Vol.34 No.2 May 2000

Are Virtual Worlds Worth It?

Richard Rouse III
Paranoid Productions

May 00 Columns
About the Cover Visfiles

Gaming & Graphics
Previous Gaming & Graphics

Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong
Figure 1: Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. How does the ape manage to deform the structure in (a) so that it looks like (b)? Note the barrel in the middle of (b) that has rotated so it can roll down a ladder. Donkey Kong, copyright 1981 Nintendo.

Donkey Kong 64
Figure 2: What a game based on the Donkey Kong characters looks like today. Donkey Kong 64, copyright 1999 Nintendo, developed by Rare.
Ultima IX: Ascension
Figure 3: Ultima IX: Ascension, a game which is pushing the limits of complex game worlds. Copyright 2000 Origin Systems.

Are computer games any more fun now than they were 10 years ago? Surely they have improved considerably in terms of technology, with flashier visuals and generally more immersive gameplay than the experiences of before? Maybe I’m just a cynic, but the games just don’t seem to be the same fun these days. One of my own games, Centipede 3D, is a remake or “modernization” of a classic game, the original Centipede as created by Ed Logg in 1980. The new version of the game has a much flashier, involved and graphically lush gameworld, but the game mechanics are largely the same as the original Centipede. Is the game any more fun for having a virtual world? Quite the contrary; I’d say it’s less fun. If anything, the 3D world in which the player navigates in Centipede 3D distracts from the core gameplay.

It would appear that I am not the only one who ponders the direction in which gaming is heading. Game developer and historian James Hague, who Computer Graphics readers may remember as the guest editor of this magazine’s May 1998 focus, graciously agreed to return to the magazine to explore one of his own pet topics: are virtual worlds worth it?

- Richard Rouse III

James Hague
Dadgum Games

In the beginning, games were abstract, surreal and just plain weird.

Looking back on a game from almost 20 years ago, Nintendo’s original Donkey Kong for example, there’s much that only made sense because of the vaguely representational nature of the graphics. A big ape vandalizes a skyscraper under construction, and somehow manages to make the topmost horizontal girder slope downward to the right, the next girder below slope downward to the left, the one below that downward to the right and so on. It wasn’t physically possible to animate those kind of deformations on a model of the building, but the designers got away with the concept by omitting the vertical pieces that the horizontally aligned girders would have been attached to.

And there are additional bits of strangeness. Barrels roll along the length of a girder so that the player can only see the end caps of each container, yet for some reason they rotate to face the player lengthwise when they roll down a ladder to the girder below. From a two-dimensional side view this sort of makes sense-okay, no it doesn’t-but it doesn’t jump out at the player as the contrived impossibility that it is in actuality!

The Rise of the Tourist Industry

As game graphics improved, there was a tendency to give the player more things to see. This was only natural. No matter how well drawn, Pac-Man or Missile Command only contained one screen. If you expanded the game to include different levels, each with its own set of graphics, then it was a big hook for the player. Ads could feature shots of different screens. The player could have the satisfaction of seeing a new screen for the first time on his or her computer. Donkey Kong, again, was an early example of this, with four different levels of custom graphics and animation, and Miner 2049’er took this to the next stage with a then unbelievable 10 screens when it was first released circa 1983. Ten screens! How would you ever see them all?

The levels in Miner 2049’er obviously took a lot of effort in terms of programming and layout. There was often only one correct way to work through a screen, with misleading "Surely I can jump from here to there?" platforms everywhere. One level included a cannon that the player could jump into, scoot back and forth and be launched across the screen with. Another level featured teleporters activated with the one, two and three keys. Others included slides. A vat of radioactive waste. Shuffling platforms. The author, Bill Hogue, didn’t whip out a level in an editor and plunk it into the game in a few minutes. Jumpman, for the Commodore 64, was a later game in the same general vein, but with even more levels. Quite possibly the author of Jumpman was trying to one up Mr. Hogue.

With memory capabilities growing but programming not getting any easier, much more of an emphasis was being placed on giving the player new terrain to fly over or walk through, even if the gameplay wasn’t directly affected by the current set of graphics. This led to the themed levels that were a mainstay of the ever popular "jump on stuff" platform games popularized by the Super Mario Bros. series. The desire to have widely varying levels that kept the player wanting to see "what comes next" spurred a series of clichéd scenery sets that no self-respecting game could be without: a jungle or rain forest level, a volcano level, a waterfall level, a dark and dripping cave (or a mine with railed carts) and a level covered with ice, snow and penguins. And I’ll be the first to admit that it was fun to get to a new level for the first time. "Hey Bert get up here! I made it to the underwater level! I made it to the underwater level! I-oh no, oh no... died. Never mind!"

Along the way, game characters transformed from being blobby eight-by-eight pixel critters into more human-like forms. Starting in the mid 1980s, games were, more often than not, based around controlling recognizably humanoid forms (e.g. Kung Fu Master, Street Sports Basketball and Strider). Today, in real-time 3D games, the player’s on-screen puppet is almost always a human, be they the Quake Guy, Half Life’s Gordon Freeman, a personified Bandicoot who goes by the moniker of Crash or some nameless Joe riding a bike in Motocross Madness.

This evolution has culminated in the general formula for a 3D game design: create a 3D world that’s broken up into discrete chunks (levels), develop a character and then let that character run around the 3D world doing something to be specified later. That something doesn’t seem quite as important, or as daunting, in the new formula for game design as the first of these items: constructing a 3D world. This isn’t a condescending description at all; it’s more of a statement of the level of technology and artistic freedom that we have in front of us. We can create worlds. We can create characters. And we can let our characters loose in our worlds. But is it worth it?

Building the Pyramids

An underlying assumption in the development of 3D graphics is that virtual reality is the ultimate goal. It’s rarely mentioned outright, but that’s what we’re shooting for. For sure we like to talk about how gameplay is more important than graphics and ‘wow, it sure would be great to work on a game with the focus on fun instead of frame rate.’ Nonetheless, each round of games has more techie stuff behind it than the last batch. Straight texture mapping won’t cut it any more; proper shadow maps are required. Wouldn’t curved surfaces that tessellate on the fly be handy! Characters have to cast anatomically correct shadows that project on nearby geometry. Volumetric lighting sure looks better than twiddling with vertex colors. How about light that properly refracts in water? And wavering heat pockets over lava; we can’t forget lava. An up-and-coming buzzword is "unique texturing," so each polygon in a world can be painted on directly without altering a base texture map. And so it goes.

All else being equal, a game with nice shadows is obviously going to look better than one that doesn’t have them. Trying to be a retro miser and doing without is only going to make reviewers scrunch up their noses and reach for the "OUTDATED" stamp. In addition, reaching for the next level by applying new and novel research techniques to game engines is compelling for game developers. Who wouldn’t want to be the first to pull off a crazy new effect, such as the ‘bleeding character walking into a pond and having the blood diffuse into the water’ effect?

Technical issues aside, the biggest change that fully 3D game worlds have brought to the game creation business is a dramatic increase in the amount of time it takes to bring a title from concept to finished product. The rendering engine may be complete, the AI and interface and tools written but then there are the 20 to 50 levels needed. Even given a game of Doom vintage, 30 to 50 levels can soak up a whole lot of time. Assuming a really good level jockey can pump out a top notch Doom map in three days, then that’s 18 to 30 artist weeks of work over six months in the latter case. And Doom is simple by modern standards.

Consider a more complex 3D world like that of Quake III. Nobody’s going to create a polished and exceptional Quake map in less than two weeks - and that’s being conservative. We’re up to 60 to 100 weeks of work.

Now go one step further and get away from games whose levels can be put together like so many Lego blocks. Imagine creating a fully textured, fully custom world in a real 3D-modeling package. How long would a synthetic museum take to create, complete with landscaped grounds? Or a multi-story castle? Depending on the detail, four months may seem like a reasonable estimate. How long would it take for 20 levels? Over six years. (Note, too, the number of levels is even below the original target range, and that the figure of four months might be a bit on the low side).

After spending those four months modeling and texturing a mansion, there’s strong incentive to use that work in the game, because it’s difficult to throw out something so expensive in terms of time and money. Developing worlds at such expense can result in awe-inspiring experiences for the player, but as worlds get more realistic and more complex to create, something is lost in the creative process. Is it worth, for example, taking eight months to put together an absolutely brilliant computer rendition of the White House just so someone can run through it, guns a-blazing, on his way to the next level?

The cost of sinking a dozen person years into world creation is steep, both in terms of lost game development time and bitterness. After four years the 3D masterwork is complete, but "Barbie Girl Gotta Groove" is outselling it 50 to one. Is there no justice?! Lost development time is more of a nagging issue. Every four or so years, somebody that nobody has heard of tends to set the game world on fire with ‘the next big thing.’ And when that new big thing comes along, being locked two years into a three and a half year development cycle is going to be very tough, especially if that thing doesn’t follow the "game = world + characters" equation that’s the current norm.

But there are other options...the view that games have to run along a preset path to virtual reality is hopelessly limited. Experience, for example, the wonder of PaRappa the Rapper for the PlayStation, The Sims for the PC, of Crazy Taxi for the Dreamcast or of a yet to be written game about a lunatic who mail orders everything and never steps outside.

The Limits of the Level Designer

At one time the term "designer" implied "programmer." In that day and age, how full of hubris could one be to think he or she could jot down a game concept on a cocktail napkin, then hand it off to a coder to do the grunt work! Or perhaps, more correctly, how could this person think that someone else could take a loose idea, craft it into a finished game and expect that game to embody the spirit of the original inspiration.

Eventually the non-programmer position of game designer evolved. A designer may say "this level takes place in a shopping mall," and give some general input about the features of the mall, but it is the person putting together the levels who decides that there should be a fountain in the middle and how that fountain should look. And somewhere down the line, when a player is being chased by mall security guards in the shipping game, the player is going to have to decide whether it’s quicker to run around the fountain or to try to hide in the Macy’s dressing rooms. Something out of the designer’s control had an affect on gameplay, and this prompted the creation of a new job description: level designer, a person who works from the guidelines set by the game designer and programmers and puts together the actual worlds that the player wanders around in. This isn’t some grunt task, but the job that bridges an engine and a game. Level designer is an impressive term on a business card, and rightly so.

There may be one designer, six programmers and 15 level designers on a good sized project. As a side effect, it can thus be hard to shake the feeling that the direction of a game is largely free floating until the level designers-the people with the most time-consuming task-have completed their work. Does the combination of game engine and editor reduce to a construction kit from which dozens of games can be created? If so, it is the job of the game designer to design such a construction kit rather than a finished game. By definition, this eliminates a large class of games that don’t fit the construction kit model-consider such classic non-electronic games as poker or baseball. If baseball were designed by a game development house, one inning would take place underground, the next on a rock floating in a pool of lava and the next on Easter Island. And the bases would always be in different places, and maybe there would be 10 bases on one level spaced hundreds of feet apart and dinosaurs roaming the outfield of the next. Maybe if we did away with the whole "pitcher throws the ball" thing and just had a guy named Hank who ran through levels in a striped uniform swatting critters with a wooden bat?!

Okay, that’s over the top. But there are certain design considerations and rules that come into play once you start down the "player in a world" path, and those considerations tend to conflict with games that don’t fit that model. In many ways, the desire to architect explorable worlds inside the computer is at odds with what can be categorized as game design, the selection of rules and interactions that result in something that’s fun to pick up and play. Creating 3D virtual worlds for players to run around in is an amazing endeavor, but one with different time sinks and payoffs. And depending on the particular situation, one that might not always be worth the effort.

James Hague has been designing and programming computer games since the mid 1980s. He founded Dadgum Games in 1996, and is currently with Volition, Inc., as lead programmer for the PlayStation 2 role-playing game, Summoner. An avid electronic game historian, Hague is the author of Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers and maintains an associated website at

Richard Rouse III is a computer game designer and programmer at Surreal Software who, in the course of writing this article, realized he’s been working in games for a long time: nearly six years. At least that’s a long time compared to most of the other people working in the gaming business. His mother may still be wondering when he’s going to get a real job. His games thus far are Odyssey - The Legend of Nemesis, Damage Incorporated and Centipede 3D.

James Hague
Dadgum Games
P.O. Box 11214
Champaign, IL 61286-1214

Richard Rouse III
716 11th Ave E.
Seattle, WA 98102

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.