Horde3D Usage Guide

Basic Concepts

General Concepts of Horde3D

Horde3D has an integration strategy which differs from that of other well-known graphics engines like OGRE 3D or Irrlicht. While these provide an object-oriented class library from which the user can derive his own implementations, Horde3D should rather be considered as a software component. As such Horde3D has a higher abstraction level and is accessible through a quite small procedural interface that is in some concepts similar to the Microsoft Win32 API. A simple C-style interface has the advantage of being easier to overview and learn since it just offers what is really needed by the user. Another benefit is a much better portability. Almost any programming and scripting language has some mechanism to access imperative functions in a shared library, whereas importing classes is more complicated or not possible at all. In fact several wrappers have already been written for the original interface, so that Horde3D can easily be used with C#, Java, LUA and other languages.

The procedural interface doesn't keep the engine from being used in object-oriented languages. Internally Horde3D itself is strictly object-oriented. The engine's objects like scene graph nodes and resources are exposed to an application via handles. A handle is similar to a pointer but adds an additional level of indirection to provide more safety. Horde3D has special functions to create objects which always return a handle to the constructed object or a NULL-handle (basically the same as a NULL-pointer) in case of failure. The handle should be stored by the application and can be used to access the object in order to change its properties or release it.

Due to the high abstraction level of the application programming interface, it is not possible for the user to add custom graphics functionality like a new scene node type without modifying the engine source code. To overcome this drawback, Horde3D provides an extension mechanism where the user has full access to the internal class framework of Horde3D. The finished extension is statically linked with the engine's shared library and exposes its functionality through a custom procedural interface. The extension mechanism also greatly facilitates the process of upgrading Horde3D with supplemental third-party functionality.

Resource Management

A resource is a data object that is required to render the scene, for example a texture or shader. One important property of resources is that they are reusable. This means that they can be referenced by several different objects like scene nodes but only have to be loaded once. Every resource is identified by a name that is unique for the resource type and by which the resource can referenced from other objects.

All resources are managed by a resource manager. The resource manager contains a list of resources and ensures that they are only loaded once and reused after that. It is also responsible for finding, accessing and removing resources. In contrast to some other engines, Horde3D uses one single manager for all resources and not different ones for each type of resource. To make resource handling more robust, the manager is applying reference counting. A resource can only be removed if it is no longer referenced by some other object, e.g. another resource or scene node. It is also possible to perform explicit garbage collection in order to release and remove all unused resources.

Horde3D uses deferred loading of resources. This means that resource creation and loading are discrete steps. This separation brings the advantage that the data doesn't need to be available immediately when the resource is added and makes it in principle possible to have a dedicated thread for background loading. When the resource is created, it is initialized with type-specific default data and is already available to be referenced by other objects. After creation the resource can be loaded and filled with the desired data. In this process the basic data structures are set up and initialized. After loading it is usually possible to alter the data values of a resource but not the data structure. For a texture as an example this means that the color values of all pixels can be changed but not the dimensions or color depth of the image. When a resource has already been loaded, it can not be loaded again but it is possible to unload the resource and thus reset it to the initial state it had directly after creation.

The loading of resources is completely virtualized in Horde3D. The engine doesn't do any file accesses and just expects a memory block from the application. It is up to the application to decide from where to get this block, e.g. to read it from an appropriate file. The advantage of this system is that Horde3D doesn't force the user to have some specific archive format. Resource data can come from any source and could even be streamed over a network. It is also possible to generate the data block dynamically to realize procedural content.

The following resource types are part of the Horde3D core. For detailed information see the API Reference section dealing with resource management functions.


A scene graph resource is an XML document that defines a branch of the scene graph. Each XML element is interpreted as scene node according to its name. The XML node structure is directly mapped to the scene hierarchy. All the properties of scene nodes which are accessible through the Horde3D API can also be configured by setting the corresponding XML attributes. One special feature of Horde3D is that all 3D models, static and articulated ones, are also represented as SceneGraph files. This makes it possible to access the components of a model like meshes and joints using the scene graph API and avoids the need for additional specific functions.


Geometry resources are loaded from binary files and store the polygonal data used by models and meshes. The resource contains triangle indices and several streams for vertex attributes like positions, normals, tangents, texture coordinates and joint weights. It can also include additional information about the skeleton of a model and separate data streams for morph targets.


An animation resource contains keyframe data for animatable nodes. The two node types animatable in Horde3D are meshes and joints. Theses nodes are identified by their name and store the local transformation for each frame in form of a translation vector, a scale vector and a rotation quaternion.


A pipeline is an XML document that defines the steps to be performed for rendering the scene. The pipeline contains a list of render commands organized in stages that determine which geometry is rendered to what output buffer. Each pipeline can have an arbitrary number of different output buffers called render targets. The render targets can store temporary rendering results that are required in a later stage. In combination with shaders, the configurable pipeline is a powerful system that enables to realize many modern rendering techniques like deferred shading and other advanced post-processing effects.


Materials define the visual appearance of a mesh or renderable object in general. A material references a shader and binds the uniforms to it. The uniforms can either be texture maps, floating point vectors that pass arbitrary application-specific data to the shader.


A shader in Horde3D has extended semantics compared to the usual notion since it is not just the code executed by the graphics card. The basic idea of the Horde3D shader concept is that a model needs to be drawn in different stages of the rendering process with different shaders. Generating the shadow map for example requires other shader code than calculating the ambient lighting. So in Horde3D a shader resource is a group of programs executed in different contexts. A shader context is a group of shader programs, for example, a pair of vertex and fragment programs or a compute shader program. The pipeline usually selects the shader context that it requires for the current step. The actual shader code of the context that is executed by the graphics card is specified in the OpenGL Shading Language.


A code resource is a plain text file that can contain arbitrary code. Code resources can be referenced by shader resources and are usually employed to define shader program fragments in a reusable fashion.


A texture resource can contain a two-dimensional texture map, a three-dimensional texture or a cube map. A 2D texture map simply represents an image. 2D textures are used by shaders to define the appearance of a surface but they can also encode non-photographic data like normals or a lookup table. A 3D texture can be used for creating volumetric effects, like fog, fire, clouds, smoke, etc. Cube maps are a special form of texture maps which are comprised of a series of six images that correspond to the sides of a cube. Cube maps represent the environment around a point. Therefore, it is possible to use a three-dimensional vector to look up the texel that lies in the corresponding direction.


A particle effect resource is used to configure particle systems. The resource defines in which way the properties of a particle like its color, size and velocity change over its lifetime. ParticleEffect resources are usually assigned to emitter nodes which bring forth the particles.


A compute buffer is a buffer with arbitrary data that is available in shaders. Primarily used for compute purposes. Compute buffers can also be drawn to screen using Compute node.

Scene Graph

A scene graph is used to represent the logical or spatial structure of the scene to be rendered. Usually it also serves for accelerating scene-based search and query operations like frustum culling or collision queries. In practice many different scene graph designs and implementations exist, all with their specific benefits and drawbacks. Some engines realize their scene organization as a real directed or undirected graph and some even allow cycles. Others are just implementing simple trees. Another important design question affects the relational properties of an entity. For example, how should the material of a mesh be realized? Should it be the parent node of the mesh, an attachment to the mesh or rather just an attribute? It is possible to create very powerful designs but usually there is a clear tradeoff between flexibility and performance since more complex graph structures are more expensive to traverse. As Horde3D was originally written to render large crowds of animated characters, it tries to find a good balance between flexibility and the inherent performance costs.

In Horde3D the scene graph is realized as a tree structure. Each node can have an arbitrary number of children but the engine imposes a few restrictions to the hierarchy and defines rules constituting which node type can be attached to what parent. As a rule of thumb solely concrete entities that have a transformation and hence location in the virtual world are represented as nodes. All other abstract entities like materials are realized as attributes of the nodes. This philosophy keeps the number of nodes in the graph relatively small and enables faster operations on the tree.

Every node has two transformations, a local and a global one. The local transformation, sometimes also called object transformation, is relative to the parent and can be set explicitly by the application. The global one (world transformation) is calculated automatically by traversing the parent-child hierarchy and accumulating the transformations. So when a node is transformed, all of its children are transformed accordingly. If, for example, the complete scene has to be rotated, it is sufficient to transform the root node and the engine rotates all children automatically. Each node also has an axis-aligned bounding box which is the union of the bounding boxes of its children. The emerging bounding volume hierarchy is used by Horde3D to optimize the visibility detection algorithms.

For each node type there is a specific creation function that takes a different set of parameters. Most parameters can be changed after creation but a few that are crucial for the internal structure of the node are immutable. Basic attributes common to all scene nodes are accessed with general API functions. For getting or setting type-specific properties, the API provides special functions which usually require a handle to a scene node of the corresponding type.

The following scene node types are available in Horde3D. For more detailed information see the API Reference section dealing with scene graph functions.


A group node is a generic container for other nodes. The root node for example is of that type. The group node has two attributes which define the minimum and maximum distance from which the node (and all of its children) is visible. These attributes are useful to realize a simple distance-based level of detail scheme.


A scene is always rendered from the perspective of a virtual camera which is just a special scene node in Horde3D. This gives all the flexibility of the scene graph system also to cameras and makes it for example possible to attach a camera to a joint of an animated model, so that it is automatically transformed according to the model animation.


Light sources are used to setup the illumination of a scene. The node has several parameters which determine the light source properties like the light color, radius of influence and field of view for spot lights. Shadows can also be customized using the corresponding attributes. A special point of interest is that a material can be assigned to a light source. This is necessary for deferred shading where lighting is done as a post-processing step with a unified light-source-specific shader. For performing standard forward shading, light sources provide a lighting context attribute that defines which shader context is used for computing illumination intensities.


A model node represents a polygonal 3D object which has usually been exported from some modeling software like Blender or 3D Studio Max. The model can either be a static object or an articulated character. The node references a geometry resource which contains its polygonal data. Model nodes act as an abstract container for meshes and joints, and can be animated with an animation resource. A model by itself is not renderable and requires a mesh to become visible. Usually a model node with its joints and meshes is created automatically by an export or conversion tool and stored in a scene graph resource.


Mesh nodes define a group of polygons with a single material. Each mesh represents a part of a geometry resource and is drawn by the renderer using the associated material. Since meshes point to a geometry resource, they require a parent model node somewhere upwards in the hierarchy.


A hierarchy of joint nodes is used to represent the skeleton for skeletal animation. As meshes, joint nodes can solely exist with a model-ancestor in the scene graph hierarchy. Each joint has an index attribute that points to a bind matrix in the model's geometry resource. This bind matrix is used by the engine to do the skinning.


Emitter nodes are used to setup particle systems. They are responsible for creating particles based on the description from a ParticleEffect resource and have several parameters to configure properties like the birth rate or the maximum number of particles.


Compute nodes are used to draw data that resides in compute buffers. For example, they can be used to draw particles after their simulation in compute shader.

Advanced Topics

Animation System

Horde3D has an animation system that enables to perform rigid body and skeletal character animation, as well as facial animation using morph targets. The system supports smooth transitions from one frame to another and allows animation blending and mixing. Since the animation system works directly on the scene graph, it is easy to manipulate the transformations manually in order to perform dynamic animations like inverse kinematics (IK) or ragdoll physics.

Blending Between Animations

Achieving a smooth transition from one animation to another is realized with animation blending. When a game changes the state of a character from idle to walking or from walking to running, animation blending is required to get visually appealing results. To achieve that, models in Horde3D can have several animations applied at the same time which are combined to generate the final animation. Each animation has a blend weight that determines the influence on the overall result. Changing a character animation, for example, from walking to running, can be realized with a so called cross-fade. For a cross-fade, both animations are applied to the character model. At the beginning, the walk animation has the weight 1.0 and the run animation 0.0. In order to perform the transition, the blend weights are adapted so that the weight of the walk animation is linearly reduced, while the run animation weight is increased by the same amount. Finally, the run animation has a weight of 1.0 while the walk animation is at 0.0. The end result is that the character appears to be running.

Using Animation Layers

Horde3D supports animation layers to make it easier to switch between animations. A layer has a signed number, the layer id, which determines the priority of the layer. Layers with a higher index have a higher priority and their animations are processed before the ones on lower layers. All animations on a single layer have normalized blend weights. For example that means, if there are two animations both with weight 1.0 on layer 0, both animations will contribute 50% to the final animation. If the sum of the blend weights of a single layer is smaller than 1.0, the remainder is propagated to the lower layers. So if there are two layers 1 and 0 and if the two animations on layer 1 have a weight sum of 0.6, the remaining weight of 0.4 is available for the animations on layer 0.

As an example, we can consider a character that plays a weighted combination of walk and run cycles on a single layer, depending on the walking speed of the player. We want to replace the resulting animation with a shoot animation when the player hits a button. Doing this is very easy using the layer system: we just need to add the shoot animation on a higher layer, so that it has a higher priority than the other animations. The weight of the shoot animation can gradually be increased from 0.0 to 1.0. Since the shoot animation has a higher priority than the combined walk cycle, only the remaining weight is available for the walk cycle. As a consequence, the walk cycle is fully active at first and gets gradually less influence until it is fully replaced by the shoot animation in the end. The great advantage of this approach is that only the weight of the shoot animation needs to be adapted while the walk and run animations can remain untouched.

Mixing Different Animations

Another common scenario besides the transition from one animation to another is that a character has to perform several movements at the same time. Although it is in theory possible to create single animations for all combinations of actions, this would neither be memory-efficient nor productive for artists. A better solution is to combine the animations at run-time in the engine. The difference to animation blending is that for mixing the animations are usually independent and acting on different parts of the body. So the animations should not be blended but rather both be played with full intensity at the same time. For realizing this, Horde3D provides two ways.

The first is to define a start node from which the animation system begins to apply the animation. Joints that are above the start node in the skeletal hierarchy are ignored and thus not animated. As an example, imagine a character that should play two animations at the same time, a walking and a waving animation. To get full intensity for both animations, you could set the pelvis joint to be the start node of the walking animation, so that the animation solely affects the lower body. The wave animation does not need a start node and can act on the whole skeleton. Now the priority concept of the layers can do the trick. If the walk animation is on a lower layer than the wave animation, the weight sum of the lower body is already 1.0 and the wave animation will only affect the upper body and ignore the lower part.

Another more intuitive way to realize mixing is using additive animations. When a stage is additive, the engine calculates the transformation delta of the current frame to the first frame in the animation resource and adds this difference to the transformation of the joints. The blend weight factor makes it possible to apply only a percentage of the difference animation. For the just mentioned example, using additive animations means that the character can simply have the walk animation applied to the whole body. The wave animation can be configured to be additive so that solely the movement of the hand is applied. When done correctly, the result is a walking and waving character.

Applying Procedural Animations

Another topic of importance for advanced games is dynamic animations like ragdoll physics or inverse kinematics. In general it is easy to apply these in Horde3D. Joints are just standard scene nodes and consequently you have full control over their transformations using the API functions. As the animation system is working directly on the scene graph, it is possible to get the transformation after an animation has been applied and use that for computations in the IK or ragdoll system. The results coming from the external system can finally be applied to the joints again to make them visible for the model.

For more information see the Model node functions in the API Reference.

Game Engine Integration

Horde3D is a pure graphics engine and can solely perform the rendering and animations. A complete application as a game or serious game usually requires additional modules like input, physics and AI logics that are all composed and synchronized in a game engine.

The integration strategy of Horde3D is straightforward but still effective. In Horde3D all scene nodes as well as resources are accessed by handles. These handles can simply be stored in the entity objects of the game world. This strategy fits nicely the increasingly popular concept of component based entity systems where Horde3D can be considered as the graphical output component. To enable the more complex synchronization with e.g. a physics engine, Horde3D provides some special functions which can for example determine if a scene node has been modified by an animation.

A further integration feature that can be useful for some applications are node attachments. The basic idea is that each node in the Horde3D scene graph files can store additional application-specific data like physics or AI properties. The data is parsed by the engine and can easily be retrieved using an API function. The attachment system would in principle make it possible to use the scene graph files as sole format for storing the complete game world.

Pipeline and Material System

Pipeline Concept

Much of the flexibility of Horde3D comes from the deep integration of shaders and a configurable pipeline system for realizing advanced rendering techniques. In Horde3D a pipeline resource is an XML document that describes the individual steps of the rendering process. A pipeline can define render targets that act as output buffers and store temporary rendering results. The render targets can have different sizes and formats and can contain several color and depth buffers. A number of pipeline commands exist that basically define which geometry is rendered to what output buffer and in which way. The geometry to be rendered is configured with material classes, while the rendering technique is chosen by setting the current shader context. These concepts will be explained in more detail later. The commands are grouped in stages that can be switched on and off individually. When an output buffer is filled, it can be used again as an input texture in a further rendering step. This chaining of output and input buffers makes it possible to implement a plenty of different post-processing effects and advanced rendering techniques.

Short Introduction to Hardware Shaders

An essential core element of the Horde3D rendering system are shaders. In the common notion a shader is a program that is executed on the graphics card. All graphics cards have a hardware pipeline to process polygonal input data and bring it to the screen. This pipeline has different stages that among other operations transform input vertices, rasterize triangles and calculate the final color of the pixels in the frame buffer. In the past this pipeline was fixed and could only be configured to a very limited degree (fixed function pipeline). Later generations of graphics hardware have a programmable pipeline that enables to control particular stages by using software instructions.

There are five types of shaders to configure the stages of the graphics hardware: vertex, geometry, tesselation control, tesselation evaluation and fragment shaders. Compute shaders are standalone type of shaders that are not part of a traditional graphics pipeline.

A vertex shader is executed for each vertex of the input data. Its main task is to transform the original 3D position and calculate a 2D screen space coordinate. A vertex shader can also manipualate other vertex attributes like the color or texture coordinates and hand the results to the next stage but it cannot create or remove any vertices.

Geometry shaders can create new primitives like triangles or lines and are executed after vertex shaders. They are especially useful to implement some algorithms like shadow volumes completely on the GPU.

Tesselation shaders are used to modify the detalization of the geometry. They can be used to implement mesh subdivision algorithms that are used in terrain and virtual planets rendering entirely on GPU.

Compute shaders are generally used for tasks not directly related to drawing triangles and pixels. For example, some projects use compute shaders for AI.

Finally, a fragment shader (also known as pixel shader) calculates the color and depth value of each single pixel in the output buffer. Since nowadays most lighting operations are done per-pixel and no more per-vertex, fragment shaders are used to realize most of the advanced visual effects.

The first programmable graphics cards had very strict limitations for the number of instructions and had to be programmed using an assembler syntax. Today all major graphics APIs provide high level shading languages with a C-like syntax. The most important shading languages are HLSL used by DirectX, GLSL as part of OpenGL and Cg invented by NVidia. Horde3D uses the OpenGL Shading Language (GLSL) to specify shader code.

Shaders and Materials in Horde3D

In Horde3D the definition of a shader goes beyond the notion of a simple hardware shader as it has just been described. A Horde3D shader resource is a group of several shader programs where a pair of vertex and fragment shaders constitutes a so called shader context. The idea of the shader contexts is that a mesh needs to be treated differently at distinct stages of the rendering process. Generating the shadow map requires another shader program than computing the illumination contribution from a light source or writing velocity information to an off-screen buffer for creating motion blur effects. A shader resource provides all the required shader programs as contexts, and the Horde3D pipeline selects the context that it needs for the current rendering step.

Every shader context is identified by a unique name. Most pipeline draw commands have an attribute which sets the current context used for rendering. It is worth mentioning that light sources also have two context attributes that define the shader contexts used for generating shadow maps and calculating illumination in forward rendering configurations. If a shader context is not defined in a shader resource, the associated geometry is ignored and not rendered.

Hardware shaders used in shader contexts are just a description of how data needs to be processed. In order to become effective, they require input data. One part of that input data consists of the geometry information that the renderer pulls from the scene graph and the associated geometry resources. The other part are texture maps and constants. In the OpenGL Shading Language this data is referenced by a shader using uniforms. Horde3D materials are acting as the glue between a shader and the uniform data. The material resource references a shader for which it binds texture images. Furthermore, it enables to define arbitrarily named vector uniforms that can be used to exchange data between the application and the shader. A vector uniform could for example be used to set the glow intensity of an object from the application.

One important property of materials is the material class. Some pipeline commands enable to restrict the rendering to a particular class to render solely a particular group of geometry. With classes it is for example possible to draw exclusively translucent objects in a particular pipeline stage. It is important to note that the material class system is hierarchical, so a material can be part of several super and sub classes.

Another powerful feature of the material system is the possibility to link from one material to another one. The link feature makes it possible to import uniforms and texture bindings from other materials which is very useful for defining global data at a single location. For example, the ambient intensity of the scene could be defined in a single material which is linked to all mesh materials. This avoids the need to update the intensity value individually for all mesh materials if the ambient lighting is changed.

For more information see the pipeline documentation.

Occlusion Culling

Occlusion culling is an optimization technique that makes it possible to cull objects that are not visible since they are hidden/occluded by other objects. Horde3D uses hardware occlusion queries for its occlusion culling implementation. These queries have a delay of one frame to avoid stalls that would happen when waiting for the query result directly. The drawback of this approach is that some slight popping can occur when an object that was hidden in the previous frame becomes visible in the current frame. The implementation uses the depth buffer to check for occlusion of objects, so occlusion culling is only working if the rendering pass has proper scene depth information.

Horde3D supports multiple occlusion sets for different cameras. Enabling occlusion culling for a camera is basically very simple and works by setting a Camera node parameter. But in order that occlusion culling works efficiently, the scene needs to be sorted in front-to-back order. In Horde3D this sorting can be achieved through a special parameter in the pipeline drawing commands.

All renderable objects act automatically as occluders. Occludees (objects that can be culled because of occlusion) are currently models and particle emitters. Meshes of a model can occlude other models but a single mesh cannot occlude a mesh of the same Model node. Light sources can also be occluded by other geometry which can be very useful in indoor scenes. Again, this only works if a proper depth buffer is available which usually requires special care for deferred shading.