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Monday, June 27, 2016

Introducing Pollock

Pollock is the code-name for our new terrain generation system. Why Pollock? This system went rogue for a couple of days and started producing things that did not look like terrain and more like Jackson Pollock paintings:

It seems mad randomness at first, just like Pollock, but there is a lot of order in this chaos (and also what appeared to be a buffer overrun error somewhere in the code.)

Here are some images of the system when it behaves as expected:

The colors you see in these renders are not the final landscape colors. Each color identifies a different layer of more detailed material that will go there. These are placeholder materials Pollock is creating for you.

Pollock's main input is photographs, which you provide to suggest the geography of each biome. In case you want to create a full continent, Pollock will ask you some additional basic facts about elevation, temperature and wind direction.

In continents, you will get nice surprises like a desert appearing on one side of a mountain range:

While the other side of the same range is all made of fertile land:

This has happened due to all the moisture coming from the sea precipitating over one side and having only dry air go over the mountains.

It takes around five minutes to set this up from scratch. The system will so some pre-processing for a few minutes (usually less than five) and that's it. In less than 15 minutes you can complete the creation of an entire continent that spans over a dozen different biomes.

We are in the last stages of completion for this system. There are two main features missing: the addition of forests, rocks, etc. and plugging this with the lake generator to get inner lakes. Right now the system only does ocean.

This system will be included in the Voxel Farm 3 release.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A simple creative mechanic

For some people, a pencil is all they need to create something amazing. For others, the blank page can be discouraging. It is not an invitation to create, rather a reminder you may not be a creative person after all.

I see voxels as a creative medium far superior in terms of simplicity to anything that came before. They are closer to working with physical matter, your mind just gets what you need to do. If done right, they can be as simple and intuitive as using a pencil on paper. But again, pencils can be quite daunting.

I keep asking myself if there is a way around this. We all like to feel creative. Is there a framework where technology can help? Dumbing the medium down to large boxes to level the playing field worked for Minecraft, but this giving both Shakespeare and the village idiot a total vocabulary of five words. They may have a good time just do not expect Julius Cesar.

What if you are not asked to create something entirely new after all? Drawing with a pencil is not the only way you can feel good about your creative self. Remember coloring books. They remove all the stress in the creative act, but you still feel you are creating something.

Here is the equivalent of a coloring book using voxels:

If you are a Landmark builder you will know exactly what is going on. The shapes are already there, they are just filled with air. A paint tool converts the user brushstrokes into visible matter by applying the user's material of choice.

I see games in the future exploiting this mechanic. My five-year-old kids had a lot of fun filling up the different shapes I set up for them. A game could make building rich objects and structures very accessible and stress-free by just hinting where things could be built, and leaving enough for the player to discover and decide on their own.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Voxel Farm 3

I'm happy to announce Voxel Farm 3, a new version of our tech, will be available August 2016.

The team has been working hard towards this next major release. There are still a lot of bugs to squash, but pretty much everything included in the release is ready.

The major items in the release are:

  • UV-mapped voxels
  • Meta-materials and Meta-meshes for large, custom procedural objects
  • Improved Unreal Engine 4 Integration
  • New instancing system, both voxel and mesh-based
  • Intelligent Biome Terrain Synthesis
  • Continent and landmass generator

I have covered most of these already in earlier posts. There are some other items under wraps that we have not disclosed yet, mainly because we are not sure if they will make the release.

The new version will bring a new business model. We are dropping the monthly fees and royalty payments. The new model is simple: you purchase for a one-time fee and you get one year of free updates. To make it fair, we have implemented these changes already for the current version. And everyone who has a Voxel Farm 2 license will get an upgrade to version 3 at no additional cost.

Gearing up towards the major release, we have just updated the company's website at:

There is a new WebGL demo that shows Voxel Farm in action over the web (it is in the Showcase section.) We also added Forums, something our users have been demanding almost since last year's launch. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Terrain Synthesis

This is just a teaser. We are still working on this, but we got some results that are already good enough to show. It is not about where terrain types appear (that was covered here and here), but how a particular terrain type is generated.

We want to make procedural generation as accessible as possible. Just like a movie director who shows a portfolio of photos and concept art to the CGI team and just says "make it look like this", we wanted the creator to be entirely clueless about how everything works.

This is how it feels to create a new terrain type. You provide a few pictures of it and we take it from there:

This system builds a probabilistic model based on the samples you provide. That is enough to get an idea of the base elevation. On top of that, several natural filters are applied. It turns out we do know a bit more about this landscape. We know how dry it is, what is the average temperature among other things. The only fact we are missing and have to ask about is how old do you think this is. The time scales range from hundreds of millions of years to billions of years. (If you believe your terrain is 6000 years old we cannot accommodate you at the moment.)

You can provide one or more sample pictures. The more pictures you provide, the better, but just one picture is often enough. Ready to see some results? The following terrains were synthesized out of a single photo in every case (do not mind the faux coloring, this is only to indentify the different terrain layers for now):

Providing multiple samples creates some sort of mix, similar to how you find both mother and father features in their kids:

This works with any kind of image. It could be some fancy concept art as seen below:

The natural filters in this case added some realism to the concept, and eroded some of the original hill shape. This could be avoided if you are after a more stylized look. But if you are short on time, and want to prototype different realistic terrains, the ability to quickly sketch something and feed it to the generator is a big help.

Of course you can still look under the hood and tinker with generation frequencies, filter parameters, etc. You can still have terrain models imported from Digital Elevation Models, or from third party software like World Machine. The key here is you do not have to anymore.

I'd be glad to enter into details of how this works if you guys are interested. Just let me know. I still owe the Part 2 of the continent generation. That should come shortly.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Turtle Mountain

If you have ten minutes or so to spare I encourage you to check out this video. The rest of this post will be about how it was done:

The shyamalanian twist here is the guy lives in the back of a giant turtle. (Maybe not so much of a twist since the video title and thumbnail pretty much give it away.)

What you are seeing here is a new Voxel Farm system in action. It gets a very low-resolution mesh as a base and enhances it by adding procedural detail.

I think this is an essential tool for world builders.. Very often procedural generation deprives the creator of control over the large scale features of the terrain. Or, when control is allowed, it comes in the form of 2D maps like heightmaps and masks. There is no way to drive the procedural generation into complicated shapes and topologies like intricate caves, floating islands, wide waterfalls, etc.

We chose a massive turtle mountain to drive the point anything you can imagine can be turned into a detailed terrain. This is how it works:

The first thing you need to do is create a low-resolution mesh for the base of the terrain feature. This project used three of these meshes, one for the turtle's body and shell, another for the terrain protuberance on the top of the shell and one last mesh for a series of caves. Here you can see them:

On their own they were rather simple to produce. The tortoise is a stock model from a third party site. The mountain was done by displacing a mesh using a heightmap that had a fluvial erosion filter applied to it. The cave system mesh is a simple mesh with additional subdivisions and 3D noise applied to it.

These meshes were imported into Voxel Studio (our creative world building tool) and properly positioned relative to each other.

In addition to triangles, the meshes were textured using traditional means. Here you can see the texture that was applied to the turtle body:

Here is how the textured top mountain looks like:

Note how the texture uses single flat colors. Each pixel in the texture represents a terrain type, not an actual color. You can think of these as instructions to be passed down to the procedural generators when the time comes to add detail.

The meshes may appear detailed at this distance, but if you stretched them to cover four kilometers (which is the size of the turtle base in the world), you would see a single triangle span a dozen of meters or more. A single texture pixel would cover several meters. This would make for a very boring and flat environment. Here is where the procedural aspect kicks in.

Each color in a mesh texture represents what we call a "Meta-Material". I have posted about them before: here and here. In general a metamaterial is a set of rules that define how a coarse section of space can be refined. In this particular implementation for our engine, this is achieved by supplying two different pieces of information:
  1. A displacement map
  2. A sub-material map 
This is a very simple and effective way to refine space. The displacement map is used to change the geometry and add volumetric detail to an otherwise flat surface. The submaterial map registers closely to the displacement map so the artist can make sure materials appear at the right points in the displaced geometry. Once again the submaterial map does not contain final colors. Each pixel in this map represents a final voxel material that would be applied there.

Here you can see the displacement and submaterial map used for one of the metamaterials in the scene:

One particularly nice aspect of the system is that displacement properly follows the base mesh surface. It is possible to have nice looking cliffs and even apply displacement to bottom facing surfaces like the ceiling of a cave. For mesh-only displacement this is not usually difficult, but doing so in voxel space (so you can dig and destroy) can be quite complex. I'm happy to see we can have voxel cliffs that look right:

Metamaterials, beside displacement and submaterial maps, can be provided with "planting rules". This allows bringing in additional procedural detail in the form of larger instanced content. These can be voxel instances like the large rocks and boulders seen in the video or, they can be passed as instances to the rendering side so a mesh is displayed in that position. The trees in the video are an example of the later.

The previous image shows a mesh instance (a tree) at the left and a voxel instance (a boulder) at the right. Plants, grass, and small rocks are also instanced, but they are planted on top of materials, not meta-materials. One thing I did not mention before is this demo uses Unreal Engine 4. That is another key piece of tech that is coming along very nicely.

Already confused by these many levels of indirection? It is alright, once you start working with these features they begin to make perfect sense. More to that, it becomes apparent this is the only way you can get from a very coarse world definition into something detailed as seen in the video.

I hope you enjoyed this and that it gets your imagination started.
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