Creating photo-realistic game environments on a massive scale, by hand, can be beyond time consuming. Just ask the environment artists at Bethesda Studios after crafting the epic world of Skyrim. The alternative is to create algorithms that generate a virtually endless world that’s different every time you load a new game, as in Minecraft. But these algorithms can often produce strange, unrealistic landforms, like impossible overhangs and floating islands. While these surreal structures are part of the charm of Minecraft’s cartoony procedural landscape, if realism is your goal, this isn’t going to fit the desired aesthetic.
The Outerra engine, a project that’s been in development for years, has found a unique solution to the problem of generating massive, photo-realistic environments: Base them on real data from Earth. All of Earth. These sprawling vistas look completely natural because, in a sense, they are. The large scale structures of mountains, rivers, and oceans use height-map data dynamically downloaded as you explore, while the ground-level detail is procedurally generated, leaving you free to view the world as close or as far away as you desire (presumably within the limits of your processor).
The first game being built using this engine, Anteworld, presents an Earth long abandoned by humanity and tasks players with rebuilding civilization. With potential features including asynchronous content propagation (i.e. you build your city in a single player mode and it automatically loads your creations into all other players’ Earths) and direct multiplayer modes, which allow you to play directly with others online, Anteworld is possibly shaping up to be the Second Life I’ve always dreamed of.
You can download a free tech demo on Outtera here.