Graphics have become an increasingly prominent component of video games. Better graphics = greater cost to develop. Every year dozens of games with very good graphics come out. But all of them are kinda independent in graphics developments.
The thing is, it is very repetitave. Let’s say pine trees, most shooter-games have it. Wouldn’t it make sense that one company creating a pine tree model, as realistic as possible, to every details, looking extremely real, then share with other companys (does not have to be free, the firm can sell it), and exchange the models they developed?
Seems silly to me almost everything is started from the scratch when a new game is being developed. If there are already available models which are extremely detailed, the developer could skip creating new graphics, and just buy from the company who owns the models, and if these are too resource-demanding for average computers just water the models down a bit.
It’s not quite what you’re thinking of, but there are certainly reusable software components (e.g. “Game Engines”) used between games. For example, a number of games use the Unreal Engine. These cover things like rendering/collision detection/events/&c.
Individual models aren’t generally packaged and reused, since they tend to affect the visual style of the game, which is conventionally what individual game designers want to control.
You want trees in your game? Feel free to buy SpeedTree, or download a beta of Outerra. (Disclosure: I haven’t tried either of these products myself, so don’t come to me for tech support if your redwoods collapse.) There are third-party solutions for just about all graphics needs for games. The question for videogame studios is, do you want to buy someone else’s solution or develop your own? Smaller studios tend to buy solutions or do without, because they just don’t have the resources to develop their own. Larger studios tend to develop their own because they can, and therefore get more specialized results and avoid prohibitive licencing fees. That said, most studios (big or small) licence things like game engines because they’re massive and take a lot of work to get right.
Another factor to consider is the target console and type of game. A first-person shooter for the PC set in a jungle needs far more realistic trees than a flight simulator on the Nintendo 3DS (for example). Why should the flight sim developer licence software that makes super-detailed trees when all they need are some green textures?
They already do. Meet Speedtree. I’m sure there are others, like Havok and PhysX are for physics. Of course these all cost money, which can sometimes be substantial if all the developer wants to do is have some green shrubbery way out in the distance somewhere.
But I know this was used in Oblivion, and possibly Skyrim as well, to good effect. The extreme realism has to be tampered somewhat, I get the idea of a tree when I see something that looks like one, as long as it isn’t too terrible I’d rather have them focus funds on story, characters, etc. Plus I don’t want to have a 450 GB game that consists of 440 GB of extremely realistic pine trees and runs like a slideshow.
Looks like I was beaten to the punch with SpeedTree. As well, it seems they went a different route with Skyrim, I don’t see it listed on their website, so maybe Bethesda thought they could do it better themselves.
You can buy models and just use them. As leahcim mentioned this isn’t often done simply because people want to have control of the visual elements of their game, and also because you can often pay your own modeler to create something as simple as a tree and avoid paying any licensing fees, etc. that you would get from a commercial model.
This is one of many sites that you can buy 3d models from: http://www.turbosquid.com/3d
Note - This is not an endorsement of the site or anything, I’m just posting it as an example so you can see what is available and how much it costs per model. Some are free, some of them are quite pricy.
With things like trees and grass and shrubberies (ni) you’ll find that there are better ways of doing things than just plunking down individual 3d models onto your 3d landscape. You tend to end up with a lot of trees and such on-screen, so specialized optimized sorts of things (like the already mentioned speedtree) will outperform using individual models and make your game run faster and more smoothly.
The top game companies tend to develop their own game engines simply because they are always pushing the envelope with respect to things like visual style and realism and such. These engines are then often licensed, so many games just use an already existing engine rather than develop their own. The source engine seems to be fairly popular, as is the already mentioned unreal engine. Id software also tends to license their engines (search for idtech) though they have been less popular in licensing in recent years. There are many different engines out there, some of which are free and some of which have licensing fees. Sometimes these fees are rather hefty, which inspires a lot of smaller game companies or those trying to break into the business to develop their own simply due to costs.
Here’s a rather lengthy list of available game engines:
Just as an example, here is a list of games developed using the unreal engine:
Third party engines and outsourced art assets for games is already standard operating procedure for several studios, and this trend will continue to increase as gamers demand more out of their games and as publishers keep pushing for tighter deadlines.
The days of building an engine from scratch and then a game I think, will go the way of the dodo sooner rather than later.
I don’t know anything about the video game business but I do know something about business, and different products try to discriminate themselves from their competitors. Different game companies probably have a certain look & feel that they go for as a trademark appearance. It’s probably like movies–big companies with a big bankroll can probably do more from scratch so it’s exactly the way they want it, if they can sell enough copies at a high enough price to make it worthwhile. The little guys outsource and focus more on the central aspects.