Snow Shader Tutorial with Unity

Let It Snow! How To Make a Fast Screen-Space Snow Accumulation Shader In Unity

Have you ever wondered how much time does it take to apply snow to all of the textures in your game? Probably a lot of times. We’d like to show you how to create an Image Effect (screen-space shader) that will immediately change the season of your scene in Unity.

3D model house village with trees in the background in Unity

How does it work?

In the images above you can see two screenshots presenting the same scene. The only difference is that in the second one I enabled snow effect on the camera. No changes to any of the textures has been made. How could that be?

The theory is really simple. The assumption is that there should be a snow whenever a rendered pixel’s normal is facing upwards (ground, roofs, etc.) Also there should be a gentle transition between a snow texture and original texture if pixel’s normal is facing any other direction (pine trees, walls).

Getting the required data

For presented effect to work it requires at least two things:

  • Rendering path set to deferred (For some reason I couldn’t get forward rendering to work correctly with this effect. The depth shader was just rendered incorrectly. If you have any idea why that could be, please leave a message in the comments section.)
  • Camera.depthTextureMode set to DepthNormals

Since the second option can be easily set by the image effect script itself, the first option can cause a problem if your game is already using a forward rendering path.

Setting Camera.depthTextureMode to DepthNormals will allow us to read screen depth (how far pixels are located from the camera) and normals (facing direction).

Now if you’ve never created an Image Effect before, you should know that these are build from at least one script and at least one shader. Usually this shader instead of rendering 3D object, renders full-screen image out of given input data. In our case the input data is an image rendered by the camera and some properties set up by the user.

It’s only the basic setup, it will not generate a snow for you. Now the real fun begins…

The shader

Our snow shader should be an unlit shader – we don’t want to apply any light information to it since on screen-space there’s no light. Here’s the basic template:

Note that if you create a new unlit unity shader (Create->Shader->Unlit Shader) you get mostly the same code.

Let’s now focus only on the important part – the fragment shader. First, we need to capture all the data passed by ScreenSpaceSnow script:

Don’t worry if you don’t know why we need all this data yet. I will explain it in detail in a moment.

Finding out where to snow

As I explained before, we’d like to put the snow on surfaces that are facing upwards. Since we’re set up on the camera that is set to generate depth-normals texture, now we are able to access it. For this case there is

in the code. Why is it called that way? You can learn about it in Unity documentation:

Depth textures are available for sampling in shaders as global shader properties. By declaring a sampler called _CameraDepthTexture you will be able to sample the main depth texture for the camera.

_CameraDepthTexture always refers to the camera’s primary depth texture.

Now let’s start with getting the normal:

Unity documentation says that depth and normals are packed in 16 bits each. In order to unpack it, we need to call DecodeDepthNormal as above seen above.

Normals retrieved in this way are camera-space normals. That means that if we rotate the camera then normals’ facing will also change. We don’t want that, and that’s why we have to multiply it by _CamToWorld matrix set in the script before. It will convert normals from camera to world coordinates so they won’t depend on camera’s perspective no more.

In order for shader to compile it has to return something, so I set up the return statement as seen above. To see if our calculations are correct it’s a good idea to preview the result.

RGB Rendering of Camera Space for Unity Shader Tutorial

We’re rendering this as RGB. In Unity Y is facing the zenith by default. That means that green color is showing the value of Y coordinate. So far, so good!

Now let’s convert it to snow amount factor.

We should be using the G channel, of course. Now, this may be enough, but I like to push it a little further to be able to configure bottom and top threshold of the snowy area. It will allow to fine-tune how much snow there should be on the scene.

Snow texture

Snow may not look real without a texture. This is the most difficult part – how to apply a texture on 3D objects if you have only a 2D image (we’re working on screen-space, remember)? One way is to find out the pixel’s world position. Then we can use X and Z world coordinates as texture coordinates.

Now here’s some math that is not a subject of this article. All you need to know is that vpos is a viewport position, wpos is a world position received by multiplying _CamToWorld matrix by viewport position and it’s converted to a valid world position by dividing by the far plane (_ProjectionParams.z). Finally, we’re calculating the snow color using XZ coordinates multiples by _SnowTexScale configurable parameter and far plane to get sane value. Phew…

Unity Snow Texture for Unity3D shader tutorial

Merging it!

It’s time to finally merge it all together!

Here we’re getting the original color and lerping from it to snowColor using snowAmount.

The final touch: let’s set _TopThreshold value to 0.6:

Voila!

Summary

Here’s a full scene result. Looking nice?

Lowpoly Township Set on the Unity Asset Store

Low Poly 3D Snow Village Unity Asset Shader

Feel free to download the shader here and use it in your project!

Scene that has been used as the example in this article comes from Lowpoly Township Set. Inspired by this particular redditor.

Should You Install Unity Cache Server on localhost

Should you install Unity Cache Server on localhost?

Do you already know how to use Unity Cache Server? If you’re one of the maniacs trying to optimize every aspect of their development environment, then you most probably do! It’s a great solution for the teams that are working on large projects, especially for mobile devices. But does it make sense to install it for only one person… locally?

How Unity imports assets

The first thing you need to understand is the way Unity imports assets. When you put a file into your Assets folder, Unity executes an asset processor. The textures will be converted to optimal texture format for your target platform: sounds to mp3/ogg (or any other) conversion, models to internal Unity mesh format and so on. Some conversions are done so fast, that you won’t even notice it, but for some it may take enormous amount of time. For instance, processing Android and iOS textures may even take several hours!

This is not an issue if you’re working on a game for a single platform, but usually you are not. For instance, if you’re working on an Android game, most probably you’d like to build an iOS version too. Unfortunately when you switch your target platform, Unity removes previously processed data as you’d never intend to use it again. As a result, switching between multiple platforms may take more time than actual development of your game!

Let’s install Cache Server

Cache Server solves that issue by storing processed assets in the persistent database for later use. If you’re working alone or if your internet connection is not that great, it may be a wise choice to install it locally.

Cache Server is written on the top of NodeJS. If you’re not familiar with this technology, don’t worry. It’s distributed along with cache server zip file, so you don’t even need to install it! (well, I don’t know now why I even mentioned it…)

Now it’s time to get the Cache Server files. These can be found on Team License web page (Team License is now available for everyone). Just click on the download button.

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Unpack the downloaded zip contents in the location where you want to keep your processed asset database. Cache Server by default creates its database in-place, so be prepared to have at least 50 gigabytes of free space on your drive. Now you’re ready to launch it. Go into the CacheServer directory and double-click on RunWin.cmd file. There are appropriate script files for Mac and Linux too.

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When you see the output like this one, you know that your Cache Server is operational:

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Now, don’t close this command line window! Your cache server works only when it’s open. When closed, you can re-launch it again and your data will be still there, but if it’s not running Unity is not storing anything in it (obviously).

Configuring Unity

Let’s now open Unity preferences. Go into the Cache Server tab, and use localhost as the IP Address.

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When you see Connection successful message, this means that your Cache Server is fully operational! Now you have to reimport your assets at least once to have it uploaded to the cache server. Later on instead of usual asset importing progress you will be seeing something like this:

using cache server

How long it will take depends only on the speed of your hard drive.

If you’re interested in more information about the Cache Server, you can find it in the official Unity manual. Please also note that Cache Server may require a license different than free (it got a little confusing after latest changes in licensing, so I cannot tell for sure).

7 Ways to Keep Your Unity Project Organized

I saw a person on Quora the other day, asking how programmers are able to write projects that consist of over 10,000 lines of code. When software gets bigger, it is more difficult to maintain and that’s a fact. So here’s the thing – if you don’t keep your project organized, you’re going to have a hard time to keep the pace. Later on, you will find yourself wasting time with a messy project instead of adding new features. This is also true regarding any Unity Project. Here are (in my opinion) the most important tips that will help you with keeping your project organized.

1. Directory Structure

We cannot talk about organization without mentioning organizing project directory structure. Unity gives you a total freedom in that matter, but because of that, it can frequently get really messy. This is the directory structure I personally use:

  • 3rd-Party
  • Animations
  • Audio
    • Music
    • SFX
  • Materials
  • Models
  • Plugins
  • Prefabs
  • Resources
  • Textures
  • Sandbox
  • Scenes
    • Levels
    • Other
  • Scripts
    • Editor
  • Shaders
  1. Do not store any asset files in the root directory. Use subdirectories whenever possible.
  2. Do not create any additional directories in the root directory, unless you really need to.
  3. Be consistent with naming. If you decide to use camel case for directory names and low letters for assets, stick to that convention.
  4. Don’t try to move context-specific assets to the general directories. For instance, if there are materials generated from the model, don’t move them to Materials directory because later you won’t know where these come from.
  5. Use 3rd-Party to store assets imported from the Asset Store. They usually have their own structure that shouldn’t be altered.
  6. Use Sandbox directory for any experiments you’re not entirely sure about. While working on this kind of things, the last thing that you want to care about is a proper organization. Do what you want, then remove it or organize when you’re certain that you want to include it in your project. When you’re working on a project with other people, create your personal Sandbox subdirectory like: Sandbox/JohnyC.

2. Scene hierarchy structure

Next to the project’s hierarchy there’s also scene hierarchy. As before, I will present you a template. You can adjust it to your needs.

  • Management
  • GUI
  • Cameras
  • Lights
  • World
    • Terrain
    • Props
  • _Dynamic

There are several rules you should follow:

  1. All empty objects should be located at 0,0,0 with default rotation and scale.
  2. When you’re instantiating an object in runtime, make sure to put it in _Dynamic – do not pollute the root of your hierarchy or you will find it difficult to navigate through it.
  3. For empty objects that are only containers for scripts, use “@” as prefix – e.g. @Cheats

3. Use prefabs for everything

Prefabs in Unity are not perfect, but they are the best thing you will find to share pre-configured hierarchies of objects. Generally speaking, try to prefab everything that you put on your scenes. You should be able to create a new level from an empty scene just by adding one or more prefabs to it.

The reason why you should use prefabs is that when a prefab changes, all the instances change too. Have 100 levels and want to add a camera effect on all of them? Not a problem! If your camera is a prefab, just add a camera effect to the camera prefab!

Be aware that you cannot have a prefab in another prefab. Use links instead – have a field that requires a prefab to be assigned and make sure to assign it when instance is created. Consider auto-connecting prefab instances in Awake() or OnEnable() when it makes sense.

4. Learn how to use version control system (VCS)

git logoYou may already know something about GIT, Subversion or any other VCS out there. As a matter of fact, “knowing something” is only a small piece of what you may learn. You should focus on learning about important but infrequently used features of VCS of your choice. Why? Mostly because VCS systems are much more powerful that you think, and unfortunately many users are using these as nothing more than a backup and synchronized solutions. For example, did you know that GIT allows you to stash your changes, so you can work on them later without committing anything to your master branch?

Programmers tend to comment out blocks of code in case it’s needed later. Don’t do that! If you’re using VCS learn how to quickly browse previous versions of a file. When you are familiar with it, your code looks a lot nicer without unnecessary block of commented code.

Here’s a nice resource of tips for GIT users: http://gitready.com/

5. Learn to write editor scripts

Unity is a great game engine in the matter of extensibility (see Asset Store). Learn how to write editor scripts and utilize this knowledge. You don’t necessary need to create fancy GUI for your scripts, it can be something simple, as menu entries that are doing something useful. Here are some examples of editor scripts that I have created not so long ago:

  • Google Sheets .csv download – I had a translation spreadsheet saved on Google Drive. It automatically downloaded the newest version as .csv file, so I never had to do it manually.
  • Randomize the position, rotation and size of trees – I had a lot of trees and wanted it to look more like a forest than a grid.
  • Create distribution – Built for specified target, zips all the files and copy to the right place.
  • String replace in the sources – I had several files that contained the application version.

You can learn how to create editor scripts from the official documentation.

6. Learn to program defensively

Have you heard about defensive programming? Wikipedia defines it as follows:

Defensive programming is a form of defensive design intended to ensure the continuing function of a piece of software under unforeseen circumstances. Defensive programming techniques are used especially when a piece of software could be misused.

Generally when you’re writing MonoBehaviours, you should make sure that:

  • All needed references are set
  • All required components are present
  • If you’re using singletons, make sure that they exists
  • If you’re searching for objects and expect to find something, do it as fast as possible
  • Mix-in editor code (ExecuteInEditMode and #if UNITY_EDITOR) to do as many checks as possible before you run the scene

For many of these checks you can use asserts. You should also read A Story of NullPointerException Part 1 and 2.

7. Implement in-editor and/or in-game cheats

After you learn how to write editor script, you should be able to write a set of in-editor cheats. It can work as menu entry that unlocks something (all levels for instance). It’s really easy to create:

Generally you should write cheats that will allow you to:

  • Unlock all levels, characters, items etc
  • Give you immortality
  • Add/subtract values like time, money, coins etc
  • Allow you to see things not meant to be seen by players
  • Anything else that will help you with testing your game

Of course more practical (but harder to write) are in-game cheats. These type of cheats can be executed outside Unity editor, but you have to think how you would like to execute it. See our other article about implementing cheats subsystem controlled by mouse.

Myths and Facts of the Unity Game Engine

Unity is only for games

It’s a myth. Of course Unity has been created as a game engine, but it’s so flexible that it is successfully being used in other industries, such as architecture, medicine, and engineering. For an example, see 3RD Planet.

It is the largest online consumer event platform, showcasing the top tourist destinations in each country with Unity 3D.

The Coherentrx SuiteAnother example is The Coherentrx Suite.

CoherentRx is a suite of point-of-care patient education applications that combine realtime 3D anatomy models with HIPAA-compliant doctor-patient messaging. CoherentRx apps currently address ten medical specialties, from orthopedics to opthalmology.

In the Unity Showcase there’s a separate category for non-game applications. Check it out yourself!

Unity is free

It’s a myth, but not entirely. You can download Unity for free. The free (personal) version of Unity has all the features that Unity Professional has (with some small exceptions). When your game is ready, you can publish it and make money out of it! It’s just like that! But if at one point your company exceeds a turnover of $100,000, then you are obligated to purchase the Unity Professional license. It’s not too expensive at that point, because the cost is $1500 US dollars. Sounds really cheap when compared to $100,000, doesn’t it?

The difference between free license and pro license is that in the former one mobile games and web games display a Unity logo for few seconds on startup. It’s not a big deal, but as a professional game developer you may want to get rid of it sometime in the future. Also, you aren’t allowed to use Unity editor pro skin and Cache Server.

You can only do small games with Unity

It’s a myth. The reason why there are so many small games created in Unity is that it is very indie-friendly. Unity does not constrain your game size in any way. You can create a clone of World of Warcraft if you really want to! All scenes can be loaded and merged in the run-time, so player won’t see any loading screens while playing. It’s also not true that Unity performance degrades when you have too much objects on your scene. Of course you have to optimize it in a special way. So it’s all about the experience.

One of the greatest examples of a large-scene and well-optimized Unity game is City Skylines.

Unity is worse than Unreal Engine

It’s a myth, but it really depends on what are your needs (it’s not worse in general). Unity has been always compared to Unreal Engine because the latter always had the upper hand in game development industry. Today the situation is a little different. While Unreal Engine was targeting PC and stationary consoles, Unity took its chances with mobile devices. Unreal was always about big games with stunning visuals, but this approach made it more difficult to learn and use. Unity on the other hand is based on the Mono platform. Thanks to that you can program your games using C# instead of C++ which is quite difficult to learn.

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Unity GDC demo – Adam – Part 1

Today Unity is trying to take over the Unreal Engine market. The first steps were made by Unity 5 graphics enhancements and by the optimization of scripting backend. On GDC 2016 Unity Technologies has published a stunning real-time demo of what Unity 5.3.4 is capable of. From today it will be more and more difficult to tell the difference between Unity and Unreal Engine graphics capabilities.

You don’t need programming knowledge to use Unity

It’s a fact. It’s easier when you have at least some programming knowledge, but you can easily build a complete game without it. One of the most popular editor extensions on the Asset Store is Playmaker. Playmaker allows you to build finite-state machines that will drive your entire game logic, and it does it well! If you need a good reference, then Dreamfall Chapters is a damn good one!

playmaker screen

Because of this fact many people may consider Unity as a toy rather than a serious tool for creating games. The truth is that Unity can be used by everyone, regardless of your skills!

You cannot spawn threads in Unity

Again, it’s a myth. Many people are confusing Unity coroutines with threads. Let’s get this straight: Coroutines have nothing to do with threads. Coroutine is only a way to delay code execution without too much effort. It’s really a great method of writing game code when some routines are needed to be executed in sequence over a time (like animations), but everything is still done in a single thread.

Yet you can create threads in Unity. You will not find too much about it in the official documentation, because there’s not much to be said. All you need to know is that Unity API is not thread safe, but it is a good thing! To learn more about how to use threads in Unity please read our article about threads.

All Unity games looks the same

It’s a myth, of course. Every developer who decides to use one game engine or another is asking himself a question how this game engine will help him and how it will constrain his ideas.  Unity is quite interesting because it’s easy to learn and hard to master. Yet if you will master it you will realize that you can do almost anything with it! You can even create your own game engine within! If you’re still wondering if Unity constrains your creativity, stop right now. It doesn’t!

You need to know that many of Unity components (like physics) can be replaced by anything you want. There’s no requirement of Unity game using components provided by Unity. This is a great deal if you have very specific needs.

Unity has a lot of bugs

It’s a fact. Since Unity 5 the developers were rushing forward with new features, but with a cost of stability. On GCD 2016 current Unity CEO John Riccitiello announced that Unity will take a road of increasing Unity releases’ quality. At the time Unity 5.3.4 has been released and Unity 5.4 entered a beta stage. Let’s hope for the best, because we all need a tool that is as stable as possible, and lately there was a serious fear of upgrading to a new release that could be heard in Unity community.

How to Use Unity’s Resources Folder

Unity has several kinds of special folders. One of them is the Resources folder. Simple concept of storing assets is well-explained in the official documentation:

Generally, you create instances of assets in a scene to use them in gameplay but Unity also lets you load assets on demand from a script. You do this by placing the assets in a folder called Resources or a sub-folder (you can actually have any number of Resources folders and place them anywhere in the project). These assets can then be loaded using the Resources.Load function.

Still the reason why we might want to use the Resources folder may be a little confusing. First you have to understand how Unity build process is works and how Unity is able to access game assets.

Unity build process

Before you will build your game, you have to declare what scenes your game consists of. All of this can be done in Build Settings window.

build settings window

There are at least two reasons why Unity asks you to do this:

  • It needs to know what scene should be loaded first (the top scene)
  • It needs to know what assets should be included in your build (dependencies)

What are scene dependencies? They’re assets which are connected to the scene hierarchy in any way, usually as a component field.

Unity Logo object contains Sprite Renderer object that references Unity Logo asset.

Unity Logo object contains Sprite Renderer object that references Unity Logo asset.

The dependency diagram may look like this:

dependency diagram 1

In this case there are two scenes. Scene 1 is using Asset 1 and Asset 2. Scene 2 is using Asset 2 and Asset 3. What happens if you decide not to build Scene 2?

dependency diagram 2

Only Asset 1 and Asset 2 will be included in the build since Asset 3 is referenced only by Scene 2, that is no longer included in the build. Thanks to this dependency tracking Unity will include in your build only these assets, which are actually used. Needless to say that you don’t have to worry about storing assets you’re not using at the moment. It will not affect your build size in any way.

Override!

There’s a way to get around this process. If you put your assets into a Resources folder, they will be always included in your build. But be careful! You need a really good reason to do so!

As I said before, in most cases when you need to use an asset, you make a reference to it within a scene. It’s really easy to use any kind of attached asset this way. So why would you need to use an asset without keeping a reference to it? There may be several reasons and each one depends on specific needs of the, but let’s look at one case what is quite common for most games.

When an asset is directly referenced from the scene, it will be loaded into the memory before your scene will be launched. Thankfully to that, player will not experience any frame-drops related to assets loading (with small exceptions). The price is of course the time needed for these assets to be loaded. Sometimes it may be not acceptable.

Example – loading screen with different backgrounds

Many game loading screens are displaying random images to be less boring.

Many game loading screens are displaying random images to be less boring.

Loading screen is something that usually is also a scene. Let’s think of a case when you want to display a random image on the background while your actual game level is loading. You’ve collected 15 images and you add these to loading scene images rotation script. It is working great, but when you play your game you realize that your loading scene requires more time to load than you need to pass your actual game levels!

This is caused by assets pre-loading mechanism and can be easily fixed using Resources folder. First remove all the references to your textures from the scene. Then put your images into Resources/LoadingImages directory like this:

resources images

Then somewhere in the code you can use a code like this one:

Note that Random.Range() returns a random number between first argument inclusive and second argument exclusive, that’s why there’s +1.

If you will need to attach this texture to an Image component, you can do it like this:

A word of caution

Use Resources folder only when you really need to. Loading assets on demand will make your FPS rate drop, and having indirect dependencies is makes your work much more difficult.  It’s worth to mention again that these assets will always be included in your build, even if you don’t use them. You have been warned!