"Have you people ever seen ... a tree?" bellows the voice of Three Dog, the talkative Galaxy News Radio presenter in Fallout 3. After your visit to the barren outback of the Capital Wasteland, you most certainly have.
Look past the soot and scorch marks, and the trees that line the game's devastated mid-Atlantic landscape look like those you might find in your own backyard. The branches protruding from their trunks are formed with a quirkiness that nearly equals the work of Mother Nature herself. And if you make the trip to the unexpectedly lush settlement of Oasis at the northern edge of the map, you get the impression that the virtual forest wasn't created by human hands at all. It looks completely natural, like it has organically intruded on the Capital Wasteland and is planning to overgrow the entire landscape, one ruined block at a time.
The people at Bethesda Softworks, the videogame developer that created Fallout 3, didn't model all of those trees themselves. Instead, they used a piece of middleware called SpeedTree to automatically generate the game's foliage and make it look as though it's a natural part of the landscape. "We even built in features that allow game developers to make their trees look scorched or dead, like in a post-nuclear environment," says Kevin Meredith, Director of Business Development at Interactive Data Visualization, the South Carolina-based company that developed and sells SpeedTree. "They can darken the bark or add a burned-looking texture to it, remove the leaves or modify the code in order to bend the physics of the trees."
Of course, SpeedTree wasn't developed exclusively with Fallout 3 in mind. The origins of the software go back long before the game was even a twinkling in Bethesda's eye. SpeedTree has its roots in a golf simulation that IDV worked on at the start of the new millenium. Because the rustle of the trees is a well-known natural cue to golf players about the direction and speed of the wind, IDV scoured the market for software that could make the trees on their virtual golf course react naturally to simulated weather conditions and came up empty-handed. So they decided to develop the software themselves. "After a while, we were so impressed with our trees that we decided to make a product out of them," Meredith says.
IDV didn't have much to do with the videogame industry at that time. It was a services firm, working primarily for urban development projects, architects and the like. But their invention was soon found invaluable for game developers.
The first commercial videogame that incorporated an early version of SpeedTree was Trials of Atlantis, a 2003 expansion of the MMOG, Dark Age of Camelot. After that, SpeedTree was licensed for use with games such as Auto Assault, WWII Online, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Irth Online, as well as integrated with Unreal Engine 3.0. Once IDV added real-time physics to their middleware, it started popping up in more mainstream titles. SpeedTree was named the sole foliage middleware partner for the "next-generation Xbox platform" (a.k.a. Xbox 360) in March 2005. Later that month, Linden Labs licensed the technology for use in the virtual world Second Life. Electonic Arts used SpeedTree in its own golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, and Bizarre Creations used it in its racing simulator, Project Gotham Racing 3, where the displacement of air caused by speeding vehicles made the leaves in the background rustle appropriately.