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Avalanche Studios was founded over ten years ago out of passion for open world gaming. But for me it actually started back in 1984 when playing Ian Bell's and David Braben's classic game Elite for the BBC Micro Model B. I was astonished by the way they could create a whole universe with 8000 unique planets that you could travel freely between, on a machine with just 32KB of memory and with a CPU running at 2 MHz. It was a completely different experience from all of the platform games and sidescrollers of the time. Mesmerizing.
My two brothers and I built a spaceship cockpit in a closet at home using old discarded machinery that our dad brought home for us from the university at which he was a professor. In the center sat the BBC and a joystick. Being the oldest brother, I was obviously the highest in rank, and in charge of the joystick, while my brothers were commanded to sit with a finger on the countermeasure keys, ready to EMP any incoming enemy missiles, or in worst case, activate the escape pod. Pressing too late often meant instant deportation to the vacuum of space -- the bedroom outside the closet. Luckily for me, that harsh penalty didn't kill their passion for open world games, and we eventually started experimenting in making our own.
We soon discovered fractals and how procedural techniques could be used to achieve experiences far greater than the typically perceived constraints of the hardware would allow -- just like Braben and Bell had done several years earlier. Living in the countryside in the north of Sweden, our interest became trying to replicate the landscape outside of our windows using these techniques. Many years (and much coding) later, a procedural landscape demo attracted the interest of an Eidos producer, and the Just Cause franchise was born.
Fundamental to the gameplay of the Just Cause series is the ability to move freely in an enormous world. Long draw distances are vital for the Just Cause experience, since the player's progression and motivation is much guided by visual input. We wanted the player to see things in the horizon and become interested to find out what hides behind that distant mountain range or on that remote island. The Avalanche Engine is developed from the ground up to cater to sandbox gameplay in huge open worlds with large draw distances.
There are many technologies required to achieve this, making it very difficult to retrofit open-world functionality to existing game engines. This article will describe one of those techniques, namely terrain rendering. More specifically it will describe how the terrain mesh is generated in the Just Cause games, and how we were able to draw a 32 by 32 kilometer world with full draw distance. It will describe our geo-morphing technique that made the long draw distance possible while at the same time eliminating level-of-detail "popping." It will also describe the resource management techniques and data compression required to efficiently stream and recreate the large amount of data required to generate the terrain meshes.
The goals for designing the terrain system in the Avalanche Engine were:
Memory efficiency. The original Just Cause was released on PlayStation 2, so we knew that we had to have a very tight memory representation to make a world of that size fit. Data compression and procedural techniques would be required.
High performance. There are a lot of things to render in an open world game so the terrain system cannot consume much of the available processing power. We knew that static vertex buffers would have to be used to achieve this, which ruled out some terrain rendering techniques.
High visual fidelity. Meant high resolution, no level-of-detail popping," large draw distance, etc. Again, especially considering the other two goals, procedural techniques would be crucial to accomplish this.
A typical Just Cause 2 vista
The same scene in wireframe. Note the increased resolution at the shorelines and other complex regions.