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04.15.2011

Studio Insider: Environment Polish

Introduction

This week, we’re going behind the scenes with Senior Environment Artist Robby Lamb to see how game environments evolve and transform into final fixtures. Also, be sure to check out the new Community Q&A where Senior Game Designer William Wallace answers some of your questions about the character classes in Star Wars™: The Old Republic™.

Environment Polish

My name is Robby Lamb, and I’m a Senior Environment Artist here at BioWare. I wanted to talk about polish for this Studio Insider and specifically how it relates to game development. Polish is an important part of making a game, but it’s especially important for an MMO. It can happen at any stage of development, and it allows us to take a great game and make it exceptional.

Every member of the development team polishes the game in a different way. For example, programmers will optimize code which helps in various ways, such as the frame rate and the lighting engine. While improving the game, those code optimizations can also help the other developers who are using game development tools; this gives designers the chance to polish game play. Artists like myself have the opportunity to revisit areas to re-work assets, adjust lighting or just ensure an area feels true enough to our story.

As an Environment Artist, I love having time to polish the work that our team has put into the game. Quite often, assets and lighting may be completed months or years prior to the game’s release, so when we have time to polish this allows us to update and unify the game to the ever changing, growing, and evolving demands of development. This is especially true on an MMO like The Old Republic, where hundreds of different elements are interacting to make the multiplayer experience work correctly. When one element of the game changes, it can impact many others, so we may be required to polish the art in a certain part of the game, so that the story still works and the performance of the game is still optimal.

I wanted to give you an example of polish in my area of development, the creation of environment art. Environment art often goes unnoticed in a game, as it’s the creation of the world around your character. While you’re often focused on the creatures and characters you’re interacting with, the walls, doors and floors around you have also been created by a team of artists. You might not think this sort of art is that important to the game, but trust me – when the floor doesn’t look right or a wall texture is wrong, you’d notice!

Speaking of walls, I wanted to use them as an example here. You might think walls would be the easiest thing to create in a game – after all, they’re just big vertical panels, right? Well in the same way that bad wallpaper can make a room in your house feel ‘wrong’, a bad texture or lighting can make the walls in a game seem out of place.

Click the above image for a larger view.

As you can imagine in The Old Republic, we have a lot of walls! You can see from the images here that any wall can undergo a lot of polish. We might start off by creating a very basic wall design with a simple texture, but as development progresses, we’ll often rework the assets involved. This can be as simple as reworking a texture, by altering the diffuse map, normal map, specular map, or any combination of the three in order to help make the wall stand out or blend into an environment. Sometimes, we may rebuild the asset from the ground up. For instance, sometimes our design team may decide that an area needs to be re-worked to look more high-tech. That means we may have to re-work our flat metal walls to add more panel work and tech ‘bits’, as seen in the images above and below.

Click the above image for a larger view.
Click the above image for a larger view.

Apart from working on environment items like walls, another polish task is the re-lighting and adding of props to an area to help tell the visual story better. Appropriate lighting and props can quickly and visually tell you that an area is, for example, seedy as opposed to crime-free.

This is important to the environment artists as well as the writers and designers whose story we are telling through art. Often we are given a description of an area that needs to be built out; let’s take a computer lab as an example. With a few NPCs placed inside, we might start with a computer lab in the simplest terms. However later in development a more detailed description may evolve – describing this area as a computer lab, locked from the outside, with a hacker trapped inside who is enslaved to the Empire. Based on this description we will go back into an area and address it by either building new or reusing more appropriate assets to fit the scene, relighting the area, as well as adjusting the environment settings such as fog depth or color.

Finally one of the most important aspects of environmental polish is the game’s performance. You might not think so, but the environment you’re playing in can have a direct effect on frame rate, and for a game to be playable, a good frame rate is vital. So as we rebuild, relight, and re-prop areas we make sure the frame rate does not suffer. In simplest terms this means we check the amount of lights in a scene, the amount of assets on screen, and how much memory the level uses.

Spending time to add polish to the game is extremely important, but it’s also a lot of fun as we see the game improve directly as a result of our work. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into what polish means from our perspective – and hopefully you have a better understanding of how important a simple wall can be in a game like The Old Republic!

Community Q&A

Each month we take time to answer some of the community’s questions about Star Wars: The Old Republic. For next month’s Q&A, we will be answering questions about art. If you have a question for one of The Old Republic artists, please post it in the new Community Q&A thread on the Forums, Facebook, or Twitter. We’ll be gathering questions from those threads on April 22, so be sure to ask your question before that date!

Today, Senior Game Designer William Wallace has answers to your class-related questions:

Q: Will all classes have a main Companion Character or several different ones? Also, how important will Companion Characters be? – Frozentorch

A: Over the course of the game, your character will meet a number of companions. There are several companion archetypes, each with their own ability set (including, but not limited to medics, ranged damage dealers and tanks). By maximum level, all classes will have one companion of each archetype. Which companion becomes your ‘main companion’ is left to your choice of playstyle and personal preference.

Furthermore, you can customize your companions with kits that add extra abilities such as Grenade Launchers, Flame Throwers, etc. Regardless of which companion you choose to travel with, they will shape how your character approaches combat and will complement your strengths or help make up for your weaknesses.

For example, a Sith Assassin specialized in striking at their targets from behind may want a sturdy melee companion to keep opponents occupied while she maneuvers into position, or she might prefer a medic companion to just make sure she stays in the fight.

Q: So far, 6 of the 8 classes have a healing spec (assuming the Sith Inquisitor can heal). Will this be the final number or will Jedi Knight and Sith Warrior have a healing spec as well? - Kelzack

A: We have no plans to introduce healing on either the Knight or Warrior at this time.

Q: Will the healer spec for each class have enough damage output to be viable while solo? – Juex

A: Players that specialize in a healing role will still get many of the same damage abilities for their Advanced Class a more offensively specialized character would get - for example, an Operative Medic still gets access to rifle and blade attacks.

All players will be viable in solo combat, though fully committed healers will obviously not have the same level of damage output as players who choose to pursue more damage focused builds. In a twist from other MMOs, choosing the right companion in Star Wars: The Old Republic enables the player to retain much of their healing centered play-style while playing solo.

Q: Will Bounty Hunters be able to use their jetpacks outside of battle to get around faster or for another way of movement other than walking/jumping? – JornFalm

A: We have no plans currently for jetpacks as a mode of fast travel outside of combat. You’ll have to rely on your personal transportation for that (details to be revealed later!) which offers a much more comfortable ride anyway.

Q: Will both skill sets in a particular Advanced Class require the same set of stats, thereby enabling a Sawbones-spec Scoundrel to respec to a Scrapper-spec without having to carry a second Scrapper-specific set of gear to function at optimal capacity? – Finalcaliber

A: If changing skill distribution also involves a role change for the character (such as from damage focused to medic), chances are you will need to obtain a new set of equipment to go along with the change in gameplay experience. If no role change is involved (e.g. changing skills within the Gunslinger Advanced Class), you are likely able to reuse most if not all of your equipment.

Q: Mobility has always been a big part of PVP. How are you addressing this for the Imperial Agent and Smuggler, who are ranged classes with a cover system that keep them in a very predefined area while making them more stationary targets?

A: For players who wish to play a cover dependent spec in PVP, there are abilities that give them some pretty significant bonuses to mitigate the fact that they are stationary. There are also abilities that help keep enemies out of melee range while in cover.

Agents and Smugglers who prefer mobility can select skills that makes them less cover dependent and more focused on other abilities like stealth, poison, and close range combat.

Q: Can the Sentinel play the role of secondary tank (since the Guardian can DPS)? – Harcan

A: The Sentinel is capable of off-tanking in smaller encounters, but currently has no skills that would allow him to substitute for a tanking focused Guardian.

Q: Is the Jedi Consular only effective when ranged? Or can he use his Lightsaber and deal significant damage in a melee? – Dwim

A: The Jedi Consular can be effective in either ranged or melee depending on the skill choices you make. The base class grants the player both ranged abilities and Lightsaber attacks, and allows the player to sample both gameplay styles before making their Advanced Class choice.

The player then chooses to become either a Jedi Sage - skilled primarily in long range combat with devastating Force powers, or a Jedi Shadow primarily focused on close range Lightsaber combat augmented by Force abilities. The skill choices within those Advanced Classes will determine the balance between melee and Force based combat and the role the Consular will fill on the battlefield.

Q: Can stealth classes turn their stealth on during a fight? – SankPKer

A: Scoundrels, Operatives, Shadows and Assassins currently cannot enter stealth while in combat.

Q: Does the type of armor a class uses change depending on the Advanced Class? – ShiftyBe

A: For some classes, yes. For example, Jedi Guardians wear heavy armor, but Jedi Sentinels use medium armor. For other classes, like the Agent, your armor type stays the same regardless of Advanced Class or specialization.

Q: Is it possible, as a Jedi Guardian skilled in tanking, to wear at least a cape above his armor or does it have to be armor all the way? – JemmrikKevrae

A: We have a large number of armor appearances for all classes, including robes and capes, so it will be possible to achieve many different looks even for heavily armored classes. Some might even look not that heavily armored at all.

Q: Regarding the Jedi Consular, can both Advanced Classes wield a double Lightsaber? - Wreezz

A: The Jedi Shadow is trained in double-bladed Lightsaber combat, while the Sage is single wielding.

Q: Will there be different important skills within a skill tree to choose between, or will there be an "ideal" way for each skill tree? – Livorde

A: Our design philosophy on skill trees is to offer several different paths through each skill tree for gameplay variety. We also try to make sure that the early skills in a tree have broad appeal. This way, you can make intelligent choices about which other trees you’d like to spend your leftover points to create several viable hybrid options.

Some skills will likely be integral to any character build - for example, core damage increases, stat increases, and other broad appeal skills. Where you branch from that depends on how you intend to play the class---you might be offered PvP utility skills, power-ups or functionality changes to specific abilities, or other more situational skills.

As a practical example, a Sniper going up the Marksmanship tree will probably want a boost to his stat that increases ranged damage, but might have to decide if he wants to spend points to increase his capability to slow enemy targets or reduce the threat he generates while using his high damage abilities. The threat reducing skill would be a smart choice for players who primarily consume PvE content in groups while slowing a target would certainly have great utility in PvP combat. Or he could just get both skills and sacrifice some early skills from other skill trees.

Q: Can you play the Inquisitor as a melee class as effectively as the Sith Warrior? – Sanathor

A: The Inquisitor can branch into two Advanced Classes. He can either become a Sith Sorcerer, striking with lightning and devastating dark side Force powers at their targets from afar or train to become a Sith Assassin, a deadly melee class that specializes in double-bladed Lightsaber combat.

The Sith Assassin can, if skilled appropriately, be just as effective in a melee combat as a Sith Warrior, but both have their own set of gameplay mechanics and abilities that set them apart:

The Sith Assassin may use the Force to approach unseen, wield a double-bladed Lightsaber, chain Force attacks and strong melee finishing moves for burst damage and gain access to powerful positional attacks that require the player to plan their movement carefully.

A Sith Warrior, on the other hand, is more direct in the way he approaches combat. He may learn to dual wield (as a Marauder Advanced Class), use Force Charge to quickly bridge large distances on the battlefield, and/or specialize in devastating single target and area attacks with his Lightsaber.

Thanks for joining us for this Studio Insider! We hope you enjoyed Robby Lamb’s look at polish in The Old Republic, and the in-depth answers William Wallace provided in response to your class-related questions. If you have any questions for the next Community Q&A focused on art in the game, please post them in the new Community Q&A thread.
 


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