I don't do graphics for a living, and I'm not a student. I don't have much money to spend on software. So, I need to use inexpensive or free software to scratch my digital map-making itch.
Several years ago, I ran a game for my friends. I decided to set it in a city, and I created a map using Photoshop Elements. It was the first map that I made with a raster editor. I had not really used a raster editor before. It was a great learning experience.
The game came to an end, but the map continued to occupy my thoughts. Another itch needed to be scratched - I wanted to see if I could do a map of the place in 3D.
The choice of 3D modelling software was straightforward - Sketchup. It's easy to use, capable, and free, since this is a hobby project. I had not used Sketchup before, so I guess it was a leap of faith that it'd be suitable. I was right!
Given that my goal was to depict an entire city, my renders wouldn't be close-ups, they'd be more like panoramas. So I decided early on that I would create the city using models with a low to medium level of detail. In due course, I learned that I made the right decision. Low-medium poly saves time, but even then, the model became so big that it bumped up against the limit of what was manageable on my system.
Another advantage of Sketchup is its model warehouse. I located models with some feature that I wanted to have in my city, and downloaded them for study. I didn't put downloaded models in my city. I used the downloaded models to learn how to make them myself.
The following pictures show my city model after a about two years of work, off and on. They were rendered within Sketchup using Maxwell Fire, which is the free plug-in version of Maxwell Render.
These renders are nice, but it wasn't my destination. I wanted something more moody and environmental. More to come.....
As one who has been working on a 3D city for years, let me just say that is amazing.
That, sir or ma'am, is impressive. Have some rep...and please post more.
The time and patience you have put into this really shows and the result is pretty spectacular. Hopefully it'll inspire more people to give sketchup a try too. It is a very accessible tool, IMO.
Terrain is hard.
The terrain-generation tools that are available in free 3D modeling software are mostly designed to create big terrains - mountain ranges, continents, and so on. But, my model needed a terrain that's maybe 5 miles by 5 miles. To complicate matters, for the terrain upon which buildings and streets would rest, I needed to be able to sculpt terrain with precision.
In my low-end software world, there was no one-size-fits-all solution. After a lot of research, I realized that I needed to use a variety of methods to generate my terrain in pieces, and import them into Sketchup (if needed) to scale them and fit them together.
Here's a summary of the different terrains that I created.
The mountains gave me fits. After lots of trial and error, I finally decided to create them using the fractal terrain generation tools in Bryce 7, which are blunt instruments at best. Getting the fractal mountains to make a plausible transition to a seabed *where I needed them to transition* was just wickedly difficult. That was the part of the project where I longed for feature-rich higher end software that lays out of my economic reach.
The little islands are also Bryce fractal terrains. These were much easier to make to my satisfaction. I used the "erode fractal" feature to make nice rocky promontories.
I exported the fractally created terrains from Bryce as 3DStudio format meshes, which I was able to import into Sketchup. I then used Sketchup tools to scale them and make them fit. Well, "make them fit" is a stretch. I smoothed out the most egregious seams.
The mound-like island, upon which rests the lighthouse and the gladiatorial arena and other city structures, was created from a mesh that is available in Sketchup called a TIN. I made a small-grid TIN and shaped it using Sketchup tools to accomodate where streets and buildings would go, and that took a lot of fiddling. But the results were good.
The gently sloping terrain, upon which rests the mainland portion of the city, was grabbed from a geospatial database, imported into Sketchup, and scaled to fit. The real world location is somewhere along the coast of Baja California. I was only able to make limited use of terrain grabs from a geospatial database, since the resolution of the databases to which I had access isn't very high. But the resulting mesh was perfect for wherever I needed a relatively flat terrain, like a sandy beach.
I also needed a seabed. I had thought, "Hey! I can grab a seabed from a geospatial database!" Turns out, I couldn't. Instead I used a large grid size Sketchup TIN. and shaped it without too much effort.
Oh, I wanted to say something about my seabed. I was looking forward to cool results from a seabed as seen through semi-transparent water. Mostly though, results were meh. Like, shadows cast on the bottom that were just distracting rather than cool, or depth-sensitive rendered water that resulted in a wierd looking seabed. I am getting ahead of myself, though.
Here are renders of the untextured terrain without a water plane, which makes it kinda hard to figure out what you're looking at. Once the water's in, it'll hopefully make sense. Pictures were rendered within Sketchup using Maxwell Fire.
More to come......
looks really good nematode, great work.. looking forward to seeing more from you :)
Next I needed to decide how to render the model.
There are a number of render packages that integrate with Sketchup. Those are nice because they ease the workflow. Also - they support rendering an isometric view. But, after trying several, the results weren't what I was looking for. I don't want to generalize - this is only my experience - but I found that the renderers that integrate with Sketchup are best suited for rendering architectural views for industry. I needed software that could let me produce a moody picture with lots of environmental qualities. That was a dissapointment for me, because integrated Sketchup render is a great idea.
So, I needed to find another renderer that a) is free b) supports render of an isometric view and c) allows me to import my Sketchup model.
I looked into Vue. Clearly, Vue is a nice product, although it doesn't feature an isometric view. But, the show stopper with Vue was, at least at the time I was searching, it wasn't free. In particular, I remember that the Vue file importer cost money, so Vue wasn't a viable option for me.
I next looked at Bryce. At the time, a basic Bryce product was free, and sometime later, Bryce Pro became free. Although I had some reservations about using Bryce (and still do) it had a couple of big things in its favor.
Bryce does a nice job rendering an infinite water plane. Given that water would feature prominently in my renders - it's a model of a seaport city - nice looking water was very important. And, Bryce includes a lot of textures. I was going to need textures, since textures will not export from Sketchup to Bryce.
However, like Vue, Bryce doesn't support an isometric view. I also looked at Terragen 2. It supports isometric view, and renders pretty terrain, but it didn't look like it would allow me to import my Sketchup model. By this point in my search, I had come to the conclusion that I was going to have to make a compromise somewhere. No render software met all of my needs.
So I decided to give up the requirement for isometric view. Maybe I could use field of view to simulate it. Or maybe I'd find that it didn't really matter. After all, I'm not making a blueprint.
All things considered. Bryce best fit my needs.
So I began the process of exporting my Sketchup model into Bryce. The workflow was basically - within Sketchup, create groups of objects that will need to receive a certain texture, export them in COLLADA format, import them into Bryce where they will appear as a group, and then apply the Bryce texture.
Exporting, importing, and texturing was a big job. It was also a big job to learn how to produce nice renders with Bryce. I have been working with Bryce for a couple of years now, and I have to say, the learning curve is steep. I consider my Bryce renders to be only average. There is a lot more to get out of Bryce, but getting to it is very, very hard.
Here are rendered images of my city from a top view, emulating a map. They are not an isometric view. They were done in Bryce 7 Pro.
More to come......
What attracted me to a 3D project is the opportunity to create views of my model from other perspectives.
Yeah you can pretty much do anything with it now... like that. =P