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Vol. 2, Issue 7
December 22, 1999

Beaker's Bent:

Making the Outdoors
(part 1)

by Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff




adly for me, the Unreal engine project I've been working on since I joined Knowledge Adventure in March just got canned. I mention this not because I'm going to go into the details of what happened to our game (amazingly, every person who has ever seen our game, up to the highest execs, has had nothing but praise for it), but to lead into today's topic. In the eight months I worked on this project, I've learned a lot more about building non-traditional 3D games. Even if this particular project never resurfaces, I've gained some valuable experience and come up with a whole bunch of new ideas about how to make 3D games well, and I want to write about some of that now.

Though this project is cancelled it's probably good policy not to go into any great detail about it. For this article, all that is relevant is that the game was set in realistic outdoor environments. I've been working with outdoor settings for my entire career, from Flight Unlimited to Terra Nova to Trespasser to my now-cancelled project, and at this point I've developed an intense dislike for any game that takes place entirely indoors.

Even back when engines were yet more terrible at doing outdoors environments than they are now, games that stayed entirely indoors drove me crazy. This was for the simple reason that it is very difficult to come up with a reasonable setting for a game that includes no outdoors areas. I think one of the most brilliant decisions in System Shock was the inclusion of the four garden pods, which brought an element of organic terrain to an environment that was necessarily entirely indoors. If you read good hardcore sci-fi, you'll see plenty of reference to the psychological necessity of including simulating outdoors environments even in situations like this.

Perhaps part of the reason why I don't look back on Doom with any great fondness was there was just about no attempt made to even attempt to portray earthlike outdoors areas, nor was there any real connecting theme between levels. There were some wide-ranging spaces, but they were either literally bounded by walls or they felt like they might as well be, and the Doom engine did not even handle very large rooms well. Thus, the impression that stays with me from that game (and from what I've heard, the impression that most people have) is a succession of brownish-green corridors and intricately crafted mazes that didn't pretend to be much more than mazes.

It's certainly not easy to craft a game that is both fun and aspires to something more than the standard set by Doom. I've personally never been satisfied with taking the easy way out, though, and Half-Life was definitely the final nail in the coffin for the "random indoor maze levels" style of first person games. It's not coincidence that Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena, games clearly founded on this old-school style of level design, threw out any pretense of relation between the levels in their arcade-style backstory. There's nothing particularly wrong with this style of design, either, but it really does nothing to advance the state of game or level design.

Games that do attempt to take gaming further are going to need to address the outdoors in some way, and even indoor-oriented engines like Unreal and Quake II or III are powerful enough to do some justice to the sweeping majesty of outdoor environments. Having worked extensively with Unreal and ended up with environments that largely looked better than Trespasser yet ran at framerates closer to those of a shooter, I know it is possible.

There are two different issues to be solved when creating an outdoor level, or even just a level with outdoor components: looks and playability. We'll talk about looks first. There are several defining characteristics that make something feel like the real outdoors. To achieve a pleasing outdoors environment, you need to both understand these characteristics as well as the strengths and limitations of the engine you are working with. There are a lot of aspects to the looks of the level, but all I can cover in this installment are the texturing and lighting aspects. There'll be more in the next Bent.

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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 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 [email protected] l3gal sk1lz y0.