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Deep Spelunking/Thinking

Everything in this tileset is big. The space is big. The polycount on static parts is big. The texture files. Just big.

I'm taking a cue from many current games where instead of walking through tightly cramped places, you're character is going through a large adventure in a large place on a quest larger than him/herself. The scenery plays a big part in knowing where you are going, but also in the process of getting your character lost. I've spent months now watching videos of caves, including in games such as Diablo 3, the Final Fantasy series, and many other MMORPGs. One recurring theme is that you are not confined. Contrary to that, Sword Coast Legends gives you the feel that you are railroaded down these customizable tunnels, but with only so much wiggle room. Two, maybe three characters can fit across many of the dungeon corridors, and that makes up a great majority of the play time. While that's fine for some places, it doesn't feel good overall if that's all you have to work with.

Another one of the things I've done with the NWN conversion of SCL assets is to not tinker with the scale to force it to fit NWN tiles. This has had the effect of making the NWN playable versions of those tile groups slightly larger in volume. Volume of course translates to larger surface area, and that means more play space, more room for larger monsters to get in your way (those damn purple worms and hunched giants), and more room for visual stimulation. Yes, we're back to the eye candy talk.

A picture on the internet got my attention fairly strongly a few years ago. I don't know what game it was for, but there was a cave path leading up to a bridge going to an underdark fortress. As you cross the bridge, you'd see way off into regions you can't actually get to. As it turns out, this has been fairly normal with MMOs since before D3 even came out, but really got going with the D3 and Torchlight 2 battle. Those games knew you would be playing to explore, not just murder some walking XP. The customizable tiles allow many versions of any given area, as NWN does with all the placeables, but the off-tile content really brings it home. I've struggled with how to do this for years, but the SCL tileset really shows me how I can pull it off.

When I was working on my forests and mountains, one thing I tried was putting stuff outside the bounds of tiles, but this brings up some minor issues that are hard to get around, like some shadow issues, pathing issues on adjacent tiles, and just simply having things look strange sometimes. I then went on to working on something called the surround tiles. Instead of ending abruptly and letting NWN repeat some tiles off into infinity (usually 3) until out of visible range, and giving them some fog, I decided to add a layer of map building. I'd make a type of terrain that goes around the edge and contains intentional off-tile content which may span multiple tiles back from the playable area. It was no longer like you were walking around in a box surrounded by the mirror dimension. Instead, you were walking around a box and you could see the border, but the border didn't feel like a tileset with a border.

Still, this felt like a box. Another thing about tilesets is that everything can feel like a box. With a square tileset, there is this unintentional tendency of any tile to create squares and lines. But Triangles and circles are more natural, so how do you get there? Well, for one, think in hexagons. Hexagons satisfy both a circle and triangles in multiple directions. Back before Dwarven Forge was so widespread, there was a product called Cavernscape. It came with a felt mat with hexagons floor tiles, over which you would place these cave pieces that fit together in foot-wide hexagons. Each hexagon could be made from 1 to 6 parts, each part taking up 1-6 corners each, and varying on crossers. While NWN has no possibility of pulling off such a conversion (I've tried), you can use larger tile groups to give you the same feel.

This brings me back to the confined feeling of SCL tile groups. In SCL you walk through these tunnels of close walls unless you are in a larger room, such as a 6x6 tilegroup. But if you compare this with tile groups from Diablo 3, what you have is 3x3 -sized NWN tilegroup with the feel of no borders. Your goal is to just find the path around a pit in the floor, a chasm, or water. This gives you a much more open and adventurous feeling, but in reality, it's the same thing. Only the visuals have changed. Well, that's not entirely true. For instance, D3 makes a point to make you feel you are not in a tileset, when you certainly are. They do away with the squares and lines by forcing an isometric view, but they also do a really good job of preventing lines. To do this, D3 didn't put tile-group entrances parallel with each other on opposite sides of the group. SCL doesn't do this. It specifically uses shapes like X, Phi, Plus, S, Z or H... all of which give you overall parallel exits out the group sides, specifically in the center of tile group edges.

So what to do? Well, one thing SCL did was make door-hole-fillers that randomized the dungeon tile edges. Another thing they did was use a lot of diagonal tiles in the center of groups. For instance, the SCL H-tile is at 45 degrees to the normal flow of the dungeon. Other groups, such as the S and Z tiles confuse direction a little as you pass through, because you can't walk directly through the group in a straight line in at least one direction. This is ok, but is it good enough? Diablo 3 went a little bit further by making groups that were not square. Many of their cave groups would easily translate into 2x3 or 3x4 if you don't count the eye candy. In combination with the staggered tilegroup exits, the area can be made to feel more organic.

Getting back to reality just for a moment, I want to mention that real karst caves often do have parallel tunnels because many of those tunnels form along cracks which are locally parallel, or where their convergence is 50 miles away. For instance, all the cracks that makes up the caves in western South Dakota radiate out from the Black Hills uplift dome, or ring the dome perpendicular to the radials. Locally, this would look like plusses, X, Z, or H, so to some extent, square feeling tilegroups are actually natural. But I've also been to the caves of southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, and many of those caves feel more like snaking rivers... because they are. Small square fractures in the rock gave way to S shapes over time, and that's where original NWN and SCL tile groups don't feel natural. D3 and other games with that offset pass-thru can bridge that gap for us, I think.

Which is why last week I spent some time working on converting the D3 map shapes into tile bases for use with my scripts. And because simply adding more confined shapes doesn't address the problem, I'm modifying the script to make a wider cave passage at eye level for players. Instead of wobbling predominantly upward in an overturned U-shape, cave passages will take on a plus-shape both up-and-down, as well as right-to-left. In a sence, some of the original NWN cave setting had this part right, with the eye-level section of the cave bowing outward, except that many real caves have deep-set and difficult-to-reach regions in this part.

This is where I intend to put the eye candy. And in fact, some of the eye candy is simply the ability to peek from tile to tile without being able to walk to that other tile. In regions where there isn't another walkable tile group on the other side, this alows for entire groups of unwalkable area to be constructed. Entire groups of just distant eye candy.


In addition to all this thinking, prodding, and poking, I've also developed another dozen larger boulders, but this time, instead of being rounded, they're made of layered rock. I've also built another 5 shapes of high poly speleothem sections for use in constructing larger conglomerate placeables. Soon I'll have enough variety to reconstruct a similar speleothem from any real cave in the world.


Next week I intend to show a few base tiles with the new placeables in use.

First Release: 
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Sounds interesting. Can't wait.

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