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Don't Fear the Voxels!

Shawn Schuster Posted:
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When some potential Crowfall fans heard that the upcoming game will feature a world full of voxels, they panicked. Some moaned audibly while others swore off anything with the words "crow" or "fall" in it for eternity. But the fact is, we shouldn't be afraid of the almighty voxel.

"The Worlds are made of voxels (like Minecraft, only much less blocky) – which means the entire World is destructible," ArtCraft describes in the Kickstarter campaign description. "We are harnessing VoxelFarm technology to generate an endless succession of unique and interesting Campaign Worlds for you to mine, shape, conquer and destroy."

First off, let's take a look at what a voxel actually is. While Minecraft is an amazing game, the style has been done to death, which worries people burned out on the blocky world. But a voxel isn't always a character-head-sized square that makes a rolling hill look like a Mayan pyramid. In Crowfall, the voxels are much smaller and not always square, allowing a smoother, more realistic environment.

A voxel, by definition, is a word combining "volume" and "pixel," where "pixel" is a combination of "picture and "element." And one of the most useful aspects of a voxel is its relation to other voxels. With the traditional polygon used in video game graphics, the position is determined by a set of coordinates, but with a voxel, that position is determined by surrounding voxels.

So when Crowfall is described as having a completely destructible world, the best way of doing that is with voxels that will react with the environment more realistically.

ArtCraft is using technology from VoxelFarm's engine, which is also being used in SOE's EverQuest Next and EverQuest Landmark. So if you've played those games -- or more importantly, built with those games -- then you know what to expect, although Crowfall won't be using the technology for building in the game.

VoxelFarm describes their unique engine as something that not only uses the voxels for their advantages, but also incorporates polygons on the output side, so you're getting the best of both worlds. "Our system outputs traditional polygons so they can be used in legacy systems like rendering, physics, collisions, AI and path finding," VoxelFarm says. Ironically, MineCraft also uses polygons in the finished renders, but the art style plays on to the fact that it wants to look like raw voxels.

But these voxels in Crowfall make up much more than just the land and buildings. VoxelFarm uses the process to better simulate fire, water, smoke, and lava. "Voxels allow the world to come alive," the team describes. "We now deal with fully volumetric objects, which means we are able to know how much they weigh, what their flotation properties are and how they are made up inside."

With destruction and "dying worlds" such a strong focus for Crowfall, you can see that having an established engine that specializes in proceedurally generated growth and destruction is so important. The voxel doesn't completely define the game, but it's a tool to get the realism that we demand in our video games.

Although voxels have been around for a while (John Carmack experimented with them in the Quake III engine), it wasn't until the prevalence of higher internet speeds and more efficient data compression technology that the bandwidth-hungry little buggers could be used on a broader scope. The large data sets included in each voxel contain more information than a basic polygon, so that was a concern for many years.

But we're now in a good spot to utilize voxels to their full potential, and that's what VoxelFarm and ArtCraft are shooting for in Crowfall's world. Blow stuff up, take stuff over, and do it all over again in surprisingly different ways each time.

So now you can see that voxels aren't anything to fear. Pet the voxel. Hug the voxel. Tickle the voxel's little belly. They're really quite harmless. But they are part of a wonderful technology that will add to the overall Crowfall experience.


Shawn Schuster

Shawn Schuster is the former Editor-in-Chief at Massively.com and founder of the indie gaming review site Shoost.co. Shawn has been writing professionally about video games since 2008 and podcasting about games since 2005. When he's not leveling yet another alt, he's running his organic farm with his wife and four kids.