The current game plan

Bye bye geo-clipmaps, here comes geo-mipmapping! I’ve been busy at converting my terrain rendering code to use it from now on. It’s not fully completed but the basics work. I just need to fix up the holes that appear in the borders between different detail meshes. The terrain system has advanced a lot more than when I used geo-mipmapping. While it still only supports two textures, the cliff texture can be sampled twice in two different scales to remove any semblance of repetition. No fractals or noise patterns here, it’s all from pre-made texture images. I’m also messing around with a vignette effect, currently made part of the Depth of Field shader. The engine is also now running with a game screen framework built on top of the official XNA sample.


Now to move on to the game structure itself. I’m not too keen into drawing UML diagrams or other fancy charts, also because I have not gotten really comfortable with a diagram editor. I’d rather sketch them on paper and take some photos of it with a phone. But I do have a tree-like structure to organize my code in.

This planning comes easier as I figure out the first thing I want to do with my terrain renderer is to put it in a game state that will later on be the in-game map editor.

The puzzle game I made earlier made a good learning experience in understanding how a screen and menu system can be put together where multiple states and screens run independently of each other. The game may not be 100% done, but its code is stable enough for me to be able to port the screen system into this new game. Because this would be the most complex game I’ve attempted, I look forward to seeing how far I can take it. With a loading screen and transition to game modes are in place, it will at least finally start feeling more like something with a greater purpose than a tech demo.

The graphics engine is still a work in progress so I will work on it together with making the game. The game code will be organized in three different areas: Core, Game, and Screens.


  • Graphics engine (my own)
  • Physics engine (BEPU or maybe Bullet)
  • File saving/loading
  • Input
  • Networking
  • Screen system (from my last game)
  • Menu interactions
  • Screen drawing/updating system


  • Game logic, AI
  • Player interactions
  • Game objects
  • Editor
  • Editing tools and functions


  • Background(s)
  • Loading screen
  • Menus
  • Gameplay modes
  • HUDs and interfaces

Core contains all the systems that deal with the lower-level workings of the game. Sending data to the graphics engine, setting up and managing physics, input management, and the loading and saving of files all go here.

Game contains all the very game-specific logic that’s all about setting the rules, game modes, and specific interactions with game objects. They all tie into Core in some way, depending on what they are responsible for doing. A more specific area, Editor would include all the tools and functions used for the game’s map editor mode.

Screens can be seen sort of like game states and also like components that, when grouped together, can describe a game state or mode of behavior. They are loaded and ran from the screen system, and either specialize on displaying information related to the game, or tell the user what actions are available. Background screens, gameplay screens, HUDs, inventory screens, and menus would belong here.

As you may have noticed, the three groups tend to progress from low-level to high-level code. This was not really intended, but does give me a better idea of how to pass data around.

The graphics engine is already running in the screen system. When the program launches it add a Screen to a list, which loads the content to be rendered. Here is the game loading a terrain in real-time, with some interactions handled by an “Editor” screen.

(lolwut, YouTube detected this video to be shaky. It’s all rigid camera movments in here)

There are a few issues I have to take care of with the screens and graphics. Both the screen system and graphics engine are loaded as XNA game components, which means they draw and update automatically within the game, outside of the screen system’s control. Although the content loading code is in the Editor screen, I need the option to make the explicit choice of what order the graphics should be drawn, so that any graphics that are set in a particular screen get drawn with that screen’s Draw call.

Tightening up graphics, and the other subsystems

– This post has been a hold-over for a few weeks, but I decided it’s now time to flush it to the screen! –

After coming to grips with my shortage of artistic inspiration, I’ve decided to go on full steam ahead with my game features and underlying systems. More menus, more screens- including the ubiquitous Pause screen- a continuous rebuild of the underlying system that controls them, and I even did some touch-ups with the visuals. Bubble Tower is slowly but surely becoming more polished in gameplay and presentation.

First I want to talk about the visuals, because it’s will just be a short overview. There are no graphics other than menu text, bubbles, and backgrounds, but I’m moving on to using more with 3D rendered graphics for a lot of the stuff. So I start with the most obvious, the bubbles. The original spritesheet contained 8 bubbles, one for each color. I decided to stick with this principle but generating the spritesheet at runtime by drawing the mesh to a render target with 8 different colors and viewports. I get to keep the original code that splits up the spritesheet and select the appropriate colored bubble to draw.

What’s nice about this is that the bubbles can be animated, or they can be replaced with another mesh. After working on a shader to get the highlights and shading looking just right on the bubbles, I messed around with some other geometric meshes, and found one that I got stuck on. I was inspired by the gem puzzle games and wanted to use more interesting shapes. Mine look more like some sort of paper origami balls than bubbles now, but I actually like the look. So after all it looks like I am getting somewhere with the visuals. Afterwards I just stuck in a wallpaper as a test background.

Improving the screen system

The more I try to make the screens do what I want, the more bugs I was finding, but I’m smoothing out the screen system as I keep progressing. The screens have the ability to transition in and out of view, with user-defined times (as far as user-defined animations I’m working on it). This added a lot of code bloat to the GameScreen class, so I isolated all this transition stuff into its own Transition class. Now every screen just has a Transition that it can use internally.

I’ve also made a new type of screen, the Splash Screen. Splash Screens are non-interactive, stay on for a fixed amount of time on the center of the screen, and leave. They can have text or an image. In the essence of time, I initially reused a class to display menu text, but broke it down further because it wasn’t using the button click functions.

It’s also possible to load a series of splash screens, each following in succession, with just one function call. The trick is passing a string array with your text in it, and storing it in the splash screen. The first splash screen uses the first string of text, removes it from the array and when it’s going to exit, passes the shorter array to a new SplashScreen constructor. If there is a transition time, you will see the text/images smoothly crossfade between each other. This feature is great for displaying several game logos in a row, or  having a visual countdown with your own text. I would not use it for long still-frame cutscenes, though. The player doesn’t have control of the splash screens, so not being able to skip through them would be very annoying.

Rules and control flow

Adding new splash screens on top of interactive screens have made the control flow a tad unpredictable, because I would want some splash screens to take away some control from the player, but not some others. I initially decided to make a distinction between interactive screens and non-interactive screens, and loop through the interactive screens to read input events, but that just made the results more confusing.

Here is the current list of screen classes that are used in this game:

  • GameScreen
  • GameMenu
    • MainMenu
    • LevelSelectMenu
    • PauseMenu
    • GameOverMenu
  • MainGameMode
  • LevelEditorMode
  • BackgroundScreen
  • LoadingScreen
  • SplashScreen

The menus may seem redundant in distinction, but I won’t need many menus anyways, and totally fine hard-coding the pathways in them instead of using external scripts. On the quest to make the screen manager more robust, here are some rules I’ve set to implement:

  • If a new screen is added, start reading input (if it’s interactive)
  • If the new screen is marked “exclusive”, stop updating/reading input for other screens
  • If an exclusive screen is removed, read input from the other screens again
  • Screens may start reading input as soon as they’re entering, or when they’ve completely entered
  • Screens should stop reading input as soon as they’re leaving

Pretty straightforward stuff. Here’s where the rules become more involved:

All screens undergoing transitions should be allowed to complete the transition phase.

What this basically means is, if a screen is exiting or entering, the transition timer that counts down or up must not be stopped at any cost. Just keep it going. To accomplish this, the transition updates need to be decoupled from the user-defined update code.

The reasoning behind this is, sometimes, an exclusive screen may enter at the same time other screens are entering. The exclusive screen wants to stop the others from updating, but if the transitions are ran in the Update function, those other screens will never get to complete their transitions! Decoupling that from the Update function would be the way to go, so I moved all the transition logic to an UpdateState function, which will always get called no matter what.

Avoid adding or removing screens while other screens are being queued for updates/input reading.

The screen manager has two special lists, ScreensToUpdate and ScreensToReadInput. ScreensToUpdate is a mainstay from the XNA code sample for game state management- it simply tells the manager to call Update on the screens in it. ScreensToReadInput was added later, and this tells the manager to HandleInput from the screens on that list. This action is done before calling Update on all the screens.

Here is the order of functions that are called in the game’s main loop:

  • Read input from screens
  • Update screen events
  • Draw each screen

There is no particular spot that says where AddScreen or RemoveScreen is called. They may be called one or multiple times where screens are updated or reading input. That can have undesirable effects and can lead to subtle bugs if we’re not being careful.

Suppose that in one screen inside the ScreensToReadInput list, a key press was detected which will tell the screen manager to remove this screen and then add another one. That would potentially modify the list while it’s still looping inside of it! This would throw an exception if done in a foreach loop, so you have to use a for loop to iterate through instead. Still, modifying a list of screens while screens are updating can lead to unexpected behavior.

Updating screen lists

To resolve this problem, screens should not use AddScreen or RemoveScreen at all. These two functions can be made private, and there are two new functions to supplement them: PushToAdd and PushToRemove. Those would be the functions that screens can call, to notify the screen manager that there are new screens waiting to be added or removed.

Both functions would add a screen to one of two new lists: ScreensToAdd and ScreensToRemove. They are a sort of waiting list for the screen manager to go through. The purpose of this to move AddScreen and RemoveScreen calls inside a separate function, away from updating and reading input. The new loop of functions would look like this:

  • Add or remove screens
  • Read input from screens
  • Update screen events
  • Draw each screen

The ScreensToAdd and ScreensToRemove lists are guaranteed to be cleared by the time the screen manager is done with the first step. Now we would know exactly where new screens are pushed or removed from all the lists.

Determining screen priority

Why not just have the topmost screen receive input, you might ask? Sometimes you’d want more than one screen at a time being interactive, like a group of menus for a strategy game. Or the aforementioned splash screens that would still allow player control of screens underneath, I’d have to give them a special flag or property that says they are not “exclusive”. I plan to use splash screens more in this way, such as displaying larger score numbers or messages for clearing certain groups of bubbles.

Once I have all these problems sorted out, though, I can go back to adding more game-centric features, and hopefully adding a two-player mode. Still don’t know how I’ll work that one out, as I am just using a keyboard and don’t even have an Xbox controller to hook up. I can always take the more daring route and start coding an AI to play against the player. That would certainly be another challenge, but most likely I will just start out making the “AI” fire bubbles at random times in random directions, then gradually mold its crazy mind into something more coherent. But for now, on to polishing more menus!

Screenshot update: Bloom Filter

Two days ago I added an optional bloom filter, which was easy to add, even though it’s a bit drawn out (takes 4 passes to make the final image). A lot of it was borrowed code from the blur shader. The bloom is exaggerated here for detail.

I pretty much figured out the steps needed to blur and add the colors myself. Where I needed some more help and insight was on how the brightness threshold should be calculated. Here are the references that I used:

Handling different render setups

This video shows the latest progress of my graphics engine. It demonstrates two different rendering setups- one uses light pre-pass rendering and the other uses deferred rendering. The LPP renderer has a bloom filter added to it (exaggerated for this video) and the deferred renderer has a soft focus depth of field. Without these post-processing effects, a light pre-pass and deferred setup should produce the exact same image if done correctly. Remember to watch it in 720p!

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XNA 4.0 parallax occlusion mapping

The XNACommunity Codeplex site, run by a group of hobbyist Spanish game developers, has a huge collection of programs and code examples that you can use freely for your own projects. However, most of them have not been updated for XNA 4.0. I was mostly interested in the Parallax Occulsion Mapping sample, and decided to see if I could update the code.

Parallax Mapping is a more complex way to make textures pop out, and it differs from normal and bump mapping that it actually projects the texture’s details in three dimensions, as opposed to just changing the lighting from the normals.

The original sample included a particle generator, which added a bit of flair to the scene. I could not get this working because the PointSprite object has been deprecated in XNA 4.0 and there’s no easy equivalent for it. The best I could to is make the generator produce black lines :-/ Its particle system was a bit complex to just simply change from point sprites to billboarded quads, so I just decided to omit this altogether since it’s not relevant to the real purpose of the sample.

Aside from trying to get the particles working, porting the program was a breeze. Just a few tweaks were needed in the effect files, and removing unneeded rendering functions and replacing others. Pressing the space bar lets you switch between no mapping, normal mapping, and parallax mapping. Use WASD/arrow keys to move around.

You can download the updated sample here, or check out the source at GitHub. It is ready to work with your XNA 4.0 projects. Please drop a line if you found it helpful!

Engine features and lighting comparison

Although the rendering engine is far from complete, I will briefly describe the features that my rendering engine currently has. Here’s a general list of them:

  • Supports both deferred rendering and Light Pre-Pass rendering (deferred lighting)
  • Post-process effects such as blur, depth of field and shadows (in progress)
  • Discrete components for render passes and post-process effects
  • Maintains relatively fast performance even with many point lights
  • FXAA (Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing) to remove those unsightly jaggies
  • Lightweight and unobstrusive code

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Past and present of the rendering engine

As I mentioned before, I have been working on a rendering engine for XNA called the Meteor Rendering Engine. I’ve only been working on it for a little over a month but already it’s come a long way. Even though it started out as simply a tutorial project from Catalin Zima-Zegreanu, I made enough modifications to it to call it my own.

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