Game Engine For An Entire Planet

By March 9, 2012

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You’ve got the whole world in your hands,  at least according to the team of developers behind the game engine Outerra. But does the engine, which has been in development for since 2008, run the risk of becoming a Pale Blue Flop?

Outerra handles a world the size of a planet, rendered at any scale. It feeds off low-resolution elevation maps — generated randomly, handmade or based off the real planet Earth — filling in the details and adding textures with an algorithm. Certain areas, naturally, can contain more highly-detailed data, and the engine features an embedded web browser and vehicle physics.

“Outerra is a unique 3D rendering engine, a world rendering engine capable to seamlessly render whole planets from space down to the surface,” reads the Outerra web site. “The world is also being dynamically textured and populated with vegetation using predefined land type material sets and the computed terrain attributes. ”

In a new tech demo, the Outerra-generated world looks quite beautiful at certain scales. The engine shines when the homogeneity of close-up views is lost in growing scope, and again when the cardboard-cutout trees become specks on virtual mountain ranges, continents and finally horizons brushing the blackness of space. But at human-scale, and when large physical features like individual mountain peaks dominate the screen, the technology is less impressive.

More troubling, though, are the types of “deja new” games the engine is likely to power. Because it would be impractical to populate a whole world by hand, it’s easy to imagine a generation of underwhelming hack-and-slashes and flight simulators characterized by novel but familiar exploration of large geographic spaces — and at worst, maybe, the banality of dull, randomly generated Diablo dungeons, with architectural tropes and hordes of bad guys sprinkled around a fresh but ultimately uninteresting map.

The first announced game to be developed using Outerra, Anteworld, does little to alleviate those concerns. It’s described as a sort of cross between Sim City, Spore and Minecraft, with users building cities and uploading them to a shared planet.

The question isn’t whether Outerra has potential. It’s more whether the engine will live up to its hype, and the pretension hinted at by the engine’s logo: A stylized, nearly-illegible “O” leaving a spelling suggestive of “uterus,” and all the “birth of a new world” fodder that entails.