Why the change?

Ok, I think I’m now at a point where I feel I’m ready to explain why the game is taking such a major change of direction.

I had many issues with the old mapping system that kept nagging at me in the back of my mind. I hope to go through some of these with you to shed some light on my reasoning for the change.

The biggest issue for me (and for many others it would seem) is that in the old system the abstract units simply did not sit well with the terrain like modelling of the map:

Whilst the old mapping system was a technical marvel of realtime reflections and shadows, I never really felt comfortable with the juxtaposition of abstract military symbology on terrain that at the end of the day wasn't that abstract. I had a lot of feedback from many people about this too. It seems that most people - including me - want to see either a good map with good military symbology, or alternately a realistically rendered world with realistically rendered people. But not an odd mixture of the two styles!

Whilst the old mapping system was a technical marvel of realtime reflections and shadows, I never really felt comfortable with the juxtaposition of abstract military symbology on terrain that at the end of the day wasn’t that abstract. (Click for a larger version)

I think that if one is going to render a map as terrain, then one’s units should be rendered as people etc, rather than as abstract military symbols.

Having both types of representation in one game causes a stylistic clash, one that I never really got over.

Ironically, the direct cause of this issue, was the steadily improving graphics of the old mapping engine, which eventually got to a point where it had started to alienate the units that it served!

Another problem with rendering maps as terrain, is that it immediately raises people’s expectations. Many will have seen the Total War series and will inevitably draw direct comparisons, despite the fact that I’m aiming at the simulation end of the market.

In many respects, I’d rather have a war-game that produced abstract maps very well, rather than one that produced terrain based representations rather poorly when compared to AAA commercial releases.

Units also proved to be an issue too…

Some of the smaller units, like the Roman Maniples were so tiny that they ended up looking very out of proportion with their height:

The smaller Roman units tended to look quite odd...

The smaller Roman units tended to look quite odd… Also note how out of place they look with regard to the terrain… (Click for larger image)

These units also looked quite messy when setup on terrain with varying height. In a 2D or hybrid 3d system, these two issues go away!

Another issue that I had was that I really disliked the fiddly map navigation. It’s not that it’s badly implemented, far from it. Map navigation in my game is on par with other commercial 3d releases – it’s just that 3d views are always cumbersome to navigate around.

My game is designed to use the right mouse button to look at a unit’s properties and to issue orders etc. However, in a full on 3d system, one needs to use at least one mouse button to rotate the map.

The old mapping system ended up using the middle mouse button for rotation, which always made things a little fiddly, especially if one was playing on a laptop.

In fact I have yet to come across a single 3d war-game (commercial or otherwise) with easy to use navigation controls. They all seem to make navigating a map a tiresome task.

This issue became even more apparent when I played many of the available commercial 2d war-games. I marvelled at how easy they were to use and how easy it was to view any part of the map.

Panther Game's Highway to the Reich - I was very jealous of their maps! :)

Panther Game’s Highway to the Reich – I was very jealous of their maps! 🙂

For me, the cream of the crop in war-game 2d mapping are the maps provided with Panther Game’s Command Ops series. I always stared in wonder at their smoothly curved terrain features and their multiple levels of zoom.

Their maps were also a breeze to use – this was the standard I wanted to try to emulate.

The only departure I would make in the design, is that my system would be fully vector based and would support infinitely smooth zoom, with no image break up whatsoever, no matter how close the player zooms in!

The downside to such a decision is that I would not allow textures into my mapping engine, as these tend to break up as one zooms in. This can make the maps look very simplistic, but I feel the ability to smoothly zoom in from right on out, down to a few cms of scale without any loss of image quality more than makes up for it!

I’m aware that some people aren’t going to like the move from 3d to a more simplistic system, but I feel it is the way to go. With the new system I can support terrain types I could only dream of with the old one and it will enable me to much more easily implement many of the game features I want to see.

Although the maps are going to be simplistic, it really doesn’t matter as I’m aiming for maps similar to the one below:

The aim! Maps like these!

The aim – clear and concise! I wanted maps like these!

Before I say good bye to the old mapping system lets do some direct comparisons. For these comparisons I have created two Granicus maps, one in the new system and one in the old system.

Both used the same source map overlay which I will come on to later on.

A map of Granicus in the old mapping system.

A map of Granicus in the old mapping system.

The old system doesn’t do a bad job, but things do look very blocky, especially with regard to the river.

The Granicus map in the new mapping system. I personally think the river shape and contour shapes are much more natural.

The same Granicus map in the new mapping system. I personally think the river shape and contour shapes are much more natural. It does look very simplistic compared to the old system, but when you actually get to play with the new system you will get to appreciate the clarity of the terrain features – regardless of zoom level. Plus as an added bonus it is much easier to navigate around the map!

The new system’s map has terrain shapes that are a lot more natural. It also benefits from being very accurately scaled, something that is not possible with the older system.

A close up of the river section in the old mapping system. The blockiness of the terrain can be seen at this level. Plus with the tree system implemented it is impossible to view the map from directly above...

A close up of the river section in the old mapping system. The blockiness of the terrain is more apparent here. Plus with the tree system implemented, it was impossible to view the map from directly above…

A close up of the wooded section doesn’t look too bad, other than the blockiness. The biggest issue with the old system is that one can never view the map from directly above due to limitations with the way the trees are rendered. This is a big issue for a war-game and for me!

Another issue is that the old system used a ‘water-table’ that defined the level of water for the whole map. The upshot of this is that one couldn’t have rivers, streams or lakes at differing elevations.

This doesn’t sound like a big issue, but it hit me time after time when trying to recreate historical maps.

A close up of the wooded section by the River. In the new system even at this level, everything is sharp and smooth. The new editor will also let you zoom in a lot closer than this too should you wish, and once again, there will be no deterioration of the image.

The same close up of the wooded section by the River in the new system. Even at this level, everything is pin sharp and smooth. The new editor will also let you zoom in a lot closer than this  and once again, there will be no deterioration of the image.

The new map system supports smooth panning and infinite levels of smooth zoom with no loss of image quality. This is unlike the old system and many other commercial systems, where the image quality tends to suffer as one zooms in.

The above shot is taken in isometric mode, but I suspect that most players will use the new system in its top-down mode, something that is simply not possible with the old system.

A close up of the hills in the old mapping system. They are real 3d, but the down side is that one loses clarity with regard to the layout of the terrain.

A close up of the hills in the old mapping system. They are real 3d, but the down side is that one loses clarity with regard to the layout of the terrain.

Hills in the old system were sometimes quite difficult to discern properly. I was finding I had to constantly adjust the camera to work out the shape of the hill I was looking at…

A close up of the hills in the new map editor. Even at this level of zoom things are very smooth and it's easy to discern elevations.

The same close up of the hills in the new map editor. Even at this level of zoom things are very smooth and it’s easy to discern elevations.

With the new system the hill shape is still obvious, even at this level of zoom. This is due to the map being underpinned by a vector based bezier mapping engine!

The new system also supports as many contour levels as you wish to use and they can be configured with differing elevation steps. The old system was limited to around 10 hill levels  only.

This means that with the new editor one could create very realistic maps with many contours, or alternatively go abstract with just a few – the world is your oyster! 🙂

The new map editor is very powerful. With just one click I have changed the entire look and feel of the map. The colours used here are taken from the colour scheme that I will use for the Ancient Armies war-game.

The new map editor is very powerful. With just one click I have changed the entire look and feel of the map. The colours used here are taken from the colour scheme that I will use for the Ancient Armies war-game. (Click for a larger version)

The above shot shows some of the power of the new system. Practically everything is configurable in it. This will allow the new system to be used in multiple war-games with a different look and feel for each!

For me, the one big advantage of the new mapping system is that maps can be viewed obliquely from directly above. This is not possible with the old mapping system. Plus the new system has infinite levels of smooth zoom, with no image break up as everything is vector and bezier based.

For me, the one big advantage of the new mapping system is that maps can be viewed obliquely from directly above. This is not possible with the old mapping system. (Click for a larger version)

The above shot doesn’t look like much, but having the ability to have a top down map with smooth panning and infinitely smooth zoom with no loss of image quality should not be underestimated.

On to overlays!

Importing overlays in the old system was a very hit and miss affair. All it could do was import an image and then stretch it to fit the underlying map. This made it difficult to determine the correct map size to use.

This is not a problem with the new system as it has an import tool that automatically calculates scale and the correct size of the underlying map:

The new mapping system includes an image registration tool to allow one to import map images directly into the editor and have them imported in exactly the correct scale! The old system could import overlays, but there was no intelligence to it, so one had to guess the underlying map's size - very error prone...

The new mapping system includes an image registration tool to allow one to import map images directly into the editor and have them imported in exactly the correct scale! The old system could import overlays, but there was no intelligence to it, so one had to guess the underlying map’s size – which was very error prone…

The end result of the import:

The imported overlay - exactly to scale, thanks to the image import tool.

The imported overlay – exactly to scale, thanks to the image import tool.

Overlays are handy as they can act as guides when creating ones own maps from historical sources. Plus, they can also provide the facility for a map designer to include non-standard graphics in their maps!

In many respects the new mapping system has surpased all my expectations. For example, consider the screenshot below that shows an early mock up in MS Paint:

An early mock up in paint!

An early mock up!

Don’t laugh, but I honestly didn’t think that I could do much better than this at the time! As a result I wanted to see what a potential system would look like in the worse case scenario, hence the mock up above.

After the mock up was complete, I decided that even if it looked like this, I would still go ahead as I wanted the simplicity of a 2d or hybrid 3d war-game as opposed to a full 3d one.

In the event things have turned out quite differently, with the result that my mapping system is capable of creating maps like these instead:

Expectations exceeded!

Expectations exceeded! (Click for a larger version)

I’m sure you will agree, this is a LOT better than the mock up! As a result I’m now a very happy chappy! 😀

Hopefully this post does go someway to explaining my change of direction.

That’s it from me for a while as I start to work on other subsystems.

So do not fear if this blog isn’t updated for while 😉

Laters

RobP

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