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Environmental Storytelling Part III: Lessons Learned in the Virtual World

Don Carson, the former art director at There Inc., and previously a theme park designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, shares some of the insights, delights, and pitfalls he discovered in four years of directing an art team, tasked with building an ambitious virtual world from scratch.

Don Carson, Blogger

September 20, 2004

30 Min Read

In the spring of 2000 I had the opportunity to write a two-part article for Gamasutra.com, regarding game companies benefiting from the lessons learned in the theme park industry for the designs of their 3D virtual worlds. The articles had a favorable response from a large community of game designers, who had been formulating similar philosophies for their own 3D projects.

Another result of the article was a call I received from a then startup company in Menlo Park, CA, called There, Inc. It was intending to tackle a project that would allow me to practice the very design philosophies I was preaching. This began a four year odyssey that would allow me to test every design principle I had outlined, as we endeavored to plan everything from continent-sized landmasses to virtual T-shirt graphics.

After four years of art directing the There.com art team, I emerged having learned many new lessons about environment design. Although the principles listed in my previous articles held true, the unique character of a massively multiplayer virtual world startup created surprising challenges, ones that would stretch our team's ability to create a truly immersive online environment. Below, I have listed just a few of these lessons for your review and edification:


Translating Concrete into Polygons

While working on theme park projects, I constantly bumped my head on the inevitable ceiling of our project's budget, and the limits of the physical world. Walt Disney once complained that all of the money that had been raised for the construction of Disneyland was being spent on necessities that would never be seen by the public. The infrastructure of any construction project, namely the plumbing, wiring, sewage, and other facility necessities, although invisible, is the price you must pay if you intend to make your dream a physical reality. As a project gets closer and closer to completion, a designer's ability to change or add anything is constrained by the decisions made much earlier in the production cycle.

While working on the construction site of any project, you frequently come upon details that, once seen full scale and within the context of the physical space, might have been better if only a few slight alterations could have been agreed upon. During the early design phase of your project, changes of this sort are a necessary part of the evolution of any design.

In construction, however, even small changes become monumental tasks, which constantly threaten to impact the budget and schedule of your project. Moving a light fixture from one wall to another is no problem, when it is in pencil or within a CAD document. In the real world, moving that same fixture can mean hours of lost time as new conduit is pulled, holes are drilled, circuits rerouted, and previous holes patched. The reality of most construction sites is coming to terms with past decisions you have made, and learning to love them (or at least pretending that you do).

Another facet to the reality of watching your designs born into concrete is to realize that what works on paper doesn't necessarily always translate to plywood and lathe. As various vendors arrive with their many bits and pieces, you are confronted with the unpleasant truth that not everything "fits" as you had designed. Doors are slightly too big, window proportions are not as elegant as you had imagined, and shortcuts you had made in the number of stair steps leading to an elevated area are becoming a dangerous trip hazard. As each problem arises you are put on the spot to rethink your design on the fly, or compromise your initial vision for the sake of usability. As these compromises mount, and as you get ever closer to your project's deadline, you find yourself waxing dreamily on the potential of a non-physical environment to design within. The mind reels at the prospect of moving polygons rather then concrete in your virtual construction site, to be able to relocate digital light fixtures with a simple cut & paste, without costly overtime from a union electrician.

Under these circumstances the possibilities of designing environments for virtual worlds seems to be the perfect answer for a designer frustrated by the limits of expensive building materials and the reality of dealing with things like, well… gravity.

Awakening from the Dream

I entered my new position as the designer of a digital world with all the glee of a child promised that Christmas would be coming every day. No longer would I be shackled by the frustrating realities of design limited by physical constraints. Finally I would be able to make design decisions up to and beyond the eleventh hour. Virtual world design was going to be sweet, where your building materials are always pliable and where whim rather than unions dictate alterations.

This dream was unfortunately short-lived. It took several weeks, but I eventually came to understand that although the limits were different, the limits did exist. While on the physical construction site, a designer is limited to the constraints of finances and time, the virtual designer's limits are just as tangible.

While gravity is no longer a problem worth consideration, you are, however the slave of another constraint… the limits of your target CPU. Even though computers seem to be growing more powerful every other week, the reality is that computers can only crunch so many numbers at a time. With the addition of a 3D accelerator card installed in your computer, you boost that ability quite a bit, but the fact remains that your rich 3D world can only have the amount of geometry in it that your computer can "think" about at any given time.

In the simplest terms, this means that anything you "see" from within your 3D world is generated because your computer is doing the math necessary to display it for you. This frequently includes not only what is visible, but also what might exist just out of sight, behind you, or just over the hill from where you are standing. Radiating from your standing position, in very direction, your CPU is crunching away an insane amount of information in preparation that the player's free will might cause you to move or look in any direction. Like those invisible sewage pipes and the electrical conduit, your CPU budget is being drained by buildings, trees, and people you can't even see from where you are standing. Not only that, but if you are building an online environment, your budget is also constrained by anyone who MIGHT show up. The punishment for not paying close attention to these budgetary limits is that once exceeded, your audience's experience begins to suffer. Your CPU can only "see" so many polygons at a time, and if there is more geometry then it can compute, then your framerate begins to drop, things start to disappear, and worst of all, other people cease to exist.

The Price of Everything Else

In the physical world, we don't think twice about the existence of things like sunlight, water, or wildlife, as these are purely the perks of the real world. In the digital world however, the mere existence of these elements means that they need to have been fabricated and rendered by your computer. Like the mounting cost of geometry on your CPU brainpower, light, weather effects, and the AI of animated fauna can cause a huge hit on your computer's limited budget. Even an empty room constructed with a meager number of polygons can cause your framerate to plummet if it includes only a few animated light fixtures. Gone is the dream of Cut & Paste light fixtures, when the addition of such an effect might necessitate you moving every bit of furniture out of the room to accommodate it.


Learning to "Love" Your Limits

My first encounter with designing for a multiplayer online world was the challenge of learning to come to terms with these limitations, and finding clever ways to design in spite of them. Most single-player, or even limited multi-player games, needs to accommodate the possibility of a dozen or so additional characters or avatars that might appear in any given environment. This leaves a budget that allows their designers the luxury to build detail-rich spaces, which takes advantage of the effects today's powerful 3D cards can deliver. Furthermore, most game companies can depend on an audience that is routinely willing to upgrade their systems to meet the demands of cutting-edge titles. In our case, our product needed to potentially accommodate the arrival of 50 to 100 avatars in an environment, and was marketed to a demographic of computer owners that have never even heard of a 3D card. With a budget of 1500 or more polygons per avatar, and the potential of hundreds congregating in any given space, this left the environmental designers a budget of no more then 10,000 polys per any given virtual location.

Reeling under these limitations, we worked to become the living definition of "less is more". Equally hard hit was our texture budget, which insisted that since our member avatars could show up wearing countless numbers of diverse clothing textures, our building textures would need to be just as minimal as our structures. Under these constraints, we developed a graphic style which chose visual consistency over complexity, and immersion through suggested context rather then spelling out every detail. Although our efforts were applauded, this choice made visiting each annual E3 Conference a painful pilgrimage of what is possible for every 3D game but ours.

One comforting realization came when exploring the 3D worlds of other companies attempting similar online multi-player environments. Whether you are visiting the streets of Toontown.com or the planets of Star Wars Galaxies, you begin to see that each game has come up with solutions based on similar limits. Whether they chose to allow their trees to render only when you are right on top of them, or they limited vertical movement because their props are flat textured "billboards", each design team did their very best to immerse their audiences despite how little they have to build with.


Engineers Are From Mars, Artists Are From Venus

"Creative people aren't technical; technical people aren't creative. They always need each other, and they're always on opposite sides of the room."
  --Director, Robert Rodriguez

There were other surprises that I encountered along my way down this particular rabbit hole. I have spent my career priding myself on an ability to work with many diverse disciplines. Whether collaborating with architects, structural engineers, or industrial fabricators, we all came to our work from a common knowledge, namely an understanding of the limits we all faced while designing and building for the physical world. In the software world, however, there are a unique breed of contributors, a group of creators that dictate these laws and hold an alchemist-like control over what is and is not possible in your unique virtual universe. Our company's Software Engineers were some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. Many were alumni from places like Stanford and MIT, brilliant at math, and even some accomplished musicians. It was these people that told us when and if we would ever be able to implement water in our product, or an intuitive method for controlling the location of our virtual sun. However, despite our mutual desire to collaborate and our common goal of making the best product we could, we struggled desperately to understand each other.

In scenes that rival a 1970's sitcom, we would sit in conference rooms, equal numbers of "creatives" to engineers, and desperately attempt to speak the same language. After hours of such shenanigans, we would eventually find ourselves shouting in sentences as simple, we thought, as a Dick and Jane reader, to the utter blank stares of our intended audience.

"The… terrain… texture… is…. moving", we would say.
"What… do… you… mean… by… moving?", they would ask.
"I GUESS? IT IS MOVING UNDER THE AVATAR'S FEET!?!", we would calmly return.
"Oh, Shimmying, that's normal, is that a problem?"
… and so it would go.

Ironically, these encounters had little to do with intelligence or professional qualifications and were merely the fact that our brains are wired to process information differently. Neither side was wrong, but neither side could ever completely grasp the argument being made by the other. While we fought for ambient butterflies, they would argue against such a hit to the product's framerate. If we returned with the argument that butterflies are "pretty" and our members would "like them", they would demand proof that such an investment of engineering time could only be justified by proof that more members would be attracted through the introduction of "pretty" butterflies to the product. All I can say is that butterflies always lost.

An additional twist to the mix came in the form of the business interests in the success of the product. While the artists and engineers hashed out their diverse lists of deliverables, the financial backers and people appointed to turn a profit were equally unconvinced that "pretty butterflies" would get anyone any closer to a bonus check. In the end, it became undeniably clear that the success of any project is based on the unique blend of these three disciplines. Although diverse in opinion and perspective, it is safe to say that one of the biggest challenges for any company, software or otherwise, is to find a common language that all of your employees can use to communicate with each other.

Your Art is Only as Good as the Tools You Give Your Artists

This is a cry I have heard from many artists working on computer games. In the mad flurry to get a game engine functional, the creation of intuitive artist tools is something that frequently ends up on the back burner. The computer game industry is filled with horror stories of art paths that create so many hoops an artist needs to jump through that there is no hope of an artist experiencing anything close to a creative workflow. Under these circumstances, the artistic abilities of your artists are hobbled by the difficulty of creating that art. Probably the most devastating blow comes when artist tools are so un-enjoyable to work with that they discourage experimentation. If your artists are unwilling to play with the tools they are given, then there is no chance that any visual innovation is possible for your product.

The good news is that traditional computer games know that making their products "look cool" is a necessary part of the potential success of their game. With a better understanding of what can and cannot be accomplished, as well as traveling down a well-established art path, artists are free to push and innovate freely. Unfortunately, our company wished to distance themselves from computer games, and in doing so ran the risk of designing without taking heed of those lessons already learned by an established industry.

Using the Archetypes of the Physical World

My years designing physical world environments proved to me the importance of using real world archetypes throughout my designs. We are physical world creatures, and we relate and interact with our environment based on our past experiences in the physical world. Thresholds, descending staircases, and tunnels, can trigger responses in your guests based on their unique expectations of what might be through or at the end of this particular piece of architecture. The same is true of virtual world layout. Our product's engine was unable to allow us to create connecting roads or pathways on our terrain. The unfortunate result was we were unable to inform our members as to what was just over the hill or down the road from where they were at any time. With no roads or pathways, members could arrive at any location from any possible angle, including from the air. No environment had a "front" because there was no easy way to suggest they arrive from any specific direction. Without this important navigational network, our design would consist of "islands" of content floating in a sea of rolling hills and desert plains.

Another challenge we faced was born out of the necessity of presenting our newest members to our world in an aesthetically pleasing and safe way. With the potential of hundreds of new members logging into our product every hour, we could not sustain just one "first arrival" location for them to initially teleport into. We needed to create several locations that we could guarantee would represent a good first visit experience while not populating our landscape with cloned versions of the same place. Our first attempt was to design 'Villages' that, although stylistically unique, were built on the same design principles as every other Village. This would allow new members to have unique experiences and yet encounter similar activities, shops, and game amenities as any other Village, no matter the theme. Our goal was to answer the inevitable question of "Where am I?", with environments that were unique to their setting, but reassured them that they would have more then enough opportunities to explore, shop, play games, and meet other people. Over the course of several betas, and eventual launching of the product, we tried many alternative methods for introducing our new members to our product. The unfortunate outcome was a landscape dotted with successful, and less successful, environments that were either bustling hubs or empty ghost towns, simply based on how our members related to them during their first visits.

In the end, we discovered that our members tended to return and hang out in those virtual places where they had experienced a pleasant encounter with others. In many cases this was during their very first visit, so many of our arrival environments became active meeting places where members returned time and again. Usually this was to meet friends, find new friends, or help introduce new members to some of the fun experiences they could have within our product. We also found that no matter how elaborately designed an environment was, if it was removed from this "first visit" list, it was soon devoid of members.

A World Without a "Backstage"

Another choice we made as a company was to create a virtual world that allowed our members complete access to every aspect of our environments. Give your members a jetpack, and you open every square inch of your world for them to explore. Although complete freewill in an online environment is liberating for its members, it creates quite a few challenges for its designers. When there are really no "backstage" places to hide the infrastructure of your pretend world, you need to be clever about how you introduce your audience to an environment when they can approach it from any angle.

I remember as a kid riding the Skyway Ride from Disneyland's Fantasyland to Tomorrowland. Even at a young age, I was surprised to see that from the air Disney's fantasy kingdom was filled with tar-papered rooftops and air-conditioning ducts. Yet another necessary evil of the physical world is that Peter Pan's London just isn't that much fun if it is as hot and muggy as the queue you just left outside. The same appears to be true of most 3D game environments. Through the use of cut scenes, transitions, linier level designs, and limited vertical access, their virtual environments are only as deep as they allow you to experience them. In our case, we wanted every place to be accessible from everywhere. This meant that although our little virtual Disneyland would include architectural icons like castles and mountains, our guests could arrive from any direction they desired, including from the sky. There was no backstage and no surface that would not be scrutinized by our guests. Although we designed our environments to have an optimal "Kodak Moment" front façade, we had no guarantee that many people would approach it from that side.

This inspired us to take a "chess piece" approach to designing some of our environments. By creating strong architectural elements that could stand-alone or be grouped, we were able to create unique environments by rearranging similar pieces. This led us to designing spaces that were more piazza than structure. Encircling environments allowed members to either be inside or outside of them, and were less focused on having a specific entrance façade. Another trick we used was thematic icons that allowed an environment to be visible from a distance, but did not insist that there was only one way to access that environment when you approached it.


Technology is Not Transparent

From the very first day of brainstorming our virtual world, we held ourselves to the goal of truly making the technology that ran our environments as transparent as possible. We wanted our members to connect with each other without being reminded that behind the scenes were servers, bandwidths, or bugs. We later learned that this lofty goal was a much harder task then any of us had first imagined. The reality of most online worlds is the technology that supports it can frequently remind your members exactly what its limits are. Despite our desire to have our world be entirely free of bugs which might distract you from your connecting with others, there was just no avoiding the unexpected and unwanted technical difficulties of running such a complicated web of new technologies. Basing our world on the physical, and allowing real world metaphors to guide our member's, works just as long as the difficulties they encounter are recognizably based on real world events. We all understand when a sudden thunderstorm arises, but we are less well equipped to deal with a friend's head slowly spinning clockwise from the middle of their chest, or our house disappearing and reappearing every thirty seconds. Having your world freeze, your clothes disappear, or your legs separate from your body are the stuff of nightmares and can easily pop the bubble of your fragile suspended disbelief.

It wasn't long before we realized that the vocabulary we used internally to describe these phenomena was also being used by our Members to describe their experience. Lag, framerate, physics correcting, and other words were becoming the best description of what it was like to be in the world we had created. Finding a balance between the limits of our technology and our aspiration for the experience we wanted to convey was always a challenge. No matter how immersive our world was, we needed to come to terms with the reality that our members may never be completely free of the occasional anomaly that might pull them momentarily out of their virtual experience.

Designing to Communicate to a Non-Technical Savvy Audience

I think, as game designers, we sometimes take for granted our customers are much more familiar with the sometimes abstract way in which our computers function. A gamers hands will automatically move to the W,A,S, and D keys when loading a 3D shooter for the first time, but not so the novice. This attitude unfortunately leaves out a large potential audience. This demographic, although they love their new computer, is still struggling with things as abstract as email and where attachments go when you download them. Designing for a technically un-savvy audience quickly reminds us how esoteric some of our traditional methods for navigating a virtual world can be. This also includes how a game is downloaded, where it lives on your hard drive, and how to open it. Each of these can become a scary barrier to the uninitiated, and might be the last thing they see just before they drag your product into their desktop recycling bin. This doesn't mean the challenge isn't worth the effort. In an industry that sits comfortably in the wallets of teen boys and college-aged men, we are missinga larger and potentially more lucrative audience. The computer and the Internet are wildly fascinating bits of technology and there are people with credit cards out there who would happily move beyond just email and online poker, if you could assure them they will not look foolish for attempting to use this new technology.

It has long been my belief that anyone will investigate infinite tomes of dry information if they see a goal they wish to achieve at the end of their effort. The opposite is also true; in that if you don't understand how a technology will directly enhance your life, you won't even click a hyperlink to find out more about it. Equally disheartening is finding out that your CPU muscle is just not going to measure up to the needs of this new computerized experience. These are not impossible hurdles for game designers to overcome, but it will come with some sacrifices. Creating a game that is intuitive to use "out of the box", and will run on a computer just purchased at Costco means constantly thinking about who your audience is and whether it will run on their lower end computer.

Make It and They Will Buy It

If there is any chief lesson we learned while building our virtual world, it is that the desire to own things is not purely a physical world pursuit. If you give your members things to purchase, they will, and beyond any rational expectation. From the beginning we had hoped that the purchasing of virtual merchandise would be a nice component to the interactive world we were designing. We created a modest catalog of items that included clothing, vehicles, and homes, and created some very basic tools to allow members to create items for sale as well. The truth is, our internal art team couldn't compete with the shear volume that a fan base of member-developers could produce, so this seemed a nice arrangement. Although our member tools were hard to use and acquired some knowledge of 3D modeling, our members persevered and produced an unprecedented amount of merchandise. It is true that you give away some of your aesthetic control over the product, but in trade, you establish loyal members/creators that build community through the objects they create. In the case of our product, those items created by our members were purchasable by others within the game and that profit could be turned back into real world cash or used to purchase other virtual objects. However, all of this success did not come without some sacrifices.

Watching Your World Evolve in the Hands of Your Audience

Probably the hardest thing to come to terms with while designing an aesthetically holistic virtual world was handing the keys and future of its design to its members. There is a reason why Disneyland does not allow Anaheim to spill into its themed lands. The question is -- where is the line drawn between consistent quality and unchecked member self-expression? One man's paradise could easily be another's eyesore. Various online games have tackled this challenge in their own way. While Linden Lab's Second Life is founded on the virtues of 100% member created content, games like Toontown Online allow you to purchase only Disney designed items, and Star Wars Galaxies allows you to create objects from only pre-approved assets. There are arguments against and in favor of each extreme, and it is up to their creators to decide which choice best fits the overall goals of their individual world. Probably the hardest for our project was communicating how these member-created environments might affect a member's overall experience of the product. While, as designers, we kept in mind the careful balance of polys and their effect on framerate, it became harder to articulate that a member's choice to display 200 objects on their virtual front lawn was actually hindering their computer's ability to display them, and was not a "bug" we could fix.

Another realization we made was that anyone running for city government discovers as soon as they are elected. Whether it is human nature or not, we are predisposed to distrust the motives of anyone placed in a seat of authority. Even though our deepest heartfelt desire was to fulfill the wishes and dreams of our members, our motivations were often questioned as potentially evil. As a society we have been trained to distrust "the man", whether government or corporate, and once we opened our service, our virtual community loudly questioned every choice we made, or failed to make. Where this affected me personally was when it concerned the dropping of personal objects throughout the landscape. While there was an outcry from individuals who complained that their neighbors were dumping the equivalent of a WalMart's worth of objects on their front lawn (causing their framerate to grind to a halt), there was an even louder group fighting for the "right" to place objects anywhere they liked. Ironically this argument worked its way deep into the halls of our company, where loud discussions were had as to where self-expression ended and enjoyment of the product began. This also included behavior in the form of "griefing" (purposely disrupting another person's fun for your own enjoyment). It seemed, almost organically, some areas of our product attracted griefing members more than others. Although our members agreed that griefing was an abhorrent activity, there was still a loud minority that argued griefers needed their own communities and to remove them would represent proof that all we were interested in was profit and not the health of our virtual society. Needless to say, there were no easy answers, and pure dedication to the product wasn't always enough to please everyone.

Just Because We Can… Should We?

I think we have come to a point in our history that will be defined by how we use the visual technologies we have at our disposal. As computers become more powerful, there is nothing we cannot visualize on our screens. The question arises, when is it too much? Can we still tell the story with less? Do games need to push our computer processors to be successful? Is it possible to create immersive online environments that transport not just gamers but everyone to yet unimagined new places?

It is easy to imagine that our desktop computers will soon be able to give us 40 hour long experiences that will rival anything we can see in the movie theatres. The realism, the storytelling, and the immersive interaction are something that is unparalleled in the entertainment industry, and is something we should always strive to improve upon. Unfortunately, the more we push that envelope, the more demands we make on our audience to purchase the state of the art hardware required to run it, especially when it comes to PC gaming. These demands limit this audience to a select demographic that can afford to upgrade their machines often and tend to have an insatiable appetite for ever more realistic recreations of Vietnam and WWII battlefields. The question is, just because we can produce this realism, and we do have a market that will consume it, should we stop just there? As game magazines are increasingly filled with what looks like the repackaging of the same game, I can't help but believe we are cheating ourselves out of many other opportunities to create truly diverse universes for our audiences to explore. When the expectations and the necessitates of huge profits cause games like Sam & Max 2 to be shut down in favor of "Counter-Strike with stormtroopers", we have to ask ourselves -- is it worth it? Are the only options for this technology to create increasingly realistic arenas for bloodshed?

All of this experience designing a virtual world did have the effect of illuminating the potential for a product to truly do more with less. If anything smothered our effort, it was our high expectations of return on our investment. Still, there remains the potential to transport a non-game savvy audience into a believable 3D environment for the purpose of something as simple as connecting with each other online. Although not the success we had imagined, our intentions were pure and innovative. If there is a glimmer of hope, let it be in the fact that as our computers become more powerful, these tools will be placed in the hands of designers not shackled by demographics and blockbuster budgets. Hopefully, we will all be able to experience and share our virtual world experiences with others, and not be so worried if they have the right system, understand the nuances of game playing, or have to want to frag their fellow player. Most of all, I hope players have an opportunity to experience some of the magic we encounter every day designing virtual places, without the emotional and financial cost being too high a barrier to allow them access.


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About the Author(s)

Don Carson


Don Carson is a freelance designer & illustrator currently working from his studio in Eugene, Oregon. Don spent many years as a Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design arm of the Walt Disney Company. A few of the attractions he helped to design include Splash Mountain for Walt Disney World Florida, and Mickey's Toontown for Disneyland California. Don continues to work as a consultant for Disney, as well as for companies like the Jim Henson Co., Universal Studios, and Microsoft. You can reach Don Carson at: [email protected], or visit his online portfolio at www.doncarsoncreative.com.

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