London in Oblivion

Poor Frank Lloyd Wright. America’s best-loved architect just couldn’t design a deathmatch level. Take his famous 1939 Kaufmann house, better known as Fallingwater. In 2006, Counter-Strike level builder Kasperg modeled Fallingwater in the Half-Life 2 Source engine. “Played like crap,” one anonymous poster commented. “Spawn points got you stuck in the floor or walls, and the indoor environments got too cramped and corner-ey. … Good for looking, but not touching.”

Isn’t that just like an architect: never thinking ahead.

Though Kasperg does design real Half-Life and Counter-Strike maps, he created the Fallingwater map as an experiment and learning exercise. The map proves current 3-D game engines can closely simulate real buildings. Next-generation engines will do even better.

Slowly, architects – not software architects, the brick-and-mortar kind – are starting to notice. They’re gradually repurposing 3-D computer game engines to visualize real-world building designs.

This, friends, is a harbinger. Remember how machinima inspired the game community’s budding filmmakers? Now, in the same way, the architectural use of photorealistic 3-D game engines heralds an imminent and exciting new pursuit.


Of course, architects already use advanced modeling software, including (among many programs) Autodesk’s 3ds Max, AutoCAD Architecture and Revit; Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD; Bentley Architecture; Nemetschek’s VectorWorks Architect; lots of specialized rendering and image compositing apps; and a long shelf of photo and model libraries. It’s arguable that mastering these “building information authoring tools,” in all their intricacy, is as formidable a challenge as designing a building. Indeed, nowadays much of the architect’s job is engulfed in software.

The ancient profession of architecture – domain of Hestia, first- and last-born of the Olympian goddesses, whose name means “the essence of things” – is today being transformed. Architects aim to improve construction efficiency through interoperability standards called Building Information Modeling (BIM). Right now, a design team of architects and engineers can’t quite create a 3-D BIM file and then just e-mail it to a contractor for the humdrum task of instantiating it in steel and concrete. No, not yet – but that’s where BIM is headed. All that is solid melts into air, or rather into bits.

Much of today’s practice of architecture, then, is 3-D modeling. Sites like CGArchitect (“The Global Community for Architectural Visualization Professionals”) show how the profession is becoming, not a subsidiary, but a component specialty of digital visualization, the sprawling, hyperactive industry that encompasses manufacturing, illustration, special effects, animation and, incidentally, computer games.

You’d think this would encourage a marriage of architecture and gaming. In comparison to game engines, architectural packages need heavy hardware, aren’t optimized for real-time walkthroughs, and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. As the Fallingwater map shows, a good game engine can achieve many effects seen in the high-end packages, in real time. It also brings bonuses like weather effects, and it costs $50 or less. So why don’t architects use game engines?

Because, it seems, real architects laugh at game engines.

“To be honest, it’s a niche field in both academia and architecture,” says Dr. Andrew Hudson-Smith of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), University College London. “Indeed, it is viewed with suspicion by many, and it is a struggle at times to be taken seriously. Even when [I was] presenting ‘When Architecture and Games Collide’ at IMAGINA in Monaco amongst people from the industry, the inclusion of the word ‘game’ bought amusement from some attendees. It is only when they actually see the work that they realize the power and potential of gaming for architectural visualization. As such, most of the work is carried out by the modding community, rather than academics or professionals.”

CASA wants to change that. On his blog, Digital Urban, Hudson-Smith documents many projects, by both CASA and others, that visualize structures in game engines. “The idea came from two schools of thought,” Hudson-Smith tells The Escapist, “firstly from my frustration with visualization inside 3DStudio Max (then version 7) while building our Virtual London model, and secondly, the cost of software to create real-time visualizations, especially in the architectural field.”

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After starting with FarCry, CASA then tried Source, with awkward results. “Importing into the Half-Life 2 engine has proved slow and problematic,” Hudson-Smith wrote. “The requirement to create ‘qc’ files and compile models before even reaching the engine puts time constraints on the process that make it laborious for architectural models to be visualized.”

The situation improved with Oblivion. “It is a joy to work with and, with the use of plugins, a work flow can be produced to visualize models in under an hour.” In September 2006, CASA built an Oblivion version of the university quad, then imported London’s Millennium Eye Ferris wheel and an entire cityscape originally modeled in 3ds Max. Hudson-Smith has posted two tutorials on exporting from modeling programs and importing the models into the Oblivion engine, as well as a four-minute YouTube movie demonstrating the entire process.

“Bethesda Softworks have done a good job with their Elder Scrolls Construction Set,” Hudson-Smith says. “It is by far the easiest way to import models direct from 3-D modeling packages. The inclusion of a ‘sandbox’ with today’s games is without doubt one of the major strong points in the industry. To be able to use a game engine (albeit not commercially) for under $40 is a fantastic step forward.

SketchUp has sped up the whole process; if you look at our ‘UCL Quad in Oblivion‘ movie on our blog, you will see that it is photomodeled. This used to be in the realms of high-end photogrammetric software until SketchUp came along. Sure, the level accuracy is not quite as high, but it is a lot quicker and simpler to use.” The Digital Urban blog entry “Rapid Photomodelling in SketchUp” shows how to model an entire building in under three minutes. Hudson-Smith adds, “Perhaps more important, it is also free, which opens up 3-D modeling to a whole new user base. SketchUp is our current modeling tool of choice; indeed, we only use 3DStudio Max for import and export, and that’s quite a change.”

Through movies and tutorials on his blog, Hudson-Smith assiduously records a panorama of digital-architecture projects in Second Life, Project Gotham Racing and other 3-D platforms. All of these share the strength of real-time polygon pushing. “We loaded our ‘Fantasy City’ visualization into Oblivion,” he says, “and suddenly we had 60 frames per second, compared to having to view it in ‘box mode’ within 3DStudio Max. Real-time lighting is also a plus, but also a minus in terms of an industry that needs to concentrate on highly realistic lighting simulations. The CryTek engine looks like it may address this issue, however, and has the potential to become one of the main ways to visualize new architecture in cities.”

Crytek’s forthcoming CryEngine2 may prove to be a watershed. The first CryEngine2 licensee, French visualization firm IMAGTP, recently presented a screenshot of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, side-by-side with a photo of the actual casino. You have to look carefully to identify the fake. Hudson-Smith says, “The Crytek engine is looking impressive. … The advanced lighting effects seem to offer the biggest breakthrough, although at the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to how easy the tools are for importing models.

“Game engines are destined to play an ever-increasing role in the industry; people just need a little vision, and to get over the word ‘game.’ Every architect’s office should have an Xbox 360 or PS3, if only to remind them of the level of graphics they should be aiming for.”


That’s the view from the architect’s side. Should gamers care? Will ordinary gamers really want to use their favorite games to design, not deathmatch and capture-the-flag, but mundane buildings?

Sure, some of them will. Just as some gamers rose from their couches to the filmmaking challenge when machinima came along and others started making podcasts and videos when those tools became cheap, we can expect devout communities of would-be architects to gather around good visualization engines. All they need are tools and, more important, inspiration.

Early adopters may include the vocal minority of players in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) who enjoy player-created housing. They’ll tinker obsessively with their dream houses, like your sister playing The Sims. After that, the next city’s worth of game buildings may arise in – wait for it – machinima nonfiction documentaries.

There’s some activity here already. To recreate historic battles, the BBC documentary series Time Commanders (2003) and The History Channel’s Decisive Battles (2004) both used a retuned Rome: Total War engine. (Don’t confuse the shows’ tweaked engine with Rome‘s most popular mod, Total Realism.) The History Channel also used Brothers in Arms for World War II battle scenes in its eponymous 2005 documentary.

Likewise, some architects and designers are using conventional visualization software to reconstruct archaeological sites. For instance, sponsored by the Colgate University (NY) Department of Anthropology and Sociology, the Honduran Ministry of Culture and a slew of government agencies, freelance digital designer Clement Valla is visualizing the ruined Mayan city of Copan. Valla scans hand-drawn plans into the high-end 3-D modeling package Rhinoceros ($995) and photos into PhotoModeler photogrammetry software ($995).

In this area, game engines could play strong. A gamer could quickly work up buildings in SketchUp, then texture and light them in Oblivion or Source. Leaving aside research time, a full-featured tour of Copan – or the Great Pyramids, or Pompeii – could require little more effort than a good Counter-Strike map. You could run it on mid-range desktop hardware, with non-player characters in period dress as your tour guides. And hey, if you don’t like the guides, you can blow them away with grenades! Match that, Honduran Ministry of Culture!

Another possibility: in-engine city guides. After seeing City 17 in Half-Life 2, you can easily imagine a similar map of, say, Amsterdam. Planet PSP already publishes PlayStation PSP travel guides for several European cities, but game-engine guides could actually show you the place. If you could turn on in-engine, user-defined data layers, as in Google Earth, text bubbles would appear as you wander the virtual streets, offering tourist info, restaurant reviews, slides and video clips.

With good tools and a fast workflow, machinima documentarians could even create news-like, up-to-the-minute commentary levels. Make a point about the latest hospital scandal by creating a level based on real photos of a crowded waiting room.

All of this will be doable; would it be smart? These works would be trapped in a proprietary engine under someone else’s control, subject to the same copyright issues that trouble (not to say “cripple”) machinima. (See “The French Democracy” in The Escapist issue No. 88.) Ultimately these creations work best in free or open-source software (FOSS). Unfortunately, of the current FOSS 3-D engines – Ogre 3D, Crystal Space 3D, Irrlicht and dozens more – none approach photorealism yet, and (surprise!) most are buggy and excruciatingly difficult to use. Still, they’re trundling along, getting better by the month, or at least by the year. A few open format standards, like COLLADA and X3D, help improve portability between engines.

Small teams of gamers could try these projects right now. Are none of them interested? More likely, they just haven’t thought of it. Documentary-making isn’t yet part of the hobby’s mental framework. But functionally it’s just machinima, and certainly less weird than, say, This Spartan Life, a talk show staged in an online Halo game.

It’s a matter of spreading the meme. Real architects may do just that – once they stop laughing.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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