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A Portrait of Landscapes in Games
June 11th 2003, 15:24 CEST by m0nty

My first clear experience of the way perspective was handled in computer game environments was probably in Leaderboard for the Commodore 64, where the foreground islands of fairway, bunkers and whatnot were built and filled in before my eyes, with a static flat background of hills and cityscapes in the far distance. Recently I visited an art gallery filled with watercolour paintings of landscapes, and it struck me that not much has changed in the 17 intervening years.

The gallery I visited was the National Gallery of Victoria which is newly housed at Federation Square, a landmark of new architecture in my home town of Melbourne which I happen to like a lot. The artist who was the focus of the exhibition was Albert Namatjira, the famous Aboriginal artist who excelled in painting the Australian outback with vibrant colour, fanatical attention to technical detail, and subtle cultural sgnificance.

Looking at his stark yet soft depictions of the red earth, green hills and white gums of central Australia got me wondering how such brilliance could ever be expressed in environments created for computer games. The architect's perspective article linked from the last thread illustrated how dominant architectural procedures and thinking are in level design, at the expense of the more fluid artistic approach. All multiplayer games that I have seen show the medium-to-far landscapes as mere bitmaps painted onto a static globe (for quite understandable reasons of course), but in single player games where designers have more licence, there are few games which do not conform to the "level" norm, where landscape is an afterthought. Many games which might otherwise be expected to include landscape opt instead for a "fog" approach, such as Wizardry 8 where land outside a set draw distance dissolves into a featureless ether. I see this situation as a great pity, but things might be about to change.

The most obvious agent of change in this regard is advances in technology, which are only now making it possible to render entire environments in real time, from the grass underfoot to distant mountains on the horizon. Games like Gothic and Morrowind gave a hint of what it would be like for a gamer to see as far as a normal human eye could see, and their contiguous world without "levels" or "maps" per se was a large part of the attraction of both titles (a design borrowed from EQ and other MMOGs, admittedly). With the advent of the next generation of video cards and DirectX, not to mention the capabilities of the current crop of consoles, the promise of forthcoming games like Fable (formerly Project Ego) and Pirates of the Caribbean (formerly Sea Dogs 2). There are still technical constraints, as in this Fable screenie where the omnipresent brown fog masks weaknesses in the Xbox hardware. The draw distance creeps ever outwards as the years go by, nevertheless, and at some point the focus will not be on how far you can see, but what you see when you look.

This takes me back to Namatjira, who like all great landscape artists based his paintings around his mastery at using light. It struck me, looking at his paintings of mountain ranges, how nice this would look as part of the scenery of a computer game, and I wondered how easy it would be to recreate this sort of style. Computer artists have the advantage of having all the lighting work done for them, with their only jobs being fitting polygons together and assembling various collections of brown, green and grey pixels to approximate land textures. Perhaps as a consequence, there has not been much innovation in landscape architecture in computer games. One might think it would be relatively simple to achieve a "watercolour effect" if one was desired, but that leads on to my final point, which is the old chestnut of realism.

All that has been required of landscapes in games to this point was an attempt to simulate reality, as far as could be attained given the technical boundaries of the day. The aforementioned bitmapped skyline, the painted globe and the brown fog are all techniques used to approximate realism, but I would argue that they are merely abstractions which serve to remove the viewer further from reality the longer they inhabit the virtual environment. If it is impossible to attain realism, why maintain the pretence? On the other hand, if it will soon become possible to achieve photorealistic exactitude, does that mean we have to cling onto the convention of realism in landscapes, or will we start to see level designers exploring their "artistic flair" by inventing new methods of portraying the far-flung parts of virtual worlds? What recent games have you seen which did anything remotely interesting with their far-distance landscapes, and what ideas could you envisage being tried out in future? Should game designers ignore the possibilities of contiguous environments with full-vision landscapes in favour of making yet more "levels" with more intricate design and million-poly models?
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#1 by jjz
2003-06-11 15:39:55
Nah.
#2 by jafd
2003-06-11 15:48:17
I bet Dr. Smart would have a lot to say about landscapes. Maybe someone should tell him about this topic!

"You do not truly know someone until you fight them."
#3 by CheesyPoof
2003-06-11 16:10:29
When I first fired up GTA3 I was very impressed with landscape in it.  Considering the crap hardware that the PS2 has I was very please with what they could accomplish.  Any fog in the game was, surprise, actually fog as part of the weather modeling.  Use the weather cheat to clear the skies and you could see clear across to the other islands.  That really helped with the immersiveness.
#4 by Ashiran
2003-06-11 16:13:23
Start the Morrowind pimp'n!

Iran and N.Korea may be the axis of evil. America is the engine that makes it spin.
#5 by Neale
2003-06-11 16:17:59
neale@pimurho.co.uk www.pimurho.co.uk
jafd:

No, please.

You can't derail this train of idiocy, Shadarr. Not even with a big fat cow of logic on the tracks. - Bailey
#6 by Bailey
2003-06-11 16:25:29
I like the pretty colors.

My Own Private Porn Czar
#7 by Marsh Davies
2003-06-11 16:27:57
www.verbalchilli.com
Should game designers ignore the possibilities of contiguous environments with full-vision landscapes in favour of making yet more "levels" with more intricate design and million-poly models?
Surely both ambitions will be fulfilled with successive generations of games.

I think what's more interesting is how contiguous landscapes are implemented.

Firstly: Where do you end? - Is the world wrapped? - Is it blocked off with Impenetrable Mountain Ranges?

Secondly: Surely, as we demand detail from our games and landscapes expand rapidly, methods will have to be used to generate terrain automatically, with a human merely casting an eye over it and adding the ingenious touches. What kind of tools are available to do this currently? I remember an early version of Terragen did this quite badly.

Thirdly: How is the information for this landscape remembered? Or is it discarded when it's out of site, as in GTA?

#8 by Ashiran
2003-06-11 16:34:04
The world in Magic Carpet didn't have an end cause it was an actual round world. I miss that in games.

Iran and N.Korea may be the axis of evil. America is the engine that makes it spin.
#9 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 16:51:14
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
*shrug*  Hardware can push X triangles per second.  Once you exceed that, you need to do things to reduce what you're drawing.  EOD.

You can get away with contiguous worlds like Dungeon Siege if you specialize in some way, like their camera that looks down on the party from a fixed angle.

As hardware gets stronger, you'll see the fog distance getting pushed farther and farther back but until that day, hey, this is the reality.

#10 by deadlock
2003-06-11 17:17:10
http://www.deadlocked.org/
Jak & Daxter did it quite well as well. There were parts of that game, for instance the snow mountain, where you could literally see for hundreds of 'miles'. If you looked south, you could see the way you had come and could see architecture, islands etc. that you had previously visited. All represented using some an LOD model, I presume. Couple that with the zero load times and the whole thing felt absolutely huge...

give it to me raw, i'll take it home and cook it myself
#11 by Marsh Davies
2003-06-11 17:43:24
www.verbalchilli.com
IGI was fairly impressive. I remember I couldn't get past one level, where you had to fight your way to a ski-lift to get up to the top of a mountain. So I decided, in my innocence, to hike my way up, not realising the ski-lift took you to another level anyway. Took me an hour or so to walk up to the top, and when I arrived, there was nothing to be seen.

#12 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 17:54:04
Jax & Daxter was all trickery.  The far off stuff was just skyboxes that were well integrated with the actual far off levels they were representing.

But yeah, it doesn't matter how they did it, it worked really well.

I was trendy before it was trendy.
#13 by Duality
2003-06-11 18:06:18
Dualipuff@yahoo.com http://stratoscape.ath.cx/
I still think the Serious Sam games were some of the best in terms of landscaping.  They still used bitmaps in the distance, and in many places still used steep hills / mountains to block your way.  But the maps went on for extreme distances (say a good 10min run around one of the giant pyramids).  I think things like that, while incredibly simple, did a lot for the environment.  I'm still impressed with the opening of the first game, where the camera swoops over Karnak.

Just kinda ... shimmy and shake!
#14 by Mank
2003-06-11 18:10:21
Is it really hardware that is holding things back, or the linear design of most games? Or even possibly the industry climate?

I still cant get over just how big the World is in GTA3, and the corresponding number of missions or side quests that are available without so much as a reload. The level of detail is still quite good considering the size of the map, and the hardware requirements arent all that stiff either.

I also cant help but think that there are tremendous things that can be accomplished even now if the industry would be willing to break a few molds.

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
#15 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 18:20:52
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
Mank

Yes and No.  GTA3 has lots of side missions but they're all picked from a bucket of about 5 variations (kill someone, steal something, drive to X location within X minutes, etc).  It's not that hard to plug a few bits into a location in the world and have it spawn a side quest for you.

#16 by yotsuya
2003-06-11 18:31:26
I still think one of the most beautiful things I ever saw landscapewise in a game was the waterfall in Unreal.

"YES!!  You see people, THAT'S why he's the Vice-President of A/V Services here at Respawn Games.  Yotsuya ALWAYS unleashes the fucking fury!" - Warren Marshall
#17 by Charles
2003-06-11 18:50:20
www.bluh.org
Is it really hardware that is holding things back, or the linear design of most games? Or even possibly the industry climate?


Stabbing you, STABBING YOU, STABBING YOU.

#18 by Charles
2003-06-11 18:52:23
www.bluh.org
BTW, Planetside has a really nice landscape.

#19 by Marsh Davies
2003-06-11 19:02:55
www.verbalchilli.com
Charles - I heard Planetside's landscape is lacking in content - i.e. little flora, few buildings, no animals, etc. I know some of these things are unfeasible in a current-tech MMOG, but height-maps can only go so far in creating landscapes because they often lack the idiosyncratic details common to nature. Has Planetside made an effort to include interesting features, like canyons, meandering rivers, stacks, curiously phallic rock-formations, etc?

#20 by Charles
2003-06-11 19:08:56
www.bluh.org
Yes.

There aren't animals, but that would be a huge waste of bandwidth and resources.  But the landscape is plenty crowded with trees and bushes and rock formations.  Grass in places.  Every continent looks completely different too.

#21 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 19:12:51
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
I agree.  The terrain in PS looks pretty nice to me.  I've come over the top of a hill several times now and stopped for a second to admire the view.  Very pretty at times.

I DO think they could have done some simple things though, entirely client side, to make the world a little more "alive".  Things like bugs buzzing around and birds in the sky wouldn't interfere with gameplay at all and would breathe a little life into the static landscapes.

#22 by Mank
2003-06-11 19:15:40
Warren,

True enough. But it just seems that if the player is able to interact with the environment in multiple ways, regardless of how simplistic those interactions are, then the aesthetics become secondary(to me at least)...to a point where "This looks good enough" because I'm paying more attention to what's going on around me thru the missions/quests.

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
#23 by Mank
2003-06-11 19:16:16
#22 was in response to #15

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
#24 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 19:21:57
In the general single-player case, I agree with Charles Bloom's argument that levels are a good thing. (Entry 11-9-02).

Of course, if you're talking about an MMO game, then things change and a nice seamless outdoor world makes sense.

I was trendy before it was trendy.
#25 by CheesyPoof
2003-06-11 19:23:38
Who the hell is Charles Bloom and why should I care what he says?

What if it's one great big giant level?  Does that work?
#26 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 19:32:01
He's a programmer, so feel free to scoff about his naive ideas on game design.  I didn't link it because he's known as a game design king like, say, John Romero but because I'd say the same thing he did there and I didn't want to plagerize.

But anyway, I agree with him.  I do think there are exceptions, like GTA3 (though even that has 'levels' in a sense).

I was trendy before it was trendy.
#27 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 19:35:29
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
The comparison of game levels to book chapters is a good one.

#28 by Charles
2003-06-11 20:03:58
www.bluh.org
There are times for level based worlds, and times for continuous worlds.  I think either work well, depending on the situation.  Many RPGs benefit quite well from continuous worlds, when you know what you are doing and where you are going, as long as you aren't penalized for exploring.  However, even that doesn't really matter much.  IMO, Deus Ex would have sucked with a continuous world.  In that situation, the levels are great, because they drop you where you need to be.  No time wasting in between, no aimless wandering.

#29 by Charles
2003-06-11 20:06:04
www.bluh.org
And of course a game like Ultima 7 would have sucked without a continuous world.

#30 by "Anonymous"
2003-06-11 21:09:58
#21:
Things like bugs buzzing around and birds in the sky wouldn't interfere with gameplay at all and would breathe a little life into the static landscapes.

Do you have any idea how much ammo I wasted hunting birds in Unreal? At least the rabbits (or whatever they were) died properly.

Actually, as I was reading down the thread I thought pretty much the same thing. It has little effect on the gameplay (until people decide to try to arrange group hunting parties, at which point having it all client-side makes the gamers' decision to go hunting kindof pointless), but has a huge effect on the immersion factors of the game. It's one of the little reasons that Unreal floored me.
#31 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 21:16:40
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
That's why I specifically said bugs and birds.  If you start throwing rabbits and deer into the mix, then yeah, it needs to be server side because it's not just window dressing anymore ... they're actually in the world and could affect gameplay.

#32 by "PainKilleR-[CE]"
2003-06-11 21:26:17
painkill3r@cox.net
arrg, my name isn't "Anonymous", at least, I dont think it is
#33 by Dethstryk
2003-06-11 21:38:57
jemartin@tcainternet.com
#32 "PainKilleR-[CE]"
arrg, my name isn't "Anonymous", at least, I dont think it is

Faster than a bullet
Terrifying scream
Enraged and full of anger
He's half man and half machine

Rides the Metal Monster
Breathing smoke and fire
Closing in with vengeance soaring high

He is the Painkiller
This is the Painkiller


"And I'm saying without a relationship with God and those strong convictions HE put in me I wouldn't be a 42 year old who hasn't had sex with anyone today."
#34 by Hugin
2003-06-11 21:45:03
lmccain@nber.org
"PainKilleR-[CE]"?

What does the CE stand for?  Why is the CE in brackets?  Why is the last r capitalized?
#35 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 21:46:25
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
Celibate Eternally?

#36 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 21:46:27
R U a n00b?  He'z 1n a cl4n, st00pid.

I was trendy before it was trendy.
#37 by Talion
2003-06-11 21:48:19
talion@evilemail.com
In a recent interview Randy Pritchford claimed that Halo PC will take only a few seconds to load levels (as opposed to the 30 seconds or so on the Xbox if I remember correctly) and like the original version will have stutter loading that is almost imperceptible (shorter than Half-Life's).

This made me wonder...is he just making this stuff up, are Bungie/Gearbox people just uber1337 compared to, oh, Carmack and Sweeney?  I would assume no in both cases.  So what's with all the painful load times we've endured for years now?  All I can figure is developers just put their time into streamlining other areas and don't get around to making level loading really fast.

"I'm no stranger to sarcasm, sir."
#38 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 21:49:27
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
Talion

Until it ships, it's all talk.

#39 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 21:51:50

All I can figure is developers just put their time into streamlining other areas and don't get around to making level loading really fast.



That about sums it up.  Historically Quake engine games have been annoying not only for their load times, but also because they tend to reload the level in situations that don't really warrant a reload if you fiddle with any of the game/video options (sure, if you increase the geometric or texture detail, a reload makes sense, but for a lot of the other options it doesn't).  Anyway this isn't because Carmack is dumb (obviously), he just seems to put very little effort into that aspect of the engine.

There are some PC games with really nice loading systems.  The Soul Reaver games spring instantly to mind.  Then, on the other end, there is pre-patch SiN... I still have nightmares.

I was trendy before it was trendy.
#40 by Duality
2003-06-11 21:52:40
Dualipuff@yahoo.com http://stratoscape.ath.cx/
Shouldn't that be if it ships?

Just kinda ... shimmy and shake!
#41 by Hugin
2003-06-11 22:28:16
lmccain@nber.org
YF, I was unaware that Planetcrap had clans.
#42 by Shadarr
2003-06-11 22:30:13
shadarr@yahoo.com http://digital-luddite.com
I want to be in the same clan as Bailey!
#43 by CheesyPoof
2003-06-11 22:30:41
I guess you haven't been invited into one then.  I call mine "No Hugin's."
#44 by Warren Marshall
2003-06-11 22:33:53
http://www.wantonhubris.com/
Ep1cB0y[BOD]

#45 by Hugin
2003-06-11 22:39:45
lmccain@nber.org
I will call mine "CheesyPoof is a big...CheesyPoofheaD"  

Note the cool capitalized D.
#46 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 22:47:33
Hey can I join CPBCPD?  I'll go to all the practices.

I was trendy before it was trendy.
#47 by CheesyPoof
2003-06-11 22:49:18
Wow, that makes we wish I capitlizied the G and the N and throw in a few numbers too.
#48 by Hugin
2003-06-11 22:52:47
lmccain@nber.org
YF is in.  We need to make cool Wu Tang names now.
#49 by jafd
2003-06-11 22:52:52
Well, there's the BI clan. I don't know if they are recruiting though.

"You do not truly know someone until you fight them."
#50 by Your Friend
2003-06-11 23:11:02
I want to be ODCO.  

Old Dirty Captain Obvious.

I was trendy before it was trendy.
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