VR Characters are People too by Elliot Gray

When it comes to VR games, the number of “Must Play” titles is short.  Sure there are a lot of decent experiences to be had that each bring something unique to the table, but the traditional ‘AAA’ quality bar is yet to be reached. 
One game that comes closer than any other to that illusive standard is Lone Echo by Ready at Dawn.  While the scope of the gameplay here is limited, every aspect is beautifully implemented.  Locomotion is ingenious, world exploration immersive, visuals are beautiful and intelligently optimized, and the setting is perfect.

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The one thing that I love about Lone Echo more than any other, however, is the storytelling.  Now the story is just a nice sci-fi adventure that would be right at home in a classic space opera:  Something big and spacey happens and messes up your ship, and once all hell has broken loose you’ve got to find your captain and try and un-break everything. 

But one potentially unassuming aspect of the story telling that really blew me away was how vr turns characters into PEOPLE, FRIENDS, HUMANS.  In Lone Echo you play as an AI ‘helper’ robot, an assistant to Olivia Rhodes the captain of the Kronos II Mining station.  In any traditional game (or media format for that matter), the introduction and setup of Olivia’s character would be referred to as character building.  All of this is done excellently, industry top notch, but VR makes this magical. 

After my first hour or so I took the headset off and was thinking about Olivia, the person I had just been interacting with, rather than Olivia, the character in that game I was playing.  This is a subtle differentiation but an incredibly powerful and exciting one.  Even in a game world that’s obviously not quite photoreal, with facial animations that aren’t all that lifelike, this character was made real because as with all VR experiences (and this is an educated/anecdotal guess) at some level our dumb animal brain BELIEVES she’s real at a subconscious level, or at least, perceives it similarly to any other real world interaction.

This innately makes the rest of the story more powerful, and avoiding too many spoilers, you’re trying to find Olivia, your friend, trying to help Olivia, your friend, as opposed to find and help Olivia the video game character.  This had me, the player, far more involved in the story than I’ve been in other traditional triple a games recently, even those with greater scope, character animation, realism etc and I think that’s something really special VR has to offer.  This makes me really excited for future story driven games in VR, and I can’t wait to see what hijinx my captain Olivia and I might get up to in Lone Echo 2.

Ps. Just another note on VR dev while I’m talking about echo – If you can afford the simulation cost, I’m a firm believer in always having a full vr body simulation.  At one point as I was gliding through space pulled along by my shuttle, I looked down to see my robot body’s shadow and it was MY body’s shadow.  Goosebumps.  Do it.  It’s worth it. 

Lone Echo Trailer

Art Break by Elliot Gray

While Gameplay Programming and Design are my primary passions, I’m a big fan of pretty environment art (always have been) and love taking the opportunity every now and then to take some pretty photos/videos of environments I create in my spare time (wild Friday night in makin pretty pictures in the gray household).

These are some of my favourite shots and there’s a video further down (all real-time by the way). (Also you can click on each photo to go through to the full 4k res in a new tab if you want)

Interestingly, these shots are all taken in the Forward Renderer because I happened to be playing around with all real-time lighting and frankly I couldn’t see any downsides (i’m sure with an in depth comparison you could) so it’s nice to know there’s no reason our vr forward rendered projects can’t look gorgeous too.

Ps I love doing nice layout work, but all these assets are either store bought or put together from mega-scans with minimal content creation by me - I’m happy to leave that part to the pros.

UE4 Terrain Blending: Part 1, Distance Fields - How, why, and why not by Elliot Gray

Recently I’ve been having a fiddle with terrain blending in ue4 using distance fields. Tech art is an interest and hobby of mine and I love digging in and getting my hands dirty in that side of development every now and then. I love the pretties.
Here’s a quick comparison:

(Original images if your browser doesn’t like the comparison: Blend, No Blend)

I was inspired to put together this material setup after playing yet another DICE/Frostbite game with impeccable terrain blended rock faces and wanted to see if I could get anywhere near as nice a result with ue4.

Here’s a different comparison showing a blend where cliffs dither into a slope based terrain material, super useful when adding rocky overhangs. Textures and meshes are just placeholders that I’ve been building the material with but I’m quite happy with how well the material works. (grey material on the terrain in the second image so you can see what’s terrain and what’s a mesh).

This is the first of probably 2 post&video combos as the ultimate goal is to modify unreal engine source so I can access the terrain height and splat textures at run time (something that isn’t currently possible). The material setup detailed in this first video is therefore using distance fields to drive blending.

A third method I may investigate is a nifty blueprint construction script that can essentially vertex paint a mesh we want to blend with terrain on placement (line trace from some verts to the terrain to get material info and height?). The benefit of a constructor based approach is that it wouldn’t require modification of engine source OR the use of distance fields to handle the blend.

Using distance fields to blend in this manner has plenty of caveats which I discuss in the video, but one I forgot to mention is that half of this technique (pixel depth offset dithering) only works correctly with TAA enabled. So definitely keep that in mind if you’re thinking of using it in a project. You can still blend the material layers but wouldn’t get the benefit of the super soft edges that the PDO method gives you.

So yeah if you’re interested in the full breakdown of the distance field method here’s the video I put together. Check the description for helpful timestamps if you’re looking for a section in particular.