Apr 032017
 
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Welcome to this new Ghost of a Tale development update! This is a rather sizeable one to make up for last month because we were so busy preparing for GDC. So think of it as a double-issue! 🙂

GDC Adventures!

Paul single handedly took care of the Ghost of a Tale booth like a champ! He had to stand and talk for three days straight but he had a grand old time overall. And it seems everyone who played the game really liked it!

So it was an excellent experience and Paul even gave away some swag (big thumbs up to forum user Nautilus for his nifty screenshots)!

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Although I wasn’t personally present at GDC let me give a big thank you to the Unity people who were nice enough to invite us and feature Ghost of a Tale in some of their tech demos and on the mighty large screen looming over their booth!

(Oh my, who could the chirpy fellow on the right-hand picture be…?!!)

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Whiteboxing:

So I’ve finally started the long stretch of “whiteboxing” all the remaining areas of the game. Meaning creating locations out of cubes and low-rez polygonal volumes. This is a crucial phase, as it’s going to allow us to explore for the first time the entirety of the game’s breadth.

The goal is to clearly define space and indicate all the required areas while remaining suitable rough (to avoid getting bogged down by details).

It’s a mixture of composition (from a graphical standpoint) and game design (interesting paths to navigate) while also encompassing sheer functionality (things need to make sense for the world’s characters).

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So far whiteboxing is done for all the as-of-yet off-limits areas in Dwindling Heights (barracks, commissary, commander’s office, cellar, etc…).

Even without the final models and textures it’s great to get the sense that everything is properly connected from an architectural standpoint.

 

Xbox One Preview Version Status:

Just as we were ready to submit the game to Microsoft we uncovered an unfortunate memory leak bug within the Unity engine (specifically related to the console) which keeps us from finalizing the process.

Basically the player could save and reload their save 2 or 3 times before hitting the bug. Both Unity and Microsoft are of course aware of the issue and I’m sure they’re going to do whatever is in their power to fix it as soon as possible.

We’ll keep you posted whenever we hear back from them!

 

Rocking Assets:

I’ve created assets which will be used to populate the new locations, among which are some new rocks!

I do use quite a few photogrammetry rocks in the game but I wanted to have more “designed” ones that feel graphical and purposeful, as opposed to simply realistic. So this time I chose a different workflow.

In the past I had used Zbrush to create rocks but was never happy with the result. So this time I went back to the basics and simply started from a cube in Maya. Cutting faces and pulling vertices allowed me to remain focused on the shape above all things. No details, no distractions. Just thinking about faces and silhouette.

Then I created a tileable texture in Photoshop containing all the fine details, cracks and small crevices that I needed.

At the heart of this method is the clear delineation between “shape-features” and “surface-features”. The earlier is only concerned with polygons, the latter with textures. While it’s important to remain aware at all times of how both domains are going to overlap I made sure I never attempted to add small features to the shape if it would be better suited for texturing and vice-versa.

This allowed for the final result to retain a fairly stylized looks and yet appear appropriately realistic when seen up close.

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An advantage of this technique is that all the rocks share the same textures (diffuse, normal, etc…) so memory wise it’s quite a boon.

It also means I can simply swap the diffuse texture for a completely different look. And the models themselves are very light since I only split edges where it can be seen (silhouetting).

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Water Works:

I’ve just started developing a new shader for large bodies of water (ie: Lake Vaelia!). It’s a rather cheap/simple shader (since it doesn’t even use the Gerstner algorithm) but at this very early stage it’s showing promises.

(Thanks to Cyrille for helping me with non-trivial sine-waves math!)

 

And another quick test of an even earlier version of the water in different lighting conditions (night/morning/afternoon/evening). It might seem obvious but I can’t stress out enough the importance of always checking your assets in different lighting conditions!

(Apologies for the terrible quality of the video grab)

 

That’s it for this update. Once more, thank you all for reading and don’t hesitate to post your questions/remarks in the comments section. See you all in the next update! 🙂

Feb 252017
 
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Hello all! Yes, Ghost of a Tale will be present next week at GDC! Paul will be there in person with a build of the game featuring a new forested area for you to explore!

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I’m starting to be happy with the overall result. Still got to create a few more assets to nail the look but it’s definitely getting there.

Also from the forest you can have a good look at Dwindling Heights’ tower peeking through the canopy.

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So feel free to come by and say hi to Paul! He’ll be at a Unity booth (#1402).

(Speaking of Unity, a well-informed source tells me they’ll show off their new timeline editor with a special guest: a minstrel mouse called Tilo)

Xbox One

The Xbox One version of the game is coming along very nicely. We’re ready to submit to Microsoft for certification. Recent performance improvements allow us to use temporal antialiasing which looks really nice on a big TV!

Speaking of performance, we’ve once again optimized the game a lot in order to reach a stable 30fps on Xbox One. Which means, as I mentioned before, that the PC version now also runs faster.

It really is tricky because the game is primarily developed on a gaming PC and framerate drops from 120fps to 70fps are virtually invisible. But on a console that means the difference between a playable 30fps and a painful 21fps. Thankfully Unity has a handy profiler.

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The level of detail granularity is nice, using sharper textures. And you’ll be able to see all those little details since the main difference between the Xbox and PC versions is the resolution.

Better Night Sky

I improved the look of night skies. Before the fog was so thick you couldn’t see a thing.

The only cheat is by a full moon you wouldn’t be able to see the stars twinkling of course. But they’re so nice I cheated. 😉

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Assets Improvement

I implemented dynamic vegetation throughout the game and since I was at it I also redid the grass assets. The previous version was alright in game when the camera did NOT look down at it. But as soon as it was, the dreaded “razorblade” effect was kicking in. But no more!

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And the grass interacts with Tilo in a much more natural manner, while being more or less exactly the same number of polygons as before (if you can believe it)!

There’s something to be said for testing your assets in the worst possible conditions (using unflattering contrast); if you manage to make them look nice in those cases you can be fairly sure they’ll look good in-game.

I also recently started using Substance Designer to create textures for the game. I used to be a doubter (since I usually do all my texture work in Photoshop) but after having invested time in watching tutorials and trying it seriously I’m now a believer.

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So in a nutshell development moves on and we can’t wait to show new quests, characters and locations. But we won’t until they’re ready for prime-time!

Meanwhile if you wish to support us then please download the latest version and help us chase pesky bugs. Thanks again for your continued support and see you in the next update!

Jan 122017
 
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Hi guys! Paul and Cyrille join me to wish you all a Happy New Year! 🙂

This update is going to be essentially a technical one (it’s been a while I haven’t done any of those). I received many questions regarding the new vegetation system in Ghost of a Tale, which was introduced in the latest build. So I will now attempt to answer them.

Caveat Emptor: this technique is used on PC and Xbox One/PS4 (I haven’t applied it to any other platform yet).

(Also: yes, the game is running on Unity 🙂 )

THE SYSTEM:

The reason why I developed this system is because I don’t like it when I see vegetation behaving like the vertex are warping and stretching unnaturally around a sphere or capsule shape (even in AAA games). If I were a shader wizard maybe I would have come up with a super smart shader that would give me what I need, alas I’m not. So I had to find another way… 🙂

The main idea is what happens around Tilo should be high quality while the rest should stay as cheap as possible (nothing new here).

In this example the fern objects are made of two models:

  • A static one (a simple mesh with usual LODs)
  • A dynamic one (same model as LOD0 but the stems are skinned to a couple of joints). Technically each stem only uses 2 bones (the end one is not part of the skinning).

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The dynamic models are deactivated by default, leaving only the cheap static ferns visible. No script is running in the background so there’s no overhead.

The root game object has a simple static box collider trigger. When Tilo enters the trigger that’s the signal that we should switch to the dynamic model.

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Since the static and dynamic models have the same pivot point it means the wind animation (vegetation shader) is exactly the same on both meshes. So there is no visual pop whatsoever when switching between the models.

The dynamic model has a kind of “fake physics” (using this great asset) which acts as colliders on the stems’ joints. Those colliders collide with the actors’ limbs (head, chest, waist, etc…). Note: In this case I reuse the actor’s colliders from the game’s dynamic props system, so there’s no additional colliders to create (always reuse whenever possible!).

What this gives me is more accurate detection in that if a character plays an idle animation while remaining in contact with the fern, the stems will still react fairly precisely. In other words this is not a simple “capsule” avoidance.

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So when Tilo is within the trigger the fern’s dynamic (skinned) model is visible, but when Tilo leaves the trigger then after a second or so -long enough for the fern to settle down- we switch back to the cheap static model.

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Again, there is absolutely no visible pop during the change because the “rested” dynamic model and the static one have perfectly matching vertices positions.

NOTES:

There is a couple more details to keep in mind: I use a special vegetation shader (written by shader wizard Larsbertram) that produces translucency but uses the deferred rendering path (whereas normally you would have to use a slower forward rendering path).

A second important point is that I don’t use OnTriggerStay in the trigger detection process. I only use OntriggerEnter and OnTriggerExit. The reason is OnTriggerStay can prove quite heavy (depending on your physics matrix) and we don’t really need it. All we need is to be notified when Tilo enters and leaves the trigger.

There is also the tricky case where Tilo would have left the trigger (for whatever reason) without calling OnTriggerExit. Which is a fairly rare situation but it could happen. To remedy this case I use an Update function on the vegetation bend behavior script which tests from time to time (every couple of seconds) if the distance between the actor and itself (in this case the fern) is greater than a certain threshold. If it is then we know for sure we should switch back to the static model.

Of course that component only becomes active while Tilo is within the trigger. And it ensures we don’t accidentally leave some vegetation items in “high-quality” mode.

That’s it for this update! I will keep converting a lot of the game’s vegetation over the next build updates but some assets will remain “dynamic-but-rigid” (meaning non-skinned/rotation only) as they don’t require as much detail.

I hope this answered any questions you guys might have had regarding this topic, and I genuinely hope it didn’t bore you to tears. See you in the next update! 🙂

Oct 222016
 
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(Note that this post contains a couple of nifty screenshots by talented forum member Nautilus)

Welcome to this long-due Ghost of a Tale update! 🙂

As the title says we’ve been extremely busy this month, dealing with a lot of different topics ranging from bug-fixing to improvements and optimization as well as working on what lies beyond early access. It’s been a very pregnant period in terms of ideas, concepts and overall dealing with the feedback from players as well as gameplay suggestions.

After pouring over the feedback Paul, Cyrille and I talked a lot among ourselves about ways to make stealth in Ghost of a Tale more challenging, more realistic, more demanding, but… well, after a while it became quite clear that this wasn’t the proper route to follow.

One day I found myself watching many videos of stealth games and came to the realization that I was basically trying to make Ghost of a Tale behave like other more hardcore stealth games. And that was definitely wrong.

We’ve got a pretty clear idea of what Ghost of a Tale should be and that never entailed consciously mimicking other games’ mechanics. Ghost of a Tale is not a hardcore stealth game (like Styx or MGS 5); it’s a hybrid of action/RPG/stealth. It is about exploring Dwindling Heights, dealing with the enemies (sneaking is one way), talking to well-defined characters and leading Tilo in his quests.

That being said I believe the stealth elements need to blend better with the rest of the game; which is why we’re currently working on a sizeable update. Here are some of the main lines. Please note that NOT all of those will necessarily be included in the next build release!

The costumes should play a bigger role:

Costume’s items will now have a direct effect on Tilo being detected by the enemies. Visual and auditive discretion will vary depending on the cloth you wear.

Items you wear will not only have an effect on your resistances but also have a direct impact on the rate at which your stamina depletes and the speed at which it regenerates. So there will be a greater emphasis on practical differences between the costume items.

Costumes however will not change Tilo’s health amount anymore. Only resistances, sneaking skills and stamina will be affected by them.

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Being able to explore the world more freely:

And here’s a big change: some of the costumes you complete will let you walk around Dwindling Heights without getting attacked right away by the guards. How much time you get before being considered a target depends on which costume you’re wearing.

What will happen is the guards will become gradually more suspicious of you and then they’ll walk towards you. If you manage to break the line of sight and hide without scampering away then they’ll just lose you.

But if they reach you then they’ll challenge you (e.g. “Who are you? What are you doing here? What’s the password?”, etc…). If you answer correctly they’ll let you be for a while. But if you raise their suspicion then they’ll attack you (as they do now).

But remember this mechanic only works with some of the complete costumes; running around as a thief or in mismatched clothes will still make the guards aggressive towards you.

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It’s an important nuance in the game: If the rats attack Tilo that’s because they recognize him as a prisoner who escaped his cell. Not because they’re inherently evil (they’re not).

Conversely, you’ll meet other mice in Dwindling Heights which are not prisoners, like contractors working on rebuilding dilapidated parts of the place (mice are famous for being good architects all across Pangia). But they might not be willing to help Tilo just “because they’re all mice”; they’ll just see him as an escaped convict and want nothing to do with him.

Once again this drives home an extremely potent point: rat guards do not attack all mice on sight and other mice are not necessary your friends just because they’re mice.

Enemies and combat:

There will be different types of guards in Dwindling Heights: some are the slower halberdiers you meet in the jail. Some others will carry swords and shields and be much quicker on their feet. Finally some will be armed with crossbows (introducing the element of range combat). They will definitely offer a greater challenge for those seeking it.

In the final game Tilo will also have additional tools to deal with guards (ie: ability to throw hornets’ nests at them, etc…). This will enhance the interactivity with the rats without overpowering Tilo.

Quests offering more rewards:

Completing quests will grant Tilo renown points. Every time Tilo gains a certain number of points he gets one additional health/stamina slot. So Tilo’s health and endurance levels are now in direct relation to your actions as the player.

On top of this the NPCs will grant you some florins and items when completing their quests, so as to make the whole experience a little more rewarding. As usual, those florins can be used to buy some special skills/information from some NPCs.

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Better Platforming:

This has been greatly improved and Tilo can now climb much more freely all around. It makes a big difference! 🙂

On top of that, if you maintain the jump button pressed as you run around, Tilo will automatically climb over things as you run into them.

Improving assets quality:

I have done a huge reworking of the vegetation (thanks to coder wizard Larsbertram) and the game now has trees that react to proper wind zones and sway in the breeze, gently waving their branches and leaves.

As you can see in the video the leaves translucency is also more accurate when the sun creates back-lighting. Trees were always something that bothered me in the current release and since we have wooden areas coming in the final game I really had to rethink my whole vegetation pipeline.

The game now also uses Unity’s new Temporal Anti-Aliasing which is a step up from the one we were using before.

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Recently I started using photogrammetry for some rock assets and ground features; they bring a touch more credibility while all the while being easier on performance thanks to the use of LODs (there are almost no LODs in the current release).

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I have also reworked the water interaction (after having been inspired by the tech presentation from Playdead’s Inside). I’ve posted about it on Twitter already but this is a better quality version for those interested:

Which is a great segue into…

Xbox One:

We have made huge progress on this front. Basically the game currently runs at 30fps in 720p, as you can see on the video below (sorry for the shaky-cam).

Microsoft has some a strict certification process and I’m sure it will take a while before Ghost of a Tale’s Preview version can land on your favorite console. Still, already having the game chugging along is no doubt a step in the right direction and I just wanted to let you guys know!

The good thing is it looks exactly like the PC version. No real dumbing down. Just a LOT of optimizations without compromising the way the game looks.

The PC version also benefits from this of course. As a result the tech requirements for the game will go down. For example my computer is 3 years old (albeit with a kickass video card) and the game went from 70fps to 90+fps (in 1080p).

All thanks to having to optimize the game for consoles! 😛

And let’s not forget that we made drastic structural improvements in the way zones are loaded and activated in the background. Those might sound less exciting but trust me when I say that they are every bit as important as the shinier improvements.

It also means that your saves probably won’t be compatible with the next release but that’s the price to pay for this performance boost and game mechanic changes.

So when is the next early access release happening?

We don’t know yet. But I just wanted to make sure you all understood that if this update is taking a long time coming it’s not because we don’t care anymore, quite the opposite! It’s because the changes are fundamental and require a lot of work and planing to get implemented!

Alright now it’s time for me to go back to work. As always, please feel free to share you reactions and ask questions in the comments… 🙂