text editor to change a few numbers?
  • Adding new ships is just a copy-paste and then edit situation in those same XML files? You can use temporary graphics, and we can do real ones later.
  • All you need is Visual Studio 2015 Community Edition (which is free) or similar in order to edit tons of pieces of code for the game.
  • You can program map types with ease, GUI things with pain (that’s just UGUI for you), and make AI tweaks and similar somewhere in the middle of those two poles?

We’ll provide as much help as we can in getting you the info you need, and documenting all of this as things go on. If you have questions about where anything is, you can always ask Keith or Chris. Badger probably also knows, and before long we hope to have a solid stable of folks who know this well enough to help others.

Further, I feel it’s worth pointing out:

  • If you disagree with us about something relating to balance, you have the option of tuning the numbers yourself in your local copy and then showing us why we’re wrong. (Of course you can still ask us to do it, as has always been the case — but we’re no longer a bottleneck.)
  • If you make something particularly cool, then with your permission we’re happy to integrate that into the main game as an option that people can access without having to download something separate.
  • We wouldn’t have some of the cooler features that the game has right now, like the Nanocaust or some of the more interesting Dyson Sphere behaviors, if it wasn’t for Modder #1 — Badger. We know there were more of you who wanted to get involved in that sort of capacity, and now’s as good a time as any.

What do we WANT from modders?

A good question was raised: what are we really asking of modders, here? Honestly, that depends on the modder.

Some folks like putting in interface bits to solve personal pain points that they had with the original interface. Others have ideas for creative extra factions — for instance the Nanocaust — and we’d love to have those be something that you’re working on as we move toward 1.0, rather than as we move toward 2.0. If it’s all the same to you, anyway, it’s more valuable to us sooner than later, if that makes sense?

But in general, it’s kind of a “hey, if poking around at games like this is your sort of thing, we’re throwing a party and you’re invited.” We’re happy to show you around the house, not just throw you into the deep end of the pool without floaties.

Short Term Goals

We’re going to be aggressively pursuing the Fun Point, with Early Access to follow; and meanwhile building up and refining the UI, controls, and so forth to be the best that they can be.

Long Term Help

On the further volunteering end of things: if you want to help out with any sort of balance testing or custom unit design using the mechanics that we decide on as final, then the XML is easy to edit, and our doors are always open on our forums and on mantis.

Thanks for your continued support!

Best,
Chris

AI War 2: GUI Progress, Main Menu Updates, Shields Verdict, Beta News, Trailer Help Request, and more.

Progress report! The rest of the staff haven’t even seen this in actual practice yet, since I can’t check anything into our source control since this overhaul temporarily breaks EVERYTHING. But it’s an amazing new experience coming up based on these changes, plus others not yet shown.

Actually if you’re curious, you can check out my trello for some more details on what is coming: https://trello.com/b/tz2k8Q15/chris-ai-war-2-todo

New main menu! I was tired of that ship going by, and didn’t want some generic battle or other ship just sitting there. During the kickstarter, I really liked the red and blue planet aesthetic that we had going on, but it was highly unrealistic of course.

But that got me thinking about doing something more stylized: a blue circuit-boardy or borg-like planet (wound up going with the former) that is larger and more sedate feeling, and then a smaller and more burned-out or desert version that is glowing more red (wound up going with the former). The one represents the AI, the other the humans, and in both cases it’s showing how Earth sentience has symbolically moved on and lives on even though Earth itself was destroyed. I particularly like how the human planet almost crashes into the AI one, but just barely misses.

The symbolism of the asteroids rushing past the two planets is hopefully also obvious. I thought it was just a neat thing to do, and it seems very appropriate for the game and like something that would be mesmerizing just to sit and look at, which is always fun. When I added the little blue satellite line around the AI planet, that really brought that part together for me.

The Verdict On Shields/Forcefields (For Now)

Shields/forcefields are indeed gone for now, although we might bring them back in a limited capacity on the human side only.  So far that doesn’t seem to be needed, though, and that’s largely because of the impressive new power of tractor beams and turrets, and some of the new gravity mechanics that you can get a bit of a hint of in the new sidebar, above.

Anyone With Trailer-Making Skills Want To Help Out?

We’re running at full capacity even with awesome volunteers helping us out in a variety of areas.  We already have two trailers in progress at least conceptually (one in practice), but we’d really like to have at least a third in order for the game to be presentable in a variety of ways that people might find appealing.

I recall that Minecraft had a trailer-making contest and they had people who made way better trailers than either some marketing firm unfamiliar with the game could, or the developers themselves could.  I can’t really offer a bounty or anything on that, but if there are folks who want to come explain the “AI War experience” in general in trailer form, please feel free to email me at chrispark7 at gmail.

Oh, the other catch on that: we’re running low on time (about a month and a half until launch), and the visuals aren’t going to be fully finalized for another few weeks.  !Fun! 😉  Such is life, though, and at least the game itself is coming together really fantastically.

That Beta…

Obviously any of you can play the game right now or tomorrow or the next day, if you want to.  But we’re trying to get to a state where we can invite a huge number of you in and have you have a good and coherent near-final experience with the game, balance aside.

We’ll need your help figuring out where balance breaks down, because the game is huge and people have wildly divergent playstyles.  Plus it will be more bughunting time that then Keith and I can spend fixing issues from.

We’re not there yet, but one of the main things holding that back is the introduction of the new GUI, which is finally coming along.  Eric designed that much faster than I was able to implement it.

Anyway, please do stay tuned on that front — we hope to have a couple of dozen of you come in and really hit this thing hard during the beta.  Out of the few thousand of you that currently have a copy, surely we’ve got a few dozen for that… 😉

Thanks for reading!

Chris

SMF — Simple Machine Forums — For Newbies

Loads of people use social media and are excellent with computers, but that doesn’t mean that the archaic form of communication known as internet forums means much to them. In many ways, forums have more in common with the BBS days of yore than they do with modern social media or email or word processing, so it’s worth going over how to use forum software even for someone who’s not remotely a tech newbie. Enjoy. 🙂

And yes, this relates tangentially to AI War 2, because this video is mainly for Dune, my dad, since this software is new to him and he’s helping out specifically with some forum conversation steering and moderation.

We also have a number of other kickstarter backers who might be intimidated by forums, I have no idea, so there’s always the chance this is useful to one of them.

Swizzle Lists! A nonintuitive data structure for AI War 2.

It really seems like there ought to be a quicker explanation for this, but to explain the fundamental goals, the pitfalls, and the usage constraints of this data type… well, data types are hard to explain if they’re off the beaten path. This one is really useful, but also pretty strange.

edit: Aaaand Badger figured out the bug, which was not in this code, while I was making the video. Hopefully someone else finds this useful or interesting. 😉

Using Mantis Bugtracker, And What Everything There Means

Primarily for new moderator/admin Dune, but we know a lot of folks find this sort of thing interesting, so here it is for everyone.

If any other indies are using a bugtracker, this isn’t a bad approach to take, incidentally — we’ve handled almost 20,000 reports over the last 7 or so years in this. The first two years were spent with bug reports going through our forums — yuck! Definitely glad not to be doing that anymore.

Goodbye, Alloy, But Thanks For Teaching Us A Lot

As of our upcoming version 0.610, we’re removing the Alloy Shader framework.

The above is a tutorial for Blue, our artist, though if any modders who are creating custom models are also using substance painter, this shows you how to set up your setup, too. You can also infer pretty easily how to do combinations manually using Photoshop channels to create packed maps, too.

Anyhow, we’re moving away from the Alloy Shader Framework to instead use custom shaders that give us an equivalent look with a vastly reduced workload and with definite compatibility with future unity versions, and this tutorial covers Blue’s side of what needs to change.

The above is a tutorial for Cinth, but this also is useful for any modders who are creating custom graphics for the game.

As noted in this video, this saves us a ton of manual work. A ton.

Also in this video I randomly stumbled across a visual improvement to the custom player ark Rorqual Hegira, so you can see how that evolved a bit thanks to the extra flexibility of this new shader set.

 

Some screenshots of newly-painted PBR ships.

These ships are painted by Blue using Substance painter — well, overpainted by Blue.  These were ships that she had previously painted in photoshop directly in a cel-shaded fashion, and which now she’s overpainting to give it a mixed realistic look.

It’s worth bearing in mind a couple of things:

  • These are screenshots from Substance Painter, so it will look a bit different in Unity.   See my recent videos on that subject.
  • These have emissive parts on them, but that REALLY doesn’t show up properly in the substance painter view, so you’ll have to imagine that part for now. 😉

Autocannon Minipod

Old:

First revisions:

My main note on that was that it didn’t feel beat-up enough, although beyond that I really love it.  And, um… what a difference, right??

Newest:

Aww yiss, now we’re talking.

Fighter

Old (although with some improvements that were overdue on the cel-shaded part):

New:

I just love the fighter, with how metal and beat-up it looks now.  It should do particularly well in the in-game lighting and with the lightmaps on. 🙂

Armor Ship

Old:

New:

I also really love the metalness here, and the added details.  I’ve asked about adding a variety of scorch marks on that, though.  We could do a variety of smart masks and then make them black with a very high roughness and potentially low metalness and that effect happens easily.

Bomber

Old:

New:

Overall I really like the bomber, although it feels a bit too gleamy-shiny in some ways.  Maybe having it a bit more worn of a metal as a base there is something we’ll do — or just introducing layers of wear.  I love the scratches we have going on.

Eyebot

Old:

New:

The eyebot is perfect, I love that glassy look it has and how perfect it seems in a lot of ways.  Really a different form of character to it, which is fantastic. 🙂

That’s all for now!

Just thought I’d share a bit of the progress that is being made.  Now I guess that our main problem is that these ships are drawn so bloody small in the battlefield — relative to the camera — that all that awesome detail is lost…

We’ll figure it out.  Someone on kickstarter was mentioning the same thing.  Maybe the answer is smaller squads of larger ships, or using more verticality to fit larger ships in the same radius, or who knows.  I don’t want to shrink the feeling of scale of the game, but at the same time we want to be able to see more than just the icon-fest, at least when zoomed in.

 

More AI War 2 art-related videos!

Figured I’d cross-post this new batch:

The above is a tutorial for Cinth on how to get things ready for Blue to do her painting in Substance Painter. It doesn’t handle the old-style of very-high LODs for us yet, but it gets all the rest of it.

The above is a video for Cinth on how we need to update our existing ship definitions to fit with our new “one material only” approach, which relies on mipmaps and GPU instancing for the bulk of its efficiency, rather than on baked vertex colors and dynamic batching.

The above takes a look at the newly-free alloy shader framework, which we’ve used in other projects, and looks at the difference in quality when we’re now integrating it into AI War 2.

Starting at 8:30 in there is a tutorial for Blue, and at about 23:00 in is a tutorial for Cinth.

https://assetstore.unity.com/packages/vfx/shaders/alloy-physical-shader-framework-11978

https://forum.unity.com/threads/alloy-physical-shader-framework-version-3-for-unity-5.305178/page-34#post-3278461

The above video is about three ships that I’d done with standard shaders previously, including the first backer’s custom Ark, and now they’re converted over to Alloy. Just a video of me working and chatting about it as I do. Why not.

“Rorqual Hegira” Ark Painting Videos

No actual painting takes place in the first video.  Instead we go through mesh simplification, examining the mesh, sizing things up, and generally getting things prepared so that we can just sit down and paint in the next video.

The second video shows the first of the 11 custom Arks that kickstarter backers commissioned for the game. This will be one of the Arks that anyone who plays the game gets to choose between.

This Ark, dubbed the “Rorqual Hegira”, was the vessel for the cetacean flight from Sol. I can’t say any of those words. 😉

Anyway, this goes through the process of actually doing the painting to make the cel-shaded baseline turn into a PBR (Physically Based Rendering) style. Basically what that means is taking something that looks intentionally cartoony and adding on a layer of processing that makes it react to light more like real materials do.

As part of that I also wind up adding various procedural details, naturally, as Substance Painter is really excellent for that sort of thing. All those little scratches and splotches and so forth that humans just aren’t meant to paint by hand with any speed or lack of repetition.

This video took way longer than I expected, mainly because my first idea for how to handle the metal body didn’t work out (I had feared from the start it might not, but it was a fun one to try), and because handling the “glass with something down inside it” is an inherently super-tricky request, and something I wanted to do justice to rather than just slapping an emissive glow on it and calling it good. I’m quite happy with how the result came out, although we’ll see what the backer thinks once he sees this video.

Enjoy!
Chris

AI War 2 gains IBL (Image Based Lighting)

Recently I showed how the graphics have evolved in the game via switching the materials to be more PBR-based (overpainting our cel-shaded visuals to augment them via Substance Painter).

At any rate, one of the things that was bothering me was the drop in quality between Substance Painter’s view of things and the view of things in Unity.  It still looked great in Unity, but was a notable step down.

So, I thought about that a bit, and made some changes to the lighting in Unity.  More on that in a bit — but first I should note that this isn’t something that is costing any extra performance hit on your GPU.  Yeah, you heard me — these sort of visual improvements can be “free” in terms of performance cost.  It’s all in the techniques, and I’ve been learning a lot on that front as I’ve been working on my “secret side project.”

Anyhow, that’s been paying big dividends for AI War 2 that I wouldn’t have anticipated.

Where We Started

That’s purely a cel-shaded approach modeled in Maya by Blue, and painted in Photoshop.  There’s a lot to love there, particularly in most of the ships in the game, but this was probably the number one ship that bothered me because the asteroid doesn’t look at all like rock.  (Then again — do rocks in any cel-shaded game look like rocks??)

At any rate, her painting and models were being fed into some custom shaders I created, and then tuned to have custom reflection maps and specularity and rim lighting, etc.

One of the big things that I struggled with with my shader was making the ships look really dramatic — but also visible — on their dark sides versus their light sides.

Often this really caused issues with the normal maps (those images that make things look more bumpy than the actual underlying geometry is) either being too harsh or too subtle depending on how close you were to the ship or which side of it you were on.

Next Up: Substance Painter

In a video you can see me painting that mesh using Blue’s cel-shading as a base.  The end result — in Substance Painter — is this:

Now, there are a few things to bear in mind.

First of all, this is using different shaders than Unity has.  Ones that don’t have to render in realtime, and certainly not thousands of objects in realtime — Substance Painter would choke and die on that.  But that tool is equally useful for offline cinematics or feature films as it is for realtime game usage.

That said, it should translate pretty well — shockingly well, to be honest — to Unity.  When you’re using full lightmapping and calculated ambient occlusion and so on, the visuals get very very close between the platforms.

Problem, though: you’re not able to bake lightmapping in unity for dynamic scenes.  At least… mostly not.  There are a variety of complicated techniques, and even some simple ones.  But let’s just say for our purposes here that isn’t feasible in this particular case. 😉

At any rate, the second issue is that this is using IBL, or Image Based Lighting.  And in Unity I was not.

What Is IBL?

Basically that means a 360-degree image cubemap is “shining” on the model from all around it.  Imagine having a painted translucent box and putting the model in it, then shining light evenly through every side of the box at once.  The result is an IBL look.

Actually, you know what?  Just check out this video with someone showing off what Unity can do.  Video is worth a thousand words… squared?

Okay, So What This Looked Like Coming Into Unity

This is a huge improvement over what was in Unity previously, but it’s still… not my favorite.  The lighting is very stark and harsh, and the specular reflections feel wrong, making me have to tone down the smoothness of the metallic shaders.  All that combines with the flatness of the lighting in general to make it feel… like a blander version of what I had before.

Well, heck — I’ve worked with IBL plenty of times before.  Let’s see what I can do.

Upgrade One

Starting with this:

We then move to this:

In order to get that second look, I turned off the main directional light in the scene, and am using just a single IBL light source.  I have to “bake” that in a really broad sense for Realtime GI to work in unity, but my understanding is that it isn’t really using anything other than the original cubemap since there’s no true baked data (no lighting probes, etc) in the scene.

At any rate, this is with the ambient light coming from the (invisible) skybox, which is an HDRI cubemap.  And then no other light sources other than the emissive materials on actual ships.  Oh, and the global reflection cubemap has also been toned down a bit and switched over to use a compressed version of the HDRI skybox rather than the studio lighting look I was using before.

This approach is pretty cool, and certainly more vibrant… but it’s still missing something.  It’s a very flat look to it, and if you circle the asteroid the lighting is even on all sides.  There’s no real shadows happening.

Upgrade Two

Now we’re talking!  This tones down the ambient light a bit, and then adds back in the directional light — but tones that down to about 60% of what it previously was, too.  I also made the directional light warmer rather than a harsh white, so that it would match with the HDRI image I chose.  Incidentally, I went through a variety of HDRI maps before finding one that felt right.

The overall settings used in Unity for this are as follows, if you’re curious:

And That’s Where We Are Now!

In a non-procedural game, there’s all sorts of fancy and highly-performant things that can be done with lightmaps and reflection probes and so on, but this is not that game. 😉

For performance reasons I’m not using parallax mapping/heightmapping/tessellation or baked AO on these models, either.  Those don’t contribute enough to the scene to be worth the added GPU and RAM costs, and we want this game to be able to remain as huge as possible.  All of the changes thus far have been either GPU/RAM-neutral, or come with a performance savings.

I may move back into slightly custom shaders for this, mainly so that I can handle the death effects for ships via parameters on the ship itself “eating the ship away” as it dies.  But in general, beyond that, this is how the game looks now (or will look, once we paint all these models again — blending what came before with what we can do now).

Hopefully this was an informative/interesting read.  🙂 It’s obviously something I’m passionate about, and I think it contributes a lot both to the mood of the game and our ability to sell it to a wider audience.

Chris