The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim's dirty little secret is that it isn't that large. Oh, it remains fairly gigantic by the standards of other virtual landscapes, even next to its youthful imitator and usurper, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But set against what it pretends to be - a kingdom stretching from arctic wastes to the temperate south, racked by dynastic squabbles and laced with the treasures and detritus of millennia - it's actually pretty dang tiddly, a little over 14 square miles in scope.

14 square miles? That's no bygone, mystery-shadowed dominion rearing its shrines and watchtowers amid sunflashed snow. That's a jumped-up theme park, a country music festival. More to the point, that's approximately the same size as The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, a game which has become something of a punching bag for Elder Scrolls aficionados in hindsight - neither as grand as its swaggering barbarian brother, nor as memorably odd as burned-out hippy uncle Morrowind. Steer clear of distractions like temperamental mammoth herds and you can walk from one side of Skyrim to the other in half an hour.

I'm being quite obtuse, of course. If open world games were required to be as large as their inspirations or narrative aspirations they'd never get finished, and in any case, who would have the time to play them? The fascinating thing about open world design is that it's not really about size at all. It's more the art of the deceptive miniature - of making the poky or digestible seem enormous to the point of exhausting, even as distant cities reveal themselves for neighbouring hamlets, fearsome mountains for mere well-appointed foothills. Skyrim is extremely good at this, to a degree I'm not sure any game environment can rival save the corkscrew terrain of the original Dark Souls. It launches on Switch this week, glory of glories, and I've spent a few hours with the remastered PC version to remind myself of its achievements.

Read more…

Dead Space

The environments of massive open-world games, particularly in recent years, have been rightly praised for their representation, scale and design accuracy. However, there are some gems at the other end of the spectrum - environments that make you feel cramped, tense and desperate for a break. This is an approach to environment design utilised in our real-world, from gardens to architecture, and is mirrored excellently in some game environments, creating areas that trap us in cramped, claustrophobic conditions.

The underground tunnel network of the Metro series, adapted for human life but traversed with trepidation and tension, nailed its own post-apocalyptic look and feel, and had claustrophobia, discomfort and fear oozing from its design. These spaces successfully evoke real-world design principles of landscape mazes and labyrinths, such as dead ends, twists and turns to cause doubling back and elevate desperation, fluctuating size and scale of spaces, and a continuous and monotonal finish (a symphony of grey in Metro's case) that makes every surface and area look the same, but also makes for an unrelenting and repressive aesthetic.

Often, the spaces are not only characteristic of uncomfortable mazes and tunnels, but their disrepair and crumbling structure means they have a constant feeling of pressure and weight about them: the feeling that, at any moment, the space could collapse on top of Artyom's head. The tunnels are also powerful spaces as they are a believable and familiar environment to us; adapting a real-world, recognisably claustrophobic environment makes for a powerfully uncomfortable virtual space.

Read more…

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition

Update: Patreon has removed the fraudulent campaign page for violating its TOS, specifically with regards to "impersonation:" With allowances for satire and comedy, " You cannot pretend or impersonate another creator, such as using someone else's name, brand, or content in order to raise funds."

Original story:

Morrowind, the best of Bethesda's long-running Elder Scrolls series (and I'll hear no more about it), is set on Vvardenfell, an island within the Dunmer home province of Morrowind. The mainland is never properly seen: The Tribunal expansion technically takes place there, but it's contained entirely within the walled city of Mournhold and so doesn't really count. It's a shortcoming that the ambitious Tamriel Rebuilt mod, which we took a closer look at earlier this year, aims to overcome by recreating and adding all of that missing landmass to the game. 

The project is entirely volunteer, which is one of the reasons there's no end in sight after more than 15 years of work. It's also why you probably wouldn't be surprised to see a Patreon campaign supporting its creation. Don't back it, though, even if you're a big Elder Scrolls fan, because it's a fraud. 

"There is currently a link going around to a Patreon page masquerading as our official account, asking for donations to keep Tamriel Rebuilt running," a message on the official Tamriel Rebuilt website warns. "This account is not affiliated with us in any way, shape or form. We do not have, nor do we plan to have, a Patreon account at all." 

The mod makers say they've made Patreon aware of the situation, but the campaign remains up for now. Fortunately, nobody has donated to it so far. (And to help keep it that way, I'm not linking to the campaign page.)

Despite not being complete, Tamriel Rebuilt is playable as a work-in-progress. You'll need a copy of Morrowind and the Bloodmoon and Tribunal expansion to dive in—if you've got all that, you can download the most recent release of the mod here

Thanks, PCGamesN

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Dominic Tarason)

Daggerfall Unity

My earliest memories of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall were of fear and excitement at the boundless possibilities of a true fantasy sandbox. Of amazement at the most comprehensive character creation screen I’d ever seen, and of deep annoyance when I managed to fall through the floor and into an endless void in the first minute of the game.

I’ve spent over twenty years waiting for someone to fix Daggerfall, and that dream seems tantalisingly close to being realised. Daggerfall Unity (Daggerfall ported to the Unity engine, shockingly, and something we’d briefly covered years ago) can now be played to completion, and with greatly reduced risk of falling through a crack in the world.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Bethesda’s new ‘Creation Club’ DLC microtransaction store has launched for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition [official site], following a beta last week and its debut in Fallout 4 in August. It stocks mostly packs of weapons, armour, and bits for a couple of quid each – nothing exciting. Perhaps the biggest bit is Survival Mode, which adds hunger and cold and all those survival things you find in survival mods. To lure people into the Creation Club, Survival Mode is free if you grab it right now. (more…)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Dominic Tarason)

Skyrim Survival

After a less-than-successful initial foray into the realm of monetising Skyrim mods, Bethesda are presently rolling out a public beta of their Creation Club – their DLC-esque, more corporate alternative – to the revamped Skyrim Special Edition [official site]. To sweeten the pot, they’re offering early adopters the option to claim a free copy of Survival Mode, a major gameplay modification adding the management of simulated hunger, tiredness and cold to the already-hazardous environment.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

fallout-4-vr-pc

A couple of weeks back – when I also went hands-on with both Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and The Evil Within 2 – I goggled up and gave the upcoming VR version of 2016’s Doom a spin, as well as bearing witness to other folks’ flailing and giggling in Skyrim VR and Fallout VR. Bethesda’s triptych of 3D ultravision spin-offs are due before the year is out, with Skyrim only available on PSVR at least initially and Fallout and Doom only officially> supporting HTC Vive, for obvious reasons. Their arrival is a pretty big event for a technology that so far has leaned far more heavily on brand new things rather than established names.

Curious about what this means for the technology and for Doom, Skyrim and Fallout, I picked Bethesda VP Pete Hine’s brains about the whys and wherefores, and what it might imply for the future of their own VR efforts. Also below: my own quick impressions of Doom VFR [official site].

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Call of Duty®

I have never seen a more tragic comments section than the one from a few weeks back when we asked our readers to share their most tragic save file disasters. Over 200 of you shared stories of despair and woe as hard drives crashed, Uplay cloud saves glitched, or a simple misclick spelled doom for countless hours of gaming.

We've collected the saddest, most heartbreaking stories below so that you can wallow in their misery. And if you didn't get a chance to contribute your own story, do so in the comments.

The lost library 

This one hits hard because the emotional loss is so apparent. It's one thing to fall in love with your Morrowind character and your adventures together, but Bear's story of losing his entire library of collected books in Morrowind because of a virus really stings.

Commenter: Bear

My first Morrowind character. I had made an Argonian and enjoyed the wonders that the game had to offer, discovered mods a number of hours in, got myself a few decent ones, joined House Telvanni to appreciate the irony of being an Argonian and of Telvanni, and progressed very little on the main questline but became deeply infatuated with the world.

I kept telling myself, I'll do the main quest later, and something would come up. When the "something" was the Thieves Guild, I became captivated with in-game theft, and I claimed a home that was empty after I'd murdered the owner as my loot den.

I use the word loot loosely. I was only interested in one type of item to steal: books. I ventured back and forth across the continent stealing every book I could manage, piling stacks of books as high as I could manage in my den of ill-gotten goods, occasionally tossing other stolen things on the floor, but my pride were the hundreds of books stacked taller than my Argonian. The small room would take a good ten minutes to load because of the sheer amount of books. I'd take detours while exploring just to raid places looking for books. Even if I got one book, I was pleased to be able to add it to my collection.

This was the first time I'd pumped so many hours into any game, ever. It was probably 2003 or 2004, and I had a PC that was rough around the edges at best. It was passed to me by my father as a reject for his own uses, no doubt in hopes that I would get my 12 or 13-year-old behind off the family PC with minimal trouble, and it worked. Until my young self made an uneducated choice in my forays on the internet and I picked up a particularly nasty virus while trying to download some free graphics editing software. The PC wouldn't boot. My father refused to help me fix it (apparently he had regrets for giving me my own PC, because my internet usage increased rapidly) and I couldn't figure it out.

My father finally just reformatted the hard drive and when I went to restart Morrowind, my hundreds of hours and couple years of gameplay was lost. I'd just lost the one thing that helped let me escape the troubles of being a bullied, friendless kid so easily before.

Lost in space 

Not all of these stories have to do with losing a save file entirely. Some deal with the existential horror of being trapped in one location, never able to escape. Of course, that horror becomes a lot more tangible when there's a giant xenomorph rapping at your chamber door.

Commenter: Bob McCow

Alien: Isolation is a bit mean with the saving system. You have to find what looks like a retro telephone booth and dial a number, making sure that Mr. Alien is not about to skewer you with his tongue or show you his six freaky fingers. You can only go back two save points, so you have to be very careful.

After a month spent hiding in lockers and wetting myself, I'd progressed through the game painfully slowly. I was escaping from the nest and it looked like I was finally getting Amanda off Sevastapol for good. I only had to take a lift up to a safer level. Sadly, I dropped a gun while being chased by the Alien and it got wedged in the door in a very glitchy way. The glitch meant that although I could take the lift, the next level wouldn't load. I was stuck! I couldn't retrieve an early enough save file to avoid the glitching gun. I haven't had the courage to replay the entire game to get to that point, so I'll never know if Amanda made it.

She's left forever in that lift with the Alien banging on the door outside.

It's not you, it's Witcher 3 

Listen, people make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes can hurt us, but I'm not sure if I'd ever end a relationship over a lost game save. But I guess The Witcher 3 isn't your average game.

Commenter: Piantino

Some time ago, my ex girlfriend wanted to play The Witcher 3 and I shared it from my Steam library with her. One day she played it in my PC, and when I came to play I realized that the save files in The Witcher 3 are the same when you share from your Steam library, and she saved her game in the same slot as mine. I lost my lvl 55 Geralt, my witcher gear and swords—everything. My time in Ard Skellige looking for treasures didn't serve for anything. I broke up with her some time ago and I use this story to explain why she is now my ex hahahaha.

Happy birthday 

I'm sure parents are equally as responsible for deleted saves as failing hardware. But there's something especially tragic when it all happens because they were trying to do something nice for you.

Commenter: Robáird Mac An TSaoir

In the late nineties, my dad surprised me for my birthday with some PC upgrades: a new monitor, bigger hard drive, and new graphics card. Of course, he'd wiped my old hard drive. Ten years of save files, writing, gig upon gig of films and music, all gone.

Commenter Grom Hellscream sums up the tragedy perfectly:

"Happy birthday, son. I formatted your entire childhood."

Groundhog Day 

If you've ever saved immediately before your demise only to find that you're now stuck replaying your death over and over, you can sympathise with Berty Bennish's story.

Commenter: Berty Bennish

I was playing the first Call of Duty back when it first came out. I would regularly save my games but in this instance, my last save was a couple of levels before the incident. It was the daylight St. Mere-Eglise level. After destroying the tank that comes out of the wall I ran round the corner heading towards where you would get in the car. I killed a couple of guys and ran a bit further. Game decides to auto save right when a German soldier pops round the corner and blasts me in the head. Instant death.

Game loads.

Instant death.

Game loads.

Instant death.

and so on…

What's hilarious about this particular story is that another one of our commenters had nearly the exact same problem.

Commenter: ImpatientPedant

When I was playing Call of Duty, way back in the day, there was a tank section. I hadn't saved for the entirety of the (rather long) mission, and contrived to save at the exact moment a shell was fired in my direction, a shell which would wipe me out.

Every time I tried to reload, the shell would fire and I would die. Over and over. I was shattered.

If a psychologist interviews me years from now and asks me why my dreams often have intermittent flashes of light, this is 100 percent the reason. Poor old toddler me.

Sorry, Mom 

Parents have unwittingly destroyed thousands of hours of time invested into games, but Zach Fathaigh's story flips the script. I'm assuming his mother had a hard time looking at him for a few days after.

Commenter: Zach Fathaigh

1996's The Realm is a fun proto-MMO that my mom was obsessed with. You get four or five character slots, I can't remember which. My mom let me have one of those slots (thank you, Mom). My older brother asked me what the game was like and I wanted to show him how fun it was to start a new character. So I looked at the list and saw Mom's two really badass characters, my character, and a level 1 naked character. I deleted that one to make room for my brother's character.

The deleted character was a mule with hundreds of hours worth of loot. I forgot about this incident entirely until my mom reminded me of it over the weekend.

Sorry, Mom.

Double whammy

We've all had hardware fail. Picking up and starting a game from the ashes of an old save is awful. Having to do it twice? No thanks.

Commenter: Kyosho

Christmas of 1999, I get the one game I really wanted under the tree. That big, ugly (beautiful?) orange and purple box. Planescape: Torment. From Christmas day until just before New Years, I put about 25-ish hours into the game. I was really into it. Then my hard drive crashed. I was devastated. I had the computer fixed within a week, but it took me another month or two to work up the nerve to start the game over from scratch. I did it, though. Even made some slightly different choices. It was a bit tedious to read ALL that text again, but after a good 15 hours or so, I got back to where I'd been. Played another 20-ish hours and... BAM, another hard drive crash.

Here's a tip, kids: Don't skimp out on your power supply when building a PC. It killed two hard drives before I knew the cause. Anyway, to say it was soul crushing was an understatement. I haven't beaten Planescape: Torment to this day. I've tried going back to it, but I end up losing interest before I ever get back to where I was. Best RPG of all time? Maybe. It's too painful for me to be able to ever know.

Tower of Trials 

Speaking of hard drive failures, I can't stress enough how important it is to back up important projects. We had countless stories about people losing game saves, but entire games? Seriously, don't wind up like Matt.

Commenter: Matt Pruitt

I once made an entire game in RPG maker VX-ACE. It was called the Tower of Trials. It was short and utilized only the assets the game provided. It had some random elements, little story, and was intended for short-runs about 30-40 minutes long. I worked on it for two years, starting on my old laptop and eventually finishing it on my first PC. It was my own little project and only a few of my friends played it. Then I discovered why people told me not to buy cheap HDDs. My hard drive crapped out on me and two years of work was lost. My oldest version of the game was on my old laptop and only had three floors of the tower completed. Needless to say, my current rig is running on a Samsung SSD.

Harry Potter and the Computer Thief 

It's one thing to lose a save file, but to lose the ability to play a game altogether? Now that's tragic.

Commenter: dxdy

Back in elementary school, 2001 or so, I really liked Harry Potter. Neither me nor my parents could afford a PC or anything to play modern games (had an Atari 130 XE though), so I was very happy when someone left Philosopher's Stone installed at the school's computer lab.

I could only play video games for a limited time after classes, so I only made it to Herbology Class over the course of several months. The game felt amazing to me, probably because I was reading Harry Potter books around the same time.

Once I went to school as usual, but after arriving I noticed it was completely deserted. Normally, entire halls would be filled with sounds of children playing but there was not a single soul in sight. I went upstairs. After walking around for a minute, I was spotted by the principal's assistant who rushed me to the cafeteria.

When we arrived there, I saw that all students were crammed inside. I quickly learned from colleagues that the school was robbed overnight. Robbers broke the window and stole a boombox, whole bunch of chocolate bars from school's kiosk, and every single PC from the lab. I lost not only the save file I worked for what felt like eternity, I lost the ability to play my beloved game in the first place.

These were just a few of the great stories our commenters told us. For the rest, be sure to check out the comment thread from last week.

Some comments were edited for grammar and clarity.

Half-Life 2

Every year PC Gamer's editors and contributors vote on a list of the 100 best PC games to play right now, and every year our Top 100 list is contentious. A game is always too low, and another too high, and another unbelievably missing. Such is the inevitable fate of any List Of Things In A Certain Order.

But this year, we decided it would be fun to transform the heated comment threads under our list into a list of their own—the Readers' Top 100. Last week, I asked you to pick your top two games from our Top 100 list, and suggest two games to add. I then compiled the votes (1,445 of them), weighing the write-ins more highly than the picks from our list, given that it's much more likely that 50 people would chose the same game from a list of 100 than all write in the same game.

My totally unscientific method does cause a few problems, namely: how much more do you weigh the write-in votes? A multiplier of three produced the most interesting list in this case, though next year I may ditch that tactic all together and take write-ins only. The danger is that a write-in-only list might be more easily swayed by organized campaigns (though that certainly happened anyway), and for this first attempt, I wanted to include a baseline to build off of just in case the suggestions were too scattered, or too homogeneous.

It worked out pretty well despite the uneven, improvised methodology—but do think of it as a fun exercise and not a perfect representation of PC gamers' tastes. Caveats out of the way, check out the list below. (Games that aren't on our Top 100 list are in bold.)

The PC Gamer Readers' Top 100

  1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  2. Half-Life 2 
  3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 
  4. Dark Souls 
  5. Borderlands 2 
  6. Fallout: New Vegas 
  7. Mass Effect 2  
  8. Doom (2016) 
  9. BioShock 
  10. Doom 2 
  11. Fallout 2 
  12. Deus Ex 
  13. Portal 2 
  14. Life is Strange 
  15. Starcraft 
  16. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn 
  17. Grand Theft Auto 5 
  18. League of Legends 
  19. Diablo 2 
  20. XCOM 2 
  21. Fallout 4 
  22. Dragon Age: Origins 
  23. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind 
  24. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds 
  25. Bioshock Infinite 
  26. Overwatch 
  27. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 
  28. World of Warcraft 
  29. Rimworld 
  30. Path of Exile 
  31. Planescape: Torment
  32. Fallout 
  33. Dishonored 2 
  34. Crysis 
  35. Stellaris 
  36. Crusader Kings 2 
  37. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 
  38. Dishonored 
  39. Half-Life 
  40. Warcraft 3 
  41. Quake 
  42. Factorio 
  43. Prey 
  44. SOMA 
  45. Fallout 3
  46. TIE Fighter 
  47. Elite Dangerous 
  48. Rocket League 
  49. Civilization 5 
  50. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 
  51. Starcraft 2 
  52. Nier: Automata 
  53. Stalker: Call of Pripyat 
  54. Wolfenstein: The New Order 
  55. Minecraft 
  56. System Shock 2 
  57. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion 
  58. Psychonauts 
  59. Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition 
  60. Knights of the Old Republic 
  61. Age of Empires 2 
  62. Thief 2 
  63. Endless Legend 
  64. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 
  65. Titanfall 2 
  66. Warframe 
  67. The Secret of Monkey Island  
  68. Kerbal Space Program 
  69. Europa Universalis IV 
  70. Hotline Miami  
  71. Payday 2 
  72. Battlefield 1 
  73. Dota 2 
  74. Total War: Warhammer 
  75. Mass Effect 3 
  76. Batman Arkham City 
  77. Rainbow Six Siege 
  78. FTL 
  79. Stardew Valley 
  80. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 
  81. The Talos Principle 
  82. Tyranny 
  83. Civilization 6 
  84. Undertale 
  85. Knights of the Old Republic 2 
  86. Team Fortress 2 
  87. The Witness 
  88. Thief Gold 
  89. Arma 3 
  90. Dying Light 
  91. Alien: Isolation 
  92. Hyper Light Drifter 
  93. Planet Coaster 
  94. Jagged Alliance 2 
  95. Call of Duty 2 
  96. Transistor
  97. Mass Effect 
  98. Freespace 2 
  99. 7 Days to Die 
  100. Ultima Online

For reference, the top 10 games on our list this year were: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, Dishonored 2, XCOM 2, Portal 2, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Mass Effect 2, Alien: Isolation, Doom (2016), and Spelunky. If you want a condensed sense of how our tastes differ from those surveyed, here are a few observations:

We like Spelunky a lot more than everyone else. It was in our top 10, but didn't even make it into the Readers' Top 100.

While Half-Life 2 has lost some stock in our minds, it hasn't in everyone's. It was 11th on our list, but 2nd on the Readers' list.

Everyone agrees that The Witcher 3 is great. It was first on both of our lists.

Skyrim is still chugging along. It was 26th on our list, but came in third in reader voting.

Borderlands 2 wasn't on our list, but came in 5th. Did Borderlands fans came out en masse, or are we just weird for not putting it on our list?

14th place is pretty impressive for Life is Strange. Rimworld ranked pretty high, too. Either these games are more popular than we realized, or the survey happened to be circulated among their biggest fans. Probably a mix of both.

League of Legends fans showed up to challenge our preference for Dota 2. It came in at 18, while Dota 2 was knocked down to 73. Justice?

If you'd like to compare the lists directly, I've put them side by side in a spreadsheet. Thank you to all 1,445 people who responded to the survey! Feel free to suggest new ways to compile this list in the comments, and I'll take them into consideration next year. My skill with Excel spreadsheet formulas is at least double what it was last week, a cursed power that will only have grown by next year.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

During the climax of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Millennium Falcon crashes through a dense pine forest and skirts toward the edge of an icy cliffside. The trees splinter and pancake as the space jalopy slides to a halt and our heroes emerge unscathed, leaving a shower of splinters and snow in their wake.  

But the trees are not what they seem. The forests in The Force Awakens, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and an episode of Sesame Street are all hiding something. They’re family. 

A significant amount of Mother Nature as represented in games and film starts life at SpeedTree, a small middleware company out of Lexington, South Carolina. Stranger still is that co-founder Chris King credits Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard for the company's success and the eventual deforestation of the Star Wars pines.

Todd Howard and the timber in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are also indirectly responsible for the alien forests on Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. You can blame Howard for the best trees in videogames and even in a rival series, The Witcher 3, with its vast windblown forests. You can also blame him for 3D models of the White House and surrounding shrubbery, likely tossed around the US Secret Service’s network to this day. 

You can allegedly blame him for CG pubic hair in 50 Shades of Grey (but don’t, King is totally unaware if SpeedTree's software was used as a dynamic genital hair generator. There are better solutions, I’m told. Still, it’s enough ambiguity for hope). 

But Todd Howard didn’t make the trees or the alleged pubes or the technology behind them. Howard just gave a small company a big job that helped it keep pace in an industry overgrown with new possibilities.

A seed is planted 

SpeedTree is a middleware solution for videogame developers and, more recently, filmmakers who need to make realistic trees en masse, quickly. That doesn’t mean SpeedTree is as simple as a copy and paste engine, or that it spits out photorealistic trees within perfectly simulated ecosystems. It’s easier to think of SpeedTree as more of a specialized tree canvas, a tool used to generate whole forests of trees that look similar but aren’t carbon copies of one another. 

SpeedTree’s tools also include massive libraries of textures for rendering vegetation, and animation tools that simulate wind moving through branches and leaves. Beyond the time and energy saved making so many trees, SpeedTree’s vegetation is also designed to conserve as many system resources as possible. 

For a simple understanding of how it works, the story of their success, and where SpeedTree is being used today, I talked to King over the phone and through a few scattered email exchanges. He’s a bright, generous character, the kind of person that blends a simple answer into an extended anecdote before coming full circle into a question about me. I get the impression the trees are in kind hands. 

“It’s all procedural, meaning we use curves and numbers to input into an algorithm that will generate this tree, and as you change those curves and numbers so changes the tree,” King tells me. “But once you get a definition, you can just hit randomize, one button, and it’ll make a tree that looks similar to the last, but not exactly like it. And you keep hitting randomize and it’ll keep hitting these different random variation, so you can populate a unique forest with trees very quickly.” 

But it’s important to clear up a common fallacy, he says. “It's a misconception that Speedtree generates these procedural trees on the fly, when in fact, it is an offline procedural tool. The procedural part is there, but it's just a tool that the artist uses to create the shape.” 

Simply put, every time you play The Witcher 3, SpeedTree isn’t procedurally generating a new forest. While a game is in development, artists, level designers, and programmers work together to generate a wholly unique forest using SpeedTree’s procedural tools, then touch up and arrange the final result by hand. Once the trees are in place, SpeedTree is also capable of handling “all the loading, culling, level-of-detail, lighting, and wind effects for entire forests” in real-time.

The Witcher 3 has some of the best trees in videogames.

Without the ability to summon a forest of wholly unique trees at will and render them in a live environment, developers have to build their forests entirely from scratch. This can be done by spending endless hours making small tweaks to branch structure from the same starting model, or by building an in-house solution to generate their own trees – albeit likely one with fewer features. Now, when peering out into the verdant, swaying canopies of Toussaint, the time saved and focused elsewhere is plain to see.  

Before setting the stage for Geralt, SpeedTree was a loose assembly of good ideas without testimony. Around the turn of the millennium, videogames with massive forests of distinct timber weren’t a common technical ambition, often reigned in by console hardware. For the most part, they were all done by hand, but off the tail of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind—whose development predates SpeedTree and itself contains many-a-thicket—Bethesda likely wasn’t ready to create a larger space with more realistic trees capable of running on modern PCs and emerging console hardware. They would need help, and that help was just sprouting. 

Counting rings 

Unlike most modern middleware and niche software companies, SpeedTree’s origins aren’t the result of surgical, chartered market research and Silicon Valley capital juicing. King inadvertently started SpeedTree with co-founder Michael Sechrest, the result of modest ambitions steered by restlessness and passion. 

Sechrest and King met as graduate students in the Computer Engineering department at the University of South Carolina in the late 90s. “We were deeply involved with real-time visualization on those huge old Silicon Graphics Unix systems, doing visualizations for the Office of Naval Research and the Department of Energy.”

Coinciding with the release of the original Nvidia GeForce GPU in 1999, King and Sechrest wanted to start a business and bring their experience creating detailed visualizations to the PC, which was finally capable of rendering their work in real time. The pair formed Interactive Data Visualization (IDV), Inc., which King considers “A great name for a company that does engineering visualizations, not so great for vegetation in videogames and films!”

Here's what a modern SpeedTree tech demo looks like in UE4. 

By 2001, the two found steady business creating pre-rendered 3D visuals and animations for a handful of companies, building architectural renders and flyovers day after day. It was good work, but rendering trees for video and stills didn’t challenge their programming skills in the same way videogames would. For King and Sechrest, it was one thing to model a scene and let a powerful computer render it overnight; and another to generate a forest and render it live in the same environment as a little Geralt and hundreds of invisible systems without setting the average household PC on fire.

But during a discussion about the creation of a particular flyover, the client and lead architect was very particular about the trees, requesting that each species be recognizable, a specific height, and to appear wind-blown. 

Without software capable of achieving such effects, King and Sechrest made their own, which ended up as the very first version of SpeedTree. “It consisted of a very rudimentary version of the SpeedTree Modeler and a small 3ds Max plug-in,” King says, “It worked well enough. In 2002, we released it as SpeedTreeMAX.”

More than 40,000 people downloaded the demo, including Todd Howard of Bethesda.

Chris King

It was a useful tool for creating more detailed trees, and in creating a new program entirely, their coding know-how was stretched a bit. In time, King and Sechrest saw an opportunity in SpeedTreeMAX. If properly recycled, the two wondered if the SpeedTree Modeler could be used to make assets for videogames, and if so, whether or not anyone would need them. 

To check, they posted an article on OpenGL.org to introduce developers to SpeedTree’s tech and gauge interest in a version that produces trees for real-time rendering engines. In a stroke of luck, Sebastien Domine of Nvidia read the article and downloaded the included demo, which demonstrated how SpeedTree could be used in a real-time setting. Domine was impressed by the technology, but he also figured a real-time SpeedTree would be an excellent promotional tool for a new Nvidia GPU. He contacted King and Sechrest, they struck a deal, and they started work on SpeedTree’s first true real-time demo.

From a cliched tech demo to Star Wars, SpeedTree has come a long way.

In true videogame form, the demo showed a mech launching and dodging missiles amidst breeze-blown trees, and was put up for download on Nvidia’s developer portal to a fervent reception. Chris tells me that “over the next three months, more than 40,000 people downloaded the demo, including Todd Howard of Bethesda.” Videogames were growing more capable with better technology, and the task of filling bigger, more advanced worlds with realistic, varied trees was growing bigger too. And King and Sechrest now had a major game developer on board to showcase their tech. 

“The only problem was that we'd never sold middleware,” says King. “We had no idea how it should be priced. Amazingly, Todd helped us determine what we both agreed was a fair price and then and there he became our first games client.”

King continues as I imagine an ambling Linklater-directed montage, Howard, King, and Sechrest huddled over a pile of paperwork and tree textures, pinning them to the wall and nodding as revelations dawn one after the other. Emails and phone calls don’t make for a good montage.

“Fast forward to March 2006. Oblivion is released for the Xbox 360. It was a monster hit and the SpeedTree logo appeared on the back of the box,” says Chris, “The perception was that SpeedTree may not be efficient enough to run effectively on a 360 or PS3. Because Oblivion demonstrated in grand fashion that SpeedTree was ready for primetime on any platform, it's probably the single most important title we've ever been a part of. We will always be grateful to Todd.”

At the time, an open world game at Oblivion’s scale running on a console was unheard of. And while the final Xbox 360 version is widely considered a buggy, nearly unplayable mess, SpeedTree demonstrated that it could manage to render trees on 16 square miles of land on hardware that predated even the most average of gaming PCs in 2006. It worked, and that was enough to draw industry-wide attention to SpeedTree.

The exchange went both ways, too. Would Oblivion have captured imaginations like it did with boring and repetitive forests? It doesn’t look great by today’s standards, but at the time, streaming in diverse stretches of vegetation on the relatively meager Xbox 360 specs was a technical breakthrough, proving that open world games could work on lesser hardware at a high fidelity. It set a trend and games with even denser forests followed suit, evidenced by games like The Witcher 3, which would look very different (or wouldn’t exist at all) if not for SpeedTree. 

Branching out 

A snippet from White House Down featuring SpeedTree. 

By today’s metrics, Oblivion is an old game. Now we get thousands of new games every year, a good chunk of which use SpeedTree, and some of which want a little more than a procedural tree tool. What about modeling the life of a tree? When I ask King whether simulation of arboreal biology is a priority for them, I’m told no in the best way possible: an extended anecdote from the left-est of fields. 

Shit, we'll make it 8,000 feet high, we don't care. It makes no difference to us, we're not bound by these botanical rules. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be White-House-shaped?

Chris King

“One of our competitors was based in Europe, and the US Secret Service, believe it or not, is a customer of ours, and they put together simulations of the White House grounds, or at-least they were talking to us about it.”

It turns out that spending resources on creating systems that consider the laws of nature would only sequester SpeedTree to an even smaller niche. 

“So they call the European people and told them what the problem was and they said, ‘Well, our stuff is botanically accurate and Southern Magnolia's don't grow 80 feet high, so our software won't do that.’ King gets a little louder, “And they called us and we were like, ‘Shit, we'll make it 8,000 feet high, we don't care. It makes no difference to us, we're not bound by these botanical rules. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be White-House-shaped? We can do that as well.’”

The Secret Service weren’t even the first clients to request similar detailed models of the White House lawn. King says it’s requested so often that it’s become a running gag in the company. The amount of games and movies that feature it as a setting is surprisingly high, and the request for technology that can emulate the nearby vegetation is in equal demand. Filming there is prohibited, and so the the more often SpeedTree becomes a requested tool, the easier it is for future film crews to turn to them.   

From Oblivion to the Secret Service, SpeedTree has since branched out into generating vegetation in general. King and his cohorts are also currently prepping the full release of SpeedTree 8, which is a big leap forward in physically based rendering (PBR) tech, and showcases their new material scanning hardware and software used for an ever-growing database of megatextures and models. To create such a deep library, King even employed a specialist whose job is to literally scan as many plants as possible. Imagine that, strolling about the planet looking for pretty plants to immortalize every day. Noble. 

Prior to placement in a game or film and removed from the discerning touch of an artist, the trees and shrubs and cacti look serene, eerie. They’re nature’s aesthetic devoid of context, cleaner and healthier than any plant will ever be, the Stepford wives of common ferns. They look real, and to someone looking up at the prominence of a potential mountain of work creating their own assets, SpeedTree’s prices are a much more appealing alternative. Still, as useful and seemingly advanced as SpeedTree’s tech might seem to developers, it has plenty of room to grow.  

 “You could say we're currently near the center of the spectrum of digital fidelity in tree models.  We look good from the distance players typically view trees in a game situation—on or near the ground and maybe 10 to 100 feet away.” says King, “So, in ten years, hopefully we'll be zooming from space to a vein on a leaf seamlessly!” With more games like Star Citizen and Dual Universe looking for the same scale and adaptability, King knows they have their work cut out for them. 

 SpeedTree was even used in the 2015 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Spotlight. 

In the meantime, with every wave of new games, we get a firsthand look at how it’s changing. King can’t disclose everywhere you’ll see SpeedTree used next, but Destiny 2, like the original, will make use of SpeedTree. He also tells me that Industrial Light and Magic has more or less standardized SpeedTree, and that barring any breakthroughs in vegetation generation it’ll be used in most of the upcoming Star Wars films. 

Ubisoft also brokered a deal with SpeedTree in 2016, agreeing to use it as their standard vegetation modeling tool. Given the size of Assassin’s Creed: Origins’ map, SpeedTree makes perfect sense. Since Avatar, SpeedTree has been used in nearly 100 films and well over 1,000 games, making it the industry standard. It's everywhere. 

Rogue One’s beachside battle on Scarif, arguably the series’ best battle ever, used SpeedTree. Whenever you slap a new player into a tree in Absolver or make a hasty getaway through the forest from an irate honey badger in Far Cry 4, SpeedTree is there. So the next time you take cover behind a big hardwood in PUBG, remember who generated its bulletproof bark, and in turn, set the table for this chicken dinner and many more to come. 

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