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EVOCHRON IN DEVELOPMENT

  This page is a development log for Evochron. I will post information on features/options being considered and/or developed for the game along with occasional screenshots. As such, not all features/options included on this page may be included in the game and are subject to change.

July 8th, 2012
I've recently been working on the revised Vonari ships for the game. The basic meshes have been ported from Arvoch and new illumination maps have been applied along with increased texture detail and exhaust flare effects. Here are a few screenshots showing the new capital ship and interceptor:






Another improvement for the ships is an overall increase in relative size. All small ships have been increased in scale by about 400%, allowing for improved visibility at longer ranges (easier to determine orientation and structural details), closer zooming in external views, and a greater sense of closer proximity in dogfights. Here are a few screenshots to illustrate the effect of this change (illumination maps have also been added for human ships):








May 25th, 2012
The next stages of development I've been working on include the new HUD, cockpit displays, UI changes, revised terrain plant system, and background/starfield system. One significant change taking place with the game's graphics includes a new 'cubemap' structure for the background. This allows the game to have fully unique background environments for each system with a unique texture index for each 90 degree viewing direction. Previously, this was limited to a single spherically mapped texture combined with optional segments for added detail. With the new system, six separate textures are used for the background with support for very high resolutions. This will allow the game to feature more background variety and a much higher level of detail. For modders, nebulae can now be added directly to these surfaces anywhere in the background using virtually any desired size and shape, rather than being limited to a fixed point in space at a fixed size. For optimized memory use, the game will also support the DDS format for texture compression (ie DXT5). While it may sound like a somewhat trivial improvement, the potential this opens up is significant. Systems can now have a much more unique and diverse look to them using a higher level of detail. No longer will each star system be limited to one nebula structure in front and one in back, they can now have as many as needed anywhere in the background.

The original plant system has needed to be revised to work with the new planetary terrain engine. This turned out to be a much longer task than I had originally anticipated. Much of the problems stemmed from the new localised collision detection system, which helps to reduce memory overhead, but would not allow plant structures to be properly positioned out in the distance where the height detection was not yet established. So I had to write a new selective localisation system that included more terrain structures farther out in the distance. I won't bore you with the extensive details on what it took to achieve this objective, so in short, it involved some carefully designed proximity and angle check routines combined with the new plant structure placement system. The result is proving effective and performs well even on my low end test machine for 15 FPS with all planet details now in place and 50+ FPS on a decent gaming system. There is still a lot of work left to do, but with the introduction of the plant system, the core components of the new planet engine are all now up and running. I have been able to fly a ship down to the surface of a planet seamlessly, get into a terrain walker, then explore the terrain 'on foot' with clouds rolling overhead, plants in place around me, setting star lens flares, shifting rain regions, and proper walker animation all working. The job to tune and tweak the various systems now begins.

To accommodate a specific player request, the formation system has been updated to automatically engage the jump drive when formed on a friendly (ie clan linked) ship in multiplayer. If your jump drive can reach the same destination as the targeted ship, you'll arrive at the same location automatically and your ship's targeting system will re-aquire the friendly ship once it arrives. This has been one of the challenges with implementing such a system in the past, so I've worked on a routine that will continually attempt to re-target the ship for up to several seconds in case it arrives later due to a longer loading time. So the formation link can stay active even if the targeted ship takes longer to arrive.

The 'space debris' system is also up and running in the game. It provides random items that fall to the surface of planets to be found later by willing spacecraft and terrain walker explorers. The system also synchronizes the items in multiplayer so players in the same sector will have the same items available to them. It's variable availability means that at times there might be just a handful of items to be found on a planet while at others, there can be many. The items also vary in type depending on the industries and markets of the area, some can offer very high value items for only the cost of exploring for them.

The game's main menu is also being changed. The background hangar scene is being replaced by a space scene and the voice intercomm chat is being moved to the in-game hangar scene when the player enters a station or city. The buttons and mouse-over highlighting is also being changed for an improved appearance.

The UI (particularly menus and consoles) has been getting a significant overhaul. To highlight a few improvements, the Nav console now has several new modes and options including the ability to slide the map around as well as magnify it to cover around half of the entire screen for easier viewing and jump/nav point selection. For the inventory console, the 'Jettison' button has been moved to a vertical button on the right side of the cargo bay list, helping to prevent the accidental clicking when selecting other options on the console. A new flight/event log has also been added to the game, helping the player keep track of significant events, particularly buying and selling items and completing contracts. Much of the 'noise' on the console structures themselves has been removed and color tones reduced for a cleaner and less cluttered appearance.

Finally, the finishing touches are being applied to the cockpit and HUD. I've decided to design a multi-color appearance for the HUD, cockpit displays, and consoles. The new design uses gray borders and frames in conjunction with blue readouts and panels. Shading has also been applied to give some of them a 'glassy' look. The new design helps tone down the intense blue appearance of the original design approach while improving legibility and reducing clutter. I've included a few screenshots below to show the overall look, including a closeup of the gunsight:




On a 'developer' side note, I have some nerve damage in my right arm that is a result of years of typing and using the mouse. Most of the time, the pain is bearable and I can generally work through it, but over the last few weeks, it's become severe enough to hinder my ability to effectively program for very long. So I've had to scale back a bit in an effort to try and allow the nerve(s) to heal. This also means I may be a bit slower in answering e-mails over the next few weeks as I try to limit my typing time to a few sessions a day. I plan to be back to full speed as things hopefully improve. At my age now, it sure seems to take a lot longer to heal from these kinds of things than it used to, lol.



March 18th, 2012
I've managed to get back to working on the expansion and have made some important advancements over the last few weeks in some critical areas of functionality. First, the new axis mapping system has been integrated and is working properly. This 'new' mapping system is not a replacement for the old system, so you'll still be able to use the 'step-by-step' process to map all of the control options. However, the new system also gives you the option to map each axis channel individually without having to go through the entire mapping process. All you'll need to do is simply click on the axis you want to map a control to, then select the control function to map to it. That's it, really quick and easy, allowing you to set up axis controls independently. The new system also supports the device ID selection system, so you can toggle between connected devices while mapping each axis channel. It's proving to be a much more efficient and flexible way to select control options. Another new control option is the ability to map multiple functions to the same key or button. So for example, if you want to map the W key for throttle up and inertial forward thrust, you'll be able to do so. This should also come in handy with the new dedicated control options for the terrain walkers where you might want the same key to perform a different function while in the walker mode. The game will alert you to the conflicts by highlighting duplicated controls in red, but it won't force you to change them or automatically remove conflicts for you.

One of my main goals for the expansion is making sure as many players will be able to enjoy it as feasible. I have worked hard to keep the memory profile of the game at or below the levels in version 1.X. Although it's still pretty early, the system requirements will likely remain the same as they were before save for two aspects (which I'll discuss shortly). So if you can currently play the game on your system, you'll likely be able to play the expansion as well (and possibly even with higher detail settings). One of the changes taking place is the removal of the 'fixed function' rendering option. Many of the new graphics effects/systems will now require the use of shaders, so a 3D video card supporting at least shader model 2.0 will be a requirement. Virtually any 3D card made in the last 5+ years or so supports this and I haven't received any reports from players still using the non-shader option in the current game. So this shouldn't impact current players and will allow the game to provide a new minimum technology level necessary for the new planet engine and other systems. The other change involves the planetary terrain engine. After an extensive series of internal tests, I decided to implement two rendering 'modes' for the planet engine. The initial 'procedural' style system works well on fast systems. It creates planet terrain details in memory while the game is running, adding detail as the player approaches the planet and reducing detail as they move away. However, a minor stuttering problem surfaced on slower/older systems that caused momentary jumps in the framerate. Although the effect was fairly minimal (certainly less than the occasional stuttering that occurs in other games), it was significant enough for me to invest time into developing an alternate system to reduce/eliminate the effect. So in addition to the default 'Procedural' mode there will also be a 'Pre-Generated' mode that will create certain planet details in advance and save them to disk. This option will allow the game to simply load those details from disk rather than having to build them in memory during runtime. It allows the initial loading process to go much faster and allows planet detail transitions to take place much faster. The Pre-Generated mode will be available in the Options menu and when selected, the game will create the needed media files and store them in the save data folder (the process will take several minutes when activated). The data will require about 2 GB of additional hard drive storage, raising the total hard drive space requirement for the game to about 3 GB. Since the game takes care of creating the data internally, this option won't increase the download size of the game, it will only impact the install size when enabled. If a player wants to return to the procedural mode, then can deactivate the pre-generated mode and the game will take care of removing the additional data files automatically. This way, the game will provide two modes that the player can choose from to optimize performance for their unique system.

Also on the completed list is the animation state transfer for the terrain walkers in multiplayer. This helps insure that what a player sees on their screen matches what is seen on the other's at each stage of walking animation. This includes leg positions, torso rotation, and movement. Since the updates can only be provided up to a certain limit across a multiplayer connection, the game helps fill in the animation sequences between packet gaps to smooth out the movement. This requirement is not unique or unusual for FPS games, but the methods to achieve these objectives in Evochron are significantly different. The walkers are animated in code and not via key frame animation in the models themselves. This approach allows for the potential to have different parts in the future and for possible modding (and maybe some design possibilities in the future, although this hasn't yet been planned). This 'in-code' animation system required a new set of values in data packets for each relevant point of animation to synchronize the entirety of each structure beyond just a key frame condition and also required me to write a special client-side prediction and interpolation system for structure updates in between packets. It's been a very difficult and challenging project for me having to come up with these new systems and routines from scratch, but the results are proving to be worth it. I can now assemble the walkers in memory from individual pieces and let the animation system take over and apply the proper motion/movement both locally and in multiplayer.

For terrain walkers, I've also finished the jumpjet exhaust effects and mesh structures along with dust effects that occur at their feet when they walk. I've also expanded the dust effects for mining beams and weapon impacts on certain structures.

Here are a few screenshots I took while testing some planetary systems. They show a descent from a high altitude (upper atmosphere entry) and the new lens flare effect:




Forum member 'Maximilien' has been kind enough to donate parts of a cockpit design he is working on as a mod to be included in the official game. After adding shaders, normal maps, specular effects, adjusting various structures, and breaking it up into parts to be assembled in memory, a prototype of the new cockpit design is now up and running in the game. There's still some work left to do, particularly on the center displays where I'd like to add some more details/information. I've included a few screenshots of it in its current form below:








February 12th, 2012
For this entry, I'll review some details about the new planned player-to-player contract system and 'request information' option. There has been a fairly long-standing request from players to have a way to set up individual contracts between themself and another player, rather than being restricted to reviewing and taking contracts exclusively from stations, cities, and carriers. So one of the new gameplay options is an expansion of the Ship-to-Ship trade console that allows players to set up contracts with each other. At the top of the priority list for this option has been 'bounty hunting' objectives. That is, one player hires another player to destroy a third player for an agreed amount. So that's been included in the system along with paid resource recovery and a generic 'destroy hostiles' objective. This way, players could hire others to help increase their territory control by rewarding attacks on hostile ships, acquire important resources, or target a specific threat and be paid automatically between each other.

Another addition to the trade console is the 'Request Information' option. This new option will let you directly check with AI controlled ships for possible tips and information on hidden locations, trade routes, item availability, or sometimes they'll just offer small-talk. The information they offer may require a price or the pilot may just share some useful information with you. This option is designed to help increase the value of ship-to-ship interaction by providing an optional resource of information available to the player any time they want to check with a nearby ship.



January 5th, 2012
In this entry, I'll provide details on the new weapon lab and AI tactics/intelligence. First, a new option entitled 'Weapon Lab' will appear in station and city hangars above the Shipyard option. If all planned options are implemented, the weapon lab will let you customize the functional design of particle cannons, beam weapons, and even missiles. You can take the framework of an existing weapon class and use it as a template to further change how it operates by balancing various parameters. For example, particle cannons are the most diverse weapon option and offer parameters for emitter output, actuator speed, heatsinks, and capacitor reserve. You adjust the slider controls to change the values assigned to the parameters and the effects of your changes are displayed on the 'Weapon Performance Specifications' indicators at the bottom of the menu. Your customized weapon can then be built and installed on your ship.

AI intelligence and tactics are getting a significant update. There will now be a much wider range in combat tactics/skill used by AI controlled ships in the game. Some star systems will be significantly easier than before, offering new players an easier learning curve for the game's rather complex combat systems and tactics. Other star systems will be much more challenging, offering the master pilots in the game a chance to push their limits against AI pilots that know how to best use their ships and weapons. Flying into a 'hornet's nest' of hostiles in the more challenging systems won't be as easy to survive in as it is now. For multiplayer pilots, the need for reinforcements from other players will generally be much higher, especially in war zones.

Also, as part of the new radio chatter system designed to make the game's universe feel more alive, AI ships and stations will exchange dialogue about docking and departure sequences. It won't just be random chatter, but related to the actions of the AI ships approaching and departing stations... the AI radio dialogues will now become a useful functional part of the game's universe. The player will be able to use this information to plot their own approaches and departures to avoid getting to close to other ships. Most pilots will be courteous by announcing their docking/departure path, while a few others might be more aggressive and just dock/undock. Stations will also help keep the player advised of current traffic patterns/conditions by informing them of the nearest departure hangar when they disengage the docking tractor beam while also letting them know if they are clear as they approach a station. If a ship is inbound or outbound through the same hangar, the player will be notified. The game's speech engine will do the work of piecing together the various sentences to form the dialogues and the system will be part of the customizing options.

As you may have guessed by the description above, stations are getting a redesign that includes an enclosed hangar with dedicated entrances. This new design will help protect players while docked and gives the stations a much more detailed and functional structure. Here is a quick screenshot showing an approach to hangar 4 near Arvoch Prime:



I plan to post more details on the new station designs soon. Now that some of the design elements are coming together, here are a few screenshots showing the new cockpit and a few planets:






December 24th, 2011
As mentioned in the news section, the time has come to announce the upcoming expansion for Evochron. The plan is for this next year to be when Evochron takes a major leap in terms of technology, gameplay, and features. In other words, it's time for a whole lot of new toys to play with in the sandbox of the Evochron universe. :-)

This first entry will cover some of the early details about the new planetary system and terrain walker option. Later on, I plan to post information about the revised ship/station designs, textures, visual effects, AI tactics/intelligence, the new weapon lab, control options, and gameplay additions.

PLANETARY ENGINE
I've spent the last year or so working on a new planetary system for the game as part of the expansion for the game planned for next year. Not just terrain, but also atmosphere, cloud, scaling, and possibly even rotation effects (so you could watch a sunrise or sunset on your favorite planet). The original system I wrote a few years ago worked pretty well, but has had its obvious limits with detail. One of my main goals for the new system is to provide a much better visual presentation along with an engine that is also designed to accommodate the planned new gameplay opportunities. So the new planet system is being built to not just be something nice to look at, but also to be functional as an important component in the overall interactive feature set of the game. More details on that later.

In terms of visual detail, the result for the new system so far has been an increase of around 500% in raw mesh detail while using the same or less memory. This is a significant step toward bringing far more realistic terrain to the game. It has been achieved through a new LOD mechanism and shader system that is much more efficient. The new terrain system includes selective texture application and transitions based on slope and elevation along with normal mapping and haze effects. Even in its early form, the new system maintains a low memory profile while presenting far more detailed and realistic terrain. Terrain can be much more varied and range from vast plateaus to deep canyons and steep mountains. The new system is also nicely scalable, so as computers increase in performance and resources in the future, I can introduce new levels of detail in the years to come. Here are a few screenshots of some test terrain:






Shorelines appear much better and depth sorting allows for a smoother transition to a blue color in deeper water. Higher points can be ice/snow covered and transitions from one elevation level to another are far smoother and more realistic looking. The new system makes flying over planets much more visually engaging and I can already tell I'll want to start hiding things on planets for players to discover, offering rewards for those willing to be dedicated terrain explorers. Planets will also be much larger, but not so large as to make descents and city access take too much time. I'm carefully considering the feedback I've received on planet scaling to accommodate the requests for larger planets and reasonable descent times.

Another important step has been the atmosphere effects. Clouds now move across the sky and fade in and out as they move around the player. A new haze system gives planets with thicker atmospheres a far more realistic appearance. As you descend into a planet, there is a greater sense of entering an atmosphere as the haze fades out into the horizon and changes visibility as you approach the surface. I wanted to make sure that not only would the terrain look much better, but also the planets themselves at a distance and during the entire descent process. Here is a screenshot showing a prototype of Earth rendered at a distance with the new engine:




And a couple of screenshots showing how atmosphere haze can appear in various forms:


TERRAIN WALKERS
I've wanted to create a mechanized walker combat warfare game for a long time, going on three decades now in fact. I've written several prototype game engines over that time, but never really took my ideas beyond the concept stage. This is about to change with the introduction of a new gameplay element to Evochron. In addition to the planet system, I've also be developing a new 'terrain walker' prototype which would allow players to get out of their ship and explore the surface of a planet 'on foot'. The walker would protect the pilot from the harsh conditions of a planet while giving them the mobility and freedom to travel on the ground to explore, fight, or harvest at close range. Once implemented, this could open up a wide variety of new gameplay options and features to the game. I already have a prototype walker design with full animation up and running using the new terrain engine and results are successful so far, including proper walker alignment to any position on the planet and low additional resource load. Terrain walkers even have jump jets for short flight bursts. The opportunities this opens for new contract types and gameplay options are extensive and this is something I am working on to include as part of the expansion. Here is a screenshot of how this looks in prototype form:




I've been talking about this new system with several regular players to get their feedback and gauge interest in the options it could potentially provide. These discussions have been key in my decision to greenlight the project and work on making it part of the Evochron expansion. I've posted some answers to questions about the new system below:

Q - What are the primary functions for terrain walkers? What will they be used for?
A - The options haven't been finalized yet and there will likely be room for additional options in the future. But initially, their primary functions will be scouting terrain at close range to discover hidden/lost items, mine (they will include a mining beam built-in), ground based combat with other walkers, and defensive roles for other players performing ground operations.

Q - Will the player be able to land their ship on the surface of a planet, then get out into the walker seamlessly in true Evochron form?
A - Yes. The planet system will remain consistent and work with both flight mode and walker mode.

Q - Will terrain walkers be able to engage ships in combat?
A - Yes. Terrain walkers will be lightly armed and generally best used against other walkers, but they will be able to fire back at any ships that attempt to hit them from the sky.

Q - Will the terrain walker mode be 'sharded' or 'instanced' from ship gameplay, separating walker players from spacecraft players?
A - No. This would go against one of the primary design objectives of Evochron... the seamless universe. Terrain walkers will play in the same game universe as ships and they'll be able to see and interact with each other.

Q - How will terrain walkers be available in the game for purchase? And how will the player activate them?
A - They will be available as an equipment item and activated with a dedicated key/button control option. Terrain walkers will also have their own dedicated control system that includes WASD for movement and mouse for view control.

Q - Will terrain walkers share the primary weapon system of the ship that carries them, much like gun turrets do now?
A - Yes, particle cannons will carry over to the terrain walker. Terrain walkers will not initially be equipped with beam cannons or missiles.

Q - Will terrain walkers be able to walk near/around colony city structures?
A - Yes. A new collision system has been developed to accommodate terrain walkers and allow them to walk around the buildings of a colony city. Players will be able to use them for shelter as part of their combat tactical options.




In the next log entry, I plan to post details on the new weapon crafting system and visual effects being worked on for the game. I also hope to post a few preview videos of some of the new systems in action.











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