We’re back with another Support Diaries entry. We recently had a user in our forums asking how they should decide which programs to learn and buy to accomplish their scene creation and rendering goals. This is a complex question with no “best” answer as it highly depends on the specific goals of each person. But we thought we’d give a short overview of the current recommendation for when to do something in Terragen vs. working with other applications to achieve a given end result.
Terragen is at its heart a procedural generation system – which is most useful for creating terrain, shading/textures, and clouds – and a renderer purpose-built for rendering large environments (up to planet-sized). But it doesn’t create plants and other objects beyond very simple shapes, i.e. it’s not a modeler, so anything beyond terrain, sky, and water you pretty much need to bring into it. So it is something of an “end point”, an application into which you import all your assets from other programs and sources, setup a scene with terrain, sky, etc., and then render within Terragen.
Unreal, Unity, and most game engines are also end points. People working with Unreal want to get Terragen content into Unreal. This is either because they’re trying to create a real time game (which Terragen doesn’t do), or they want to otherwise explore their terrains in real time. The sacrifice is less realistic atmosphere, rendering, lighting, etc., and less powerful displacement capability. If you like what Terragen can do as far as atmosphere, terrain, and rendering, then no need to worry about Unreal or Unity.
In general you basically want to pick your rendering application, which is normally going to be your “end point”, the program you import all your other stuff into for creating your final images. Other examples of such tools include 3DS Max and Maya, Clarisse, Blender, etc., along with the game engines I mentioned above. Once you settle on an application that will create your final rendered images, you can determine what additional software you might need to fill in the gaps in its capabilities, and obviously an assessment of those capabilities will probably be a part of your decision process between various applications. Note that there are also more complex workflows that merge the output of multiple applications into a single image using image editing or compositing software such as Photoshop or Nuke (and in these cases you might say there is not necessarily any one “end point” rendering software), but anyone who needs a high-end approach like that probably already knows where Terragen might fit into their workflow.
So once you’ve chosen your primary software, there are many other applications that can create content which you can use with any such software you select. Terrain generators (e.g. World Machine), texture generators (e.g. Substance Designer), plant generators (e.g. Speedtree), object modelers and sculpting tools (e.g. ZBrush), etc. Your need for any of these depends directly on what you want to do with your scene. In many cases it’s obvious: if you need a tree model, you need to either find an existing one you can download/buy, or you need software like Speedtree that can help you model it. In other cases it’s less clear, like when do you want to use a 3rd party terrain generator vs. Terragen’s built in functions.
My suggestion in general would be to try to accomplish what you want to do in Terragen first. Do as you were, look for tutorials, etc., but if you find that A: there isn’t much info/discussion, or B: the discussion that exists makes it sound more difficult to do in Terragen, then you’d investigate other tools that might work well in that area. And at any point along that path you should feel free to post on the forums asking for advice and input, from initial search for info, i.e. “can Terragen do this, and how?”, to asking for recommendations on tools.
So for example Terragen includes good built-in terrain generation systems, but its capabilities for explicitly modeling and sculpting more specific terrain features such as roads are more limited. If you want to create very specific terrain features in particular places, you might be better off with a terrain modeling tool like World Machine, World Creator, or Gaea. That being said, we are currently working on tools to allow more direct control in Terragen and you’ll start to see some more details on that through 2019 and into 2020. We’re pretty excited about what’s currently in R&D.
In general I would say that external objects, either pre-made, or using modeling software, are probably the single most common type of asset/software used with Terragen. Terrain generators are probably the second most commonly used. Beyond that most of these other tools (e.g. Zbrush, Substance Designer) are not needed. They can be used for specific reasons, but most often they are used because a given artist is already familiar with that tool and knows how to use it to achieve a goal more quickly and easily than they know how to do so in Terragen.