Spark Editor (Natural Selection 2 Level Editor) Review


Spark Editor Review

by Scyze

As I’ve seen the other thread in the Mapping section, I decided to finally bust and preorder NS2. I’m the kind of guy who will buy a game just for its mapmaking capabilities, so as soon as I saw what was being done with NS2, I had to try it. I feel this review deserves its own thread because it’s going to be a more formulated review really designed to inform the average Facepunch mapper, and what with all the comparisons between Spark Editor, Hammer, Unreal Editor, and even Google SketchUp, I feel that it’ll be a worthwhile read. Once I’m done with it, I’m also going to forward it to Unknown Worlds in the hopes that they’ll be able to benefit from this review of their prealpha editor.

Introductions

Spark Editor, judging from the previous thread, has been related to many of the mainstream, contemporary level design editors, such as Hammer, Unreal Editor, and Google SketchUp–that being the exception. First off, the editor does not use BSP-style brushes per se–it works strictly with faces, vertices, and lines (like SketchUp) which are extruded to create hollowed out gameplay area polygons or brush-style polygons–a la UnrealEd or Hammer. Of course, aside from extrusion you can also create faces from vertexes or lines as well. With that cleared up, let’s actually look at the thing. Keep in mind that everything seen here is a prealpha version–anything and everything is subject to change.

Interface

Though not pictured in the image, when I first opened up Spark Editor, it said hello to me by telling me that there was a new update out for the program. I let it update–it updated without any hitches, told me what was new and fixed in it, restarted Spark Editor and I was good to go. Very good first impression.

The interface for the editor is sleek and minimalistic. The edit screen which you see to the right appears when in Select mode, as you don’t need it when using most other tools. When you select a prop, light, or entity it allows you to edit its properties, like you would in the Entity Properties window in Hammer. It’s nice that it stays on the right and is unobtrusive, but ever-ready; it brings to mind the Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age Toolsets’ style, where entity properties could be docked on the side of a window.

It might seem a little weird at first that there is only one viewport to start–however, you can enable the classic 4-port perspective/top/front/side with the rightmost button, which toggles between one and four viewports. Regardless of this, I found myself not needing at all the three other viewports–I was able to make the small area you see in the picture above using only one viewport, because unlike Hammer, you can edit everything in the Perspective viewport, similar to 3d modeling programs or SketchUp. The first thing you probably noticed is that you can have full 3d lighting in the editor, of the same quality you would have (though it might be even better) in-game. This alone is enough to make the editor tons of fun to play with. That on top, all of NS2’s props are very themed and well-designed to fill a room and make it look really good, really fast.

On top of just the viewports, you can set them to view as a wireframe, lit textures, or unlit textures–you can also enable or disable view of edges and triangulation, the latter of which I imagine will come in very useful in optimizing your map.

Ergonomics

If you’re used to mapping in Hammer, Spark Editor has a bit of a learning curve and a certain way it needs to be used. It has a few funky crashes associated with undoing certain actions that I’ve experienced, but once I learned how to be more effective with the vertex/edge/face/polygon system (as well as saving often), I stopped crashing. I honestly couldn’t explain how, exactly–it became intuitive after a while.

You have 17 tools on your toolbar–Select, Draw, Rectangle, Circle, Extrude, Move, Rotate, Scale, Paint, Create Light, Create Spotlight, Create Prop, Create Entity, Refine Grid, Coarsen Grid, Zoom to Selected Element, and Maximize Viewport Toggle.

Moving around in the viewports is insanely easy–you just hold right click, then use WASD. If you’re in Perspective mode, you’ll fly around like in Hammer. If you’re in any 2d mode, you’ll whiz around 2d style. Space doesn’t do anything that I can tell. To stop whizzing, just let go of right click, but be careful, because then WASD become hot keys. Something that’s really nifty is that if you press tab, you automatically switch between the Move, Rotate, and Scale tools which is great for on the fly manipulation.

When you start trying to make basic stuff such as a room you’ll notice that Spark Editor works in grids a lot–which should make a lot of you happy. Since there’s no form of measurement that I have found aside from grid units themselves (and considering I have not yet measured how tall the player prop is), it’s very important to create a ground plane, and then right off the bat place down a player prop so you know exactly how big everything is. The editor also tries to aid you in creating things in whatever direction you’re trying to head–for instance, the image shows me trying to create something on a horizontal axis (not sure whether it’s X or Z, to be honest).

If I chose a point on this grid, I could create a rectangle from one point to another to make a wall, or draw a line to make a special shape and make a face out of that (yep, you can have weird faces!). Something else that can be simultaneously nifty and annoying is that when you create a rectangle or line and turn away from the current plane, either the directional axes will pop up that you can follow and align to, or the plane of whatever nearby polygons/faces/etc. you have created. Most of the time it works brilliantly–sometimes, it gets a little wonky and you’ll find yourself reaching through space or making random diagonals. However, a little repositioning in Perspective mode (or simply using 2d viewports) is all it takes–or you can press Shift to preserve the current grid and work on that exact plane, if you wanted! If you want to completely disregard planes, press Alt.

Making complex polygon work can be confusing at first as you’re trying to figure out how to properly utilize each tool, but once you do figure it out, you start to love it. One issue the OCD side of me screams at, however, is the fact that sometimes, because the design is so sleek and hassle free, you sometimes wonder if you’re creating extra vertices on the exact same spot, or extra edges across other edges that are invisible, and if that’s causing leaks or this or that… While I’m not sure leaks can even happen with this system, you do sometimes get extra edges that force you to delete and redraw entire faces (not that it’s too hard to do). I’ve also found that faces aren’t terribly smart about which way to go when I make them, but you can easily flip them.

After you start to work your way down into smaller grid sizes, you realize that a grid size of 1 is orgasmically small and that you can probably do some really damn complicated brush-esque work. At the moment we’ve no way of knowing exactly what NS2’s limitations are (and by association its editor), so we just have to wait and see. There’s also no center orientation in the Spark Editor, so this makes it even more impossible to tell what the limits of the editor are. Something that’s absolutely beautiful about Spark Editor is that you can say, draw a line with a starting point somewhere, right click, zoom around in Perspective mode, let go of right click, and then place the end of your line to wherever you want it to go. This, of course, applies to all tools.

Something that is irritating about the tools is that it seems to take a while to register–the move and rotate tools seem clunky at times, and the free move function in Perspective is practically useless. However, the scale tool is solid and feels good to use.

Painting

Painting works for the most part like Hammer Editor’s does. There’s no displacement tool in your paint options because I imagine that displacements, if any, are just made by hand (as well as they might mess with the dynamic infestation feature–but I don’t know anything about how that works), though this would be slightly unwieldy with the tools the editor currently has.

The paint window opens up with some basic stuff–scale, shift, rotation, alignment options, and a list of textures. The amount of textures we have right now is pretty limited, and I’m wondering whether or not we’ll be able to easily import our own textures or say, access miscellaneous textures which can sometimes be useful in coloring brush-based props. I hope that by the time NS2 comes out, we’ll be able to see and work with more of the guts and gears than we can now. Aside from that, at the moment you have dev textures and a stock of interior textures to work with, all of which are bump-mapped and generally prettied up so that they work beautifully with the lighting in the game. The layout for paint also seems to be directly influenced by the Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age Toolsets.

Props and Entities

Is that? Yes, yes those ARE handles! Yep, it’s true, you can scale props. Probably a good deal of you decided to preorder NS2 the moment you read that sentence. Props are easy to pop in, it’s good fun. Selecting a prop to use is also easy. You get a whole list of the props, a simple filter, and you can choose to view the icons as big, medium, or small (to fit more into your list). An annoying thing is that if you scroll in or out while your mouse focuses on the prop window–nothing happens there, and instead you zoom in or out in the viewport. This isn’t a major issue, but can be tiresome and there’s not really any excuse for the editor to not have that simple feature.

Direct editing of the props is pretty simplistic, a little bit disappointing–but I feel that there’s a distinction between props and entities in the editor to a large degree–props are probably purely for show. At the moment, you can manipulate the location, scale, orientation, and model of the prop–excluding the latter, all of which you can do in viewports, but it’s nice if you want exactness. You can’t tint props. I’m not sure if this just isn’t included yet, or it’s an engine limitation. A major issue is that if you select more than one prop or entity at a time, you can’t edit their properties together–even if it’s the same type of prop or entity. That’s a big no-no. This includes things like lights–so if you want to mass change a bunch of lights, you either delete all but one, change it and copy paste, or change all of them individually. Also, when copying and pasting anything, the thing being pasted is done so in the same location as the thing being copied, so there’s no visual confirmation that it worked or not. You can’t paste to the cursor or anything like you could in Hammer.

Other Miscellanea
You can enable auto backup, adjust it in the settings, adjust the colors for display things such as edges, vertices, grids, etc., adjust the units used for measurement, change key bindings for all the options in the menu, and apparently there’s some function for setting up custom tools called “External Tools”. Don’t know what it does, though.

In Closing

So, in closing, what’s the verdict?

Well, there’s no verdict. It’s a pre-alpha. What I can say, however, is that I’m very eager to see how the Spark Editor will look when NS2 is released–and, of course, NS2 itself! I really hope that by that time we have a ton more features, some of the kinks in the editor are ironed out, and that we’ll really get to be flush up to our elbows in the core workings of NS2 for all the mapmakers and modmakers out there. So far, the Spark Editor is sleek, powerful, and just fun to use once you get the hang of it–really, it’s got everything that Hammer and UnrealEd wish they could have so easily–and SketchUp? Well, I don’t know anything about SketchUp, really.

I hope you enjoyed reading!

EDIT: By the way, if you want to see some of the stuff the NS2 community has done with it, look here: http://www.unknownworlds.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=108129

A lot of it’s just AMAZING.

That was a good read, thanks for posting this. I have the feeling that the NS2 devs will probably listen to the communtity’s complaints and needs for the editor, and apply them (not Valve!)

What I’m most interested in seeing is how well it handles outdoor areas, I know it’s not designed for them but it will be interesting to see.

Yeah! Me too! That’s something I’ve especially been wondering about. I forgot to add that into the review, though, crap.

This is cool. I might pre-order it for this.

That was a long read, however I found it informative and enjoyable, good job. Spark Editor looks fairly nice.

Awesome review, you’re well spoken. I am very excited to a see a more updated editor when NS2 comes out. It looks like this is going to be everyone’s favorite editor because you can see your lighting changes immediately, anyone will choose an editor like that over pre-computational editors like Hammer. Because unlike game companies, we don’t have 10+ professional level designers, we only have ourselves to make a map.

I wonder if Valve will pay them money to use their editor in their games… I doubt it, but it’d be cool.