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Slow and Steady – A Brief Update

I recently realised how much time has passed since my last update on here and so I thought I’d put together a small update to show a little bit of what has been going on in my absence.

Over the past few months I’ve been hard at work on the final level of Dear Esther, which has been progressing nicely for the most part; however due to the sheer scale of the level I have found that it’s taking me a lot longer than I had anticipated to get it finished. My biggest challenge with this level is not only detailing such a huge area and keeping it running smoothly, but also making sure it looks good on both a horizontal and vertical playing field; for example something that looks good at sea level can look awful from way up on the mount. However I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it now and over the past few weeks have finished sculpting the level and am working on detailing the environment, some of which can be seen here: (Of course, very, very early WIP!)

Other than that there have also been a lot of small tweaks and improvements going on in the background to the source engine, the most significant of which would have to be the implementation of realistic detail foliage sway which has been also greatly optimised to use the GPU and the SSE instruction set, to quote my coder Jack Morgan:

“For Dear Esther Robert really wanted to push the limitations of the Source Engine’s foliage capabilities. Dear Esther sees the player exploring outdoor scenes of relative geometrically complexity and the ground surface in many of these scenes is dense with foliage. In their former state the mechanics driving the propagation and rendering of ground foliage were proving too costly to performance. As well the standing algorithms for simulating the wind’s effect on ground foliage were having a massive performance impact, and the end result appeared closer to a simulation of underwater currents on seaweed than wind on ground foliage.

The solution to the performance problems was to defer as much of the calculation required to perform these tasks unto the GPU and calculating as much of what was left over using the SSE registries which were already being employed to handle some of the calculations on ground foliage but not to their full capacity.

A complete redesign of the wind simulation was required to replace the ‘underwater seaweed’ effect with something which more accurately described ground foliage swaying in the wind. In short the new algorithm accounts for wind as a volume with a general direction which produces smaller volumes with more varied direction, on other words gusts.”

If that made you go cross-eyed, then I have made a quick video to demonstrate the results of his jiggery-pokey: (NOTE: Video is a little jumpy and seems to be a little sped-up for some reason, but you get the idea!)


What this means is that I can now have sway on all of the foliage with very little extra cost, and as I think you’ll agree, it makes a huge difference in making the environment feel more alive!

Finally, I have decided to open up a Q&A session for the next update, so that I can help answer any questions you might have about Dear Esther. If you are scratching your head about anything, just submit your question in the comments and I will compile a list of answers for you in the next update!

Not long to go now! :D

22 comments to Slow and Steady – A Brief Update

  • sad_ism

    Can we have wallpaper-quality versions of the shots above? They’re beautiful!

    (I’m on 1366×768 by the way ;) Keep up the awesome work!)

  • Zombz

    Wow. This is jaw dropping.
    When i look at this magnificent piece of art, it makes me cry when i look at mine :D. Can’t wait for the Q&A. Trust me, I’ve got ALOT of questions. Like 4. Anyways keep up the killer work!

  • vorpalmusic

    Breathtaking. Seriously.

    Robert, I’m really curious to know whether these adjustments that you have made to the Source engine (particulatly the wind on foliage) will ever be somehow available to other people, as plugins or by some other means.

    I greatly look forward to your tutorials.

  • ghableska

    I know the Source engine has traditionally been much less intuitive to dig into than say, the Unreal 3 engine. Could you see yourself having redone this mod using the Unreal engine instead? Are there aspects of the Source engine that lend themselves to more easily creating a mod like this?
    Thanks! Keep up the terrific work.

  • just don’t forget that Skylark…just kidding……

    and half serious joke suggestion, seeing this faithfull reproduction of English Countryside:

    What’s next on the agenda a fully realised, direct from Book to Game of Watership down?
    the bunny massacre survivalists fight the daily grind of predators and hazards to find Fiver’s prophecised safe haven.

  • TerabyteST

    Hello Robert,
    I have one question strictly regarding the way you approach the making of these maps. I’ve seen your previous videos of you mapping, and I must say I was impressed at the techniques you use.
    I’ve been mapping for the Source Engine for 2 years now, and I’d like to get a lot better.
    What I’d like to ask you, if you please, would be to list all the steps you take from the very beginning of making a map (getting the idea) from final stages (detailing and lighting).
    Thanks in advance and good luck!

  • semi

    Fantastic work. I can only repeat myself, please go commercial. As a mod this project won’t get the attention it deserves, because very few people play mods. If you’re some kind of idealist and don’t want to carge much, make a low “indie” price, I’d say. Maybe as a standalone, steam featured mod this could also get some attention though.
    I would be glad to pay a full “AAA Title” price for this. Also if this doesn’t deserve some payment I honestly don’t know what does.

  • Nox Deleo

    Amazing work by both you and Jack! That video reminded me of the coastal walks I used to do when on holiday in Cornwall…save for the wrecked ships littering the sand that is. I’d like to +1 the request for tutorials, both to satisfy my curiosity, and give me a chance to create something I can actually be proud of in Source.

    In honour of this update I’m now off for a play through the Shard =D

  • pfannkuchen_gesicht

    wow, looks amazing!
    may I ask you how you utilized the GPU to calculate the grass stuff?

  • Well I need a change of underwear after being overjoyed at seeing you beautiful work (as always).

    Give that Jack a hug from me, can he “sell” or fold back some of his inventions back to valve and the source engine proper? Since you guys are planning (with good reason) to pull back some revenue from the game, doesn’t that mean you need to licence the engine?

    I’d love to pressure you into realising quicker just so I can get my grubby hands on this, but you can’t rush art. If anyone asks you in an interview to categorise Dear Esther say it’s avant-garde ;)

    • Just so you know, you’ve manage to tap into my psyche of how I’d love to have my perfect “outdoor” visual, and my caves. Especially in the the scene when looking up at the moon through the from the bottom of the tunnels and you have the outline of the cave narrowing with perspective with these circles. I’ve scene it before, like that image is culturally in-bedded into our subconscious , I know young kids will say it’s like “The ring”, but for me it’s been in art/TV, I can name startrek episode & the 6th film with similar imagery, but yours is the epitome, the pinnacle of what that image should be (in my heart and mind).

  • Great to hear that you’re planning on releasing some tutorials, those would be immensely helpful if you have the time. Think you’d do anything use-specific? Like, displacements for caves, displacements for cliffs, etc?

  • Papillon Mask

    Are you going to use the same narration/soundtrack as the original Dear Esther, or is it all going to be redone?

  • Plazmataz

    I know there was a lot of talk with your last update about Dear Esther’s status, and whether or not it would be free. The question I have now would be to ask what the news on that front is like. Is Dear Esther still slated to be an open Source mod, or is it looking more like release will happen as a full-fledged independent game? If it will be sold for a price, how does thechineseroom factor into the equation?

  • senne teddy

    You always say these picture are very ,very early WIP. But they are so beautiful already!

  • mooncalf

    Little lost poly updates always make my day! The foliage looks like all the extra work was totally worth it. Do you think it’ll be another few months of tinkering and polishing throughout this remarkable work to get it ready for release? I want in already of course, but I can wait patiently. :)

  • Armageddon104

    I’d really love to know how you did the sky waves and river streams. Was it just scrolling textures?

  • Tommy

    I was starting to worry you’d died, and left us all mourning such a wonderful project.

    The screenshots look stunning, as always. For all the games in development at the moment, this little indie number is still the one I’m most anticipating.

  • Indigo

    Great work as always, looking forward to next update, always something to boost my own creativity is nice to see.

    You should try to make some tutorials, for the level design, and mostly indeed the displacements; it would really help to boost the community and possibly there would be more nicer looking stuff.

    • Hopefully when the project is almost complete and I have some free time I plan on putting together a bunch of tutorials, especially on displacements etc :)

  • [...] It’s Dear Esther. What else? There are some astonishing new screenshots available, showcasing the final section of the mod – which is the bit that wasn’t [...]

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