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Historical Environment Art Challenges: Developing Real-time Environments for Simulation Gameplay

Simulation games refer to instruction delivered via virtual experience that immerses trainees in a decision-making exercise in an artificial, and suitable, environment (Sitzmann, 2011) depending on the nature of the activity. Traditionally these types of games were developed in response to real-world activities where the audience, or hobbyist, desired the ability to explore and increase proficiency in a pass-time or industry. Popular releases include Microsoft Flight Simulator (1982), Euro Truck Simulator 2 (2012) and Train Sim World (2018) to name a few. In all these examples the player is placed in scenarios and environments akin to real-world situations and required to become proficient in technical tasks towards the completion of professionally orientated goals.

The ultimate ambition for the studio and its artists is to create an immersive experience for its players, for whom accuracy of functionality and aesthetic is a primary interest, optimised for game development. This can be a highly challenging space to develop in as the scope of such environments can push development milestones and restrictions to their limits. Draw-calls can be one such restriction as a game engine typically pulls in all assets on a case-by-case basis and a higher frequency can cause a loss of frame rate (FPS). Understandably, a game with potentially thousands of unique aspects to represent needs to be smart around where modular design and simplification of constructs can alleviate this issue. This blog post will focus on ground level simulation experiences where the player has a greater opportunity to survey and be immersed in rich environment settings as opposed to high altitude simulation, such as flight simulation, where there is a diminished necessity for bespoke art direction. It is worth emphasising that these environments require and are expected to meet a much higher level of visual fidelity due to the proximity of the player to the world.

The first step of any development is to establish the scope, setting and gameplay requirements of the project. This would, in the case of a franchise such as Train Simulator World 2, dictate the start and endpoints of the space that the artists must develop. As a result, the development timescales and agreed scope of the environment would be mapped out to allow for an achievable deliverable. The historical considerations of these choices would be a prioritisation of what would be deemed as essential hero assets to give authenticity. In many cases, these would be discernible landmarks that have or do exist within the given region, depending on the desired time setting, often with cultural and contextual relevance to the region. When working on routes within Train Sim World it would not be uncommon for these landmarks to be exhaustive, especially in more urban settings, and so creative decisions need to be taken to factor in development timescales and authenticity. This can lead to the exclusion of what would be deemed as ‘low-priority’ landmarks that are either too far from the play area to make a visual impact or that perhaps do not open themselves up to larger gameplay considerations such as scenario writing. The potential for unconscious bias to drive these decisions based not on the accurate representation of real-world environments but instead on artistic direction and marketing can occur.

Both the activity and the environment that the player is presented with are of equal importance during development. Whilst these aspects offer separate functions for the player, both fall under the scrutiny of factual accuracy from an audience that wants to be immersed in a realistic experience. When looking at Bartle’s taxonomy (Bartle, 1996) (Fig. 01), we can see the importance of environment, or world, as a shared property between the most common categories of simulation players who fit into the Achievers and, to a lesser extent, Explorers.

Fig. 01 – Bartle Taxonomy (Struble. Design, 2019)

The prioritisation of cultural and authentic visuals can also impact the tertiary artefacts environments. In typical production pipelines, these questions would be addressed with a ‘vertical slice’ (McAllister, 2015) of an authorised development area where the artists would be given the opportunity to represent a location within an established timescale. Through this process, artists open questions surrounding the architectural, natural, and cultural points of relevancy. Often, artists are afforded development time to adjust and react to the direction upon the completion of this isolated section as a means of proof of concept for the larger production. The location that is chosen for these experimentation phases is commonly in an area where many of the historical and environmental questions of the much larger game can be answered.

This process can be made more difficult when trying to represent environments with limited pools of reliable references, often the case when the environment has been chosen because of the visual aesthetics that existed in the past. Typical practices when accurately representing environments are for the artists to be provided with, and source, pools of reliable visual references from physical trips, historical repositories, and online searches. Physical recces of locations are by far the most reliable and useful sources of reference for artists and gameplay teams for a few reasons. Firstly, the historical accuracy of the recce is confirmed through an up-to-date gathering of photo and video documentation and so this reduces the risk of historical inaccuracy. Another is that, in many ground-level simulation franchises, the player will experience the game from the perspective of a first- or third-person character. As this is the vantage point afforded to the surveyor it provides the artist not only a better understanding of what can be seen in real-world terms but, more importantly, what cannot. It can be the case that environments span over 100 kilometres in virtual settings (Fig. 02) and so understanding where visual concessions can be made is invaluable in keeping performance within expected game development overheads whilst maintaining the accuracy that a player expects when familiar with a particular location.

Fig. 02: Train Sim World (2018). Dovetail Games.

Reference gathering from multiple sources can, however, lead to conflicting information depending on the accuracy of the data and so the artist must go through a rigorous quality assurance phase to determine if, and when visuals should be developed further. This is especially the case when the opportunity to understand these spaces is reduced by a lack of access, for example when a physical survey is impossible due to location, or a radical change has occurred over time. Examples of this can be seen in releases where the USP of the release is set in a period of great historical change, which saw the development and expansion of many major cities and, with a reference to motorised simulation, transport infrastructure. This makes the artist’s task challenging in maintaining historical authenticity without applying generic visual applications where information is lacking or completely absent. This issue is compounded as the production timescale can only afford a certain margin for delays and technical research and development, and so artists need to be confident of their impact.

Areas of creative freedom often stem from a lack of reference, where the artist has had to complete a milestone that fits the overall visual style of the game. In these areas, the artist needs to be careful not to instil visuals that distract or diminish impact across the wider environment and instead treat these spaces as a transition between areas that are more accurately represented. It can be beneficial to understand the answers to the questions raised during the vertical slice development stage, to help find suitable aesthetic and cultural solutions, especially when environments span multiple regions with diverse visual cues. There can also be common issues that arise from a more technical standpoint when considering NPC navigation, player boundaries, horizon affordances, and scenario requirements where the authenticity of the environment is working against the gameplay aspects of the production. These are often overcome through more game-driven rules where standardised measurements are implemented and ‘natural barriers’ are put in place. This highlights the necessity for a balanced approach between factual recreation and the realities of game production.

Players of simulation games are offered an opportunity to explore and be immersed in places and moments accurately, and developers may not be sensitive to the implications of this as in other game franchises. The role of simulation game developers comes with reduced capacity for artistic freedom as would be afforded in say more expressive publications, but this challenge means that these games offer something unique to their audiences and with a high level of authenticity.

References

Sitzmann, T., 2011. Personnel Psychology: A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games, Vol 64, pp. 489-528.

Bartle, R., 1996. Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD Research, 1(1), p.19.

McAllister, G, R. White, G., 2015, Game User Experience Evaluation, Springer, p. 15.

Finlay Pearston is a Lecturer at Abertay University where he is responsible for delivering and shaping curricula based on past and current industry expertise. Prior to joining Abertay, Finlay enjoyed a career spanning both the VFX and games industry, specialising in environment art. His passion for environment art has been instrumental in his past professional endeavours and continues to be at the forefront of his teaching today, where he instils industry-led practices within the modules. His main research interests include the translation of visual references to digital media and development technologies in the game art sector.

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