Shader variables

Since the game will utilize graphics quite a bit in the style of old SNES-era games (multiple layers, lots of sprites), that means using a rendering engine which is above trivial level. Additionally, since much of rendering will be based on procedural techniques, that means lots of shaders. Lots of shaders requires configurability of said shaders using uniform variables. And this is the topic of this post.

A shader variable (ShaderVar) is an abstraction for such uniform variables. The abstraction allows manipulation of the value via ImGui (using optional minmax ranges for integer/float variables and vectors) and updating the values in the OpenGL state. These variable abstractions can also be used to solve the problem of automatic binding of textures, as in OpenGL it can be a bit of a pain to manage. Finally, we can add stat gathering functionality to identify at a rendercall if there are any variables which haven’t been set, which can be quite useful for debugging. A brief overview is the following:

Effect loading. Inspect loaded effect (program) for uniform variables that are used by the shaders. Make two lists: one for textures/buffers and one for other values. The index in the sampler list is set as the texture unit location that we should be binding any texture or sampler

ShaderVars class.  An abstraction for a group of ShaderVar objects. Each object has a name and value, and a uniform location for an arbitrary number of effects. That means that we can do the following:

SetShaderVar<float>( shaderVars, "g_Speed", 0.5f); // Set the value 0.5f to the variable g_Speed
UpdateShaderVars( shaderVars, fx1);// If g_Speed exists in fx1, it's set as 0.5f
UpdateShaderVars( shaderVars, fx2);// If g_Speed exists in fx2, it's set as 0.5f

It’s not really complicated underneath, but it serves as a nice abstraction to not deal with strings in the underlying implementations, as we’re dealing directly with uniform locations and vectors of such locations. At the moment I’m using strings for setting values, but this can (and will) be changed to use other forms, such as properties

Global and local ShaderVars. When we’re about to render, we can update the shader using several such blocks. For example, one block could be globals for the whole application (window width,height), others could be globals for the current frame (current time) or also more specific, such as common values for overworld rendering ( The grid section that is currently in view, etc). These globals can be stored in the registry and fetched using a handle. After the globals are set, we can update the effect using any local shader variables. In case of a clash, we override with the most local version of the variable. Such overwrites can also be detected, warning for any misuse of the system.

Here’s how a few sections look like in the config files:

// Some shadervar blocks
"ShaderVars" : [
    { "GlobalPerApplication" : {
        "@factory" : "ShaderVarsSeparate",
        "ShaderVars" : [ 
    { "GlobalPerFrame" : {
        "@factory" : "ShaderVarsSeparate",
        "ShaderVars" : [ 
            {"Name" : "g_TotalTime", "@factory" : "ShaderVarFloat"}
    { "GlobalOverworld" : {
        "@factory" : "ShaderVarsSeparate",
        "ShaderVars" : [ 
            {"Name" : "g_HeightScale", "@factory" : "ShaderVarFloat", "Values" : [0.0], "Min" : 0, "Max" : 4},
            {"Name" : "g_BiomeMap", "@factory" : "ShaderVarTextureStatic", "Values" : ["biome"]},
            {"Name" : "g_SpriteOffsetY", "@factory" : "ShaderVarFloat", "Values" : [0.5], "Min" : 0, "Max" : 1},
            {"Name" : "g_TileMapRects", "@factory" : "ShaderVarTextureBufferStatic", "Values" : ["dcss_rects"]},
            {"Name" : "g_TileMap", "@factory" : "ShaderVarTextureStatic", "Values" : ["dcss"]},
            {"Name" : "g_ResourcesMap", "@factory" : "ShaderVarTextureStatic", "Values" : ["resources"]}
    { "GlobalFlashing" : {
        "@factory" : "ShaderVarsSeparate",
        "ShaderVars" : [ 
            {"Name" : "g_FlashMinIntensity", "@factory" : "ShaderVarFloat", "Values" : [0.5], "Min" : 0, "Max" : 1},
            {"Name" : "g_FlashMaxIntensity", "@factory" : "ShaderVarFloat", "Values" : [1.0], "Min" : 0, "Max" : 1},
            {"Name" : "g_FlashPeriod", "@factory" : "ShaderVarFloat", "Values" : [2.0], "Min" : 0, "Max" : 5}
// Some renderers. They can use shadervar blocks
{"OverworldDense" : {
    "@factory" : "RendererGrid2Dense",
    "Fx" : "OverworldDense",
    "ShaderVars" : ["GlobalPerFrame", "GlobalOverworld"],
    "DepthTest" : true
{"GridSparseHighlight" : {
    "@factory" : "RendererGrid2Sparse",
    "Fx" : "GridSparseHighlight",
    "TextureSamplers" : { "g_TileMap" : "nearest_clamp" },
    "ShaderVars" : ["GlobalPerFrame", "GlobalFlashing","GlobalOverworld"],
    "DepthTest" : true
// A renderable. They can use local shadervar blocks
{ "griddense" : { 
    "@factory" : "RenderableTileGrid2Widget",
    "Renderer" : "OverworldDense",
    "ShaderVars" : {
        "@factory" : "ShaderVarsSeparate",
        "ShaderVars" : [
            {"Name" : "g_Color", "@factory" : "ShaderVarColor", "Values" : [[255,255,255,255]]}

Note: The reason I’m using an additional ShaderVars abstraction is because in the future I want to consider having uniform buffer objects for many shader variable blocks, as it’s more optimal. But of course, this will only happen when the slowdowns begin, which is not now.

So, that’s it for this time. I’m also currently toying with introducing framebuffer objects in the system (so that renderers and renderables can be configured via script to render to an offscreen surface) so that we can have more flexible render paths. And also what’s coming is an autotiling implementation, using all these.

Automatic pixel art from photos

Disclaimer: Properly authored pixel art is awesome. Automated pixel art is fast food: great when you don’t have enough money (to hire) or time (to author). And does the trick when you’re starving.

I’m not an artist, I love pixel art, and frequently I want something here and now. So, how do I get copious amounts of pixel art without bugging a pixel artist or becoming one myself? Software of course. The style that I’m after is retro 90’s look: slightly pixelated and with a limited, painterly color palette. A few examples:

Old game art, fantastic colours, painterly look:

Pixel art, great mood and selection of colours


Great tile design (sprites are sometimes too “cute” for me unfortunately) and great colours. I bought them as I love them! 🙂

So, while I don’t hope to automatically generate stuff of quality like the above from photos, I made a tool to convert landscape photos to pixel-art style.  There are two components to the process:

  • Palettization (Mapping full colour range to a limited palette)
  • Pixelation (Downscaling the image to look a bit retro)

My approach is quite simple, and is as follows:

  • Load the source image
  • Select a color difference function (I used code from here)
  • Convert image pixels to color space used by the difference function
  • Select a palette. I got some from here. Additionally, I got all the unique colors in Oryx tileset and made a palette out of them too (the largest palette: about 1000 colors)
  • Convert palette pixels to color space used by the difference function
  • For each pixel, select the palette entry that minimizes the color difference between itself and the source pixel.
  • Downscale the image by a factor. For each block of pixels NxN that corresponds to 1×1 pixel in the downscaled image, fetch the palette color that appears the most times.

And that’s it! So, I tried the above on a few images (found in google, none of them is mine), and I got … very mixed results. Below I’ll show the original image and a few good/bad/quirky results.


Cie94 w/ Oryx, downscaled 2x. Good

Cie2000 w/ famicube, downscaled 2x. Not good

Cie94, GraphicArts w/ psygnosia, downscaled 2x. Lo-spec but good!


Cie94 GraphicArts w/ Oryx, downscaled 2x, good

Cie94 GraphicArts w/ famicube, downscaled 2x, good. Sharks are a bit of a problem as the sea water bleeds in

Cie1976 w/ Endesga-16, downscaled 2x, bad.

Euclidean distance w/ Oryx, downscaled 2x, bad


Cie2000 w/ oryx, downscaled just 1x, it’s way too realistic.

Cie94 GraphicArts w/ Oryx, downscaled 3x, a bit better, but still a bit realistic

Cie2000 GraphicArts w/ Endesga-32, downscaled 3x. Not as realistic, but a bit worse quality.


Cie1976 w/ oryx, downscaled 1x. A bit too realistic

Cie1976 w/ famicube, downscaled 1x. A bit too damaged and noisy.


Cie2000 w/ oryx, downscaled 1x. A bit too realistic. Additional downscale would destroy the geometrical details.

Cie2000 w/ famicube, not good.

Cie94 Textiles w/ psygnosia, quite bad.

Underwater ruins

Cie2000 w/ oryx, downscaled 2x. This looks great! Good for a change.

Cie2000 w/ famicube, not so great.

Cie2000 w/ psygnosia, not great either. the water is gray and the shark is bluish. Well … no.


Cie2000 w/ oryx, doable

Cie2000 w/ endesga, quite bad, but at least is good in making the JPG artifacts very very visible.

Cie2000 w/ psygnosia, not that bad actually! Even if quite lo-spec.


Cie94 Textiles, w/ aap64, downscaled 3x. A bit too damaged, but I like it

Cie2000 w/ oryx, downscaled 3x. It’s good, but a bit too realistic


So, the experiment was a failure, but I learned a few things from it:

  • Most important: The visual appeal of the results greatly depends on the colours used in the original. A grayish brown image won’t magically transform to colourful, just because the target palette is. And a simple color distance doesn’t solve the issue. We need a more sophisticated color transfer
  • Distinguish between surface texture and geometric silhouettes: surface texture colours need to be somewhat flattened, while silhouettes need to be preserved
    • could use a bilateral filter, and edge detection
  • Consider dithering. Can reduce color error, but do we want that? It certainly helps with the blotches/banding.
  • When using a palette with lots of colours, doesn’t mean we should strive to use all of them. The color distance metric tries to preserve the original colours, which would be realistic. We don’t want that.
  • Pick the brains of pixel artists for their approach (Duh)
  • Use high quality images, with minimal JPG compression artifacts. (Duh, but I was too lazy for this one)
  • Use Photoshop/GIMP/etc. The more sophisticated the algorithm gets, the more tedious it is to write/update a custom tool to do that.

Front-end: Camera

We currently have overworld maps that can be visualized with a color per pixel, depending on the pixel’s biome data.
In the actual game, each of these pixels will be a tile, on which we’ll map textures, and we can also even put geometry. There are many ways to view such maps, for example various configurations of perspective and orthographic projections.

So far I’ve been using a top-down view for the ease of implementation. As I wanted to experiment with several visualizations, I changed the implementation to support a fully configurable camera, as well as tile highlighting and edge scrolling as before. Here are some examples of an overworld map, visualized with a few cameras (orthographic top-down and 3 perspective cameras, zoomed in and out) :

The art that I’m going to use will possibly be just 2d sprites. The beauty of 2d sprites is that they can be used both in 2D and 3D views, in the latter, as billboards. The challenge is to make them look good when integrated in a 3D environment. Here are some examples of a basic, naive integration of some DCSS tiles in the map:

So, these are the tiles rendered to the top-down view – nothing special so far. Below, we try the billboard rendering, before and after, using a side-camera:

When using such cameras, it’s clear that sprites look much better as billboards rather than flat mapped onto the terrain. Some more billboard examples using more cameras (1 isometric and 3 perspective):

(Note: Any sprite overlaps are due to my laziness; the positions for the billboards are generated randomly and therefore sometimes overlap)

I think it’s safe to assume that it works well, but they don’t integrate perfectly. I’m not an artist, so I need to get some informed opinions on how to improve the visual result by just processing the sprites and data that I have (e.g. using specific, shared color palette for both overworld and sprites, process sprite boundary, add some fake environment lighting, etc). Also, DCSS sprites occasionally have integrated shadows, which funnily enough works for many of the views, but it’s baked in the sprite, so not really controllable.

Here is a video of a perspective/ortho cameras using billboard version, to showcase the 3D look.

While the 3D effect works, the visuals can be massively improved. For example:

  • Actual textures for the overworld, including rivers and sea (tileset hunting plus procedural should do it for now)
  • Vegetation and mountain sprites on the tiles (I need tilesets for that)
  • better sprite integration with the map (shadows? silhouettes? env lighting?)
  • Optionally, a basic elevation visualization, with lighting (mutually exclusive with mountain sprites, but this is easy to do)

Of course I’ll need an artist for sprites and textures, so at the moment I have to make do with my mad (bad?) pcg skills. And for even later, there’s also animated fog of war, particle systems and other bells and whistles, because graphics programming is fun 🙂