This is a cross-post of the report that was recently sent out via the monthly Squadron 42 newsletter. We’re publishing this a second time as a Comm-Link to make it easier for the community to reference back to.
What you are about to read is the latest information on the continuing development of Squadron 42 (SCI des: SQ42).
Operatives around the world collected the intel needed to provide you with this progress report. Intelligence suggests we’ve uncovered intel on operations concerning the Vanduul, combat AI, volumetric gas cloud tech, and more.
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
April saw the AI Team begin to improve the pipeline for dynamic (interactive) scenes. The goal is to make it easier for the animators and designers to create scenes and use them in a dynamic setup through subsumption in the level scripting phase. Improvements were also made to the blending between dynamic scenes during NPC locomotion; the team now evaluates the starting pose of the mo-cap animation at a more granular level for more accuracy.
A project to optimize usables began that will eventually allow the team to cache animation and navigation data for interactive objects and improve runtime usage. This will be most useful in densely-populated areas like landing zones and space stations. The team are also looking to improve the compilation times for subsumption task nodes and extend the Tactical Point System to allow the time-sliced evaluation of game-code-defined functionalities.
Away from optimization, human combat AI was refactored to allow a more modular approach to the definition of tactics and behavior. The aim of this is to give the designers an efficient template that they can expand on and customize as they like.
Ship AI implemented new pilot skill levels to vary the agility of enemy ships and determine how they balance self-preservation and aggression. Improvements were also made to how non-player traffic behaves around landing zones.
The Technical Animation team worked towards revamping the source control integration inside Maya with the view to supporting different Perforce workstreams (traditionally, this hasn’t been possible in technical animation). The ‘DNA’ system that powers character customization is also being converted to run in Maya. Although difficult, these projects are progressing well.
Work on the Vanduul facial rig is beginning in earnest again, with the team receiving great support from the Character Art department. They have new meshes and textures to experiment with and are currently reauthoring the whole facial expression set. Finally, Tech Animation have been helping to make sure combat works correctly, NPCs are able to navigate environments, and props articulate as they should.
Throughout April, the team continued polishing characters while aligning task priorities with the Cinematics and Gameplay Story teams. This will give them visibility of how Shotgun and Jira interfaces are managed and help to improve overall visibility. Finishing touches were added to the Vanduul armor and the team are currently exploring the Xi’an. Work also continues on the material library, which affects all armors and outfits and will allow further improvements to visual quality. In a similar vein, tools for the hair pipeline are being built and tested to help artists author higher-quality hair.
Last month, Weapon Art finished the Behring S38 pistol, Apocalypse Arms Animus missile launcher, and Klaus & Werner Lumin V submachine gun.
Aside from continuing with general cinematic creation, the team undertook support code work to get motion-capture scenes blending correctly to and from certain locomotion stances and AI situations.
The Tools Team started a project to give better cinematic control over ships. They can now open full ships in the editor and select any entity on them, add it to the TrackView timeline, and animate it (something that required proxy placeholders before).
As mentioned last month, the team now has a working break-free cinematic mode that lets players switch between filmic or first-person viewpoints. Time was spent last month setting it up to work with the briefings the player receives from superior officers throughout the campaign. The mixture of first-person viewpoint and player-character reaction affords opportunities to show little moments and that would otherwise be lost if the scene was experienced entirely from a fixed perspective.
The Actor Feature Team continued their work on the next iteration of jumping. This time, they concentrated on making jumping from heights look and feel more realistic by removing ‘flappy’ arms and improving the way weapons are held while falling. They also implemented an ‘anticipation’ animation based on velocity, which will improve the transition from falling to landing. March’s work on takedowns also continued, with the team implementing block-outs for both barehand and knife takedowns when the victim is prone.
The AI Feature Team finalized the implementation of non-player interactive scenes and are now working on the setup for scenes with player interaction. Ship AI have also been working with Physics to start implementing a new 3D pathfinding algorithm that can utilize the info in the physics grid to plot a course. They started implementing formation flying with support from the EU Vehicle Team and have been helping out with the tools that preview video comms in ships and select characters, ships, and dialog to make sure the animation, lighting, and camera positions work correctly. They’ve been experimenting with camera movement in comms calls to make them feel more alive too.
The Programming Team worked on rendering, enhancing the temporal dither pattern to reduce noise on hair cards, adding variance texture support for planet tech v4, and making various quality fixes for gather-based DOF. They also progressed with the render thread global state cleanup (a prerequisite for the low-level renderer and render pass refactor). They also began to look into refining physics geometry instancing to reduce memory requirements. When finished, this will reduce the memory used in spatial and planetary grids and generally optimize the physics engine.
The Gameplay Story team had a productive month and were able to implement 13 scenes to a high standard. They also tested several scenes that take place on the bridge of the Idris, with characters interacting well with their seats and flight controls.
The Graphics Team split their time throughout April between features and optimization. Features-wise, they implemented a physically-based detail mapping technique for the organic shader that intelligently blends and scales micro-details to match the overall macro surface textures authored by the artists. This allows for logical and varied details on organic assets with minimal artist setup. Extremes in brightness for video comms were fixed via better HDR color reproduction too. On the optimization front, they made three major improvements to the volumetric gas cloud tech: significantly more efficient brick culling for shadows via rasterization, resolution up-scaling to save fill-rate, and aggressive node pruning to save memory.
The Level Design team went through a lot of pipeline optimization to streamline production of the required social AI behaviors, which involved forming a mini-team to tackle the mountain of required useables (these are vital to the implementation of crew schedules and behaviors that make the game’s social spaces believable and realistic). The Art and Design teams mapped out all space-based points of interest and action bubbles to ensure they have beautiful and astronomically-correct backgrounds. Lastly, they made a number of new senior hires that will make a positive difference to their output in the coming months.
Narrative worked through an assortment of editorial selects for key campaign characters. They also worked closely with Character Art on key lore to help ground the fiction behind some of the latest concept work and wrote several set-dressing documents to guide environmental storytelling. They reviewed several chapter’s narrative moments with Design and made further progress on their ongoing task to complete all in-game text, too.
QA continued to provide direct support to the Cinematics Team whenever issues affecting their cutscene workflow were encountered. More additions were made to the cinematics ‘zoo’ map mentioned last month, including all remaining ‘small’ ships.
They’re now working on creating reliable test levels with specific TrackView functionality. Eventually, these levels will be implemented into the TestRunner feature tests made specifically for TrackView cinematics. Changes made within the feature stream for combat AI were also tested to ensure that existing cutscenes wouldn’t be affected once they were ported into the game build. A few issues were also tested that could’ve broken the TrackView tool itself and crashes were investigated that were introduced as a result of the change.
Alongside profiling and squashing bugs for Alpha 3.5, the Engineering Team worked on rendering, enhancing the temporal dither pattern to reduce noise on hair cards, adding variance texture support for planet tech v4, and making various quality-fixes for gather-based DOF. They also progressed with the render thread global state cleanup (a prerequisite for the low-level renderer and render pass refactor).
They continued to collect system-wide context switch information to aid in performance analysis and parallel processing optimization (though just on Linux for now). Various improvements and robustness changes for crash digest computation were made too, the results of which will be used in Sentry.
The team also began to look into refining physics geometry instancing to reduce memory requirements. When finished, this will reduce the memory used in spatial and planetary grids and generally optimize the physics engine.
During April, the UI team supported the Environment Team with various graphic design needs. This involved constructing background display screens for Aciedo station and branding and decal pass for Archon Station’s interior.
Last month, VFX worked on improvements to screen interference. In particular, adding on and off sequences for comms calls for the Cinematics and Design teams. They worked with the Art Team to block out some key destruction sequences and are continuing to flesh out environmental effects. Iteration on the gas cloud toolset continues, which will ensure the tools deliver everything required to flesh out related locations, such as The Coil.
The VFX Team also continued work on cinematics. This currently consists of supporting the Cinematics Team by creating a custom tool written in Houdini to help further automate their process. Once complete, the designers will be able to model a rough layout shape, run the mesh through the tool, and have it convert to a 3D gas cloud volume without the need to work inside Houdini at all.
Well, my baby’s number one, but I’m gonna dance with three or four.