What’s cooler than being able to navigate through your favorite game’s maps? While at work today, a co-worker shared a link with the team.
This website allows you to fly around various levels from the games we’ve all played, and oh man, these bring me back to the time when faking everything was necessary.
It brings me so much joy to be able to take such a close look into these. I might be a bit too excited about this, I know!
You see, nowadays, we don’t realize how many details an artist had to take care of back in the day. We have procedural skyboxes, dynamic and volumetric lighting, better alpha, texture and geometry processing, cloth simulation, etc. It’s almost as if the engine does half the job.
It wasn’t long ago that all of these things had to be faked. Today, we will look into the game (that I could find on this website) that grabbed my attention for being the one with the most trickery. Mario Kart Wii.
If you never read anything like this, don’t worry. I’m keeping this post beginner-friendly. It’s also essential to check these levels out and see the techniques applied to them in action. They look half as lovely posted in here.
Where can I start? There’s so much in here that is just brilliant. When we play games, we don’t realize the intelligence in most of these tricks. For example, take a look at the following image. Notice something strange? At first, I didn’t.
Then my developer thoughts kicked in. There’s no way a reflection can look so sharp, even less on a Nintendo Wii. This technique to fake reflections has been used a lot, but I’ve never been able to see it in action. The developers duplicated the same geometry that composes the shot and mirror it and added a transparent plane of water on top. It’s genius!
Other games like Silent Hill used this technique. At the end of the day, reflections are weighty on performance. Also, note all those low poly shapes. I’m not used to seeing every single vertex on the silhouette anymore, either.
How do we do this now? For the most part, we absolutely try to avoid 100% clear reflections, like mirrors. The hardest bit of reflecting something on an object is to have it look like the game. That means adding the post-processing to the reflection, and basically, rendering everything twice.
With RTX, it now looks easier to do this, but it is still limited to the bounces or times a ray is bouncing against other surfaces. More bounces mean more calculations to be made. Fewer means risking certain areas, like other mirrors, to reflect nothing on the reflection, making it look bland. It’s always a balance, and not every player has an RTX-ready graphics card.
For now, it looks like capturing the reflections offline, with Reflection Probes, for example, is the way to go. Also, reflections require less resolution on rougher surfaces, so that’s something to keep in mind too.
Another example of genius trickery takes place on the Dry Dry Ruins Level. Why use expensive particle effects when you can pan (move an image or an object’s UVs) a sand texture on a tube-like mesh? The result consolidates when we grab the end of the tube, scale it a bit to make it flatter, and stretch the UVs so that the texture appears to move slowly.
It’s so well done it’s even hypnotic. It surprises me the high quality these textures are. I’m not referring to their style and how well they are made, but to their resolution.
It looks as if this game doesn’t use any normal, specular, or gloss maps. That might be the reason for the extra resolution budget. It makes a difference, doesn’t it?
Today’s techniques are much more advanced. How would you do something like this? The answer is particles. Many particles.
Particle systems have become the norm for simulating a certain fluid or small-scale object’s movement. They aren't costly if you are careful with them, but they can get out of hand very quickly.
Added to this is the alpha factor. If we have too many particles with their transparencies overlapping from the player’s view, we will end up with something called Alpha Overdraw.
Overdraw can be extremely expensive on some devices, so it’s always better not to use transparencies if you know there will be many particles in your particle system.
Another excellent example for this topic would be the faked atmospherics and lens flares these lights generate. The sun is just one sprite that contains the lens flares. Those big lights use a plane with a texture to fake that bloom.
Added to this is a panning sky texture on a semi-sphere. It fits the style so well it doesn’t even bother me how flat it looks.
Nowadays, we have something called volumetric lighting. It simulates how dense the air can be in your levels, and if that air is lit by the sun, for example, you’ll get some really nice foggy effects. These are usually dynamic and require nothing from the artist other than setting it up, which usually takes a few clicks.
For clouds, a similar thing happens. On super fancy games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, this tech has been pushed further than ever. We are now able to simulate cloud systems in real-time, and they look astonishing.
Let’s now look at how they solved their crowds. As I stated before, one of the reasons I picked this game is how alive it looks, especially for its time.
I believe the actual game has more frames interpolated on this animation. I’ve seen them move less snappy in the gameplay videos I looked at when writing this. Even if they weren’t using them, they look pretty good from afar already, and considering this is a game that benefits from the player moving around fast, I wouldn’t be surprised if these are just great for the purpose.
Nowadays, crowd simulations like these are almost like particle effects, where each individual or a group of individuals is simulated at once.
It’s crazy how much we’ve been able to advance in the last 10 years.
All these previous examples show what was and is still needed in some platforms like VR to bring a level to life. It does so without using any fancy rendering methods, which makes me think:
A good artist can bring their ideas to life without being restrained by the limitations technology can bring to the table.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Many artists checking this out might not be surprised, but I’m sure the newer generations will find value in understanding these.