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Developer Blog: Illusionist's Gambit Environment

By Julia (nitocris83) | Thu 09 Feb 2017 08:14:44 AM PST

Hello again adventurers!  Patrick Poage here with another environment art dev blog. Today, I’ll be focusing on the environment art for our new skirmish: Illusionist’s Gambit. This skirmish was a big experiment for the dev team. Our production cycle on this feature was shorter than normal, but we had more devs on the project than we usually do. That allowed us to experiment with a lot of new ideas and the end result is a fun and often hilarious 15 minute romp through Lukan of the Mystic Veil’s Hallucinatory Terrains. I’d like to share with you a bit about our development process, focusing on our initial plans, working through the challenges that came up, and then what we learned from this experiment and how it has affected the rest of Neverwinter. Let’s dive in.

When we first came up with the idea of having the environment change around you as the fight progressed, my reaction was, “Whoa, awesome! I don’t actually know if we can do that...” Surprisingly (and suspiciously) everything just sort of worked on the first try. 

Once the initial shock of our success wore off, we started looking around the rest of our game for what maps to use. We started with our favorites (mine is the Portobello’s Game map) and then looked into key points from the Neverwinter story that we wanted to reference. Just for variety, we picked a few maps that just fit the space really well (the Vellosk Pit Fight map comes to mind). With some help from the content team we had quickly proved our concept of having maps that swap around the player, but I was still uncomfortable with our 100% success rate.

Just because everything was working, though, didn’t mean that everything was easy. Several of the maps that we wanted to use as background environments have terrain. In most games, the terrain system is different from normal game geometry. The same holds true for Neverwinter, so while we could “easily” move all of the assets from a zone like Spinward Rise, all of the terrain at the top of the earth motes needed a different process. In the end, it had to be exported back in a 3D modeling program (we use 3DSMax), get its UVs redone, get a paint job so it looked roughly like the original terrain, and then get placed back in the engine in the exact same spot. It’s a bit of a hack, but that’s what game development is all about.  Players won’t notice the difference, and what’s behind the scenes doesn’t matter. Lukan isn’t the only master illusionist around.

Top: All of the terrain from the tops of the earth motes in Spinward Rise exported from our engine into our modeling program; Bottom: The colored splotches are actually painted vertices on the terrain mesh. Our engine then interprets those colors as a guide for where it should blend the three terrain materials. Blue was dirt, red was rock, and green was grass. You can see that I really only painted detail where it could be seen from the middle, which is where Lukan’s platform hovers.

Top: A screenshot from the normal Spinward Rise map with normal terrain; Bottom: A screenshot from the Illusionist’s Gambit map with the “fake” terrain and extra airships.

It took a few weeks, after the point where we’d hit our first checkpoint on the feature, but we finally found a problem with the hallucinatory terrain. It’s a weird feeling as a developer when nothing goes wrong in R&D.  Imagine my relief when I realized that many of the lights from all of our overlapping environments were bleeding into the other maps. While we only show one environment to the players at a time, all of them are there, overlapping, hidden away in code just waiting to be shown. Except for their lights. Those were just bleeding through. 

I was puzzled why it took this long to find the bug, but eventually we realized why. The light bleed problem wouldn’t show itself while an environment artist was working on the map, it only appeared after all the layers were checked in and the static lights baked. A quick visit to the graphics team, a few promised favors, and they were eventually able to write some code that solved my problem. 

While the environment art team was mostly bug-free there were several hilarious bugs from systems and content that I had the joy of experiencing. At one point, several of the colossal characters sitting around the table on the Portobello’s Game map decided they’d be more comfortable standing on the platform with the players. It’s difficult to fight a horde of mimics when Bruenor’s giant boot is taking up half of the playable space. I remember originally the icy floor hazard which causes players to slip and slide on the arena used to effect enemy NPCs as well. Barbarians and beholders would wildly zip across the platform like first time ice skaters unable to connect any of their attacks to players.; They’d continue to flail around the ice, confused, until eventually giving up, teleporting to the origin of the map and killing themselves.

Lukan is disappointed in his minions’ inability to walk on ice

In addition to discovering that our AI pathing doesn’t handle ice very well, I was inspired by this skirmish experiment to take some of what we’d done and apply it to the rest of my content. I was responsible for making the three repeatable instances for the wizards in the River District, and we did some really exciting things for each of those maps. Races through the Feywild, remnants of reality floating in the void, giant platforms being pulled by chains over the middle of a volcano…I definitely took some risks with my environments for M11, and I can say with pride its some of my favorite work that I’ve done at Cryptic. Next week, I’ll go into detail about how the environment in the Spellplague Caverns has changed from what is used to be, and what shenanigans we pulled to make it happen. Until then, happy adventuring!

Patrick Poage

Environment Artist

PS – Here’s some more dancing Minsc, in GIF form

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