Hello, everyone! Welcome to the latest Dev Diary. My name is Andrew and I am the Lead Animator for Nuclear Dawn. Our job in the animation department is to illustrate the style of the game through movement. Whenever we are animating a prop, character, weapon, or structure; our goal is to convey the concept while still conforming to the restrictions that we have set to maximize performance. In today's blog, I will be focusing on one of the aspects that has proven to be quite a daunting task to me, personally: the RTS structures.
Along with my role as animator, I have picked up a side role as mesh-modifier-breaker-upper. It is my job to take all the beautiful RTS machines, and tear them apart...literally. When I am handed an RTS structure, I first need to look at every corner, every seam, every wire, every lever, every panel and every section. While looking it over, I am thinking of how these things can compact themselves down small enough to fit inside a delivery crate.
We have a guideline here within the Nuclear Dawn team: making things appear or disappear magically is always left as an absolute last resort. Having objects vanish from the playing field is a technique used in many games, but we want to challenge ourselves by staying away from that route. In the case of the RTS machinery, this sometimes means adding trap doors that open up to reveal another segment of the structure sliding out into position. This also meant that we needed to find ways to make things go away when we wanted them gone. For example, the delivery crate.
The delivery crate is one thing that has taken many hours of my time. There was much conceptualization and re-working for this structure. Some of the problems we enountered included how to fit the huge RTS machines inside such a small crate; and then even if we could fit them inside, how would we make the structure come out autonomously? Once we figured that part out, we needed to figure out what we were going to do with the crate to remove it from the battlefield while staying within the above-stated guideline.
The solution that we came up with was a self-expanding box. Once activated, the crate will come alive. It will expand, panel by panel, to any size that is needed, while inside, the RTS structure is being assembled. Once it has reached the appropriate size, the crate will retract into its own corners and fall away to reveal whatever is inside.
This was a great solution, but of course, it came with a catch. To make this animation come to life required a lot of bones, and as stated above, we have set restrictions to maximize performance. Bone limits are one of those restrictions (for those unfamiliar with animation, every movement that takes place within Source requires a bone. The more moving pieces there are, the more bones that are needed). Since the crate required so many bones, the RTS structures themselves needed to be able to unpack and animate with the bones left over (Bone Limit - Bones in Crate = Bones Left For RTS Structure).
While this may seem like a setback, this restriction does not mean that any work on the original animations (RTS animations created before the bone limit from the delivery crate was set) will go to waste. They are being used to create the sound effects for the structure unpacking inside the crate. To give you a better idea of the process that I use, here is a look back at a work-in-progress render of the Long-Range Transport Gate from the Consortium faction:
You will notice that the animation is playing in reverse. Since I am given the finished product, (the completely assembled RTS structure) I rig and animate each one backwards before I flip the animation keys to make it unpack. I have highlighted the bones in blue so that you can see just how many were used to make the original animation. Adding the bones from this sequence to the bones in the delivery crate put us way over our limit, and so, some adjustments had to be made.
I hope this example has helped to shed some light on the types of situations we face in the animation department. Enjoy the videos and remember to check back often for more media and more Dev Diaries!
Andrew, Lead Animator
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