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Photo finish - automating previews of levels

Brain

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Hi all,

The main project for this weekend was to get powerups tied to an actual level in the game, which i have now got working as in the video below:

With this out of the way I have decided to progress onto the next feature of the game which requires development. This is the level select page, which you are presented with if you have previously unlocked any levels in the game, letting you revisit and replay them to get better scores and collect extra powerups.

Within the menu, each level should have a preview image, or thumbnail, showing its appearance to allow for visual memory of which level is which. This was previously implemented on the .NET version of Firework Factory, as can be seen below:

XNA version level selector

In the newer unreal engine version this must be re-implemented. In the previous version, screenshots were taken by spawning the entire level, taking a screen capture of the level and storing that in a texture.

I decided to do something similar in UE4, only to find that doing so would be overkill, as instantiating a level is quite expensive, and would have to be done dozens of times on startup just to capture screenshots to render targets, which could then be turned into materials, and displayed in the menu. Instead, i chose to make a 'photo studio', and get the levels 'photographed'.

Yes, you heard right, a photo studio.

The solution for the problem is to first create a separate map. Within this separate map create a couple of strong directional lights to ensure that there isn't too much shadow in the images. Secondly, create a floor made of a non-emissive completely black material with no reflectiveness. Essentially, this floor is impossibly black, much like it has been painted with vantablack.

Next, I set up a blueprint to incrementally load each level in a loop, wait 1 second for the postprocessing effects to settle, and issue the console command:

HighResSnapshot 3.0

The code for this can be seen in the blueprint below:

blueprint.thumb.png.8440763b7e2b6ec8b980c2246ddfac26.png

This causes the game to save a screenshot of the current level to the folder Saved\Screenshots\Windows, where it can be loaded into GIMP and autocropped, giving me an image like the one below, which is the one for level 4:

Level 4 Thumbnail

These can then be associated with the levels as a Texture2D by importing them into the content folder, so that a thumbnail can be displayed. As i add new levels, i just re-run the process to generate the snapshots, pick the new levels images, autocrop them and drop them into content, which takes all of 30 seconds. This means i can ensure that all the images are taken from the same angle, with the same lighting, the same postprocessing effects, and have an image of exactly the same dimensions.

Next on the list: Use these thumbnails for an actual level select menu!

Feedback as always is more than welcome, stay tuned for further updates!




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      Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.  If you enjoy my article, please click through and consider connecting with me.
       
      Can programmers art? How far can creativity and programming take you?
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      "Programmer art" is something of a running joke. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the "placeholder" or "throw-together" art that programmers tend to use while developing games.
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      Here are some of the afters -
       
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      Bonus - consider procedural art
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      Conclusion
      These 7 techniques were at the core of what I did to improve the visual quality of my project.
      This was mostly the result of the unique set of constraints that I had. But I'm pretty sure some famous person said: "true creativity is born of constraints". Or something along those lines. It basically means that constraints and problems help channel your creativity.
      I'm sure there is more that I could have done, but I was happy with the stark difference between the "before" and "after" states of my project.
      I've also realized that this project has made me more of an artist. If you work on visual quality even as a programmer, you practice and sharpen your artistic abilities, and end up becoming something of an artist yourself. 
       
      Thanks for reading! Please like, share, and comment if you enjoyed this article.
      Did I miss something obvious? Let me know in the comments!
       
       
       
       
       
      Extra Resources
      OpenWorm project
      Great tutorial by Gabriel Aguiar
      Unity breaks down how to improve the look of a game using Post processing
      Another resource on post-processing by Dilmer Valecillos
      Brackey's tutorial on post-processing
      Adobe Colour wheel, great for colour theory and palettes
      An open-source AI project that can colour lineart
      A demo of generative art by Kate Compton
       
      Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn. If you like it, please click through, get in contact, and consider connecting.
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