Today we feature a guest editorial by Matt Wagner on virtual building. As some of you may have noticed I share a lot of these thoughts with Matt and find the prejudice against LDraw to be quite thoughtfree.
Anyway, I’ll pass you over to Matt.
Thanks to Andrew and Tim for the chance to share some of what I know about LDraw. First off, I want to make it clear that by no means do I represent the entire LDraw community; I’m only one of many virtual LEGO builders out there.
What I’d like to share is this:
Five things you might not know about LDraw:
- LDraw is free. Anyone can download and use LDraw (and MLCAD and all of the associated programs), and the most often-used rendering program (called POV-Ray) used to create the 3D images is also free. Get started at http://www.ldraw.org/Article126.html
- LDraw’s parts library is both unlimited and limited. Anyone who’s used the program knows that the extensive part library allows you to click and drag into your virtual model to your heart’s content. But since LDraw is not officially licensed by LEGO, all those parts files are created by everyday users out of polygons and groups of polygons called primitives. And since nobody’s getting paid for their work, the creation of parts is slow and up to the community. LDraw.org takes these parts and releases official parts updates periodically after ensuring that each part meets their quality requirements; however, no official parts updates have been released in over 5 years. Parts that are created in the meantime get placed in the “unofficial” parts library on the LDraw website, but have varying degrees of quality and mistakes until they are approved as official, and some parts that you might hope to find simply haven’t been created in LDraw yet. For example, the minifig heads with facial expressions other than the benign-looking smile, as well as all of the new male and female hairpieces, all pieces that have been available for years now in real life LEGO pieces, are still unavailable in LDraw.
- LDraw has its own unique challenges. It is true that gravity and tension are not something you need to worry about in LDraw: as the program is basically placing bricks in a 3D space, it is possible to place a 2×4 brick going right through another 2×4 brick, something virtual builders call “impossible building.” This may be why some people consider LDraw to be less of a challenge than building with actual LEGO pieces. But building pieces at an angle, something that may require only the positioning of a hinge piece or the click of a bracket in real life, is much more difficult in LDraw. Anything built using SNOT is harder than in real life. Large models become very cumbersome in LDraw. Doing these things is possible, but they require complicated extra steps involving multi-part files and careful aligning of connections and angles.
- Publishing LDraw models can also be a challenge, something that can become more complicated than photographing with a lightbox. LDView is a great program that creates a clean-looking image of your virtual moc in seconds. But for those who want to approach the realism seen in some of the virtual modelers who’ve been featured on Brothers-Brick before, you need to learn how to use POV-Ray: a free ray-tracing program. POV-Ray allows you to place light sources, floors, skies, backgrounds, and other tools to enhance your model’s presentation. POV-Ray also has a feature called radiosity which is something that adds a lot of light and realism to a render, but also stretches out render times to several hours or even days. There are a few tutorials out there on how to use some of these advanced features with POV-Ray; Brichkhelf user Koyan’s tutorial is one that I have used.
- Virtual LEGO and real-life LEGO can complement each other. Say you’re wanting to build a new model, but you don’t have all of the pieces you need. You want to make sure you can fit everything together the way you’re imagining. You can build it in LDraw first to best visualize your model. Then you know exactly which parts you need to order on Bricklink. Or here’s another scenario: you’ve just built an amazing model out of pieces that you have, but another contest comes along that requires the use of pieces that are tied up in that last creation. You hate to have buy new pieces this time, so what do you do? Build it in LDraw and save a virtual version of your model, so that you can archive it forever and free up those precious bricks. Thanks.
I hope I’ve helped broaden your views on LDraw and virtual LEGO in general, and hopefully I’ve dispelled some of the misconceptions that cause virtual entries to be prohibited from competing in LEGO contests.