Jacobs Well

According to http://jacobswellspring.org/ “Jacob’s Well is one of the most significant natural geologic treasures in the Texas Hill Country. It is one of the longest underwater caves in Texas and an artesian spring. Jacob’s Well surges up thousands of gallons of water per minute and acts as headwaters to the beautiful Cypress Creek that flows through Wimberley, sustaining Blue Hole and the Blanco River, recharging the Edwards Aquifer, and finally replenishing estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico

What’s intriguing about this rare ‘well’ is the fear and the excitement that are both evoked looking at the well. One could imagine feeling the fear of falling into the abyss (essentially an irrational fear since the entire system is submerged underwater)  if swimming towards the well in the creek, coupled with excitement  of discovery of what lies beneath at the same time . Jacobs well is most definitely what I would described as  ‘geomorphosite‘ a term I came across looking to best describe specific natural geological phenomena that could be added to virtual environments/landscapes to bring a sense of ‘Placelessness’  at specific locations. Although the term is used in relation to actual physical geological landforms, I believe the term is still highly relevant and applicable to the virtual world design.  

According to geomorhology “Geomorphosites are geomorphological landforms that have acquired a scientific, cultural/historical, aesthetic and/or social/economic value due to human perception or exploitation (Panizza, 2001). They can be single geomorphological objects or wider landscapes and may be modified, damaged, and even destroyed by the impacts of human activities. The value of geomorphosites is poorly known to the public and to scientists from other disciplines.


The strange trees of Socotra Island

The strange Island of Socotra looks like one would expect some distant alien planet similar to Earth, familar yet strange and alien.


Socotra Island  is a small  archipelago of four islands in the Indian ocean  just to the north-east of the ‘horn of Africa’


What’s remarkable about the Island is that the Fauna , unique to this Island, is amongst the strangest we have seen, unlike the conventional tree forms we are accustomed to , the tree’s of Socotra, in particular the Dragon Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)  “described as  an upturned, densely-packed crown having the shape of an uprightly held umbrella. The tree is named after the dark red resin it produces,  known as “dragon’s blood”

What’s interesting from a design/game perspective is how these ‘mushroom’ tree’s are reminiscent of virtual flora found in Morrowind & Phantasy Star Online:AOTI,




Phantasy Star Online:AOTI

Virtual Flora is games tends to be designed and inspired from flora native to the western hemisphere(how often are Bamboo forests, despite their beauty, uniqueness and strange form featured in games?), the Island of Socotra again highlights how varied nature can be in it’s basic forms, and how virtual landscape designers need to be aware of  the array of  forms in  something as simple as the deceitfully simple tree can take.

The Flora on the Island appears to be a  surviving remnant from the Tethys Era, where flora shaped like what is found on Socotra could have been common place throughout the region, perhaps out we are still to find other strange, weird and wonderful remnants  of flora that once thrived on the planet.

Virtual Landscapes: Books finally on iTunes, Google Play & Blurb!

I’ve finally managed to publish all three books in the Virtual Landscapes series to iBooks. The process was tricky(blurb ebook to apple passed epub, and very quickly through apple’s QA process which I heard takes weeks, but my books were passed very quickly!)

You can get all three in the series here:

Virtual Landscapes: Volume 1


Google Play
High Res PDF(Google Books)

Virtual Landscapes: Volume 2


Google Play
High Res PDF(Google Books)

Virtual Landscapes: Volume 3


Google Play
High Res PDF(Google Books)

Read Online


The poisonous Blue Lagoon……

The beautiful Blue Lagoon located not in some far away tropical island but….in a disused quarry in the Harpur Hill, Buxton, UK. This beautiful lagoon despite it’s clear blue water, is actually toxic, with a Ph level close to bleach! The lagoon is also filled with all the debris you would expect ona rubbish tip… abandoned car wrecks, plastic bottles, and general household rubbish(which is clearly visible in some of the pics below…) Despite this and the warning signs indicating how polluted and toxic the water is, people including families were and still are flocking to the site to bathe in the toxic water…

Why you ask would someone want to swim in toxic water ? Well I think this clearly demonstrates an innate desire to feel, touch and be a part of these unique landscapes, regardless of the danger(although I wouldn’t recommend taking children into it…), why would a family travel 20 miles to spend a day in a place that would potentially make them ill? Stupidity, boredom? Perhaps, or simply that there is something magical, and mysterious about an abandoned blue lagoon in the middle of nowhere…something that reaches into both children and adults hearts and makes them want to risk their health in order to simply play and interact with something they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to…

The blue and turquoise water gets it colour from the caustic chemicals in the quarry stone…

The council is considering it’s options including filling in the lagoon, however I’m proposing they do something a little more creative…why not clean the lagoon? drain it, and refill it (with clean blue water!) to turn this into an attraction. Wonders like these are far and few between and in many ways this reminds me of Gulpiyuri beach in Spain, a natural wonder hidden away that has become a tourist attraction. Spaces like this help us all, especially those who ordinarily shy away from the natural environment connect and appreciate the wonders and impact of natural landscapes, and for the council to recognise this would be a great first step (Buxton is a beautiful place to visit btw….)

I could imagine with a few tree’s planted around the banks, and a few outcrops of stone added for dramatic effect, once cleaned this would be an amazing wonder (although a man made one…) and if properly managed a new habitat for local wildlife…

You can view the google map link here

I’m tempted to drive to Buxton and photograph the lagoon and try and capture whats draws people to this toxic lagoon…

Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst Panorama Collection

Title: Phantasy Star Online
Platform: PC
Developer: Sonic Team, Publisher: Sega (2001)

The underground caves in Phantasy Star Online (PSO) were remarkably reminiscent of the ‘Genesis Cave’ from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan; a large, artificially-constructed cavern under the surface of a lifeless planetoid. The underground caves in PSO were complete with strange cascading waterfalls creating shallow emerald-blue pools, with arched tree’s sprouting under the cramped hollowed out caves. The unusual combination of flora and fauna one normally associates with the surface, but within a subterranean environment creates an interesting play on expectations of a subterranean environment (i.e. dark , inhospitable; limited to nothing more than fungi in stagnant pools of water) versus what PSO actually delivers with a bright, almost tropical habitat that is teeming with plant and animal life.

Traditional representations of natural landscapes have been known to trigger a psychological response in those viewing them, however one wouldn’t expect their virtual counterparts to achieve the same effect. Phantasy Star Online had several unique landscapes that triggered very personal memories and associations at certian points. It was an unusual music and visual combination I encountered in the mountain region overseeing the cliffs, with the intense dusk sunset playing to a melancholic music track that seemed to trigger a sombre reflection on past real sunsets from my youth; moments basking in the final rays of the setting summer sun came flooding back when I stood on the virtual cliff in PSO; the facsimile was clearly artificial since this was a mere ‘virtual’ representation, but the emotional response was certainly real, unusual and unexpected.

I remember buying PSO for the Sega DreamCast, to summarise, my monthyly phone bill (PSO was one of the first dial up online MMORPG’s) was around £450, which was both a complete shock and a realisation that the game was consuming my life, but what a game! Filled with stunning landscapes, great online functionality and a reward system that drove you crazy(i.e play for 1000 hours in the super slim, tiny glimmer of hope that you’d find an ultra super rare piece of kit such as a new gun)

Entrance to hell….is in Turkmenistan….

While drilling in 1971, Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a large hole with a diameter of 70 metres (230 ft) To avoid poisonous gas discharge, it was decided to burn it off. Geologists had hoped the fire would use all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning today. Locals have dubbed the cavern “The Door to Hell”.

The sheer scale and size of the pit is awe-inspiring and overwhelming, this isn’t a small 30 or 40ft shallow pit, but a huge growing, every burning burning, pit of fire. Relating this to Natural Environment Design, this would form a wonderful entrance point to a sub level, you can just imagine stumbling upon this early in a game(I’m thinking a Zelda type 3D world), and carefully backing away since the heat/fire would damage the player character, then perhaps later on acquiring an item of sorts(asbestos armour!) and thinking Hmmm I wonder where I can go now…..aha the fiery pit I saw previously! would be a great feeling….

Aesthetically the contrast between the night sky and the intense fiery pit is both alluring and scary, the pit I would imagine would be visible for miles at night, and could act as a long distance focal waypoint in a vast dessert type environment.

Better video…

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Gulpiyuri beach- A Strange Inland Beach

One would normally expect a beach to form on the coast, which for the most part is true, until you see Gulpiyuri Beach, located on the Northern |Coast of spain, this amaxing beach is actually in the middle of a meadow, located some disdtance from the actual shore. The beach itself is pretty small, but wonderfully archtypcal, clean sand, and crytal clear waters, this amazing marvel is a real treasure for those wanting to find unique real locations to inpire thier natural environment design.

The beach is a natural focal point, it will instatly draw attention once discovered, one can imagine finding this beach and even from a distance (althout Gulpiyuri is actually quite tucked away) wanting to investigate the space, and once on the beach the lure of exploring the rock formations and any caves within would be too great, what a amazing natural space….

I am planning of recreating this within ShadowMoss Island(my CryEngine 3 SDK map)…would be an interesting design consideration to evolve this concept rather than create a virtual facsimile

You can view an amazing 360 panorama via 360cities.net here

EDIT: You can also take a look via Google StreetView The view shows you how far the beach actually is from the coast….

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CryEngine 3: ShadowMoss Island-WIP 3

More updates to my map. During the design & production a process has emerged, this appears to be marry quite nicely with the key elements of Landscape Character Assessment, now it’s a case of refining my process based on practice.

My project page for ShadowMoss Island is up on CryDev

My process has so far followed the steps below….

Terrain & Geology

1) Macro geology: Archetypal landforms(i.e topical island): this is the overall setting of the land, the high concept of your environment in which your different landscape will sit.

2) Sub-macro landforms: Broken down into 4-8 distinct landscapes, each with a defining feature(i.e salts flats, the limestone forest) these are the different sub areas that make up the landscape, if in doubt leave one or two empty or undefined, as this can allow room for design creep(feature creep: adding new features (landscapes) during the process of developing the other features). These sub areas should be named helping define each landscape with a sense of character

3) Large rock/geological considerations: This involved looking at the sub areas, and questioning whether or not large hard rock features(such as a stone cliff overhang, and a huge rocky outcrop) should be added to help further define the particular landscape(i.e Thor’s Anvil)

4) Medium sized boulders and rocks: One of the interesting developments in this process was the realisation that the macro to micro essence of the environment, i.e repetition but with variation through scale, you see the very large rock formations/boulders, the medium size, then the small/very small, this is essentially replicated with fauna(Tree’s, bushes, plants, grass), In order to bring a sense of believability, there needs to be a transition from the large to the small, hence the medium size rock/flora, which is often left out, can be critical is creating rich landscapes

5a) Small sized ‘scree’: Essentially almost like vegetation, this is the small, hand/foot szed rock/pebbles etc… () is often again left out in key areas where one would expect (base of cliff/crag etc..)

5b) Unique ‘Geomorph’ Formations: Rocks acting as a centrepiece in a sub-macro area, which can help the player by acting as a Waypoint, I have created one such piece in ShadowMoss Island, ‘Thor’s Anvil’: A Large igneous(basalt?) type rock formation that lies in between the salt flats(I’ll think of an apt name) and the weedy meadow(to be named!)

6a)Generic Texture : (essentially soil type) of the different sub-macro area’s(this ties into the surface texture in CryEngine 3), this has been a huge amount of work, collating references and building up a very high resolution surface texture(16x16k), there has been a huge amount of tweaking, and in matching the available rocks/plants in the CryEngine 3 SDK to the surface texture , and the landscape types, overall very happy with the grass/flora based areas, but the bare rock areas need alot of colour tweaking since the default rocks are limited in the range of colour palettes they cover.

6b)’Paths’: Adding texture to the different sub-macro area’s(landscapes) to define subtle/non subtle paths within a landscape, this is for guiding the player down certain routes the designer feels he wants the player to explore(i.e path leading to a stunning vista or to a new area)

6c) Variation texture: Just to add very low level(i.e 6-8ft) patches of variation within a landscape, i.e moss patch in a grassy meadow,


7) Grass & Scrub

a) Fill Low-level Flora Grass: This is the main fill grass/scrub that fills the area(~70% fill)
b) Secondary fill(i.e brown grass) : Adding variation and believability this is the secondary fill flora, often a contrasting colour works well(i.e brown with green)
c) Unique Low level flora: This is to add character to a particular area or to emphasise a certain aspect of the(i.e reeds along a river bank or grass seeding patches)
d) Flowers/vibrant coloured fauna: to really add a sense of contrast and richness to the flora, patches of grass(can be subtle i.e daises or flowering grass) or not subtle(a meadow of bluebells can be a striking feature)

9) ‘Fill’ Tree’s & other large flora This should reflect the terrain type and the sub-area theme. The nature of the terrain(rocky, dry soils versus flodded mangrove etc…) would radically affect the type of tree’s that would grow not just in the species but also the physical characteristics (i.e stunted or supporting gigantism , natural environments designers tend to favour Islands, which tend to be tropical and as a result tend to palm heavy, which really limits the range of flora and type of landscapes that can be created. In Shadowmoss Island, there is a mix of Oak(Cotton-Oak Forest) and Beech (WhiteBeech Woods) which brings a new refreshing approach to natural environements

10) Stumps & large decaying flora Where there is life once would expect the full lifecycle from birth to death, and evidence of it. In the case of woody plants(i.e tree’s) one would expect to see fallen, older tree’s, decaying stumps and trunks littered across the landscape.

10) Special ‘geomorph’ waypoint tree’s Acting as a centrepiece in a sub-macro area, these coupled with geomorph geology/other flora can add a dramatic focalpoint to a sub-area helping players form mental maps of the environment with key markers(i.e Geomorph tree’s in this case) acting as waypoints.

8) Bushes & medium sized fauna To provide a mid level transisiton flora between the low(grass) and high(tree) lines,, this should be clustered and often form around larger woody plants

Cotton-Cavern (Limestone Cenote) Entrance

One of the features I really wanted to provide an intricate island in the sense that gullies, caves, cliffs would all interconnect, if the Island were to have Sea Caves, then it would follow these caves would interlink across the Island(depending on the underlying geology, i.e limestone) and again, believable that one of the resulting caverns would have have collapsed (creating a Cenote), which would allow access to the Sea Caves from higher up in the Island.

WhiteBirch Woods

Cotton-Oak Forest

Called Cotton-Oak for two reasons: a) It’s full of Oak tree’s(well yeah…)and secondly, the idea was to have a forest in a late autumn setting, with the differing shades of long brown grass coupled with the swirls of cottonwood fluff filling the air (inspired by driving in Manchester recently, and to work, I’ve become aware of the almost magical qualities of cottonwood fluff flying through the air during the early/late hours of the day, even in the middle of a very busy modern city hub environment such as MediaCity UK, it’s brings a real natural quality to the landscape, and often made me smile during a long drive). During my quick research of cottonwood I came across this(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmpeUPD5FUU) and maybe this would form an interesting natural phenomena, can cottonwood fluff patches ignite spontaneously? If so, what would this look like? (Imagine a fire spweeping through a forest and forcing a player into a Cenote to seek refuse…hmmmm)

The Witcher Panorama Collection

Title: The Witcher
Platform: PC-Win
Developer: CD Projekt RED STUDIO, Publisher: Atari, Inc (2007)

CD Projekt Red Studio’s The Witcher demonstrates a very unique set of natural environments. Perhaps it’s the specific colour palette of the flora, or the glittering overcast thunderous skies which are wonderfully striking that seem to be reminiscent of the Scottish and Welsh landscapes. The late summer evening feel in the landscape above has an almost palatable feel of dread. A calm and beautiful sunset is often considered to be ian dylic setting, however in The Witcher’s case, there is a creeping fear that something unpleasant is about to occur, akin to the opening of the horror film Jeepers Creepers 2, in which a yong boy is suddenly chased across a field by a demonic creature disguised as a scarecrow that comes to life, in what originally appeared as a tranquil field setting against a late summer sun.

You can get the ultra high res images via my minus page(either single or all zipped) http://minus.com/mbgWTi78YQ/

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GC) Ultra HD Panorama Collection

Title: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Platform: Nintendo Gamecube
Developer: Nintendo EAD, Publisher: Nintendo (2003)

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is an amazing game , a classic Zelda game in many respects: beautiful to play and to explore, one can also experience a unique natural environment a game that challenges the traditional environment design approaches to the balance bewtween landmass and water.

The relationship of water to land is an important design consideration in any game that uses a representation of the natural environment. Zelda: Wind Waker’s natural environment is relatively unique given the history of games using natural environments. Wind Waker doesn’t use the conventional approach in natural environment design: i.e. basing the game world around a central land mass, it reverses the conventional balance of land to water (i.e. a large land mass with pockets of water) to one where no real large central landmass in the game exists, but rather a series of archipelago islands with gameplay taking place across the world through ‘island hopping’ wind waker’s world , which is composed around 49 islands in a 7×7′ grid.

There is a real sense of exposure felt in exploring Wind Waker’s ‘Great Sea’, land is given as a reward rather than a expectation on exploring the world. Exposed to the elements whilst boating around the Great Sea and glimpsing an a island in the distance, altering heading to finally set foot on a strange unknown shore, and finding a new island to explore often evoked a sense of wonder mixed with relief. The islands themselves weren’t huge, often being home to nothing more than a few palm tree’s and perhaps a key game item/sub-level.

The use of multiple small islands spread across a vast sea appears to go against the traditional design paradigm of avoiding large spacing out of areas in the game world and thereby introducing ‘travel boredom'(common in open environment games, where the player must travel large distances between goals, often resulting in boredom) ZWW is in fact the opposite with the player being forced to set sail and endure significant amounts of time in finding a landmass to land and explore on, and the reception from players appears to indicate it works, extremely well. Players earnt the reward of both the opportunity to exlore a new land mass, and the potential of a new quest items to aid them in their journey.

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