TerrainSplatting

Devlog: Terrain Splatting

After writing my last devlog post I laid out a roadmap of mini-releases that I wanted to follow that would incrementally add more systems to my game idea, give fast visual feedback and take me to the fun faster. Since my game takes place on a gameboard, it seemed fitting that the first place to start would be to implement the terrain using splatting.

topdown

Final result: 9 32×32 chunks of integrated terrain.

Terrain Concept

For this first test I wanted a flat terrain made of multiple Materials like rock, grass, and sand. I didn’t really care about elevation at this point and I didn’t care about realistic distribution of Materials in the terrain. My goal for the test was to have a system in place that generated terrain and displayed information about the Materials that made up the terrain.

Terrain Splatting Implementation

The most visual way I could think of to display the materials was to have a texture assigned to each Material and render the sections of the terrain that have that Material using the Material’s texture. The problem is that I didn’t want to have square sections of terrain with discrete tiles. I wanted the terrain to blend from one texture to another. So after a bit of research I decided to use Splatting.
For the curious, there’s an article that explains how to implement Splatting at the bottom of this post. Unity does do Splatting out of the box, but I thought it would be quicker to write a small terrain generator that did exactly what I wanted than it would be to learn to bend Unity’s terrain system to my procedural generation needs.

Results

The results are pretty nice. Here are some screen shots of my testing.

Splatting Test Random 1
Splatting Test Random 2
Splatting Test Random
ProgressionTest
Terrain Splatting

Next Steps

Camera Control and Debugging info.

Resources

df

Devlog: Designing a Simulation

Simulation Concept

I’m a simulation junkie. I like creating game rules and watching them play out. I don’t usually care about the level of interactivity. That’s why most of my personal projects involve simulating existing rule sets, like creating an adventure simulator for Dungeons and Dragons.
For my next project I want to create a simulation game using my own rules and with the goal of creating an interactive game instead of merely a simulation. The difference is not that subtle. Dwarf Fortress, a game I absolutely love, is an example of a simulation with game elements. The game is meant to simulate a fantasy world with as much realism as the author can muster. My aim with this project is to use a game-first approach to creating a simulation.

Dwarf Fortress - a simulation game
Clockwork Empires - a game of simulation

Dwarf Fortress, A simulation game and Clockwork Empires, A game of simulation.

Documenting

All projects start with a concept. The first thing I’ve done is to create a small design document that forces me to put to text my ideas for the game. Since I will be the only audience for the design document, the document is nothing more than a text file written using Notepad++. I get to leave out a lot of “pitch” pieces of the design document and focus on filling out the pieces that the developers (Me) will use to create the game.
Putting on my designer hat I start the document with a synopsis. This has a one or two sentence description of the game. That’s followed by a somewhat rambling brain-dump of gameplay concepts at a high level. I’m writing this feature list not for the final game itself, but for the first playable iteration of the game. Chances are my game will change significantly from the first iteration so there’s no point sinking too much brain power into features that will never exist.

A prototype for Spore.

A prototype for Spore.

While I’m going through the features I take notes on whatever my imagination tells me. If it’s something that must exist immediately in the game, I go ahead and put in the description. Otherwise I classify it as a Future feature or Optional feature. This is exceptionally critical in designing a simulation. By their very natures simulations create approximations of observed/imagined situations. This can go on ad nauseam to the point where you end up with a sub-atomic simulation of all matter. That’s a bit beyond the scope of my intended game. This one of the things that separates a simulation like Dwarf Fortress from a game like Clockwork Empires. Dwarf fortress simulates the properties of materials (like density, etc) and lets those material properties dictate the effectiveness of final objects. While that’s an exceptional feature, the concept can be simulated without implementing densities of materials without impacting the function of the game.

Features

Below is an example of what my document has at this point. The features are listed in the order I thought them up, not in any particular measure of importance or priority. This will help me in the future since I can read this document like my original thoughts and pick up on a train of thought and follow it. I generally have a reason listed next to my features to remind future me of why I thought this feature would be a useful addition to the game. These were left off of the list below to save a bit of space. A good option for organizing thoughts is to use something like OneNote or Evernote which can let you group ideas together and link pages of notes.
Genre

  • A science fiction based economic simulation PC game

Synopsis

  • A starship carrying travellers has been hijacked and the surviving crew are left stranded on a planet without hope of rescue. Survive.

Key Features

  • 3D Game
  • Designed for gameplay first instead of simulation accuracy.
  • Modding should a consideration from the beginning
  • Start on a randomly generated planet
  • Start with several people
  • Populate a starting map with flora, fauna, resources, and water
  • People have a high level of autonomy
  • More Omitted…
  • People have basic needs that must be fulfilled: Food, Water, Shelter
  • People without basic needs for a time will die
  • The basic game will “end” when all needs are met for a period of time
  • Allow the player to play multiple saved games

Future Features

  • Support Release on Steam (Achievements, Cards, Streaming, etc.)
  • Allow choice of starting conditions/scenarios
  • Allow customization of starting planet
  • Allow customization of starting people
  • Allow people to own rooms, objects, and items
  • More Omitted…
  • Add Moderate Needs: Dietary diversity, Health(Mental, Spiritual), Entertainment, Hobbies, Aesthetics, Wealth/Employment
  • Add Complex Needs: Complex Needs: Desires, Goals
  • Add Biomes to the world
  • Support destructive world for resource removal

Optional Features

  • Unlock new starting conditions by reaching milestones.
  • Allow different races.
  • More Omitted…
  • Allow for creation of organizations with heraldry, values, etc.
  • Allow for different levels of gameplay once society reaches developmental points

Look And Feel

Now I can remove the designer hat and put on my stylish User Experience expert hat. (Hmm… can’t find one that says expert, I guess this ratty beret will do.) There’s a lovely art/science that goes into user experience and user interface design. I have few of those skills. I do still want to document my thoughts on the User Interface because these will shape the architecture of the game. I close my eyes again and imagine someone playing my game and executing each of the features I listed in my design document. What does it look like? How do I access that feature? How is the feature customized? Here are the results for a couple of my features:
Gameboard

  • The gameboard is rendered in 3D
  • The camera by default is above the gameboard looking down at a moderate angle.
  • The camera can be zoomed out and in to certain constraints
  • The camera can be rotated freely using the mouse or by 90 degree increments using the keyboard
  • The surface is populated with flora appropriate to the material for the surface area
  • Different areas on the surface are textured depending on the properties of the material that makes up that area

GameObject Ineraction

  • During normal gameplay, Clicking on a GameObject (Person, creature, item, object, room, building) will display a contextual panel
  • The panel describes the item and its state
  • The panel displays interaction options with the GameObject
  • The panel is dismissed by pressing ‘ESC’ or a close button
  • Clicking on another GameObject will replace the contents of the currently displayed detail panel

Game Data

As I build out my features I think about what data will be required to get the game to work. For example, while thinking about my Gameboard’s look and feel I noted the materials that would affect the display of the ground. I made a list of Materials I’d need. I like to use a spreadsheet program for this and use a separate sheet in the workbook for each type of data. Be careful, it’s very easy to go overboard on data. Just like with features, record all of your ideas, but keep the data that’s not absolutely required for your first iteration of the game separate.

Architecture

Can I start coding yet? Nope. Time for the Software Architect’s hat to go on! The first stop for me is choosing an engine. There are a lot of great engines out there, but you can’t beat free. The most compelling engine for me is Unity3D. It has a great extensible editor, uses a language I’m very familiar with, and I’ve played with it for years.
The choice of engine really shapes how I’m going to view data. I tend to start designing systems by looking at the data that’s going to be passing through these systems. At their core Games are a while loop that processes data. A Game Engine maintains that loop and it crunches through the data we give to it. The data exist in two major forms: static data files and instanced data that is persisted in memory or serialized to and from storage. Unity takes care of the engine, provides an editor to create static data and provides a way to store and retrieve instanced data.
On to the data. What does the data look like? What is static? What is instanced? How does static data relate to instanced data? What systems consume data? What is the output of that system? In other words: what is the data, where does it need to go, and how does it get there? This is where I have to be careful. I’m still documenting so I don’t want to get into implementations now, otherwise I might as well just start slapping code together.
Here’s an example of the data required for a crafting system.

Crafting Recipe (Static)
Member Description
Name Displayed to Player
Id For other data to refer to this data.
Input Items Item Type Identifiers with Quantities
Output Items Item Type Identifiers with Quantities
Base Duration Time to complete crafting.
Required Tool Id of a Tool Type. Can be empty indicating it can’t be hand crafted.
Required Object Id of an Object Type. Can be empty indicating it can’t be crafted at an object
Crafting Recipe (Dynamic)
Member Description
Template The static Crafting Recipe data.
Crafter The Person crafting this recipe
Inputs Dynamic item data for the items used as inputs
Progress The amount of time spent on this recipe
Tool The tool being used to craft the item.
Workshop The Object that the item is being created with.
Crafting Recipe (Person View)
Member Description
Percentage Complete
Remaining Time Time until completion. Based on simulation factors.
Name Recipe Name
Outputs Item View of outputs. Based on inputs and simulation factors.
Crafting Recipe Management
Object Name Domain
Crafting Recipe Table Manages Static Crafting Recipe.
Crafting Recipe Controller Belongs to the Simulation. Manages Dynamic Crafting Recipe.

Sorry if that’s a lot to digest. I just wanted to share an example of how I envision data flowing from a definition on disk (static), to a simulation element (dynamic), into the scene (view) and how I’ll manage them (table and controller). Even this might be too “implementation-y”, but I find it helpful to think about data members before I get started. For each type of data I write down the pieces I know I’ll need to define the data and then think about how I want to show information about that data to the player. That can bring up a lot of other pieces of data I’ve overlooked like game asset references.

Finding the Fun

So now I have a list of things I’d like to do in the game, a good idea of how it will look, and how the data flows through the game to the Player, but will it all be fun? Well, I can get an idea of what might be fun by keeping my target audience in mind, but really the only way to find out if things are fun or not is to start creating.

Next

Terrain Splatting

Resources

Fail Faster, and Follow the Fun
Game Engine Architecture, Second Edition
Learn with Unity
Evernote

Technical Interviewing Part 2: Requirements

Technical Interviewing – Part 2: Requirements

This is part two of a series on technical interviewing. Reading Part 1 will give you a good introduction to technical interviews and the pitfalls many interviewers fall into. Part 2 gives advice on creating a job description that makes finding a great technical candidate much easier.

Job Description

A great technical interview starts with a great job description. Great job descriptions are hand-crafted by the people who care the most about the success of the newly hired person: the gaining supervisor and team. The supervisor should put some thought into crafting the description of the responsibilities of the new hire. The new hire’s team members should check the supervisor’s vision and give feedback. Finally, the senior managers or human resources folks should take a quick pass at the description to confirm that the technical team put together something that’s comprehensible to humans. If anything is unclear, it should be explicitly spelled out. A job description should accurately describe what the person will be doing, the environment they’ll be doing it in, and, most importantly, what they must do to succeed. A lot of thought goes into the description. The description crafter needs to convey information accurately to a candidate so that they can visualize themselves in that environment. Obscuring parts of your company or the responsibilities of a candidate is a great way to waste a lot of time interviewing and producing no results, or even worse, hiring and firing candidates that just don’t seem to fit in. Interviewing can take some time as you find the person that will spend a lot of time with you and contribute to and thrive off of the culture you’re developing. The last bit of a job description is a list of technologies the candidate will be working with. I purposefully leave this to the end. This may seem like the easiest part, but it does need some thought before you pen the list of technologies you’re using.

Expressing A Technical Skill

There are a few ways to list a skill on a job description that are clear and concise. These are all useful for different purposes. The most concise way is to just prefix the skill with a qualifier: Requires 3DS Max Experience. Another way is to have 3 blocks in the job description that show all the skills that fall into the categories of Qualifiers below.

Qualifiers

  • Requires – A candidate must have technical experience in this skill.
  • Preferred – We’d really like a candidate to have experience in this skill.
  • None – Leaving of a prefix is just a way of saying “we use this technology”.

As a rule, prefer the less restrictive qualifiers unless you have very good reason to have a preference or a requirement. Why? Because most people see a requirement and back off if they don’t feel confident by their own self-measure, and that’s not a good thing. A lot of folks I’ve talked to are okay with using high requirements as a gate to weed out potential interviews. The problem with that is that you’re being vague. You’re enforcing your idea of what a required level of skill is without communicating that explicitly to the candidates. The person that evaluates their skills more humbly than you do might be the perfect fit for your team, but they won’t even apply because they don’t think of themselves as “ninja”, “guru”, or “master” of a skill. Some of you might also be asking, “What’s a good number of years of experience to put on these skills?” or “Where do the degree requirements go?”. To those folks I say, “Nowhere”. Talent isn’t measured in years of experience, degrees, or credits. Just look at the game programmer applicant with 7 years of experience in the industry who’s done nothing but UI scripting who wants to move on to AI development. He’s got the 7 years in C++ on his résumé and experience closing on 3 shipped AAA titles, but he’s fallen into the paradigm of UI scripting. Chances are he’ll apply while the guy with 1 year of indie development experience that has killer insight into AI processes is going to pass on your position that requires 2 shipped AAA titles, 5 years of industry experience using C++, and a doctorate in Applied Artificial Intelligence.

Common Cases

Take a breath and think about what type of person you want to have on your team. I’m going to generalize here for the sake of example. Below are a few common cases where you might need to hire a technical person. These cases need to represent the required skills in a completely different way to the prospective team members.

Back-Fill

The team that’s mid-project and needs to back-fill a position can’t just snatch up a body from the street that has all the right buzz words on their résumé. These teams still need to care about their company’s culture and the people they allow into their team. That means a “quick” back-fill might take longer than you’d like. A technically competent person that joins a team and siphons efficiency and destroys team cohesion will be much more costly than a person that’s a great fit that joins later. I’d rather move a deadline than destroy a team. The skills of these quick-joiners will be evaluated based on their skill with the technology the team is using. What you need at this point is someone who can come into a project and immediately pick up the slack left by a missing team member or add some velocity to a lagging project. This is the only case where I recommending listing a “Requirement” for specific technologies. If you’re making a JavaScript game (WHY!?) and you have a 3 month deadline, you need someone who knows JavaScript. There isn’t time to train someone who may be an excellent overall developer in the finer points of JavaScript game development.

The Junior Candidate

The junior candidate positions exist somewhere between the extreme position above and the general rule below. Junior candidates are great to talk to when you’re considering the future of your company or team. Junior folks generally have a lower price tag and can be more easily molded into your culture and technical standards. They most likely haven’t had time to learn great technical truths yet though. They either have the basics they’ve been taught in college, which are difficult to ascertain from college to college, or they’re self-taught technical people who are driven enough to solve the problems they’ve faced and may have holes in their general domain knowledge. When crafting technology listings for these types of positions the relevant technology should be listed listed as “Preferred”. When hiring a junior candidate you know that there will be mentoring required. You know that the innate knowledge of your technology may or may not be there. The uncertainty of the quality of knowledge these candidates have with a particular technology is okay. What you really want from these candidates is not their technology experience, it’s their raw talent. You get to cultivate a talented person and give them the skills you need for both of you to succeed. Competency will be tested, so don’t think that junior developers are exempt from analysis, but you don’t want to try to find someone with the knowledge of 5 years of experience with Photoshop for a junior position – you want an intelligent person that can learn and that is flexible enough to use wherever technical skill you require of them.

The Subject Matter Expert

Sometimes you really need someone who has experience in a technology or specific set of domain knowledge. If you’re making games and you need an engine programmer to lead your team, go ahead and add “Experience with engine Development” as a requirement. Just don’t require 5 shipped titles, post-graduate work in AI and 20 years of experience. Let people surprise you with their knowledge. Test for technical knowledge, don’t filter on time-in-domain.

The Permanent Hire

Now that the exceptions are out of the way, let’s get to the rule. I don’t want to see someone hiring a full-time long-term developer and requiring a specific language or an artist requiring a specific set of tools. I want to see what tools and technologies you’re using in the job description, but it better be at most a “Preference” and not a “Requirement”. Why? Because you don’t really want a Python developer even though you’re developing in Python. You don’t want a Photoshop artist even though you’re creating content with Photoshop. You want someone who views tools or languages as a set of clothes that are worn for particular occasions. The people who are able to change those “clothes” more frequently than a character in Downton Abbey are the ones that have true skill and talent at their core art. They understand the concepts and problems that the tools solve. What you really want is a great skilled candidate, and that’s the point of this article. A competent developer/artist/technical person is going to easily switch from one tool to another. Now, make sure that you do indicate all the technologies and tools that you use. It’s frustrating for a person that only likes to develop in C# to get through an interview only to find out that the company only develops in VB.Net.

Traits

Traits are different from the skills identified in the previous section. A skill can be acquired by simply reading a book or taking a class and then developed over time. Traits are much more difficult to acquire. These are generally developed over time with experience. That’s not to say that junior people lack traits. A passionate person can invest the time necessary to develop a trait. Since traits are difficult to train, these are much more important than skills, which can be taught easily. If you want to hire quality people and build a world-class team, you’ll hire people for their traits and mold their skills. Traits may or may not make it to a job description, but the traits you find relevant to the position must be evaluated. These Here are some examples of critical traits for technical people of various types:

  • Willing Learner
  • Passionate Technologist
  • Clear Communicator
  • Critical Thinker
  • Abstract Thinker
  • Plays well with Others
  • Spatial Awareness
  • Calm Under Pressure

Technical Interviewing: Part 3

This part of the series has been all about the job description which will prepare both you and prospective candidates for part 3: The Technical Interview Process. Part 3 lays out a structure for how to handle the process of funneling applicants through a pipeline to the interview table.

Resources

EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches