Very busy with some other things so not much progress as of late. I've mostly been modeling more assets for the world map, which has forced me to think more thoroughly on what each city might look like. I don't feel totally ready to commit to anything I've made yet though.
Modeling and texturing are very time consuming processes, even with the low-res look I'm going for. I'm convinced that 99% of the time spent working on the game will be modeling and texturing.
I find modeling very meditative and enjoyable, though for the map the things I've been modeling are much bigger (e.g. buildings and cities), and for some reason that's a lot more daunting. It might be because larger objects need more details to look convincing. Modeling smaller objects is a lot nicer.
One thing that hasn't helped is that Blender (2.92) constantly crashes. I'm not sure what the cause is because it doesn't save a crash log.
Texturing is the slowest part of the process. Building the textures can be time-consuming: collecting the images, processing them and then assembling them into a single texture, editing parts to be seamless, etc. Most if not all of this can't really be automated or streamlined much further than they already are. One thing I'm trying to keep in mind is that because of the low-res style I can usually get away with low-resolution textures, which makes searching for appropriate ones a lot quicker (in particular: stacking islands together—kind of baffling that this isn't a part of Blender).
I'm also still learning workflow tips for faster UV editing. Blender's built-in UV editing tools are also kind of lacking, but I learned of TexTools which has helped make some aspects of it a lot quicker.
I'm also experimenting with how much I want to rely on free 3d models from elsewhere. For the megaflora on the map (see below) I'm using this model of a borage flower (organic shapes are harder for me to do quickly) but processing and editing it to better fit into the game also takes a decent amount of time.
This city, inspired by the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery that I visited many years ago, was so tedious to texture, mostly because I was selecting and positioning faces in a really clumsy way:
This pagoda was pretty quick to model, mostly because the UV editing is relatively simple, but also because I'd started using TexTools:
I'll spend some time watching videos on more UV editing tips to see if I can make the process less tedious.
The last week has mostly been a lot of waffling about game mechanics. Should characters have skills/attributes? Should there be any combat, and if so, what should it be like? Are there any "skill games" (like the hacking mini-games that are so prevalent in games)? I originally threw around the idea of there being these kinds of mini-games for different character skills, like repairing machinery or cooking food.
I'm leaning towards just sticking to the dialogue system as the main "mechanic" and seeing how far I can stretch that. If there's any combat, it could be interesting to use the dialogue system for that—in games like Final Fantasy 7, combat is basically through a set of menus, which isn't all that different than the dialogue system I've set up. Or combat happening through dialogue choices as skill checks, like in Disco Elysium (h/t Matt). This is just an example—in practice, there will be very little combat if any in the game. Other skill games/mini-games could take place through the dialogue system too. I like this approach because it gives me a constraint (and so makes the task of coming up with mechanics a bit less daunting) and also lets me hone the dialogue system further.
I'm not totally confident in that decision; I have a weird premature regret about not including other mechanics because I'm worried the play experience will feel lacking. At the same time, I know that plenty of games that are basically just dialogue are really, really good. There are a couple of systems, like law and organizational resource management, I want to include in the game, but these don't necessarily translate into new mechanics (i.e. they can probably be expressed through the dialogue system). I think I just have to stick with this decision for now and be open-minded about something changing later.
One reason I'm hesitant about introducing more mechanics is that the branching narrative will already introduce a lot of complexity, requiring a lot more dialogue and scenes and what not for each branching path. It might be too much as-is: I've also spent some time trying to think through the world and narrative to have a better feel for how much branching and different scenes there'll be, and it's shaping up to be a lot.
I also started laying out the geography of the world. The various regions are developed according to a few priorities: the aesthetic priority/what feeling that landscape evokes; its implications on the geopolitics and history of the world; how geologically feasible they are. For the latter point everything is inspired by real formations/environments, but the spatial arrangement needs to be feasible, like where should the mountain ranges be? What biomes should be near them?
I figure once I have a map it will make sorting out additional details a bit easier. I can ask it questions or think through how the existing factions and cities would maneuver through the world instead of coming up with ideas out of thin air and then trying to make them all fit together. For example: placing one city (Baita City) on a major river that empties out into a bay (Bao Bay) which is the location of another major city. If trade occurs mostly along the coast of the land, then Bao Bay can unilaterally blockade Baita City, so Baita City might want to develop a land route to the other major city. But perhaps the only viable path is expensive or dangerous to develop so Baita City can't do so until some new technology makes it feasible. But once that happens it dramatically shifts the relationship between Baita City and Bao Bay. Similarly, the character and culture of a settlement is going to be influenced by its geography so this also helps me have a stronger idea of what the cities look and feel like.
Here's what I have so far:
I need to work out the two smaller islands, fill in more details of the mainland, and add in settlements. I had a pretty good workflow going using Blender's vertex coloring to paint on different terrain textures, but for some reason the vertex color limit is set to 8 (really annoying), so I have to figure out a different approach now.
This part of the process is such an emotional roller coaster, at times overwhelming from the possibilities/uncertainty, daunting from all the work different decisions imply, frightening because of all the ways things could go wrong, anxiety-inducing from the possibility of foreclosing certain mechanics or world/narrative features by committing to choices, or satisfying when pieces start to click together. In any case, it's not something that I can rush. The world's regions, factions, and narrative arc are coming together...but very slowly.
I realized I forgot to build out an important part of the dialogue system: "cut scene" support. These aren't true cut scenes in the sense that they aren't cinematic sequences; here I'm using the term to describe something more like a play: characters moving around, saying things, with audio and animation triggers. This meant expanding the dialogue system to support "stage directions", and that required re-writing a few parts.
The implementation also meant that I had to reckon with NPCs. So far the entities engaging in dialogue were just the player and static objects. Of course it's far more typical that NPCs will be the ones engaging in dialogue. I'd written an Interactable class for things that the player can interact with, but it didn't capture the necessary functionality for NPCs (such as moving around), so I had to re-write that a bit.
Dialogue advancement got more complicated—I wanted to support chains of stage directions (e.g. walking to a place, turning around, walking to another place, etc), so dialogue timeouts and/or manual dialogue advancement don't happen until all of the stage direction sequences are finished.
This all required enough changes that everything felt a bit brittle, so I also spent a bit of time refactoring the code a bit.
Here's a small example of the cutscene system (the moving character is an NPC and the behavior is entirely directed by a dialogue script). The stage directions here are: walk to the designated point, turn to look at the player, then run the "pick up" animation.
Stage directions can be attached to any line in a verse:
Sometimes NPCs should move around etc without saying anything, so I've added a special speaker name of <none> for these cases. The general syntax for a stage direction is npc node name:target node name (excluding directions that don't have an actor, e.g. playing an audio clip). If there are multiple directions for a single actor attached to one verse-line, they're executed in sequence. If there are directions for multiple actors, they're executed in parallel. I'm hoping this doesn't relinquish too much timing control, but who knows at this point.
One problem here is that these are just open-ended text inputs. There's nothing checking that these actor or target nodes actually exist.
I updated the dialogue editor script validation to now require an associated scene, against which all references of speakers/actors and target nodes are checked against:
That should now cover all the systems that'll be necessary no matter how the world, narrative, and other game mechanics shape up. Before moving forward with the rest of the development I need to sort those out to figure out what exactly I'll need.
One of the last two scene components were "portals", i.e. the connections to other scenes. I didn't give this a whole lot of thought; I just used Areas that have an associated scene that the player's sent to. It works fine, though there were a couple small snags at first.
The first was infinite scene looping: when the player leaves out of one portal and enters the new scene, they spawn in the portal of the other scene. That immediately sends them back to the previous scene, where they spawn in the portal, thus sending back to the other scene, and so on. I just needed a bit of code that starts with portals deactivated until the player leaves the entrance portal area.
The second was load times. There's some hanging after entering a portal while the new scene loads. I added a very simple preloading system, where a scene preloads any linked scenes. A cache of recent scenes is kept (right now the last ten, but could probably be higher than that) to reduce loading further. I imagine a more sophisticated preloading system might be ideal later, such as one that preloads not only the immediately linked scenes but those that are two jumps out.
The other last scene component was scene boundaries, i.e. preventing players from walking out of the camera's view or falling off the map. I don't know what the best practice around this is, but I just used static bodies and collision polygons; basically invisible walls. Godot's collision polygons were pretty frustrating to use at first, but eventually I got the hang of it.
Grass and wind shader
I took a shot at creating my own grass wind shader to emulate the Ghibli effect I talked about last time and didn't produce anything worthwhile. Shaders are still really confusing for me! I ended up following this grass shader tutorial for Godot which gave me a bit more insight into how to implement a shader for a particular effect, but still way above my knowledge level. In any case, it looks amazing and I gave it a try in the outdoor environment. The performance lags a bit (20-24fps) but it's not nearly as bad as I thought it'd be.
What I need to think on more is whether or not the effect needs to be reproduced in the background, and if so, how best to do it. I might be able to layout levels so that I don't even need to do that. For example here I shaped the terrain so that it looks like you're at the top of a hill, which is why you don't see any more grass in the closest part of the background. This is just a trick so I don't have to render more grass than absolutely necessary (I'm realizing a huge benefit of the fixed cameras is that you can do many of these kinds of tricks).
Throughout this whole process I'm learning a lot about how challenging emulating light is, especially in video games where you are far more resource-constrained (i.e. you need to hit a certain number of frames per second). I've kind of known that light/shadow is where a lot of the focus is in better video game graphics (e.g. raytracing) but didn't really appreciate it until now. I thought that by sacrificing mesh complexity and detail I'd have more room for light/shadow effects, but I had it backwards: the light/shadow effects were always the primary bottleneck. This is all to say that one problem with the grass/wind shader above is that shadows aren't cast onto the grass! But I think I have to let that slide. I did have a sketch of a very simple cloud shadow shader for grass; maybe I'll try to combine it with this one in the future.
Background environments and skyboxes
I'm still working on figuring out my general approach to these outdoor environments. I thought I should design the foreground to be more like an "indoor" environment with elements like the grass shader and then just have a pre-rendered skybox as the background. I'd create all the terrains in Blender, then just export the environment render and load it in Godot as a skybox.
I was not very successful at this. I tried creating a terrain of karsts, which itself was fun to do in Blender. The shader system there is powerful and you can generate a variety of environments with noise textures (probably much trickier to do if they have to have concave elements like overhangs though). The snag came when importing into Godot—it just looked terrible. I think skyboxes are literally just for skies.
This was really discouraging...I wasn't sure what to do. Eventually I decided to try just exporting the terrain as a mesh rather than as a background image or skybox and that worked surprisingly well.
There are still some issues with textures here (banding, doesn't seem to be the right resolution), and I simplified the geometry too much (way too pointy). But this captures the gist of what I was going for, and more importantly, the workflow is promising!
This terrain/environment process needs more tuning, but I'm happy with it for now. That was one of the last big unknowns for me in terms of the art asset workflow (the other one is character design, but I'm holding off on that for now). I think I'll take a step back from the art/game development and dig back into the world-building/narrative side.
As I mentioned in the last devlog, I implemented a two viewport system: one viewport for the half-resolution 3d rendering and then a second main (the root) viewport to render the UI and scale up the 3d output. One problem: shadows weren't rendering anymore. This was easy to fix; by default new viewports don't have a shadow atlas, so I just had to change that value from 0 to 1.
I also continued work on the outdoor/natural environment scenes, which brought up some more issues. The forest clearing scene dropped in performance (down to 11-15fps) once more trees were added, which I kind of expected. I reduced the tree model to about 330 vertices (from ~1.2k), which probably helped a little, but was less impactful than I'd hoped. I ended up playing around with the root viewport settings (which confusingly are mixed into Project Settings > General). By default the root viewport is set to render 3d, but now it's only rendering the 2d image it's passed by the half-resolution viewport. So I set the root viewport's render mode to 2d (under Project Settings > General > Intended Usage) and that boosted the scene to around 24-30fps. Still not the greatest, but fine for now.
I also put together a cave/grotto scene, which went quickly:
I realized the cave and forest clearing scenes are actually closer to indoor scenes: there's no skybox or distant environment to render. So I started playing around with a proper outdoor environment, where the sky is visible and there's distant geometry to handle:
A lot of new things to consider here. One, which is mostly specific to this particular scene, is grass and wind effects. I have a lot of grass here...I want to evoke that wind-sweeping-through-the-grass effect that comes up in a lot of Ghibli films. Of course this is a performance hit, with the scene rendering at 10-15fps.
If you look at the effect in Ghibli films, it's actually very simple. The grass is just a static image with trails moving on top:
So I don't really need actual grass geometry for the effect to look good. I can probably put together some kind of shader that moves these trails over the surface of a static texture.
The other thing I'm not sure about is what to render as a skybox and what to render as in-game terrain. I'm using the HTerrain plugin to generate terrain and in the image above all the terrain is in-game. It's really lacking in detail/richness which is mostly because I'm only using one texture. I'm thinking I should probably only render the foreground as in-game geometry and everything else as skybox for performance's sake. Which means I need to figure out a workflow for modeling and exporting skyboxes from Blender. This is something I'll have to think on more, I'm really not sure how best to approach this.
A few other updates:
Set up a test character and started giving character animations a try, which I was dreading (I still am, but less so). The whole process was made way easier with Mixamo—this will sound like an ad, but it has an auto-rigger that makes a rigging a character very easy and their library of free motion-capture animations covers a lot of what I need right now. For the character itself I based a mesh off of Kiros from FF8 an am using a texture someone extracted from the game.
It's very helpful to have a character for scale. The scale of the indoor test environment, for example, was way too huge.
I spent quite a long time tweaking the third-person controls, eventually settling on a system that doesn't use the mouse. Basically, with the default keybindings of WASD: W moves the character forward in whatever direction they're facing, S moves the character backwards (i.e. they literally walk/job backwards), and A/D turns them to their left or right respectively. So far it feels smooth and intuitive.
Formalized the "scene" system a bit more. I implemented a node type called Scene which contains information like fixed camera configurations and where the player spawns. This is really simple at the moment, but I imagine it'll be more complicated as I need to switch between cameras in a scene, or track the player for certain segments, and so on.