It’ll Be Fun They Said
One of my friends sent me a link to a sketchfab contest that challenged creators to make a VR-ready model inspired by the Legend of Zelda. I’m a big fan of the series, and I have been dying for an opportunity to port one of the MANY Game of Hyrule models I made into virtual reality. The project seemed like a perfect fit…
And it many ways it was, although in practice it was also a harrowing exercise in extreme tedium and madness.
The original map was painstakingly built up using manually drawn splines, extrusions and box modeling for each of the 50+ unique objects in the set. There might be a few errors, but nearly every element on the overworld map has been recreated and placed in 3D space. While this process was laborious, it doesn’t even compare with the optimization process. Well, I say that because I built the map a year ago and the pain is mostly gone. Mostly.
I got the impression that having over 5 thousand individual models, grouped under a multitude of nulls and hiearchies would probably kill real-time performance (gotta hit that 90 fps), so I decided to merge all the geometry that shared a common texture. This way, retexturing the model would also be way easier to do in subsequent engines, as you only had to apply one material per piece of geometry.
It turned out to be a huge ordeal to combine the thousands of individual meshes as some of my models had their own hierarchy, or polygon selections that applied two different materials to one object (perish the thought). In the end I had to manually combine, change texture tags, and clean individual objects for a full day. Luckily some of the objects were instances, so I could fix up and ungroup the original model, but even still there was a mountain of mind-numbing monotony ahead.
Even getting the file size down to the Sketchfab basic (‘I haz no monies’ version) requirement of below 50mbs was a horrifying task. I found that deleting some of my textures and UVs freed up just enough space for me to get a barely passable version up on Sketchfab. N-gons (polygons with more than 4 verticies) saved space, but became digital nightmare shards in my uploads to the site, so I had to convert critical objects to tris.
But hell, I slogged through hours of optimization and tidying, and I wanted to see it in it’s full VR glory. Unity to the rescue.
Help me Unity3D, you’re my only hope
I was able to rebuild the textures from my original Game of Hyrule map intro using the incredible UBER shader by Tomasz. I was expecting a performance hit from the complex, multi-texture shaders I built, but everything worked flawlessly… so I wasn’t satisfied until I threw as much post processing/image effects onto the camera as possible. I used the godlike Volumetric Fog & Mist by Kronnect to create some atmospheric perspective and even a subtle amount of sunshafts (dare I say ‘tasteful amount’). I added filmic post-processing from Scion to the camera, and found the performance hit acceptable for how cool it made everything look. Oh yeah, and I added AO because bitches love AO.
As far as the ‘coding’ I used VRTK for teleportation and Playmaker for the player scaling. I’ve been spending so much time working on learning ‘code’ and game logic for other projects that it was a welcome excursion to just make something look good (often the only requirement in 90% of my freelance work). Coming from a VFX background, I am still shocked at the real time performance of modern game engines. 1-3 hours per frame? What is this, 2015? I’ll render in Unity, thank you (well, Unity or Octane, OR BOTH #LaterThisYear #OctaneInUnityForever).
Anyways, all the boring, mindnumbing work was worth it if you guys enjoy playing around with the map! I hope I can export some other models for you to play around in soon… I just hope someone invents some crazy, flawless texturing baking solution for C4D/Octane in the meantime.
The final product
You can download the small Zelda map experience on itch.io, or navigate to the Downloads section. In the meantime, here’s a quick look:
A World Without Limits
Congratulations! You are one of the adventurous few, daring enough to explore the infinite reaches of VR: a bold new experiential platform that some have called ‘The Final Medium.’ No other art form I have seen requires as many disparate and varied skills to pull off, but it is my hope that through this series that I can elucidate some of the more powerful tools and techniques I have found that allow you to realize (a place others into) your vision as fast as possible. Before we get virtual, however, let’s take a moment to go over our unfortunate IRL (meat space) limitations.
Scope (A World With Some Limits)
The tools and pipeline of content creation will vary greatly on what kind of project you are making, but one of the consistent challenges is reflected in the inescapable triangle of compromise:
Anything you make costs something, but not all costs are worth taking. A project can cost your good health, finances, opportunity for growth/expansion, personal relationships or your confidence in the very fabric of reality. Limiting the scope of your project early on can hopefully prevent you from sacrificing anything of value down the line. Making something is almost ALWAYS better than making nothing unless you are endangering something important in your life.
The Tools (Each Software Has Its Limits)
Most VR experiences are developed using game engines such as Unreal or Unity. Coming from a VFX background, I was shocked to learn that these programs are essentially free to use, often only requiring a small licensing fee if you make over $100,000 in annual revenue from use of the program (sounds like it won’t be a problem for me). Personally, I use Unity for 3D animated experiences, and will speak to that pipeline throughout this series.
There are a ton of Unity tutorials out there, but I like Brackeys because he sounds nice: https://youtu.be/IlKaB1etrik
As impressive as these engines are, you often have to make art assets in an external app. I love using Cinema 4D for creating 3D models, but really you can use almost anything that exports a mesh to an obj or fbx (Unity can import a staggering amount of file types). If you aren’t comfortable with 3D asset creation or simply don’t have the time, there’s a ton of great places to find models like the Unity Asset store, Turbosquid and tf3dm.com. Costs, aesthetics and usage right might vary per model, but depending on where you sit with the triangle of compromise, these cheap/free assets can be your fastest way to a product or protoype. Hell, you could steal crayons from Denny’s, draw assets on toilet paper, scan them in at the library and have 2D cut-outs placed in 3D space for characters if you wanted to. This is VR. There are no limits (#ThereAreActuallyLimits #StupidTriangleOfComprimise).
To me, VR is about interacting with a digitally generated space, so I decided that I want to focus on roomscale experiences with head and hand tracking. Rather than learn a traditional scripting language, I opted to pick up Playmaker from the Unity Asset store which is an incredibly powerful visual scripting tool based on functional state machines. Some ‘pros’ swear against using visual coding add-ons, but I find the solution fits my typical fast/good triangle considerations and $65 dollars is a steal for such a robust and fun system. Who would have thought that making games feels a lot like playing a really satisfying puzzle game? In future articles I will elaborate on how you can use Playmaker, but if you are eager to learn about the system in a game design context I highly recommend Mdot’s incredible tutorial series: “The Strange School.” Just don’t parent the VR playspace to the character motor script (or go for it, #nolimitsVR2017).
I actually wouldn’t have learned 3D modeling if it wasn’t for M dot Strange, and I definitely wouldn’t have got into Unity without him! He’s a great guy who really seeks to empower the artist in everyone (on top of being an engaging/hilarious teacher).
I develop for the HTC Vive, so I use the SteamVR package on the Unity Asset store combined with Frame Tale Studios SteamVR Playmaker Toolkit, which allows you to easily map controller inputs to your state machines. This will allow you to shoot cats out of your hands when you press the trigger. It might have other uses, but for now that’s all I can think of (#TheOnlyLimitIsImaginationAndRentMoney). Another amazing tool is the community project headed by TheStoneFox, VRTK, which is a collection of scripts and interaction systems made by developers for developers. VR is challenging enough: why try to reinvent the wheel when you can focus attention on to making that deep-sea dating simulator you’ve always dreamed of making?
The World Is Yours (Within Limits)
Obviously, there are as many tools as there are workflows and aims, but with a VR Headset and $100 USD you can get started developing VR RIGHT NOW (even cheaper if you learn C# code)! The experience of walking through the halls of your own digital creation is exhilarating, cathartic and mind blowing. Subjecting other people to the horrors of your digital Garfield and Saved by the Bell Crossover Museum: priceless. Follow along with this blog as we delve more into my ever-evolving workflow, and specific tools that help you git’er done. Just remember to design responsibly, because…