Update on the Unlimited Detail debate

It seems some heavyweight of PC development are weighing in on the discussion over Euclideon’s ‘Unlimited Detail‘ technology presentation. No less an authority than Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, Minecraft creator and acclaimed indie developer, has come down on the side of the doubters.

Notch raises an interesting point, which I had neglected to address in my previous look:

They made a voxel renderer, probably based on sparse voxel octrees. That’s cool and all, but.. To quote the video, the island in the video is one km^2. Let’s assume a modest island height of just eight meters, and we end up with 0.008 km^3. At 64 atoms per cubic millimeter (four per millimeter), that is a total of 512 000 000 000 000 000 atoms.

If each voxel is made up of one byte of data, that is a total of 512 petabytes of information, or about 170 000 three-terrabyte harddrives full of information. In reality, you will need way more than just one byte of data per voxel to do colors and lighting, and the island is probably way taller than just eight meters, so that estimate is very optimistic.

So obviously, it’s not made up of that many unique voxels.

In the video, you can make up loads of repeated structured, all roughly the same size. Sparse voxel octrees work great for this, as you don’t need to have unique data in each leaf node, but can reference the same data repeatedly (at fixed intervals) with great speed and memory efficiency. This explains how they can have that much data, but it also shows one of the biggest weaknesses of their engine.

Basically, what Notch is saying is that to create and store a non-repetitive designed environment of the extent that they are claiming would require thousands of times more storage than most PC owners can lay claim to. Even with computationally expensive compression, the drawbacks are obvious.

Unless we are willing to give up the range and complexity of level design that we have become accustomed to, and go back to the days when objects and environments were made up of a severely limited range of stamps repeated in limited combination, the technique will remain a physical impossibility. While the individual stamps may look great, I doubt this is something most gamers would be falling over themselves to be a part of.

Notch also refers to the animation issue brought up in numerous quarters already. However, it seems that the issue has been at least partially addressed, as you can see from the tech video that he links to:

However, it’s a big step to go from a single character repeating a simple animation loop to a fully interactive game with realistic physics and multiple possible interactions.

Finally, Notch expresses reservations about Euclideon’s motivations. In his eyes, they are being less than honest:

They’re hyping this as something new and revolutionary because they want funding. It’s a scam. Don’t get excited.

Or, more correctly, get excited about voxels, but not about the snake oil salesmen.

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