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The Technology of Dragon Age II – Part 2

by Andreas Papathanasis

In the Part 1 of the Technology of Dragon Age II blog we covered base improvements to the Dragon Age II technology. In this article we’ll examine how higher end PC GPUs can enable additional visual features which further improve the overall visual quality of the game.

One of the major goals of the team was to make the game look great on all platforms. Having accomplished that, we started researching what additional features we can offer to our users that have invested on higher end PC hardware. The latest PC GPUs that have been recently released on the market are very powerful. DirectX 11 technology is a great way for us to target this advanced GPU hardware, as DirectX 11 is fully backwards compatible with DirectX 10. So if you have a video card that supports DirectX 10, DirectX 10.1 or DirectX 11, and Windows Vista SP2 or Windows 7, you’ll be able to benefit from additional technology features as described in this post.

Dynamic Lighting

As we already mentioned in the previous post, the base lighting system was designed to work well with all the systems the game runs on. On high end PCs, we can take advantage of the extra power of current generation GPUs to do more.

The game has hundreds of spell effects, the rendering of which is greatly improved on high end PC video cards. On the high detail setting (requires DX10 or better hardware), the game will smooth particle edges so they blend better with the environment (without hard edges at the contact point).

One of the major features of the DirectX 11 version is that the dynamic lighting for spell effects has been completely redone. While our base rendering technology supports 2-3 dynamic lights per visual effect, the DirectX 11 renderer supports hundreds of dynamic lights. Our artists have used that feature to great extent by attaching numerous small lights to spell effects that are expected to emit light (for example, fire and lighting effects). This is a great feature that significantly improves the visual impact of some of the most important spells in the game.

In addition, certain lighting effects will also add additional shadows to the scene. For example, when casting a fireball to a group of enemies, players will see shadows from all enemies. This looks great especially on indoor scenes.

On exterior levels, moving cloud shadows add an extra layer to the visuals.

Most of the dynamic lighting features, including cloud shadows and the extra lights on spell effects, will work on DirectX 10 hardware. The extra shadows from dynamic lights require the very high detail level (which is only available with DirectX 11 hardware).

Tessellation and additional geometry details

Tessellation is a major feature of the DirectX 11 API. Dragon Age 2 uses tessellation on the terrain to smooth out shillouette terrain edges that can occationally look sharp on DirectX 9. In addition the Dragon Age 2 engine supports displacement mapping techniques to increase the detail of certain surfaces like walls, floors and pillars. This feature adds microscopic details and makes those surfaces look much more detailed and textured.

Screen space ambient occlusion

Screen space ambient occlusion adds self shadow details to all objects in a scene and is a great complement to the base lighting system. It looks particularly good when combined with varying city architecture, and because Dragon Age 2 is focusing on the city of Kirkwall, there are a large number of areas that take advantage of this effect throughout the game.

Diffusion Depth of Field

An optional visual feature for players with DirectX 11 hardware is our new diffusion depth of field effect. This effect is active during normal gameplay and it is used to blur objects very close to the camera, as well as put objects in the distance slightly out of focus. Visually this works great with distance fog, and gives vista shots a more convincing look.

The technology of Dragon Age II – Part 1

by Andreas Papathanasis

Technology was one of the major focus points of the programming team during the transition from Origins to Dragon Age II.  After the art team presented us their vision for a rebooted art style, we spent a lot of time with them identifying the technology improvements that would best bring that art style forward.

In this post we’ll examine some of the base technology improvements to the engine. These improvements will be enjoyed by everyone who plays the game, regardless of whether they choose to play on PC with a DirectX 9 video card, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. On a subsequent post we’ll examine more advanced DirectX 11 technology that will be exclusive to higher end PCs.

Lighting

Lighting is a crucial element for the visual appearance of any game.  Regardless of how detailed and unique the base art is, a poor lighting system that fails to bring out that detail will make the game look worse overall. With this in mind we spent most of our research effort into new lighting techniques and tried to identify the one that best fits the levels we needed to create for Dragon Age II.

The lighting system we ended up with is based on an offline global illumination renderer that creates higher quality lightmaps than before. Global illumination means that light bounces in the scene are considered for the overall lighting. This simulates how lighting works in the real world.

Cave levels are a great fit for our new lighting system. Light beams coming in from cracks in the ceilings scatter light around the level for a more clean and realistic lighting overall, compared to our old lighting engine.

Lighting is also a great tool to convey emotion. From the smoke filled alleys of Lowtown to the highly contrasted lighting in Darktown or the Chantry – whenever I play the game I find myself unconsciously pausing to look around in the level and how lighting interacts with each scene.

Outdoor Environments

Interesting terrain variation, dramatic vistas, impactful skies, a grand overall sense of scale are all important points for our level artists when laying out the outdoor areas of the game. We worked on more advanced terrain editing capabilities that allow more creative freedom when creating our exterior levels.

To complement the new terrain engine, our redesigned sky editing tools allow artists to easily create lit, moving layers of clouds that contribute a lot to the visual appearance of exterior levels. The team also worked on improving the water rendering technology. It now allows for physically lit water and realistic, accurate reflections from all objects in the scene:

Finally, our new fog technology now supports vertical height fog and adds an extra level of detail to many environments.

Characters

Our offline global illumination renderer works great for static unmoveable objects, but one of our key goals with the technology was to make characters and other dynamic objects moving in the scene to have similarly high quality lighting as the levels. We implemented a system that ends up working really well, where characters pick up very similar lighting as the static geometry in the world near them. This makes creatures really merge in with their environments, get shadowed when they walk in shadowed areas, get brightly lit when they’re facing the sun, and be affected by all offline lights consistently as they walk through the level.

Our character lighting is complemented by our improved runtime shadow technology, which now supports self shadowing. Besides providing a more realistic look, self shadowing is also a good tool for cinematics to improve the impact of the scene by manipulating lights and shadows.

Summary

Overall, we feel that the technology changes have empowered our content creators to create clean, pretty, more consistent, very often visually striking areas that look and flow great throughout the game.

Next time we’ll cover more advanced DirectX 11 features of the engine, how they complement the base technology and how, while not required for enjoying the game itself, should improve the visual experience for players with higher end PCs.

Thanks to our lead environment artist, Ben McGrath, for capturing the screenshots in this post. The screenshots are taken from the DirectX 9 PC version of the game, but the visual output would be almost identical on consoles.