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Around the Verse: Bringing the Verse to Life Written Saturday 28th of April 2018 at 10:12am by Erris

This week's AtV focuses on work being done to improve shaders and graphics, as well as the Gameplay Story Animation team, whose job it is to make the Verse feel full and real.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

  • Lots of work has gone into improving shaders and VFX, allowing glass to look cracked, ship screens to look damaged / have interference, etc…

  • There’s a new ability to inspect your FPS weapons that they’re working on.

  • Work continues on creating atmospheric and intense locations for SQ42, like the Coil, and the Shubin mining station, using VFX and sound to add depth and gravitas.

  • The Cinematics and Animation teams have two main components. On one side, the team doing the major cinematics work. On the other side, the team working on creating somewhat more of a ‘lived-in’ universe.

  • This team is putting together the hundreds of different mo-capped scenes that can play out throughout the Idris, and throughout all of SQ42.

  • The Gameplay Story Animation team pulls together mocap, brings in face-capture, animation capture, and then tweaks it all to make sure everything looks good, and flows smoothly.

  • The goal, and the result, is a Verse that feels much more alive and detailed, where each NPC, be they a crew member on the Idris or even an enemy combatant, has a story, and a reason why they are where they are.

  • This all ties in with subsumption as well, giving each character meaningful dialogue, based on your choices as a character, making them feel much more realistic.

Full Transcript

Intro With Sandi Gardiner (VP of Marketing), Sean Tracy (Tech Content Director). Timestamped Link.

Sandi Gardiner (SG): Hello and welcome to another episode of Around the Verse, I’m Sandi Gardiner.

Sean Tracy (ST): And I’m Sean Tracy.

SG: This week we’re back with another Squadron 42 special.

ST: We’ll take a look at the all-important gameplay story animation team, but first let’s check in with Nick Elms over in the UK for this month’s Project Update.

Studio Update With Nick Elms (Creative Director). Timestamped Link.

Nick Elms (NE): Hi Everybody, and welcome to April SQ42 update. GFX team have made a variety of visual improvements to the glass shader, making it an altogether more versatile tool, suitable to as many assets as possible. A simple unlit mode has been added, allowing the glass to be used on visors and ship canopy interiors without distracting reflections and glare. The refraction effect has been improved, with the enabling of glare and blurred refractions, allowing us to achieve effects like sandblasted or frosted glass, Condensation, grease, and fingerprints. Combining the refraction capabilities with the unlit mode is making it possible for us to create some convincing dynamic visual effects. We can now fog out the edges of the visor, for example, if you’re out of breath. We can ramp up the glare if you look into the sun in a dirty or damaged helmet. We also improved the crack effect, and synced it with the health entity, so we can realistically smash UI screens.

The VFX team have been working on the screen interference system that will feature heavily in many areas around the coil in S42. Although still in early R&D, we’re adding more drama and situational reaction to the cockpit experience with these effects that add interference to onboard computers and readouts.

Lots of things in space can mess with your instruments, and the static storms pulsing through the coil aren’t doing pilots any favours. As you can see, this adds an element of environmental storytelling to the rather limited view of the cockpit interior, and even simple effects like these add narrative tension as well as added challenge from a gameplay perspective.

Staying with VFX, the contrail system has had additional focus this month. Details like the unique contrails seen when flying through the coil add more layers of detail and immersion to the environment. As we saw a few months back, the coil is almost a character itself. It’s a really singular environment, and it takes a bunch of seemingly small components working together. Visuals, audio, special effects, game mechanics, to create what’s coming together as a really compelling experience.

It’s important while implementing all these design elements that the area retains its disorientating, intimidating personality, and represents a challenge for the player, but remains fun and intuitive in terms of gameplay.

As we saw on a different episode of AtV, the crew of the Idris frigate more than doubled in size from what was originally planned. We’ve had to make some design tweaks to accommodate the extra hands on deck, with a glaring need for additional officers quarters. We’ve now added pilots quarters linked to the main crew quarters on the Idris. As you can see, these digs are a considerable upgrade from the double bunks in the main room that we saw back in the vertical slice. They really help to make the Idris interiors feel like real lived in spaces.

The gargantuan Shubin station is a great example of the really impressive levels and physical spaces in the game. You can see how the scale of it and the atmosphere from lighting to layout further carries the visual storytelling, so important to the medium. A lot of SQ42’s narrative is affected by, and centered around, the Shubin mining company, and as we were developing the story and looking at the level design, what started out as a relatively simple mining platform eventually morphed into the massive facility you see here. It even necessitated the inclusion of a monorail system, as seen in last month’s update, to make getting around and more convenient.

Another key location seen in the December livestream was the old Khemlan facility, long out of commission. We’re working on a new control room prop set for it, and these assets represent the brains behind the operation, so to speak. In their day, long before the events of Squadron take place, these systems were top of the line, with hardware and software working in perfect harmony to keep the operation running smoothly, efficiently, and most of all, safely. Time, as it does though, has moved on, and these once high-end systems are left dormant, gathering dust and slowly decaying. Safety might not be a word best associated with them now.

We’ve been testing a prototype to allow players to manually inspect the FPS weapons that they are currently carrying. When in this new inspect state, the item is displayed centrally and can be rotated, allowing the player to view each side, and any attachment ports. The focus has been on pistols, stocked, and shouldered weapons, as each type of gun has very different requirements when it comes to animation poses, and the fluid transitions between them. As you can see in these examples of each style being tested.

Building off the progress we saw in last month’s update, work on the turrets for the massive Vanduul Hungership continues. The organic design seen in all the Vanduul weapons and ships manages to be intimidating and beautifully fluid at the same time, equal parts deadly viper and blooming flower.

The Vanduul have a very distinct look and feel that we’re trying to make consistent with everything in their large-scale tech like ships, their turrets, and even their hand to hand weapons, armour, and physical design.

Everything about the Vanduul is intense and visceral, and when the players tangle with them in the game, it should feel markedly different than when engaging with humans or other alien aggressors.

That’s all for this month’s update, thanks again for all the fantastic support, and we’ll see you again soon, with another S42 update.

Back to Studio With Sandi Gardiner (VP of Marketing), Sean Tracy (Tech Content Director). Timestamped Link.

SG: Thanks Nick. As we’ve seen over these last few months, the story of SQ42 is told through various mediums within the game. Last month we looked at the way AI can convey character and story information through combat and other forms of in-game interaction.

ST: We’ve also seen how cinematics utilize the game’s all-star cast to create dramatic effect. But there are a lot of important interactions that drive the story, separately from the temple sequences. That’s where gameplay story animation team comes in.

SG: Let’s take a look at what that team has been working on, and just how it’s factoring into the game, in this month’s feature.

Gameplay Story Animation With Steve Bender (Animation Director), Tony Wills (Gameplay Story Lead Animator). Timestamped Link.

Steve Bender (SB): In Squadron 42, the story is quite vast and very deep, and to be able to handle this properly, we’ve actually taken the story itself and broke it into two different production teams. The first is cinematics, and they are primarily concerned with things such as the through-line of the story; the major plot points that take you from the beginning of the game through towards the end of the game.

Squadron 42 is considerably deeper than just the main through points, and we wanted to build a more robust life, essentially, within every place that you’re at in the world, and to be able to do that and to handle the production of that, we’ve created the second team, the gameplay story team, and this team is going to deal with things that may or may not be through line, but that add a greater depth and player experience to Squadron 42.

Tony Wills (TW): Gameplay story is different than the cinematics in that there’s often a more interacting element, a minimal of player choice, or something else like interacting with a cupboard door or something like that, something that needs to happen in the world that means it’s got an interactive gameplay element. It’s something in between where it has an element of storytelling and cinematics to it, but it also has elements of gameplay mechanics.

SB: In Squadron 42, the characters that you meet along the way that are on your battleship or in different locales, they all have their own lives, and you can interact with them and they will respond back to you, or have conversations with you, depending upon who they are and what their relationship is with you. This allows us to add a greater depth to the experience of Squadron 42. You don’t just feel like you’re being pushed from plot element to plot element to plot element, but you’re actually living within this world, living on that battleship. These are actually living, breathing people that you’re interacting with, within the Star Citizen and Squadron 42 Universe.

TW: Part of gameplay story is absolute critical to the main story, so you can’t really make progress in the mission until you speak to the characters and get the information from them, with them sort of telling you where to go and what to do next and stuff like that, but also there are other characters that are completely incidental, you can go and talk to, and you can find out you know, how they’re feeling or what they’re working on or doing, there’s a whole backstory ot them, just to make the whole world believable.

SB: Depending upon the choices that you make in SQ42, different people will have different reactions towards you, and those reactions will change based upon the choices that you make. And that gives, instead of them having the same response every time you come to them, or no matter what you do it’s a canned response, they’re actually responding to what you’ve done in the way that they would as a person in what their likes and dislikes are and things like this, so they’re reacting to you like real people, instead of a typical AI.

TW: there’s at least probably 250 gameplay story scenes, that I’m currently looking at, just trying to tackle those one at a time really. Well a first approach to gameplay was really just to get a handle on everything that had been recorded, and how much we had to work with. The basic way we’d approach any gameplay story scene would be the same, the first thing we’d do would be assemble all the assets, so the face animation, the body animation, and the audio. We would take a look at the mocap that’s been shot, usually the quad video, try to understand what the scene’s all about, who’s in the scene, what’s the intention, so we work closely with design, probably at the start when we’re familiarizing ourselves with the scene, so we’ll talk over the scene with them, how they see it working, where it’s going to fit in the world etcetera, and then we’ll go off and we’ll try to assemble all the animations, build the scene, get it exported into game as a first pass of it, and then we’ll have to talk to design again, say this is what we’ve got, can you help us get it working properly.

So the main tools we use for gameplay story are, for the scene assembly we’d start off working in Maya, using the red9 scene manager, building the face, body, and audio assets together there. From there we’d export to the game, and then we’d probably use track view to do a pre-vis pass on the scene so we can see it in the game quickly. Then when we’re getting a bit more in depth, we’d go into Mannequin, set up our animations there with the correct tags and so forth. On the sub to get things working, we’d probably use subsumption which is an in-house tool, which is undergoing a lot of development work at the moment, and that’s where all the magic happens really, and you touch all the more complicated parts of the game, so that’s an interesting stage, and one that we need a bit more design support for, but it’s also where the animations really start to come to life and be interactive so it’s really cool. So we’ll try to get things working in the game just in exactly the same way it’s been shot, which is a great way of sort of revealing problems, and then I’ll usually just try to solve them just one at a time. I’ll start with the biggest thing, what looks worst about this scene, okay let’s fix that, and let’s move on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and so hopefully your eye will keep sorting out very small details, and if there is anything that we don’t currently have the tech for, then you’re going to call and ask for help from other departments, get them involved, help you solve something that maybe hasn’t been solved in the game before.

Our first step would be to get the face, body, and audio animations working in-game, that’s reasonably straight-forward. Once we have that, we see what’s been captured in game, we can then decide how we’re going to tackle the more complicated problems, sort of one at a time really. So the first steps are easy enough, after that it gets a little more complicated.

The motion capture doesn’t always match up perfectly, sometimes a performance has been pieced together two different takes of mocap, so quite often some of the animation work we’ll do will be to blend over some of the little cuts in the mocap, sometimes we need to capture a new idle to go in place for when the player’s taking their time to make a choice, so we might even need to do some fresh mocap for that, usually it takes a little work to get it from the initial capture stage into something that’s fully working in-game, every aspect and every branch working correctly.

SB: Another challenge that gameplay story needs to deal with is, because we have these scenes that happen, they may have one, two, three, four, or more characters playing all at once, those characters are not playing through just a linear editor. Those characters, they have the lives before this scene, and they have lives after this scene, and the challenge with that team is to be able to work with the performance capture and create transitions and the technical ins and outs for these scenes, so that characters when they’re running under AI code can make their way to the scene properly. We can perform the experience, and then they can exit to wherever it is that they need to go.

TW: So once we’ve got gameplay story scene in-game initially, we’re then going to try to push that, and get that to a final quality stage. So in doing so we’ll have a lot of different things to solve along the way, we might have to add the same sort of stock man-poses to make sure our animations work together, add an idle, maybe bring in some new mocap, make sure the facial animation’s working correctly, add any player choice, implement scene branches, enter voice fro player, if there’s a look at, if the player needs to look at somebody, or the character, need to add that in, and then sometimes transitioning to and from an AI character as well, so there’s a lot of different things you have to solve one at a time, and we just start with the biggest problem and solve that, move on to the next, and eventually when you can’t see more problems than you know you’re more or less done.

SB: I think that a really important point within SQ42 and Star Citizen, and overall in animation on this game, is we try not to focus on the word AI, even though in the reality of it it is a AI, or it is AI code, what we’re trying to achieve is that this is a living, breathing world; it’s a living, breathing universe, and everybody who is in it has their own likes, their own dislikes, they have their own backstories, even characters that you may fight against instead of treating them like just a random guy on the screen, that that person got there somehow, and they have some sort of goal, and that helps us to drive how those characters react, whether it’s in a combat space or in a space like the gameplay story, adding far more depth to the gameplay experience.

TW: I’ve worked in animation for a long time, so for me tanimation is the light that lights up the game, it’s the most important thing for me, so yeah I’m really keen on animation, I think it’s, if you look at something for the first time, the way it moves is probably the thing you’ll see first, so I think it’s… it’s hugely important. I really enjoy working on the gameplay story and I want to bring these scenes that have been captured into the game, and bring that life into the ships, so that you’re not just walking around an empty spacecraft, there’s real people there with real stories and interesting things going on the whole time.

So yeah, no two gameplay story scenes are really the same. We have a massive range, from simple or quick one-liners that are said during combat up to full scenes up to multiple characters, up to sort of 12 characters, filling the room with very dramatic things going on, and then we have everything in between. A lot of scenes will be just sort of two or three characters, talking or doing or working on something. So, I’m still discovering as I go through, different aspects to gameplay story, so there’s a lot of variety and it’s very interesting.

Outro With Sandi Gardiner (VP of Marketing), Sean Tracy (Tech Content Director). Timestamped Link.

ST: Thanks guys. As we’ve seen, with Squadron we’re telling this huge story, but that story’s taking place in a living, breathing universe. The gameplay story animation team’s work is going to go a long way towards fleshing out the narrative, and achieving the balance that makes it all feel believable.

SG: We’ll have even more on Squadron 42’s development next month, and you can still head to the Squadron 42 section of our website to sign up for our dedicated monthly newsletter, which includes recaps of the updates, and features seen here on ATV, as well as further insights about the game, and info about special events and promotions as development continues.

ST: That’s a lot of stuff.

SG: I know.

ST: In Star Citizen news, the devs continues to fix bugs and make improvements to Alpha 3.1, testing and releasing patches regularly. Meanwhile, work continues on the features planned for 3.2, and some teams look ahead to future releases, continuing development on Hurston and its moons, among other content. You can always follow along with PU development via our public road map, always available on the RSI website, and we’ll continue to bring you project updates here on AtV in the weeks to come.

SG: That’s a lot of stuff too. If you, or your friends, still haven’t had a chance to get into the PU, we have starter packages available to pledge for at a discounted rate.

ST: Check out our latest concept ship, the innovative and stylish 100i from Origin Jumpworks, and if Anvil Aerospace is a little more your style, there are still a few days left to grab an official Hornet T-shirt for 20% off the regular price.

SG: We’re also teaming up once again with Intel, to showcase Star Citizen through the power of the latest Optane and Core i9 technology. Over the next few weeks, we have screenshot contests going on, with a chance to win an Intel Optane 900p solid state drive, so make sure you check spectrum for all the details.

ST: In CitizenCon news, we’re excited to announce that we will be celebrating, with you, on October 10th, at the Long center in Austin, Texas. For more details, including ticketing information, check out the official CitizenCon Comm-link. You can access it via the handy link we’ve provided in the video in the description below.

SG: Cool! It will be nice to have CitizenCon back in Austin, where it all began. And that’s all for us this week.

ST: Tune in to Reverse the ‘Verse, live on Twitch tomorrow, for our monthly subscriber town hall episode, where Steve Bender and myself will follow up on some of the things you saw on today’s feature. And remember to check out this week’s new episodes of Bugsmashers and Calling all Devs. Thanks as always to our subscribers for sponsoring the shows.

SG: And thank you to all our backers for supporting the development of SQ42 and Star Citizen. Until next time, we will see you, Around the Verse.

ST: fwoosh psheew.



Erris is Canadian. He does some random things for Relay, no-one really knows what, but still they're stuck with him. He’s also written one Young Adult novel that he can’t stand, which can be found here.

You can find him on Twitter too, if you want.