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Beaker's Bent:
Making the Outdoors - Part 2

By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
Vol. 2, Issue 13 
February 25, 2000 


Once you are comfortable with the advanced level of editing available in a package like MAX, I recommend getting your hands as messy as possible with your main terrain geometry.† Donít rely on a fractal seed to generate your whole level Ė instead refer to directly to real-world terrain as much as possible, through photographs, drawings, and personal visits to geographically interesting areas.† We had some success on Trespasser by starting with a large clay model of the entire island locale of the game, sculpted by our lead artist and then laser-scanned.† Although much of the detail of the sculpture was lost once the scanned mesh was reduced to usable polycounts, it at least gave us a set of existing and fairly believable natural features to work around.† This gave some much-needed direction to the design process (both visual and gameplay Ė the topic of the next installment).

I cannot recommend highly enough studying as much real-world geometry as possible.† Real terrain slopes and rolls in ways that simply will not occur to most level designers working with no reference.† After you work on outdoor levels while studying the real world for a few years, you may find yourself getting fascinated and excited by seemingly simple things like how a rock face and the side of a hill connect.† When you start to become wistful about natural features that you canít reproduce well enough with todayís technology, youíll really be able to call yourself an outdoor level designer.

My words of advice, which may become fairly irrelevant over the next year or two, are for people making outdoor levels in indoor engines.† The key to a realistic outdoor area really is the long vista.† To avoid feeling like you are in a bowl or a maze of canyons, there must be spots within a level where the player feels like they can see all the way to the horizon, or can look out across other parts of the level.† Creating a vista that doesnít drag the framerate down requires careful planning however.†

One approach is to use fakery Ė create a very low detail area, such as a distant river valley, perhaps which the player can not otherwise reach, and allow them to see into it from selected points on the playerís path.† Use geometry for the vista, however, because a mere painting of a distant river valley will almost inevitably be at the wrong resolution, and will seem obviously flat.† For this reason, in fact, geometry in a skybox in Unreal, for instance, is not ideal, because the camera into the skybox is fixed, which almost eliminates a feeling or perspective, although you will get a good parallax effect between your skybox contents and your in-level geometry.

If you do not use fake forced-perspective vistas, then you need to be extremely careful what parts of the level you allow the player to look across.† Conceal as many high-detail areas as possible Ė your staircases (natural or human-made), cave/building entrances, platforms for jumping puzzles, etc.† If you know exactly the angles your player will look across the level, you can use mid-sized hills to block off the complicated stuff and theyíll even add interest to the area.† If you construct them carefully to be as small as possible, they wonít seem like canyon walls when the player walks past their base, even though they are serving the same purpose.

Finally, know your engineís strengths and limitations.† Some indoor engines just cannot handle large levels with lots of geometry and actors and textures even if you can never see them.† You may want to create a single, large base terrain for your entire level, and split it up into a variety of smaller actual levels, connected by tunnels and tight canyons where you can put loading points.† If you allow the player to look across a location that is technically in another level, just ensure that its major features (textures, trees) are identical or at least very similar to the ones the player passed through from ground level.† This will maintain the playerís belief that they are passing through one continuous space, even though they are passing through load points.

There is much, much more to say about geometry building in the outdoors, but hopefully what Iíve covered so far is enough to get beginners started and give experienced outdoor level designers some inspiration and ideas to consider.† Perhaps someday in the future when Iíve managed to work on an outdoor game which is neither cancelled nor a failure, I can return to the topic in some other forum besides Beakerís Bent, but itís time to take this column back towards its more-standard topic, game design.

So next column, in the final installment of Making the Outdoors, Iíll be tackling the big, hairy issue of design in realistic outdoor spaces.† There will hopefully be no two-month delay this time!


- Richard “Beaker” Wyckoff is a game designer, not a level designer, damnit


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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 2000 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it or we'll sick our lawyers on you. Muhahahahahahahah. ph3ar our m@d l3gal sk1lz y0.