Lens flair


Cre­at­ing game as­sets is a fa­mously ex­pen­sive busi­ness. With a team of hun­dreds it’s pos­si­ble to pro­duce your own take on Los Angeles, the Caribbean or even a postapoc­a­lyp­tic Wash­ing­ton DC, but smaller stu­dios have nei­ther the time nor the man­power to build game worlds on that scale us­ing tra­di­tional modelling. One so­lu­tion is pro­ce­dural gen­er­a­tion, which Hello Games is us­ing to cre­ate the vast uni­verse of No Man’s Sky. An­other is a sci­ence dat­ing back to the mid-19th century: pho­togram­me­try.

Pol­ish stu­dio The As­tro­nauts has em­ployed pho­togram­me­try in cre­at­ing The Van­ish­ing Of Ethan Carter’s lush world, and couldn’t be hap­pier with the re­sults. In gen­eral terms, pho­togram­me­try is the ac­cu­rate mea­sure­ment of the en­vi­ron­ment and ob­jects within it from pho­to­graphs and other non-con­tact sen­sors, such as ul­travi­o­let or ther­mal imag­ing. For The As­tro­nauts, it’s an af­ford­able al­ter­na­tive to ex­pen­sive laser scan­ning (the tech­nique used to cap­ture ac­tors’ faces in Alien: Isolation) and an ef­fi­cient route to pho­to­re­al­is­tic tex­tur­ing.

“The qual­ity still gets us,” says art di­rec­tor An­drzej ‘Andrew’ Poz­nan­ski. “It’s sort of mind-blow­ing. I’ve seen my fair share of re­ally high qual­ity as­sets, I’ve worked with amaz­ing graph­ics artists, but when I look at [as­sets cre­ated by pho­togram­me­try], it still gets me. No art team, at least in a rea­son­able time frame, can cap­ture re­al­ity and its nu­ances like pho­togram­me­try.

“There are al­ways tiny de­tails that you lose [when cre­at­ing as­sets] – those things that you don’t per­ceive con­sciously that make or break the re­al­ity. That’s es­pe­cially true for how ero­sion works in re­al­ity: how moss moves up the walls and works its way into any crack in the

The As­tro­nauts on why pho­togram­me­try could rev­o­lu­tionise game mak­ing for small teams

pave­ment, how ero­sion shoots up the cor­ners of stone blocks, and how rain hits a build­ing from cer­tain an­gles but not from oth­ers. These are all things you think you know, you think you no­tice them, but when you sit at a com­puter and cre­ate a game as­set, you’ll most prob­a­bly miss those things. Pho­togram­me­try adds those things au­to­mat­i­cally.”

All you need to make use of this pow­er­ful tech­nique is a cam­era and pho­togram­me­try soft­ware (The As­tro­nauts uses Agisoft Pho­toS­can, which Poz­nan­ski de­scribes as “the best one out there”). Recre­at­ing an ob­ject takes around 40 to 50 pho­tos to cover ev­ery an­gle once the shots are fed into the soft­ware and com­pos­ited. Any cam­era will do, even an en­try-level point-and-shoot, though the qual­ity of your as­sets will ob­vi­ously be dic­tated by the qual­ity of your kit.

“Of course, it’s not quite that sim­ple,” says game de­signer and The As­tro­nauts co-founder Adrian Ch­mielarz. “There’s a lot of work be­fore and af­ter, but the gist of it is you pho­to­graph it, get it to the soft­ware and there you go: you have an ex­tremely pho­to­re­al­is­tic in-game as­set.”

That ex­treme pho­to­re­al­ism pays lit­tle heed to mem­ory lim­its, how­ever. “Re­al­time graph­ics love re­peat­ing things,” Poz­nan­ski says. “Re­peat­ing as­sets, til­ing tex­tures along en­tire walls, with care­fully placed ge­om­e­try at an­gles wher­ever you need them and only as many as you need. Pho­togram­me­try doesn’t care about that. It spits out mil­lions of tri­an­gles where you only need a few hun­dred. It will give you one unique huge 4K or 8K tex­ture where you would other­wise use a tileable, ver­sa­tile tex­ture that’s prob­a­bly 64 times smaller, maybe with a few additional de­tails.” The process doesn’t quite by­pass the artist, then. There’s a lot of work to be done post-cap­ture to clean up and op­ti­mise tex­tures and ob­jects, and even then they re­main large. But thanks to the in­creas­ing amounts of graph­ics mem­ory on PC cards and in Sony and Mi­crosoft’s new boxes, these file sizes needn’t be a prob­lem. Tra­di­tional oc­clu­sion meth­ods still work, and play a big­ger role in keep­ing things run­ning at a de­cent pace.

Poz­nan­ski ex­plains: “We’ve come up with a new method of tex­ture com­pres­sion in-house, which al­lows those huge tex­tures to be two-and-ahalf times smaller than they would reg­u­larly be in mem­ory.

“[Pho­togram­me­try] re­quires a lot of tricks, but that’s the beauty of it: it still re­quires talent and ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s not like ev­ery­one these days will be able to spit out huge open-world en­vi­ron­ments. But if you have the skill and you ex­per­i­ment with it a lot, it al­lows for great things.”

Ch­mielarz agrees: “Once you’ve fig­ured it out – and it’s con­stantly be­ing im­proved – it’s go­ing to be a way of ac­quir­ing re­ally high-qual­ity in-game as­sets for a lot of stu­dios, not just indies. But it’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant for indies; we have three-and-a-half artists pro­duc­ing an open-world en­vi­ron­ment that’s some­thing like four kilo­me­tres square. If we weren’t work­ing with pho­togram­me­try, we would still have a pretty large game, but not to the ex­tent we are shoot­ing for now.”

“It’s go­ing to be a way of ac­quir­ing re­ally high-qual­ity in-game as­sets for a lot of stu­dios, not just indies”

From top: Adrian Ch­mielarz, game de­signer, and art di­rec­tor An­drzej ‘Andrew’ Poz­nan­ski

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