A Study in Pressure and Time
Nothing in this world we live is static. All is in motion – changing, decaying, growing, and coalescing in a seemingly eternal cycle between the union of birth and death, existence versus nonexistence, or the point of transformation.
With an impossible macro view of our planet’s history, we would see readily that the combined forces of heat, pressure, wind, and water take millennia to work their craft upon the ever-changing palette of the Earth. Over time, we would witness the rage and surge of oceans, violent storms as they ebb and flow, and the tiny bits of mineral that drift and slam about in endless gusts of wind - all the while glacially sculpting what you happen to traverse when stepping outside, or what you see looming into focus upon the horizon. We would see that even underneath your very feet, enormous plates of encrusted planetary debris sail and capsize about on a sea of molten metal - a giant spherical flotsam of our ancient, primordial, explosive origin.
Universally speaking, it has taken us forever (or our best grasp of it) just for our current world-view to tumble into frame. Looking up, somehow we are still lost in the middle of it all, infants in time, with nary an end in sight.
During the development of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, we had maybe a microscopic fraction of that amount of time to help bring an entire landmass to your glowing screens. Scratch that. Given that timetable, our window doesn’t even have a prayer of registering to the senses.
OK, so what do we do? We have to ship a game. Not only that, Oblivion has to be the finest RPG we can possibly create. It has to be.
So now what do we do – what’s next?
Well, in the grand old Bethesda tradition of starting fresh from scratch, we pause for a moment and contemplate our goal, and then we begin to distill and sift the problem down to the most basic, base elements – in this case, the elements within a simulated 3D space.
OK – that doesn’t give us much to work with. It won’t even render to the screen in the final game.
Better. We can display lines now, which is something. Keep going.
Great, now we’re getting somewhere. The space between the vertices can be filled, yielding polygons, which supply us with a surface to manipulate. What happens when we string many of them together?
All right, our world is starting to take shape now…but it’s a little flat…boring. Let’s introduce some variance – let’s give each vertex the freedom to move up or down along the z-axis, while still remaining connected as a whole.
Interesting. Now the terrain surface, while just as simple mesh-wise as before, is taken to a greater degree of visual complexity just from altering the vertex positions along the vertical z-axis. The resulting form has a much more pleasing interaction with even a simple, single light source splaying across the surface.
Ok, we’ve got points in space and an alterable surface they can manipulate. Let’s ramp things up a bit by using some of the new landscaping and painting tools in The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, making the surface of our world huge.
Tamriel is starting to come into focus. Using various height adjusting and vertex smoothing brushes (that work very similarly to those you might find in a 2D paint program such as Photoshop) we were able to push and pull the various vertices of the heightfield into a shape that is beginning to resemble a more natural, multi-featured landscape.
While the coarse shapes are there – mountains, valleys, plateaus, etc., we’re still missing out on a lot of high-level detail. Most of the hilly features are far too rounded and dull to be confused with anything in the real world. For starters, there isn’t a sufficient amount of visual contrast between the more vertical and horizontal spaces across the land. To polish things up even further, let’s try adding some noise and erosion detail to the scene.
There we are…this section of terrain now feels a bit more natural and weathered. With the new landscaping tools in the Construction Set, it is quite easy to add intricate cragginess to an otherwise gentle, ascending slope, or to chisel away yawning chasms by years worth of soil erosion, all from the press of a button. Additionally, we’ve gone and colorized the different ranges of elevation to help better give a sense of scale and spatial organization to our scene.