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HBS_Super

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Hey ‘Mech fans. My name is Dave McCoy and I’m a technical artist here at Harebrained Schemes. I joined the HBS team almost exactly one year ago to help take on a really exciting challenge.

BATTLETECH had previously allowed players to fight in some larger military and industrial bases. But studio leadership wondered about the possibility of also letting players deploy ‘Mechs into the hearts of sprawling futuristic cities. They wanted to create new kinds of battlefields based on horizon-to-horizon urban sprawl. Corporate skyscrapers and huge apartment blocks, industrial and office parks and memorial plazas and military parade grounds, parking lots and wide city streets and intersections filled with thousands of abandoned cars and buses, neon and holographic signs everywhere and high rooftops you could jump-jet to that were covered in cell towers and machinery and exhaust vents billowing steam and smoke and… well, everything else you would expect to find in the dense and varied landscape of a major metropolis.


Urban Warfare City Concept - Jenn Ravenna

Just to create multiple unique realistic city environments would be tough enough. But on top of that, it all had to be destroyable. Every single structure and object on every block needed to be affected by intentional or stray fire and needed to collapse into rubble spectacularly in order to reinforce the power of the weapons at the player’s disposal.

Pulling this off was going to be really hard. And really fun. And for me, the fulfillment of a decades-long goal. But more on that in a bit.

In order to communicate the scale of ‘Mechs, BATTLETECH’s maps need to be very detailed. The team had already developed methods for creating this kind of convincing detail in natural environments. But creating, much less destroying a large complex urban environment with this level of detail would require us to dramatically change our methods for authoring environment art.


If you’ve seen a major motion picture that included any visual effects in the last 5 years, you’ve seen what can be done when talented artists are empowered by a powerful tool called Houdini. Houdini is actually a large suite of tools that gives artists control of procedural techniques that previously would have taken tens of thousands of hours of dedicated programmer time to code. As movie audiences have demanded ever larger and ever more spectacular and realistic visuals, from massive crowds to epic landscapes, and exotic creatures, realistic weaponry and magical spell effects to every manner of destruction and pyrotechnics, Houdini has increasingly been relied on by VFX artists worldwide to deliver whatever Hollywood writers can dream up.

Image by WENWEN JIAN - Courtesy SideFX

Houdini’s ability to enable artists to create amazing amounts of varied content while still maintaining artistic and aesthetic control seemed like an ideal match for our goals in creating the environments of Urban Warfare and we re-tooled our production methods to take advantage of its abilities.

In order to efficiently create a huge variety of unique buildings, the environment art team analyzed building concepts created by Art Director Marco Mazzoni.


The art team then split the buildings into fundamental shapes and detail elements that could be combined in limitless ways – kind of like a specialized Lego set. Most buildings combined one or more lobby shapes into a ground floor. On top of this, one or more towers could be placed and built to any height from stacks of individual shapes representing each floor of the building. Finally, various roof shapes were added to finish up the structure.


These finished building forms were then decorated with a wide range of different windows, struts, and other architectural details. Swapping out these details allowed the art team to make a single fundamental shape of building look dramatically different so it could be used multiple times without repeating appearance.


Representing all of these complex building details with 3D geometry on the number of buildings required for our cityscapes would bring even the most powerful gaming rig to its knees. So Lee Schienbeim, the technical artist who created all the custom rendering and lighting techniques for the original game used a cool technique called parallax mapping (Google it) to create these details. He also used another shader to represent the interior details of buildings. So you could actually see interior rooms behind the windows of buildings to give them additional depth and detail.


The final step in making our buildings look like enormous structures was to add a variety of vents and air conditioning units along with radio towers and dishes and other machinery . We also added illuminated and animated signs and logos created by effects artists Will Avery and Tracey Landau. In addition to adding the final level of detail to make the structures read like real buildings, these animated elements added movement and life to our cityscapes.


Of course, creating the buildings for our city, was just half the, um, battle. Once the ‘Mechs started fighting in this environment, our buildings were going to have to start coming down realistically.

Using the same techniques that the movies use to create this kind of destruction, I used Houdini to shatter the buildings into thousands of pieces and then used physical simulations of the structures to realistically animate their destruction.


It took awhile to figure out the most realistic ways to shatter the structures. Breaking them up with the wrong parameters would make them look like they were made out of ceramic pottery or toothpicks or any number of non-building stuff. And figuring out the right explosive forces and friction and bounce and a ton of other physical characteristics also took some time. I watched a lot of building demolition and news videos of buildings collapsing to develop and dial-in the right methods and parameters.

Fortunately, as you might guess, while it took a while to get right, this work was also a blast in more ways than one. Imagine showing up to the office every day and being handed the plunger that sets off the explosives to demolish not just one, but hundreds of different giant buildings. Hmm. Maybe if I put a little more virtual dynamite on the ground floor and weaken the supports on the west tower, I’ll get this baby to come down just the way we want. Let’s give it a try! Bwoohoohaha!


Once the building collapse animations were complete, I handed them off to Tracey who added custom particle-based debris and dust and fire effects to each building. These effects completed the illusion and made the destruction of our buildings really deliver the visual impact we were after. The final final impact was actually realized a few days later when our audio director, Rob Pearsall created sound effects to match the visuals. Oh yeah!

While creating and destroying buildings was a big part of what we needed to accomplish, there is a lot more to a city than just buildings. Technical artist Steven Rynders and environment artist Zach Whitchurch worked together to create the road network for the city. Now those roads needed to be lined with streetlights and filled with thousands of vehicles. We had decided early on that we wanted the cities to appear recently abandoned. So while we wanted thousands of cars to fill the streets, we wanted them to have a somewhat chaotic appearance as if they had been abandoned in place in epic traffic jams.

I devised a method to use guiding lines connected to the various road segments to place streetlights on sidewalks and vehicles on the roads. By moving a couple of sliders we could make the abandoned cars conform to or veer from traffic lanes as much as we wanted. And we could add thousands more or fewer vehicles to get the look we wanted and also tune performance so we could maintain a decent frame rate. We could add more or fewer buses and other vehicles in addition to cars. Zach Whitchurch, who built the vehicles even sprinkled in cars with various configurations of open doors to make them appear more like vehicles that had been left behind by their drivers who had fled to safety.


Unlike building destruction, I’m happy to say that this effort came together pretty quickly. I developed the traffic guiding logic inside Houdini and engineer Carlos Giraldo figured out how to hook this logic up to Unity. Lee then quickly developed a shader to randomly color the civilian vehicles. Within a few days we went from empty streets to massive traffic jams throughout the city. I was really surprised at how much more impressive and realistic the cities looked with thousands of vehicles on the streets.


Seeing how quickly this work materialized, I was inspired to work with Carlos on a few more tools to help the art team. Environment artists Zach Hartlage and Alina Godfrey, who had actually built all the building components and details and assembled all the buildings were now joined by Zach Whitchurch in hand-placing thousands of props throughout our cities to add that all-important level of detail and give the environment the appropriate clutter that made it feel real. While thousands of the props you will see in the cities of Urban Warfare were hand-placed by them since these tools came on-line later in the development cycle, I’m happy to say I was able to speed their efforts and reduce some of the tedium by allowing them to simply draw a few lines or shapes and having these serve as guides to placing hundreds of props at a time. Now a parking lot could be filled with whatever density of cars they wanted and dumpsters and kiosks and shipping containers and fences and other barriers could be set down much more quickly and the artists could focus on making things look good rather than the mechanics of placement.





Of course building this whole new production system and completely changing how we built environments in order to deliver a completely different kind of game environment for BATTLETECH came with plenty of challenges and setbacks. We were all learning and struggling together to figure out how to pull it off. And there were times when I wondered if we really were going to be able to deliver. But now as we near completion, I am just amazed at the final result that every member of the team collaborated on to make happen. And, of course, there were so many other people on the team that I feel terrible that I don’t have the space to mention here. I’d have to run through the whole credits for the game. Because every one of those names was critical in making it happen. That’s how HBS works. And it was amazing to be a part of it and watch it come together at last.



So speaking of “at last”…

I mentioned earlier that I joined Harebrained full-time almost exactly a year ago. But this isn’t exactly my first go-around with HBS or BattleTech. I’ve contributed to a few earlier HBS projects over the years. But my history working with the co-founders of Harebrained, Mitch Gitelman and Jordan Weisman stretches back more than 30 years.

I first started contributing to BattleTech while I was working at a game store, playing the tabletop miniature version of the game. Back then, I always wanted to play CityTech – the variant where ‘Mechs fought amongst buildings and could jump-jet to the tops of structures and change the playfield by bringing down buildings to gain tactical advantage.


After starting a company creating what at the time was a totally new way to produce special effects using computers, I consulted on computer graphics for their system and then in 1991 left my studio and moved to Chicago to join FASA Interactive and work full-time on the BattleTech simulators where players could climb into the cockpit and take control of a BattleMech. It was pretty cool. But I always wanted to create urban environments for that system. Unfortunately even super-expensive computer graphics systems of that time just weren’t powerful enough to bring it to life.


When FASA Interactive branched out into making games for PC, I was able to work on MechCommander, and in 1998 was able to set the opening cinema of the game in a city. Yes! The star of that video was even a great little ‘Mech you’re all about to be able to take control of. The ECM-enabled Raven.


Later, I was able to try again and set the final battles of Mechwarrior 4 in an urban environment and help players learn just how different and dangerous fighting in a city could be. It was a glimpse. But even a AAA budget and the best teams and graphic cards circa. 2000 had to offer could still only deliver a fairly sparse and abstract experience.


So last year, when Harebrained offered me a chance to join their team and take another crack at putting ‘Mechs in urban environments, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Now, after 30 years of imagining what it would actually be like, I’ve finally made it to the big city! Thank you to every single member of the HBS team and to all of you who have supported us for giving me the opportunity to finally get there.


Now go take the fight to the streets!

-Dave-
 

Kereminde

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Hey, so you are among those responsible for those pod experiences fighting in the city! That was some fun, especially popping out of alleyways to nail folks in the back. (Because during a free-for-all, honor is for idiot Clanners.)
 

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Truly amazing how far tech has come. I am looking forward to seeing how things play out in Urban Warfare :)

One thing that you mentioned induces a certain amount of curiosity in me...

The art team then split the buildings into fundamental shapes and detail elements that could be combined in limitless ways – kind of like a specialized Lego set. Most buildings combined one or more lobby shapes into a ground floor. On top of this, one or more towers could be placed and built to any height from stacks of individual shapes representing each floor of the building. Finally, various roof shapes were added to finish up the structure.
Does this mean that the city maps in Urban Warfare will have some amount of randomness to the way the buildings are shaped? For instance, if the map says that a spot has a 'heavy civilian' building, will that building always look the same from playthrough to playthrough? Or is it possible that it will be shaped differently each time with vents, windows, and terraces in different places each time?
 

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Congrats on fulfilling a goal, and I'm sure only one among many very eager to try out your Urban map! :D
 

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Hell yeah!

Great stuff.
Congrats Dave.
 

MeiSooHaityu

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What an amazing post @HBS_Super ! It was fascinating to read, and see all the hard work in action (the collapsing building was mesmerizing). You and the HBS team should be proud of what you accomplished, it is truly amazing.

BTW... The intro to MechCommander is one of my favorite of all the BattleTech games. Excellent work!
 

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Buildings in a particular map will appear the same each time you play. This was a deliberate choice. We want players to be able to use buildings as landmarks and to have a sense of permanence and reality - just as landmarks do on natural terrain. One of the things that we've observed as we got deeper into playing in these spaces is that a lot of encounters are resolved within the space of a few city blocks. So the tactical battleground these cities represent is actually huge and being able to learn it through consistent landmarks after multiple engagements was something we believed was important.
 

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As with this project, I was one of a lot of folks that made it possible. Glad you've enjoyed the challenges of city fighting as long as I have.
 

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What an amazing post @HBS_Super ! It was fascinating to read, and see all the hard work in action (the collapsing building was mesmerizing). You and the HBS team should be proud of what you accomplished, it is truly amazing.

BTW... The intro to MechCommander is one of my favorite of all the BattleTech games. Excellent work!
Thanks so much. It is so much fun that we can now make things look more real and complex in the game than we could then in the cinema. I guess being able to see this arc of change during your professional career is part of getting in on the early days of new tech.
 

Hoi Neuling

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Wow, now I know from who are the great City Battles and the opening Cinema from MechCommander. Thanks Dave for such cool stuff, I played it long time ago. And if I see the Cinemas again (like in AAR´s from the cool older MechWarrior 4 Games and MechCommander) it is itching in my fingers to be in the Cockpit again and take Command in BT again with the Urban Areas.

Sadly we can´t play MW 3 / MW 4 and the MechCommander Games on Win 10 anymore.
 

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@HBS_Super


nice to see another longtime Battletech junkie amongst the gang at HBS.
looked you up and dude....i spent many many hours on your game defense grid.
and you have been a part of a bunch of other games i have played over the years.
thanks for all the fun.

question - did your studio by chance have something/anything to do with the video toaster back in that day?
 

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Buildings in a particular map will appear the same each time you play. This was a deliberate choice. We want players to be able to use buildings as landmarks and to have a sense of permanence and reality - just as landmarks do on natural terrain. One of the things that we've observed as we got deeper into playing in these spaces is that a lot of encounters are resolved within the space of a few city blocks. So the tactical battleground these cities represent is actually huge and being able to learn it through consistent landmarks after multiple engagements was something we believed was important.
Thanks for the insight into the design decisions! I totally understand the need to give players landmarks to key off of. I was more curious since cities on Earth, while they all have some similar characteristics, each of unique character and I was wondering if the maps were able to accommodate that. Sounds like they won't. WHICH IS TOTALLY FINE! :) Hopefully the flexibility means that it will be easier to create more of these maps in the future!

Love the dev diary and the insight into the behind the scenes processes!!

P.S. I would totally love a power plant type map full of massive cooling towers and hardened reactor housings. Oh please oh please oh please :D
 

Benthic7

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Really excited for this new content. I just hope that these new urban maps don't impact load times and frame rates too much.
 

HBS_Super

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Thanks for the insight into the design decisions! I totally understand the need to give players landmarks to key off of. I was more curious since cities on Earth, while they all have some similar characteristics, each of unique character and I was wondering if the maps were able to accommodate that. Sounds like they won't. WHICH IS TOTALLY FINE! :) Hopefully the flexibility means that it will be easier to create more of these maps in the future!

Love the dev diary and the insight into the behind the scenes processes!!

P.S. I would totally love a power plant type map full of massive cooling towers and hardened reactor housings. Oh please oh please oh please :D
I hope I was clear in my response. The different cities definitely have different structures and different looks and so unique character. Some favor particular architectural styles or layout or have different distributions of building types. But I don't want to wander too much into aesthetic and design details. Those can be better addressed by other members of the team. My focus on this round was just how to get it done.
 

HBS_Super

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@HBS_Super


nice to see another longtime Battletech junkie amongst the gang at HBS.
looked you up and dude....i spent many many hours on your game defense grid.
and you have been a part of a bunch of other games i have played over the years.
thanks for all the fun.

question - did your studio by chance have something/anything to do with the video toaster back in that day?
Thanks. It is great to be working with some of the long time BATTLETECH team as well as newer folks who have made it even cooler. A couple of the artists I worked with on the BATTLETECH television show were on the inside at Newtek and we used the Toaster's 3D software and some specialized hardware to prototype the show and other graphics. But I had no role in the Toaster's creation. I was just a fan and user.
 

HBS_Eck

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Super cool write up Dave. I knew you worked on previous Battletech stuff, but those were some heavy hitters. The Battletech Pods and Mech Commander especially. That Mech Commander intro video was (and still is) soooo coool. I used to load up that CD long after having beaten the game just to watch that intro. :)

- Eck
 

MeiSooHaityu

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Commander: "Panther, I need Charlie Zone status. Report"
Panther: "Sir It's real quiet down here. I think we can call it clear"
Commander: "You Think? Don't think MechWarrior, find out. Finish your sweep."
 

Eximar

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Really a superior post. Thoroughly enjoyed seeing under the hood.