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)

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Certificate of Authenticity

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, so I wanted to speak about what I’ve been up to, in regards to Tombeaux’s progress. While I haven’t been able to devote as much time to creating visual or design work for the game as of late, many other necessary elements have been accomplished in the background.  Most of that behind-the-scenes work has involved me doing a lot of reading, writing, and traveling, all in support of the game’s research.

Since Tombeaux – more than any other project I’ve done to date – includes an extremely large amount of history, the emphasis on solid research has been crucial.  Just as with any historical fiction piece (book, movie, game, etc.), I feel like I have spent just as much time reading and researching as I have been modeling and designing (if not more!).

Since Tombeaux is a historical game that relies more on fact than fiction, I’ve returned to a sources, all of which I’ve consistently used for reference in making the game:

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Important Sources for Tombeaux

These books are actually what got me started on this journey over a year ago, and it’s been a pleasure to revisit their pages. The experience has simultaneously reaffirmed old ideas and sparked new ones for the game. In the past few weeks, these texts have helped me to get close to finishing the characters and dialogue found throughout the game.  At this point, I have seventeen different characters from different time periods, cultures, and backgrounds (the player never sees these people, but does hear their voices in short narrative bursts). These include historical personalities such as a fur trader, an Ojibwe woman, a lumber baron, a tourist, a homesteader couple, and a farmer, to name a few. I’m attempting to stay as authentic as possible in crafting their dialogue, so while I have taken a few artistic liberties, the characters will speak words which are an amalgamation of both fact (actual quotes) and fiction.  I’m nearly finished with these, and look forward to seeking out voice actors for these various roles (if you or someone you know might be interested, please do reach out!).

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In addition to the reading and writing mentioned above, I’ve been diving deep into various primary resources, such as letters, photographs, maps, journals, and certificates, many of which I plan to somehow feature in the game as “virtual artifacts” of the actual text/image (hanging on a wall, sitting on a desk, etc).  I would never have been able to find nearly as much material if it wasn’t for the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). In addition to having an unbelievable online catalog of visual materials, the History Center in St. Paul houses a world-class museum and research library.  I had the good fortune of spending a bit of time at the center and interacting with the employees, making it one of the highlights of my time working on Tombeaux thus far.

But it doesn’t stop there with the MNHS – they actually manage 26 different historic sites scattered across the state, a few of which I’ve recently visited to seek out visual references that will aid me in making my game’s scenes as authentic as possible. This summer, I’ve been able to visit two sites of particular importance – the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, and the North West Company Fur Post (both are 60-90 minutes north of the Twin Cities and only an hour apart from each other). In both cases, I had specific goals of what I’d need to capture with my camera, in hopes that I might be able to use it to aid me in creating the worlds of Tombeaux.

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The “Four Seasons Room” at Mille Lacs

At Mille Lacs, I discovered that the museum had curated a wonderful combination of both contemporary and historic Ojibwe culture, culminating with an experience in their “four seasons room”. This particular room was so rich with identity and history that 15 minutes of photographing that space has saved me hours of combing the internet and archives for reference imagery examples of 19th century Ojibwe living customs!

The North West Fur Post provided museum-goers with somewhat of an opposite experience from Mille Lacs, approaching things from the perspective of the english fur trade culture set at a re-creation of a famous 19th century trading post (I recommend visiting both sites in the same day, for the balanced historical perspective as well as out of convenience). I was able to gather more visual materials for Ojibwe culture, as well as new elements of fur trading culture and history, all of which will be visual examples to be references when modeling objects and environments in the game.

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North West Company Fur Post

In addition to these focused and deliberate trips, things also sometimes just appear when you least expect it. I spent last week on vacation at a cabin north of Hayward, Wisconsin, and had the opportunity to gather some miscellaneous elements for the game, including: the chance to inspect and photograph some century-old branded timber from the logging era (courtesy of the Barnes Area Historical Association), gather some white pine tree bark textures from the surrounding area, and visit the Sawyer County Historical Museum.

This is why I love what I do – I’m able to combine two passions I’ve had since I was a kid: the urge to express myself in a visual and creative manner and my desire to soak up everything I can about the history around me. And honestly, I don’t think I could be happy doing just one of them. I need my artwork to be rooted in authenticity and research and I can’t imagine how I’d ever write a scholarly history book like James Taylor Dunn did (unless I was able to fill it with more pictures than words!).  Making historically focused and inspired artwork is truly an enjoyable process, and I can’t wait to finally share that experience with everyone else (as I’ve always found that sharing is half the fun!).

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Top: White Pine Trees, Bottom: Hayward Museum (left) and stamped log from Barnes Historical Association (right)