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Environmental Storytelling Part III: Lessons Learned in the Virtual World
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Environmental Storytelling Part III: Lessons Learned in the Virtual World

September 20, 2004 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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.


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