However, as it happens, props are probably the single most important element of any level. Sure, each Nuclear Dawn stage is loaded with effects, scripts, particles and animations – but underneath it all, supporting the illusions of prettiness, are good old props.
In game-making terms, just as in movies, a prop is a supporting model: the lonely table in the corner of the room, the broken-down vehicle just out of your sight, the humble empty bottle of water on the floor. A few well designed and expertly conceived props can make or break the sense of immersion and realism of any scene or level.
It’s hard to appreciate how much props add to a level, especially when pitted against the limitations in resources placed on them. Props cannot be as glamorous as they should, because each scene has a budget of a couple million polygons onscreen at the same time, and about half of that is taken over by active, player-controlled models. These would be the awesome men of war and awe-inspiring structures and armaments onscreen, and there is little love left for the necessary details.
It is somewhat ironic that most of a location’s very identity would be left to only half the brush strokes available, and a variety of technical trickery is used to give props a more detailed look than their meagre polygon counts would indicate, from normal mapping to baked shadows, along with all kinds of intriguing, arcane shader tricks.
Even the most deserted, wind-blasted post-apocalyptic street you can imagine is loaded to the brim with props: the store fronts, the custom windows, the garbage on the tarmac, the garbage cans, signs and traffic signs, the half-wrecked cars abandoned by the side road and (if you’re lucky) the gaunt, mummified remains of a survivor. Those are the obvious ones, without even touching on the trimmings, the building details and the skybox.
Syrdakh, for example, would not look anywhere near as convincingly snow-bound without the large amount of unique, snow-covered and mapped props. Likewise, New York would not look anything like the real thing without a large amount of tailored models templated right off reference photos. The list drones on and on – just about anything that constitutes the necessary background details you have learned to expect and demand form a realistic scene most likely is ‘nothing but’ a prop.
Not all prop models are small or purely environmental detail, either: due to limitations inherent to most modern graphics engines, anything large and truly detailed cannot be rendered with native geometry, but requires a separate prop. So, our model of Westminster, for example, is part native game BSP (the small corner that the players enter and interact with), and part one of the most massive prop models to date (the rest of the structure).
This separation allowed us to develop the area much faster, by setting a level designer to detail the areas that players would actively travel through, while a purebred modeller worked on the rest of the building, detailing it on a different scale for view from below and above. The mix of the two (prop and level geometry) is seamless and impressive in the wealth of detail and interactivity it delivers.
The use of props extends well beyond simple cosmetics, and much of what you interact with in-game is either a physics or animated prop. Modern engines have done little to overcome their limitations in terms of internal architecture, and instead allow developers to import ever larger, ever more defined props straight from their favourite 3D modelling program.
The message of today’s dev blog is not to dismiss the simple prop – sure, its origins may lie in the ‘we need a 6 polygon chair for a quarter second shot in the background’, but these days lines are blurring, and props are becoming more and more prominent as major game and scene objects. Props to the simple prop, as it were – they’re long overdue!
From our blog.