by the Codermind team.
Starting by the obvious, what is a voxel ? A voxel is a short for volume element in the same way as pixel is a contraction of picture element. OK that doesn't really make sense but they just wanted to make it sound the same. There are different kind of voxels, one that we won't consider here is to see voxel as a way to represent volumetric object as three dimensional bitmaps instead of vectors (by opposition, polygonal objects are made of vectors). In this situation voxels are like Lego. Small bricks that constitute a bigger object, similar to the relation pixels have with the bigger image.
But here we'll only discuss the voxel terrain as featured in games like Outcast or Comanche. The voxel terrain engine is a 2.5D engine, it doesn't have all the levels of freedom that a regular 3D engine offers. It has the same degree of freedom as ray casting engines (popularized by Doom) and they are so close than in fact you could probably implement a voxel terrain engine as a ray caster. We won't do that, instead we'll use rasterization with a few tricks. Why is it called voxel if this isn't the same as the first definition ? Because our terrain is constituted by small 2D bricks that expand vertically. So this is a voxel, only a more restrictive definition of a voxel.
This project was started as I discovered the screenshots of Outcast in 1999 and decided to do something similar. This was a rather large project given that I didn't know anything about 3D engines or C++, but the math seemed easy enough. What is following is the newest version using Win32 for the interface (sorry if I use a lot of Win32 notations but I guess that the algorithms explained below are portable enough).
For some laughs, the original versions with a bad case of programmer art (and an underpowered Pentium).
Why would you need a voxel engine nowadays ? Short answer you don't need one. If you've got a 3D accelerator you can have a very detailed terrain with multi texturing, occlusion with a z buffer, powerful shading languages, and most of the work (clipping, rasterization, transformation etc..) is done for you and is the fastest you could ever hope to get. You should see what follows as a mere exercise of fun. There are better tools, so use them.
Now that the disclaimer is on, let's go have some fun.
First there was the height map
The easiest and fastest way to represent a random terrain is through a height map. This implicitly associates a 2D coordinates with a fixed elevation. We obviously cannot represent all kind of terrains like that, there is no way we can have a arch or anything that breaks the rule "one height per position on the map". If you need something like that you probably don't want a voxel engine to represent your world. You don't need to read what follows, go look for polygonal engine (and probably 3D acceleration).
Utah is too complicated for our voxel engine. (all photos and images © Grégory Massal)
The authoring can be tricky, there are real worlds data available as elevation maps, but what if I want to represent something that doesn't exist anywhere else ? Asking an artist to do a simple terrain with faults, mountains, crevices, plains, can be a lot of pain. There are tools that help you author random generated height maps. For this article I used the free versions of World machine and Terragen. And with some amount of work or by using pregenerated scripts you can get realistic enough terrains (go see their galleries for more).
For each position on the map I have a corresponding height encoded as a 8 bit number. 0 to 255 might not be enough for what you envision but you can of course vary the elevation range that is contained in those 8 bits (compression), and if that is not enough you can go for 16 bit integers or 32 bit floating point numbers. It's really a decision depending of your data and there are way to compress those bits better to achieve a similar result with a smaller memory footprint. I won't detail them too much. Let's go back to our design.
Make sure that the map you've created is using the full range of 0 to 255, this is small enough that you don't want to lose precious bits of information in the process. For this engine purpose I also had to make the map tileable. That means that if I go beyond the left side of the map, I can magically wrap to the right side of the map and not fall a cliff because the aspect of the right border is a perfect fit for the left border. I won't detail that too much, but there are ways to make sure of that, one is taking an untileable map and transform it into a copy of the same map duplicated four time and mirrored horizontally or vertically. This way the left border is perfectly equal to the right border. Inconvenient is that you have a map that is highly redundant (well you were going to make it tiled anyway..). Another solution is to generate a slightly larger version of the map, to crop the upper border and report the deleted bit to the lower part of the image with a smooth blend with the underlying image. That way the lower border will be a match with the upper border and this will look seamless enough. In this example I did this manually and this is far from perfect but with a bit of practice you'll have to be looking closely for defects. There are also advanced algorithms that try to preserve the features of the original image and minimize the repetition artifacts but that's too overkill for this little project.
Second there was the visibility
Before drawing every single terrain element you have to determine what is visible and what is not. This is both a performance and a correctness problem. If a terrain element is partially visible or totally occluded and you draw it anyway, then you have a correctness issue. If you draw terrain elements that are situated behind your camera or outside of your view then you have spent numerous cpu cycles for basically nothing.
See part II : Voxel terrain engine - Visibility, occlusion.