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Virtual landscapes: A practice-based exploration of natural environment design in computer & video games

Virtual landscapes: A practice-based exploration of natural environment design in computer & video games
Umran Ali


School of Arts and Media, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT, UNITED KINGDOM.


I offer this thesis as an original and substantial contribution to knowledge in virtual natural environment design practice within computer and video games, by identifying areas of strong/weak practice and to develop a new design framework that utilises a cross-disciplinary approach for practitioners/students/researchers. The thesis combines theoretical frameworks as well practical guidance within a new design framework for virtual natural environment design.

The themes relating to this work were examined through a contextual review that focused on previous professional practice as well as critical games produced during the last 30 years. The contextual review involved a detailed textual and visual-based historical survey of virtual landscapes, resulting in a practice-based exploration of virtual natural environment design in computer and video games. One of the main artefacts produced in this research, a three-volume book series titled Virtual Landscapes, presents for the first time these virtual spaces in a digitally enhanced manner through high-resolution panoramic imagery.

A review of existing literature and current practice revealed that virtual natural environment design has so far been driven by mainly aesthetic principles and hinted that future emergent design practice should involve a cross/multi-disciplinary approach. The research proposes a new design framework for the creation of virtual landscapes that uses Landscape Character Assessments amongst other elements of environmental design. ShadowMoss Island is a practice-based exploration of how virtual natural environmental design can incorporate elements from Environmental Psychology and Geology, as well as personal reflections and observational analysis based on a field trip. The research proposes that psychological elements added to this new design framework can radically improve the success and impact of the final virtual natural environment.

Another practice-based artefact, MindFlow, was created as a pre-production tool for the purpose of environmental design. The proposed tool enables the direct visualisation of collated multimedia (audio, images, video, annotations, design and decisions) in much more natural setting of a single visual space, allowing designers/artists to draw and influence the design and creation of virtual natural environments by bringing together all the different aspects in an intuitive and user-friendly manner. MindFlow helps solve the problem of designers/artists having to retain mental maps of image repositories structure by creating a single visual non-folder tree hierarchy virtual space.

The research has significance to both professional and pedagogic practitioners working in the area of computer and video game natural environment design.