Review: Maya Studio Projects: Game Environments and Props by Michael McKinley

MayaGameEnvironments

This is a book with a solid focus, and I feel like it accomplishes it’s goal nicely. Basically what Maya Studio Projects is about is creating environment objects and props for games (as the title implies). There are 9 chapters, and each one chooses a different object to model. McKinley is very detailed in his explanation, and really shows each and every step needed to follow along. Some of the objects modeled include walls and floors, foliage, weapons, vehicles, buildings, lamps, and a simple object animation. Supposedly there is a DVD companion, but I got the Kindle e-book and usually don’t bother with looking at the discs.

What I like most about Maya Studio Projects: Game Environments and Props by Michael McKinley is that the book is very much geared toward game artists. While pre-rendered art and game art do require the same skills, there is a slightly different thought process and flow when you are working within the limitations of a real-time game engine. The author does not assume you are using any particular engine (though Unreal is named a few times) and the techniques can be used in almost any modern engine. However, the instruction steps are very much tailored for Maya. While this is great if you want to follow along, step for step, it may make it more difficult if you use another package. Also, I typically like to just read along and sometimes I felt the author was too specific in each step, making it harder to extract the general philosophy of modeling. This can be a pro or con depending on what you are looking for. I would have also enjoyed more pictures. Sometimes as much as 10 or 12 steps were made in text alone and it can be slightly confusing without a demonstrating photo.

To sum it up, this was a fine book and I learned a little bit. I would not say it was exceptional, but there was nothing grossly wrong with it. Certainly, if you are looking to create props with Maya (especially man-made objects) this is not a bad place to start. If you are using Maya LT for game development, this is a very relevant book since it (thankfully) doesn’t use really any of the features missing in the LT version. One slight disappointment, McKinley doesn’t actually show you how to make the nice art on the cover. Can’t hold that against him, though. I’d consider this a great beginner’s book, and should help to get you started with 3d game modeling.

Review: 101 Autodesk Maya Tips by Dave Girard

MayaTips

This was a short book, so I’ll give it a short review. Basically, 101 Autodesk Maya Tips is exactly what it sounds like: a compilation of quick tips for using Autodesk Maya. Some of the tips are as brief as one sentence, but a few are more involved. It seemed like the majority of the content was based around Mel scripting, and various ways to automate particular tasks. I have not worked with Mel scripting much, and am still trying to wrap my head around the interface and UI of Maya. Girard does, thankfully, include some more basic tips as well.

With a book like this, I was not expecting any grand revelations. The goal appears to be just to highlight some shortcuts and methods for getting more out of Maya. Certainly, I can’t complain about the price (at $3) and I finished the book in probably about an hour. All in all, I guess only really a handful of the tips were immediately useful to me, though it was great to see what’s possible. For that, I found it worth the meager cost and time investment. Hopefully you will find some value too in this quick read.

Tutorial: How To Make a Textured Spinning Cube Using Unreal Engine 4


 

Today I will show how to create a textured spinning cube using Unreal Engine 4. Making a cube spin is basically what I consider the “litmus test” of 3D engines. How long it takes you to figure this out will show how convenient or capable the engine is. While I might have skipped this test (by jumping straight into creating Pong) I thought it was worthwhile to go back and try it. Hopefully this tutorial will be helpful to some of you just getting started.

UE4_Rotate_Cube

First thing you should do is create a new blank project. I chose to make the project with the starter content (and deleting the furniture) however that won’t be important for this guide. Next look on the left-hand panel, make sure you are in place mode (the icon with the cube), and look under basic and find Cube. Now drag the cube into the scene. It will probably start inside the floor, so just press Q to go into move mode and then drag it up a little.

UE4_Rotate_Import

Since looking at a gray model is not that exciting, lets add some texture. In the Content Browser on the bottom, right-click in the empty area and select “Import to /Game…”. Then find your image file and press Open.

UE4_Rotate_Tex

You should see the new texture appear in the browser. Now drag this texture onto the cube model. You’ll see this automatically create a default material for you. With the cube still selected, click “Movable” in the Details panel on the right.

UE4_Rotate_Comp

The next step is to create the component Blueprint. You can do this by clicking the green “+Add Component” button on the top of the Details panel. Choose “New Blueprint Script Component”. In the pop-up window, pick Scene Component, click Next, type a name in, then click “Create Blueprint Class”.

UE4_Rotate_BP

In the new Blueprint window, you can delete the “Event Initialize Component” (though you can also leave it alone, won’t matter in this case). Pull off the output execution pin on “Event Tick” (it’s the white arrow looking thing on the upper-right). You should see a menu open. Start typing “rotation” and then pick “Add Relative Rotation”. In the Y field for “Delta Rotation” type in “1” and press Enter. Pull off the “Target” pin and type “parent” then click “Get Attach Parent”. Now you can save and compile the script.

UE4_Rotate_Play

Switch back to the main editor window and press “Play”. That’s it! Hopefully this tutorial was useful to some people (please let me know in the comments). I plan to produce more of these in the future, and they should gradually get more complex as I get more familiar with the engine.

It’s really quite amazing how quick and easy it is to work with Unreal. Using straight C++ and DirectX, one would be lucky to make a textured spinning cube in 2 hours, let alone 2 minutes. It really speaks to the robustness of the engine. Of course, I still have a long way to go in terms of learning the engine, so please follow me on this journey (and pray I don’t give up on this one).

Review: How to Become a Video Game Artist: The Insider’s Guide to Landing a Job in the Gaming World by Sam R. Kennedy

VideoGameArt

So I am actually not looking to try to break into the game industry as an artist. Why did I read this book? Well, I am very much interested at upping my game when it comes to real-time graphics and content creation as a hobby. Computer graphics are just fascinating to me, and the best engine and shaders in the world will not save a shabby piece of art. This book seemed like a good way to get into the artist mindset. To top things off, the sticker-price was a palpable $12 dollars and the cover art looked great (important when taking art direction).

Basically what the book amounts to is a series of chapters, each one describing a particular game art profession. Some of the jobs detailed include: concept, environment, character, ui, and marketing artists. Every chapter includes a job description, explanation of the process or workflow, example images, an artist profile, and finally a mock “help wanted” ad that could be for the position. The format is informative, and I think would be very helpful for a student looking to get into the industry as an artist. Certainly, you don’t have to be a student to find worth in this book and I personally feel it is a great choice if you are at all interested in video game art.

The author, Sam R. Kennedy, is a game artist himself and shares a some of his (quite impressive) work within these pages. Nicely, the photos on the Kindle e-book were in color. This is quite important, and in my research I did stumble upon some game art instruction books from people with questionable artistic ability. Of course, you don’t need to be da Vinci to make a 3d model (especially not when working from good photos or concept art) but I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing taking advice from an amateur. That was not the case with this text. Kennedy is a veteran and has worked at Ubisoft on Tom Clancy games and the like. I felt pretty comfortable accepting his opinions.

All in all, I was happy with the purchase and I’m glad to have the book in my collection. If it helps me (even a little bit) in improving my art that’s a net positive. In any case, it was inspiring and that’s enough for me.

Review: Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting-Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design by Chris Solarski

GameArt

I’ve been trying to get back into making art (I did go to art school, after all) and this seemed like a well reviewed book. Plus, the Kindle edition was very reasonably priced at $12. Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting-Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design by Chris Solarski is not a long book (at 240 pages) but it’s well worth reading.

It almost seems like it’s two different books sandwiched together. The start is with basic drawing techniques and a study of classical artists. Anatomy, proportions, perspective, composition and layout, etc. Then the second part is more of a study of modern games with things like how color sets a mood, use of different shapes to evoke feelings, horizon lines, etc. It’s all very interesting, and I think would be helpful to not just artists but anyone working in gaming.

Just be aware, the book doesn’t really teach you how to be a good artist. There are various topics covered that can certainly help an artist, but there is little direct instruction (outside of the brief introduction at the beginning). I don’t think that was the author’s intention, and there are really tons of more general art books out there if you are so inclined. Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is more about theory and I feel the author is successful in that aspect. Solarski also managed to get screenshots of many popular games to analyze in the text, and thankfully all the images were in full color on my Kindle Fire tablet.

Overall, I liked the book and I think you will too.

Review: Getting Started in 3D with Maya: Create a Project from Start to Finish – Model, Texture, Rig, Animate, and Render in Maya by Adam Watkins

3DWithMaya

In what has to be one ridiculously long title for a pretty straight-forward book, Getting Started in 3D with Maya: Create a Project from Start to Finish – Model, Texture, Rig, Animate, and Render in Maya is actually not a bad place to start if you’re trying to get into 3D. Adam Watkins manages to pack all the crucial steps of 3D modeling and animation into 9 concise chapters. I enjoyed the flow of the book, and felt that every important detail was explained. The author teaches just enough to get to the next step, and it’s all done in a logical order and progression. If you are just getting started with 3D, or if you know another package and are new to Maya, I think this is a excellent book to pick up.

Watkins begins by explaining the general workflow and with the Maya philosophy (including a few somewhat comical hardware recommendations even though the book is only a couple years old). He continues with architectural modeling, organic modeling, UV layout, textures and materials, lighting and rendering, rigging and skinning, and finishes up with animation. Clocking in at around 448 pages, the book is not particularly short but I found I was able to get through it quickly. Each chapter was just the right size to read in one sitting, and the text was engaging enough to make me want to come back the following day.

I definitely feel like I learned a thing or two by reading this book, and it has helped me to better understand the Maya workflow. Most 3D packages are huge, monolithic pieces of software, and no single book could cover everything. However, Getting Started in 3D with Maya covers the basic things you need to know in order to get started (so the book is true to it’s name). If I had one complaint, it’s that I thought the art direction could have been better. This book won’t teach you to be a masterful artist but I guess that wasn’t the goal or scope of the text. In any case, I would certainly be interested in reading more from the author as I feel he has a clear and honest style that is easy to learn from. Recommended.

Review: How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015: Get Spectacular Results Fast by Michael McCarthy

3dsCheat

I found this book to be quite interesting, but it’s also very specific to the 3ds Max package. How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015: Get Spectacular Results Fast by Michael McCarthy has about 15 chapters focusing on various aspects of the 3d modeling process. It probably only took me about a week to read the text, which I don’t mind at all. Not every book has to be a 1000 page tome. I actually find it refreshing to read short books, especially if the author can impart a deal of knowledge in a quick span of time. How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015 was one of those books.

Included in the 328 page copy are some very essential topics in the creation of art in 3ds Max: customizing the UI, navigating the scene and transforming objects, basic modeling, character modeling, materials, lighting and shadows, reflections, animation, MAXScript, rendering, plug-ins, special effects, and more. Not a bad amount of coverage, though many of the chapters are not extensive.

If you’re using 3ds Max, I think this is a decent addition to your library. It covers some specific things well, and gives you enough information to know what to search for to find out more. I especially liked the chapter on how to make an object fracture and then fall into pieces using physics. It also shows you what tools there are (sometime even 3rd party plug-ins) and does give you a good idea of what’s possible if you’re new to Max. However, if you are using a different 3d package, the book may not be as useful.

What I wish is that there were more general 3d art and modeling books out there. I’ve already read Digital Modeling by William Vaughan and it was amazing, but sort of a one-of-a-kind. Too many of the books out there seem to focus on one particular toolset and don’t try to abstract the concepts into something more widely applicable. Clearly, the basic foundation of modeling and texturing techniques are not all that different with different programs. The buttons or methods may be different, but the thought process is very similar. I can’t knock this book for that, though, it’s just more of a general musing on the subject.

Overall I thought How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015 was a competent book, and achieves what it set out to do. I feel like it would probably be useful for beginner 3d artists trying to up their game, but maybe as a 2nd or 3rd book. The chapters each have a sort of “cookbook” feel to them, so I think some other books do a better job of building on top of previous chapters in a more cohesive manner. However, I don’t think that was the goal here, so I won’t penalize the author. All in all: not bad.

Review: 3ds Max Modeling for Games: Insider’s Guide to Game Character, Vehicle, and Environment Modeling: Volume I by Andrew Gahan

3dsMax

If you’re working with 3ds Max, or even similar packages, I think this book holds some insight. I’ve tried a few different modeling packages, but somehow Max just seemed to click better for me. Maybe it’s because it was the first one I started learning with, or maybe it’s popular for a reason. Not sure, but I think it’s a very capable product (especially for game development). 3ds Max Modeling for Games shows you how to do some basic (and not so basic) modeling tasks in the app. I found the instruction to be detailed and clear, though at times it can be very specific to the package.

So what does Andrew Gahan show you here? Well, he goes through some basics of working with the 3ds Max interface, terminology for game art, and texturing. Then he shows how to create, unwrap, and texture a simple model. Creating a more complex model (sort of a floor sweeper thing), vegetation and alpha maps, a low-poly vehicle, normal mapping techniques, an entire 3D environment, and finally a high and low poly character. Quite a good assortment of chapters and each one was fully fleshed out.

I did appreciate that the author goes through each step, even simple stuff other books may gloss over. In some cases, as I started reading I was questioning the method he was using, but eventually he made it work. While the text is very focused on the one specific application, I do think that artists (or aspiring artists) could glean knowledge from the techniques and apply them to other packages. However, this would not be the first book I went to if I was using Maya or whatever.

Overall I feel like I learned a couple neat tricks, and after reading the book I feel a little more confident in my modeling skills. Will really need to put this to the test soon, as I’ve been dying to create some nice art to work with building graphic demos and whatnot. Looking at programmer art all day is just not as motivating. I have plans of creating a realistic-style apartment, and I think it’s something reasonable to get finished. Down the road, I’d love to do a full character, but I’ve always struggled with this in the past. At least now that I’ve switched to Unreal, I can free up some of my effort to focus on art since I know the engine will support whatever I throw in there (and make it look good!). Looking forward to checking the Volume II in the series shortly.

Making Pong in Unreal Engine 4 (My Very First UE4 Game!)


 

Today I’d like to unveil what I’ve been working on for about 2 weeks: Pong in Unreal Engine 4. Most of that time was spent reading documentation and watching tutorial videos just to figure out the basics. There is actually a *lot* of good material out there for Unreal Engine 4, the docs have been helpful and there are plenty of videos. Disappointingly, there are barely any books out there for the engine, but I’m sure that will change quickly.

Pretty much anyone will tell you, when you are learning to develop games (or switching to a new engine/platform), the best thing to do is to start small and try to complete something. It’s really silly to try to make an MMORPG as your first game (I have fallen for this one!) and even relatively simple things can become complex fast when you are not familiar with the platform. So I chose to do Pong as my first excursion into Unreal 4. It was not without some trials, but I made it through alive. Oh, and, no. This will not be considered my “finished project of the new year”. There are some other, cooler, things I have in mind.

Previously I was making multi-part blog posts with basically quick status updates. This was fine, but I think it will be more helpful for the community for me to do focused tutorials on a specific topic and post those more frequently. I learned quite a lot about Unreal with this project, and I think I can share some of that on this site. Some of the things I picked up working on this demo include: importing assets, working with Blueprint, basic flow and logic, movement, collision, HUD, events, keyboard control, functions and variables, and just getting familiar with the Unreal Editor interface. Not sure I will make tutorials on everything, but I plan to break this into a few posts. Below you can see the level Blueprint for the game, just to give you an idea of the complexity.

UE4_Pong_BP

Overall I have been impressed with Unreal Engine 4, and I can’t imagine purchasing a more capable piece of commercial software for less than the pennies they are giving this away for. People can complain about the 5% royalty but, really, if you get to the point where 5% is a significant dollar amount, you will be rolling in the the dough and shouldn’t care if Epic wants a piece of the pie. Cost aside, I do like the engine a lot. Granted, I ran into some bugs, and more crashes and stability issues than I’d care to admit. At one point, the project saved in a corrupted state and I was blocked from even opening it at all. Luckily, I was able to update the engine and convert the project, but I was sweating pretty hard for a little while. That said, I’m sure this can be improved in time and it didn’t stop me from developing (I’d just recommend using source control and committing often).

The visual programming system, Blueprint, is very powerful and I used that alone for this demo (no C++). I did start checking out the C++ support and it seems to add some extra power and flexibility, but I haven’t got that far yet. However, I can see building some simple games and experiences using the visual coding by itself. This is also great for designers, who may be able to rig up some basic stuff themselves. Keep in mind, it’s still programming (just not with text). You have to understand the basics of logic and control flow and, in some ways, it may even seem alien to veteran programmers. I know there were definitely a few cases where I had a non-trivial amount of nodes and connections and thinking “I could have done this in 1 line of code”. Once I got beyond that, I think I may prefer it to coding manually, as it’s much harder to make mistakes (or to create stuff that doesn’t work).

I hope to continue working with UE4 in the future and I’ll continue updating my blog as I make major developments. Thanks for watching.

Creating a 3D Game Engine (Part 25)

So it comes with great reluctance but I think I will have to suspend development on my 3D game engine, at least for the near future. Surely this will be a disappointment to anyone following the progress and I did not make the decision lightly. After spending some time thinking about it, I think it’s the right move. It’s just really hard to justify the amount of time and effort put into this when there are much better solutions available off-the-shelf.

In the little less than 2 years I’ve worked on this project, I think I have made decent strides. Honestly, I was not working on it full-time. Just on weekends mostly or maybe here and there when I had time after work. My initial goal was to have something functional in about 6 months to a year. It took a little longer, but I guess eventually I did have the basic features of an engine somewhat working. I will list what was implemented below, but it was enough to load in some textured models and fly a camera around. Not ground-breaking work by any means, but I built nearly everything myself so I was happy about that. There was just an enormous amount of work remaining to get to a state where a game could be produced. Finally, it was too much.

So before I give my personal advice, I’ll break down how I got to this point. First, let’s look at all the books I read as research for this project:

Game Engine Architecture – Jason Gregory
Game Coding Complete, Fourth Edition – Mike McShaffry
Real-Time Rendering, Third Edition – Tomas Akenine-Moller
Game Engine Design And Implementation – Alan Thorn
3D Game Engine Programming – Stefan Zerbst
Game Engine Gems, Volume One – Eric Lengyel
3D Game Engine Architecture – David H. Eberly
3D Game Engine Design –  David H. Eberly
3D Math Primer for Graphics and Game Development – Fletcher Dunn
Mathematics for 3D Game Programming and Computer Graphics, Third Edition – Eric Lengyel
Introduction to 3D Game Programming with DirectX 11 – Frank Luna
Practical Rendering and Computation with Direct3D 11 – Jason Zink
Beginning DirectX 11 Game Programming – Allen Sherrod
Game Programming Patterns – Robert Nystrom
Game Physics Engine Development – Ian Millington
Physics for Game Developers – David M Bourg
Physics for Game Programmers – Grant Palmer
Game Physics Pearls – Gino van den Bergen
Shadow Algorithms Data Miner – Andrew Woo
The C++ Programming Language, 4th Edition – Bjarne Stroustrup
C++ Primer (5th Edition) –  Stanley B. Lippman
C++ Primer Plus (6th Edition) – Stephen Prata
More Effective C++ – Scott Meyers

If you are considering engine development, please read on, but I believe all the above books are valuable to look at. I’ve also read a variety of sources online, from tutorials to official documentation and more. Looking at that list it seems huge, but I am an avid reader and have read and listened to a number of non-technical books in that time-span as well.

Next, let’s look at what features were actually implemented and working (or mostly working):

  • Win32 app template (message pump)
  • DirectX 11 based rendering engine
  • DirectInput mouse and keyboard controls
  • Custom math library (Vector, Point, Matrix, view/projection)
  • Node-based hierarchical scene graph
  • Frustum culling (sphere and point tests, minimal bounding sphere)
  • Generic XML parser (from scratch, kind of hacky and slow)
  • COLLADA importer (only basic vertex and UVs)
  • Custom binary 3D model format (for speed)
  • Camera object (spectator mode)
  • Texture mapping and Skybox (cube mapping)
  • Directional, ambient, and specular lighting
  • Normal and shadow mapping shaders
  • Command-line console window logging
  • Architectural glue and probably some odds-and-ends.

So what wasn’t finished? Way too much to list. I don’t want to get down on myself too hard, cause I think that I accomplished a little something here. Certainly some of this stuff was not easy and, if anything, it has made me a better coder. Even in the current state I guess you could make a Pong game or a simple walk-through demo or the like. Also keep in mind this was a part-time excursion. If I were dedicated to this fully it probably would only have taken months (not counting research time). While I started with a very clean style and deliberate design, by the end I was kind of hacking things together, and some features (like the shadow mapping) became very intertwined with the core rendering code. Of course, this was very much a learning experience, and I planned to go back and clean things up later (which may or may not ever happen, we’ll see).

OK, so by now you are probably getting the idea. As to my advice, if you are trying to make a game (or game-like interactive experience) don’t bother making a custom engine. Everyone basically told me this from the start, and I didn’t listen. It’s sort of like when you see people doing stunts on TV and they tell you “don’t do this at home.” But they did it, and it made them rich and famous. So maybe I was looking for glory, or hoping finishing a big project like this would take me to another level. I guess in a way it did. I’m just not sure that was the best use of my limited time. What I mean to say is that knowledge is valuable, and I feel I learned a lot. However, unless you are really looking to be an engine programming professional, there is not much reason to try to do this.

The crux of the matter is that all-in-one engines like Unity and Unreal are just too complex and mature to expect to compete with. That’s not to say a small team or a single hero-coder can’t produce something great. They can. However, using a pre-built engine cuts out a *lot* of time and risk. Had I been working on a project for a client, I would have never even contemplated a custom engine. It just doesn’t make sense. Both Unreal and Unity have huge teams of expert engineers working solely on engine development. Unless you work for a huge AAA studio with a monster budget, I just can’t see coming up with something better in any reasonable amount of time. Even some huge companies (like Capcom and Square-Enix) are dropping in-house engine development for Unreal 4. Not a good sign for indies or bedroom coders working on their own engines.

But let’s say those big engines aren’t for you. There are a number of open-source engines and libraries out there to help you along. Something like Torque or C4 look promising (if you want a full-featured solution), or OGRE (if you don’t mind having to cobble together a bunch of different libraries). If you are interested in web publishing there are things like three.js for WebGL. With source access you can add the features you need or fix critical bugs. Really there are too many options to ignore.

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing with Unreal Engine 4, and it basically does everything I need and a whole lot more. At $19/month and a small royalty (if you sell your title) making a AAA looking game has never been more affordable. Unity may still have a leg up on ease-of-use and scalability on different platforms, but for high-end development I think Unreal is probably the one to go with. Having the source-code is a huge boon, and the price makes it attainable to almost anyone. Plus, with the visual scripting, Unreal can even be approachable to artists and designers. I’m still in the early stages of getting acquainted with the engine, but so far I am pleasantly surprised. I plan to follow up with some posts and tutorials in UE4 in the future, so don’t think this is the end of my blogging career or anything of that sort.

With all that said, there are still some things I’d like to see in engines that don’t exist today. You typically can’t use the editor in stereo 3D (assuming the engine even supports 3D natively), motion control support for placing objects is non-existent, image and model editing is usually very rudimentary (you must switch back and forth to other apps), real-time code editing and previewing can be limited. So things can certainly improve, and I guess there could be a case made for making plugins or forks to existing projects. I’m not saying things can’t improve. Just that reinventing the wheel to make incremental improvements may not be the best path.

At this point I don’t think I would say engine development is a “waste of time.” As a learning experience, I think it was fun and rewarding. Certainly I hope I didn’t just waste 2 years of my life. Doing all the work and research has brought me here to this place. So it was somewhat worthwhile. It just pains me to think how far along I might have been had I jumped on Unreal 4 when they first announced the subscription model, or spent more time with Unity over the years. If you actually want to build (and finish) a game, it’s a pretty clear choice to use an off-the-shelf solution. I’m sorry, guys. I wanted to prove everyone wrong, but they were right. Make games, not engines.

Finally, I’m sure the question you’re thinking is “will I release the source.” I’m considering it, but there are some hacked bits in there and I’m not sure it’s a great example to work off of. More likely I will pull out portions or classes from the project and use them for future blog posts highlighting a particular algorithm or technique. The full source itself is probably less useful compared to other stuff that’s out there. In any case, I hope maybe you have learned something after 2 years and 25 posts on this project. If you click the (somewhat hidden) 3 white line icon on the top right of the blog, you can see a list of all the blog updates in this series for a little history (if you weren’t following the whole time). Cheers, and happy coding.