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Remember, This is a Theatre!
On several occasions I have had a chance to walk through the "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction in Disneyland, CA. During my first visit, I took a breather in the "Auction Scene." As I leaned back against one of the Caribbean stucco buildings I was shocked to discover they were entirely made of painted stretched canvas! All through my childhood I had just assumed that the buildings were solid, and even today it is hard to remember they are only clever theatrical magic. It is important to remember that the virtual world is no different than a theatre stage or a film set. Although we don't use canvas and paint, we can learn much from the tried and true tricks handed down to us by 2000 years of theatre. Texture maps are our canvas sets and how we choose to use them will make or destroy the story we are trying to convey. Texture maps are not wallpaper, but our tool to trick the eye. Even though dynamic lighting is one of the many luxuries of the new 3D technology, don't let lighting dictate how an environment appears to your audience. If your texture has architectural details that are carving into, or stick out of the two dimensional surface, it pays to paint in the necessary shadows to help heighten the illusion of depth an drama. The more you can achieve in your texture maps the fewer polygons you will waste on frivolous details.
The design mantra "Less Is More" applies. Refrain from cluttering your spaces with complicated, busy, or loudly patterned textures. Visual complexity is a luxury that should be used lightly. Pick and choose where you place your accenting textures, and down play simpler patterns. Use your details as architectural arrows that help lead your audience from one space to another. One trick is to save your most decorative elements for areas you wish to draw your audience to. Rather than cluttering an unimportant corridor with gorgeous ornamentation, simply save one detailed element for the end of the hallway and let it draw your audience, like a dangling carrot, into the next space.
The buildings in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction at Disneyland, despite appearing solid are entirely made of painted stretched canvas and example of clever theatrical magic
Another pitfall to be weary of is the overly illuminated environment. After a map builder has painstakingly finished a level, it is understandable that he/she should want to show off every nook and cranny. Unfortunately, too many lights flooding an environment washes out and flattens the illusion of depth. Just like a flash photo removes all sense of mood or drama, so does a map that's lighted like a Walmart. Don't be afraid to loose large areas of your map in shadow. Of course it is important that you do not hide vital game elements in the gloom, but use your lights to draw attention to only those things that are most important to your story!
It is easy to see that lighting can create marvelous dramatic effects, but the same can be true of the placement of props and objects. A large room with a single shaft of light illuminating a solitary prop is more effective than a room filled with detailed elements. If you have an important "cause and effect" prop you wish to highlight, compose all other textures and props in the space as merely supporting players to the important Story element. Be careful not to confuse the game player with too many choices at any given time. Though it is you who has orchestrated the environment, when it is done right, the game player has the illusion that they are in complete control of their character's destiny.
Using Contrasting Elements to Your Advantage
If you have ever visited a medieval cathedral or even a large old church, there is a reason the vast interior is so awe inspiring. What you may not realize when you enter, is that the architects of these places have forced you to enter the church through a small confined space, before revealing the monumental interior of the main church. This in done quite on purpose, and it is the contrasting effect of having been confined in a small space that makes the adjacent room all the more dramatic.
Contrast is another tool in the environmental designer's bag of tricks. Whenever possible, create variety in your spaces. Force your audience to wander through a cool lighted space before dropping them into a hot one. Give them the experience of disorder before you deliver them into a place of order. And above all, give them asymmetry whenever possible. The world we live in is far from geometrically perfect, and spaces where every chair, desk, and potted plant is lined up in a grid only helps emphasize how fake your world really is! This is the same with your architectural interiors. Many architectural monuments can be perfectly symmetrical, but in our lives little else is. If you must create a long expanse of repeating pillars, or some such element, make one unique among the rest. Nudge it out slightly, or knock the thing right over, it will only add life to an otherwise mathematically perfect, but boring, environment.
The Paradox of Designing Environments for "Gamers"
One challenge to designing successful environments in the computer is working in and around the expectations of your main client.... mainly "gamers." I had an experience of art directing an Indiana Jones type game for a gaming company. After painstaking work on making the environments as realistic as possible, I walked into the lead programmers office to witness my carefully rendered torch flames flickering at an unrealistic lightening pace. When I complained, the Programmer proudly argued that he had done it for "the gamers." To be specific, he wished to show off the remarkable frame rate of the game, and felt that "gamers" would appreciate the visual effect of a high frame rate over the realism of my environments.
Needless to say, there is a fine line between fulfilling the desires of creating a beautiful game, and creating a game that people will want to play. No matter how stunning your environments might be, if it's no fun, no one will buy it! The same is true of the layout of a particular space. Designing environments that optimize the enjoyment of firing rockets, may not be one that tells a slowly evolving story. This does not mean that we should be left with spaces that are no more than strategically placed platforms, no matter how ornate the decor. It is within these challenges that a team can lean back on a strong Story. If you are creating arenas for gladiators to blast each other to bits, play up the gladiator arena aspect of the game rather than guild it in unrelated ornate textures. Above all, make the game playable, but use your knowledge and Story to support the enjoyment of your game rather than confusing it.
I have also had the experience of working with team leaders who can only articulate their desires as "Make it more 'edgy' or "It's not awesome yet, I will tell you when it is." Sadly, I do not have foolproof advice to combat such statements, it's a part of this industry. I do however know that if you can establish a strong story, one that your whole team can agree on, arguments are usually relegated to small details rather than gutting and overhauling the look of the game 3 months before it ships!