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Voxels are in vogue among indie developers

It’s hip to be square — well, cubical, really.

That’s the feeling I got from the amount of voxel-based offerings on the show floor at PAX West — and these 3D pixels fit the bill whether they’re powering a stylized dungeon crawler or simulating a whole planet.

If you’re not familiar with voxels, think of them as virtual particles that can be stacked up and stuck together to form anything from a landscape to a player character or gun. If a normal 3D model of a tree is sort of a hollow cardboard version of the real thing, a voxel tree is like one built from hundreds or thousands of LEGO blocks.

They’re not so hot for, say, making super-realistic 3D representations of things, but they’re great if you plan on adding or subtracting them a lot; for example, if the player will be building or digging. Minecraft, for example, uses voxels to track the state of the land you’re exploring — although the graphics themselves are rendered as ordinary polygons.

Four developers I talked to found their own use case for this old but increasingly useful tool — and their ambitions are all wildly different.


riverbond_screenshot04This visually striking dungeon crawler embraces voxels as a style akin to pixel art. Art director Vanessa Chia told me that while voxels can be difficult to work with, “a limited canvas is a great way for us to distill an idea to its essence.”

It’s a four-player casual drop-in/drop-out cooperative dungeon-crawling game, sort of like a squared-off Gauntlet. The visuals are reminiscent of 3D Dot Game Heroes, which also used voxels, but more dynamic and hectic.

“The traditional way to build video games is to create pre-rendered assets that are static and immutable,” she said. “By using voxels, we are free from that limitation — what a table represents is not just a table but an array of colors and coordinates. At any time we might have more than a million voxels on screen, and even for the most high-end video cards it’s stretching the limit.”

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