At GDC Europe today, Eric Chahi (Another World, Flashback) and Ronan Bel (Ubisoft lead programmer genius) talked about the upcoming (and promising) Project DUST.
Chahi showed a lot of video material of their engine, and how the in-game environment changing actually works. In a nutshell, Project DUST features a dynamic world where the elements of earth (in the form of rock), water and fire (in the form of lava) are used in tandem with vegetation to create any type of landscape you want. Their vision of a landscape is having rock as a foundation, with lava and water being able to flow on the surface, while soil creates a layer on top of the rock where vegetation can grow.
One of their video demonstrations showed a sort of cursor avatar (maybe a flying shaman character?) being used as a pointer manipulator device. Kind of like in Black & White, the player is able to manipulate any of the before mentioned elements to create any kind of terrain needed for the gameplay.
Everything you do reacts like you'd expect. Make a rough cone of soil and the soil will flatten out by gravity. Add water to a mountain or hill and it will flow down. Water can also erode soil. Lava acts like water, with the addition that it can cool down to form rock, by dropping water on it for instance. There was a glimpse of the button layout given, as well, with A for adding, B for removing, X for smoothing and LB and RB for decreasing and increasing an effect.
Chahi mentions how they worked from the building blocks of the elements and vegetation towards a convergence effect. For example, adding a lot of water creates a river and obstructing the body of water can either make a lake or a meandering river. Lava can also be used like water, but has the effect of burning whatever it comes into contact with. Vegetation even has various life cycles, from young to flowering to adult to death. You should even be able to create different height for the plants.
Ronan Bel (who also worked as a programmer on Assassin's Creed 2) follwed Chahi by giving a ton of technical data. If you'd like to know about 4KB address aliasing, you really should have just come to Europe! What was interesting was how the game is multithreaded by design. The rendering runs natively on the PlayStation 3's SPUs for instance, leaving 99% of the PPU available for other things like AI code.
For the devs, or aspiring devs among you, they spent two years on the iterative process where every iteration not only provided solutions but also new problems. An example of how, for instance, the building blocks of the game and the game's rules created such problems was how a randomly generated mountain of soil would have weird and ugly patterns.
"He is really crazy right now," Chahi joked about Bel, "he wants to kill you!"
Chahi went on to describe how they used the concept of mud to come up with a cheap solution. Mud is created by combining the viscosity of water with sediment (soil in water). When they adjusted only the parameters of water and soil, it allowed them to create mud to smooth things out. This concept allowed them to create a much cheaper solution than creating an expensive algorithm for smoothing from scratch.
They ended the presentation by adding some references to published scientific articles on things like Real Time Fluid Dynamics. It sounded pretty impressive tech-wise, and more importantly it looked really good. In fact, the tech talk might have some relation to Ronan Bel saying he is looking for a change on his LinkedIn profile.
Q&A had questions like "Ok that looks great, where is the game?" Chahi couldn't get into details on gameplay, but that it would be showed at gamescom later this week. More to come on that front!
Another question was if there were any plans to include weather. Upon hearing the question, Chahi glanced at Bel and said, hesitantly, "Maaaaaybe." Bel groaned, covering his eyes. Not quite a facepalm, though, so who knows!
Project DUST (working title) will come to PC, Xbox LIVE Arcade and PlayStation Network in 2011.