## Monday, May 5, 2014

### Loading more interesting scenes - Part 2: The Halfling Model File Format

Well, it's been quite a long time since my last post. School is in the last week and I've been quite busy, but you don't want to hear about that. You're here to see what I've been working on.

In my last post I finished by showing how I loaded obj models directly into the engine. I also complained that it was taking a horrendously long time to load (especially for Debug builds). I looked around for faster ways to load obj's, but there really weren't any... (sort of*) Why aren't there any obj loader libraries?
*There is assimp, but I'll get to that further down

One answer would be that OBJs weren't designed for run-time model loading. Computers don't like parsing text. They would rather read binary; things have set sizes and can be read in chunks rather than single characters at a time. So next I looked around for a binary file format that would be faster to load. "Why re-invent the wheel" I thought?

The problem is that standardized run-time binary file formats don't really exist either. This when it really dawned on me. For run-time, there's no point in storing things your engine doesn't need. And more than that, it would be great if the data you store is in the correct format for your engine. For example, you could store the raw vertex buffer data so you can directly cast it into DirectX vertex buffer data. Obviously, it would be extremely hard to get people to agree upon a set standard of what is "necessary", so it's common practice to have a specific binary file format for the engine that is specifically tailored to make loading the data as fast and easy as possible.

Therefore, I set out to make my own binary file format, which, to stay with the Halfling theme, I dubbed the 'Halfling Model File'. Every indent represents a member variable of the level above it. 'String data' and 'Subset data' are arrays. (The format of the blog template makes the following table a bit hard to read. There is an ASCII version of the table here if that's easier to read)

 Item Type Required Description File Id '\0FMH' T Little-endian "HMF\0" File format version byte T Version of the HMF format that this file uses Flags uint64 T Bitwise-OR of flags used in the file. See the flags below String Table F Num strings uint32 T The number of strings in the table String data T String length uint16 T Length of the string String char[] T The string characters. DOES NOT HAVE A NULL TERMINATION Num Vertices uint32 T The number of vertices in the file Num Indices uint32 T The number of indices in the file NumVertexElements uint16 T The number of elements in the vertex description Vertex Buffer Desc D3D11_BUFFER_DESC T A hard cast of the vertex buffer description Index Buffer Desc D3D11_BUFFER_DESC T A hard cast of the index buffer description Instance Buffer Desc D3D11_BUFFER_DESC F A hard cast of the instance buffer description Vertex data void[] T Will be read in a single block using VertexBufferDesc.ByteWidth Index data void[] T Will be read in a single block using IndexBufferDesc.ByteWidth Instance buffer data void[] F Will be read in a single block using InstanceBufferDesc.ByteWidth Num Subsets uint32 T The number of subsets in the file Subset data Subset[] T Will read in a single block to a Subset[] Vertex Start uint64 T The index to the first vertex used by the subset Vertex Count uint64 T The number of vertices used by the subset (All used vertices must be in the range VertexStart + VertexCount) Index Start uint64 T The index to the first index used by the subset Index Count uint64 T The number of indices used by the subset (All used indices must be in the range IndexStart + IndexCount) Material Ambient Color float[3] T The RGB ambient color values of the material Material Specular Intensity float T The Specular Intensity Material Diffuse Color float[4] T The RGBA diffuse color values of the material Material Specular Color float[3] T The RGB specular color values of the material Material Specular Power float T The Specular Power Diffuse Color Map Filename int32 T An index to the string table. -1 if it doesn't exist. Specular Color Map Filename int32 T An index to the string table. -1 if it doesn't exist. Specular Power Map Filename int32 T An index to the string table. -1 if it doesn't exist. Alpha Map Filename int32 T An index to the string table. -1 if it doesn't exist. Bump Map Filename int32 T An index to the string table. -1 if it doesn't exist. Mutually exclusive with Normal Map Normal Map Filename int32 T An index to the string table. -1 if it doesn't exist. Mutually exclusive with Bump Map

I designed the file format to make it as easy as possible to cast large chunks of memory directly from hard disk to arrays or usable engine structures. For example, the subset data is read in one giant chunk and cast directly to an array.

There's only one problem: Binary is not really human-readable. It would be extremely arduous to create a HMF file manually, so I created a tool to automate the task. While my hand-written obj-parser fulfilled its purpose, it's was pretty bare-bones and made quite a few assumptions. Rather than spend the time to beef it up to what was necessary, I leveraged the wonderful tool ASSIMP. ASSIMP is a C++ library for loading arbitrary model file formats into a standard internal representation. It also has a number of algorithms for optimizing the model data. For example, calculating normals, triangulating meshes, or removing duplicate vertices. Therefore, I use ASSIMP to load and optimize the model, then I output ASSIMP's mesh data to the HMF format. The source code is a bit too long to directly post here, so instead I'll link you to it on GitHub. I'll also point you to a pre-compiled binary of the tool here.

As I was writing the the code for the tool, it became apparent that I needed a way for the user to tell the tool certain parameters about the mode. For example, what textures do you want to use? I could have passed these in with command line arguments, but that's not very readable. Therefore, I put all the possible arguments into an ini file and then have the user pass the path to the ini file in as a command line arg. Below is the ini file for the sponza.obj model:

[Post-Processing]
; If normals already exist, setting GenNormals to true will do nothing
GenNormals = true
; If tangents already exist, setting GenNormals to true will do nothing
CalcTangents = true

; The booleans represent a high level override for these material properties.
; If the boolean is false, the property will be set to NULL, even if the property
; exists within the input model file
; If the boolean is true, but the value doesn't exist within the input model file,
; the property will be set to NULL
[MaterialPropertyOverrides]
AmbientColor = true
DiffuseColor = true
SpecColor = true
Opacity = true
SpecPower = true
SpecIntensity = true

; The booleans represent a high level override for these textures.
; If the boolean is false, the texture will be excluded, even if the texture
; exists within the input model file
; If the boolean is true, but the texture doesn't exist within the input model
; file properties, the texture will still be excluded
[TextureOverrides]
DiffuseColorMap = true
NormalMap = true
DisplacementMap = true
AlphaMap = true
SpecColorMap = true
SpecPowerMap = true

; Usages can be 'default', 'immutable', 'dynamic', or 'staging'
; In the case of a mis-spelling, immutable is assumed
[BufferDesc]
VertexBufferUsage = immutable
IndexBufferUsage = immutable

; TextureMapRedirects allow you to interpret certain textures as other kinds
; For example, OBJ doesn't directly support normal maps. Often, you will then see
; the normal map in the height (bump) map slot. These options allow you to specify
; what texture goes where.
;
; Any Maps that are excluded are treated as mapping to their own kind
; IE. excluding DiffuseColorMap is interpreted as:
;       DiffuseColorMap = diffuse
;
; The available kinds are: 'diffuse', 'normal', 'height', 'displacement', 'alpha',
; 'specColor', and 'specPower'
[TextureMapRedirects]
DiffuseColorMap = diffuse
NormalMap = height
DisplacementMap = displacement
AlphaMap = alpha
SpecColorMap = specColor
SpecPowerMap = specPower


So with that we now have a fully functioning binary file format! And more than that, with a few changes in the engine code, we can load the scene cold in less than 2 seconds! (It's almost instant if your file cache is still hot). (Pre-compiled binaries here).

Well that's it for now. As always, feel free to ask questions and comment.

Happy coding
-RichieSams