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Beaker's Bent:
Making the Outdoors - Part 1

By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
Vol. 2, Issue 7 
December 22, 1999 


Perhaps the most important characteristic of an outdoors environment is lighting. If you make or play computer games, you probably don't get outside enough, but go have a look around on a bright, sunny day. Notice how the well-lit surfaces practically glow, and there is a large contrast between lit areas and shadows? Now go look at most games with outdoors areas - it probably feels like it is overcast, perhaps smoggy, doesn't it? There's a lot of different ways to achieve the proper color for a sunlit scene, and they include light color, the particular painting style of the textures, and consistent shadow direction. I can't even begin to describe all the different approaches, and different ones will work for different projects, but I can say that if it doesn't feel like sunlight at a gut level that means you need to keep working.

I can't even cite a great example of an outdoor game that has good colors and lighting - they usually fail in one way or another. Trespasser didn't quite get the colors and contrast, and almost every "outdoors" Unreal level I've seen takes place at night, because Unreal doesn't offer a "sun" light by default - i.e. you can't put a single light in your level and light everything with it. In fact, all Unreal lights have surprisingly small areas. This is the main reason why Unreal seems so dark all the time - it is fairly capable of rendering large areas, but it is quite incapable of easily lighting an entire large area with a single light source, so you get this look of "spots of light." We ended up hacking in an extended-range light for our game, but this of course created other problems like certain faces of the world geometry turning black, necessitating a lot of hard work on individual faces to get an overall consistent look. At any rate, if you ever intend any of your outdoor levels to take place in sunlight, don't assume you can just throw a yellow light on them and be done.

Second most important after achieving a sunlit look is to texture the level well. Even if you come up with the perfect grass texture that looks like it is lit by noon sun, you have barely begun to texture your level. Nature is marked by continuous variation, and the large-scale texture repetition which is acceptable for man-made areas just looks wrong for an outdoor area. Case in point is the first level of Wheel of Time - the geometry is fairly natural and realistic given the limitations of the engine, but its looks are shot down when you glance around and realize that there are three colors to the world: grass, dirt, and the rocky hills. Unreal itself is similar, though with even less-natural world geometry.

Unreal is not particularly well suited to the kind of massive texture variation needed to make grass, rock, and dirt look natural and no painted-on, but it is possible to avoid that look. The features of Unreal which work against this include the fact that Unreal likes to combine the individual triangles of its world geometry into larger continuous planes, and only allows level editors to texture to the combined surfaces. In this particular engine, the key is to know how to bring in geometry and maintain the original triangles. Unreal level designers must be even more careful to watch the poly count of their levels when doing this, but it allows texture artists free reign to change textures as often as possible. In other, more outdoor-suited engines, there should be ways to place and layer textures arbitrarily, regardless of the underlying geometry.

In any case, once the flexibility to change textures as frequently as possible is gained, the problem becomes what the content of those textures should be. The biggest key to natural looks is to pay attention to edges and borders. This should seem obvious, but when you wish to change from one texture to another, you should use a transition that logically blends from one to another. So, for instance, if you have a steep cliff next to a meadow, the bottom edge of the cliff should look like a collection of rocks and long grass, rather than just a single continous generic "rock" texture tiled right down to the grass edge. This even applies to man-made areas, and is one of the reason many FPS levels have a "extruded of a solid material" look.


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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.