Methods like SpeedTree are clever ways to develop games with fewer headaches and make game development cheaper - hand-crafting a good tree can take up to several weeks of labor for a modeler, so the advent of procedural modeling offers the prospect of working with smaller development teams and, therefore, smaller development budgets. It's graphic design 2.0, relegating 3D-modeling craftsmanship only to where it's absolutely necessary and building the rest of the environment through algorithms. "It saves you a lot of time, especially for objects that are both generic and hard to model right, like trees," says Bert Van Semmertier, a Graphics Engineer at Divinity II: Ego Draconis developer, Larian Studios. "But an artist always wants to have maximum control over his material, and the possibilities of procedural modeling are limited by the mathematical principles behind it. You could build a house using algorithms and computer-generated brick textures, but hanging a poster on one of its walls would be much harder."
Procedural modeling will probably never be able to build landmark backdrops like Assassin's Creed II's almost pixel-perfect renditions of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral and the Santa Croce basilica. With natural objects, the importance of honest handiwork hasn't entirely vanished, either. Responding to explicit demand from game developers, IDV has built a new hand-modeling tool into the recently released version 5.1 of SpeedTree. "At the end of the day, game development is about doing your own thing," says Meredith. "If the goal is to save time and means, procedural modeling is a great method. But if someone wants to make his own, perfect virtual tree, he should be able to do so as well."
The scorched trees in Fallout 3 look perfect enough, though. The MacGuffin in the main quest of the game was a so-called Garden of Eden Creation Kit, a piece of technology with the power to turn barren wasteland into fertile ground. It's a fantasy device first dreamed up by the creators of the first Fallout game, developed by Interplay back in 1997. Little did they know that the people making one of the future installments of the series would actually use such a device. Most gamers were probably not aware that the makers of the game actually simulated virtual life with SpeedTree in order to make the Capital Wasteland look so natural.
To them, it's just a bunch of trees.
Ronald Meeus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.