Consoles and graphics cards are not generally bottlenecked at the polygon rendering stage in the pipeline. Usually they are fill rate bound if there are large polygons on screen, or there is a lot of alpha blending, and for the most part, graphics chips spend a lot of their time reading textures. Because of this, the old way of doing level of detail with multiple meshes with decreasing numbers of polygons is never going to be as good as a technique that takes into account the actual data required of the level of detail used in each renderable. Hierarchical level of detail fixes the problem of high primitive count and mistargetted art optimisations by grouping and merging many low level of detail meshes into one low level of detail mesh, thus reducing the time spent in the setup of render calls, and enforcing a better perspective on the artist producing the lower resolution asset. In a typical very large scale environment, a hierarchical level of detail implementation can reduce the workload on a game engine by an order of magnitude as the number of entities in the scene considered for rendering drops significantly. Even though the number of polygons rendered might be exactly the same, or maybe even more, the fact that the engine usually only has to handle a static number of entities at once increases stability and allows for more accurately targeted optimisations of both art and code.
Going back to our entities being implicit on their attributes, we can utilise the theory of hierarchical level of detail to offer up some optimisations for our code. If we have high level low fidelity coarse grain game logic for distant or currently unimportant game entities, and only drill down to highly tuned code when an entity becomes more apparent to the player, then we can save a lot of cycles on things the player is not interested in, or possibly even able to see.
Consider a game where you are defending a base from incoming attacks. The attackers come in squadons of ships, you can see them all coming at once, over a thousand ships in all and up to twenty at once in each squadron. You have to shoot them down, or be inundated with gunfire and bombs, taking out both you and the base you are defending.
Running full AI, with swarming for motion and avoidance for your slower moving weapons might be too much if it was run on all thousand ships every tick, but you don't need to. The basic assumption made by most AI programmers is that unless they are within attacking range, then they don't need to be running AI. This is true, and does offer an immediate speed up compared to the naive approach. Hierarchical LOD provides another way to think about this, through changing the number of entities based on how they are perceived by the player. For want of a better term, count-lodding is a name that describes what is happening behind the scenes a little better, because sometimes there is no hierarchy and yet there can still be a change in count between the levels of detail.
In the count-lodding version of the base defender game, there is a few Wave entities that project a few Squadron blips on the radar. The squadrons don't exist as their own entities until they get close enough. Once a wave's squadron is within range, the Wave can decrease its squadron count, and pop out a new Squadron entity. The Squadron entity shows blips on the radar for each of its component ships. The ships don't exist, but they are implicit in the Squadron. The Wave continues to pop Squadrons as they come into range, and once it's internal count has dropped to zero, it deletes itself as it now represents no entities. As a Squadron comes into even closer range, it pops out its ships into their own entities, and deletes itself. As the ships get closer, their renderables are allowed to switch to higher resolution and their AI is allowed to run at a higher intelligence setting.
When the ships are shot at, they switch to a taken damage type much like the health system earlier. They are full health unless they take damage. If an AI reacts to damage with fear, they may eject, adding another entity to the world. If the wing of the plane is shot off, then that also becomes a new entity in the world. Once a plane has crashed, it can delete its entity and replace it with a smoking wreck entity that will be much simpler to process than an aerodynamic simulation.
If the player can't keep the ships at bay and their numbers increase in size so much that any normal level of detailing can't kick in, count lodding can still help by returning ships to squadrons and flying them around the base attacking as a group rather than as invididual ships. The level of detail heuristic can be tuned so that the nearest and front-most squadron are always the highest level of detail, and the ones behind the player maintain a very simplistic representation.
This is game development smoke and mirrors as a basic game engine element. In the past we have reduced the number of concurrent attacking AI4.1, reduced the number of cars on screen by staggering the lineup over the whole race track4.2, and we've literally combined people together into one person instead of having loads of people on screen at once4.3. This kind of reduction of processing is commonplace. Now use it everywhere appropriate, not just when a player is not looking.
Reducing detail introduces an old problme, though. Changing level of detail in game logic systems, AI and such, brings with it the loss of high detail history. In this case we need a way to store what is needed to maintain a highly cohesive player experience. If a high detail squadron in front of the player goes out of sight and another squadron takes their place, we still want any damage done to the first group to reappear when they come into sight again. Imagine if you had shot out the glass on all the ships and when they came round again, it was all back the way it was when they first arrived. A cosmetic effect, but one that is jarring and makes it harder to suspend disbelief.
When a high detail entity drops to a lower level of detail, it should store a memento, a small, well compressed nugget of data that contains all the necessary information in order to rebuild the higher detail entity from the lower detail one. When the squadron drops out of sight, it stores a memento containing compressed information about the amount of damage, where it was damaged, and rough positions of all the ships in the squadron. When the squadron comes into view once more, it can read this data and generate the high detail entities back in the state they were before. Lossy compression is fine for most things, it doesn't matter precisely which windows, or how they were cracked, maybe just that about of the windows were broken.
Another good example is in a city based free-roaming game. If AIs are allowed to enter vehicles and get out of them, then there is a good possibility that you can reduce processing time by removing the AIs from world when they enter a vehicle. If they are a passenger, then they only need enough information to rebuild them and nothing else. If they are the driver, then you might want to create a new driver type based on some attributes of the pedestrian before making the memento for when they exit the vehicle.
If a vehicle reaches a certain distance away from the player, then you can delete it. To keep performance high, you can change the priorities of vehicles that have mementos so that they try to lose sight of the player thus allowing for earlier removal from the game. Optimisations like this are hard to coordinate in Object-oriented systems as internal inspection of types isn't encouraged.
If a vehicle that has been created as part of the ambient population is suddenly required to take on a more important role, such as the car being involved in a fire fight. It is important to generate new entities that don't seem overly generic or unlikely given what the player knows about the game so far. Generating data can be thought of as providing a memento to read from just in time. JIT mementos are faked mementos that provide a false sense of continuity by allowing pseudo random generators or hash functions the opportunity to replace non-zero memory usage mementos when the data is unlikely to change, or be needed for more than a short while.
JIT mementos can also be the basis of a highly textured environment with memento style sheets or style guides that can direct a feel bias for any mementos generated in those virtual spaces. Imagine a city style guide that specifies rules for occupants of cars, that businessmen might share, but are less likely to, families have children in the back seats with mum or dad driving, young adults tend to drive around in pairs. These style guides help add believability to any generated data. Add in local changes such as having types of car linked to their drivers, convertibles driven by well dressed types or kids, low riders driven almost exclusively by ghetto residents, imports driven by young adults. In a space game, dirty hairy pilots of cargo ships, well turned out officers commanding yachts, rough and ready mercenaries in everything from a single seater to a dreadnought.
JIT mementos are a good way to keep variety up, and style guides bias that so it comes without the impression that everyone is different so everyone is the same. When these biases are played out without being striclty adhered to, you can build a more textured environment. If your environment is heavily populated with a completely different people all the time, there is nothing to hold onto, not patterns to recognise. When there are no patterns, the mind tends to see noise, or mark it as samey. Even the most varied virtual worlds look bland when there is too much content all in the same place.
As with all things, take away an assumption and you can find other uses for a tool. Whenever you read about or work with a level of detail system, you will be aware that the constraint on what level of detail is shown has always been some distance function in space. It's now time to take that assumption, discard it, and analyse what is really happening.
First, we find that if we take away the assumption of distance, we can infer the conditional as some kind of linear measure. This value normally comes from a function that takes the camera position and finds the relative distance to the entity under consideration. What we may also realise when discarding the distance assumption is a more fundamental understanding of that what we are trying to do. We are using a runtime variable to control the presentation state of an entity. We use runtime variables to control the state of many parts of our game already, but in this case, there is a passive presentation response to the variable, or axis being monitored. The presentation is usually some graphical, or logical level of detail, but it could be something as important to the entity as its own existence.
How long until a player forgets about something that might otherwise be important? This information can help reduce memory usage as much as distance. If you have ever played Grand Theft Auto IV, you might have noticed that the cars can dissappear just by not looking at them. As you turn around a few times you might notice that the cars seem to be different each time you face their way. This is a stunning use of temporal level of detail. Cars that have been bumped into or driven and parked by the player remain where they were, because, in essence, the player put them there. Because the player has interacted with them, they are likely to remember that they are there. However, ambient vehicles, whether they are police cruisers, or civilian vehicles, are less important and don't normally get to keep any special status so can vanish when the player looks away.
In adition to time-since-seen, some elements may base their level of detail on how far a player has progressed in the game, or how many of something a player has, or how many times they have done it. For example, a typical bartering animation might be cut shorter and shorter as the game uses the axis of how many recent barters to draw back the length of any non-interactive sections that could be caused by the event. This can be done simply, and the player will be thankful. It may even be possible to allow for multi-item transactions after a certain number of transactions have happened. In effect, you could set up gameplay elements, reactions to situations, triggers for tutorials or extensions to gameplay options all through these abstracted level of detail style axes.
This way of manipulating the present state of the game is safer from transition errors. Errors that happen because going from one state to another may have set something to true when transitioning one direction, but not back to false when transitioning the other way. You can think of the states as being implicit on the axis, not explicit, calculated purely as a triggered event that manipulates state.
An example of where transition errors occur is in menu systems where though all transitions should be reversible, sometimes you may find that going down two levels of menu, but back only one level, takes you back to where you started. For example, entering the options menu, then entering an adjust volume slider, but backing out of the slider might take you out of the options menu all together. These bugs are common in UI code as there are large numbers of different layers of interaction. Player input is often captured in obscure ways compared to gameplay input response. A common problem with menus is one of ownership of the input for a particular frame. For example, if a player hits both the forward and backward button at the same time, a state machine UI might choose to enter whichever transition response comes first. Another might manage to accept the forward event, only to have the next menu accept the back event, but worst of all might be the unlikely but seen in the wild, menu transitioning to two different menus at the same time. Sometimes the menu may transition due to external forces, and if there is player input captured in a different thread of execution, the game state can become disjoint and unresponsive. Consider a network game's lobby, where if everyone is ready to play, but the host of the game disconnects while you are entering into the options screen prior to game launch, in a traditional state machine like approach to menus, where should the player return to once they exit the options screen? The lobby would normally have dropped you back to a server search screen, but in this case, the lobby has gone away to be replaced with nothing. This is where having simple axes instead of state machines can prove to be simpler to the point of being less buggy and more responsive.