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A look at futuristic game architecture, from 2002

In this reprint from the January 2002 issue of GD Mag, future Duke Nukem Forever developer Hayden Duvall looks to the role of architecture in informing futuristic game levels.

May 28, 2013

12 Min Read

"In the city of the future, we are free to break all the rules."

In this reprint from the January 2002 issue of Game Developer magazine, digital artist and future Duke Nukem Forever developer Hayden Duvall looks to the role of architecture in informing futuristic game levels. Why is it that we play videogames? Is it to learn something about ourselves as human beings? Is it to hone our social skills and make us more attractive to the opposite sex? Do videogames strengthen the fabric of society? Do we find answers to life's most profound questions when we plug in our consoles and fire up our joypads? Or is it just entertainment? Call me shallow if you like, but the game industry is, by its very definition, in the business of entertaining. O.K., some games come along that give us insight into the microeconomics involved in running a chain of pizza restaurants or simulate what it's like piloting an Apache helicopter. But we still play them for fun. Games that attempt to be about real life, like their TV counterparts, run the risk of becoming tedious, and once you remove the element of voyeurism (which is unlikely to play a large part in a game, anyway), you can easily be left with nothing more than the mundane. Which is, of course, no fun at all. With this in mind, it's easy to see why such a large percentage of games are set in a fantasy world that doesn't actually exist. The ability to design a game that takes players beyond the things they can experience in their real lives, as well as the creative freedom that this affords, is hard for game developers to resist. As with film, the choice of fantasy settings often splits broadly into either a sword-and-sorcery troll-bashing dragon fest, with pointy weapons and more than its fair share of beards, or the sci-fi staple that is the world of the future. In this column, I will take the second of these and look at some ways in which we, as artists and designers, can put together an environment that successfully gives players the feeling that they are in the future, with specific reference to the architecture.

Buildings Are Not Fun

What makes a game's visuals exciting? Insane particle effects when you fire your plasma cannon? Exquisitely detailed zombies tripping over their own intestines? Beautifully animated female ninjas with real-time physics in all the right places? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes, but as sexy as the central characters and their effects may be, without a high-quality environment to give the game its context and location, the atmosphere and overall feel of the game will suffer. Architecture is an indication of the time period in which the game is set, but more than that, it can be both a backdrop and the stage on which the action takes place. As game environments become increasingly interactive, and as we are constantly being allowed to use greater detail as well as a wider variety of visual tricks in our worlds, creating the architecture, exteriors and interiors, is no longer the thankless task it once was. The days when the lowliest of all art monkeys was assigned the job of making "some buildings for the background" are long gone, and the quality of our architecture is now a strong contributor to a game's visual impact.

To the DeLorean, Marty...

Having established that architecture within a game is important, and that this is particularly the case when designing the future, we now need to decide what future we are going to be dealing with. Perhaps the first and most obvious question is how far into the future we're going. Near-future games, like near-future films, are based in a world that we know and recognize, albeit with a few, often superficial, changes. Travel farther into the future and the restrictions of our current surroundings begin to evaporate. Extrapolation gives way to hypothesis and the possibilities become more varied. Even when avoiding extremes like the diaper-wearing future world of Sean Connery's Zardoz or that of H. G. Wells' hairy, subterranean Morlocks in The Time Machine, the most common future archetypes are that of utopian and dystopian civilizations (Figure 1). These reflect the positive and negative possibilities we imagine as potential futures, and are polar opposites of what will, for us, likely turn out to be a combination of both. The utopian ideal often describes a place where technology has been used to produce a world of beauty, peace, equality, and more often than not, a whole lot of white molded plastic. In the utopian future, the designer is concerned primarily with aesthetics, and architecture becomes less about function and more about form. Advances in science have allowed the city of the future to become a clean, bright, happy place, where the harmony of human achievement is reflected in the surroundings. Dystopia, however, is a little bit darker and a whole lot dirtier. Rutger Hauer may have seen it as an ideal holiday destination in Blade Runner, but the dystopian city of the future takes the worst of society's ills and straps on decades of industrial madness. Both versions of the future present the game artist with a variety of challenges. As always, the easiest environment to deal with in a game is a small, interior space. Once we venture outside, things tend to get larger, and the areas that we need to fill with meaningful visuals get larger also. Whether organic or manmade, large spaces are both labor intensive and resource hungry, and solutions involving complex systems of LOD, texture streaming, and clever layout can all help ease the pain. Although our game worlds often combine elements of both utopian and dystopian futures, as far as the creation process for the game artist goes, it's useful to break it down into the three areas of surface, structure, and scale.

Surface: Shiny Happy People and Urban Decay

In this context, surface refers to the materials that we are attempting to portray, their properties, and how we convey these within the framework of our engine and platform limitations. When looking at large-scale city buildings, the move from brick to concrete and then toward shiny surfaces is clearly visible. Highly reflective materials became associated with high-tech, and as the 1970s saw the gratuitous proliferation of mirrored sunglasses, so the 1980s began in earnest to produce huge, monolithic mirrors at the centers of our largest cities. The portrayal of future cities of chrome and glass has long been a science fiction staple, but besides being a slightly dated approach, real-time environment mapping and refraction within a world that is packed with shiny, semitransparent surfaces will have any programmer bleeding from his or her ears in no time at all. Despite huge advances of late in areas such as hardware transformation and lighting, reflective surfaces on a large scale within a game are still not practical. In a similar vein, one indication that we are indeed dealing with the architecture of the future is the presence of exotic or out-of- the-ordinary materials. Examples of this have been evident for some time in prerendered backgrounds or FMV sequences, and with the graphical grunt behind today's gaming platforms, the game artist can now achieve some of these effects in real time, without the hardware they're working with bursting into flames under the strain. Taking materials out of context and building with them can be used to suggest a futuristic world, and using the detail of organic surfaces such as tree bark or coral can be a good starting point. Combining these kinds of natural materials with some element of human design can produce interesting results. In graphics, the mathematical precision of computer-generated features and geometry is usually a problem that detracts from the realism of a scene. Our eyes are extremely sensitive to this kind of perfection, as the real world is generally full of flaws and shapes that are much less exact. We can, however, use this regularity and order to place features within an organic texture to show that it is being manipulated by humans and used as a material for construction. The simple addition of fabrication joins, rivets, bevels, and the like can be all that's needed to give a surface the extra detail necessary. This combination of the natural and the manufactured can provide some unique surface qualities (Figure 2). Once we begin to look toward a dirtier future, the kind of surfaces we are dealing with become more recognizable to us. It's nigh on impossible to talk about a dystopian future city without reference to Blade Runner (see, I've already done it twice). But without lapsing into spasms of worship at the alter of Syd Mead, his vision of a future city has had a vast impact on visual representations of our future in films and games alike. Using the dirtiest, most unkempt pieces of a contemporary city as a starting point, and extrapolating out to a seething mass of giant, twisted structures, decaying, part derelict, the surfaces we begin to encounter would be at home in an abandoned chemical plant. Taking materials and dirtying them down is certainly part of the way toward the look we're after, but another important element is that of making the underlying technology visible. In a dystopian future, the aesthetics of design are crushed under the weight of shoddy workmanship and dereliction. Instead of a single, coherent whole, in which all elements are combined in harmony, things are grafted together, creating ugly hybrids. What are usually hidden workings break through to the surface, with pipes, ducts, and wiring all becoming exposed (Figure 3). Architect Renzo Piano may have won huge acclaim for designing the Pompidou Center in much the same way, but combine this externalization with dilapidation and a good coating of dirt, and the result is somewhat less attractive. When dealing with the surface (in other words, textures), it is often useful to add mechanical detailing, or to expose circuitry. High-magnification images of micro-processors can be extremely useful as a starting point for adding the precision-machined look to a surface. "Greeble" plug-ins are also useful if you wish to render out an image to use in texture generation, as these can take most of the work out of generating a large amount of detailed geometry. One additional aspect not to be overlooked when considering surfaces in a game is the way in which they are encountered by the player. Detail in a texture is, of course, wasted if the player is never going to be near enough to appreciate it, especially when dealing with potentially large-scale objects such as buildings. As always, a sensible allocation of resources will achieve the best results.

Structure: The Shape of Things to Come

Buildings have historically been fairly square. Maximizing usable space, and minimizing the complexity of the physics involved has generally led to boxlike structures. Even when departing from a cuboid, straight lines remain an important feature. Seeing this as somewhat of a challenge, architects of recent times have availed themselves of vastly improved technology, as well as huge advances in the understanding of the science involved in construction, to create buildings that are anything but angular. Some err on the side of crazy (the Guggenhiem Museum in Spain, for example). The trend, however, has been to challenge convention, and in the city of the future, we are free to break all the rules. The battle of the curve, struggling to overcome its idiot cousin, the straight line, has featured throughout most areas of industrial design. In architecture, especially when dealing with large structures, the restraints are somewhat more stringent than when dealing with a vacuum cleaner, for example. But as we probe the future for possibilities, one potential direction to explore is a move toward organic forms. A simple indicator that the player is roaming around in the future is the presence of structures that would not be possible to build in the present (Figure 4). It is also vital to remember that any structures must function within the context of the game in which they exist. Gameplay considerations and level design have to take precedence over pure aesthetics, and successfully combining the functional with the beautiful is the ideal.

Scale: How Big Is Yours?

One common view of the future city is that it will somehow have to accommodate vast numbers of people, whether for work or simply as a place to live. This idea of expansion in all directions is already in evidence in places such as Tokyo, where severe limitations of available land have caused the city to expand vertically and also to compact more into less space. This high-density living has, on occasion, been used to show that the post-apocalyptic landscape is no longer inhabitable (Mega City One in Judge Dredd for example), but it can also simply be a caricatured version of the overcrowding seen today in most of the world's major cities. Whatever the underlying rationale, architectural scale is a useful component of the future landscape. The well-worn science-fiction idea of the huge, all-powerful corporation that runs everything from the police to the burger-matic fast food vending machines is not that hard to imagine (I think we can already name a few contenders), and cities of the future like to base these corporate monsters in buildings scaled to reflect their immensity. Specifically, the height of a structure has always shown man's defiance of natural laws and his ever-growing command of the elements. In the future, we can theorize that our architecture will doubtless take advantage of incredible scientific breakthroughs, and the scale of our largest buildings will increase accordingly (Figure 5). When building a game environment, an overindulgence in large-scale architecture can, however, be counterproductive. Unlike the real world, our perception of scale within a game is almost completely relative, and if too much of a character's environment is built on a massively large scale, we run the risk of creating the impression that it is actually the character that is in miniature.

Constructing the Future

Successfully creating a game world set in the future obviously depends on a whole range of contributing factors. Architecture is certainly one element that we, as artists, can use to locate the player in the desired time period and create an atmosphere that enhances the experience. There is, of course, no correct way to construct the buildings of the future, as every game has its own particular demands and every world we build can be unique. Despite this array of possibilities, we have the present to use as a starting point, and there is a wealth of visionary architects whose work already challenges convention and can give us a glimpse of what may be to come. Our task is to pin it down and make it work.

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