Once I can move around in my game world, the next step is to interact with objects. I need to determine what object, if any, the mouse points at. There are three general approaches I know of:

  • OpenGL picking. In OpenGL, you can use “selection mode” to identify which object the mouse points at. This involves assigning a number to each object using glPushName/glPopName, then re-rendering the portion of the scene very close to the mouse pointer using gluPickMatrix and glRenderMode(GL_SELECT), then looking at the object numbers that were rendered by reading from the glSelectBuffer array. In theory, you can re-render using exactly the same rendering code. In practice, you want to skip expensive operations like setting up textures, drawing outlines, using shaders, etc. Once you determine what object was drawn at that location, you still don't know exactly where the mouse points. I used this approach in SimBlob 2 and was somewhat unhappy with it. It's easy but it's sort of ugly.
  • Raycasting. The mouse pointer is a 2d location, and it translates into a ray in 3d space. In theory, the ray begins at the camera and goes back into the distance. In practice, the ray begins at the near plane of the viewing frustum and goes through the far plane. You can use gluUnProject to determine where the ray is; use z==0 for the near plane and z==1 for the far plane. Raycasting works well if you have kept the geometry of all of your objects; it's more of a pain if you generate it on the fly (as I did in SimBlob 2). You have to implement ray-object intersection for all of your object primitives (triangles, boxes, etc.), and it helps if you have a scene graph or spatial partitioning tree so that you don't have to intersect the ray with every object in the world. Once you perform the intersection, the closest hit tells you not only which object is involved but where on that object the mouse points. This approach requires the most work but it's the most reliable and has the best accuracy.
  • Depth buffer. Just about everyone is using the depth buffer in a 3d program. Once you render your scene, OpenGL has the depth (z) value at every pixel. You can ask for the z value with glReadPixels. You can then compute the world space location of the mouse pointer using gluUnProject and the z value you just read. The final step is to determine what object is at that location. This approach is easy, but the depth buffer doesn't have much precision, the precision varies among graphics cards, and the depth buffer is altered when using polygon offsets, so it's not reliable. Another disadvantage is that translucent objects get in the way because they show up in the depth buffer.

I started out using the depth buffer approach, but I've switched to raycasting. The depth buffer has too little precision to give me the accuracy I wanted. I also wanted to distinguish between game objects (selectable) and translucent annotations (not selectable), and the depth buffer doesn't give me that level of control.

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