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Making Props, Pickups, and Other Stuff Lying Around

Prop creation is often a misunderstood task at a game company. Because it is not part of the main character set or the main-level layout, the task of creating the props is often given a lower priority. But just like the main characters and the main level, props play a huge part in the game.

A prop in the game world can refer to many kinds of objects. A crate in a warehouse is a very obvious example of a prop, but so is that burning train right behind the crate, and that crowbar on the ground, and that dead guy those zombies are eating. A good definition for a prop is anything that supports the scene but is not part of the level layout or character set. This is not to say that characters can’t use props, but they are not generally part of the actual character mesh.

To further understand props, you will organize them into categories. These are Common, Dynamic, Supportive, and Interactive.

  • Common props are all the stuff you see lying around a level. They generally do not move and you cannot pick them up. They are the pipes, vents, desks, shelves, fallen columns, and skeletons that you pass while playing your game. They are sometimes called static props, and in more than a few engines, they have their own classification.
  • Dynamic props are props that you can interact with. This includes items such as exploding barrels, levers, switches, buckets, and bowling balls. Dynamic props generally have attributes that cause them to move or react in some way. Sometimes this means that a physics modifier is attached to the prop, which causes said prop to react with a gravity-like behavior when you hit or shoot it. Other times, as with a dynamite barrel, an explosion is triggered that inflicts damage across a particular radius. Dynamic props can also simply change states, such as a light coming on or a switch going from up to down. Any prop that moves or does something is a dynamic prop.
  • Supportive props are also known in the game world as pickups. These are items to watch for while playing a game. They can change the way your characters perform. They can add or take away health, give ammunition, change your weapon, and do any number of other things. The physical properties of a pickup can vary a great deal. They tend to look like suitcases or magic vials. The pickup is very akin to the doobers we spoke about previously in the book. It is more a quickly recognized icon than a fully rendered version of an object. Bullets, for instance, are pickups. In a game, you do not pick up individual bullets, but you often find a clip or a case of bullets, or find health icons. How would you pick up health, and what would it even look like? In most games, it looks like a first aid kit, of course, or a beaker, or some liquid that glows. When you create a pickup, keep in mind that the player is looking for something that symbolizes their idea of an item or concept.
  • Interactive props are items that the in-game character can interact with, such as guns, cars, jet bikes, elevators, and zip lines. These props often aid the player in completing a task in the level. They are generally complex and animated, and rival the main character in poly count. For this reason, few interactive props are scattered around, or if they are, they use the same 3D model with different textures.

And Then There Were Crates

One prop reigns supreme as the king of all props. The first and most often thought-of prop in the game world is the crate. Crates are very popular for one good reason: they have, by the very nature of their shape, an extremely low poly count. Mix that with a little visual identification memory for most players, and you get a low-poly object that is easily recognized and extremely believable, and one that you can build with minimal effort. “Ah,” you say, “that is why they are in every game ever made.” Yes, but there are other reasons as well.

Think of crates as the spackle of the game world. They can be used to hide seams in the level layout. They can be used to direct your eye in a certain direction; they can be used to hide ancient hog demons until they are ready to attack. Suffice it to say, they get used a lot.

Crates can also be used to set the mood of a level. A room full of pink crates with a cute bunny on the side will feel much different than a room full of black crates with a toxic waste symbol. All it takes to change that “crate mood” is a new decal on the side or a different color. The best part is that you only have to make one model, and you can just change it as often as you’d like.

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