A Look Into Photogrammetry and Video Games

I’ve seen and heard the word ‘photogrammetry’ thrown around a lot over the past few years as a marketing term used by Dice in the Star Wars: Battlefront franchise and Battlefield 1, similar to Microsoft and their obsession with Teraflops in relation to the Xbox One family. So I thought that I could conduct my own research on photogrammetry to see just what exactly it can do, how it works and if it is viable for myself as a developer to try or for a small indie team to invest in.

So let’s star off with, What Exactly Is Photogrammetry? Well, in simple terms it’s where a developer uses a camera to make photorealistic textures for their project, whether it’s 3D Modelling, Animation or Game Design.

Photogrammetry Setup.

However, as seen in the picture to the right photogrammetry isn’t merely just one camera, it’s a lot of cameras from all different angles. Not only is a texture created in the compositing software of choice, but so is the bitmap for the created texture as well as the object being retopologised for suites that support 3D Objects. An example of this is used with a statue in The Talos: Principle as seen below.

Photogrammetry won’t automatically improve the appearance of every project. The projects that typically use photogrammetry are ones such as the Battlefront franchise (headed by DICE), the Battlefield franchise, The Talos: Principle and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The art styles of these games allow for the use of photogrammetry but a game such as Angry Birds or Limbo wouldn’t need photogrammetry as it wouldn’t fit with the games art style. It really highlights the point of how important an Art Bible is to a developer, so he or she knows what techniques and ideas should and could be used to design not only assets but also level design.

The Talos: Principle -The Process of Photogrammetry from the realworld to in-game.

To answer the question ‘is photogrammetry viable for a small indie development team?’ I’d first have to answer how much photogrammetry can cost the developer. There is a page on ‘pi3Dscan.com’ detailing the individual costs for each part of a standard setup for a Raspberry PI open source solution. Skipping the individual parts of the cost chart, the total price of the setup would approximately be $12,752.66 Australian Dollars which sounds like a lot, because it is a lot. However, there is a GDC conference appropriately titled ‘Star Wars: Battlefront and the art of photogrammetry’ that does shed some light on why photogrammetry is a better alternative solution to traditional texturing and 3D modelling. I’ll provide a link at the bottom of this post for those who are interested, but at a particular point in the conference, it is said that the scanning method has cut times in half for the developer (Dice) in terms of asset creation, cutting time from 14 days in Battlefield 4′s development cycle to 7 days in Star Wars: Battlefronts development cycle. 7 days sounds like it can’t save a developer $12,752.66 but those 7 days is time where the studio doesn’t have to pay for development suites (Adobe, AutoDesk, Unity, etc.) and ‘Living’ Costs (Electricity, Water, Staff, etc.) which over a development cycle can save a lot more than $12,752.66 Australian Dollars and can save a development team or break one.

Investing in a setup isn’t the only option a developer has, it’s more than okay to use another person assets as long as they are accredited and have consented. In fact, I’ve found a plethora of Objects and Textures in the Unity Store that have been created using Photogrammetry, the prices that I have seen on the Unity store range from being free up, all the way up to $40 Australian Dollars, which can be perfect for an indie developer.

Unreal Engine Photogrammetry World Demo

So after a couple of hours of research that I have conducted, I’ve come to the conclusion that photogrammetry is a fast and sometimes high-quality modelling method that I one day wish to try in a project I work on. As a Game Design student who can’t afford an upfront payment of $12,752.66 Australian Dollar for a setup, I can’t justify the investment for myself, another student or a small development team as it is just too large. However, the setup cost can save a lot of money and time for a larger team with a larger scope. Not all hope is lost for myself though in terms of more visually appealing assets in my projects, as I’ve mentioned previously, there are asset stores both hosted by your respected engine of choice and online that have small packs for as low as $5 Australian Dollars which I personally, will be looking into for future projects where a realistic art style fits my art bible or game design document.

Links to images and information gathered in this post.
The Talos: Principle. Process of Photogrammetry https://goo.gl/cbjWRb 
Photo of a Photogrammetry Setup https://goo.gl/MDgRF6 
Basic Cost of a Raspberry Pi Setup https://goo.gl/ojJQG4
Unity Store prices for objects created with Photogrammetry
GDC ‘Star Wars: Battlefront and the art of photogrammetry’
Unreal Engine Photogrammetry World Demo https://goo.gl/6mKkx6

Links to interesting content in regards to Photogrammetry.
Nvidia’s Reality Capture showcase (GDC 2017) https://goo.gl/Vda1yK
DICE Star Wars: Battlefront Photogrammetry (GDC 2017)
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter gameplay
Nvidia Reality Capture example (with a phone)