Transforming the Grand Canyon into a desert rock climbing playground

By Tom Deerberg, Lead 3D Artist

Canyon is our third expansive rock climbing playground in The Climb. As you might have guessed, it's inspired by the Grand Canyon in the USA, but again we drew cultural and geographical cues from across America as we developed our idealized environment.

When were deciding on the locations for our game, we came to a fairly quick consensus that we wanted the Grand Canyon. There are areas of outstanding natural beauty across North America and an almost intimidating amount of stunning mountain ranges to choose from, but we thought the Grand Canyon would provide an interesting contrast to Bay and our Alps setting. From an artistic perspective, the orange and brown hues of the Grand Canyon gave us a really distinct, warm palette to play with in comparison to the blues and grays of Alps and the brighter Bay, and of course there is a new geology with different rock formations, like pillars and natural arches, which could deliver new gameplay challenges.

While unquestionably a breathtaking setting, the landscape of the Grand Canyon itself presented a few difficult design decisions. While we added a lot of manmade architectural elements in Bay and Alps to heighten the atmosphere, the Grand Canyon itself is a protected National Park; it's as empty as it is beautiful. This was a challenge, because we want our levels to have the buzz of human activity to augment the natural beauty. Now, we never limit ourselves to absolute accuracy as we create our settings, and we took elements from National Parks in Arizona, Utah, and California, for instance, but we are always conscious of respecting the environment in reality and meeting the expectations of players. The latter is particularly important, as when things don't feel consistent or as you'd expect them to look, it breaks your immersion.

So we had to really think through those architectural elements and manmade assets – where we'd use them and how often. For platforms and ladders that you climb across in the scene, we decided to apply a Western vibe. As ever, we put a lot of detail in the near-field for these assets, so they hold up as plausible and consistent. The wood effect we used really shows weathering and age, as if they'd been there a long time, since back in the frontier days, before it became a protected National Park. If these features were new and shiny, it would jar with the idea that they could exist in this environment.

That element of storytelling through assets is especially important in VR. It's not just about making something look detailed, it's about making it fit, consistently, in the world you've created. For example, we had to go to more lengths than we anticipated with our cables. In Canyon, we challenge you to climb from one rock face to another across cable lines, and you get a real sense of tension and excitement as you traverse above a huge drop. At first, we just created cables and fixed them to the rock surface at the same level of detail we'd usually aim for in a normal 3D game. But they come into the near-field view, and they looked just a little too perfect, kind of unreal. So we had to really think about how we'd treat these assets.

That started with mapping them out. What actual screws would people use in this situation? How long had the cables been there? Would there be wear and tear on the screw, how did it get into the rock? Even a little detail like a screw had to have a mini-story, which sounds kind of ridiculous, but we found that we had to do it to get the effect we wanted. So we did some research on those screws, found an authentic way of attaching the cables, looked at ways of inserting the screw into the rock, and replicated that. We found an appropriate screw that would really be used for this purpose, paid attention to the way a cable would be attached to it, and applied detail to indicate wear and age. We also placed decals with cracks around the screw on the rock, so you really got the feeling of the force that the screw had to be under to hold its position. It's an asset that took careful thinking through, and most people won't give it a second thought – but that proves the effect. It's when the details stick out as inconsistent that your presence and immersion is broken. And when you look at the details in the near-field view, your brain more readily accepts that the other assets in the world are as detailed too, amplifying the affect. It makes our vistas much more powerful; you feel that everything in the world is similarly authentic and realistic.

We do bring in some larger architectural elements too, but they had to pass the “would it make sense?" test. One of those elements is a large city on the horizon, our nod to Las Vegas, with tropes and clichés from the skyline that makes it such an iconic city. We also have a desert music festival. That's on the horizon as well – we did think about placing in into our Canyon, but it didn't feel appropriate to the landscape. There's simply not enough flat land, and, well, how would the ravers get there? OK, it would have been cool, but it might be jarring. Instead, we place it out in desert, and when you climb at night you'll see spotlights and fireworks from the party lighting up the sky. The fireworks and spotlights are particularly effective for us when you climb at night because it allows us to bathe the rock surfaces with color, which is really dramatic. If we'd have just placed lanterns or other light sources in the scene, it wouldn't really have fit. So these features do more than just look great, but can sometimes illustrate the path ahead, as well as changing the aesthetic.

An additional benefit of these kind of large architectural assets is that they help with scale. When you see things that you know to be large a long way away in the distance as small, you get an understanding of the sheer size of the landscape that surrounds you. But scale in the Grand Canyon is a tricky thing. We've touched on the lack of human-made objects and architecture in the real area, and how we've tried to respect that in-game. But if you've been to the real place, you'll see how difficult it is to comprehend the scale of the place. You can stand overlooking the Grand Canyon and knows that it's huge, but it's when a tiny helicopter flies by in front of it that the sense of scale really comes home. You kind of think, “wow, if that helicopter is so small and moving so slowly, the landscape behind it must be massive."

We had to be creative around the objects we used and about how to really emphasize the scale of the environment the player is climbing in. For instance, with the fireworks from our music festival, you'll see them before you hear them – that piece of sound design makes you realize just how far away the event is and gives you a feeling of really being in a huge world. We also use helicopters and biplanes that traverse the landscape slowly which helps us communicate how far away the mountains in the vista are. We bring in some jet planes which fly in a formation for a special event when you conquer a route. They fly right over you (we actually bring them so close to you that the dust kicks up – it feels like you might want to duck) but then they speed away into distance and bank across the landscape, and you get that understanding again of the sale. Then there are natural elements like waterfalls, which OK, you wouldn't find in the Grand Canyon, but they look great and we blend them into the surroundings so they feel natural. But again they sell the scale – you see the water moving slowly and you instinctively understand that they are far away. It's by using elements like this that you get the sense of proportion and scale, and that sense of scale is way more powerful and immersive in VR than in other mediums.

Thinking about how we could maximize the effect of this kind of asset took on particular importance because one of the standard effects we'd use to sell scale was by using atmospheric layers. So if you have a small model but want it to look big, you'd fill the scene with smoke or cloud layers. The more “atmosphere" you have, the further away it would feel. But with the arid, dry atmosphere of the Grand Canyon that wouldn't make sense – it would feel odd. Respecting that atmosphere did make us put more thought into what we could use to emphasize scale whilst maintaining plausibility, but it also gave rise to another interesting and unexpected effect. During the day in Canyon, with the sun high in the sky, the warm palette, the thin air, and the world looking like a desert rock climbing playground. Players have told us, particularly when they are performing some intense moves, they actually start to feel hot. It's really cool to hear feedback like that, and it clearlyshows the power of VR can have to transport you somewhere new. Creating Grand Canyon was a great challenge but we hope that the effort we put into detail and scale will keep you immersed in the environment, whether you're exploring for fun, racing a friends' ghost, or attempting to get to the top of a leaderboard.

May 19, 2016

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