I am absolutely quite certain that there are a lot of people who are better than me at this field, but due to a class I took this semester, I got to experience the process of creating a virtual environment. It is not as hard as it seems, albeit time consuming!
The very first thing I learned is:
Even very low poly objects can look extremely detailed with just a bit of photoshopping and effort! Applying a bump map makes life easy as well! We were lucky enough to use the Second Life derivative, Opensim, for the creation of out projects, so we could apply bump-mapping on the fly by just choosing if you want the light or the dark parts to form the bumps. But either way, bump maps are not hard to create, and there are myriads of tutorials available on the World Wide Web to help guide you in this endeavor.
The second thing I learned was not how much you create, but how you use it. I noticed this trick early on in Blizzard’s MMORPG, World of Warcraft. Walk into any new area and you will notice that resources are used over and over again, but just in slightly different ways. For instance, a new area might have as 3 slightly different shaped trees with a simple bark texture applied and some leaves, but just by going through the trouble of rotating the tree, scaling it to different sizes and changing the angle to fit the terrain, they can make a tree seem completely different to it’s brethren standing right next to it.
The small things matter.
Just by 2D textures of vines to a cliff face, I was able to bring a boring, mundane and utterly dull cliff face to life. Take care to not space them evenly apart though! That is not how nature works! Try and incorporate a feeling of randomness to the placement of objects in your virtual world.
Scripting a particle generator in most engines is not hard, and it is no exception in Second Life / Opensim. There are yet again tons of scripts ready for use from the internet, and just by adding a simple script to an object to generate black smoke coming out of a chimney, I was able to make a factory that had extremely basic texturing come to life and seem like it was polluting the environment.
So, to recap:
Use it Wisely
and the Small Things Matter
Until next time!