How Architects and Video Game Creators are Working Together

Mar 11 • Articles, PLAY • 1291 Views • No Comments on How Architects and Video Game Creators are Working Together

We asked Christopher Totten, a video game artist who holds a Masters Degree in Architecture, on the relationship between the virtual and real built environments, and how it affects architectural visualization. His book is “An Architectural Approach to Level Design“.

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1. How do you see your work as a game developer influencing architectural representation?

To me there are several exciting opportunities for architects doing work with game engines and game design methods. The first and most obvious is the ability for clients and potential users to “play” or “test” a building in a piece of game software prior to a building’s construction. Many firms already do this. Game engines – the software used to create video games – allow architects to import 3D models and add a controllable object such that people can wander through a project to visually experience it before construction has begun. Presenting models in this way is different from simply doing a 3D walkthrough as rendered out of 3DS Max or Maya in that the user of a game engine model can actively interact with the model rather than passively watch a video produced by the architect.

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To take it a step further, however, there’s the notion of treating the building like a game design itself where you can shape the experience of a building then use the interaction time clients or users have with the computer model. Imagine wanting to create a visual element that you want users of the building to spend time near or look towards at a certain time in their moving through a building. With a game engine you can test that kind of interaction. If your design doesn’t result in the expected user experience, you can test it with the game model and adjust accordingly. Game tools can help further develop the notion of “placemaking” in architecture and I would love to see that technology integrated in both academic and professional situations.

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Game design has definitely changed how I look at buildings. Instead of thinking primarily about their form, I try to figure out what an architect intended for people to do in their space and whether that may have been successful or unsuccessful. Many of my favorite buildings or spaces have some element designed for user interaction. Likewise I like to think about what elements of a space allow users to come up with their own verbs for interacting with a building space.

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2. How are Prospect/Refuge/Secondary Refuge spatial sequences featured in architecture? 
Refuge – covered “safe spaces” where users are out of view – and prospect – open spaces where users and occupants are easily visible – are a great element with which to build both dynamic game and architectural spaces. In games, refuges are places where players can hide from enemies or take cover from gunfire. In these situations, prospect and refuge are great for building tension. “Secondary refuges” visible from the first but requiring travel through a prospect to reach, are also very fun to utilize. In architecture, we see architects like Le Corbusier using a lot of prospects and Frank Lloyd Wright using lots of refuges. In Villa Savoye, Corbusier utilized a mechanic where people on higher levels of the building could look down to see people on lower levels. You can effectively “win” Villa Savoye by being on the roof terrace.

Likewise, Wright had people in his office draw building perspectives surrounded of trees even if none would be on the site just so they would look safe and cloistered. Both utilized materials that fit these experiences – Le Corbusier had stark white materials and Wright used natural materials that accentuated the sense of safety.

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You see this relationship become symbolic in schools and libraries. The atrium at the IT University in Copenhagen has classrooms that are cantilevered refuges hanging over a wide open prospect space. Something similar happens in Louis Kahn’s Exeter Library and Salk Institute, where study carols and labs respectively are refuges that look out onto public courtyards and atriums. In these examples spaces for learning are refuges designed for users to linger while other spaces are designed to be commuted through.

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3. With many buildings opting for various forms of transparency, do shadowspace and shade still play a role in creating experiential space?
I think they can. Shadows do not only have to be mechanisms for hiding, but can also be created by rhythmic elements in a space to enhance how one travels through a building. If a person walks in a path perpendicular to repeating shadows, this rhythm can help draw them through the space and make their trip more interesting. If they are going parallel to a series of linear shadows, those shadows will converge at a point in a distance from the traveler’s point of view and will “pull” them towards the endpoint. This is a great way to indicate where users are to go in 3D gamespaces. Likewise, I think the not-bright-but-not-dark shade lighting condition historically seen in Gothic churches lends a ethereal element to places. Again, these lighting types are great tools for anyone wanting to create a sense of place for occupants.

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4. What can architects learn about building typologies by studying(playtesting) core mechanics of 3D models representing those typologies?
Game designers utilize “playtesting” as part of their design process. I alluded to this after your first question, but in a much less concrete way. Playtesting allows game designers to thoroughly understand how users react to their games and to the spaces they create. Ideally, games are tested early in the concept phase so designers can “find the fun” and eliminate all of the “unfun” from their design ideas before they devote lots of money and time to generating the code, sound, art, and other aspects that constitute a finished video game (this obviously applies to tabletop games too, but the budgets on video games today are much more terrifying.)

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Games are also very semiotic in nature – they rely on lots of symbols and signs. In a game, the decision to make a door green instead of another color may carry indications of what gameplay is associated with a door. A green door could be a symbol that what’s behind is a place for healing, or maybe green is the color of the evil slime aliens in a game. The idea is that the designer introduces a green door early in the game, allows the player to see what kind of thing resides behind, then reinforces it throughout the game. That’s how a symbol is built in a game environment. In the case of architects, they can use the power of playtesting and semiotics to test what kinds of symbols clients may react to and study these reactions. In architecture, there is already the notion of “types”, where churches look a certain way that is different from a house that is different from a supermarket. etc. Architects could do a lot of good research into the semiotics of architecture by building virtual semiotic environments in game engines then observing how players react to them. Likewise, these types of communications could be a powerful tool for certain types of rehabilitation facilities, schools, or other educational facilities. The possibilities are endless.

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5. Are architectural visualization companies providing architects with the same advantages they would receive from working directly with level designers?

The potential is certainly there. As the types of tools that architectural visualization professionals use become increasingly more commonplace (with things like SketchUp making 3D easy and things like Blender making 3D free), the novelty of being merely able to use the software will not be enough. I think an exciting possibility for arch vis is to adopt game design techniques and give architects and their clients their buildings before they are constructed. Depending on how deeply the collaboration goes, architects could even use this type of visualization in their design processes to test buildings for the most effective sense of place. Again, it will require some shifts for some to think experiential in addition to formal, but if game developers are making a multi-billion dollar-a-year industry out of these sorts of spaces, architects could do worse than take note.

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