Writing a 3D space rail shooter in Three.js, Part 1

6 min read

In the course of this 3 part article series, you will learn how to write a simple 3D space shooter game with Three.js.

The game will look like this:

It will introduce the basic concepts of a Three.js application, how to write modular code and the core principles of a game, such as camera, player motion and collision detection.

But now it’s time to get ready!


I will introduce you to a small set of tools that have proven to work reliably and help build things in a quick and robust fashion.

The tools we will use are:

  • npm – the node.js package manager
  • browserify / watchify for using npm modules in the browser
  • Three.js – a wrapper around WebGL and other 3D rendering APIs
  • three-world – a highlevel wrapper around Three.js to reduce boilerplate.
  • uglify-js – a tool to minify and strip down Javascript code

To set up our project, create a directory and bring up a terminal inside this directory, e.g.

mkdir space-blaster
  cd space-blaster

Initializing our package

As we’ll use npm, it’s a good idea to setup our project as an npm package. This way we’ll get dependency management and some handy meta information – and it’s easy:

npm init

Answer the questions and you’re ready.

Getting the dependencies

Next up is getting the dependencies installed. This can be done conveniently by having npm install the dependencies and save them to our package.json as well.

This way others can quickly grab our source code along with the package.json and just run npm install to get all required dependencies installed. So we now do

npm install --save three three-world
  npm install --save-dev browserify watchify uglify-js

The first line installs the two dependencies that our application needs to run, the second installs dependencies that we’ll use throughout development.

Creating the scaffold

Now we’ll need an HTML file to host our game and the main entry point Javascript file for our game.

Let’s start with the index.html:

<!doctype html>
<html lang="en">
  <meta charset="utf-8">
  <title>Space Blaster</title>
    html, body {
      padding: 0;
      margin:  0;

      height: 100%;
      height: 100vh;

      overflow: hidden;
  <script src="app.js"></script>
  <noscript>Yikes, you'll need Javascript to play the game :/</noscript>

That is enough to get us a nice and level field to put our game on. Note that the app.js will be the result of running watchify while we’re developing and browserify when making a release build, respectively.

Now we just create a js folder where our Javascript files will be placed in and we’re nearly done with our setup, just one more thing:

Build scripts

In order to not have to clutter our system with globally-installed npm packages for our development tools, we can use npm’s superpowers by extending the package.json a bit.

Replace the scripts entry in your package.json with:

"scripts": {
  "build": "browserify js/main.js | uglifyjs -mc > app.js",
  "dev": "watchify js/main.js -v -o app.js"

and you’ll have two handy new commands available:

  • build runs browserify and minifies the output into app.js, starting from js/main.js which will be our game code’s entry point
  • dev runs watchify which will look for changes in our Javascript code and update app.js, but without minifying, which decreases the cycle time but produces a larger output file.

To kick off development, we now create an empty js/main.js file and run

npm run dev

which should output something like this:

> [email protected] dev /code/space-blast
> watchify js/main.js -v -o app.js

498 bytes written to app.js (0.04 seconds)

With this running, open the js/main.js file in your favourite editor – it’s time to start coding!

Example repository and assets

In the course of this article series, we will be using resources such as images and 3D models that are available for free on the internet. The models come from cgtrader, the space background from mysitemyway.

All sources can be found at the Github repository for this article.

Light, Camera, Action!

Let’s start creating – first of all we need a world and a function that is updating this world on each frame:

var World = require('three-world')

function render() {
  // here we'll update the world on each frame

World.init({ renderCallback: render })

// Things will be put into the world here


Behind the curtain, this code creates a camera, a scene (think of this as our stage) and an ambient light. With World.start() the rendering loop is started and the world starts to “run”.

But so far our world has been empty and, thus, just a black void.

Let’s start to fill this void – we’ll start with making a vortex in which we’ll fly through space.

Into the vortex

To add things to our stage, we put more code in between World.init and World.start.

var tunnel = new THREE.Mesh(
  new THREE.CylinderGeometry(100, 100, 5000, 24, 24, true),
  new THREE.MeshBasicMaterial({
    map: THREE.ImageUtils.loadTexture('images/space.jpg'),
    side: THREE.BackSide
tunnel.rotation.x = -Math.PI/2

With this code we’re creating a new mesh with a cylindrical geometry that is open at the ends and our space background, lay it on the side and add it to the world.

The THREE.BackSide means that the texture shall be drawn on the inside of the cylinder, which is what we need as we’ll be inside the cylinder.

Now our world looks like this:

Writing a 3D space rail shooter in Three.js, Part 1

There’s a few things that we should tweak at this point. First of all, there’s an ugly black hole at the end – let’s fix that.

First of all, we’ll change the color that the World uses to clear out parts that are too far for the camera to see by adjusting the parameters to World.init:

World.init({ renderCallback: render, clearColor: 0x000022})

With this we’ll get a very dark blue at the end of our vortex. But it still looks odd as it is very sharp on the edges.

Writing a 3D space rail shooter in Three.js, Part 1

But fortunately we can fix that by adding fog to our scene with a single line:

World.getScene().fog = newTHREE.FogExp2(0x0000022, 0.00125)

Note that the fog has the same color as the clearColor of the World and is added to the Scene.

And voilà: It looks much nicer!

Writing a 3D space rail shooter in Three.js, Part 1

Now let’s do something about this stretched look of the space texture on the vortex by repeating it a few times to make it look better:

var tunnel = new THREE.Mesh(
  new THREE.CylinderGeometry(100, 100, 5000, 24, 24, true),
  new THREE.MeshBasicMaterial({
    map: THREE.ImageUtils.loadTexture('images/space.jpg', null, function(tex) {
      tex.wrapS = tex.wrapT = THREE.RepeatWrapping
      tex.repeat.set(5, 10)
      tex.needsUpdate = true
    side: THREE.BackSide

Alright, that looks good.

Writing a 3D space rail shooter in Three.js, Part 1

In Part 2 of this series we will add the spaceship and add asteroids to our game.

About the author

Martin Naumann is an open source contributor and web evangelist by heart from Zurich with a decade of experience from the trenches of software engineering in multiple fields. He works as a software engineer at Archilogic in front and backend. He devotes his time to moving the web forward, fixing problems, building applications and systems and breaking things for fun & profit. Martin believes in the web platform and is working with bleeding edge technologies that will allow the web to prosper.


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