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The Role of Architects in VR, AR, and Video Games

Architectural Designer Quinn Levine challenges the common misconception that designers have a significant amount of knowledge only applicable to building design and construction as there are clear parallels between real and virtual design processes.

The above rendering is from one of Bergmeyer's recent workplace projects.

Experiences are a fundamental building block of the built environment. Architects and designers work to create habitable spaces which both solve problems for their occupants and provide impactful experiences. Successful space requires a rigorous design process.

The exercise for creating architecture and interiors starts with conceptual iteration coupled with a learned procedure to understand the needs of the people occupying the desired space. This creative process can be applied not only to built environments but also to virtual worlds. Yet many in the game design field argue that an architect’s or designer’s skills and expertise are not necessary in the virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and video game development process. When Daniel Super, a professional game programmer, was asked if architects are needed in the video game industry his response was stark:

“Architects know all about designing buildings for the real world. They know about making buildings functional, about material strengths. Video games aren't the real world. Video game levels don't have the same kind of constraints. More than anything, the most important function they serve is the game play.” (8)

When approaching the construction of buildings in the “real world,” architects and designers create spaces where people can live, work, shop, eat etc. Buildings and their interiors are grounded in reality by rules and regulations and are designed to meet environmental standards, evoke emotion, and/or provide an experience. There is a common misconception that designers have a significant amount of knowledge only applicable to building design and construction, when in fact there are clear parallels between real and virtual design processes.

Architects and designers offer their expertise in video games such as Assassins Creed II or LA Noire which use their knowledge to implement obsessive architectural detailing. LA Noire is an authentic depiction of Los Angeles in the year 1947. The team at Rockstar Games used over 180,000 reference images, 1,000 newspapers, and 110,000 aerial photographs, along with historical publications such as Architectural Digest and Home and Garden to create the most accurate depiction of mid-century Los Angeles that they could. But even so, some imagination was required:

“Some [spaces] were designed from the ground up as we couldn't find what truly matched the needs of the gameplay or the original script by Brendan (McNamara, Team Bondi Studio Head). But other locations are interiors that we inserted into wonderful existing buildings. The Art guys in the team did an amazing job, as you really can't tell what was made up by us and what was an original fabrication…” (9)

Where architecture and video games intersect, the typical solution has been "video game architecture," which - as seen in La Noire - attempts to replicate a space which may fit the environment but doesn't necessarily serve the player. What is being proposed instead is design process applied to a video game, which showcases a different approach where one uses the creative process to design virtual space rather than make spaces for story’s sake. This provides a level of “subtle sophistication” (5) rendered by architect involvement which may otherwise not be incorporated.

Training and working as a designer imparts a unique set of skills in relation to spatial awareness, color and interior organization as well as architectural understanding and the importance of the creative process. Designing space with the purpose of habitability in a virtual world allows for a lot of creative headroom. The designs don’t necessarily need to be constructible but should still hold true to the most important part of any video game: Gameplay.

A beautifully designed game with minimal thought to the gameplay will not succeed as the developer will not be able to hold the player’s interest. This is true for built environments as well as virtual environments. The creative processes which end up defining successful spaces include understanding how people move through, use and interact with them. Extensive diagramming, story boarding and gathering of inspiration images helps to kick-start this process. Significant time is spent understanding the client or player needs which then translates through to the design.

However, it’s important to understand the differences between the creation of virtual versus built environments lies with the tools used for the final product and not with the process. Many architectural designers use Revit as the digital tool to create construction documents. Revit is a successful tool for that job - it can incorporate the level of detail necessary to instruct on-site workers on the desired aesthetic with required detailing. Virtual model creation for video games and other virtual reality spaces do not require that level of detail and thus use a different set of tools that focus on lighter models, texturing, and efficient rendering.

The most common tools for 3D modeling in the gaming industry are extrusion modelers such as Maya, 3DS Max, and Blender. These programs focus more on the creation of form and mass and less on object dimensions. This allows for the design of virtual elements which are based in reality yet have a large tolerance for creative expanse.

Designers have a unique way of thinking about space. They can conceptualize, plan, and execute designs in the real world, skills that are transferable to both video games as well as VR and AR environments. To validate the importance of design sensibility and process, I spoke with Indie game Retrograde product manager Tony Breen and game programmer Anish Dhesikan. We discussed some of the most important points to keep in mind when developing for the virtual world. Breen and Dhesikan expounded on the benefits of having a trained designer on board and how it can be crucial to project success and streamlined development process.

Below are some of the thoughts that Anish and Tony shared with me during our interview:

The photo above features Anish Dhesikan on the left and Tony Breen on the right.

1. Quinn Levine: Can you describe the process you and your team took for creating each space/level in a game?

Tony Breen/Anish Dhesikan: We first started by coming up with a bunch of different ideas. A word-based storyboard to decipher the type of game we wanted to make. We knew it was going to be a puzzle-based game where the goal would be to complete levels by re-arranging and interacting with the environment. We then took our ideas to Blender to start massing levels and entourage. We chose Blender because it is a free software and allowed us to keep our budget overhead low while still modeling to an understood standard in the industry. After creating a few levels, we then pushed out an Alpha of the game and selected a few friends for playtesting. All the feedback involved a lot of changes to the initial modeling for the game. This became a really tedious process as we didn’t’ realize at the time how connected the feedback would be to the modeling and gameplay.

2. QL: Was there a desired design aesthetic for the entourage?

TB/AD: I felt like we changed our aesthetic each time we received new feedback all the way until the very end of the project. We wanted the game to feel realistic, with real-world physics and texturing, but as the project progressed, and changes to modeling and texturing were recommended by our play testers, the end goal and aesthetic for the project had changed so often that we no longer really felt connected to one idea over another and just wanted to push out an enjoyable game to play.

3. QL: What would you improve on if you were to do it again?

TB: Even though we felt hampered by all of the feedback, I feel that doing as much play-testing as possible is still a fantastic way to hone a game, and I would definitely have continued to do that if the budget had allowed for it. Playtesting will lead to higher and higher standards. Scope creep though is something to be aware of. You don’t necessarily need a story laid out, but you should have some direction which is ever guiding in order to reel in the amount of comments received during testing. We ended up hiring a story writer to assist us with this since our storyline was weak in the beginning but ended up scrapping it because the direction changed as we got further into building the game. We were focused on mechanics first and aesthetic second which may have been a mistake because we never got the story down. Don’t be afraid to buy assets if it will save time in the long run.

AD: We learned so much from the whole process. I would have improved on setting the right milestones and getting them done on time and within scope. This would have relieved a lot of stress and would have mitigated some of the problems which come with allowing an alpha of the game out in the world.

4. QL: Do you see a role for architects and interior designers in the video game space?

TB: I think that architects and interior designers certainly have a role to play in the creation of video games and virtual space. One of those is in the fashioning and VR visualization of built or proposed physical spaces. An example would be a tool to virtually walk-through an apartment which is not yet constructed, or a tool similar to Wayfair or Ikea where you can furnish your room completely in VR and understand how it will look in real life after those items are purchased.

I think another value add is to have an interior designer’s perspective and attention to detail while building video game spaces. An example that I can think of is that we created a living room for Retrograde, and spent hours trying to figure out what was missing because something felt off. It turns out we had a carpeted space with no baseboard and because of that the room felt incomplete and unfinished.

AD: I currently work with quite a few people who started in the architecture industry and have migrated to the developer and gaming side. There are a lot of skills which architects and designers are trained in through school and work which become applicable to VR and video gaming projects. An example would be to look at a VR company like Oculus where they employ people just to design VR spaces for demonstrations.

5. QL: What sort of modeling and texturing software is most common for video games?

TB: For Retrograde, we used Blender because it was free and there were a lot of tutorials online to assist us when we got stuck. We did all our texturing in Unity over Unreal because it had cheaper licensing. If I were to do it again I would use Unreal Engine since I believe it would have integrated better into our workflow.

AD: Typically, 3D modelers will also do all the texturing. The person or department doing the art for the game will also likely do the texturing. In my experience, Maya is used most often with 3Ds Max and Blender after it.

6. QL: Can you describe the workflow for creating models, texturing them, then deploying them into game?

TB: In game design, vertex count is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when creating digital models. The question is: Do you really need this vertex? Every point gets rendered in game so keeping the performance high while still delivering high quality models becomes the name of the game. Textures become a problem-solving procedure on their own. If they’re too large the file will run slowly, but if they’re too small the game will lack detail. If you’re modeling and texturing, assume that the game will be run on your grandmother’s computer.

AD: The biggest problem in our industry in VR and AR is high performance. In architecture you can leave a render running for days in order to get accurate lighting, detailed textures, and a realistic feel. In VR and AR you need to be running the game engine at a minimum of 90 frames per second. Your models need to be optimized, textures should be packed together correctly, and any modeling optimization during the workflow should be utilized. For VR, it’s especially important to try and keep the system running at around 90fps. Games and systems which run VR below that will have a higher chance of causing motion sickness. Companies like Oculus test every app to ensure it doesn’t drop below 90fps to reduce motion sickness while playing, and it has become a standard for all the apps available on their store to be tested this way for quality.

7. QL: Are there already techniques for texturing in VR or AR?

TB/AD: Right now, there are a few, but they are rarely used professionally because they are not yet advanced enough to incorporate into those workflows. TiltBrush is one of the only tools that I can think of where designers can make 3D models in VR and then bring those into a game.

8. QL: Can you describe a situation(s) where having an architect or interior designer would have been helpful on the project?

TB: At the forefront of my mind is level design. When we started with Retrograde it would have been beneficial for us to have someone on board who really understood space and the implications that spatial changes had on the overall level design. Once a space is made, colors assigned, and assets placed; making any changes requires a significant amount of work and could be big cost savings if some of those problems could have been identified early in the creative process.

AD: I believe the biggest advantage an architect would bring is their knowledge of spaces, lighting, and interior design. Architects also typically have a good sense of level design for games and VR. The way that they think is unique and has the potential to save a lot of time during the design process. A lot of the people who go into game design already have a lot of these qualities, so what really makes architects stand out are the ability to plan-ahead in terms of spatial thinking. Planning out levels from start to finish is a monumental task, and the interconnection of spaces requires understanding and digesting entire levels simultaneously.

Gaming image courtesy of Anish Dhesikan.

The potential for virtual space design lies not only with video games, but with a plethora of other opportunities. Imagine the latitude for virtual concerts, visualizing climate change, impacting the online retail experience and eating at virtual restaurants. These are all opportunities where successful design process has a profound impact on the user experience. Significant advances are needed in order to make the above a seamless reality, but with the forward-thinking, solution-based design approach encouraged by Bergmeyer, these seem less like pipe dreams and more like untapped markets at our fingertips.

It’s clear that architects and designers have a role in creating content for an increasingly virtual world. Designers employ successful creative processes which allow our malleable expertise to be applicable to both built and virtual spaces. Similarly, to a designer’s agility, Bergmeyer was an early adopter of Revit after seeing its immense potential for design efficiency. As a design collaborative, we’ve also been quick to recruit innovative staff that reinforce our core values and use their expertise to help guide the firm with pioneering momentum. There are hurdles to overcome when attempting to delve into new markets and experiences. Insight brought to the table by Anish, who is currently working on VR/AR capabilities with Google Daydream, and Tony who is now a CMO at a digital marketing firm, and countless others provide part of the building blocks to assist Bergmeyer to continue to be at the forefront of technological development and deployment. We’re experts in designing spaces and experiences; our curiosity to learn from each other, incorporate individual hobbies into our everyday work, and explore unfamiliar areas of opportunity all intertwine and give Bergmeyer a unique advantage as we envision the future of design.

Above is a clip of some Bergies experiencing a VR game created by our client, Sandbox VR.

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