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Designing Worlds...how to create more realistic geography/geology.

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Teila, Mar 3, 2018.

  1. Teila

    Teila

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    Hello,

    I am currently working on a world terrain for a game we are making. This is one of my favorite parts of game development and design. In a previous job, I made maps for a game with a relatively large world. Their original map was horrible and very unrealistic. It drove me crazy so I asked to remake the maps, trying to make them more realistic. As this was some time ago, we had some major restrictions so I had to work around that but today, it is much easier to make worlds that look and feel real, and obey the laws of nature. :)

    A couple of gripes I have had with maps, some in AAA companies' games although even more in indie games, is the way lay of the land, the way rivers flow and transitions between different biomes. For example, rivers do not divide, they flow into each other. Deserts exist due to specific conditions, such as in a rain shadow, on the leeward side of mountains or in specific latitudes, with very specific conditions.

    While you can get away with this in a fantasy game, as many say to me about anything they want to justify, but why do that? Many of your players will not notice, but some will. And once that one person starts complaining in your forums, others will notice too.

    So..while working on a new game, I went searching for some specific information for story development. I found some information from a novelist who was talking about World Building. I felt happily vindicated when his first lecture on geography talked exactly about rivers and coastlines and other geology/physics forces that form landscapes.

    I know nothing about coding but I have a master's degree in geology, with my specialty in geomorphology which is the study of land forms and the process which form them. Now, the tools out there are not yet capable of making terrains that are 100% realistic. Some try, like World Machine and World Creator, which, by the way are my go to tools for terrain creation. World Creator stand alone is one of the best and they are adding simulation which should go a long way it making terrains more realistic.

    But...my concern is the map you create, the one that you build your terrain upon.

    Rivers: Rivers start from high, and flow to low areas. So start your rivers in the mountains and then have them join up at lower levels. This creates a water basin or watershed. Everything within that basin flows together eventually, and as the rivers and streams join, the river becomes bigger until it runs into the sea. All rivers go from the high elevation to other rivers and/or to the sea. The only exceptions are where humans have artificially changed the flow, such as in a canal. Remember, a river always tries to find the shortest route to the sea. It does not flow around east and west and then go to the sea, it heads for the sea. Higher ground will affect it's flow, and often you will see rivers that flow around a hill or between two hills. There is a lot more complexity, such as how glaciated areas affect rivers flow, or karst topography (cave systems), or unique systems where softer sediments are exposed in mountain building. But that is a different post. :)

    watershed_illustrated.jpg

    Here is an example of multiple river basins that flow into the Mississippi river.

    Mississippi River System.jpg

    Hopefully that helps. Some folks ask me about deltas, which sometimes occur when the rivers flow into the sea. Very specific conditions much occur in order for deltas to form.

    river-changes-and-landforms.jpg

    The three major conditions are the river must be carry a large load, meaning it must have the capacity to carry a log of sediment, such as sand or silt.

    The river must be flowing slow enough to allow the river to drop the sediment in the river's mouth. This also means that the river is in a flat area, not a steep slope. A river that flows from coastal mountains steeply to the sea will be moving faster and not have time to drop it's sediment before it reaches the coast.

    And where the river joins the sea must be shallow, either a shallow sea or a shelf that extends outward for some distance. This keeps the sediment from simply flowing down the slope and dropping in the ocean.

    I am simplifying my explanations because honestly, the only important thing here is to look at your map, the relief of your map and think about how you want it to look. Remember, it is the illusion. Your map and resulting terrain do not need to be 100% realistic, and that is impossible unless you run a complex simulator.

    But...you can make sure your rivers go from high to low. I have seen so many maps where the rivers go from sea to sea...crazy! They drive me batty, honestly. Unless your river is a man made canal or you use some sort of fancy magic, then this would not happen.

    If you use deltas, place them in a proper place. Delta's are one place where rivers do divide. They do this because they are in a very flat area and as the river tries to find the shortest path to the ocean, it constantly changes as sediment blocks it's path.

    There is a lot more I could talk about.
    Lakes, how streams flow from lakes and where they should be positioned
    How other factors affect river flow
    Coastlines, how to make them realistic
    Different types of mountain building
    Deserts, where to place them and why
    Etc.

    If this is something you are interested in, let me know. If it is dry and boring and you do not care, then that is okay, I am sure you will let me know.

    Anyway, just trying to find some way that I can give back the community. :) So hope you enjoyed if nothing else.
     
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2018
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  2. smada-luap

    smada-luap

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    Just keep the nuggets of information flowing (pun intended) :)
     
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  3. Teila

    Teila

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    Thanks! Glad you like it. :)
     
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  4. Whippets

    Whippets

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    Great piece, thank you.
     
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  5. EternalAmbiguity

    EternalAmbiguity

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    "Others will notice" is a catch all, but when was the last time you heard people talking about the believability or lack thereof of a video game world's geology? Additionally, as far as gameplay is concerned, what difference does it make? What actual, discernable difference does it make? Does the cost (designing your world around this, consulting professionals in the field) justify the benefit (almost none at all)?

    I certainly understand where you're coming from. I'm planning to create a world and I'm planning to talk to some EES people about building it from the very ground up--designing realistic tectonic plates, believable landmasses, climate, logical nation borders, all that.

    But the reality is that almost no players will notice this stuff, and only a slightly larger group will care even if it's pointed out to them. It's not important at all to the playing of a game.

    So just be aware that this stuff is mostly for your own benefit, because you see it as more realistic, and that it will have zero effect on the gameplay experience of almost all players.

    All that aside, I wasn't aware of the specifics of deltas, so I'm happy to have learned a bit more there. Thanks for that.
     
  6. Teila

    Teila

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    Why do you have to rain on my parade! :)

    I get people asking me all the time if this is okay or if that is okay. I pointed out issues to asset developers who have made changes for the better.

    How do you know others will not notice that your river flows uphill or that your desert is next to a jungle? I read game reviews and I have read a lot of reviews where people mention these things, and have heard people complain about lack of realism in video reviews too.

    Please..it is a big world out there. There are people who notice these things. If it is 3% of the gamer population, that is still a ton of people.

    Use the information if you wish, ignore if you do not care. I put it there for those who do. Again, do not rain on my parade. :)
     
  7. EternalAmbiguity

    EternalAmbiguity

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    I promise, I'm not trying to rain on any parades. Just trying to--fittingly, given your original post--be realistic.

    I'd love to see a couple examples of people pointing out (either criticizing or praising) video game world geographical features. I'd wager it's less 3% and more 0.03%--and probably not even that many that truly notice these things. That isn't to say there's no value in it, but the value has to be weighed against the cost, like anything else.

    Maybe the post hit me the wrong way, but it seemed like a cut-and-dried "this is wrong!" when it's not really wrong, or wrong in the same ways as lots of other media is typically wrong about science (Read: in ways that don't matter). See my post here--I was complaining about something that bothered me, but honestly no one's going to care about that.
     
  8. Martin_H

    Martin_H

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    I don't care if it's a financially sound decision to care about this in a game, but I find it interesting to learn about and it can only benefit my work as an artist.

    A friend of mine (geographer too) once said the only realistic landscape he has seen in a game was Chernarus in DayZ/Arma, because that's a digitized version of actual real landscape.


    @Teila: I think a good question would be: where do trees naturally grow? That's one that I don't know much about but very often see indie devs seem to get it wrong. Just feels off, but I can't pinpoint what exactly is wrong.
     
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  9. Teila

    Teila

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    Did you not see where I said this in the original post? lol
    I am simplifying my explanations because honestly, the only important thing here is to look at your map, the relief of your map and think about how you want it to look. Remember, it is the illusion. Your map and resulting terrain do not need to be 100% realistic, and that is impossible unless you run a complex simulator.

    I did not really explain the science at all, more how you could do simple things that would make your map more believable. Trust me, people will notice if your rivers are going the wrong way or if you go sea to sea and call that a river, or if your coastlines look too smooth. And that is cut and dried wrong. lol I realize some people do not believe in science, but honestly, that has nothing to do with this thread.

    It does matter. Actually, I put this on my blog, and got all sorts of retweets and likes on Twitter, where I pretty much only see game developers. So it is okay if it was not for you. That is fine. But glad that I can help some. I even got a very nice comment on my blog. :)

    Wanted to add..that you can make your game anyway you want. This thread is to help those who want to make a more realistic map. If it is not important to you, that is okay. I am not telling anyone HOW to make a terrain. I am giving information to those who might like to make their map more realistic.
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2018
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  10. Teila

    Teila

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    You know, I was wondering myself about that. I am not a biologist, but I do know from some of the environmental classes I had back then that trees tend grow thicker on south slopes and north facing slopes are more bare. Different trees are going to seek different types of soil or vary in their need for water.

    Here in Florida, we have our wet trees, like cypress that grow in the water and along the edges of the flood zones. And we have maples and other softwoods growing on slightly higher ground. We have lovely live oak hammocks, which sit a bit higher. Pines grow in sandy soil here. As we hike through a woods we can see the differences. Even the swamps are different as you can have saw grass swamps that look deceptively like a huge field or meadow, or you get the swamps full of trees that stand in the water.

    I am not fond of procedural placement of trees because they look to fake to me. But.it is so much easier on a large terrain. What does look good though is to paint some trees into low areas, where you might find water and springs. Then let the procedural system place your pines in higher, rockier areas, and put the maples and oaks on the flatter areas.

    In a medieval setting or even a modern setting, remember that as much of the land that could be cultivated was cultivated. But the river areas would not be plowed under, so you would often see trees growing along rivers. You still see that today, especially in farm areas. Other areas that could be plowed such as steep hills, old sinkholes, also would be wooded.

    Riparian_strip.jpg

    Forests do age as well. Eventually, the adult trees crowd out the saplings and until they die and allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, the young trees cannot grow. So clearings in forests are natural. Old age forests with little undergrowth are also natural.

    I am sure that did not help at all. Maybe we have a biologist somewhere on the forums that could give you more information. :)

    I am glad you enjoyed the original post. I have a lot more I can post and will do so. I enjoyed writing it and I hope it can help some folks.
     
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  11. EternalAmbiguity

    EternalAmbiguity

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    Fair enough. Certainly wasn't trying to imply this shouldn't be discussed. Apologies if I came off that way.
     
  12. BIGTIMEMASTER

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    Part of the reason I like theHunter so much is because the environment seems so realistic.

    I appreciate realistic geography, although not perhaps to the same degree as the resident geologist. I guess what I appreciate more in a game is realistic vegetation, biodiversity, ecology. Things growing in a way that looks realistic. Rock slides where they should be. Water in the low places, Deadfall and imperfect trees. That sort of stuff. Like OP mentioned, you see various ecological zones in that game. Old growth forest with long sight lines, low lying areas thick with undergrowth. Cultivated areas with hedgerows separating fields and meandering creeks identifiable by surrounding bushes.

    One thing games always miss -- and probably because it's something that would be expensive to build (i mean polycount budget wise) is realistic micro terrain. A lot of shooters have cover items, which is usually ridiculous things if you think about it. Like, how many couches and barrels and potted plants could there be in a city street? But outdoors shooters, like a Ghost Recon title or Arma for instance, never have microterrain. The grounds just flat. Usually cover just means trees (and unless these are 2ft+ in diameter, they shouldn't be stopping bullets!), but it would be nice to see a video game terrain with lots of natural deviations in it allowing for more interesting movement. Maybe if your game isn't a shooter and doesn't need to consider player movement, some clever textures could still give the impression of a very realistic terrain, just for aesthetics.

    Anyway, I appreciate the discussion and think that the more game developers start looking outside gaming norms for inspiration, the better games are going to become.
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2018
  13. S4G4N

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    Hi @Teila

    Thanks for starting this thread ;)
    It is great for you to share your knowledge and experience with other for the benefit of learning and making us better developers and designers and just having fun.
    I am sure all those that can see it like that will hang around and digest each of your great posts, so please keep them coming.

    Thanks again
    Cobus
     
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  14. BIGTIMEMASTER

    BIGTIMEMASTER

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    The merry rubes have their COD's and whatnot. Can't we have a game that considers science, even if it's only for a few of us?
     
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  15. Teila

    Teila

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    No worries. I love geology and physical geography, love landscapes, and am in awe of the power of earth. So I am really enjoying being able to share. :)

    In a Design forum, we should be able to share our ideas for design. We should also be able to share why we are not interested in the design someone else writes about. However, it would be nice if we value other people's ideas and comments about design because if we do, more people will share.

    So it is okay that you do not want to use my pointers for your game terrain. I do think as Martin pointed out above, that there are those that care. Sometimes it is those little things that immerse a person in a game.

    As for the statistics, a very small percentage of mobile game developers make a living off their mobile games. A small percentage of actors make it to the big time. But that does not mean that people should not make games or become actors.

    So...even if no one needs to know about realistic geology or geography, it is nice to have it somewhere in case someone does.
     
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  16. jamesewelch

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    You should check out CatLikeCoding's terrain tutorials. He goes over how to generate land, how erosions affect that land, watersheds, proper rivers and lakes, etc. It's hex-based tutorials, but the ideas could also be applied to other terrains. (I think he still has a few more tutorials to go on this series.)

    http://catlikecoding.com/unity/tutorials/
     
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  17. theANMATOR2b

    theANMATOR2b

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    I'd be interested in your opinion on a couple games - with your area of knowledge in geology and knowledge in game design. I've often wondered what someone who has this knowledge would think about certain games like Skyrim and Horizon Zero Dawn. I mention these two specifically because in my uneducated opinion - they are the most near-realistic AAA games where the certain 'situations' were created to drive the narrative, but it still looks like the creators attempted to keep within a believable geographic structure - in certain areas.
    To note: I'm a rockhound - which by nature brings with it a certain level of interest in geology - without the accredited specialized knowledge. :)
     
  18. Teila

    Teila

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    I have played Skyrim, but have not played Horizon Zero Dawn. I will look them up and check out their online maps. :)

    I love rocks too! Instead of pretty little statues, I have a ton of rocks on my shelf, above the box with the good tableware. lol
     
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  19. JoeStrout

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    Another thing to think about is how climate affects the foliage. I live in Tucson, which is a desert, but a rather wet one; we have lots of greenery, but it's all prickly, water-conserving sort of greenery. We even have trees (palo verde) with green bark — it actually photosynthesizes in its bark so that it doesn't need to have as many leaves, as leaves give up water.

    Another effect you see in dryer environments is widely spaced trees. I saw this a lot when I was in Australia, and I've seen it too in pictures of Africa. I guess this is because there's only so much water in the water table — so each tree claims a big area around it, and seedlings can't get enough water to get started unless one of the old trees dies and leaves a gap.

    Personally, I do notice things like this, and enjoy playing a game that has clearly thought about such details. (@Teila, when can we play your RPG?!)
     
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  20. Teila

    Teila

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    Cool stuff! Oddly enough, there is a tiny chance of a job for my husband in Tuscon so nice that someone I know lives there, just in case!

    Of course you can play our game. Might be a while though. Life seems to always get in the way. But..this year, we have to crack down and work so who knows. lol
     
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  21. Teila

    Teila

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    Oh, and Joe, we see some of those desert like feature here in Florida, believe it or not. While it rains a lot here in the summer, not so much in the winter. And our soil is very sandy, so it does not hold the water like a silt or loam soil would.

    Because of that, in some places, we see trees that have evolved to get as much water as possible by producing long roots that go down to the water table, or in some cases, trees that spread out mighty roots to grab whatever moisture they can get.

    We actually have a couple of thriving cacti in our front garden. One is taller than our house! Beautiful too, with huge white flowers that bloom only at night and then leave red bulbs all over the cactus. Looks great at Xmas time!
     
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  22. MrArcher

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  23. AndrewGrayGames

    AndrewGrayGames

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    Something potentially useful - did you know Skyrim is (as much as possible for a fantasy title) geologically accurate?

    Source
     
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  24. Teila

    Teila

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    I think someone mentioned that above, but thanks for the source! Love to see that there are some companies who care about that. Elder Scrolls has always done a great job with the environment so not entirely surprised.

    BTW, I have a geology map for our game. lol It was created many years ago, so well before Skyrim existed. It now sits in in a folder on my computer waiting until we get to the point when resources are important.

    For that early project, we surprisingly had 3 geologists on the team. Later, that project failed and all the assets came to our studio. I was the original creator of the maps, including geology, biomes, etc. Lots of fun! I miss those days when my job was rather narrow in scope.

    Skyrim's geology map is very simplified, not really realistic as some minerals will not exist without others or will not exist in the same geological area. But..it is a game after all and it is amazing what they did. :)
     
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2018
  25. BIGTIMEMASTER

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    Skyrim? Accurate?

    In a very broad sense, like if you consider that the map is very scaled down but not the player. Like, you hike for 5 minutes up a not-so-steep incline and go from a temperate forest to a himalaya-esque alpine environment.

    I am not saying there is anything wrong with that. Obviously nobody wants to travel for ten realtime days to get to the top of the mountain.
     
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  26. Teila

    Teila

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    Transitions between vegetation zones is another one of my pet peeves.

    But..that is not geology, and the Skyrim post above said geologically accurate...as much as possible.

    Living things, like plants do not fit into the geology purview. That does not mean geology does not influence what types of plants grow in an area, but your hike from temperate forest to alpine environment on a short slope is really using vertical zonation, where ecosystems change with height.

    Game maps are very limited in size. So a mountain in real life might require a very large footprint for the long slope to the top of the mountain, but in a game, one does not often have that much space. I do think they could do it better though.

    +VERTICAL+ZONATION.jpg
     
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2018
  27. JoeStrout

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    I occasionally get fed up with my teenagers' zonation, and suggest they need an altitudinal adjustment.

    (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
     
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  28. Teila

    Teila

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    Yeah, I feel your pain. I have one teen and two young adults at home, so yeah....I am constantly suggesting attitudinal adjustments. lol
     
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  29. Seneral

    Seneral

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    Very good read, I would lie if I say that I can reliably distinguish real landscapes from typical game illusions, but I like that attention to detail:)
    As you know I'm making an erosion simulation - I can only hope to get some realistic results out of it, in theory it should (proper watershed, correctly shape river profile based on river age/length, probably even build deltas in these conditions)... We'll see if it can remotely satisfy a geologist:)
     
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  30. Teila

    Teila

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    LOL
    Who knows! I am pretty picky. But I am sure whatever you do will be great. :)
     
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  31. Seneral

    Seneral

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    Thanks! Core is finally solid after quite some time, doing some final touches to the algorithm / parameters, editing and interactive features and then we'll see:)
     
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  32. theANMATOR2b

    theANMATOR2b

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    Looks like someone was inspired - though it doesn't look like much 'fun'. To be an educational game it must deliver enjoyment, else it's just an educational interactive experience.
     
  33. Lurking-Ninja

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    Sad to see this thread go away. I would love to read more about the subject or similar subjects. Especially from fellow game creators (yes, I can read other sources if I want, I know).
    It was an interesting thread.
     
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  34. Teila

    Teila

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    Aww, how nice! It has not gone away. I will post more, just have been really busy. Plus, my computer is having some overheating issues so have spent far too much time on that. I will post again soon.
     
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  35. Lurking-Ninja

    Lurking-Ninja

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    I'm glad that you're planning to post more! :)
    And sorry to hear about your cooling-issues.
     
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  36. Martin_H

    Martin_H

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    This looks like it fits in this thread:

     
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  37. Teila

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    Great video!! I studied all of these in college and did my thesis research on beach erosion and accumulation. Brings back many memories. The one that pertains most to terrain is probably the meandering river. It is easier to make a straight river on game terrain...I tend to do that too. However, if you are making a river that crosses a plain you might consider making your river meandering.

    Not easy with the tools available. Would be very cool though!
     
  38. Seneral

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    I have ideas how to do that, no promises though. You'll be the first to know when I have it ready:)
    I hardly believe my simulation, how good and realistic I MIGHT get it, will naturally produce this.
    So, idea was to make a guided flow, basically have a spline supporting the flow of water, VERY managed, but might yield good results when a spline is set accordingly.
    Beach erosion is a thing I currently explore:)
     
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2018
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  39. TenKHoursDev

    TenKHoursDev

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    @Teila you might appreciate this video, and the game The Witcher 3.

    I watched this video or something like it long ago. In fact I may have been linked to it from here on the Unity boards...

    Well this is what I am talking about:


    Its an interesting study of how well The Witcher 3 devs put the enormous world together in an accurate way. I agree about the way some devs put together environments. After I watched this, I could not help but see problems in a lot of projects. One can't just space trees, bushes, and some grass together on a flat landscape with unrealistic hills and topographical features and expect to have something believable (like in Oblivion, or my favorite example: 7 days to die).

    Also it is interesting to speculate (without changing subjects) that perhaps Lewis and Clark on the expedition to find a northwest passage probably didn't have that specific mission (call me crazy but I've long suspected the history books are wrong)... I imagine that people of that time knew that rivers don't just flow from sea to sea, which is precisely what Lewis and Clark were searching for. Something tells me there was a more nefarious purpose to the expedition...


    It is obvious to anyone who gives it enough thought that rivers don't flow from sea to sea. I sometimes think that the history we were taught in school isn't always accurate or even true!
     
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  40. BIGTIMEMASTER

    BIGTIMEMASTER

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  41. Seneral

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    Watched it a few days ago, less of actual world formation / geography but more of guide to approach it depending on your game's needs and common pitfalls in regards to how your game is perceived in different countries.

    Well then, my share:

    More on their custom tools, workflow and technology rather than geography, still one of the most interesting talks IMO.
     
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  42. Teila

    Teila

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    Thanks for the video links! I have been busy moving across country for the past four months so had very little time to participate in the forums or do anything else but pack and look for a place to live. We are finally settled in beautiful northwestern New Jersey and can back to game development soon. We have a contract with a deadline so have to finish that first but will be back to continue this thread soon. I do miss the forums!
     
  43. JamesArndt

    JamesArndt

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    I know for myself personally LIDAR data downloaded from the web has been the strongest resource for me to represent really natural looking terrains. Now my purposes have been mostly real world locations like Gettysburg, PA or various racetracks around the world. In the US almost every single state has a free online repository of DEM and LIDAR terrain data. Super handy!
     
  44. Teila

    Teila

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    You can also use Party Terrain to download real world data. It sometimes needs a little help,but the results can be very nice...and it is very easy to use. Just choose your location and download the height map.

    Oops, that is Terrain Party. https://terrain.party/
     
  45. Minchew

    Minchew

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    This is a super informative video. The terrain was the best part of the Ghost Recon Wildlands so they know what they're talking about. haha
     
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  46. Ony

    Ony

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    This is a great thread, thanks for the interesting read!

    Ages ago (1999-2000) I got WAY into terrain and geography when working with a friend on a terrain creation tool for Fly! (flight simulator). From that I went on to work heavily on the scenery for Fly!II. There was a time when I was very, very much into this stuff, but eventually we veered off into other, uhm... territories (ba dum tsss). It's been a long time but I'm working once again with terrain design for a game project, so this thread is perfect right now. :)
     
  47. deliquescator

    deliquescator

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    Great thread indeed. I was always interested in natural terrain creation and it irritates me when I see very generic looking scenery that does not make sense. Some good advice here which I will definitely use in the future! :D
     
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  48. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner

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    I want to point out that the flip side of this can be used to very good effect. Games with a horror or other worldly/lovecraftian theme can put the player in a state of unease by invoking the uncanny valley.

    Most players won’t consciously notice the river that’s flowing up hill or the desert island in the middle of a rainforest, but their subconscious will. Knowing all these geological rules and purposely violating them gives a subtle, yet powerful surreal nature.
     
  49. Martin_H

    Martin_H

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    The uncanny valley isn't where stuff "looks wrong" it is where it "looks almost right". Here is an example that I think sits right in they valley. It could probably fool image recognition software, but it can't fool a human:



    I think the "actual uncanny valley" for landscape could have the effect you describe (but I don't know if it ever has even been reached yet), but not something "plain wrong" like the desert biome in Minecraft next to the snow biome.
     
  50. JennyHide

    JennyHide

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    Thanks for posting this - I found it really interesting.
     
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