1. Computing

Software Review - World Machine

Terrain Generation for Illustration and Game Development

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World Machine is a terrain creation tool, cut from the same vein as Vue or Terragen, but narrower in its focus and (in some ways) faster and more approachable.

It uses a left-to-right node based workflow, which means you start with a procedural terrain generator, and then connect it to various modifier nodes that can be used to shape and erode your landscape in interesting but naturalistic ways. A landscape can be as simple as a generator and a single erosion node (an it'll still look good), or endlessly complex with dozens of nodes stacked, combined, and blended in an almost infinite number of ways.

World Machine doesn't have a renderer or a foliage system, so it was never meant to directly compete with a start-to-finish solution like Vue. It doesn't do as much as the leading environment creation tools, but where the software excels, it does so very admirably.

The application's sole function is terrain generation, and its excellent erosion system combined with the versatility of a node-based workflow are what sets it apart from the competition.

I've had a chance to use World Machine in two projects now—first as the basis for a real-time game environment in UDK, and more recently as a sort of "under-painting" for a digital illustration. I must say, I've been looking for something like this for quite awhile, and was extremely impressed with the results I was able to generate in a relatively short amount of time.

Here are some thoughts from my time spent with the software:

Impressions:


Earlier, I mentioned that I find World Machine to be more approachable than Vue.

This may come as a surprise to someone who hasn't operated in a node-based workflow before, because at first glance World Machine looks more like math than art. It can be intimidating trying to approach a user interface made up of various boxes with arcane names like "advanced perlin," but I promise you there's a lot less of a learning curve than initially meets the eye.

I tried Vue a few years ago and it felt like I was learning an entirely new 3D package with just as many features as something like Maya or Max, with a new set of navigation commands, a new renderer to get the hang of, and hundreds of features in between. I never stuck with it because it was way more functionality than I needed, and I didn't think it was worth the time investment required simply to get up and running.

World Machine, like Vue, would probably be a hard piece of software to truly master, because it requires an entirely new way of thinking from what most artists are used to. However, unlike Vue, World Machine is a piece of software that you can be using competently within an hour. The beauty in a node-based workflow is that it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

Results:

As indicated, I was very happy with the results I was able to get in World Machine, with one caveat that pertains specifically to it's use in a game-art workflow. The raw height and diffuse maps that come out of World Machine look fantastic from a distance—broad features like mountains, canyons, hills, and riverbeds all look phenomenal viewed from far off, however even rendered at very high resolutions the diffuse maps don't hold up at close distances.

This means if you want to use your World Machine terrains in a game engine, you're almost certainly going to need to spruce up your color maps in Photoshop, and if possible combine them with small tileable detail textures within your game engine. This isn't a big deal—World Machine is meant to be part of a workflow, not a workflow in and of itself, but it's definitely something to keep in mind.

Conclusion:

If you're at all interested in digital landscape creation, level design, or environment creation for visual effects, go out and at least try World Machine. Of all the software I've reviewed, this is going to be the most useful for me simply because it's so good at something I'm interested in doing on a daily basis.

Here's a little additional info:

Where to get World Machine:


World Machine is offered in three different flavors to suit your needs and budgetary restrictions:

  • Basic: World Machine Basic is free for unlimited non-commercial use, making it ideal for students, hobbyists, or anyone who simply wants to try before they buy. The software is fully featured, but texture resolution is limited at 512 x 512.
  • Standard: The standard version is a very affordable $89 USD and has all the same features as basic, but bumps the maximum texture resolution up to approximately 8193 x 8193.
  • Professional: For $189, World Machine Pro adds 64 bit support and multithreading for increased texture sizes (> 8193), as well as the ability to export tiling texture maps.

Jump over to the comparison page for more information.

Training:

First thing's first: World Machine's documentation is excellent, so if you ever get stuck you can always delve into the 80+ page user guide to bail you out. I know, buckling down and reading the manual isn't always the most exciting way to learn, but you're almost always better off having done it.

Additionally, the software comes packaged with 6 “mini tutorial” projects that you can open up inside World Machine for a quick-fire introduction to some of the application's most useful nodes and workflow techniques.

And finally, for those of you who (like me) have grown accustomed to high-quality video tutorials, have no fear—there's very little “official” video training from the developer, but I've managed to find two very good resources on YouTube: This first link focuses on World Machine as part of a game-development (UDK or Cryengine) pipeline, and the second uses WM as the basis for a Vue render.

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