If a level has N items in it and a player is located at position (X, Y, Z), what's the fastest way to determine which item is closest to that player?

Well you can just check the distance to every item and use whichever item is closest. If you read last week's column, you'll remember that this search requires linear time. If you double the number of items on the level, it will take twice as long to find the closest. Certainly we can do better than linear time.

There are a number of data structures that can solve this problem. Some of them might require more setup time but give slightly faster search time. The structure I chose is an octree. It's a tree that holds some number of three dimensional locations. If you want to learn more, I recommend the Wikipedia article on quadtrees as well. A quadtree is the two dimensional analog of an octree, so it's a bit easier to visualize.

In the example I gave last week of a filing cabinet holding 100 pieces of paper, 1 cabinet held 10 folders and each folder held 10 papers. This is a total of 111 pieces of data stored (100 papers + 10 folders + 1 cabinet). In computer science terms, each data storage location in a tree is called a "node". The node where searching begins is called the "root node". In the filing cabinet example, the filing cabinet itself is the root node. The cabinet and folder nodes split 10 ways, and the pieces of paper do not contain any sub-nodes. Nodes that do not further branch are called "leaf nodes".

Getting back to the octree example, the BrainWorks AI code needs to store the spacial locations of 50 or even 200 items in a tree. Each node in the octree contains is one of the stored points, and the node branches 8 ways. Visually think of each node as dividing space into 8 octants-- upper north west, upper north east, upper south west, upper south east, and four more counterparts for lower sections. All points that are above, north, and west of the root node are stored underneath the upper north west node, and so on for all other octants.

For example, suppose there are 50 items on a level. One of them is stored in the root-- say it's a rocket launcher. Of the 49 remaining items, 6 of these item locations are above, north, and west of the rocket launcher. The root node will link to a node for one of these six items-- a megahealth. The other five items will be stored undernearth that megahealth.

Again, the octant division property applies to all nodes, not just the root. So the megahealth also divides its space into eight octants, and the five remaining items will be appropriately placed underneath it. Keep in mind that each of these items is guaranteed to be above, north, and west of the rocket launcher. But items that are above, north, and west of the megahealth will be stored in a different octant than those above, north, and east of the health. Given that there are eight possible areas and only five remaining items to store, chances are that these items will all be stored in one of the eight sub-nodes of the megahealth. (If two items happen to both be below, north, and east of the megahealth, then the first will be stored under the megahealth, and the second will be stored under the first.)

Searching a tree is generally proprortional to the depth of the tree-- the greatest distance from the root node to a leaf node. And for a tree of 50 items, the depth is usually 3 or 4. Going up to 100 items might push the depth to 5 for some level layouts. So the octree structure makes answering the question of "which item am I nearest?" much, much faster than checking all 50 or 100 items.

Given that items have fixed locations on the level, the octree needs to be created once when the level starts, but the tree will never modify during the game. (Ignore items that drop from dead players-- those are handled differently and not useful for statistical tracking anyway.) The actual algorithm is pretty simple, a bit slow, and very likely to produce a well balanced tree. Here's how it works.

Given a set of items:

- Average together all their positions to find the center
- Check each item to find which one is closest to the center
- Add that item as the dividing node
- Separate all remaining items into one of the eight octants this center divides
- Repeat the process on each octant that contains at least one item

Of course, there's still the question of how you search the tree to find the nearest item, and that I will be explaining next week. Here's some food for thought though: even if you identify which octant a point would reside in, you still need to search up to seven of the eight octants to guarantee you've found the closest item to your input point. Searching this tree is not done like most tree searches. For those of you who like thinking through these kinds of problems, try to figure out how the search algorithm actually works. I'll give the answer next week.

Given a set of item locations arranged in an octree and one player location, describe an algorithm to find the item nearest the player.

Good luck!

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