There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:
1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”
2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.
We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?
The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”
For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.
In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…
Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.
There was finally something interesting to read about Pokémon Go. The game—which involves overlaying the physical world with a grab-bag of exotic creatures that players attempt to capture for points—might help catalyze a new form of virtual urban zoning.
In England, BuzzFeed reported earlier this week, “one person has been so unsettled by strangers turning up at their house that they’ve been forced to ask their member of parliament to intervene.” Apparently, the game’s virtual characters have been showing up within this person’s property lines, which has been “attracting people from far and wide to come and do battle.”
The peeved constituent presumably wants to establish some sort of legal mechanism for preventing uninvited virtual inhabitants from popping up on his or her private property.
[Image: Altered photo of an American front lawn, via Wikipedia].
In the U.S., meanwhile, a New Jersey man has also had enough of these sorts of pixellated guests.
As Kashmir Hill writes for Fusion, “So many people started showing up around [the New Jersey man’s] house, smartphones in hand, hunting Pokémon that he is now suing the makers of the game for creating a nuisance and unjustly enriching themselves by using his backyard as a virtual home for the game’s cartoon creatures.”
In a sense, the game’s designers are operating an illegal—albeit virtual—business on his property.
The New Jersey man’s legal complaint alleges that he “became aware that strangers were gathering outside of his home, holding up their mobile phones as if they were taking pictures. At least five individuals knocked on Plaintiff’s door, informed Plaintiff that there was a Pokémon in his backyard, and asked for access to Plaintiff’s backyard in order to ‘catch’ the Pokémon.”
Trespassing, unlicensed business activity, illegal occupancy, even burglary—as Hill points out, this has led to a rather fascinating challenge to the limits of personal property rights.
It is “quite a novel lawsuit,” she writes, referring specifically to the New Jersey case. “It is laughable, on the one hand, yet it does raise interesting questions around who owns the augmented reality space overlaid on people’s real world properties. When you own land, there are limits to how far above and below your house you own. A new question would be the extent of your rights to the new dimension on top of your property that is augmented reality.”
For Hill, this goes on to raise a series of related questions, including, “if augmented reality really catches on, and an internet environment overlaid on our real world surroundings becomes common, what will be the rules around using that augmented space? Could anyone put a virtual billboard on the front of your house or would they need your permission?”
Could you sell, lease, or subdivide the digital rights to your own home, yard, or lobby?
Could you extract a toll, tax, or commission from virtual usage?
[Image: “With the success of Pokémon Go, we set out to discover if any of the little monsters were hiding within the walls of our own L.A. Times newsroom.” Were those little monsters digitally trespassing? Photo via the L.A. Times].
A while back, we looked at zoning rules in the U.K., hoping to learn what those rules might reveal about the extent to which everyday citizens can use, or even fundamentally transform, personal real estate. What can the state regulate—what can zoning rules control—versus what a private property owner commands? What about digitally?
These Pokémon Go examples suggest something altogether more ominous, I might suggest, wherein a digital entertainment company could prove to have de facto access to your yard, your car, your front stoop, your place of business, using any one of those merely as a stage or platform for passive economic activity.
How much would I love to read a Supreme Court decision—and its dissent!—about these very questions, posing an absolute outside limit to personal digital property rights, where virtual homesteads begin and end, or the extent to which we have the right to populate other people’s space with augmentations and intrusions.
Pokémon Go will disappear from public memory relatively soon, of course, yet it is all but guaranteed to be replaced by other augmented-reality games that also rely on a quote-unquote real, physical location to determine the strategic value of player actions.
To what extent, then, will entire urban entities such as Los Angeles seek to collaborate with, or even directly fund, virtual inhabitants—virtual landmarks, virtual historic sites, virtual destinations—and what are the rules or regulations that might apply to them?
Finally—as anyone who has read Delirious New York or is familiar with the work of Hugh Ferriss knows—cities are fundamentally shaped by zoning laws, literally down to the shadows cast by individual buildings. What, then, might digital or virtual zoning actually look like? How might it shape urban environments to come?
What, as Kashmir Hill asked, is “the extent of your rights to the new dimension on top of your property that is augmented reality”?
The proposed blocklist would begin with sites of national security, removing them from the field of potential gameplay. However, it is not hard to imagine private citizens using their own political influence to help determine which homes—let alone which streets or entire neighborhoods—would be added to the no-game zone. Think of it as geofencing as a form of urban design.
[Image: “Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington (1946),” courtesy USC Libraries].
In 1946, a “mysterious upswelling” occurred in a street in the neighborhood of Wilmington, California, near Long Beach. The photograph above, courtesy of the USC Libraries, pictures a young boy who went outside to measure it.
Although I don’t mention this in the KCET post, I was instantly reminded of terrain deformation grenades and the instant, pop-up landforms of an old LucasArts game called Fracture. There, specialized weapons are put to use, tactically reshaping the earth’s surface, resulting in “mysterious upswellings” such as these.
“There could be hills anywhere in Los Angeles, we might infer from this, lying in wait beneath our streets and sidewalks, prepping themselves for imminent exposure,” I write over at KCET. “A street today is a mountain tomorrow.”
The recently erased and rebooted Twitter account for Strangethink—@strangethink23—has been posting some really interesting images and GIFs over the past three weeks, exploring the procedural generation of architectural interiors.
Indeed, there is a running sub-theme of “big buildings inside small buildings,” hidden infinities tucked away behind the next doorframe or at the bottom of the next soon-to-appear stair.
My interest here is less in the actual aesthetics of the buildings—with their technicolor cantilevers and their relentlessly rectilinear rooms and balconies—but more in the sheer poetics of procedural generation itself: the dreamlike rules and subroutines of rooms triggering other rooms, of algorithms lying in wait before stuttering out a new, far bigger building inside the building you’re already in.
Check it all out now, before their Twitter feed is erased and restarted once again.
Over at AVANT, Lawrence Lek explores the spatial metaphor of “bonus levels,” or what he calls “the continuation of architecture through other means: an ongoing series of fictitious, utopian landscapes conceived as site-specific simulations.”
[Image: Screenshot of our own SimCity—called, for reasons that made sense at the time, We Are The Champignons—after three hours of game play].
(This interview was originally published on Venue).
In the nearly quarter-century since designer Will Wright launched the iconic urban planning computer game, SimCity, not only has the world’s population become majoritatively urban for the first time in human history, but interest in cities and their design has gone mainstream.
In March 2013, the first new iteration of SimCity in a decade was launched, amidst a flurry of critical praise mingled with fan disappointment at Electronic Arts’ “always-online” digital rights management policy and repeated server failures.
A few weeks before the launch, Venue—BLDGBLOG’s ongoing collaboration with Edible Geography‘s Nicola Twilley, supported by the Nevada Museum of Art‘s Center for Art + Environment—had the opportunity to play the new SimCity at its Manhattan premiere, during which time we feverishly laid out curving roads and parks, drilled for oil while installing a token wind turbine, and tried to ignore our city’s residents’—known as Sims—complaints as their homes burned before we could afford to build a fire station.
We emerged three hours later, blinking and dazed, into the gleaming white and purple lights of Times Square, and were immediately struck by the intensity of abstraction required to translate such a complex, dynamic environment into a coherent game structure, and the assumptions and values embedded in that translation.
Fortunately, the game’s lead designer, Stone Librande, was happy to talk with us further about his research and decision-making process, as well as some of the ways in which real-world players have already surprised him. We spoke to him both in person and by telephone, and our conversation appears below.
• • •
Nicola Twilley: I thought I’d start by asking what sorts of sources you used to get ideas for SimCity, whether it be reading books, interviewing urban experts, or visiting different cities?
Stone Librande: From working on SimCity games in the past, we already have a library here with a lot of city planning books. Those were really good as a reference, but I found, personally, that the thing I was most attracted to was using Google Earth and Google Street View to go anywhere in the world and look down on real cities. I found it to be an extremely powerful way to understand the differences between cities and small towns in different regions.
Google has a tool in there that you can use to measure out how big things are. When I first started out, I used that a lot to investigate different cities. I’d bring up San Francisco and measure the parks and the streets, and then I’d go to my home town and measure it, to figure out how it differed and so on. My inspiration wasn’t really drawn from urban planning books; it was more from deconstructing the existing world.
Then I also really got into Netflix streaming documentaries. There is just so much good stuff there, and Netflix is good at suggesting things. That opened up a whole series of documentaries that I would watch almost every night after dinner. There were videos on water problems, oil problems, the food industry, manufacturing, sewage systems, and on and on—all sorts of things. Those covered a lot of different territory and were really enlightening to me.
Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?
Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.
Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.
Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive.
[Image: Using the zoning tool for the city designed by We Are the Champignons].
Twilley: I’d love to hear more about the design process and how you went about testing different iterations. Did you storyboard narratives for possible cities and urban forms that you might want to include in the game?
Librande: The way the game is set up, it’s kind of infinite. What I mean by that is that you could play it so many different ways that it’s basically impossible to storyboard or have a defined set of narratives for how the player will play it.
[Images: Stone Librande’s storyboards for “Green City” and “Mining City” at the start of play].
Instead, what I did was that I came up with two extreme cases—around the office we call them “Berkeley” and “Pittsburgh,” or “Green City” and “Dirty City.” We said, if you are the kind of player who wants to make utopia—a city with wind power, solar power, lots of education and culture, and everything’s beautiful and green and low density—then this would be the path you would take in our game.
But then we made a parallel path for a really greedy player who just wants to make as much money as possible, and is just exploiting or even torturing their Sims. In that scenario, you’re not educating them; you’re just using them as slave labor to make money for your city. You put coal power plants in, you put dumps everywhere, and you don’t care about their health.
[Image: Stone Librande’s storyboard for “Green City” at mid-game].
I made a series of panels, showing those two cities from beginning to late stage, where everything falls apart. Then, later on, when we got to multiplayer, I joined those two diagrams together and said, “If both of these cities start working together, then they can actually solve each other’s problems.”
The idea was to set them up like bookends—these are the extremes of our game. A real player will do a thousand things that fall somewhere in between those extremes and create all sorts of weird combinations. We can’t predict all of that.
Basically, we figured that if we set the bookends, then we would at least understand the boundaries of what kind of art we need to build, and what kind of game play experiences we need to design for.
[Image: Stone Librande’s storyboard for “Mining City” at mid-game].
Twilley: In going through that process, did you discover things that you needed to change to make game play more gripping for either the dirty city or the clean city?
Librande: It was pretty straightforward to look at Pittsburgh, the dirty city, and understand why it was going to fail, but you have to try to understand why the clean one might fail, as well. If you have one city—one path—that always fails, and one that always succeeds, in a video game, that’s really bad design. Each path has to have its own unique problems.
What happened was that we just started to look at the two diagrams side-by-side, and we knew all the systems we wanted to support in our game—things like power, utilities, wealth levels, population numbers, and all that kind of stuff—and we basically divided them up.
We literally said: “Let’s put all of this on this side over in Pittsburgh and the rest of it over onto Berkeley.” That’s why, at the very end, when they join together, they are able to solve each other’s problems because, between the two of them, they have all the problems but they also have all the answers.
[Image: Stone Librande’s storyboard for the “Green City” and “Mining City” end-game symbiosis].
Twilley: One thing that struck me, after playing, was that you do incorporate a lot of different and complex systems in the game, both physical ones like water, and more abstract ones, like the economy. But—and this seems particularly surprising, given that one of your bookend cities was nicknamed Berkeley—the food system doesn’t come into the game at all. Why not?
Librande: Food isn’t in the game, but it’s not that we didn’t think about it—it just became a scoping issue. The early design actually did call for agriculture and food systems, but, as part of the natural process of creating a video game, or any situation where you have deadlines and budgets that you have to meet, we had to make the decision that it was going to be one of the things that the Sims take care of on their own, and that the Mayor—that is, the player—has nothing to do with it.
I watched some amazing food system documentaries, though, so it was really kind of sad to not include any of that in the game.
[Image: Data layer showing ore deposits].
[Image: Data layer showing happiness levels. In SimCity, happiness is increased by wealth, good road connections, and public safety, and decreased by traffic jams and pollution].
Manaugh: Now that the game is out in the world, and because of the central, online hosting of all the games being played right now, I have to imagine that you are building up an incredible archive of all the decisions that different players have made and all the different kind of cities that people have built. I’m curious as to what you might be able to make or do with that kind of information. Are you mining it to see what kinds of mistakes people routinely make, or what sorts of urban forms are most popular? If so, is the audience for that information only in-house, for developing future versions of SimCity, or could you imagine sharing it with urban planners or real-life Mayors to offer an insight into popular urbanism?
Librande: It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to answer easily, though, because there are so many different ways players can play the game. The game was designed to cover as many different play patterns as we could think of, because our goal was to try to entertain as many of the different player demographics as we could.
So, there are what we call “hardcore players.” Primarily, they want to compete, so we give them leader boards and we give them incentives to show they are “better” than somebody else. We might say: “There’s a competition to have the most people in your city.” And they are just going to do whatever it takes to cram as many people into a city as possible, to show that they can win. Or there might be a competition to get the most rich people in your city, which requires a different strategy than just having the most people. It’s hard to keep rich people in a city.
Each of those leader boards, and each of those challenges, will start to skew those hardcore people to play in different ways. We are putting the carrot out there and saying: “Hey, play this way and see how well you can do.” So, in that case, we are kind of tainting the data, because we are giving them a particular direction to go in and a particular goal.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “creative players” who are not trying to win—they are trying to tell a story. They are just trying to create something beautiful. For instance, when my wife plays, she wants lots of schools and parks and she’s not at all concerned with trying to make the most money or have the most people. She just wants to build that idealized little town that she thinks would be the perfect place to live.
[Image: A regional view of a SimCity game, showing different cities and their painfully small footprints].
So, getting back to your question, because player types cover such a big spectrum, it’s really hard for us to look at the raw data and pull out things like: “This is the kind of place that people want to live in.” That said, we do have a lot of data and we can look at it and see things, like how many people put down a park and how many people put in a tram system. We can measure those things in the aggregate, but I don’t think they would say much about real city planning.
Twilley: Building on that idea of different sorts of players and ways of playing, are there a variety of ways of “winning” at SimCity? Have you personally built cities that you would define as particularly successful within the game, and, if so, what made them “winners”?
Librande: For sure, there is no way to win at SimCity other then what you decide to put into the game. If you come in with a certain goal in mind—perhaps, say, that you want a high approval rating and everyone should be happy all the time— then you would play very differently than if you went in wanting to make a million dollars or have a city with a million people in it.
As far as my personal city planning goes, it has varied. I’ve played the game so much, because early on I just had to play every system at least once to understand it. I tried to build a power city, a casino city, a mining city—I tried to build one of everything.
Now that I’m done with that phase, and I’m just playing for fun at home, I’ve learned that I enjoy mid-density cities much more then high-density cities. To me, high-density cities are just a nightmare to run and operate. I don’t want to be the mayor of New York; I want to be the mayor of a small town. The job is a lot easier!
Basically, I build in such a way as to not make skyscrapers. At the most, I might have just one or two because they look cool—but that’s it.
[Image: Screenshot from SimCity 4].
Manaugh: I’m curious how you dealt with previous versions of SimCity, and whether there was any anxiety about following that legacy or changing things. What are the major innovations or changes in this version of the game, and what kinds of things did you think were too iconic to get rid of?
Librande: First of all, when we started the project, and there were just a few people on the team, we all agreed that we didn’t want this game to be called SimCity 5. We just wanted to call it SimCity, because if we had a 5 on the box, everybody would think it had to be SimCity 4 with more stuff thrown in. That had the potential to be quite alienating, because SimCity 4 was already too complicated for a lot of people. That was the feedback we had gotten.
Once we made that title decision, it was very liberating—we felt like, “OK, now we can reimagine what the brand might be and how cities are built, almost from scratch.”
Technically, the big difference is the “GlassBox” engine that we have, in which all the agents promote a bottom-up simulation. All the previous SimCity games were literally built on spreadsheets where you would type a number into a grid cell, and then it propagated out into adjacent grid cells, and the whole city was a formula.
SimCity 4 was literally prototyped in Excel. There were no graphics—it was just a bunch of numbers—but you could type a code that represented a particular type of building and the formulae built into the spreadsheet would then decide how much power it had and how many people would work there. It just statically calculated the city as if it were a bunch of snapshots.
[Image: A fire breaks out in the city designed by We Are The Champignons].
Because our SimCity—the new SimCity—is really about getting these agents to move around, it’s much more about flows. Things have to be in motion. I can’t look at anybody’s city as a screenshot and tell you what’s going on; I have to see it live and moving before I can fully understand if your roads are OK, if your power is flowing, if your water is flowing, if your sewage is getting dumped out, if your garbage is getting picked up, and so on. All that stuff depends on trucks actually getting to the garbage cans, for example, and there’s no way to tell that through a snapshot.
[Image: Sims queue for the bus at dawn].
Once we made that decision—to go with an agent-driven simulation and make it work from the bottom up—then all the design has to work around that. The largest part of the design work was to say: “Now that we know agents are going to run this, how do schools work with those agents? How do fire and police systems work with these agents? How do time systems work?” All the previous editions of SimCity never had to deal with that question—they could just make a little table of crimes per capita and run those equations.
Manaugh: When you turned things over to the agents, did that have any kind of spatial effect on game play that you weren’t expecting?
Librande: It had an effect, but it was one that we were expecting. Because everything has to be in motion, we had to have good calculations about how distance and time are tied together. We had to do a lot of measurements about how long it would really take for one guy to walk from one side of the city to the other, in real time, and then what that should be in game time—including how fast the cars needed to move in relationship to the people walking in order to make it look right, compared to how fast would they really be moving, both in game time and real time. We had all these issues where the cars would be moving at eighty miles an hour in real time, but they looked really slow in the game, or where the people were walking way, way too fast, but actually they were only walking at two miles an hour.
We knew this would happen, but we just had to tweak the real-life metrics so that the motion and flow look real in the game. We worked with the animators, and followed our intuition, and tried to mimic the motion and flow of crowds.
[Image: We Are The Champignons’ industrial zone, carefully positioned downwind of the residential areas].
In the end, it’s not one hundred percent based on real-life metrics; it just has to look like real life, and that’s true throughout the game. For example, if we made the airport runways actual size, they would cover up the entire city. Those are the kinds of things where we just had to make a compromise and hope that it looked good.
Twilley: Actually, one of the questions we wanted to ask was about time in the game. I found it quite intriguing that there are different speeds that you can choose to play at, but then there’s also a distinct sense of the phases of building a city and how many days and nights have to pass for certain changes to occur. Did you do any research into how fast cities change and even how the pace of city life is different in different places?
Librande: We found an amazing article about walking speeds in different cities. That was something I found really interesting. In cities like New York, people walk faster, and in medium-sized or small towns, they walk a lot slower. At one point, we had Sims walking faster as the city gets bigger, but we didn’t take it that far in the final version.
I know what you are talking about, though: in the game, bigger cities feel a lot busier and faster moving. But there’s nothing really built into the game to do that; it’s just the cumulative effect of more moving parts, I guess. In kind of a counter-intuitive way, when you start getting big traffic jams, it feels like a bigger, busier city even though nothing is moving—it’s just to do with the way we imagine rush-hour gridlock as being a characteristic of a really big city.
The fact that there’s even a real rush hour shows how important timing is for an agent-based game. We spent a lot of time trying to make the game clock tick, to pull you forward into the experience. In previous SimCities, the day/night cycle was just a graphical effect—you could actually turn it off if you didn’t like it, and it had no effect on the simulation. In our game, there is a rush hour in the morning and one at night, there are school hours, and there are shopping hours. Factories are open twenty-four hours a day, but stores close down at night, so different agents are all working on different schedules.
The result is that you end up getting really interesting cycles—these flows of Sims build up at certain times and then the buses and streets are empty and then they build back up again. There’s something really hypnotic about that when you play the game. I find myself not doing anything but just watching in this mesmerized state—almost hypnotized—where I just want to watch people drive and move around in these flows. At that point, you’re not looking at any one person; you’re looking at the aggregate of them all. It’s like watching waves flow back and forth like on a beach.
For me, that’s one of the most compelling aspects of our game. The timing just pulls you forward. We hear this all the time—people will say, “I sat down to play, and three hours had passed, and I thought, wait, how did that happen?” Part of that is the flow that comes from focusing, but another part of it is the success of our game in pulling you into its time frame and away from the real-world time frame of your desk.
Twilley: Has anything about the way people play or respond to the game surprised you? Is there anything that you already want to change?
Librande: One thing that amazed me is that, even with the issues at the launch, we had the equivalent of nine hundred man-years put into SimCity in less than a week.
Most of the stuff that people are doing, we had hoped or predicted would happen. For example, I anticipated a lot of the story-telling and a lot of the creativity—people making movies in the cities, and so on—and we’re already seeing that. YouTube is already filled with how-to videos and people putting up all these filters, like film noir cities, and it’s just really beautiful.
[Video: SimCity player Calvin Chan’s film noir montage of his city at night].
The thing I didn’t predict was that, in the first week, two StarCraft players—that’s a very fast-paced space action game, in case you’re not familiar with it, and it’s fairly common for hardcore players to stream their StarCraft battles out to a big audience—decided to have a live-streamed SimCity battle against each other. They were in a race to be the first to a population of 100,000; they live-streamed their game; and there were twenty thousand people in the chat room, cheering them on and typing in advice—things like “No, don’t build there!” and “ What are you doing—why are you putting down street cars?” and “Come on, dude, turn your oil up!” It was like that, nonstop, for three hours. It was like a spectator sport, with twenty thousand people cheering their favorite on, and, basically, backseat city planning. That really took me by surprise.
I’m not sure where we are going to go with that, though, because we’re not really an eSport, but it seems like the game has the ability to pull that out of people. I started to try to analyze what’s going on there, and it seems that if you watch people play StarCraft and you don’t know a lot about it, your response is going to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m looking at; I don’t know if I should be cheering now; and I don’t know if what I just saw was exciting or not.”
But, if you watch someone build a city, you just know. I mean, I don’t have to teach you that putting a garbage dump next to people’s houses is going to piss them off or that you need to dump sewage somewhere. I think the reason that the audience got so into it is that everyone intuitively knows the rules of the game when it comes to cities.
• • •
For more Venue interviews, on human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments, check out the Venue website in full.
What I’ve been captivated by is the so-called British Countryside Generator, a “procedural world engine” using “spatial division maths” that allowed Big Robot to generate aesthetically recognizable rural British landscapes.
“I’ve worked on a number of procedural world generation tools before,” coder Tom Betts explains on the Big Robot blog, “but this particular engine is unique in that the intention was to generate a vision of ‘British countryside,’ or an approximation thereof.”
To approach this we identified a number of features in the countryside that typify the aesthetic we wanted, and seem to be quintessential in British rural environments. Possibly the most important element is the ‘patchwork quilt’ arrangement of agricultural land, where polygonal fields are divided by drystone walls and hedgerows. These form recognizable patterns that gently rise and fall across the rolling open countryside, enclosing crops, meadows, livestock and woodlands. This patchwork of different environmental textures is something that is very stereotypically part of the British landscape. I looked for a mathematical equivalent we could use to simulate this effect and quite quickly decided upon using Voronoi diagrams.
The basic topology is thus established, one that, despite its mathematical abstraction, “looks remarkably like… the British countryside.”
“Once this is done,” Tom continues, “the engine then uses the height information to produce a terrain splatmap where different textures are assigned to areas according to altitude, slope and region type. This results in sandy beaches, rocky highlands and meadows in between.”
These subtle glimpses of game geology disguise Jim Rossignol’s own mock enthusiasm for all things virtually terrestrial. “Terrain!” he exclaimed over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun last summer in a Walt Whitmanic moment of expansiveness. “It’s the undulating table on which the pieces of our play are set. It’s the sandbox in which we dig, and the garden in which we grow. Terrain: for exploring, for absorbing, for smoothing, for deforming. It is the unsung underfoot heroic substrate of all that is gaming, and much else besides.”
Speaking of “smoothing,” these automatically generated lines and divisions are not always ideal, and can often use some smudging. “There are also a number of ‘noisy’ functions,” Tom adds, “that make the textures intersect more organically by adding goat type trails, blurring and dithering. There are also additional alterations made to this splatmap later as the engine deploys the actual models too—walls, buildings and so on.”
Personally—perhaps it’s schadenfreude—I love to see all of architecture reduced to “walls, buildings and so on,” just tossed across the landscape like salt; to think of all the time spent on student architecture projects that could simply have been achieved using a countryside generator…
But then, of course, you add the “sir” being hunted, and you throw in the jangly figures carrying rifles and smoking pipes in the foggy landscape, and mere terrain becomes gamespace, a place of strategy and places to hide.
In his long blog post at Big Robot, for instance, Tom writes that “one of the most exciting parts of procedural content generation is the fact that it can produce unexpected results, [and] players can stumble across regions that due to a particular combination of features appear really unusual. In testing I’ve found villages collapsing over cliff edges, trees submerged in lakes and roads from nowhere to nowhere. There is actually something nice about finding these anomalies because it really feels like a unique discovery, proving that you are wandering your own, individual version of the game world.”
Jim Rossignol has discussed the game in more detail in several interesting interviews—such as with WhatCulture and Rock, Paper, Shotgun—where you’ll find more background and info, and a convincing glimpse of the game designer as landscape theorist.
For now, here are some further shots of the British Countryside Generator at work.
Briefly, I can’t let this post end without mentioning another, admittedly entirely unrelated project, something that itself could easily be described as a “British countryside generator.” I’m referring to the massive wetland redevelopment on Wallasea Island, using “approximately 6.5m tons of spoil,” in the words of London Reconnections, that have been sucked, scraped, and excavated from deep beneath London as part of the Herculean Crossrail tunneling project.
In other words, the island is literally being expanded through an open-air terrestrial 3D-printing exercise, using dirt from the foundations of London as its ink.
As the BBC explains, the Wallasea wetland project is “making good use of the excess earth being generated from the separate £14.8bn Crossrail project. The twin-bore tunnels being dug out to link east and west London would have seen six million tons of earth in need of a new home—but three-quarters of this will head to Wallasea Island via freight trains and ships to create the new reserve.”
There is something absolutely mind-boggling in the idea of huge, artificial hollows under London being sprayed out over a coastal site—no doubt according to Big Robot-like formal rules, where “different textures are assigned to areas according to altitude, slope and region type,” as the game designer explains, above—to form, nearly from whole cloth, a new ecosystem.
A British Countryside Generator, indeed.
(An earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed many quotations to Jim Rossignol, rather than to Tom Betts—my apologies to Tom for the oversight!)
[Image: From the Drift Deck by Julian Bleecker and Dawn Lozzi].
The Drift Deck, produced in 2008 by Julian Bleecker and Dawn Lozzi, is “an algorithmic puzzle game used to navigate city streets,” offering “instructions that guide you as you drift about the city.”
Each card contains an object or situation, followed by a simple action. For example, a situation might be—you see a fire hydrant, or you come across a pigeon lady. The action is meant to be performed when the object is seen, or when you come across the described situation. For example—take a photograph, or make the next right turn.
The deck has a tendency to sound a bit like a human behavior manual for urban residents suffering from Asperger Syndrome—”Uh Oh…” one card reads, “An awkward moment. Pause and take a photograph,” as if talking to Rain Man, or “Ugliness,” another card says, “Avoid it noticeably, gesturing and registering disgust,” as if the city would be more interesting if only we could be as flamboyant as RuPaul—rather than serving as a genuinely diagonal guide to the city.
But I love the Drift Deck‘s premise, combining as it does the Oblique Strategies of Brian Eno with the chance operations of John Cage, by way of Situationism and perhaps even the “let the dice decide” tactics of Luke Rhinehart.
[Image: From the Drift Deck by Julian Bleecker and Dawn Lozzi].
A non-sentimental Drift Deck, intended not as a way to emotionally enrich the urban experience but simply to densify the number of personal actions taken during a given span of time, would be an interesting thing to develop and explore. Basic, analog instructions (turn left, enter that shop, buy something, slow down) would, in the end, I’d suggest, generate at least as many random encounters.
This could also quite easily be turned into a mobile app: tap the screen at every intersection (or every hour on the hour) and random navigational options are generated. Combine this with Foursquare (“the mayor of turning-left at 44th Street”), Twitter, etc., and you could leave automatically generated traces of unique drifted paths for others to see. Repeatable experiments of random acts through the city.
There’s still the key question, though, of how to realize this without falling back onto a kind of Instabuddhism™, exhorting participants to appreciate their everyday lives with greater intensity. After all, the results could just as easily be disorienting and sharply alien—deliberately so—not instilled with a New Age sense of rejuvenated authenticity. Perhaps petty crimes could even be thrown in for good measure…
“Japanese organizers say each game will be filmed by 200 high definition cameras, which will use ‘freeviewpoint’ technology to allow fans to see the action unfold from a player’s eye view—the kind of images until now only seen in video games,” CNN reports.
British football theorist Jonathan Wilson puts an interestingly spatial spin on the idea: “Speaking as a tactics geek,” he said to CNN, “the problem watching games on television is it’s very hard to see the shape of the teams, so if you’re trying to assess the way the game’s going, if you’re trying to assess the space, how a team’s shape’s doing and their defense and organization, then this will clearly be beneficial.”
Watching a sport becomes a new form of spatial immersion into strategic game geometries.
Of course, there’s open disbelief that Japan can actually deliver on this promise—it is proposing something based on technology that does not quite exist yet, on the optimistic assumption that all technical problems will be worked out in 12 years’ time.
But the idea of real-time, life-size event-holograms being beamed around the world as a spatial replacement for TV imagery is stunning.
The parallels and disparities between videogames and movies are endlessly debated, but there’s one certainty: they both return, routinely, to the architecture of New York City. The most frequently filmed city in the world is also the most frequently modeled.
The canyons of New York are as useful for game designers as they are for film directors. If the decision is arbitrary, then New York represents a kind of go-to alpha city: the logical choice if you need a city at all. For film directors it’s a grand and familiar backdrop, and the same bold geometry is relatively straightforward for game technologies to render. The grid-like topology, an added bonus, is easy for gamers to understand and navigate, too.
Models of the city exist, at many different levels of fidelity, for many different gaming scenarios. From the crude polygonal outlines of early iterations of Microsoft Flight Sim, to the normal-mapped biomorphic horrors of last year’s ultraviolent brawler, Prototype, Manhattan’s skyline and the districts beyond are etched into virtuality, over and over. These models exist on countless DVDs and hard-discs across the world, in ten of thousands of memory-states within the architecture of game consoles and PCs that are modeling the city right now, in real time. It might be impossible to say how many different (or identical) instances of New York are stored, digitally, within the city itself. It seems likely that a model of New York sits just an arm-length away from every Xbox-inhabited TV stand in the greater metropolitan area.
There have been dozens of instances of New York remade for the escape-hatch sub-realities of gaming in studios around the world. In just the past decade we could name Alone In The Dark, True Crime, The Hulk, World In Conflict, Forza 2, Project Gotham, 50 Cent, Max Payne 1 & 2, Gran Turismo 3, and Def Jam Vendetta. This number spills into scores more across the previous decades, and it’s a figure which becomes hazier still when mods, expansions, analogues, and cancelled or lost projects are counted in the mix.
This reliance on New York isn’t simply about providing a visually interesting backdrop, of course, because it has also provided some of the strongest connections to character. When the noir ultraviolence of Max Payne was moved to Sao Paulo for Max Payne 3, there was uproar. If you took Max out of the tenements of New York, was he really Max at all? What was the New York cop without his delirious nightmare of New York’s criminal innards? Similarly, when it was announced that Crysis 2 would be moving from its technologically impressive jungle-island home to the exploding streets of Manhattan, no one really thought to comment. Of course it would be set in New York. Indeed, if they really wanted to see/destroy it all, where else would the aliens want to go next?
Crysis 2‘s ash-hazed avenues are impeccably damaged, while surly pedestrians in any sandbox city are happy to pick a fight if you don’t look where you’re going. These models new look increasingly like New York City, and more often behave like it, too. As the complexity of games increases, it seems that we are speeding towards a completionist model of the city—one that whirs and hums and yells like the real thing. As the models made by game studios march toward reality, they march towards Manhattan.
Yet realism is not a goal that games should really be striving for. Leave that to the CAD programs and the satellite maps. Instead games should explore the aspects of Manhattan that make less sense, like its dreams, or the models of the city that represent it not as it is, but as we are able to explore it, thanks to the mutational potentials of digital simulation. Examine those aspects of the city and perhaps the issue becomes less about New York as a fabulous piece of set design, and more about New York as a vital raw material for the business of fantasy.
This is a relationship that has moved on from simply being a straightforward practical connection to something that is embroiled in deeper meaning. New York city has become gaming’s ideal and idealized urban environment, and it has done so by becoming refictionalized and reimagined. The finest example of a city yet given to gaming, that of Grand Theft Auto IV, isn’t really New York at all, and yet it is more like New York than ever before. It’s the essence of New York—a distillation that is only possible thanks to the unique way in which games are able to make the figurative and the abstract resonate with us even more profoundly than the infinite detail of the everyday.
It’s worth noting that the superficial New Yorkness of other, real cities often counts in their favor when it comes to making movies. At the end of American Psycho, for instance, Toronto’s TD Centre convincingly stands in for the fictional Patrick Bateman’s office in the real-world Seagram Building—both buildings by Mies van der Rohe, but the latter is in Manhattan. The TD Centre thus becomes an architectural stunt double—or perhaps a sinewy body double helping the real New York look good. Not only that, but Pinewood Toronto Studios recently announced that they will be investing further in their home city to create lived-in, urban areas that look like residences in New York, Chicago and London—real districts of a city that are permanently and deliberately cast as a “living movie set.”
Where games are concerned, New York, and the modeling thereof, is a primary conduit for things that cannot happen, or things that need to happen over and over in a slightly different way each time. Not just a conveniently located backdrop, but a thing that can be toyed with digitally, again and again, first by the game developers and then by the gamers themselves. Occasionally, even, the simulations might accidentally model things that have yet to happen. Conspiratorial cyber-fantasy Deus Ex was awash with its own ideas about the sinister possibilities of our politico-military techno-future, but what was the meaning behind the twin towers missing from its future skyline? A year before the towers were destroyed? The silent bells of paranoia began to ring.
In truth the skyline had been cheaply mirrored to reduce the game’s memory footprint, and the Twin Towers portion had simply been left out to make the game run more smoothly. It was nothing more than a technical conceit of the kind games are riddled with, one of the limiting factors of memory or processing that makes the computerized cities so much less than their real counterparts. But it was also a manifestation of something that became inevitable as New York was modeled over and over—as speculation mingled with outright fantasy—the inevitability that games could become a form of architectural prophecy.