Some Of The Best Rocks In Video Games Are Actually Real

Some Of The Best Rocks In Video Games Are Actually Real
Photo: Thomas Coex, Getty Images

I’ve spent years using free rock assets from the Unity Asset Store and the Unreal Engine Marketplace, but never thought too hard about where those assets came from. I just needed rocks in my games. Vox recently published a video about how game developers create photorealistic rocks, and I was engrossed.

The camera followed several photographers from Epic Games, who had gone all the way to Utah to shoot canyon footage of rocks. Tons of rocks from every angle. Video game photogrammetry is the process of using multiple photos in order to create three-dimensional assets. These scanned assets can save artists from having to spend time generating custom nature and environmental assets. Real rocks also bring that touch of realism that only natural weathering can create.

Watching an Epic producer take photos under the blistering sun added a certain physicality to game development, which I’ve mostly thought of as digital work. I was even more impressed when I watched one of the crew photograph and scan a rock with his phone. Evidently, you don’t even need a lot of expensive hardware to create photogrammetric scans. You just need high-enough-quality photos and enough software know-how to stitch them together.

I’ve seen a lot of weird online controversy around assets that haven’t been made by hand. Photobashing (a process in which photos are used to ensure realism in concept art) is such a maligned practice that the concept artist for Horizon Zero Dawn had to write a debunking post about it. But personally, I can’t tell most rocks apart from each other. What matters most is that a game that I’m anticipating (or creating!) can be released within my lifetime, which is exactly what scanned assets can help accomplish.

And it’s not just indie creators who use scanned assets to cut down on development labour. Video game studios such as EA DICE and Ubisoft Toronto have been using photogrammetry to cut down on the amount of work needed to create realistic game objects. All your faves use scanned rocks. Deal with it.

Beyond video game development, tons of museums are starting to 3D-scan their collections. The websites of the Smithsonian and the British Museum allow you to browse these scans, which can be a cool way to view their collections during this global pandemic.

Or you can drop a Greek statue into your video game project, even if you don’t live near a museum. As a video game developer who uses tons of premade assets, I think that photogrammetry is a wonderful technology. It makes video game development even more accessible to the average person. I just want beautiful rocks, and I don’t want to have to hand-sculpt every one.

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