GearBlocks Demo 0.4.6450

GearBlocks Demo 0.4.6450

Slopes and wedges

Here’s what I’ve been up to over the last couple of weeks.  I’m still working on the company set up stuff, it’s unfamiliar territory for me, so I had to do a bit of research and get advice from some people.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it seems there’s no getting around the complexities that require both an accountant and lawyer.  This is going to cost me a lot of money, so I want to be sure before going ahead with it!

Upcoming demo

I’ll upload the demo update as soon as the company is sorted (should be soon now), but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peak at the changes that will be in it:-

  • Improved builder tool controls and usability:-
    • Changed alignment and attachment indicators for improved visibility and clarity.
    • Improved part selection (restricting selection location to where part can be attached).
    • Better selection rotation behaviour during alignment.
    • Improved part resizing response to key presses.
    • Added part resizing indicator to show available resize directions.
    • During alignment attachment indicators are now shown for any attachments that will be created.
    • Selected construction can now be frozen in place during alignment.
  •  More user configurability:-
    • Configurable key bindings for the various actions in the game.
    • Replaced single graphics “quality level” setting with individual settings for more fine grained control.
    • Added many other options (such as mouse look sensitivity and invert, camera FOV, etc.)
    • Improved sound options (volume controls and speaker configuration).
  • UI improvements:-
    • Improved screen layouts and UI elements.
    • UI is now scaled based on screen resolution.
    • New part and attachment info UI overlays.
    • New game stats UI overlay.
    • Improved in-game context sensitive hints.
  • Updated and improved parts:-
    • Improved part behaviour key binding.
    • Differential gears now have limited slip behaviour, with tweakable “slip limit strength”.
    • Lights can now (optionally) have a key bound to switch them on and off, just like motors.
    • Beams now resizable down to 1 unit in length, and plates from 1×1 to 25×25 units in area.
    • Better wheel friction behaviour.
    • Increased max spring rate and damping values for spring dampers.
    • All part models (except wheels) now textured.
    • New light parts (now with paintable lenses).
    • New seat models (replacing old ones).
    • Wheel rims now paintable.
  • Rendering changes:-
    • Construction materialise / dematerialise effect.
    • Part paint application fade in / out.
    • Corrected part paint colour (de-gamma’d, it now visually matches colour shown in UI).
    • Upgraded time-of-day system.
  • The construction frozen state is now saved / restored from saved games.
  • New and improved sound effects (toolbox, footsteps, ambient loop).
  • Minor tweaks to desert proving ground map.
  • Bug fixes.

As usual I’ve updated any parts that were already in the demo, but I’m not adding any additional ones, all the new parts I’m making are for the full game only!

Slopes and wedges


On the subject of new parts, I’ve now implemented resizable sloped beams and plates, as well as resizable wedge plates.


Designing their shapes was a bit of a challenge because I had to find a compromise between these three competing requirements:-

  1. Be easily representable by box colliders for efficient physics.
  2. Have plenty of room for attachment points.
  3. Look good when combined with other slopes, plates, etc.

The wedge shape was the trickiest to represent with box colliders.  I contemplated using a convex mesh collider for it, but I wanted to avoid this as they are generally less efficient for physics, and I also have part intersection tests in the game that only work for primitive colliders.  So instead I created a system to dynamically add box colliders, three for the wedge edges, and then recursively adding more to fill in the wedge interior (the larger the wedge, the more interior colliders are needed).  An example of this can be seen below.


All resizable parts in GearBlocks use procedurally generated meshes, so I had to implement mesh generation for these new slope and wedge parts.  This wasn’t too difficult but did require a fair bit of refactoring of my procedural mesh system to allow for these more intricate shapes.

Here’s a comparison of the Desert Buggy construction, the original version vs. one I made using the new slope and wedge parts.


Not only does the slopes and wedges version look way better, it uses nearly 50 fewer parts than the original!

In the future I want to add a compound sloped plate (i.e. a “corner” piece), as well as curved beams and plates.  The trouble is, the colliders for these will be even more tricky to set up.  I might need so many box colliders to represent these shapes that it wouldn’t be practical, so I may well have to resort to convex mesh colliders for these.  Anyway, something I’ll come back to later.

Construction interface problems

The sloped plate part is the first part in the game that is resizable along all three axes.  Unfortunately this particularly highlights the awkwardness of the current part positioning and resizing interface.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this yet, but I think I’ll have to revisit the construction controls yet again.  There has to be a way I can make this better, but I’m just not seeing it right now!

So where is that demo update already?

So, um, that demo release I’ve been promising, where is it you might ask?  The good news is, it’s ready to release (has been for a while actually).  The last thing was to set up an installer for it and that’s all done now (if you’re wondering, I used Inno Setup for this, found it a super easy tool to use, with great results!)

Unfortunately, I can’t release it just yet as I’m still working on getting my company set up.  This is turning out to be more complicated and expensive than I first realised.  Incorporating the company itself is easy, but because I’ve already been developing GearBlocks for a while, I’ll need to transfer GearBlocks IP to the company, which complicates things and adds to the cost (accountant fees on top of the lawyer fees!)  Anyway, I’ll keep plugging away at this and hopefully get it done in the next week or two.

In the meantime I’ve been adding more parts – some new sliding rack gears with integrated ball joints / hinges (makes for neater steering systems), more lights, and a seat.  I’ve also implemented limited slip functionality in the differential gear, with configurable “locking strength”, should keep that wheel spin under control!

I plan on adding various types of sloped / curved beams and plates to the game, this will make constructions look a lot better (and save on the number of parts needed in a lot of cases).  Next week I’ll start work on what should be the simplest of these, a resizable sloped beam.

Wheel physics revisited

Last week I decided to take another look at the wheel physics implementation, in particular the tire friction model.  First let’s quickly recap how the wheel physics works in GearBlocks.

Wheel physics recap

Every update I find the contact point on the ground directly below the wheel and position a configurable joint there.  This joint is then connected to the wheel at the closest point on its outer edge to the contact point on the ground.  The joint has a linear limit set up to prevent the wheel going below the ground, which provides the wheel to ground collision response.

For friction between the tire and ground, I set up the configurable joint’s velocity drive to constrain the wheel’s velocity at the contact point to zero, with the maximum force on the drive being set to the friction force.  To calculate the friction force, I use a method inspired by the Coulomb damping model, where the friction force equals the product of a friction coefficient and the normal force at the contact point (i.e the force preventing the wheel from sinking into the ground).

Previous tire friction hack

To find the normal force I need to know what force the configurable joint’s linear limit is applying to keep the wheel above the ground.  However, it used to be that in Unity there was no way to access this (even though it was available in PhysX), so I had to estimate the normal force by taking the total mass of the construction, dividing it by the number of wheels, and multiplying it by the acceleration due to gravity.  Basically a total hack, because it assumed the vehicle’s weight was always distributed exactly evenly over each wheel.

Improved tire friction

Well the good news is it turns out that fairly recently the joint force was made available in Unity (via Joint.currentForce), so I’ve now switched the implementation over to use this to find a proper normal force.  This means that in a vehicle, weight distribution now affects tire grip, and because the normal force is now being calculated dynamically, weight transfer also affects grip in the way you’d expect, which is pretty cool.  This all sounds great, and is a definite step in the right direction, but there’s a problem.

Formula magic

By using Coulomb damping I’m effectively assuming that tires are rigid (i.e. non-elastic) which of course they’re not.  In reality a tire’s grip changes depending on how much it is sliding across the ground (tires actually develop peak grip when sliding slightly).  Not only that, the longitudinal (forward and back) and lateral (side to side) grip of a tire behaves slightly differently.  So most driving simulations instead use some form of “friction curves”, equations that you plug slip amounts into and get friction forces out.  The industry standard is the Pacejka tire models, sometimes known as “magic formulas”, these are empirical models that have been made to fit real world measured data, the equations themselves don’t have any basis in real physics as far as I can tell.

Sounds simple enough, so why not use the magic formulas?  Well, after looking into this for a bit, I can see several problems:-

  1. The equations for the Pacejka curves themselves are complicated and have a ton of tuning parameters, something I’d prefer not to have to deal with.  Probably overkill for what I need anyway.
  2. The slip values used to lookup into the curves are actually slip ratios.  The upshot being that at low velocities numerical instability becomes an issue (and at zero velocity you’ve got a divide by zero – the slip ratio is undefined!)
  3. Because you need to evaluate longitudinal and lateral slip separately, there’s the question of how to combine the resulting separate friction forces.  You can’t just add them together because a tire can only develop so much grip at any one time, the more longitudinal grip you “use up”, the less lateral grip is available, and vice versa.  This effect is sometimes known as the tire’s “traction circle”.

I’m sure there are ways around all of these problems.  The Pacejka equations could be substituted with something simpler for example, and I’ve seen various ideas out there that attempt to properly combine longitudinal and lateral slip.  The slip ratio numerical instability issue I’m less sure about at the moment, apparently a lot of driving sims switch to another simpler friction model at low velocities to get around it, seems a bit hacky though.

Another related issue is that I’m not even differentiating friction levels between different surfaces (e.g. tarmac vs. dirt) yet, so perhaps a realistic tire friction model isn’t worth it at this point?  Anyway, something to keep thinking about and revisit again in the future.

Construction controls (again), and props

Selection points

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on fixing something with the construction controls that’s been bugging me for ages.  I wasn’t happy with the range of positions at which you could select a part, you could select it anywhere within its bounds, which wasn’t really restrictive enough.

Here’s an example.  You could select anywhere on a wheel, even though it only has one point that can attach to anything.


Much better to restrict the selection point to always be at this attachment point as shown below, that way it feels more natural when attaching the wheel to another part.


This next example is even worse.  You could select anywhere on a seat, and then translate it so that the selection point was completely outside the seat which is just plain stupid.


So now I restrict the selection point to be somewhere in the region on the bottom of the seat where its attachment points are, so you always have it selected in a suitable place ready to attach to another part.


To accomplish this I had to rework some code so that it now automatically calculates the selection region based on where all the part’s attachment points are located.  The upside to this was that I could do away with explicitly specifying the allowed translation directions on each part.  The less I have to manually setup per part the better!

I also had to implement some new math functions to find the closest point on the part’s selection region to the player’s eye “ray”.  Took a while to do, but it’s never a bad thing to add more stuff to my math toolkit I suppose, could come in handy for other things in the future.

All this took way longer than I expected, it was only supposed to be a couple of day’s work, sigh.

Prop parts

I’ve also added some new “prop” parts.  Props are a new category of part that are the simplest objects in the game, they don’t have a behaviour and they don’t attach to any other part.  The idea is that they can be used with the machines and vehicles you build or placed in the world to set up a scene to play in.  For example, traffic barriers could be laid out to form a race track, the ball could be used in a Rube Goldberg machine.


As with all the other parts, I’ll be adding more props as I go, any suggestions for these are welcome!

What’s in a name

Gah, I can’t believe it’s been a month already since the last blog post!  It’s been a frustrating time to be honest.  I’ve been planning on setting up a company for a while, to put GearBlocks on a more official footing (it’s something I should have done a long time ago really).  The trouble is I’m having a hell of a time trying to think of a name for the company (all the ideas I’ve come up with seem to be already taken)!  It seems ridiculous that a relatively trivial thing like this is holding me up, but hopefully I can figure it out soon and move on.

In the meantime I have made some progress with the game though.  The Unity 5.6 upgrade is now done, the rendering issues I was having weren’t too bad to sort out in the end.  Also, I was tired of having old placeholder part assets still left in the game, so I’ve finally removed / replaced / reworked the last of these.

These are the new seat models I’ve made so far, I plan on adding more types & variations of seat later (any suggestions welcome!)


Here are the new lights (again, at some point I plan on adding more styles / types of light).  Their lenses are now paintable, so you can have any colour lights you like!


It was a small change to make the wheel rims paintable too, so I decided to do that while I was at it.


Well, the next demo release is pretty much ready to go now, it’s just waiting on me getting the company set up, as I want to have that all sorted first!

Controls, configuration, and more

Here’s just a brief update on what I’ve been up to over the past few weeks.  Most of the work has been focused on further improving the usability of the game (better UI, controls, customisation, etc.)

Construction controls improvements

I’ve redone the part resizing input code so that now when you press a resize key it responds immediately (before it was kinda sluggish to respond).

I’ve also made a tweak so that you can now freeze the selected construction in place while aligning to another construction, this can be useful to check positioning and so on before committing to attachment.

Configurable key and mouse button bindings

The main thing I’ve been working on recently is a complete overhaul of the input system.  You can now fully customise key (and mouse button) bindings to the various actions in the game.  There’s now a new tab in the controls settings where you can set this up.  You click the button for the action you want to configure, it’ll then wait for a key press, that key then getting bound to the action.


I’ve also modified the player controllable parts (e.g. motors) that have configurable key binding to work in the same way.  This means you can now bind any keys to them, not just letters and numbers.

The only thing still left to do here is to allow configuration of joystick / controller inputs, something I’ll revisit at a later date.

Improved graphics settings

The other customisation improvement I’ve made is to the graphics settings.  I’ve done away with the (vague and too high level) “quality settings”, and set up proper options that’ll give you more fine grained control when configuring the graphics quality vs. performance of the game.


Other things

Some other bits and pieces I’ve also done:-

  • More UI design tweaks and improvements.
  • Better audio mix, updating sounds, etc.
  • Various bug fixes.

I’m working hard on getting another demo release out so that you can try all this new stuff out.  Unfortunately there always seems to be something that gets in the way!  Currently I’m in the middle of upgrading to Unity 5.6 which has broken some rendering stuff, so that’s what I’m working on right now, hopefully I’ll get this sorted soon.

More UI things

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve done some more work on the in game UI.

I’ve removed the old text overlay that showed the name of the highlighted part, as it was positioned near the cursor and kind of in the way.  Now I have a new overlay in the bottom right corner that shows not only the part name, but other details such as its mass, whether it’s paintable or resizable, and info on its behaviour status.


I’ve also added a similar overlay for when you’re hovering over an attachment in a frozen construction.  It displays the available attachment types that you can cycle between (highlighting the current attachment type), and it’ll also show info on other things like attachment integrity (if damage is enabled).


During part resizing, rather than add yet another UI display to show which keys to use

to resize in each direction

(as I was originally thinking), I decided instead to just colour code the relevant parts of the hints text.


Finally, to help the new UI elements fit, and clean up the look of the UI generally, I’ve also made the whole thing scale based on the screen dimensions.  This means that (in full-screen mode), the UI elements appear the same size regardless of the screen resolution.  I think this is a big improvement, especially at lower screen resolutions.

Dev update

OK, time for a long overdue GearBlocks progress

update.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wanted to improve the construction controls, to try and make them a bit more approachable and accessible, and this is what I’ve mostly been working on over the past couple of months.

Failed ideas

I wanted to explore some new ideas in an attempt to improve part positioning and alignment, and also part resizing.

So I tried making a prototype of a “snap to” grid aligned to the overall frozen construction (instead of to the currently highlighted part as it is now).  While the player is positioning the selected construction ready for attachment, I had a 2D planar grid aligned to the frozen construction that the selection snapped to at unit intervals.  The player could then move this plane up and down along its normal (also at unit intervals) using the mouse wheel, thereby allowing snapped positioning in full 3D space.  There would also need to be some provision for snapping to half unit intervals, although I didn’t get that far with it.  This seemed promising initially, but what killed the idea for me in the end was the realisation that (unlike the current system) it doesn’t easily allow for attachment at arbitrary angles, everything has to be aligned at 90 degree intervals relative to the frozen construction.  At least I couldn’t think of a practical way around this, and I certainly didn’t want to make it less flexibile than what I already have.

As for part resizing, I thought about separating it out into another tool (with handles that you drag around to resize the part), but not only is this more complicated to implement, I actually think it would be less convenient to use.  Every time you want to resize a part you’d have to deselect it, switch to the resize tool, do the resizing, switch back to the builder tool, and select it again.

So in the end I decided against making any radical changes to the current construction controls, and instead focus on improving what’s already there.  Let’s go over the changes I ended up making.

Construction alignment

One issue with positioning parts is that the alignment grids aren’t always easily visible.  Also, because they’re drawn on top of the parts themselves, it sometimes makes it hard to tell which parts are in front of each other, or even which part you’re about to attach to.  So I changed the grid textures to make them clearer, and modified the shader to fade them out slightly where drawn “behind” objects.  You can see the difference between the old and new grid below.


Another problem is that when you’re aligning parts together, you don’t know where the individual attachments will be created.  So now during alignment, indicators are shown for the attachments that will be created, an example of this is shown below.


Lastly, rotating the selected construction can be kind of awkward at times, and I wanted to see if could improve this in any way.  I tried making the rotation be limited to one axis at a time during alignment, and that turned out to help a quite lot because it prevents “drift” away from the player’s intended rotation.

Part resizing

One of the main problems with the current resizing controls is that they’re non-obvious, particularly to new players, because there’s nothing showing them what to do.  As a first step towards improving this situation, I’ve now added a resize indicator that shows the available resizing directions (colour coded for the horizontal and vertical directions).


I’m also going to add a new tool UI display that (among other things) will show which keys to use to resize in each direction.  Hopefully both of these changes together will make resizing a bit clearer for the player.

Attachment indicators

The attachment indicators also suffered from not being very visible a lot of the time, so I modified their textures too, and also tweaked them to ensure visibility from all angles.  Here’s an example showing before and after these improvements.


Other improvements

I’ve also worked on several other bits and pieces, for example:-

  • More user settings (such as mouse sensitivity for selection translation and rotation).
  • Better in game context sensitive hints.
  • Lights can now (optionally) have a key bound to switch them on and off, just like motors.
  • The construction frozen state is now saved / restored from saved games.
  • A whole bunch of bug fixes (many of these you guys found and reported back to me, so thank you!)

Next up

I’m fairly happy with how things turned out after the changes I made, yes the construction controls could still be better, but they’re acceptable, and at this point I need to move on to other stuff really.  There are one or two more small tweaks and bug fixes to do, but apart from that I’m done with the controls and ready to tackle the next thing.

I want to get another demo build out fairly soon, but I still have a laundry list of small tasks to sort out before I can do that, so those are what I’ll be looking at next!