Feb 9

Around the Verse – Ship Pipeline Pt. 1: Concept to Greybox

In Around the Verse – Ship Pipeline Pt. 1: Concept to Greybox, members of the Cloud Imperium Games team share how a ship like the Drake Buccaneer goes through the production pipeline. Sandi Gardiner and Forrest Stephan host this episode, which also features an update from Jake Ross in the Austin studio.

INN transcripts are edited for maximum ease in reading comprehension. Cleaning and correcting written transcripts of the spoken word makes them easier for a reader to understand and clarify the intended communication of the speakers. We may sometimes get this wrong, so please don’t hesitate to let us know if you spot any inconsistencies.

Around the Verse – Ship Pipeline Pt. 1: Concept to Greybox – Full Transcript


  • Sandi Gardiner (VP of Marketing)
  • Forrest Stephan (CG Supervisor)

Sandi Gardiner: Hello and welcome to Around the Verse, our behind the scenes look at the development of Star Citizen. Our special guest host today is CG Supervisor, Forrest Stephan. Welcome back to the show Forrest.

Forrest Stephan: Thank you for having me, it’s absolutely great to be back.

Sandi Gardiner: It’s great to have you back and the big news this week is, of course, the Alpha 2.6.1 patch being released to the Evocati along with a host of bug and crash fixes. The patch includes nice improvements and continued tweaks of weapons and flight systems.

Forrest Stephan: Yeah that’s absolutely fantastic. It also has the single player Mega Map which makes hopping around between levels a heck of a lot easier as well as multiple regional servers which know people have been waiting for, can’t wait to get this in the hands of the players.

Sandi Gardiner: Yeah we had Will, Adam, and Dave, they were playing around with it today having a blast.

Forrest Stephan: Having a blast.

Sandi Gardiner: Before we get to the show is there anything interesting that you’ve been working on lately?

Forrest Stephan: Always interesting things. So, I’ve been helping develop the look and the tech with art direction and cinematic design for the holograms for capital ships. You know the bridge holo-globes in all the briefing rooms. With all this AR stuff happening, it’s great to see some hologram stuff in our game and develop some custom tech for it so it’s pretty exciting.

Sandi Gardiner: Very cool and is that for Squadron 42?

Forrest Stephan: That is for Squadron 42.

Sandi Gardiner: Alright.

Forrest Stephan: It’ll eventually show up in the PU, but the focus right now is to establish a consistent look, interface, design, a way to communicate the briefings to the player for the Squadron 42 campaign.

Sandi Gardiner: I also heard that you were working on some dead body tech.

Forrest Stephan: A big part of the buildup for 3.0, corpses are part of the set dressing. In the wrecks, the abandoned ships and we wanted a way to use our load outs, our current characters instead of placing these temporary props so we developed a system to use a physics-based approach to having designers place these dead bodies everywhere.

Sandi Gardiner: I don’t know why I find that exciting and I’m not sure what that says about me, we can move on from there.

Forrest Stephan: If we can show a video maybe you’ll see how fun it is.

So, it shows how our system can generate impulses to get some fun poses. We can create a nearly infinite variety of natural poses because it’s all physics driven and it all kind of depends on the situation.

Sandi Gardiner: That’s very cool, and that will be a great tool for our artist. Now let’s go to Jake Ross to see what the Austin studio has been up to.

Studio Update

  • Jake Ross (Producer)

Howdy folks, Jake Ross here, Producer of CIG Austin with a look at what’s going on here this month in the Austin studio.

Lead Designer Rob Reiniger has completed his game design document for the shopping kiosk feature and we’re now discussing timeline, for implementation with UI team and the Game Code team, we’re very excited to have this feature ready to implement.

We’re excited to wrap this up because it means soon we’ll be able to use this interface for, not just shopping but things like items and clothing, weapons, and ship parts in the game, but also for performing landing pad services such as repairing and refueling your ship, loading and unloading cargo, and that kind of thing. This is a huge step in the right direction that will allow us to bring much of the shopping experience on our website to the in-game universe.

On the animation front, the PU Animation team has been trucking along nicely on the implementing and polishing the usable animations that will be used in both Squadron 42 and the PU. Currently, we’re polishing up these table leans that we’re using for things like leaning on the table in the mess hall for aboard the Idris in Squadron 42. We’ve also been getting female versions of the already existing male animations like work zones and wall leans in the game as well.

The Ship Animation team has been wrapping up polish tasks for combat speed enters and exits into the cockpits. We’re hoping to wrap these up by the end of the month at which point we’ll be moving on to implementing new cockpit start-up sequences for the different cockpit types. Which is cool.

We’re still determining who our code resource will be that we’ll be partnering with on that feature but once that is done we’ll be ready to hit the ground running implementing awesome, new interactive system for starting up your ship before take-off.

On the art side of things, ship artists Chris Smith and Josh Coons have made good progress on the new and improved Super Hornet and the Drake Cutlass Black respectively. The updates that Chris is doing on the Super Hornet are to bring the ship in line with our current quality standards that we have now. And these are almost complete and we’re looking forward to getting these out to you all in release 2.6.1.

Over in dev ops land, we’re working hard to start supporting multi-region server deployment. We’re very excited about this feature and we’re hoping soon we’ll be able to deploy servers in more regions than we have previously to help improve latency among other things. We’re hoping to use data centers around the world to spin up more game servers in regions like North America, Europe, and Australia.

That’s all I have for you this week guys. Thanks. See you around.

Back in the Studio

Sandi Gardiner: Thanks for that Jake. The Cutlass Black rework is shaping up. It’s one of my favorite ships.

Forrest Stephan: Is it?

Sandi Gardiner: It is.

Forrest Stephan: I absolutely love when we go back and do these ship updates. It’s such a great way to see how far our ship pipeline has come. Right?

Sandi Gardiner: Not only is the tech constantly improving but our artists keep getting better with every ship they make.

Forrest Stephan: It’s incredible.

Sandi Gardiner: Speaking of the ship pipeline, this week’s Feature Focus reveals the extensive process ever ship goes through.

Forrest Stephan: Oh, it’s incredible. You have artists, you have designers, you have directors, animators, programmers, and so many more people all involved from all the studios and have their hand in creating these ships from the concept to be flight ready for us to play with.

Sandi Gardiner: Let’s take a look.

Ship Pipeline Part 1: Concept to greybox

  • Elwin Bachiller Jr (Lead Ship Artist)
  • Matt Sherman (Technical Designer)
  • Luke Davis (Producer)
  • Jim Martin (Concept Artist)

Luke Davis: Hi, my name is Luke Davis. I am the producer here at Foundry 42. I look after the ship environment and U.K. tech design departments. Here at CIG, the ship pipeline has seen a remarkable evolution.

Before I got here at Foundry 42 we were still outsourcing ship assets to various companies to help finish the artwork that we didn’t have the capacity to do in-house at the time, and it proved that there were various issues that came along with outsourcing our assets.

One of the biggest issues was the communication breakdown between the various departments, so whereas now we have the absolute luxury of being able to have various departments and disciplines within the same studio.

Specifically, the art director, the art team and the tech design team are all in the same building whereas previously what we had was a tech design department in Los Angeles, we had an art team here in the U.K. and we used to outsource ships for concept and the 3D assets to another company.

What we have now is an official design document that our tech design team both in L.A. and in the U.K., sign off on and decide, this how many thrusters it should have, this is the exact animation template it should use, this is what weapons it should be using and sort of give an idea on what roughly what the ship needs. It’s minimum requirements not to define the shape or you know how it should work. It’s just what should be in it.

Jim Martin: One thing I like about the process here at Star Citizen is that they kick you off with a 3D cheat sheet of volumes saying we need engine size to be roughly this cube, we need a gun to be this size.

They want to make sure that as you start thinking about it, you’re kind of aware of what the different shapes and what the different proportions are. And that helps me out because when I start a design, after I’ve looked at reference and the past ships and thought about myself on course design-wise I’m going to go in and begin with a sketch pass. And that’s my thinking pass.

You know when I have a pencil in my hand and I have paper in front of me and I’m just noodling and drawing that’s when I’m getting my head around what I want the design to be or how it should balance or, or what the proportions could be. And so, in my first physical pass with the Buccaneer I did a kind of big cheat sheet that was basically kind of pared down to the simplest components: engines, cockpit, guns, wings. You know let’s move stuff around and let’s kind of see if we can get a feel for it.

Luke Davis: One of the challenges of the ship being in the concept phase is not just to make a pretty ship, it’s to make sure that it works for what we want in the game. You’ll take what design wants, what Chris originally envisioned for the ship, and try and turn it into some sort of image.

Elwin Bachiller: What tends to happen when we get a concept into production is we’re handed a series of images that have been finalized, final paint overs and just beautiful illustrations. In addition to that, we also tend to get a concept model which is what the artist use to paint over and do his final renders.

To make that usable we tend to have to rebuild that model. We can’t just, I mean we can technically take that and put it directly into the game, but it would be very expensive, because the cost of models tends to not worry about poly count anything like that, and it wouldn’t conform with some of the technology we are using.

We essentially just rebuild that model, but in most cases, we aren’t just rebuilding the model we’re also making some changes along the way, especially as we discover changes that we must make due to the whitebox phase.

Jim Martin: As the concept guy, you’re used to getting the ball rolling, but then once the ball is rolling you want that collaboration with, with the physical design team that’s going to be doing the actual 3D of the ship because they keep you honest and you also keep them honest. They may kick an idea to you and go, “Well, you know, the engines are a little too close we need to balance”, then you’ll say, “Well I can do this”, so it’s sort of a great back and forth that I think is important to the process.

Luke Davis: One of the biggest issues that we have in concept is the actual metrics because you have Chris on one side wanting the ship to look a particular way as does the art director, the art director is constantly adjusting based on the feedback Chris provides and the biggest difficulty is trying to keep the gameplay metrics that we need to work in the game such as the animation template.

So, animation has four current ships. For each ship, there is a template attached to it and we must make sure now not to make any more templates except when it’s absolutely needed and if we can use an existing one that works. So, we go, “Right you know what, we would like same entry animation as we did on the Gladius, now try to use that entry animation on that new ship. How would it work? What are the challenges that come with it?” and it’s just to make sure everyone’s involved in communicating with everyone what their new risks and issues are part of that pipeline.

Elwin Bachiller: So, what we tend to do is we’ll get the concept model if we have one and we will essentially build a rudimentary version of the ship. It doesn’t have anywhere near the detail that the final model is going to have, but it serves as a representation for us to start playing around with gameplay elements.

Once we have this rudimentary model, we can throw that into the game super-fast and, with the tech design team, we can start adding weapons to it, we can start adding a rudimentary cockpit and have positions for the animations to work properly.

We can go into the game, walk up to this very blocky looking ship, press a button and then climb into it and start flying the ship early on within the first week and a half to two weeks of production and this is what we call the whitebox phase.

Matt Sherman: For the design side of that, it’s mainly just setting up some basic helpers and hard points. Get some thrusters on there, make sure it flies, make sure it putters around and that’s also when we do a lot of the initial placement for thrusters. So, we need to make sure they’re distributed evenly across the ship, they’ll be balanced, that’s going to handle right and get the kind of performance that we want it to.

Luke Davis: Once the disciplines have had a look at it, and that’s the main part of the whitebox is that people look at it and go, “Right, I’m ready now, I’m ready for when the ship goes into production so it is further down the production”, the UI team have a look at it and go, “Okay, they’ve done the metrics right, the screen layout is completely correct, we don’t need anything new, we are good to go”. The VFX department go, “Right, you know what, the thrusters are in the right place, and the removable thrusters are correct, they know what type of ship items it’s using, we’re good to go as well”. Then that’s the main bit of the whitebox phase.

Matt Sherman: Then it’s handed back to our ship artists and they just build it out and make it look fantastic during the greybox stage.

Elwin Bachiller: On the greybox phase, that’s where the artists tend to do a lot of heavy lifting on the geometry so we’ll start building very close to final geometry. We’ll start adding bevels, or as max usually calls, chamfers all over the ship into order to use custom-normals on our ships which make it look as though its higher geometry than it is.

Custom-normals is a technique that we use, essentially we call it custom-normals, but the geometry that we have, each vertex on the surface has a direction which determines how the light bounces off the surface. So typically, there’s a technique called subdivision modeling where you’ll take a surface and an edge and you will sort of reinforce that edge by adding multiple loops to either side of where you want the light to bend and that will give you a sort of nice flat surface on one side, and then a crisp little bend, and then a flat surface on the other side so it looks smooth.

We can’t afford to add that much geometry because it makes everything a lot more expensive to do it with that technique so what we do is we’ll take the vertices and instead of reinforcing the edges, we’ll add a single chamfer, and we will then tell the vert to have the tangent pointing exactly where we want them to go and it will give us the illusion of having a reinforced edge without having a reinforced edge.

It gives us a much cheaper asset in terms of geometry, but the quality is just as good and it ends up making the ship look really cool, but that’s essentially what we do in the greybox phase is built as close to final geometry as we can use only two tones to break up the surface. So, we’ll have a light gray and a dark gray or maybe a high spec value, a low spec value, just to get a basic breakup of the colors and how we’re going to break it up on the exterior walls.

We’ll also do more finalized animations in this stage. So, we’ll go ahead and build full landing gear and do the folding up and closing to make sure everything closes perfectly and looks beautiful.

We’ll do this for landing gear, ladders, cockpit canopies. Anything that moves on the ship is something that we end up animating within the greybox phase, mostly because we can’t build the final geometry without knowing how it’s going to move. It’s important for us to work on animation and building simultaneously.

Luke Davis: Because when you go into greybox you start needing Tech Design to get much more involved. They have a working ship in whitebox form and their job is then to go and make it flyable in the engine. And of course, it’s only going to be a flyable whitebox, but it’s flyable nevertheless. And it’s trying to make it work for all the other disciplines. The goal is at the end of the Tech Design greybox phase, is that other disciplines have something to work with.

Matt Sherman: Once I get it back from there it starts getting into more of the nuanced setup. So, getting final thruster items hooked up and not just placeholder items. Making sure all the guns are seated properly. Making sure everything is functioning, giving the player the right line of sight, making sure they have the right speed or convergence angle. Just all the real core tuning that starts to build a ship out and give it its character.

Elwin Bachiller: So, we try to produce a ship thinking about the kind of experience and feeling that the player is meant to have. You can see this exposed in a lot of our bigger ships that have large interior environments. Some ships are meant to feel very sleek and clean, luxurious. You’ll have a lot of clean walls, a lot of brightly lit areas. And some ships are meant to feel claustrophobic and unsafe. The Caterpillar is a great example of that: it’s dark, it’s dank. There are a lot of sharp edges sticking out.

We can also communicate that character with our animations. One good example of that is something as simple as the way a door opens. If you have a very smooth, quick movement on the door it gives you the sense that everything’s working properly. There are no mechanical problems with it. Whereas if you have a door that jerks a little bit and looks like it’s scraping across the side as it moves out you get a sense that the ship’s a little bit more dilapidated. That kind of thing.

When we build ships here we try to build our proxy animations to have some of that feeling in them. If it’s a ship that’s not meant to be perfectly smooth and perfectly refined, the Buccaneer’s a great example of this as well, we would like the landing gear to deploy and feel like it’s dropping before it gets caught because it’s not a perfectly smooth transition.

Those are just a few of the ways that we try to add character and personality to the ships.

Matt Sherman: One of the things that we’ve done well with building out the Buccaneer is, even before the first whitebox was checked in Elwin had been planning a new way of laying out some of the files or updating our current method of laying out the file inside 3D Studio Max that has sped up the process doing hand-offs between art and design where an issue can be called out. The feedback goes back and forth. And I can still work, set everything up, without ever having to worry about their work overwriting mine or mine overwriting theirs. So, it just removes a lot of roadblocks and that way it lets us, even with any uncertainty, it lets us be agile enough to jump onto the Buccaneer or the Cutlass or whatever other ship or task is coming up when the time comes for it.

Luke Davis:  The Drake Buccaneer is now considered greybox complete in the production pipeline. There are still many steps remaining before it can be considered flight ready and we’ll be back later when it is.


Sandi Gardiner: A lot of great info in there and it’s fun to see how everything comes together.

Forrest Stephan: Yeah it really is. And of course, us developers can only do so much, we rely a lot on the feedback that you, the backers, provide to us. All your testing is vital to the project so keep playing, contributing through the Issue Council and the forums.

Sandi Gardiner: And Star Citizen would not be what it is without your support.

Forrest Stephan: And the support of our Subscribers.

Sandi Gardiner: That is very correct. And it’s thanks to them that we’re able to share the in-depth, behind-the-scenes shows we bring to you weekly. Thank you all so very much.

Forrest Stephan: And that’s our show for the week.

Sandi Gardiner: That’s our show. Who knew? Make sure to tune in tomorrow 12 pm Pacific for the latest Happy Hour stream to what some live gameplay and discussion with Lead Writer Dave Haddock.

Forrest Stephan: Oh, awesome. And until then…

Both: We’ll see you Around the ‘Verse.


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