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“When we started out, I would look at my office wall, which was full of game screenshots of cities, and ask whether our technology could do that,” muses Lionel Barret, technical director of French procedural city building specialist Gamr7, amid the noise of the first public day of the Leipzig Games Convention.“The answer back then was ‘No. No. No’. It scared me. But we have moved forward. Sometimes I think it can’t be possible we have done so much in one year,” he continues. “There are still some issues when it comes to the very complex stuff – in most cases we can do 80 or 90 per cent of those screenshots and save people a lot of time and money too.”
Looking at the output of the company’s work, almost a year on from Develop’s first contact with an early prototype, it’s clear the basic idea of a technology that enables you to quickly and flexibility create entire cities is maturing fast. As an example, business development director Bernard Légaut says that, in a consultancy role, the company recently had to create three cities each of a different style within nine days for a client. “It was proof we could react faster than anyone else, because while we delivered those cities on time, the process involved making around 40 cities that we iterated through as we got more information from the client,” he explains.
“Yeah – we have the luxury of throwing away cities,” laughs Barret. The presentation of the technology, if not the initial concept, has changed somewhat since October 2007, though. For example, working closely with a couple of partner studios has resulted in plenty of useful feedback, resulting in Gamr7 splitting its Creative Ürban Suite into three interlinked, but also standalone, parts.
At the highest level, there’s the city builder, which is called the Semantic Urban Studio. It enables you to create an entire city using basic building blocks such as roads, the density of various types of buildings and a human activity distribution model, which works out placement and how big the connecting roads should be. The Procedural Area Designer operates at a lower level, enabling you to define the different objects and buildings found in a parcel of land, whether residential, commercial or road/pavement.
The final, and as yet incomplete, part of the suite will be a procedural designer for individual buildings. Each element can be used separately – a bit like a Russian doll, says Barret – with the overall plan being to get customers comfortably using one and then encourage them to step up to the advantages of the entire pipeline.
“I think different parts will appeal for different game genres too,” explains Barret. “The procedural building designer is interesting for people doing first person shooters for example. Most of them don’t require a complete city at the moment, but in time it could be advantage for them.”
Another obvious target audience for the Creative Ürban Suite are MMOs. Their huge demands in terms of the provision of basic game environments and content is one reason. Barret says the technology’s workflow is perhaps more vital however. “Prototyping and testing the city live is more important and we provide a smooth curve from prototyping to full production,” he says. “For example, we can make a city more complex very easily. If you suddenly want to add lamp posts, we can add 50,000 in the correct position immediately.”
There’s still some way to go of course. A trial version of the technology is expected to be made available before the end of the 2008, and it will be GDC 2009 before the full commercial release is ready for action and we’re able to fully gauge whether the vision of Barret’s wall of cityscapes has been fulfilled.