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Aug082011

v0.16.2 Character Controller Details

With the release of v0.16.2 comes a variety of fixes, changes, and most importantly, a new character controller. It can be found in the BEPUphysicsDemos project in the main source download.  If you just want to play around with it, the BEPUphysicsDemos comes precompiled on the codeplex downloads page.

As their name implies, character controllers control characters. The way they move and stand on things is defined by a set of rules. Usually, these rules include things like 'don't walk up a steep slope,' and 'step up/down when walking on stairs.' Their most familiar usage is in FPS games.

There are many possible approaches to developing a character controller depending on the needs of the game. The following shows a spectrum of character designs with increasingly complex behaviors.

Basic Physical Interaction

Some games may work perfectly with a dynamic sphere which is pushed around by forces and rolls everywhere. Calling such a thing a character controller is a stretch, but it is a reasonable starting point on the spectrum. These characters do not support anything like stepping or dynamics beyond baseline physical response. They rely on their round shape to smoothly slide or roll over obstacles.

Stripped Down Character

Sometimes, you don't want your character to be a sphere. Cylinders, capsules or boxes are typically a better fit for a standing bipedal form. In this case, you probably also don't want them falling over. This can be addressed by setting the local inertia tensor inverse of an entity to all zeroes, which is equivalent to having infinite inertia.

Simple Character Controller

Usually, the character also needs to be kept on the ground. Launching off of every single ramp can be pretty inconvenient. One simple way to handle this is to ray cast down to find the ground and conditionally remove separating velocity. That ray can also be used to support a basic form of up stepping and down stepping. With the addition of horizontal motion control to allow for configurable acceleration and speeds, the result is the SimpleCharacterController.

However, the SimpleCharacterController has a couple of problems. First, as mentioned, it does not try to protect itself against step ups. It has no way to recover from a bad step. Second, since it relies on a single ray cast, it can fall into tiny gaps. The CharacterControllerConvexCast addresses the second problem. Instead of a single, thin ray cast, it casts a disc down. However, it still has no way to abort a bad step-up.

Spherical Character Controller

Added in v1.1.0, the SphereCharacterController in the BEPUphysicsDemos strikes a balance between features, robustness, and speed.  It does not perform discontinuous stepping like the SimpleCharacterController and CharacterController.  Instead, it relies on its round shape to slide over obstacles.

However, you may find that the control systems in the SphereCharacterController (borrowed mostly from the full CharacterController) are more robust than the SimpleCharacterController.

The rotational symmetry of a sphere can be helpful sometimes, too.  If you are thinking about having a character capable of moving in 6 degrees of freedom, it's easier to handle with a rotationally invariant shape like a Sphere than a Cylinder.

Full Character Controller

To avoid getting into invalid states completely, an approach different from the SimpleCharacterController was needed. The new CharacterController abandons the usage of a single supporting cast. Instead, the contacts created between the body and the environment are analyzed. Combined with ray casts and testing candidate locations with shape queries, the character supports crouching and stepping without any danger of getting into an invalid state.

The new CharacterController is used by default in the BEPUphysicsDemos. It, along with a character playground demo, are both available in the BEPUphysicsDemos project in the main source download.

Picking the Right Character

If your game doesn't need traditional walking, jumping, or stepping, then using the simplest possible option of a pushable dynamic object is a good starting point.

If the game needs something closer to normal character control, but can guarantee that the game's level design and content doesn't require tall steps, the SphereCharacterController would be a good choice. It's a little simpler than the full CharacterController and, by virtue of being a sphere and having fewer features, it's a little faster.

If the game needs a full-fledged FPS-style character, then the CharacterController should be used. It is somewhat more expensive due to the extra verification it does to avoid getting into invalid states.

Advanced Usage and Modification

All characters are based on dynamic objects. This has the benefit of providing interaction with other dynamic objects and the environment without additional effort. The full CharacterController uses specialized physical constraints to manage all the primary movement behaviors for extra robustness in the presence of complex physical simulations. Due to being dynamic, these characters are influenced by gravity and can be constrained in other ways. When constraining dynamic characters capable of stepping, watch out; the step process involves a discontinuous teleportation. The constraint will correct the error pretty quickly, but not instantly.

The SimpleCharacterController is conceptually easy to modify thanks to its "capsule on a stick" nature. However, it is possible to add behaviors to the full CharacterController. Double jumping, for example, could be implemented by adding a jump counter and changing the conditions under which jumping is permitted. Ladders, climbing, and hanging require a bit more work, but the CharacterController provides a QueryManager to assist in testing nearby objects with collision shapes and rays.

The CharacterController's existing behaviors can also be modified. Rules for support can be changed in the SupportFinder and the shape could be modified if necessary. If you'd like to use most, but not all, of the CharacterController, individual behaviors can be disabled without much problem for extra speed.

Edited on July 26, 2012 to reflect new stuff and to discourage the use of the SimpleCharacterController in favor of the SphereCharacterController and CharacterController.

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