I was discussing some partnerships with www.gamedev.net, and someone brought up www.gamepitches.com. This site contains links to design documents, game pitches, etc. One of relevance is the Content/Art Pipeline for Radical Entertainment’s Dark Angel, released in 2002. I’m going to break down the design doc, all 125 pages of it, so you can see how your pipeline compares to that of a game made 10 years ago.
Overall: The doc was written by Adam King and Bert Sandie, both now at EA Canada. Bert has done a great job with some of the knowledge sharing and training initiatives at EA. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him personally, but he seemed like a Good Dude (and I don’t give out that title lightly). It is a whopping 125 pages long. Design from another era- no one writes docs that long anymore, for good reason- no one reads them! That said, based on the Table of Contents, this seems more sophisticated and thought out than many pipelines I hear or know about today. Of interest are the 4 art design docs- the doc itself, and links to the ‘Art Directory Structure and Nomenclature’, ‘Technical Art Specification’, and ‘Requirements for DA Skeleton Structure’. Wow.
2. General Information: Here they cover the concept of Bundles- text files specifying the components of an asset, references to other Bundles, and export information. It is great they have this abstracted out.
3. Animation Pipeline: We lead with some general info and then 2 pages of naming convention/directory structure which is closely tied to the functionality of the pipeline. Ouch. The diagram is no better:
Create an animation in Maya -> Take theMaya binary f ile -> Us e Hair Club’s animation exporter -> Take the Maya ASCII -> Use Pure3D exporter -> Take the p3d f ile -> Run in the game
Yikes. Let’s see if this is automated later. One thing I noted was this distressing piece: It is important to note here that the modeling occurs in the model pipeline. The end result of that modeling (the Maya binary) is used in the animation pipeline as the starting point for all the work that is done. Is there no way to go from animation to modeling pipeline? To see and work with the rigs and animation at the modeling phase? I hope we find out.
3.3.4 Additional Tools: Some cool stuff here about a locomotion generator (which could be useful to provide technically correct stubs to take the grind out of animator setup), and an animation retargeting tool, both provided by their middleware vendors (Pure3d and HairClub). They seem to have a good relationship with their vendors- I wonder how this turned out. I have never had experiences that would cause me to trust them like this. Maybe the cost of developing tools 10 years ago was great enough to warrant more middleware integration (oh how my views of GrannyViewer have evolved over the years).
4. Facial Animation: More naming conventions. There’s a custom Deformer plugin they use for generating/using/exporting BlendShapes. There’s an entire section on how to make sure the plugin is synced, your clientspec is configured correctly, etc. All stuff artists shouldn’t have to worry about. The toolchain here is, once again, based on Pure3D plugins and tools, from the export formats to the Deformer plugin.
5. Model Pipeline: Here we go- modelling pipelines are easy so they tend to get way more attention than animation pipelines inside of documentation. That’s the nature of high-level documentation like this- the hard stuff gets less design because it is more difficult to think about. Ironic, isn’t it.
Pages and pages of naming conventions. On the bright side, there is a breakdown of important components of the skeletal structure: they have broken down their roots into specific purposes (character facing, horizontal transformations, a free root, etc.). This is good and shows some experience and foresight at understanding in-game animation requirements. I just hope it was set up as transparently as possible to the animators (I assume not- it appears things needed to all be animated manually). This section ends with some info about textures, and more naming conventions.
5.3.3 Model Pipeline Breakdown: Exporting talks about model optimization, tristripping, deindexing, and a host of other things I can’t imagine artists caring about.
5.3.4 Additional Tools: They have a tristripping tool to help artists maximize and use tristripping effectively. I can’t tell if this is great, or the result of an anal graphics programmer. It is a commandline tool made by Pure3d. I can’t imagine artists enjoyed using a commandline tool to do something they didn’t want to do anyway. I can only hope there was an easier way to do this. Lots of Pure3d tools follow- commandline tools each made to do a single task. Was Pure3d written for Linux! ;)
There’s a bounding volume plugin that, again, has a section on how to set it up- stuff that should be handled automatically. It has a lot of instructions, specific setup required, and looks like a bitch to use.
There’s also an Art Asset Management tool that is Access-based. I’m not really sure what it does or how it works. I think the idea is correct- conglomerate asset data into a database, provide a way to query this data. I just imagine the tech was too nascent and the understanding of the needs not there yet- it is much easier for a graphics programmer to understand tristripping than it is to understand asset management needs, so naturally, these concepts are less developed.
6. Texture Pipeline: As always, the doc leads with naming and directory organization. And again, it is very important. In this case, they have the neat idea to combine all textures into one place so they can all be viewed at the same time. Was Windows circa 2001 really that bad that you couldn’t do a filesystem search instead?
There’s more stuff about batch files, perl scripts, and commandline tools. No excuse to make artists use this. The texture profiler, which is a good idea, is another tool with a commandline interface. There are more commandline texture tools in this section than tools in all preceding sections combined. Who the hell could use all of these? A lot are required for Xbox/PS2 differences- but how many of these shouldn’t be automated into the pipeline?
7. NIS (Non Interactive Sequence) Pipeline: More naming conventions and directory structure. Lots more prose here and less lists and diagrams- because the NIS setup requirements are a lot more flaky. I can’t imagine this was stuck to closely by ship. There’s a lot of pipeline prose here in later sections as well, such as how to build the content. That’s a red flag for artist understanding. After reading through this entire section, I consider the pipeline as designed a disaster- or at least the weakest pipeline so far. A good deal of the cinematics is set up in .seq text files which are created by hand. There are 3+ steps for exporting/building content, including the bundle files mentioned earlier. The good news is they seem to have some focus on streamlining the build process.
We’ve made it through the first half of this epic document, and from here forward the document takes a different tone. It is much more terse, more sections are not filled out- it seems rushed and incomplete. The end of Part 7 brings us to page 68. The end of Part 19 is on page 124- so we went from 9.7 pages per part, to 4.6- and remember there are probably 1.5 pages of overhead in a section.
Which is distressing, because we’re about to enter the really technical stuff- up till now, it has mostly been the easier, more well defined and understood art production problems. Now we are entering the frightening land of scripting and ingame tools.