Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Worm Day

I was testing a new version of the Alien Biome made by Bohan, one of our in-house artists. The biome was looking good. I was making sure the new material rendering in UE4 worked as expected. (In case you have not seen it, here is a video showing just that.)

While I roamed around this terrain, I wondered how easily a non-artist like me could extend the scenery. I decided to test what I could achieve in just one day.

I figured out it would be nice to have some massive point of interest. Some sort of giant worm maybe. I loved the Dune treatment by Jodorowsky and Giger. They collaborated mostly about the house Harkonnen. No worms there, but the scale and weight of the concepts was striking. It would be fun to explore a really large formation like the ones they had.

I did not want to create any new textures, materials or props for this. I would be using whatever was already there in this biome. For this reason, I chose to make the giant worm look more like a fossil. Minerals in this planet had taken over every cell of the worm, leaving something that up close looks pretty much like terrain.

The first step was to create a simple model for the worm. I did this using traditional modeling in 3ds max:

This is just a series of primitives arranged in a worm-like fashion, with some worm-tusks sticking out.

The next step was to paint "meta-materials" on top of this. To make it simpler to identify where each meta-material would go, I picked distinct colors to represent each one of them:

In a normal production project, you would have a greater variety of meta-materials. In this case, however, I was really pushing for the minimum amount of work necessary.

Once I had the textured worm, I imported it as meta-mesh in Voxel Studio. I made sure it was huge (3km long) and that it fit nicely the already existing terrain:

I also had to set up some connections between the existing materials and the meta-materials I had painted on top of the model. I chose to use only two meta-materials: one for the tusks and another one for everything else. In this procedural component, each meta-material is subdivided into final materials using artist-created maps. I hoped just two meta-materials was enough to make it interesting.

This part of the setup was quite simple:

After Voxel Studio processed the new mesh and meta-materials, I got to see the worm for the first time:

I was then able to export into Unreal Engine 4 and see how this looked in the final environment. 

I captured this short video so you can have a better idea of the results so far:

While the model and material assignment could use more detail, the sense of scale and weight was already close to what I was looking for. 

I clearly do not have Giger's talent (or Jodorowsky's hallucinogenics supply) so I was curious about how far I could go by myself, and how much the procedural systems we have built could help me. I think it turned out to be OK, considering I only spent around five hours in total creating this feature.

As usual, I look forward to your opinions and comments.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Improved LOD

This is a continuation of an earlier post.

In the past, every Voxel Farm scene could be described by this diagram:

This is a 2D representation of how the entire scene is segmented into multiple chunks. Each chunk may cover a different area (or volume in 3D), but the amount of information in it is roughly the same compared to other chunks, regardless of their size.

Thanks to this trick we can use bigger chunks to cover more distant sections of the scene. Since the chunk is far away, it will appear smaller on screen so we can get away with a much lower information density for it.

Until recently the only criteria we used to decide chunk sizes was how distant the chunk was from the viewer, which is the red dot in the image. For some voxel content types like terrain, we could afford to quickly increase the chunk size along distance to the viewer. The resulting lower density terrain would still look alright.

Some other types of content, however, required more detail. Imagine there is a tower a few kilometers away from the viewer:

The resolution assigned to the chunk containing this tower is simply too low to capture the detail we want for the tower. We could increase resolution to all chunks equally and this would bring the tower into greater detail, but this would be very expensive because many chunks containing just terrain would have their density bumped up as well.

The solution is simple. Imagine that while we build this world, we can compute an error metric for each larger chunk based on the eight (or four in 2D) children chunks it contains. For terrain-only chunks this error would always be zero. For the chunks containing the artist-built tower, this error could be just a counter of how many voxels in the larger chunk failed to capture the detail in the voxels from the smaller children chunks.

Starting from the distance-based configuration we can do another round of chunk refinement. Each chunk having an error that we consider too high will be subdivided. We can keep doing this until the errors are below the allowed threshold and the overall scene complexity remains within bounds.

This gives us a new scene setup:

As result of the additional subdivision, we now use higher density chunks to represent the tower. Since we know how distant these are, we could even pick a chunk size that shows no degradation at all as all errors become sub-pixel on screen.

The following video shows more about this technique:

In the last part of the video, you can see how the terrain LOD changes while the tower remains crisp all the time. If you would also like to minimize terrain LOD changes, this technique can give you that as well:

Just like we can focus the scene more on fine architectural details, we can "unfocus" sections we know will be fine with lower information density.

There is still one issue this technique does not address. When we are bumping up the level of detail of a distant castle, this may also bring a lot of information we do not necessarily want, like walls and spaces that may be inside the castle.

We found a very elegant way to deal with this. This is what enabled the very complex Landmark builds from the earlier post to display in high detail and still run at interactive rates. How we did it will be the topic of the final post on the LOD series.