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In this article from the April 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, Radical Entertainment senior rendering coder Keith O'Conor describes the nuts and bolts of the game's particle system -- detailing exactly how it produces great looking effects that perform well in the open-world adventure game.
One hallmark of the Prototype universe is over-the-top open-world mayhem. We rely heavily on large amounts of particle effects to create chaos, filling the environment with fire, blood, explosions, and weapon impact effects.
Sgt. James Heller (the main character) can go just about anywhere in the environment. He can run up the side of a building, glide across rooftops, or even fly across the city in a hijacked helicopter. Because of this we need an effects system that scales to support the hundreds of complex effects and thousands of particles that could be visible at any one time.
Here's how we built upon the effects system developed at Radical for Scarface and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction by improving and adding features that would allow us to push the effects to the level we needed for Prototype and Prototype 2.
Our particle systems are composed entirely of a component-based feature set. A feature describes a single aspect of how each particle behaves -- like changing position according to gravity or some other force, spinning around a pivot point, animating UVs, changing size over time, and so on.
The effects artist can choose any set of features to make a particular particle system, and each chosen feature exposes a set of associated attributes (such as velocity, weight or color) that she can tweak and animate. This is all done in Maya with the standard set of animation tools, using the same simulation code as the runtime compiled into a Maya plug-in to make sure Maya and the game both behave consistently.
Once the artist is satisfied with the look and behavior of a particle system in Maya, it is exported as an effect that can be loaded in the game. This effect is then scripted for gameplay using our in-game editor, "The Gym," a complex state machine editor that allows designers to control every aspect of the game (see our GDC 2006 presentation for more details.)
When scripting an effect to play in a particular situation, the effects artist has access to an additional set of controls: biases and overrides. For each attribute that was added as part of a feature, the effects artist can choose to bias (multiply) the animated value, or to override it completely. This allows a single loaded effect to be used in a variety of situations. For example, the artist can take a standard smoke effect and make small, light, fast-moving smoke or large, dense, black hanging smoke, just by biasing and overriding attributes such as emission rate, color, and velocity (see Figure 1 for an example).
Artists can use The Gym to tailor each instance of that effect to match its use in-game instead of authoring and loading many similar versions of the same effect or using an identical generic effect in multiple situations. This reduces memory usage and improves the artist's workflow, allowing them to tune the effects live with in-game lighting and animations. The biases and overrides are also a major part of our continuous level-of-detail system, which we'll describe later in this article.
Each particle system's attributes are stored as separate tightly packed arrays, such as the positions of every particle, then the lifetimes, then the velocities, and so on. This data-oriented design ensures that the data is accessed in a cache-efficient manner when it comes to updating the simulation state every frame, which has a huge impact on CPU performance when doing particle simulation.
This way, we take up only a small percentage of the CPU's time to simulate thousands of particles with complex behaviors. It also makes implementing an asynchronous SPU on PS3 relatively straightforward, as updating each feature means only the necessary attribute arrays for that feature need to be DMA-ed up, without any extraneous data.
Having the particles' positions separated has other performance benefits as well, such as allowing for fast, cache-efficient camera-relative sorting for correct alpha blended rendering. It also enables other features, such as particles that emit other particles by using the position output attribute array of the simulation update as an input to another system's particle generation process.
Having many short-lived particle effects going off all the time (during intense combat situations, for example) can start to fragment your available memory. Fragmentation happens when many small pieces of memory are allocated and freed in essentially random order, leading to a "Swiss cheese" effect that limits the amount of contiguous free memory.
In other words, the total amount of free memory in the heap might be enough for an effect, but that memory could be scattered around the heap in chunks that are too small to be actually usable. (For an introduction to fragmentation and memory allocators, check out Steven Tovey's great #AltDevBlogADay article.) Even though we use a separate heap for particle allocations to localize fragmentation, it is still a problem. Fortunately, we have a few tricks to limit fragmentation -- and handle it when it becomes an issue.
Whenever possible, we use static segmented memory pools (allocated at start-up) to avoid both fragmentation and the cost of dynamic allocations. The segments are sized to match the structures most commonly used during particle system allocations. Only once these pools are full is it necessary to perform dynamic allocations, which can happen during particularly heavy combat moments or other situations where many particle effects are being played at once.
Our effects system makes multiple memory allocations when a single particle system is being created. If any of these fail (because of fragmentation, or because the heap is just full), it means the effect cannot be created. Instead of half-creating the effect and trying to free any allocations already made (possibly fragmenting the heap further), we perform a single large allocation out of the effects heap.
If this succeeds, we go ahead and use that memory for all the allocations. If it fails, we don't even attempt to initialize the effect, and it simply doesn't get played. This is obviously undesirable from the player's point of view, since an exploding car looks really strange when no explosion effect is played, so this is a last resort. Instead, we try to ensure that the heap never gets full or excessively fragmented in the first place.
Toward this end, one thing we do is partition the effect into "stores," based loosely on the class of effect. We have stores for explosions, ambient effects, bullet squibs, and a number of other effect types. By segregating effects like this, we can limit the number of effects of a particular type that are in existence at any one time.
This way, our effects heap doesn't fill up with hundreds of blood-spatter effects, for example, thus denying memory to any other type of effect. The stores are structured as queues; when a store is full and a new effect is played, the oldest effect in that store gets evicted and moved to the "graveyard" store (where old effects go to die). Their emission rate is set to zero so no new particles can be emitted, and they are given a certain amount of time (typically only a few seconds) to fade out and die, whereupon they are deleted.
Having effects partitioned into stores also allows us to perform other optimizations based on the type of effect. For example, we can assume that any effect placed in the "squib" store is a small, short-lived effect like sparks or a puff of smoke. Therefore, when one of these effects is played at a position that isn't in the camera frustum, or is further away than a certain distance, we simply don't play the effect at all, and nobody even notices.
Another example is fading away particles from effects in the "explosion" store when they get too close to the camera, as they will likely block the view of the action, and also be very costly to render. When the player is surrounded by legions of enemy soldiers, tanks, and helicopters all trying to get a piece of him, these optimizations can lead to significant savings.
We also cut our memory usage by instancing effects. In our open-world setting, the same effect is often played in multiple places -- steam from manhole covers and smoke from burning buildings, for example. In these cases, we only allocate and simulate one individual "parent" effect, and we then place a "clone" of this parent wherever that effect is played. Since only the parent needs to generate and simulate particles, and each clone only needs a small amount of bookkeeping data, we can populate the world with a large number of clones with a negligible impact on memory and CPU usage. To combat visual repetition, each clone can be rotated or tinted to make it look slightly different.