Under the Hood: How to build a world for American Truck Simulator
This article was originally created for Vortex, Czech-based media. Due to the growing interest in different positions in SCS, we decided to translate the whole mini-series of these talks to publish here, on our blog. Today, we bring you first episode, featuring Ondřej "Duffator" Dufek - ATS world architect
When I meet someone for the first time, they often ask "So, what do you do exactly?". "I make video games, I'm a game developer" I often say, expecting more questions to follow. "Oh, interesting, sounds cool" they respond, but I can tell that they don't understand what that means and continue to ask more. "So work in programming or graphics?" is a common follow up question. "Neither, I'm a Map Designer" which is usually followed by more confusion. And that's why I'm here - to explain what exactly a Map Designer in SCS Software does for a living.
As the name suggests, the main role of a Map Designer is to create maps. Our job is to create a virtual world and environment in which a player travels and works. In SCS Software as you know, we create truck simulators, so we have to create everything you could possibly see outside of your virtual truck's window.
"Ah, so you create 3D Graphics!" is probably the main thought running through your mind right now, but that isn't entirely true. To clarify what we do more, I like to think about map designing similar to building with Lego bricks or playing Minecraft. Being a Map Designer isn't about making an individual cube or element, nor does he create a specific model such as a house, bench, tree. All of these are created by his colleagues in the asset department, so he can put them together in a map editor, creating a small part of our open world. With enough trees, you'll get a forest, with a number of buildings, you'll make a town. We're called Map Designers because our game space isn't composed of individual game levels, it is an open world which we watch mostly from a birds-eye view. So the comparison to the creation of a map offers itself.
Nevertheless, that would be a very simplified description of our work. The important word in the job title is "designer" - a man or woman designing something (not just a car or electric kettle).
Our game world is stylized, a miniature variant of the real world. Due to the technical requirements and manpower, it has been created in a 1:20 scale. So a designer has to choose one thing out of twenty and drop the rest, there isn't space for more. It's a pretty hard decision and one of the first and foremost duties of a map designer, to what he wants to create.
For example - take a process of road-making. Think of a section of road with the surrounding country, which connects two cities. The goal is to find out as much relevant information about it as possible (the length, height, what landmarks are there, points of interest, climates, landscapes etc) to create a draft which s/he will able to process and finalize. So the task at hand is mainly about filtering and the priority of information, along with staying within the boundaries of limitations.
And what limits are we talking about? Everything! - from scale, time, resources available and more. The real world is unique, and almost every place is original. Unfortunately, we can't afford such a luxury in our game world, where the number of available models we can use is limited. Designers must make up their mind of which models to use, and where to place them. For example, which house is most similar to the pattern found in the real world, how it could be improved using his or her 'artistic license' to stylize the in-game world. Another limitation is technology, unlike pre-rendered animations, our world must draw itself in real-time using various PC configurations. We can't fill it with an unlimited number of models and details. Another limitation is surveillance distance, which is the number of reflections in mirrors or water surfaces. All of these aspects directly influence the output and framerate. And the last big limitation is time. Our players expect a new expansion in a reasonable amount of time, so we can't take too long with our production.
In our studies of the road section we are working on, we find out the most characteristic details of the road and see if it is possible to re-create these in-game. The goal is to transfer the look and design into our virtual world. In an ideal case, a map designer creates a landmark on a 1:1 scale. During the 1:20 compression, it's impossible for us to include all of the most interesting places, as they would be located next to each other (due to the scale), which would not be true to life or distance. So our task is to combine both interesting landmarks between longer stretches of road to make them stand out. For example, if a 20km stretch of road had three farms and a large forest, it would end up likely two of the farms and a majority of the forest would be removed to correctly imitate the real-life landscape on a 1:20 scale. Another task of map designer is to connect different types of landscapes together and to create a smooth transition when travelling between forests and towns.
And that is what a map designer job consists of. Finding solutions to various design, technical and artistic obstacles. Whether it be a virtual city, junction, or dirt road, it is a combination of art and technical skills to be able to find a creative solution.
So I hope this very explanation helps you understand a bit more about what a 'map designer' does. If we we're to go in-depth into all the nitty-gritty details of our work, we would need a series of articles, perhaps a documentary! Let us know if you enjoyed the general theme of this blog, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section.
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