In recent years, game studios have found themselves creating bigger worlds to meet the high expectations of hardcore gamers. To meet this hunger for content, many studios are looking for faster ways of producing game content without hiring an army of modellers. Kim Goossens from the IGAD program at NHTV University of Applied Sciences in Holland is an advocate of procedural modeling techniques for game development and has been teaching his students how to apply Houdini to this task.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background working in this industry? What have been your key areas of focus throughout your career and how has Houdini played a role?
I have been working as an art-director and a technical artist in the CG industry for 23 years now both for commercials and in the games industry. My focus has always been to combine art and efficiency as much as possible. My fascination for Houdini started in 2004, when as an art director I was confronted with the request to build a huge game with a small team.
The game was eventually canceled, but I made test cases to see whether a procedural approach to level design was achievable on that project. One of the test examples I built was the road building tool that showed the huge potential Houdini has towards game development. I felt that Houdini’s approach at a certain point would become an important aspect in game development and I wanted to make sure that I could continue developing my skills using the tool. Shortly after the game was canceled I accepted a position at IGAD [International Game Architecture and Design] where I was allowed to develop the procedural modeling course for games.
Can you tell us more about the Procedural Modeling for Game Development course you are presently instructing? How long is the course? How does one gain access to it?
Our school is a games design academy with 3 specializations: Visual Arts, Programming and Game Design. The students of these 3 specializations are brought together in a game lab where they are tasked to design a game from scratch in small teams. This way the students are confronted with the dynamics and problems of a team building a game.
Houdini is taught in the third year of our bachelor program after students have received experience with building games using more traditional modeling techniques. This way the students can get a feel of the production bottlenecks, and thus are better able to appreciate the value of a procedural approach. The procedural modeling course is taught for half a year and has a strong focus on finding the production bottlenecks in game production. Once they have located a problem, they are asked to make a thorough study of the subject that they are dealing with. After the analysis they have to make an abstraction of the subject. This can be landscape, building, vehicle or character related.
We’re mainly focusing on relational modeling where placement and shape of geometry is depending on previous geometrical constructs. And we also avoid going in too deeply onto the visual quality during the course. The goal for the students is that they are able to create very versatile digital assets that later can be upgraded to have the proper aesthetic qualities, structure is key.
After the course, students can choose their specialization and graduation project where they have to spend a full school-year bringing their skills up to industry standard. Although challenging, the course is popular amongst graduating students.
Prospective students must go through a selection process to be admitted into the program and then they would have to pass the foundation year in order to stay in the program.
What do you think the primary advantages are when applying Houdini to a game development pipeline? What can game developers gain from taking a procedural approach and how can Houdini best be leveraged?
I think there are 3 main domains where Houdini is an excellent tool towards game development. Houdini is a workhorse when dealing with painstaking repetitive tasks. Imagine Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) where thousands of characters are populating a world that needs variation and detail. In level design where hundreds or thousands of objects need to be placed, Houdini is a formidable tool for creating custom procedural placement methods. There are some tools out there that allow for “procedural” placement of plants using high level brushes. But this is still very limited compared to what can be achieved within Houdini where a huge range of environment attributes can be created to influence the placement of objects.
To create high-level tools in proprietary engines like those offered by Houdini would take up a lot of resources for game companies. The trend of future games is to have more and more destructibility and detailing of the environment. Human (or alien) made shapes have a lot of elements going on the inside of the geometry. Building their “organs” and extended detail will become increasingly important in order to create believable damage and destruction. I think that in time procedural modeling will become a necessity in order to achieve this level of complexity.
Sometimes there are procedural systems that need to be built into the game engine itself. This is primarily for games that have a gamer to design their worlds, or for games that adjust their environment depending on the actions of the gamer. Designing these procedures is a difficult task that requires a technical artist to make many variations. Houdini is the ideal tool for this type of rapid prototyping.
The third domain I see Houdini as being very valuable is in the design process of elements. Alchemy is such an example for creating 2 dimensional shapes and patterns that can be used as an inspiration. For the levels of Xyanide (an Xbox title I did the art direction on) I had to design huge worlds and the problem that I was confronted with was that I had to design a huge number of different, and interesting, corridors and spaces.
Designing these goes well until you reach a certain point where you get a creativity block. By setting up a simple random generation of boxes and other shapes I was able to explore these and “find” interesting spatial compositions. But this can be applied to many other objects. The most difficult part of this approach is that, as an artist, you have to place yourself into the position of an art director. If you do this, you can allow the unexpected “doodling” of the procedure to inspire you.
Probably the most powerful aspect of Houdini as a whole is the fact that it gives both small and big game companies a formidable control over their production pipeline in which elements can be parallelized that would otherwise have been impossible.
And these are also the findings of our students. Student Freek Hoekstra started his specialization in Houdini because Houdini allowed him to build the tools he wanted to build, tools that normally only could be built by a hardcore programmer. It is unique in its capabilities and very versatile unlike other procedural programs out there.
Freek Hoekstra is a student that has successfully graduated using Houdini. So far he received many job offers within a few hours of the uploading his graduation work and has received many positive replies on forums, found his demo was being spread over twitter, through company internal mails, will featured in several articles and will be used in several lectures to show the potential of procedural modelling.
In your class does Houdini interact with any particular game engines? If so, which ones and how is the experience using them with Houdini?
The actual interaction with game engines is something we have just set up recently, where we have set up a connection between Houdini and the Unreal Development Kit (UDK) together with a former student of mine, Jan Pijpers.
Our first student who specialized in game applications for Houdini has successfully graduated with a project that has attracted international attention. We would like to encourage greater use of Houdini tools in our Game Lab environment to promote the use of Houdini in games.
What direction are your students taking after completing Procedural Modeling for Game Development?
This can actually vary quite a bit. But we have good contact with Guerrilla Games, especially since they are using Houdini in their game production environment. But generally speaking, when students can show that they have a good technical knowledge with Houdini we see that it becomes easier for them to find a job because it shows their profound understanding of the digital medium. We also notice that game companies are starting to look out for Houdini talent, so we are very pleased with this development since we have started setting up the Houdini course 4 years ago.