By Rob Swinburn, Senior Artist at Payload Studios. Posted 27th September 2019
There are currently over 750 blocks in TerraTech, and every one has had to go through a process that ensures it not only meets our technical and artistic standards, but that it will give players more variety and more creative possibilities when building Techs. Hopefully this post will shed some light on what it takes for a new block to make it into the game...
All new block ideas are added to a big list that we maintain, in reality a spreadsheet that includes a brief description, possible sizes, and which corporation it would be most suitable for, along with links to relevant reference material and a note of where and who the idea came from, whether that’s from discussions internally or suggested by the community.
Many factors influence which blocks actually make the cut; it may be to introduce new functionality, or to duplicate an existing block type but in a different size or for another corporation. It could be to fill a gap in a set of similar blocks to make them more versatile, or to expand on a theme that's been introduced, as was the case with the first set of Better Future streamline blocks that proved popular enough for us to add more. Often ideas come from the players themselves; when we added the Hawkeye streamline blocks an idea for one of the block types came from a post on our Suggestions Forum. It was a shape we hadn't considered, but it worked well in testing so several variations were added to the set and they made it into the game.
Adding a block will depend on the production team finding room in the schedule amongst the other project tasks, but when that decision has been made design and art will get together to discuss the look, size and Attachment Point configuration before one of the art team builds and textures the model in 3D Studio Max. They’ll use previous blocks as reference to make sure they maintain consistency within the corporation for things like panel thickness or the width of an edge chamfer, but also consistency throughout the game for details like input and output nodes, or how battery indicators are shown. Other considerations include making it unique and easily recognised, and that the design will allow for any movement required within the limits of the block size For a simple cosmetic block a single mesh may be all that’s needed, but more complex blocks will have multiple meshes linked together in a hierarchy. The art team have their own 3D workflow tools to ensure that models adhere to best practices and naming conventions.
Next comes the UV mapping, where existing materials are applied to the model to define the colour and texture of the surfaces, taking into account how this might change when different skins are applied. Animation will be added if appropriate, such as barrel recoil or opening and closing when the block is attached or detached. This will be split up into short sequences that can be triggered individually.
It’s likely the model will go through many iterations before it’s finished, with feedback from the rest of the art and design teams, but when they’re all happy it can be exported ready to be added to the game.
The next stage is to create a block prefab, which is a collection of components added to the model that define how the block will behave. For example, a wheel block will have components to control the forces applied when you drive or how the suspension reacts to the terrain, and a weapon block may have components that enable it to track a target. Any new functionality will need additional component scripts to be written by the code team.
At this stage some approximate values will be set for any adjustable parameters such as weight or muzzle velocity. Also defined will be AP locations, collision volumes, physics properties and any VFX required, and an animation controller set up if needed to trigger animations at the right time.
When the block prefab has been set up it can be tested in game, which from an art point of view is mainly to check that it matches the style of the corporation, the collision behaves as expected, and to see how it looks under different lighting conditions. When art are happy, the block gets passed back to design for integration into the game. They follow a checklist of 26 points for each block, including deciding where it will fit into the licence structure, designing a crafting recipe and writing the description that appears in the inventory, which needs to be translated to ensure that it will be displayed in the correct language. Block parameters can then be adjusted to give it the desired characteristics, with constant testing in game to ensure it not only functions as intended, but that it is balanced with other similar blocks.
Only when art and design have signed the block off can it go into QA, where it will undergo more rigorous testing to ensure that it works as expected in a variety of situations, and that it interacts correctly with other blocks and the environment. After passing the QA approval process it can be released into an unstable update, either into R&D if we’re adding any new features, or into the main game where it will come under the scrutiny of players on the beta branch. They will often find creative new ways to use it that we hadn’t anticipated, so any bugs that are reported will be added to our bug database to be fixed, and when they’ve all been verified by QA the block can finally be released in a stable update and made available to everyone.