One of the biggest challenges for developers creating their first open-world game is to get the landscape right. Even while using a leading game-development engine, with all its libraries of helpful tools and starting points, the challenge may seem daunting. But help is here.
Adam Goodrich, who leads the Australian-based team at Procedural Worlds*, is preparing a special version of Gaia* available in Intel’s upcoming AI GameDev Toolkit, a free download that you would want to play with, as soon as possible. You will have access to tools that makes virtual world far easier to create, and they interact seamlessly with Unity*.
Intel® Software Innovator, Adam Goodrich is a leading expert in generating Procedural Worlds* and is bringing a version of his acclaimed technology to Intel’s AI GameDev Toolkit.
To understand how this project came up, it is important to know what Goodrich has planned, what drives him, and where he hopes to wind up. His end-goal is nothing less than real-time photorealism that makes gameplay and immersion as good as it can possibly be.
Early Years on a SEGA*-3000
Before formal engineering studies, Goodrich learned programming on a SEGA* at home and on an Apple* machine at his high school. In time, he landed a job at Microsoft* Australia where he lead the technical evangelism team. He connected global developer teams with available technologies, learning how to study and understand communities and publish the materials that would help them most.
Those were exciting times around the launch of the first Xbox* and Goodrich could feel himself pulled towards gaming. He felt the tractor beam acutely when he started studying a developer kit for creating code for Xbox using the Unity* engine. Goodrich sent a member of his team to Seattle to learn Xbox development skills, but he knew that he really wanted to learn these skills himself. “I remember really wishing it was me doing the course, because I was fascinated with the graphical power and potential of the Xbox,” Goodrich says.
Eventually Goodrich went off on his own: He co-founded a digital agency which grew over 100 employees, poured his efforts into developing the company, then sold it. He studied neuro-linguistic programming, which explores the subjective experience, and his next gig was to build a company called Behavioral Technology Group*, which produced applications to measure and interpret behavior. “If I understand behavior and know intent, can I help you to get positive outcomes in your life? I proved that you could,” he says.
Goodrich’s interaction with Unity* tools helped him identify a huge gap: there weren’t any good terrain-generation tools in the Unity* Asset Store ecosystem. “I wanted to recreate the real world to run these algorithms of mine,” he explained, so he created two procedural generation systems to fill the void. When he put them in front of artists, however, he watched, as he put it, “their eyes roll back in their heads”. The complexity was just too great.
Then, one day, Goodrich had what he calls one of those “blinding flashes of the obvious.” What if he could take the most interesting part of fractal generation and turn it into a 3D object that users could manipulate like any other 3D object? That was the genesis of Gaia*, which, among other things, uses a stamper to create terrains and spawners to procedurally texture and place objects such as trees, shrubs, and rocks. By 2015, he launched the tool to considerable fanfare in the community. It went straight to the top of the asset store, and it's been one of their top 10 assets ever since.
All About Procedural Worlds*
Today, Procedural Worlds* is the author of multiple tools for indies and professionals alike: Gaia*, GeNa*, Pegasus* and Ambient Sounds*, all available on the Unity* Asset Store. Gaia* is the highest-rated tool for the creation of beautiful environments in Unity* 3D. Gaia, GeNa*, Ambient Sounds*, and Pegasus* all help developers to create and bring their environments to life using the latest artist-driven procedural content-generation techniques.
Procedural content generation is the use of algorithms to produce sophisticated 3D environments. Procedural generation can automatically create large amounts of content with smaller file sizes and a randomness that makes such worlds far less predictable. When compared to manual processes, procedural content generation dramatically shortens the time it takes to develop intricate environments while significantly improving quality.
“It's all about giving people the tools, technology, and education to help themselves,” Goodrich says. By giving the game-creation community powerful tools, Gaia* allow the developers to focus less on making the environment and more on making the experience complete. In other words, Gaia* empower developers to create lush new landscapes easily so that they can put more effort into immersion and gameplay.
One of the key differentiators for the team at Procedural Worlds* is their commitment to training and education. Goodrich admits that he acts as a student while learning what works best to make educational materials understandable. The team has an extensive catalog of YouTube* videos to walk beginners through the basics with patience and thoroughness. Goodrich describes their training efforts as an evolution, leveraging community feedback, his team’s insights, and his background as an educator at a local game-development school. One of his developers also teaches a college-level game-dev course, so they have a ready laboratory for techniques and lesson plans to fall back on. The feedback loop is extensive: an enthusiastic community of about 100,000 users engages continually.
As products evolve, managing all of that published content has become a challenge. The tutorials change frequently as products update and keeping them in sync with the newest releases requires a lot of work. Still, the payoff is clear—any effort to reduce the barriers to entry for a beginner is worth exploring, Goodrich says.
Introducing Gaia*—Lush Environments for the Masses
When Goodrich mentored students in the game-development program, one of the other teachers came to him and pointed out that students were more often working on 2D projects because they assumed that developing a 3D world was just too hard. “Well, that’s what Gaia* is all about,” Goodrich told the teacher. “We want to make 3D development as easy as one, two, three." In other words, why settle for a puzzle game or a 2D scroller, when you can create entire worlds?
Gaia* was engineered with a wizard structure that allow users to create worlds in three steps. Through insight, inspection, and communication, Procedural Worlds* took something very complex and simplified it so that it is accessible for people, regardless of their level of experience.
While high-end graphics are important, Goodrich kept the tool sharp for all levels. In Procedural Worlds* next few releases, they are introducing tools to export high-quality graphics for low-fidelity, less powerful environments. “When you convert your scene for a mobile environment, for example, you have to decimate the terrain,” he says. The risk is that the system won’t be fast enough to keep up, so his team employs a series of steps to make a game run well, irrespective of the system.
For example, Goodrich’s team created some commercial work for a virtual-reality game and a mobile shooter. With the right optimizations, they were able to get the scenes to run at 60 frames per second (fps), on four-year-old mobile devices. “If you look at where the market is, 52% of the market is in mobile gaming, and it's growing,” he notes. So, when Goodrich looks at where customers are going, he can see that high-quality mobile games are becoming increasingly important. And everything his team learns, in terms of optimization for mobile devices, pays off when they bring that knowledge back to the desktop, expanding the reach of the tools.
The Intel® Connection
Goodrich was named an Intel® Software Innovator in 2021. When later approached to incorporate Gaia* into Intel’s upcoming AI GameDev Toolkit release, he jumped at the chance. “Intel is one of those companies that, to me, are just icons,” he says. The chance to help more visionaries to create, connect, and scale out beautiful worlds into their work was an easy pitch.
“Working with Intel, we could potentially accelerate the power of machine learning to make more variety and believability in gaming content,” Goodrich says. It’s all about delivering more power and flexibility into the hands of content creators, which is good for Intel, good for Procedural Worlds, and good for the entire industry. “We see the potential of working with Intel to reach billions of content creators and consumers. I think that's pretty exciting.”
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All game engines have challenges rendering large and beautiful environments. Goodrich says the answer lies in leveraging the power of tools such as Intel® Xe Super Sampling (XeSS), an AI-augmented upscaling technology, as well as AI-based rendering, to deliver richer and more immersive experiences. He appreciates the opportunity for a small company that is thinking big to work with a known and respected brand such as Intel. Getting Gaia* into more hands via Intel® AI GameDev Toolkit is exactly the kind of opportunity new developers need, he says, and it aligns nicely with Intel’s existing Intel® GameDev Boost program to provide marketing assistance to promising new games that have already passed the Runs Great on Intel® technology certification.
Into the Future
Bringing greater pixel-depth and polygon density to games is enough for now, but there is an even brighter promise ahead: real-time, real-world, photo-realistic quality that runs in a social context on any device. That future isn’t far off; Procedural Worlds* is bringing the power of its world generation and acceleration tools to the masses. The new tools enable anyone to publish assets and games and to even create their own massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) on demand with the new Meta Worlds* platform launching in early 2022.
In addition to real-time collaboration and user-generated content, one of the more interesting features planned for Meta Worlds is the ability to generate real-world environments from mapping metadata in real time and to integrate this with Internet of Things (IoT)-based systems. That level of sophistication and scale at runtime requires tremendous care in constructing scenes, as well as an understanding of how to render them, how to manage poly counts, and more. Goodrich admits it’s not a trivial problem to solve. But it’s definitely a quest worth pursuing, and the Intel® GameDev Program will undoubtedly be a part of it.
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