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Part 23: Realism and Variety

June 21, 2011

Many of the comments from the last part amounted to "forget realism." And I concede the basic point -- this is a game, not a simulation. If an unrealistic feature looks like it would be a lot of fun, or if realism looks like a problem, I should think twice about realism. But there are a few points on the other side:

Fig 1: The Mandelbrot set
  1. A good artist can get away with breaking the rules. He can make a floating mountain range in the background look surreal, not silly. He can make a nonsensical animal look alien, not broken. I'm not a good artist and I can't do that kind of thing. The only way I'm going to get something that looks usable is to stick to some kind of rules.

    If I could invent a completely different set of rules and work out the consequences, maybe I could put together something both strange and compelling. As it is, I'm safer trying to make a "natural" landscape, or at least a possible one, instead of inventing things out of whole cloth.

  2. Rules give a depth to the world that simple invention doesn't have. As an artist, I might think that purple palm trees look silly and not use them. A world with generated landscapes and simulated growth patterns and so on might just produce a lagoon surrounded with purple palm trees, and at dawn, it might look fantastic.

    People think of rules as dull, but rules produce unexpected combinations that are surprising. You see this all the time when writing code. A simple set of rules can have very strange consequences. Think of a Mandelbrot set, which is generated by the simple formula "p' = p2+c". The result is infinitely deep, and has surprising scenes that an artist might not think to draw.

  3. I have to implement this stuff! If the world is a collection of odd magical powers and arbitrary scenes, creatures, etc., it's a lot more work than a single set of rules that apply everywhere.

So I have to strike a balance between being original and maybe fun, and doing something that is implementable and makes sense. Forgive me if I get a bit anal about whether a feature obeys the rules or not.


Fig 2: Real world topography
One of my favorite activities back when I played World of Warcraft was exploring. I want a varied landscape in the world I'm building, but it's a tall order! You can explore most of WoW in the time it takes to level a character, and then you are done with it. The landscape looks good but it rarely surprises you. Yet Blizzard has hired a huge number of artists to put together a fairly bland landscape that you can explore in a few weeks.

For me to build anything interesting to players, I need to find a bunch of independent variables. Then by procedurally generating combinations, I can build a varied world. Here are the variables I have so far. I'm not sure how many of these I can implement.

  • world: planet, moon, asteroids (bare and green), generation ship, ringworld.
  • terrain: mountains, hills, plateaus, flatlands, dunes, islands, volcanoes.
  • rocks: arches, pinnacles, loose stones, crystals?
  • caves: stalagmites, stalactites.
  • water: oceans, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, brooks, swamps. Waves and falls.
  • ice: snow, frozen lakes, icicles, icebergs, glaciers (with crevasse).
  • vegetation: trees, shrubs, flowers, mushrooms, tall grass, short grass, vines.
  • vegetation density: scattered trees, forest, jungles.
  • climate: wet/dry, hot/cold
  • weather: clouds, storms, dust devils, tornados, hurricanes, lightning, fires. meteor showers?

On top of that landscape, we could have animals and ruins. Both are even harder to render than landscape.

  • wildlife: mammals, birds, insects, fish, sharks, whales, rays, jellyfish, dragons, dinosaurs, penguins, sandworms?

  • roads: paths, lanes, roads, freeways, bridges, tunnels. Fences and walls?
  • ruins: temples, mounds, pyramids, cliff dwellings, statues, cave drawings.
  • cities: office buildings, apartments, government, museums, houses, cabins.
  • ports: lighthouse, boats, harbors. airports? spaceports?
  • ground vehicles: cycles, cars, trucks.
  • aircraft: helicopter, fixed wing, zeppelin.
  • spacecraft: rockets, saucers, shuttlecraft.

If I do ruins, it would allow players an easy way to get started. They can just take something that's already there and customize it. That means all the ruins would be made of Minecraft-style blocks, but still procedurally generated. They are saved as real objects when the player alters them.

I could make animals out of blocks, since I want to make avatars that way, but I'm undecided. That would give it more of a Minecraft look.

I can make all these terrain, climate and vegetation variables independent, but that will result in some silly combinations, like volcanoes with rivers running down the sides, or ponds in the middle of a desert. The alternative is a small set of biomes, each a packaged set of alternatives. Then instead of a random combination of variables, you get a biome appropriate to the terrain. I'm not sure whether the loss of variety is worth the increase in realism.

I'll have to see what I can implement and how it all plays out. If I can settle on a terrain generator (with very basic vegetation), then I can freeze that. What I don't want is to get to the point where people can build, and then keep changing the underlying landscape on them. That would destroy any work they've created and just drive people away.

Design Decisions

After looking over the designs, the comments, and the poll, I'm thinking of the following changes:

  • Change the generation ships into hollowed asteroids. It will be a natural asteroid on the outside, with a shaft cut out of it. It will spin for gravity and have a range of biomes inside.

  • The "green asteroids" will have a shaft down to the center, where the player can find a gravity generator. He can probably open controls and play with the intensity. No gravity plates or other complicated things to implement. The generator can't be removed from the asteroid.

  • I'll throw in a Ringworld just to see how it feels. It looks pretty, but I'm not sure it will feel any different than playing on a planet.

  • The main planet is about the size of our moon, has an Earthlike terrain, and low gravity. Tall trees and dramatic mountains should be fun.

  • The planet has a moon, which is completely covered in water. It has even lower gravity. I haven't decided if the water is covered with floating islands completely made of trees, if trees are rooted below the surface, or if trees can float in the air.

  • The planet has an asteroid belt. In the belt, you find unmodified bare asteroids, green asteroids with gravity generators, and hollowed spinning asteroid-ships.

I'm still thinking about how the game should feel. Are there training areas, and how do you get to other places in the game, since you can't just walk from asteroids or moons? We'll see.

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