Plants – the Supporting Actors

First off, a disclaimer: Now that the school year is about to start at UW-Stout, my teaching, chairing and program directing duties will be (unfortunately) eclipsing much of any hope I have of keeping this blog frequently updated.  My goal will be to have something posted every few weeks, to keep you informed of the snail pace progress that occurs during the school year!

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Various plants filling in as groundcover in Tombeaux

Last month, I posted about the importance of trees (namely, the White Pine) in my game. The trees are essentially characters in my game, with a focus on their historic, environmental, and commercial value. I’d like to follow-up with a sister post, about some of the smaller foliage elements – the supporting actors – that are scattered around the river scenes of Tombeaux.

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A scientist from the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, playtesting Tombeaux (photo courtesy Greg Seitz)

I once again returned to the source – the river – to get the evidence I would need. Through consultation with scientists at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station and a trip out on to the St. Croix, I spent a mid-August day doing some field research that would help me refine my focus (I was also able to get some valuable playtesting time in to the trip).

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Foliage in Tombeaux

There are a myriad of common plants one might find in a variety of natural settings (around the world), whether they be prairies, forests, or rivers.  As examples, daisies, queen anne’s lace, cattails, ferns, knapweed, various grasses, and mushrooms are found (and easily recognized) by people around the country, and sometimes world. Plants like these are also native to the St. Croix region, and thus necessary elements to my game, providing the “filler” that I am looking for regarding ground cover around the river. Just as with the trees, I used a fantastic program called Speedtree to create all of my plants.  In a few cases, I was able to employ and modify the template of a plant they had already created. But in most cases I found that it was necessary to strip down the structure of a plant to create a new, unique looking species that would fit my specific needs.

Photo of Wild Celery

In addition to the common plants mentioned above, there were a few unique plants that I knew I would need to create and represent well in the game, due to either their history or their “prolific-ness” on the river. Regarding the latter, wild celery (Vallisneria americana) is in fact a frequently found piece of vegetation around the country and world, but also very unique to the St. Croix. It’s a type of “tape grass” found in freshwater environs and is commonly sought after by waterfowl; it has a beautiful movement as it flows with the underwater currents. When one is on the St. Croix, the plant seems to be everywhere – serving as both the bane of the fisherman’s motor and also dinner for a duck.

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Wild Celery (and fish!) in a shallow river area of Tombeaux

I wanted to be sure to represent this plant – even if in a subtle way – in Tombeaux. Making it in Speedtree was somewhat easy – I first created a simple grass cluster, and applied a subtle amount of force to the mesh, which resulted in a wavy feature that seemed to fit well with the natural flow of wild celery. When a slow, weak wind force was applied, it gave the look of a grass moving underwater.

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Using Speedtree – Wild Rice (Top), Wild Celery (Bottom Left), & Queen Anne’s Lace (Bottom Right)

The second unique plant was a bit trickier. Northern Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) is a well-known upper-Midwest staple, especially in its final form on the dinner table (it is not actually a form of rice, but a grass with grains growing from it). This plant is particularly important to Tombeaux, due to its historical significance in the Ojibwe culture (both in the past and still today). The harvesting and preparation of wild rice is an art in itself, implementing a series of tools and extremely involved processes, including the use of canoes, knockers (large wooden sticks that remove the grain without damaging the plant), and winnowing baskets that are made from birch bark.

Photo of Wild Rice

When the St. Croix and surrounding tributaries were completely flooded due to logging (with both high water and the presence of logs), the wild rice began to dwindle. With a spiritual, cultural, and economic way of life for such a large population disappearing, it foretold of what was to come with land and rights also going by the wayside. My use of the plant in Tombeaux thus has both historical and environmental intentions, hoping that it catches the eye and interest of a player to learn more.

Drawing of Wild Rice Harvest by S. Eastman

Due to it growing so thick in a natural environment, I wanted to make the wall of wild rice exactly that – a thick collection that swayed in the wind, not allowing the player to navigate beyond its edge. In the game, I’ll have various tools and canoes nearby, to provide the story of this important part in Ojibwe culture to the player to observe and consider. Using photos from wild rice plants, I applied textures and wind properties to the plants in Speedtree, to give them as real a representation of the actual plant as possible.

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A thick wall of wild rice in Tombeaux

I hope this brief glimpse into some of the “supporting actors” of Tombeaux’s environment has helped you gain a better understanding for both the process and the meaning behind their creation.

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Looking past the cattails at a beaver dam in Tombeaux

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Trees, Glorious Trees!

As I’ve mentioned before, Tombeaux has a main narrator character who we hear reading journal entries throughout the game experience. But there is a group that I would argue upstages our narrator, and that (as you probably guessed by the title) is the trees. Before the St. Croix was a river of recreation for fishing, canoeing, and speedboating like it is now, it was a river of pine, acting as one of the nation’s busiest highways for timber in the mid to late 1800’s. During this time, non-logging boats were lucky to get up the river at all, due to the waterway being clogged full of floating logs (or even worse, a logjam that stopped everything in its path). Since the St. Croix directly connects with the Mississippi, and it had what seemed to be an unlimited supply of tall and straight trees growing along its edges, it was a resource ripe for the picking (or chopping…sorry).

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L: group of Pinus strobus, R: distribution map of tree (images via wikipedia)

While Tombeaux is not entirely about the logging industry, it definitely does take the player on a journey to see what it might have been like both before and after the timber harvest. Because of this, I wanted to set the stage by creating an old growth forest, with the main silvan feature being that of Pinus strobus, or the eastern white pine. These old growth forests of white pines are nearly impossible to find now, as only 1% remain in North America due to logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This type of pine is the tallest tree found in the eastern (and northeastern/midwest) United States and Canada. With a mature white pine living well past 200 years old, reaching heights of well over 150 feet (while keeping a very straight trunk), and a diameter of 3-4 feet, they were particularly attractive to lumber barons.

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Mood Board for reference

After doing some visual research, both online and in person (last post I wrote about my trip to northern Wisconsin, in which I did some bark texture reconnaissance), it was time to dive in to creating this giant beast of the forest, including the many iterations that it might take, such as sawed-off stumps, beaver-chewed stubs, and dead (needle-less) versions (both standing and downed).  Additionally, I wanted to make sure I was creating an environment that felt both native and diverse, filled with other types of trees such as oak and birch. At a later date, I plan to return to the detail meshes and plants, to create native species such as wild celery (an underwater type of river weed/grass), wild rice, ferns, and wildflowers.

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One iteration of an eastern white pine, inside SpeedTree

Once I compiled a small mood board, I set out to learn and use a new program that I had been itching to try, called SpeedTree. It is an industry standard tree and foliage creator for both movies and games, and now that it is naturally integrated into Unity 5 and Unreal 4, we will most likely continue to see a great deal of high quality natural environments in the coming years from both indies and AAA companies. One way to use their tech is by paying and downloading high-quality, pre-made tree assets from their store (but what’s the fun in that?!). Another, more creative way is by paying a $19 per month subscription fee to use their modeling/creation software. As a point of reference, two months of paying for the software is actually cheaper than the $39 price tag for a single tree from their store!). Since it is my goal to create as much in my game as possible from scratch, I decided to download the software and start making assets myself.

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2 Stumps and 1 Gnawed Beaver Tree in SpeedTree

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Bare (Dead) White Pine in Speedtree w/ Bark Detail

Simply put, SpeedTree is my new favorite software. One can quickly and easily create natural assets for a game, using an intuitive, node-based interface that tries to mimic how a tree is naturally constructed. Starting with a trunk, and then adding elements such as roots, branches, and leaves provides for a very smooth workflow. Everything is highly customizable as well, with integrated wind effects, collision capsules, seamless branching, randomizers, break points for branches or trunks, and automatic billboard and LOD (level of detail) creation upon export to Unity.  Once I created a base white pine tree, I was quickly able to create many iterations by simply removing leaves (bare tree) and breaking and capping trees (stumps).  I didn’t even use many of their features, and hope to dive deeper into the program when I use it to create plants and other detail foliage.  Again, I can’t say enough about how much this program has helped my environment-heavy project achieve a great look.

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LOD transition feature in Unity (LOD 0 on left w/ 9K tris, LOD 2 on right w/ 2K tris)

Once you bring a SpeedTree asset into the Unity engine, it offers other great options for you to tweak. With the LOD’s that were auto-created/exported by SpeedTree, you can adjust them to your liking in the engine, so that it seamlessly transfers to a billboard at the distance you set. I really like the fact that you can also drag and drop the trees into the scene as objects or prefabs. Since these also have the LOD settings, you could put a hero tree (a hi-poly, hi-detailed tree) in your scene without having to worry about relying on Unity’s finnicky terrain.  With that said, I painted most of my trees on the terrain, as it makes it much easier when you have a large amount of assets to place and randomize.

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Here there be beavers…and downed trees…the perfect natural barrier!

Due to my game being on a river, it is important that I have some invisible walls that will stop the player from continuing up and down the river at their leisure. Implementing barriers correctly is tricky, as you don’t want the barrier to scream “HEY, I’M AN INVISIBLE WALL PUT THERE BY A GAME DESIGNER WHO DIDN’T REALLY CARE ABOUT YOUR IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE THAT MUCH!” (sorry, it is one of my biggest pet-peeves in games). While natural-looking barriers are great, you also don’t want it to be mistaken for just another stick or bush in the game that one thinks they can walk over.  I try to put some purpose behind the walls when possible, which is where things like downed trees, beaver dams, and beaver-gnawed stubs come in to play (plus, it’s always a great way to show off some of your hard work in a more up-close view!).

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The view from directly outside the cabin door

While the exterior river scene is hardly complete, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made in the past few days on the tree elements.  So far, I’ve created and placed four iterations of the white pine, three of the birch, and two of the oak. Additionally, I have three white pine stumps, three gnawed-beaver stubs, and three downed trees.  Once I give the same attention to the plants and detail rocks (they are all currently the low-quality placeholder plants that Unity provides), spend some time on the lighting (it is just a single real-time directional light w/ default skybox at the moment), and add some environmental effects like haze and fog, the river will hopefully start to look more like it did 200 years ago.

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Looking up to the cabin from the river (underneath a couple towering pinus strobus)