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Focus On 3D Terrain Programming
Author: Trent Polack
Publisher: Premier Press
ISBN: 1-59200-028-2
Purchasing: [Amazon.Com] - RRP US$20.99
Reviewed: 9th February 2004

Front Cover Shot:

Overview

The focus-on books are an interesting new series from Premier Press; until the release of this series the vast majority of technical books are expensive and cumbersome (1000+ pages is not uncommon). This series covers many of the same topics - but clearly sets the sights slightly lower as the book is only 218 pages long: no where near enough to do the '3D Terrain Programming' field justice.

The book is a fairly applied and usable overview of terrain programming, it's not too heavy on the mathematics/theory and is quite obviously intended for the reader who is new to the area and not too sure where to start.

Terraforming

This book is quite clearly aimed at covering the major components to a usable level, but not much more than that. Almost all the expected algorithms are included, and having read through them they are in detail enough to be usable (and if you don't understand the text, a sample program exists on the CD).

It is noticeable from the start of this book that the author chooses to focus much more on the geometric side of terrain rendering. 92 of the 218 pages are dedicated to the various 'CLOD' (Continuous Level Of Detail) algorithms. Even the basic rendering/culling techniques are only briefly covered with regards to geometry processing.

Many people will be familiar with, or at least heard of, the 'Quadtree' algorithm - a very common algorithm in terrain processing. However, whilst strictly accurate, this book focuses on them in terms of CLOD - actually altering/generating the rendered geometry. Many people will be more familiar (as I am) with them being used to heavily optimize the terrain culling process.

Whilst the book tends to focus a bit too heavily on the geometric side (as opposed to the lighting / texturing) of terrain processing the author does a good job of referring to extended sources/references for those who want to know more. Many of the whitepapers/documents are provided for free on the included CD, making them even more convenient.

Get to the point!

Given the 'Focus On' nature of this book, it is refreshing that the author gets to the point from the first page. The majority of game development books (and many of the larger Premier Press book are guilty of this) feel it necessary to provide a 100-200 page introduction to DirectX/Win32/OpenGL programming before they get onto the meat of their subject. For a bigger 1000+ page book this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But this isn't a big book - and I give credit to the author by not filling pages with a trivial introduction to a particular API.

The writing style is clear and concise - there isn't too much extra waffle/discussion, which allows you to read this book cover-to-cover in an afternoon. The text is friendly and easy to read, which makes it a pleasure to actually sit down with this book for a few hours one afternoon and finish it knowing that you've covered the major aspects of a whole field of computer graphics.

Presentation

The presentation of Premier Press game development books has always been particularly good; I have reviewed quite a few books from the series and routinely been impressed by the page/text layout.

This book, as with many of the 'Focus On' books does not have any lengthy code listings - something I've never been too sure whether I like in books (listing important lines is fine, but an entire listing? why?!). Instead, you get 200 pages of clean and easy to read text with supporting diagrams and images, with the occasional code listing for the more important parts of algorithms. If you want the code, get the CD out of the back-cover: simple; by having no listings you get more explanation and lose very little in terms of usability.

The one criticism of this book is the lack of colour plates, even though it is very typical of Premier Press books. Many of the screenshots of terrain in this book are very dark - a black background with a fairly dark terrain covering 1/2 the image; it really doesn't do it justice. Especially when it comes to the sections on lighting and texturing - you're far better off sitting at the computer and running the samples off the CD to see what the authors talking about: the pictures in the book aren't going to help you greatly.

In Conclusion

There is no doubt that this is an excellent overview of the topic; Trent Polack knows what he's talking about - and has a suitable writing style such that he can communicate it with the reader in the limited space offered by this format. This cannot go unappreciated.

However, this will strictly serve as an introduction and maybe an occasional reference. You will get your first terrain engine running using this book - but if you want to challenge the best out there, or just want to extend it, then another (bigger) book will be required. The geometry algorithms are crucial for terrain programming, but you really need a decent texturing and lighting solution to make a user go "wow" with a terrain engine; unfortunately you wont get either of these from this book.

Good Things Bad Things
Always understandable, fast but reasonable pace. Screenshot presentation a bit poor for the lack of colour
Great overview of the major functions of a terrain engine Only an overview, for a proper coverage, a bigger book for 50% extra cost may be better
Gets to the point, and stays on-topic. Very little space wasted. Misses out huge areas (lighting and texturing), and focuses almost entirely on CLOD algorithms
Good selection of references for those who want to get into more detail on the algorithms featured Discussion of quadtrees, whilst valid, might confuse some people due to it being different to what many people might think they are.
No page-space wasted by unnecessarily lengthy code listings  
Good CD included with the book, full of supporting material  

 

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