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Ship Construction and Such.

Happy Holidays!

The new ship development has been ongoing, over the last few months, with several new types appearing and currently in development. I thought I would share a couple of things about the updated ship-making process.

Historically, most normal mapped ships were modeled to their "production" poly level, and then had their normal mapped detail added in Photoshop, using an Nvidia plugin to create 3D detail from 2D heightmaps. This works fairly well for a lot of cases, but not for everything. The three original "special" ships (Prometheus, Valkyrie and Marauder) were all made with this method, as are the older ships that I'm currently bringing more "up to date" with added normal and specularity maps.

Luis's new ships, on the other hand, are being made using a different method. He is creating two models for each ship, the first at the "production" polygon count (say, around 1500 for a smaller ship, or upwards of 5000 for a bigger ship). The second is a detailed high-poly version (upwards of 200,000 polygons) which has its greater detail then "cooked out" via render-to-texture onto the lower poly version in the form of a normal map. The more complex lighting surface normals of the high detail version are then preserved on the low detail version, with the lower poly count. This method has been widely used in a number of modern FPS games, Doom III and HalfLife 2 amongst others, and is generally a great way to add complex model detail onto a game-usable version of the model. It does have some caveats, some things don't always cook out quite right, and some aspects require tweaking, but overall it's a good way to get a lot of base detail on the normal map. This is then further tweaked at a 2D level in Photoshop, and the other materials are built to accentuate the features of the normal map, creating a more realistic looking spaceship.

Here you can see a couple of examples of ships that Luis been building, using this process:



In each of those examples, the high-detail models are over 180,000 polygons. The low-detail models are not much different from what we regularly see in-game. In each case, the normal map can be used to make an angular cylinder appear smooth, or add lots of crenellation and surface detail (vents, gratings, wires, pipes, plates) to what would otherwise be a completely flat surface on the low-poly ship.

This is just one of the ways that we're working to get the most out of our 3D engine with the new models. The engine has always been much more capable than we've made use of, historically, due to a lack of artists and time, and we're hoping to change that.

So anyway, lots of working going on in that department. We have seven major ships in various stages of development, and more that have already been concepted. So hopefully, we'll have a major influx of new art content over the next month or two, as we complete these ships and make them ready for the game. I've already posted about a couple of them, the Raptor and the like (the Raptor is currently the closest to completion, although it still requires some work as well before it'll be ready to use in-game).

In other areas, work is still going well. Andy's coming along really well with the new mission-editing website interface. A few people have tested it, and it does successfully export missions into the test server. We're also creating a whole application process and a new.. user group for those who would like to use the mission editor. That should be available next week (we'll see).

The UI has almost all the fundamental features, but still needs some more work. It lacks some "ease of use" bits that we've come to expect, like keyboard hotkeys for menu navigation and various other things. That, and some parts of the menus still need reworking (like the login, character selection and creation) and a few bugs still exist. I'm hopeful that we'll start to put it into independent testing (not creating an update, but putting the client online optionally for those who wish to download and try it) within a couple of weeks if all goes well. We won't release it into testing until what we have is pretty solid and does what we want it to.. not a lot of point in testing something when you already know what's wrong with it. When it's fairly workable as a full game client replacement and ready for stability testing, we'll make it available for download.

Michael's work on the Hive, Escort and Pirate missions seems to be working ok. We'll release that into production as soon as it's feature-complete and he's confident that it's stable.

This week is a bit less organized for us, because a number of people are off visiting family for a few days between Christmas and New Year. But, in between (and during) these events, most of us will be working, trying to get our respective tasks wrapped up so we can release things as soon as possible.

And that about wraps things up. We wish you all a safe and happy holiday. We would have liked to have made a Christmas client release, or even a New Years release, but neither are going to happen (and not for any lack of productivity). A few more weeks though, and I think it'll be a bit more realistic.