This post was originally created for Blueflame Digital’s blog post about the project back in June 2016: http://www.blueflamedigital.co.uk/bringing-history-to-life-kings-court/
Vivat Rex, Vivat Regia Anglorum!
The smell of wood smoke fills the air, you can hear the sound of metal hammering from the smithy, and all around you are the rolling green hills and ancient buildings of the English countryside. These were the experiences that drew me to historical re-enactment when I first went to see Regia Anglorum put on a show in 2014.
Historical re-enactment, when done well, provides an excellent opportunity to educate and entertain in equal measure. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to combine my real-time 3D art work with historical re-enactment in order to bring history to life for the public. I hope to provide some education about oft misrepresented eras of history, in an entertaining and interactive way.
In the court of The King
While working with Blueflame Digital on other projects, I mentioned my desire to create an interactive historical experience of some kind. Rich’s father works at Gillingham Museum in Dorset, and so an opportunity presented itself to create a proof of concept for the museum which, if they were happy with it, they could use to apply for funding for us to create a full version.
Gillingham was the site of a Royal hunting lodge, certainly the site of a small settlement, possibly as early as the reign of William II (1087–1100) right up to AD 1369 in the area now known as King’s Court. Gillingham Museum commissioned Joan Haig to create an artist’s impression of the site circa AD 1272, which has been used in several books about the site. You can see the boundaries that the site occupied as the moat is still visible.
Joan Haig’s illustration of the site circa AD 1272
The site the moat occupied is still visible today and can be seen on Google Maps satellite view
This provided us with excellent reference material and a very solid starting point. In terms of accuracy, we know from surviving documents which buildings were on the site, we’re just not 100% how they were laid out. We also have some measurements taken from the site in the 17th century when there were still stone foundations visible above the ground. That stone has since been reused for roads and other walls in the local area. This relative wealth of information allowed us to start with accurate measurements and a sensible layout.
A note on historical authenticity
One of the key things I wanted to avoid going into this project was making a stylised or “Hollywood” 13th century scene, based on anything other than archaeological evidence, or at least the educated opinion of someone in the know. There are a lot of objects and themes repeated in ‘historical’ film, TV and games for which there is little or no evidence, for example lots of black leather, everything being really dark and dingy, studded leather armour, everyone wearing leather vambraces for some reason, lots of lamellar or otherwise anachronistic armour and weapons, and so on.
While I am no historian myself, many of my fellow members of Regia Anglorum are historians, archaeologists and teachers and so together represent a vast wealth of knowledge of many different time periods. This has allowed me to check everything I have done for the project with them for inaccuracies.
Putting it all together
Creating this scene was a great learning experience for me. Up until now I had only really modelled individual assets, mostly sci-fi or modern day hard-surface models, for someone else to assemble into a completed scene or level. King’s Court on the other hand is made up of buildings built from timber and plaster, stone, wattle and daub, and many natural objects, which I needed to put together in Unity into a functioning scene with lighting and camera effects.
I hit quite a lot of issues using Unity’s vegetation system in Unity 5, I think for future versions it may be necessary to use SpeedTree for anything larger than a bush, and any bushes and grass will be normal meshes imported into the scene. The most persistent and frustrating issue was Unity automatically optimising the plant’s material, and in doing so making the material much, much darker. This occurred even if the option to automatically optimise the material was unchecked.
You can see in these two screenshots the darkening effect this automatic optimisation was having on the plant materials…
Many of the buildings are made using modular kit pieces as they are all built from the same materials, and are of similar proportions. This worked well, but I’d like to give the buildings a little bit more individuality where possible. The purpose of each building could be made more apparent. This has also lead to some buildings which would definitely have had fires inside having nowhere for the smoke to escape, as they started out as stables.
Pretty much everything in the scene made by me was textured using Allegorithmic’s excellent Substance Designer and Substance Painter programs. Being able to paint and layer whole materials is a real time saver, especially for PBR workflow where everything should be fairly unified between engines. In practice of course there will always be some tweaking required for different engines.
We knew that it would be necessary to use models from the asset store for version 1 of the project to save time, so I spent a while searching through the asset store for any which were remotely historically accurate. Unfortunately, “Medieval” (and “Viking” for that matter) is used to describe all manner of fantasy items so in the end there were only a few that were really suitable, and of those very few were ready for Unity 5’s Standard Shader. One of the first things I want to do for version 2 is replace these with purpose made assets based on archaeological finds and manuscripts. I was also hoping to use some assets from the Viking Village tech demo that Unity released, but unfortunately many of the assets were again historically inaccurate, or very definitely Viking and not 13th century Angevin.
One of our other primary objectives on this project was to really crank up Unity’s visual quality as high as we could, as we knew this was going to be for PC rather than mobile. To this end, I chose a selection of camera effects, some from the asset store and some standard assets, to really boost the image quality and give it a cinematic feel whilst still being historically accurate:
- Amplify Colour
- Amplify Motion
- SE Natural Bloom and Dirty Lens
- Sun Shafts
- Global Fog
I also have RTP Terrain and TerrainComposer which I expect I will need for future versions.
Some of these camera and lighting effects I chose thanks to advice and recommendations from Iestyn Lloyd of Lloyd Digital. He did a video featuring many of these effects at Unity 2015. Video link below:
Without further ado, here is the video flythrough we created for Version 1 of King’s Court.
The next objective will be for Gillingham Museum to secure funding to create a full, interactive version. We can also use this as a platform to show what we can do for museums and anyone wishing to host a digital exhibit like this.
We have already put together a To-Do list for future versions. These will include:
- Replacing items from the asset store with purpose built items.
- Adding a variety of characters to the scene, some of which can be spoken to.
- Adding greater detail to the animals and characters.
- Rebuilding some of the structures, for example the two storey timber buildings are not based on specific archaeological evidence and need to be remade.
- Rebuilding and retexturing the Great Hall (large stone building) with greater detail.
- Replacing the unfinished round building with a smithy.
- Having an explorable inner courtyard.
- Some building interiors will be explorable.
- Interactive environment providing educational information about characters, buildings, artefacts etc.
- A small explorable part of the surrounding landscape, so you can see the moat that surrounds the walls, and the river that feeds it.
- Mini-games like dice throwing, gambling etc.
- A version of the scene at night.