From the Burrow

TaleSpire Dev Log

2021-01-19 14:20:47 +0000

Heya folks,

Lots of coding has been going on behind the scenes as usual. A lot of that work has been centered around the picker.

In the STAGING buffer technique we were using, I knew that we were meant to pull the results on the following frame. However, I had been cheeky and tried to pull it on the Unity CommandBuffer event AfterEverything. This didn’t work well, and I saw significant delays on the render thread; it makes sense and felt like something I would have to change.

We added support for pixel picking to the dice and made it play nice with hide volumes (so you can’t pick things that should be invisible). While coding that I noticed that hide volumes were not applied correctly to pasted tiles or tiles created by redoing placing tiles. I chased this down to a simple case where we were not setting up a tiles state before trying to set apply the hide volumes to that state.

On the subject of picking: After a little experimentation, we switched from using the Depth buffer from the currently rendering scene to giving the pixel picker it’s own depth buffer. This way, we could easily exclude things we didn’t want to be pickable. We decided to try this after noticing the tile/prop/creature preview would be detected by the picker when placing them, as that would have been a bit annoying to work around.

The next task was simple but takes a little context to explain. The picker and physics raycasting code returns a reference to tiles/props, which is basically just a fancy pointer[1]. Tile & Prop data can be moved when a zone is modified so, if you want to store a reference to a tile/prop that is valid for multiple frames, we make a handle that has a safe way to lookup an asset at the expense of some performance. Previously you would create a new handle whenever you wanted to hold on to a tile/prop, but allocating this object means that the GC has to clean it up at some point[2]. To mitigate this, we turned the handle into a sort of container. You create it once and then push a tile/prop reference into it. You can then replace the reference in the handle or clear it.

Then there were a bunch of physics-related tasks:

  • A couple of bugs in our wrapper around Unity.Physics resulted in ray-casts hitting things that had already been destroyed.
  • Replace the mesh colliders around the creature base with a single CylinderCollider
  • Dice has not been set up to interact with creatures
  • Improving handling of framerate spikes
  • My code for creating the cylinder geometry was off by 90degrees, so we ended up with stuff like this happening wat

Note: It is super obvious what is happening in this picture, but when I noticed it, the only cylinder collider was around the creature’s base, and so I thought I still was messing up creature/dice interactions. I had a good solid facepalm when I finally saw what was up.

The following item on the bug list was that shadows were not respecting hide volumes. This was harder than it should have been due to hiccups we’d had while rewriting the engine. Let’s get through the basics:

  • GameObjects were too slow
  • Unity has calls to render objects using instancing without using GameObjects
  • Those calls cause issues with shadows as Unity can’t them per-light and so does way too much work
  • Unity added a new thing called a BatchRendererGroup, which lets you make big batches of things to render and implement the culling yourself (Yay!)
  • We implemented our new code based on the BatchRendererGroup
  • What wasn’t documented was that specifying per-instance data only works if you are using their new Scriptable-Rendering-Pipeline (ARGGGHH)
  • We do not have the time to write our own rendering-pipeline and port all the shaders
  • We decided to implement our own GPU culling and use indirect rendering to draw the board with shadowcasting turned off and keep using the BatchRendererGroup for shadows.[3]

This has worked well, but as we can’t get per-instance state to the shadow-shaders, we can’t use our usual approach to cull things in hide volumes. Instead, we now check the hide volume state when doing the CPU-side culling of shadows. This would require too many pointer lookups, so we added an extra job to copy the data into another buffer for fast lookup.

Dice ‘sleep’ was next on the agenda. When an object has stopped moving in most physics engines, the engine puts the object to sleep and stops simulating it. The new Unity.Physics library does not have support for sleep built-in as the library is intended as something to be built upon, and different sleep implementations have various tradeoffs. Instead, what we are doing is simply snapping the die to a stop when it’s velocity and position has stayed at a low value for a given period of time. This stops the dice from drifting but doesn’t stop the physics simulation. To prevent things from (computationally) getting out of hand, we are adding an auto-despawn of dice rolls once they have been at rest for a given duration. This also starts addressing some feature-requests about dice management, so that’s nice.

One thing that is not resolved is that we are seeing inconsistent execution time for some operations related to picking. It’s a bit confusing as it’s the enqueuing of the task that is taking a long time rather than the task itself. I need to collect some more data and post a question on the Unity forums as I’m a bit lost as to why this is happening.

Amongst all this is the usual slew of small issues and fixes, but this is getting plenty long enough already.

I’m immediately switching tasks from front-end work to the per-zone sync that I’ve been talking about for months. The next updates will be all about that.

Until then :)

[1] We implement them as readonly ref structs, so we don’t accidentally store them [2] GC really is the enemy in games. You might be surprised how badly timed it hurts performance even when using an incremental GC. [3] Another approach would have been to write our own lighting/shadow system, but that’s also terrifying given how late we already are with the Early Access :/

TaleSpire Dev Log 254

2021-01-10 19:02:31 +0000


It’s been an intense few days of coding, and I’m back to ramble about it.

The issue that arose was the behavior of ‘picking’. Picking is the act of selecting something in the 3D space of the board. The current implementation of this uses the raycasting functions of the physics library. For this to work well, you need the collision mesh to match the object as well as possible. However, in general, the more detailed it is, the more work the CPU needs to do to check for collision [0].

Here is an example where we are striking a balance between those two requirements:

tree collider tradeoff

Most of the time, it works just fine; however, it makes the game feel unresponsive when it doesn’t. Worse, it could take you out of a critical moment in the story, and that would be a real failure on our part. Here is an example of where this can go wrong:

bear/tree issue

In this case, the bear is selectable just fine near the paws, but higher up, the tree’s simplistic collider is blocking the selection.

What would be ideal is to pick the creature based on the pixel your cursor is over. But how to do that?

The basic approach is very simple. Render everything again to an off-screen buffer, but instead of the typical textures, you give each object a different color based on their ID. Then you can read the color at the pixel of the screen you are interested in, and whatever color is there is the ID of the thing you are picking. Sounds neat, right? But I’m sure you’re already wondering if this might be very costly, and the answer would be yes!

We can do a lot to make it less costly though. We know we only need to consider assets in zones[1] that are under the cursor. Next, what if we have a cheap way of checking if they might be the asset under the cursor? In that case, we could greatly reduce the amount to draw.

Indeed we can do both those things. For the first, it’s done pretty much as you would expect; check if the ray from the cursor intersects each zone. For the second, our culling is done on the GPU, so we add some code to our compute shader to also check if the AABB (Axis aligned bounding box) is intersected by the ray.

That’s not bad, but we still need to render the whole of each asset. That’s a lot of pixels to draw, given that we only care about one. So we use a feature called the ‘scissor rect’ to specify which portion of the screen we want to draw to[2]

Again this is good, but it would be good to limit the number of those fragments that remain that we need to run the fragment shader for. To do this, we simply render the assets for picking after the buffer has been populated and use the screen’s depth buffer. As long as we keep our fragment shader simple, we can get early z-testing[3] which does precisely what we want.

So now we’ve limited the zones involved, the assets from the zones involved, the triangles in the assets involved, and the fragments involved. This is probably enough for the rendering portion of this technique. Now we need to get the results back.

And getting the data back, as it turns out, is where this gets tricky. Ideally, we want it on the next frame; however, we also need it without delaying the main thread, which is hard as reading back means synchronizing CPU and GPU.

To start, I simply looked at reading back the data from the portion of the texture we cared about. But Unity’s GetPixels doesn’t work with the float format I used for the texture. So after some faffing around, I added a tiny compute shader to copy the data out to a ComputeBuffer. It was immediately evident that using GetData on the ComputeBuffer caused an unacceptable delay, between 0.5 and 0.6ms in my initial tests. That is a long time to be blocking the main thread, so instead, I tested RequestAsyncReadback, it does avoid blocking the main thread, but it does so by delivering the result a few frames later. This could work, but it’s a shame to have that latency.

After a bit more googling, I learned about the D3D11_USAGE_STAGING flag and how we could use it to allow us to pull data on the following frame without blocking the main-thread. Soon after I stumbled on this comment.

MJP is an excellent engineer who’s blog posts have helped me to no end, so I was excited to see there might be an avenue here. There was only one sticking point, Unity doesn’t expose D3D11_USAGE_STAGING in it’s compute buffers. This meant I needed to break out c++ and learn to write native plugins for Unity.

Thanks to the examples, I was able to get the basics written, but something I was doing was crashing Unity A LOT. For the next < insert embarrassing number of hours here > I struggled with this that mapping the buffer would freeze or crash Unity unless done via a plugin event. In my defense, this wasn’t done in the example when writing to textures or vertex buffers, but I’m a noob at D3D, so no doubt I’m missing something.

Regardless, after all the poking about, we finally get this:

Pixel Picking

The numbers on the left-hand side are the IDs of the assets being hovered over.

I don’t have the readback timing for the final version; however, when the prototype wasn’t crashing, the readback time was 0.008ms. Which is plenty good enough for us :)

I’ve still got some experiments and cleanup to do, but then we can start hooking this up to any system that can benefit from it[4]

I hope this finds you well.


[0] In fact, using multiple collider primitives (box, sphere, capsule, etc) together is much faster than using a mesh, but the assets we are talking about today are the ones that can’t be easily approximated that way.

[1] In TaleSpire, the world is chunked up into 16x16x16 unit regions called zones

[2] IIRC it also affects clearing the texture, which is handy.

[3] I used the GL docs as I think they are clearer, but this is also true for DirectX.

[4] Especially for creatures. We only used the high-poly collider meshes there as accurate picking was so important.

TaleSpire Dev Log 253

2021-01-07 01:53:21 +0000

Evening all.

It’s been a reasonably productive day for me today:

  • I fixed two bugs in the light layout code
  • Fixed pasting of slabs from the beta [0]
  • Fixed a bug in the shader setup code
  • Enabled use of the low poly meshes in line-of-sight (LoS) and fog-of-war (FoW)
  • Started writing the server-side portion of the text chat

I have not made any UI for chat in TaleSpire yet. My focus has been on being able to send messages to different groups of players. Currently supported are:

  • all players in the campaign
  • all players in the board
  • specific player/s
  • all gms

Next in chat, I need to look at attachments. These will let you send some information along with the text. Currently, planned attachment kinds are:

  • a specific position in the board
  • a particular creature in the board
  • a dice roll

We will be expanding these, but they feel like a nice place to start and should help with the flow of play in play sessions.

We’ll show you more of the UI as it happens.

One cute thing I added for debugging is the ability to render using the low-poly occluder meshes instead of the high-poly ones. Here is an example of that in action. You can see that, in this example, the decimator has removed too much detail from the tiles. This is handy for debugging issues in FoW and LoS.

occluder bug example

Alright, that’s all for today,


[0] The new format is a little different, and I’ll publish it a bit closer to shipping this branch

TaleSpire Dev Log 252

2021-01-06 01:05:49 +0000

Heya folks! Yesterday I got back from working over at Ree’s place, which was, as always, super productive.

Between us, we have:

  • props merged in
  • copy/paste working correctly with combinations of props/tiles together
  • Fix parts of the UI to configure keybindings
  • More work on the internationalization integration
  • Progress on the tool hint UI and video tutorial system
  • Updated all shaders to play nice with the new batching system
  • Fixed some bugs in the math behind animations and layout of static colliders
  • Rewritten the cut-volume rendering
  • Fixed a bug that was stopping us spin up staging servers
  • Generated low-poly meshes for use in shadows, line-of-sight, and fog-of-war

That last one is especially fun. Ree did a lot of excellent work in TaleWeaver hooking up Unity’s LOD mesh generator (IIRC, it was AutoLod). The goal is to allow creators to generate or provide the low poly mesh used for occlusion. This allows TaleSpire to reduce the number of polygons processed when updating line-of-sight, fog-of-war, or when rendering shadows.

Most of the above still need work, but they are in a good place. For example, the cut shader has a visual glitch where the cut region’s position lags behind the tile position during camera movement. However, that shouldn’t be too hard to wrangle into working.

Today I moved the rest of my dev setup to the new house. Lady luck decided it was going to well and put a crack in my windscreen, so I’m gonna have to get that replaced asap.

The next bug for me to look at is probably one resulting in lights being positioned incorrectly.

Anyhoo that’s the lot for tonight.


TaleSpire Dev Log 251

2020-12-29 01:17:34 +0000

Heya peoples! Today was my first day back working after the Christmas break, and my goal was to add prop support for copy/paste.

Previously I was lazy when implementing copy/paste and stored the bounding box for every tile. This data was readily available in the board’s data, so copying it out was trivial, as was writing it back on paste. However, this is no good when artists need to change an existing asset (for example, to fix a mistake). Fixing this means looking up the dimensions and rotating them on paste, but that is perfectly reasonable.

Looking at this issue reminded me that we have the exact same problem with boards. As we are looking at this, we should probably fix this for board serialization too. This does make saving aboard much more CPU intensive, however. The beauty of the old approach was that we could just blit large chunks of data into the data to save; now, we have to transform some data on save. We will almost certainly need to jobify the serialize code soon[1].

The good news in both the board and slab formats, we will be removing 12 bytes of data per tile[0]. In fact, as we have to transform data when serializing the board, why not make the positions zone-local too. That means we can change the position from a float3 to a short3 and save an additional 6 bytes per tile[2]

A chunk of today was spent umm’ing and ah’ing over the above details and different options. I then got stuck into updating the board serialize code. Tomorrow will be a late start as I have an engineering installing internet at my new apartment at the beginning of the day. After that, I hope to get cracking on the rest of this.

Back soon with more updates.


[0] sizeof(float3) => 12

[1] Or perhaps burst compile it and run it from the main thread.

[2] technically we only really need ceil(log((zoneSize * positionResolution), 2)) => ceil(log(16 * 100, 2)) => 11 bits for each position component, which would mean 33 bits instead of 48 for the position. However short3 is easier to work with so will be fine for now.

TaleSpire Dev Log 250

2020-12-24 16:47:52 +0000

Heya folks, I’ve got a beer in hand, and the kitchen is full of the smell of pinnekjøtt, so now feels like an excellent time to write up work from the days before Christmas.

This last week my focus has been on moving (still) and props.

As mentioned before, I’ve been slowly moving things to my new place, but things like the sofa and bed wouldn’t fit in our little car, so the 18th was the day to move those. I rented a van, and we hoofed all the big stuff to the new place. The old flat is still where I’m coding from as we don’t have our own internet connection at the new place yet, so I’m traveling back and forth a bunch.

Anyhoo you are here for news on the game, and the props stuff has been going well. Ree merged all his experiments onto the main dev branch, and I’ve been hooking it into the board format. The experiments showed that the only big change to the per-placeable[0] data is how we handle rotation. For tiles, we only needed four points of rotation, but props need 24. We tested free rotation, but it didn’t feel as good a rotating in 15-degree steps.

The good news is that we had been using a byte for the rotation even before, so we had plenty of room for the new approach. We use 5 bits for rotation and have the other 3 bits available for flags.

I also wanted to store whether the placeable was a tile or prop in the board data as we need this when batching. Looking up the asset each time seemed wasteful. We don’t need this per tile, so we added it to the layouts. We again use part of a byte field and leave the remaining bits for flags. [1]

There are a few cases we need to care of:

  1. Tiles and Props having different origins
  2. Pasting slabs that contain placeables which the user does not have
  3. Changes to the size of the tiles or props

Let’s take these in order.

1 - Tiles and Props having different origins

All tiles use the bottom left corner as their origin. Props use their center of rotation. The board representation stores the AABB for the placeable, and so, when batching, we need to transform Tiles and Props differently.

2 - Pasting slabs that contain placeables which the user does not have

This is more likely to happen in the future when modding is prevalent, but we want to be able to handle this case somewhat gracefully. As the AABB depends on the kind of placeable, we need to fixup the AABBs once we have the correct asset pack. We do this in a job on the load of the board.

3 - Changes to the size of the tiles or props

This is a similar problem to #2. We need to handle changes to the tiles/props and do something reasonable when loading the boards. This one is something I’m still musing over.


With a couple of days of work, I started being able to place props and batch them correctly.

I spotted a bug in the colliders of some static placeables. I tracked down a mistake to TaleWeaver.

With static props looking like they were going in a great direction, I moved over to set up all doors, chests, hatches, etc., with the new Spaghet scripts. This took a while as the TaleWeaver script editor is in a shockingly buggy state right now. However, I was able to get them fixed up and back into TaleSpire. I saw that some of the items have some layout issues, so I guess I have more cases miscalculating the orientation. I’ll look at that after Christmas.

In all, this is going very well. It was a real joy to see how quickly all of Ree’s prop work could be hooked up to the existing system.

After the break, I will start by getting copy/paste to work with props, and then hopefully, we’ll just need to clear up some bugs and UI before it’s ready to be tested.

Hope you all have a lovely break.

God Jul, Merry Christmas, and peace to the lot of ya!

[0] A ‘placeable’ is a tile or a prop [1] I’m going to review this later as it may be that we need to look up the placeable’s data during batching anyway and so storing this doesn’t speed up anything.

TaleSpire Dev Log 249

2020-12-16 18:19:53 +0000

Good-evening folks,

I’m happy to report that the new lighting system for tiles and props is working! We now have finally moved away from GameObjects for the board representation.

As it looks identical to the current lights, I’m not posting a clip, but I’m still happy that that bit is done[0]. In time, we will want to revisit this code as there is still more room for performance improvements. However, there are bigger fish to fry for now.

After finishing that, I squashed a simple bug in the physics API where I was normalizing a zero-length vector (woops :P).

Next, I’ll probably be looking at the data representation for props. I will be a bit distracted though, as I’m moving house and in the next few days, I need to get a lot done.

I think that’s all I have to report for today.

Seeya around :)

[0] Technically I still haven’t worked out Unity’s approach to tell if a camera is inside the volume of a spot light. This means my implementation is a little incorrect, but it’s not going to be an issue for a while.

TaleSpire Dev Log 248

2020-12-15 01:13:22 +0000

Today I’ve been working on the new light system.

The basics of this are that I am porting our previous experiments allowing lights without gameobjects to our new branch and hooking it into the batching code. There are, of course, lots of details to work out when trying to make something shippable.

As usual, we need to think a little about performance. There are often many lights on screen, and each light in Unity takes a one draw call (when not casting shadows, which these don’t). Each frame, we need to write each light into a CommandBuffer[0]. With Unity’s approach to deferred lights, A light may be rendered with one of two shaders based on where the camera is inside the light’s volume or not. Two matrices need to be provided, and the light color seems to need to be gamma corrected[1]. As CommandBuffers can only be updated on the main thread, I want to do as little of the calculation there as possible. Instead, we will calculate these values in jobs we have handling batching, and then the only work on the main thread is to read these arrays and make the calls to the CommandBuffer. This fits well as the batching jobs already calculate the lights’ positions and have access to all the data needed to do the rest.

If all goes well, I hope to see some lights working tomorrow.

Seeya then.

[0] we need to use a command buffer as the light mesh has to be rendered at a specific point in the pipeline, specifically CameraEvent.AfterLighting

[1] This one was kind of interesting. When setting the intensity parameter of the light, the color passed to the shader by Unity changed. In my test, the original color was white, so the uploaded values were float4(1, 1, 1, 1), where the w component was the intensity. However, when I changed the intensity to 1.234, the value was float4(1.588157, 1.588157, 1.588157, 1.234). It’s not uncommon for color values to be premultiplied before upload (see premultiplied alpha), so I just made a guess that it might be gamma correction. To do this, we raise to the power of 2.2. One (white) raised to the power of anything will be 1. So instead, we try multiplying by the intensity and raising that to the power of 2.2. Doing that gives us 1.58815670083..etc bingo!

TaleSpire Dev Log 247

2020-12-13 07:25:55 +0000

‘Allo all!

I’m on a high right now as I just fixed a bug thats been worrying us for a while.

TLDR: On our new tech branch of TaleSpire, physics is now stable at low framerates

Now for the director’s cut!

We have been working hard for a while on a big rewrite of the codebase, which gives significant performance improvements. Amongst the changes was a switch to Unity’s new physics engine (DotsPhysics). For the dynamic objects in the game, we still wanted to use GameObjects, so I made a wrapper around DotsPhysics, which made this feel very similar to the old system.

It’s been working well enough since the last batch of fixes; however, we had noticed that it got very unstable at low framerates. I was nervous about this as, if it wasn’t my fault, I’d have no idea how to fix it (Spoiler: It was totally my fault :P)

It couldn’t be avoided for much longer, though, so for the last couple of days, I’ve been looking into it. Yesterday was exceedingly painful. I read and re-read the integration code Unity use for their ECS, and simply couldn’t find anywhere where we should have been messing up. I tried a slew of things with no results. That day ended on a low note for sure.

Today however, I started fresh. For the sake of the explanation, let’s assume the code looks roughly like this:





I had noticed yesterday that the first physics step of every frame worked fine. So I knew it had to be related to how I was handling the fixed timestep.

So I changed the code to look like this.



    // while(haveMoreStepsToRun)


And low and behold, it was still stable. The speed was totally incorrect, of course, but it was clear that RunPhysicsStep was missing something that was handled in the setup or teardown code.

I made small change after small change and finally was able to isolate the issue. One big difference between my code and how Unity was doing things was that they read out the data from the physics engine at the end of each step and then read it back in at the start of each step. This is desirable for them, but it was not something I was doing as for our use-case, it was just overhead. However, what I had forgotten was that when we load the data into the physics engine’s data structures, there are two places you have to put the transform for the bodies being simulated. After each physics step, only one has the updated transform[0], so I needed to make sure that the transform was written back to the other.

And that was it! Suddenly the simulation is solid as a rock at 20fps, and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

I’m now going to do some performance tests again, tweak my fixed-timestep implementation, and then move on to rewriting our board representation to use our new light implementation.

Hope you have a great day, Seeya!

[0] This makes sense when you look at it and is not an issue with how Unity made this.

TaleSpire Dev Log 246

2020-12-10 17:01:06 +0000

Hey again folks.

Progress has been good on the new mesher for the fog of war. The new mesh is much more regular, which should help if we use vertex animation on the mesh.

In the clip below, you will spot two significant issues (Ignoring the shader as we haven’t started on that yet):

  • The seams in the fog at the edges of zones (16x16x16 world-space chunks)
  • The lighting seems weird

The lighting oddness is just that, for now, all the normals are set to straight up. I’m going to make them per-face after this. I could compute the normal per-vertex, but as that slightly more work, I’m holding off until we have some ideas about the visuals.

The seams are an artifact of marching cubes and keeping zones separate from each other. As much as possible, we want to keep zones independent from other zones, and in this case, it means we don’t know if the neighboring zones have fog or not. This, in turn, means we assume there is none so that marching-cubes generates a face. However, marching-cubes can’t do sharp corners, so you get this chamfer.

I’m not sure if we can fix this by modifying the geometry generated on the edges. We’ll have to see.

This morning I was fighting with Unity, trying to get it not to look for things to cull in cases when we are handling the culling. Without moving to their new “scriptable rendering pipelines” (SRP), there doesn’t seem to be a way to do it.

I will also look at the shadow culling jobs as I think the overhead from dispatching them might be larger than the time the job is taking [0]. In that case, I could Burst compile the culling methods and call them from the main thread instead. It’s a trade-off, but it might work.

That’s all for now. Hopefully, I’ll be back tomorrow with some new data :)


[0] The profiler seems to suggest this is happening, but I’m not sure how much of the overhead is avoidable and how much is just part of the BatchRendererGroup’s own code.