Reality has nice graphics, but making it fun requires a few tweaks
I'm fascinated by the use of real-world locations in video games. Whenever a developer states that you'll be exploring real cities and landmarks in its latest upcoming game, I instantly become both wary and intrigued in equal measure.
This is, of course, because user-created worlds are built purposely to create as much fun as possible, whereas using the real world means that you potentially have restrictions on what you can do with it. Using famous landmarks may seem cool, but when it comes to actually giving it a whirl, the results are often not so exciting.
Real World Racing, due for release in Q4, has been tackling these issues daily. The game is a top-down racing game in the same vein as the Micro Machines series, but with realistic physics and realism in mind -- and more importantly, you race around real world locations.
In fact, development team Playstos Entertainment took it a step further than simply basing the game in the real world. The studio took high resolution aerial photographic images of such cities as Rome, Paris, London and Berlin, and merged them directly into the game, creating a highly believable environment that is point-for-point similar to our world -- well, except where the team has fiddled with it in the name of fun.
"Our team is really small, with only a couple of artists steadily available, so the choice to have most of the contents and style ready with as little contributions as possible seemed only natural," explains lead programmer Ivan Del Duca.
His team also realized that no-one had attempted to use real aerial photos before in a racer, so Playstos would have something completely original on its hands.
He also notes that "from the perspective of creating a top-down racer, a sub-genre that isn't currently enjoying much popularity, using real world imagery looked like a good way for the game to be noticed for its own merits and not just shunned as another low budget top-down racer."
Niceties out of the way, I question Del Duca regarding how he is going about making sure Real World Racing isn't just a pretty face. Has his team found that making the real world actually fun is tricky?
"I won't lie, we definitely did," he admits. "We had to compromise on where the circuits would run and slightly rework environments on occasion. At other times we found that there were adaptations we couldn't make at all."
"A prime example would be the time of day at which each race takes place: some imagery simply couldn't be adapted to receive a credible evening, or even noon sunny lighting," he notes. "Another similar problem is the presence of a number of construction sites scattered around every corner of any given city: some we could avoid running along, while some other we had to include."
So how, then, did the team go about choosing which parts of the real world to include in the game?
"It's actually simpler than you would expect, but not for the reasons you would imagine," he tells us. "We sifted through a lot of aerial imagery from cities around the world that we thought would be popular choices, and finding material of high enough quality proved more difficult than expected."
"Eventually we found ourselves picking our locations based on what looked good enough, discarding the rest. As more detailed imagery becomes available for the cities we looked into, we will update and add them to the game."
Since injecting aerial photos into a racing game is a new concept, I was intrigued to hear about the legal ramifications of the move, alongside how exactly the studio is making it work. As you'd expect, Playstos isn't allowed to simply use these photos for free, and has already purchased licenses to use the imagery (in fact, these licences "amounted to the better part of the cost of developing Real World Racing," says Del Duca.
On top of this, pulling the images into the game is a in-depth task. "At the base of the technology is our in-house developed engine that allows us to dynamically load the currently visible portions of the large, high quality textures of the city," explains the lead programmer.
"The aerial imagery is cleaned up of traffic, people, and other imperfections with Photoshop wherever the tracks will run. Items that should occlude cars passing on the roads and shadows are also separated at this stage. Then, with our proprietary technology and editor, we add a realistic 3D effect to buildings, trees and other elevated structures starting from the 2D bitmaps without adding actual 3D models, which would look unrealistic and out of place.
As has been shown in the above teaser trailer, this process goes a long way to giving the game just that right amount of perspective, even when the game world is being based on simple 2D data. A few 3D models, like barriers, tires and additional decorations are added to help define the track, and finish off the effect.
Real World Racing is set to be released for PC in Q4 2012, with a Steam release hopefully on the cards.