A new modding tool is out there, but it's out with mixed reviews, lets check it out and see what we can make of it. The tool is the Building Architect Tool, or B.A.T, or even BAT for short.
With this tool it's possible to take a 3d object created in gMax or another program and through a short process get it into the game. I said short, it should be noted that the term short is relative, as some people will find it short, and others will find it excruciatingly painfully long. Why do I bring this up you may ask. Simple, it highlights the good and the bad of the BAT in a simple way.
For some the bat and it's post processes are quick and painless, for some others it's a process that is doable, but long and tedious, and for the vast majority, it's a royal pain in the arse that seems to be half magic, part mind reading, and a good portion luck, that is, if it's doable at all. I will say right up front, that from the perspective of this article, that the BAT will be considered intermediate, not impossible, but not easy. It will be a process that can be done, given time and patience, and a few help files. I will also say up front that this is NOT a review of gMax, that in itself is often confused with the BAT, but it's not the BAT, it's gMax, a 3d modeling tool.
If you don’t understand what a 3d modeling tool is, by gosh, it's probably going to be just a bit harder than intermediate to use the BAT, now isn’t it. gMax is not easy; it's also not hard (hold onto those tomatoes and eggs a moment). gMax is a complex tool, but that does not make it hard, it makes it complex. All too often we pair complexity with difficulty, when in fact this is not the case! gMax is complex, but you don't need to know every part right away, all you need are the basics, and an understanding of why you need them, plus a good tutorial. What gMax is, is lengthy. The process to make a 3d building or anything else is a long process, not hard, but long. For many, 24 total hours can’t be spent building a McDonalds or Park Plaza. Much less the hundreds of hours needed for some sky scrapers. At no point is the modeling hard, it's tedious and time consuming. With that clarification out of the way, we can proceed with our review of the BAT proper.
The BAT is a plug-in for gMax which takes a scene and renders it from many different angles and 'zooms', although it's worth noting here that a trick is being played, for all of the cameras are the exact same distance from the object. Keep in mind that things aren’t always what they seem, and this is why the BAT is by necessity a sophisticated tool. It may not look like much in its rollout, but its feature rich, just about everything you could want in an exporter is present. It is missing a couple notable things, such as bump map support, reflective map support, and other types of eye candy.
These do give the tool a few negative points, but they also understandably require a great deal of understanding of 3d to work with, and quite possibly Maxis wasn’t quite up to the task, at least, not in their time frame. The tools’ other functions however give it a good standing, the ability to preview any zoom, any direction, night and day, plus thumbnails (yes you CAN move the thumbnail camera around) give the tool a plus that it would get a truly poor rating without. Its ability to handle night spots and textures with global intensity is a nice touch as well. The rendering is pretty good overall, and it is almost possible to make Maxis quality buildings for the game. However, the process isn't done yet. BAT really should have been BATs, for even when done exporting the process isn’t done. We must take our singular building model and apply building properties to it so it behaves like a building when in the game.
The Plug-in Manager is a beautifully powerful tool that allows you to make ANY standard building and set all of its properties. If a person wants a new fire station, it can be had, with any properties the person would like. Modding gave rise to the multiple purpose buildings, and it's these that the Plug-in Manager cant handle, given the length of time that this ability has been out, one would think Maxis would have taken this idea and worked with it, but it would appear they did not. Once your building is prepared with its fresh properties, it's time to build a lot for it. This is where the 3rd and final tool comes into play.
The Lot Editor, or LE has been out for quite awhile, and already thousands of lots have been created with existing content, giving rise to an absolutely incredible wealth of new content. The updated LE can now open BAT/PM created content and plop it down on an existing lot. It's now worth pointing out the obvious, why hasn’t the ability been added to choose from a standard lot and modify it? No answer, maybe it would be too hard, or too time consuming, we don’t know. Aside from that pitfall, nothing else stands in the LE's way to greatness; it truly is a powerful tool for game design. In here you can even preview your building before it gets put in game, what shows up in here is what will show up in the game proper. Once you have added your building to a lot and added the appropriate assortment of Props.... Hey, can the BAT create props? Yes it can! Choose to add your 'building' as a prop in the Plug-in Manager. Once all that is squared away... your done. Seriously, that's it; in summary it's not all that much work, it just takes time.
The BATs are wonderful tools for modding SimCity, and while not totally complete, almost no system of tools could be made to deliver beautifully detail-rich buildings with any less amount of effort on the modder’s part. Right after release a call went up asking why a building block style BAT was not created. The simple answer is it would be at too great a sacrifice. For example, take the Hydrogen Power Plant. Given simple blocks, how would you create one of those? well... well.... hmmmm, but, but... hmmm.... well.... Uh huh, simple answer is you'd need really small blocks, which is counter productive, because you would spend all your time placing blocks. Whereas in gMax, you can drag out huge swaths of cubes, balls, and then cut and mold them until you have yourself a new Power Plant, then texture away. The reverse complaint about the BAT circulates in some places, that the BAT is too simple. ... ... ?! ... Too simple!! you ask? Well yes, as noted the BAT isn’t quite complete, it's missing many advanced features that make buildings shine. The most notable is Bump Mapping. Bumping is what makes bricks look like bricks, and not pictures of bricks. The bump gives the illusion of depth by making minute shadows where light would normally create shadows.
These tiny details give huge benefits to the eye, which is naturally used to seeing bricks, not pictures of, your eye is very hard to deceive, but bumps can do it. Without bumps, it's just a picture. Bumps aren’t the only thing missing however. About the only thing that exists are diffuse maps (textures), and opacity (seeing through something). While to many this is enough to create dream buildings, it's not all there could be. So the proposition was brought up for Maxis to release their creation tools that used 3D Studio Max. The problem is that few are rich enough to afford it, seeing as retail price is around $3,500 and 'student' price is very nearly $1,000.
Obviously that would limit the reach of the BAT to a minority. Of course, it's only a small minority that will create buildings of a good quality. No more than 500, tops, considering how many thousands upon thousands play the game, if not millions, that in itself is a minority, but it's nothing compared to the 10 or 20 of that number that can afford 3d studio max. So Maxis made a choice, they would create a tool simple enough for the majority, but powerful enough to compete with their own buildings. This cut a good portion of the population who are barely able to even play the game; however, these people won’t be the ones that create marvelously detailed buildings, at least, let us hope not. So when it's all factored down, we're left with gMax. The modding community might bend to the wishes of the masses and build tools to simplify building creation, but it's hard to say. Some in the community are already building tools to allow them to use 3D Studio Max. Only time will truly tell the success of this suite of tools, and only time will tell what vista's we will all have in this ever changing landscape of SimCity 4.
The final Opinion from this lowly writer? 7 out of 10 for the BAT itself, its missing features cripple the power this tool could have had. Its existing features however are magnificent, and do it credit, the creator of it should be proud for what was done. 9 of 10 for the Plug-in Manager, it is elegantly efficient for the task it was given, and gives nearly total control. 7 of 10 for the Lot Editor, it does it's job, but it's lack of some well needed features keep it down, Maxis has had time to implement them, and even though they are short on time, these features would have been no harder than what is found in the Plug-in Manager, simple templates for new lots. Overall rating I give a 9 of 10, because as stated earlier, there just is no more efficient process for going from 3d model to game. Once a person is familiar with the system and options, it's a very swift process, just takes some practice. Good job Maxis, you do deserve credit, nay-sayers can’t appreciate what you've created, but I can, and while it has a few shortcomings, you did well. The BATs are good tools, they do very well their tasks, and for that I give them a high rating.