Creating a Mission Map in SoH

Hello, everyone! We hope that you’re all happy and full of Thanksgiving goodness. This is part three of a series on how we create missions. You can see the previous parts here and here. We previously covered how the mission design is created when the mission’s story is written. But what happens when the art team gets ahold of that design? Today’s video features James Smith, who leads our small team of technical artists that create the Ship of Heroes missions. James answers that question; he has a soft voice, but we think you’ll enjoy hearing directly from an expert about the process we’re using to make instanced mission maps.

“These unassuming servers contain more information about the ship’s power couplings than you can learn in a lifetime. Don’t break them.” – A senior engineer

Last week we broke one of the unwritten rules by showing a few process flow diagrams of how we are create Ship of Heroes, which many people liked. This week the focus is on creating regular mission maps, with a video of the first few steps in the process – the entire process is quite lengthy. Special maps like The Beta Club, the hospital, the auction house, the snow lair, the museum, The Halloween dorms, Meltdown’s office complex beneath the auction house, Sword Blossom’s office leading into the engineering tunnels, and similar iconic places in Apotheosis City are all hand-crafted environmental art. Each of those is unique, but for more typical office spaces and tunnels, we have a more streamlined process.

Much like the ship itself, mission maps often include multiple floors or levels.

At about 1:00 in the video, James scrolls down through our vast library of map pieces and props, thousands of them, which we use to create unique environments aboard the Justice. These are items we’ve created, as well as some items we’ve purchased and then adjusted to fit our game and to have the preferred textures, etc. We quickly learned that we needed a specialized CROM system to optimize every asset for good FPS. It obviously took a long time to build and customize all of these art assets, but this kind of asset library is absolutely required to create new missions in months rather than years. When we create new environments like human colony worlds, or the Nagdellian mothership, or a Promethean conversion facility, or other dimensions of reality, the common or similar art assets provide visual continuity and immersion. We’ve also been steadily collecting and creating art assets in advance to use in these new environments, reassembling them into maps that fit the mission design. It helps to decide on a good plan for future content in advance, and we do have one, though we also change it frequently to add new ideas.

Space is cool and all, but space trees just aren’t that different than planetary trees.

While each mission takes months, a good dev team can work on different pieces of a lot of missions in parallel. We’ve completed the process shown in this video for more than 30 instanced missions, with another 20+ in the queue right now. Of course, it takes several months to get from the point where the artists are creating the map for the first time to the point where community testing can begin. So we are feeling good about a launch of Ship of Heroes during 2021. The exact date isn’t fixed yet; we want to have much more community involvement in mission testing – and invasion testing – before we set a particular launch date for Ship of Heroes. Ideally, we’d like to launch with 70 or 80 missions that have already received the community “seal of approval” in Betas.

Even generating the unpolished map is not instantaneous.

Getting from here to there is the big trick. We do not want to produce too many missions without getting additional feedback on some of them from all of you, so the next big thing will probably be another event, this time focused on mission content. We plan to do this event in February or March of 2021; look for an exact date by the end of 2020. If all goes well, we’ll be counting down to launch after this event, working through the bug list.

Someday we’ll all hang out by the watercooler at the entrance to this mission.

In the meantime, you can expect to hear more from us in the next couple of months. The holidays are a busy time for everyone, and that includes the dev team here at Heroic Games. Still, we are planning a couple of additional newsletters, and if all goes well, a new Christmas video mission too. Remember, everything we do is powered by your support, so if you can, please donate.

Technical Notes:

1. This video was created in the Unreal Engine editor, for obvious reasons. It was recorded as a stream of consciousness by the leader of our technical art team in charge of instanced mission production.

 

2. Some viewers will rejoice seeing the semi-automated method of map production and think, “Make every mission procedurally generated! We’ll never play on the same map again!” Sadly, this is not how it works. To enable the use of the tools shown in this video by players, we would need to give access to the game engine directly. That’s not possible, or safe, since then there would be no way to limit hacks and exploits.

 

3. The tools and methodologies shown here have been highly customized to suit the needs of Heroic Games. Other professional studios have similar processes, which in turn are customized for the needs of their games.

 

4. Lighting is a big issue in instanced missions. Baked lighting is better for FPS, but it is time-consuming to create for every map it’s used in. Dynamic lighting is quicker to produce and reduces the size of the game download, which can be an issue for an MMORPG, as anyone who’s played SWOTOR knows. Some of our maps use both. We’re shifting away from baked lighting to dynamic lighting because we have excellent FPS even with the dynamic lighting, and dynamic provides other benefits.

 

5. The sophisticated aesthetics of our missions come from having multiple talented artists on the team. We very much appreciate their contributions, and we strive to keep the art relatively consistent within map types such as the engineering tunnels, the magical centers, office buildings, medical centers, etc. Each type has a common look and feel that we strive to consistently produce across different mission maps.

If you can guess what kind of building this is just from this picture, we’ve done our job well.