As first discussed several weeks ago, this evening's update to Team Fortress 2 has added the necessary content to allow users to begin beta testing the long-awaited Competitive Matchmaking mode. Added content includes the Competitive Beta Pass item, new menu options, and minor updates to several unnamed maps, allowing them to be used in the mode. We haven't yet heard any reports of beta invites being sent out, but it's now possible for Valve to begin distributing beta passes whenever they wish now all the necessary assets are included in the most recent public build.
The rather sizable patch also includes various other bug fixes and improvements, such as significant balance changes to Snowycoast, a number of cosmetic item changes, the return of Gift Wraps, and the addition of a "Last Hit" sound to highlight when an attack caused the death of another player. The somewhat-forgotten Mannpower gamemode has also received numerous balance changes, including nerfs to a number of power-ups.
If you're interested in joining the closed beta for the competitive matchmaking mode, be sure to check out our news story from a few weeks ago, which lists a number of criteria which could significantly increase your chance of being selected!
It would appear that another veteran employee from Valve has left the company. According to two sources, Valve's employee page and LinkedIn, John Cook may have left Valve about a month ago after working there for 17 years.
You can see which strings were removed from Valve's employee page by going to SteamDB's SteamTracker.
John Cook is the co-founder of the original Team Fortress (along with Robin Walker) and was one of the head developers of Steam since the early days of Half-Life 2.
If this means that he has left the company, John Cook would be known to be the fourth veteran employee of Valve to leave within the last twelve months, following Ted Backman, Marc Laidlaw, and Doug Wood.
Kudos to the Facepunch and NeoGAF communities for spotting this.
GDC 2016 is just around the corner, with doors opening March 14th at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. Like last year, it looks like Valve will have a presence both on the Steam business side, as well as with holding info sessions. Below are the three currently known info sessions that Valve will be holding/presenting.
You'll notice that this years info sessions sound very similar to last year's, and I had written a summary of what those are about.
Practical Development for Vulkan (presented by Valve Software) with Dan Ginsburg
"In this session, Valve and other developers will share their experiences developing game engines with Vulkan. Come learn the ins and outs of Vulkan performance, engine design, content portability, and graphics debugging tools from multiple developers that have been building applications in this new industry standard API."
Outside the Studio Walls: MicroTalk Exploration of Non-Audio Ideas & Experiences with Emily Ridgway
"You are not just an AUDIO PERSON! Your sounds and music and artistic approach are shaped by your life experiences and influences, not all of which are other games or movies or songs. This microtalk will give you 10 brand new perspectives on game audio influences from outside the walls of the studio. In the classic GDC MicroTalk model, each speaker has 5 minutes and 20 seconds to go through their 20 slides (each timed at 16 seconds apiece). The ideas fly by fast and jabby, but aim to poke the audience in a long slumbering slab of grey matter to wake up some new inspiration for their own work!"
Advanced VR Rendering Performance with Alex Vlachos
"Reliably hitting 90 fps in VR is a significant challenge. This talk will present a method for adaptively scaling fidelity to consistently maintain VR framerate without using reprojection techniques, even on very low-end GPUs, while also having the ability to increase fidelity for high-end GPUs and multi-GPU installations. Valve's Aperture Robot Repair VR experience that was shown at GDC 2015 required an NVIDIA 980 to maintain framerate, but this talk will use that same experience as an example of how we now adaptively scale fidelity to maintain 90 fps on an NVIDIA 680, a 4-year-old GPU. The end result is an engine that appears higher fidelity throughout the experience, a lower GPU min spec, increased art asset limits, and a system that allows developers to stop focusing on framerate and instead spend their time increasing the quality and performance of their renderer while consistently maintaining framerate."
Expand your audience with the Steam Controller with Pierre-Loup Griffais and Scott Dalton
"In this session we will walk you through the varied options offered by the Steam Controller, demonstrate how users are already leveraging them to play your game in new ways, and provide a detailed list of recommendations to improve their experience and take your game to the living room."
To lessen some of the hype, it's worth mentioning that Valve held two similar talks at GDC 2015: Advanced VR Rendering and glNext: The Future of High Performance Graphics (Presented by Valve). If you are expecting to see Half-Life 3, or a lot of juicy info about Source 2, don't. These things will not be talked about - at least not directly. Information about their future projects IS inferred, though, in a lot of the information.
If more info sessions with Valve pop-up between now and GDC, we'll let you know.
As if Operation Wildfire and the new de_nuke update weren't enough, this week has brought two more big pieces of news on the Global Offensive front.
$1,000,000 PRIZE POOL FOR MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP
In a recent blog post, Valve announced that, starting with the MLG Columbus 2016 championship, each CS:GO Major Championship prize pool will be increased from $250,000 to $1,000,000.
As HLTV.org has pointed out, "the initially crowd-funded events have featured a $250,000 prize pool since their inception at the end of 2013, with 7 such tournaments having taken place so far."
MLG have also revealed the distribution of the prize pool money to the 16 teams that participate, and it goes as:
- 1. $500,000
- 2. $150,000
- 3-4. $70,000
- 5-8. $35,000
- 9-16. $8,750
LIGHTING AND SHADER IMPROVEMENTS
And with the introduction of the update to de_nuke, Valve have added a number of upgrades to CS:GO's lighting and shader systems. As described on CS:GO's Workshop summary page, the main improvements are:
- Lighting Improvements
- Static Prop Model Lighting Improvements
- Displacement Surface Lighting Improvements
- Normal Mapped Static Prop Lighting Improvements
- Cascade Shadow Maps (CSMs)
- New Shader Features
- Phong Specular highlights on Lightmapped Materials
- 2nd UV set support for Decals
- Normal Map Blending
- Anisotropic reflection emulation
- Cubemap Lighting Influence
- Drop Shadows and Highlights on Displacement Blends
- Hammer Editor Improvements
One of the coolest updates, in my opinion, is the upgrade to Hammer. Valve says that they've increased the memory available to Hammer, and so this allows for things like better support for modularity of assets. For instance, assets are now more flexible in that they can be interconnected with each other, and they can contain multiple surface types (or skins). As Valve puts it, "the idea being that we only need to build one prop set that can be re-used in an almost infinite number of scenarios."
All of these improvements are now available in the CS:GO SDK - for free!
Speaking at the Vision Summit 2016, Valve's Joe Ludwig gave an overview of the SteamVR, OpenVR, and Unity VR APIs, and what power they bring to VR applications developers. I've gone ahead and basically done a summary of his presentation in order to provide a document for future reference. I think this is important because Joe does outline some long-term goals of SteamVR and OpenVR, both very important sets of standards for the VR ecosystem.
By clicking the spoiler tag below, you will find a video of Joe Ludwig's presentation, as well as my summary. Some of the information is new, some is a refresher, but most of it is technical jargon, so you have been warned. Enjoy!
In the beginning of his presentation, Joe Ludwig first took some time to explain the differences between SteamVR and OpenVR. After that, he talked about the SteamVR plugin for Unity, and how some of its features will be supported natively in Unity 5.4 and beyond.
SteamVR is considered to be the work that Valve is doing in VR. That includes the technology they've developed that's shipping with the HTC Vive, the APIs that are provided to application and hardware developers, and Steam itself running in VR.
SteamVR provides an in-application VR dashboard. Steam itself is included in this dashboard, and the Steam client uses public APIs to provide its overlay in the dashboard. The set of operations that Steam provides are what you would expect: launch games, browse the store, buy games, chat with friends, etc.. The dashboard also provides the user with access to VR settings from inside of the VR experience. It also provides access to controls of the whole system, such as turning off controllers, or exiting the VR system. SteamVR also provides the render-model API that gives access to high-quality models of whatever device the user is holding in their hand at the moment - this includes animation data for the device, and renders an animation depending on the current state of the controller, i.e. a button is pressed, or a finger is touching a point on the track pad. All of this mesh and texture data is provided to the application so that it can recolor or light the controller model in an appropriate way.
In addition to these user-facing tools, SteamVR also provides performance timing tools to developers. The graph below shows how much CPU and GPU time is being spent by each component of the system, and this helps the developers determine where the bottlenecks are.
OpenVR is the pair of APIs that Valve provides for interacting with the VR system.
The first API is the API that's used for developing VR applications. This includes providing object transforms, an interface to the compositor to send textures to display on the HMD, up-to-date input state of the controllers, access to device models at runtime, access to the user Chaperone system configuration, and more. Supporting this API through an application allows developers the flexibility of not only accessing current VR hardware in an abstract way, but also hardware to come from new and existing manufactures.
The other OpenVR API is for devices - the driver API. Hardware developers use this API to add new devices to the set of things that work with OpenVR. When hardware developers use this API, existing applications have immediate access to these new devices. So, for example, as Joe Ludwig said, if 100 OpenVR applications ship this year, and next year a hardware vendor releases a new OpenVR driver for their hardware, that hardware will immediately gain access to all 100 of those applications. And this happens without application developers having to update their titles.
So in conclusion, where OpenVR is the API, SteamVR is the customer-facing name that users actually install as part of a larger system.
Valve used the plugin firsthand to develop the Secret Shop VR demo that debuted at The International 2015. Secret Shop uses characters from Dota 2 and pulls them into a 5-minute interactive story. Those Dota 2 assets were pulled in straight from Dota 2, and the demo was built-up from there.
- The Room Setup tool that the user runs to tell the system where the physical obstacles are in their environment.
- Demo-transition content.
Valve has some challenges with the SteamVR Unity plugin, and both have to do with performance.
For one thing, traversing the game scene is slow. Because SteamVR is supported through a plugin, it doesn't have access to the VR-specific optimizations that Unity has added to the engine. Rendering the scene from two independent cameras is what you have to do with a plugin, and so the scene is traversed twice, effectively doubling the width of necessary optimizations for performance. To fix this problem, Valve has a few things they'd like to do.
First, OpenVR is being added to the native VR API in Unity 5.4. Valve has been working with Unity on this, and it should be in the 5.4 beta in a few weeks. This will be a free integration for all Unity developers. This means that the SteamVR plugin is going to change. Some of the work that the plugin does in Unity 5.3 will be moved over to the native Unity VR API in 5.4 - specifically rendering and tracking. Features that are not supported by the Unity VR API will continue to be supported by the plugin, and that includes controller input, overlays, and render models.
When you write application to the Unity VR API, it selects the Oculus SDK, OpenVR, or mobile or console VR SDKs. But if you are writing your application for a platform that is not yet supported, you will continue to go through the SteamVR plugin.
Lighting, specifically dynamic lighting, is a big part of the Enhanced Rendering plugin. Level designers and artists want to include as many dynamic lights as possible because it increases the richness of a scene. But having many dynamic lights has a cost, and so that's where deferred rendering will come in. Unfortunately, deferred rendering does not support MSAA, which is very important for VR experiences. So with Valve's Enhanced Rendering plugin, they're taking a different path. Dynamic lighting is the goal, but instead of deferred rendering, they're going to specific provide better support for dynamic lights in Unity. The plugin supports up to 10 shadow-casting lights per one draw call, which is an upgrade from current Unity specs which only supports 4 per draw call. So because the plugin will still use the forward renderer, MSAA will be available.
The Enhanced Rendering plugin itself is easy to use. It adds a camera component to the camera properties, and this allows you to control shadows and also hides the faster materials to make it easy to find the ones that haven't yet been switched over to the new model. There's also a new realtime light component to set lighting parameters. Finally, there's a new materials shader. This Enhanced Rendering plugin should arrive in the Unity Asset Store for free sometime around the GDC 2016 timeframe of early March.
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