Why don’t we see as many desert levels in video games compared to say… forests and sewers? What’s so challenging in implementing a desert level compared to the other environments?

Deserts have a number of things going against them as environments in video games. Here are two major challenges that must be addressed for a desert level off the top of my head:

Deserts Lack Landmarks

The prototypical desert in your mind is often just long reaches of sand in all directions. This tends to be bad for players who are looking for their next objective - they’ll get turned around and get lost in a featureless desert, making it feel frustrating. In order for a player to learn where things are, they need major landmarks as reference points, which goes against the prototypical desert. This can be done (like how every Star Wars game must have a Tatooine level), but it does take a little away from the feeling of being lost in a desert. If you can see the giant mountain over there, the oasis over there, the ravine over here, and the city in the distance, it doesn’t feel much like a desert anymore.

Deserts Lack Obstructive Terrain

This is more of a technical constraint than a design constraint. If a player can see a long distance away, they expect to be able to see those details - an approaching caravan, a town with lights at night, and so on and so forth. This, unfortunately, runs into the problem of having to draw all of those things. One standard graphics trick is to avoid drawing things that are very far away - if you don’t have to do rendering calculations on these models, you can save a lot of CPU and GPU time. This works great for sewer and forest levels because there’s a lot of walls, pipes, trees, etc. in the way that can block your view of things in the distance so the GPU doesn’t have to render them. Deserts don’t really do that - once you get to the top of a dune, you expect to see really, really far, which can cause severe performance hits. 

These two specific challenges make desert level design more difficult to implement than many other environment types. The lack of landmarks affects most forms of traversal unless you’re playing some kind of game with scrolling advancement (e.g. a side scroller or shoot-em-up) where the navigation of the environment isn’t as important. The lack of occlusive geometry makes for a technical challenge that must be overcome (often through the placement of large occluding rocks or heat shimmer vfx in the distance). It’s not impossible to do, it’s just some bigger challenges that make them harder to do than other environments.

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