Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A change is as good as a holiday

Chance favors the prepared mind
- Louis Pasteur

It's been a while.

I've been on a bit of a break. In fact I've done bugger all in the way of 3D stuff. I even took some time off work, packed a tent, my two dogs and enough beer for a week and headed south to bum around some of the places I used to camp and fish in my younger days. Quite a bit has changed in the forests of the south west of Western Australia. I hope the mining royalties that the West Australian government are getting from Alcoa is worth the destruction of state forest and the disruption to recreation. But it was great to get away from the technology that has dominated my life in recent years.


Here's a screenshot from the ultra-realistic game called "The Real World - Life Outdoors" expansion.

BTH Mini Review - Fantastic graphics and realistic companions. But many of the NPCs are complete tossers, there's not enough loot and the deity system is broken. The game enforces an ethics system called "political correctness" and some factions are easily offended if you choose an inappropriate conversation response. The game also lacks DMFI support.
Summary - "The Real World - Life Outdoors" is not recommended for powergamers or those that like to role play chaotic evil alignments. 6/10)
(Campsite at Waroona)

One of the things that greeted me on my return was a message from Dirtywick. It was brief and to the point, basically asking me if I wanted to join a NWN2 project. It was perfect timing as far as I was concerned as I was looking for something to inspire my modeling. Skipping over the nitty gritty and jumping forward in time by a couple of weeks to the present and I find myself involved in a BouncyRock Entertainment project and in the company of some very fine NWN2 talent. Elysius' blog entry lists the people involved in the new project.

I can't reveal much of what we are working on. But I am excited about being involved in a community project with such depth of talent and I've already started work on some custom shields.

So this project is good news in that I have a challenging few months ahead me and bad news in that I don't expect to be releasing any additional custom content until after the BouncyRock project is completed.

On another matter, the NWN PW I co-developed with Sporaxis and Relexx has been raised from the grave. Sporaxis has decided to dust off the Aeon: Frontier PW module and take it in a new direction. The work I did on the Aeon: Frontier tilesets was pivotal to me moving on to 3D modelling for NWN2. It will be good to see Aeon running again even if I don't have the time to be involved. The Aeon forums can be found here :

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Milestone

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights
- Muhammad Ali

Today I released the BTH Weapon Pack, my seventh custom content submission for NWN2. By coincidence it is exactly twelve months ago to the day that I released my first NWN2 models.

The BTH Weapon Pack came together nicely with the addition of three more models in the Smouldering Weapon range and includes a tot
al of 36 weapons.

It's taken most of the day to collect the screenshots, package the model files and run a final test. The submission is currently waiting for approval on the NWVault site. The preparation for the release gave me the opportunity to look at some of the early weapon models I made for AussieNWN and reflect on how both my 2D and 3D skills have improved.

It's not at all difficult to pick out the short sword models that were my first attempts at making weapons. The dates on those first weapon models go back to December 2007. The BTH Weapon Pack has been a long time in the making. In fact, this project has been so stretched out that while I was preparing the files today I re-discovered a couple of models I'd completely forgotten about.

Anyhoo, here's the link to the BTH Weapon Pack on NWVault. I'll leave you with a screensh
ot of the the complete set of Smouldering Weapons. I'm going to fiddle with another short video.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love

Stop! Hammer time
- MC Hammer

Every now and then things just fall into place. The meshes work the first time, the textures seem to make themselves and the model turns out a treat. Today I had one of those days. Which is good, because yesterday I had one of the other sorts of days. Yesterday was a day where nothing seemed to go right and it was my own doing.

I had been trying to finish off the latest series of sword models and at the same time attempting to make efficient use of a texture by using it for more than one mesh. I like to produce models that are constructed with performance in mind. Using a texture for multiple meshes is one way of trimming the fat.

When I create a texture for a model I make extensive use of layers. In the case of yesterday's texture I had combined the texture for swords 74 and 75. The texture had 31 layers that include the UV layouts, the textures used to construct the normal map as well as the components of the diffuse texture. The idea is to blend various layers to produce a texture with the desired qualities.

Somewhere alo
ng the way I forgot which layers to combine to make the textures I needed. So in my quest to be efficient I burnt a lot of time. And it meant that all the swords in both the 74 & 75 series had to be tested in-game again. Sword model 75 had plagued me with small problems from start to end.

I've learnt my lesson. If a texture is already complex, don't try to utilise the spare space with another complex texture. In other words, I will try not to let my drive for efficient modelling impede my progress.

But even when I'm having a bad day at the workbench I try to reach a milestone. So the end result of yesterday's effort was the completion of the combined texture and finalising the sword series 75 with the addition of the short sword and dagger.

By comparison, today was a great day at the workbench. I started by taking my own advice about planning the model before I start. In this case it was a quick concept drawing of what I wanted. And what I wanted was a big mother war hammer with the same burning ember qualities as the recent quarterstaff and club.

I had none of the difficulties with today's war hammer that I had with sword 75. No folding meshes and no restarting the model. The texture came together almost too easily and in a matter of a couple of hours I had my big smouldering war hammer. Stop! Hammer time.

The whole effect I was chasing here was a weapon that is burning at its heart. The smouldering soul of this beast can be seen through cracked and fissured surface. Flames lick the head of the hammer, which holds the core of the heat and the glowing embers die out down the handle. The hand grip, while also burnt, is not smouldering with the same intensity as the head. It leaves a trail of sparks and flame in it's wake and gives off a feint flickering light.

With a successful day behind me I am loath to fiddle with the textures too much, but my original idea was for a cracked metal texture. The texture shown in this screenshot is based on a burnt wooden beam. I shall have a play with overlaying an iron texture. But that's for another day. I've earned a day off tomorrow. The weather is fantastic this time of year and I'm going to enjoy it.

Over the next week I shall put together an axe model in the same style and then, I think, my weapon pack will be ready to assemble.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Never give a sword to a man who can't dance

Never give a sword to a man who can't dance
- Confucius

I have made good progress on the latest sword model this week. I wanted to give the blade some etched runes and although I've done similar effects on other swords, the small scale of the graphics threw a few challenges at me. In hindsight, I could have made it easier on myself had I planned the mesh of the model to match what I had in mind for the texture.

The challenges that presented themselves while I was tweaking this model provided an opportunity to explore new ways of doing things. So while it look me a little longer than expected, I did learn a few new tricks along the way.

The screenshot on the left shows the Longsword version of the model. There are matching Bastard Sword and Great Sword models too. I should be able to scale it down further to make a Short Sword as well. A Dagger model may be a little too much to hope for this model.

The runes along the blade translate very roughly to Troll's bane sorrow and death. The claim made by the runes may be pushing it a little for a short sword, never mind a dagger. But it would be good to have the complete set as I've done with the other sword models.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Moving Pictures

Never judge a book by its movie
- J. W. Eagan

After the very basic video I posted last week, I thought I'd try my hand at something a little more creative. So, this week I've mis-spent my time by exploring the world of video editing software. That mostly consisted of me bumbled around blindly trying different settings until I worked out how the damned software hung together.

The video didn't turn out exactly the way I wanted it and a there were a lot of takes that ended up on the virtual cutting room floor, but overall I'm happy with the result.

Making movies took more time than I was expecting and I didn't have a lot of time left over for the 3D work this week. However, I did make some improvements to the model's visual effect by adding a weapon trail that momentarily flares up like a trail of sparks and flame and I've also included a low intensity flickering light. The light is most noticeable in the close-ups where it appears as though the flames are reflecting on the face of the PC.

I've also added a flaming club model in a similar style to the quarterstaff.

You can view the video by downloading the wmv file from the link directly below, or you can view the (much smaller) embedded video.

Download the large format video - BTH Flaming Weapons Demo 2

The limited time I had available for modelling this week was spent starting a new sword model. So far I have the blade mesh and the basic textures completed. I'll be working on the cross-guard and grip this week and adding some runes to the blade texture.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Playing with fire

My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - It gives a lovely light - Edna St. Vincent Millay

I've been fiddling with a new quarterstaff model today. And just like Millay's candle, it burns at both ends.

This quarterstaff has a burning heart that smoulders menacingly just under the surface. Red hot coals glow from the cracked ends of the staff while small flames gently lick the charred surface.

I love the concept of this model and I think I shall apply it to some other weapons. It would look great as a club or any other wood based weapon. I'll try to match a metallic texture to apply to blades. I'm thinking a dirty big axe or hammer.

I made the visual effect for this quarterstaff from the torch flame effect. I slowed it down considerably so it has a more gentle flame; one that suggests a slow smouldering core. It looks more ominous, or perhaps just quietly dangerous, with the gentle flames breaking through. You can get an idea of what it looks like from the video.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Simple things

The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on. - Ulysses S. Grant

One of my favourite weapon models from NWN was the quarterstaff made from a tree branch. I loved the simplicity of the idea. So with that unpretentious design in mind I set about making some new quarterstaff models for NWN2.

There is something that strikes a chord with me when my characters use a quarterstaff. Perhaps it's the simple brutality of beating the crap out of a monster with nothing more than a lump of wood.

NWN2 quarterstaff models are made as a single piece, as opposed to the sword
models that have three interchangeable parts (being the blade, cross-guard & grip). Unfortunately the single piece quarterstaff doesn't have the mix 'n match options of the multi-part weapons like the swords.

And speaking of swords, I have scaled the sword model 74 down to dagger size to complete the series for this model.

I was wandering around the net last night and I stumbled into Dirtywick's NWN2 Blog with screen shots that feature some of my recent watchtower models. The screen shots look fantastic. From what I can see he has really captured a siege environment nicely. It's a bleak and desperate place to be fighting a battle and it's pleasing to see my work incorporated into such a great setting. Dirtywick: Ingdals Arm Siege

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The pen is mightier than the sword

The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with. - Marty Feldman

My work on the new sword model continues. I've made some changes to the normal map of the hilt, added a small celtic trinity to the cross guard and adjusted the specularity of the blade. I have also re-scaled the original great sword model into bastard sword, longsword and short sword dimensions.

With the new specularity settings the edge of the blade now catches more of the reflected light and gives the sword a little more life.

I think I'm just about done with this model. The shot on the left shows the short sword version of this series of models.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Burning down the gates

Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable - William Shakespeare

For the most part I like to make custom content that will be useful to the wider NWN2 community. Sometimes I do things just for fun, like the severed heads. Sometimes I make stuff that people ask for, like the Rune Placeables. My Module Testing Toolkit is targeted at a niche audience and I don't expect that will be hugely popular. But overall I like to know that I'm spending my time on building custom content that is appreciated.

The best way for me to gauge popular opinion on a particular project is to look at the downloads and votes that my NWVault submissions collect. So it's been two weeks since I re
leased the update on the BTH Watchtowers and the update has only attracted one extra vote and twenty downloads. I begin to wonder if I'm wasting my time making models that only a handful of people are going to use.

I've decided to drop the rural gate model and make the final watchtower update with the the new Archer's Platform and the walkmesh helpers. I still have to package the new models and write a how-to for the walkmesh helpers. It all takes time to do it properly and looking at the response to the previous watchtower update I don't think the additional effort involved in making a gate model is worthwhile. The new models are "more of the same" and it doesn't seem to be what builders want.

I had been thinking about re-vamping my house pack, but again, the interest in those models has been minimal. I have another 5 or 6 models that I had done previously for the Aussie NWN boys, all I need to do is package them up and submit them. But the interest from the community doesn't seem to be there.

In the meantime I've been playing with the texture for the new great sword. I have added a subtle pattern to the lower part of the blade. The pattern is a combination of diffuse texture and bump map. It doesn't jump out at you, but that was the look I was trying to achieve.

I also gave the blade a very sublte taper. It's barely noticeable, but somehow it improves the overall look of the weapon.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A minor distraction

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
- Robert Burns

I had all the good intentions of starting the gate model for the Watchtowers hak today, but I got distracted by a post on the Frontier Reborn forum about custom content daggers and I ended up making a Great Sword to add to my collection of weapon models. Don't ask me how a forum post about daggers turned into a new Great Sword. But that's what happened.

I hate the original NWN2 weapons, especially the swords. They are ugly. How ugly?.... Very ugly. So ugly they make my eyes bleed. When they fell from the ugly tree, they hit every branch on the way down, where they were set upon by Obsidian modellers who proceeded to beat them with ugly sticks. (probably the same ugly sticks that were used to "model" the NWN2 female heads)

The original NWN2 swords are an example of being frugal with polygons. They are also frugal with their textures. Which is another way of saying they look like they were built from Lego blocks and that they are ugly. (How ugly?....)

Now, I'm not suggesting that you have to have a high polygon model to make a sword look good. But the Obsidian guys could have put a little bit more effort into their weapons. I'm not a big fan of the high-fantasy style either, with their improbable designs and more spikes than an echidna. Looking at some fantasy weapons, it's hard to imagine wielding such a beast without maiming yourself before you get to the bad guys.

So anyway, here it is. 396 polygons, ready to lay some double-handed smack down onto what ever beasties you encounter on your NWN2 adventures.

I should be able to easily convert this model into a Bastard Sword and a Long Sword with a bit of careful scaling.

I'm probably going to add some detail to the texture on the blade too. Something like an etched pattern.

I'll collect all the odds and sods weapons I've modelled over the last twelve months and throw them into a hak at some stage.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

All along the watchtower Princes kept the view

Arise ye princes, and prepare the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. - Book of Isaiah. Ch 21

Here is a look at the new Archer's Platform for the Rural Fort Walls. I'm planning for these to be included with v1.20 of the BTH Watchtowers hak for NWN2. The shot on the left shows the model as I intended it to be used. The shot on the right demonstrates the improved height postioning by utilising the walkmesh helper on a model that has been sunk into the ground. Used like this, on the right, I think it makes a great improvised defensive position.

I'm satisfied with the model, but there is still some work to do on the walkmesh helper. In order to create the shot on the left I had to convert the boulder placeables into Environment Objects to get the walkmesh to bake correctly. It could have had something to do with too many placeables in close proximity, but I'm going to experiement a little more to see if I can improve the walkmesh bake further.

And after that I'll start work on some gates to match the walls.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Talking Heads

After completing the second update for the
BTH Shield Pack I wasn't sure in which direction to take my modelling and so I volunteered to contribute some custom content work for a Middle Earth themed NWN2 Persistent World - Heroes of the Third Age (HotTA). I like the world that Tolkien put together and I'm a big fan of the LOTR books and the movies. One of the Heavy Shields in my shield pack uses the White Tree of Gondor as a design. I figured making LOTR based models would be fun. And it was for a while.

A couple of months into the project I found I had lost my custom content mojo. Instead of an interesting pass time it all became a bit of a chore. I stopped modelling during the week and only managed to drag myself to the workbench on weekends where I half-heartedly went through the motions of creating the architecture models for Rivendell. I'm sure this is a phase that most creative people go through at some time.

I continued to push through it when my attention was capture
d by a post on the HotTA forum where a player had requested trophy models like orc ears and human scalps as an aid to role play. Well, it brought to mind an idea I'd had about trophy heads and had never really followed through with. So I raced home from work with ideas pumping through my head and I set to making a proof of concept model that I could use to demonstrate the idea.

This was just the panacea my flagging model making mojo needed. I've always enjoyed working with the darker side of custom content. The BTH Swamp with its dank pools and the BTH Forest with its gritty ruins were my favourite NWN1 works. I recall writing at the time I was making ruined houses for the NWN1 PW I was involved with, that it was an interesting reflection on my personality that most of my best work had consisted of things that were broken and ruined. And so I relished the work I was doing with the severed trophy heads. I even made a nice little dripping blood visual effect to compliment the model.

It was a little unfortunate that the lead developers from HotTA didn't
share the enthusiasm that the severed heads had generated on the forums. They felt that the modelling efforts should be spent doing more appropriate things. But it was already too late from my point of view, my mojo was back and I would not throttle it back down.

My leaving the HoTA project was probably overdue. I should have read the signs of my flagging interest and spoken up earlier. Instead I had become one of those volunteers that every project loathes; the guy that promises and then doesn't follow through. There was more to it than that, of course (there always is). Ultimately, I told the HotTA team I would finalise one last model for them and then step down as a contributor. From the moment I announced my departure I became persona non grata as far as the lead developer was concerned. Another indicator that the decision to leave was the right one.

Anyway, I hope the HotTA project gets some use out of the new Watchtower models. Although they were not part of the HotTA scope of work, the new models and the textures were made with the idea that they could be used for the construction of the walls and defences for a rustic/rural setting like Edoras.

And what became of the severed heads? I added a couple more head models and released them onto NWVault. I have since experimented with blood splattered NPCs and bloody weapons. I think this guy would make an excellent NPC Butcher, or maybe a surgeon.

At some time in the future I will expand on the severed heads by adding the NPCs and a few other gruesome oddities.

BTH Severed Heads can be found on NWVault here :

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's no simple thing to climb a ladder

Twelve months ago I sent a note to Slimer of the Aussie NWN team asking if they needed a part-time developer for their custom content. The Aussie NWN team had plans for a NWN2 persistent world set in Britain around 300AD and it sounded like an interesting project to contribute to. Plus I had played on one of their NWN PWs a couple of years ago and so I knew the guys involved. I had only been modelling for a few months when I contacted Slimer, but I was confident enough to be able to make placeables and other non-animated models for them.

I started with some rustic houses. Many of the original Obsidian models in NWN2 are way too clean and the rural house models are a perfect example. The thatched roofs look like piles of hay and every wall and corner is perfectly square. It was a good opportunity to grunge things up a little and knock a few walls and door frames off square.

While I was playing Bob the dodgy Builder, I noticed that the rural watchtower model (that looked great) was mostly a useless pile of timber that you couldn't climb. Duh! Not much use to a module builder. NWN2 seemed to be devoid of towers and platforms that could be climbed and used to defend a rural town. I took up the challenge of making watchtowers and archers platforms that the players could climb.

And so started my love/hate relationship with the NWN2 walkmesh, for it's no simple thing to climb a ladder in NWN2.

The walkmesh is used to stitch the geometry of a model into the terrain of the surrounding area and it defines where players can and cannot walk. For most placeable models this is easy enough; you have a wall and you don't want players to be able to walk through it. If you add a walkable gradient to a model (such as stairs) the points where the model intersects the terrain usually stitch adequately, but only as long as the terrain and the stairs terminate at the same level. If the stairs are sunk into the terrain the walkmesh creates a dip that makes the ground in front of the stairs unwalkable.

I settled on a walkmesh that worked well with the base of the stairs level with the ground and so in October 2007 I released my very first placeable hak with watchtowers and rural fort wall models on the NWVault site. I have been a little surprised at its lack of popularity and in ten months it has only tallied 280 downloads. In any case, I recently found myself in between projects and I decided to take the opportunity to revisit my watchtower hak.

I never liked the texture that Obsidian used for the fort walls. For a start, the models cannot be tinted. The texture also makes the upright posts in the fort walls look like mutant asparagus cross-bred with giant bamboo. It was time for the BTH texture treatment to add a more weathered look for the timber and an opportunity to include a tint map. The new texture is on the left, original texture on the right.

I also wanted to build an archers platform that was integrated with the style of the fort walls. I am quite pleased with this one, it turned out nicely.

The walkmesh for this model also has the same ground level restrictions as my previous towers. I can't claim to have mastered the NWN2 walkmesh just yet. Nonetheless, it was pleasing to look back on some of my early work and reflect on how much I have improved my workflow over the last 12 months and become more efficient.

I did have an idea on how I can improve the walkmesh for these watchtowers with a walkmesh helper model, but I was having difficulty getting it to work and so it was cut from the v1.10 release of the BTH Watchtowers. I have since read a tip from Sporaxis about converting placeables to environment objects and adding a walkmesh helper over the top. With this in mind, I have created walkmesh helpers specifically for the watchtowers. This has worked really well and I'm currently working on the v1.20 update to the Watchtowers to include the walkmesh helpers, an additional archer's platform and a gate with double doors.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's a dangerous business stepping out your door

It's a dangerous business stepping out your door, if you don't keep your feet there's no knowing where you might be swept off to. - Bilbo Baggins

One of the things I have spent a lot of time on in recent years is the game Neverwinter Nights, based on the pen and paper role playing game of Dungeons & Dragons. While I was initially attracted to Neverwinter Nights as a fantasy RPG with strong ties to D&D, it would be the game's world building toolset and the community of other NWN players that would sweep me along on an unexpected journey and capture my attention for a long time.

I have no doubt that the NWN player community has been largely responsible for the longevity of the game. Six years after the release of NWN, the game continues to have a strong following. I first bought the game in 2003 and was lured to the toolset before I had come close to completing the single player game.

My early experimentation with the toolset had me writing some simple "go fetch" quests. One of the quests was to recover an item from the village thief. Every actor in an adventure needs a name, even a petty criminal. So, inspired by such names as Jimmy the Hand (Raymond E Feist) and Mack the Knife, I created Barry the Hatchet. The name made me laugh and I eventually adopted it as my online identity for all things Neverwinter.

I soon learned that writing exciting adventures was not one of my talents. But I did have an affinity for the scripting language that drives the NWN game.
I also spent a lot of time playing on persistent worlds. Mystara- Black Horizons was an early favourite. The server is still active today. I also played on Chronicles of Torn (made by the Aussie NWN team). I had some great times on these servers and met some people I still hang out with online today.

So it's almost two years since the release of Neverwinter Nights 2 and at the moment I'm getting my kicks by making 3D custom models for NWN2. It's been a long journey from where I started in 2003 with the creation of Barry the Hatchet (petty thief and scoundrel) to building 3D models for NWN2. The fun part is that there is always more to learn.