Friday, December 06, 2013


Now that the cat is out of the bag, I believe its time to start posting some details about the Asset Pipeline Editor (from now on, "the APE").

So, what is this tool? To answer it, let's travel through time to a point, say, four years ago or so.

To make the long story short, during the golden age of XNA I was in the search of an efficient way to replace the built-in content manager class with my own. So I created my own version of this class, but I was still using XNA's content pipeline.

Then, when MSFT announced that they would stop any development on the XNA Framework, like many of you, I remained captive of Visual Studio 2010 IDE for building xnb's. During this year, I decided not to wait any longer for miracles and start building my own content-pipeline replacement.

Let's face it! How many of you have been lately crying out loud for XNA 5? Or asking where the content pipeline has gone? You still need VS2010 to use the content pipeline if you want to use XNA, Monogame or ANX. And no definitive solution has been provided yet. And even if there is something in the works, is it worth for teams?

Be honest here. You guys know that the in game development a content pipeline is indeed needed, but why sticking to a particular IDE for programmers (like VS) or any other programming IDE in the first place? It could make sense for programmers only, but for teams, artists, or even for solo devs that want to have an independent process, it does not. In fact, it could turn out to be cumbersome.

So, that is why I developed the APE. To replace XNA's content pipeline "in spirit" (since it has key deifferences) for those inhouse projects where I wasn't using Unity, UDK or any other authorware with its own content management features.

I must admit that at first I wasn't expecting to get these results, since I was aiming lower, but as times went by, I realize that -and please allow me to say it- I was creating something really good. So I went on until I said "Wow!".

Now, about its key features:

1. Its not for XNA, only: it works for any kind of custom content, not only xnb's. In fact, if you have your own way to manage content when programming a game or provide solutions (like WaveEngine, for instance), you can use it safely since the tool ends its job when the asset its build and copy to the folder you indicate.

2. It's a highly customizable tool: not only you can tweak the editor to meet the needs for your project (to some extent, of course) but also you can define your own building process: import, process, format, writing. You dream of it. You got it.

3. It eases the task of managing game content: that's it, throughout the whole development process. If say, you just want to use the input files as is, like pngs, jpegs, and so on so forth, without any processing, you can because the editor comes with pass-through units. So you can still use the tool to manage which content goes where, even if there is no processing required.

4. It's independent from any programming IDE: this is heaven for artists! If you are a solo programmer working on a game, having to use VS to build content is fine, but when you're woring on a team with artists this is not good at all. The APE comes with a GUI of its own.

5. Test before you promote units: "why is my custom processor not working?". Say bye-bye to these kind of questions since you can test your custom "units" (as I call them) before using them with the editor. Indeed. You can build your own testing assembly for your custom content/process. And once you give it a green light you plug it to the editor as an add-on.

Here you can see the main editor as of today:

The areas indicated in the picture above are the following:

1. Solution Tree: create a solution, add a project for a platform, and you will be able to traverse all the nodes here. Projects can have two or more containers: self, default and partial. And you can add as many folders as you want to each container. In future parts I post more details about this.

2. Search Tool: if you need to see specific nodes of the tree this is a quick way to do it. It works recuresively over the last search, so you can go on reducing results until you find what you want.

3. Output Settings: for every "raw file" that you want to import, you can define how to process it and format it. And for each project, you can define how to write ("export") assets to disk. These are powerful tabs. More about them later ...

4. Build Tool: here is where you decide whether to build assets for the whole solution (all projects) or for a specific project; and also where you define the compilation profile: debug, release, test, ... you name it ... add the ones you need for the solution. You will be able to watch it on a how-to video, later.

5. Configuration Tabs: so far there are four: general settings, solution settings, project settings and container settings. Basically, you can tweak many properties there and even add/remove entries for platforms, profiles, default importers, default writers, to mention just a few. In a later post I will cover all settings.

6. Log Panel: classic in any respectable IDE; here is where the editor informs you about the state of a given process, whether it succeeds or fails, warnings, exceptions. The usual stuff. It's a real friend to understand what's going on. There is more to it than meets the eye, and that deserves another post.

7. Bars and shortcuts: well, this is not indicated in the picture above, but of course that you have menu items (both, as text and buttons) and key shortcuts for many features. Not to mention, contex menues, where applicable, for example to copy or move content. Ahhh, yes! I almost forget it, drag and drop is allowed.

I don't want to go beyond the scope of this post, but I cannot help adding the following picture:

Above there's an example of a test assembly. When you create your units for a specific type of asset- by the way, using C#, this is where you debug them and see whether everything works as expected. Add break points, switch over text, find offending code!

And finally, for this post: "previewers". When you traverse the solution tree and select a raw file (or source file), the editor shows information about the file as well as a previewer for it. By default, the APE comes with previewers for some image, audio and video formats. Or else it will switch to an icon previewer. But the good news is that if you need to preview more formats you can create your own previewers! What is more, you can replace all built-in ones if you want ....

The picture above is an example of a previewer for an audio file.

Now, before ending this post there two remaining points I would like to address:

1. Current State of the APE: ready for my inhouse projects: the units, besides the pass-through ones, are meant for my inhouse projects, only. Plus, there are some features I would like to add (and even some porting to do) before a public release, if you guys are interested in having this tool, so ...

2. What's next: my idea is to start a fund-raising campaign on IndieGoGo to make a first release of the tool,  and some extended goals like developing some units for XNA'ers and Monogamers (so they don't have to), and even doing some porting to other platforms like MacOsX and Linux (since so far the tool only works on Windows for .NET 4.5). And yes, the link at the end of the trailer is not working right now as the campaign is currently on draft mode.

So, this is all for now.

I hope this post sheds some light on what's the APE about and that you guys are interested. It's upto you guys to define whether this baby eventually sees the public light (if not, I'll continue to use it for my inhouse projects). Your call ...

'till next posts!