Thursday, March 30, 2017

Under The Hood #2: Assets

Hello, Truckers!

After some time we’re back with the second article from the series “Under the Hood”. The first one was about how we do the initial phase when we start to work on something new, about research. As you could read in that blog post, the research phase is really important and deeply connected to every other step that comes after. But what comes next? What’s the next step after we gather enough information about the new things we’d like to implement into our games? Well, let’s imagine a situation once again. You’re part of the SCS Software team of designers and you’ve just finished the research phase about a new state which is going to be created for Euro Truck Simulator 2. You have all you need to know about the lands, the vegetation, the architecture, economy, traffic rules, laws, landscapes and so on. You’re able to start creating the new part of the map right now, so you start with the roads and everything is just fine until you came to the point where a specific city, house, point of interest, landmark or something like that should be placed. And you don’t have any model, prefab or asset for that. So what will you do? Who will help?

And that‘s what today’s article is going to be about: The Assets. So just like last time, sit comfortably, sip your tea or coffee and dive deep into this blog post if you want to know something about the environmental models with which we’re filling the in-game zones.


The mentioned and imagined situation above is quite misleading. In fact, we usually do the whole models thing a little differently to save some time; or rather to prevent wasting any of it. When we’re done with the research phase and we have everything we need to know about the new state, we move onto discussions about whether or not we have enough material for it. And this time it’s discussions such as if we already have some models of buildings which fit into that zone, if we have vegetation which looks similar enough according to the trees and plants which truly are in the upcoming lands, if we have models for bridges, railway stations, company depots and basically everything else that we’re going to build. Sometimes we do, but more often we don’t. You know we could use all of the previously created models and it would be heavenly easy for us, but the final look of the new content wouldn’t be good enough. And that’s something we won’t let happen. We want to keep everything in high-quality standards even if it means we’re going to need a lot of new models and assets. And you can believe us, in most situations it does. But that’s nothing so surprising, right? It’s pretty obvious that new and different zones create requirements for new and different models as there are different architectures, vegetation, roads, markings, traffic signs and so on...


And that’s when our team of assets makers, 3D & 2D artists comes to the scene. After we decide and create a list of newly needed models, our team starts working on them really hard and tirelessly. But how are they doing it? What software do they use? According to “what” do they make the models? Well, as you probably already know and as was already mentioned a few times, everything is connected to the research phase. So once again it’s about material gathered from the pictures, scans, satellite photos, videos, feedback or using applications similar to “Streetview”. These things serve our assets team as a template and they recreate the models according to reality as much as they can. If you want, you can imagine it like this: a member of this team wants to make some unique landmark, he/she takes all relevant information which we’ve gathered about it, starts some 3D/2D software application like Maya, Photoshop, Blender Tools etc. and recreates it according to the representative exemplary in three different, but continuous stages: placeholder, prototype and final. Placeholder is a stage where the future model or asset doesn’t have any higher detailed parts or textures, just the requested size, and initial shape. After this comes the prototype, which is a more processed and shaped piece of desired content, but still without any textures, colors or details. And at the end, the final and requested piece of the in-game world is made with the definitive look, size, shapes and details. It sounds quite easy in this way, right? But be sure that what’s easy to explain in words, is in fact a little bit harder in deeds. Well ok, it’s quite a bit harder than that.


As you can imagine, there are some restrictions and limits which our designers must keep in mind during the whole process of new models/asset creation. While a world full of highly detailed models, objects, animated people, parked cars and everything else would be amazing, in the scale level of our map that we want to keep to, it wouldn’t be very well optimized and it would cause huge performance issues for the PCs of our players. And we still want to create games available for a wide range of hardware components and PC setups. It’s finding the right balance once again. As we’re trying to develop a trucking simulators which are mostly similar to reality but of course still enjoyable to play, we’re also doing our best to put in as strong visuals & graphics as possible, but still, keep our games playable even on older PC setups or laptops with older, less powerful hardware. But on the other hand, we also have some really useful and in our opinion great tricks for making the final look of our models and assets as good as possible. For example, something we call interior shader. This is a feature, which makes some of the buildings/shop’s interior looks like it’s moving a little bit as the player drive among them like they have real depth with realistic looking shadows. Or our method of motion capture used for the animated models of pedestrians which we’ve started to use recently. But those are topics for more dedicated articles, so we’d like to keep it unrevealed for this time.

To achieve this purpose, we need to find the right creation process for everything new for our games. Need some simpler examples? Well, you can imagine the process like this: Our team of models/assets designers gets the list of objects, vegetation, houses, buildings and so on which are going to be needed in a new zone/state creation. And they also get info about which of these models are going to be used in which places so they’re able to decide, which of these models need to be created in the highest possible graphical detail, because they’re going to be placed very close to the roads which will be directly accessible for players, which of them could be done in a ‘medium-detailed’ quality, because they’ll be used as landmarks or as scenery far away from the player’s truck positions, which of them could be done with some ‘LOD’ options (LOD – ‘Level of Detail’ – options, which change from low-detailed to high-detailed as the player is approaching closer to them) and so on. To describe these processes to the very fullest details, it’d make this article as long as Route 66 (or a little bit shorter), but we hope you can imagine its core pitfalls. But these optimization problems are not the only possible issues and restrictions which our designers need to bear in mind. As they’re doing their best to capture the real look of new assets, they also need to create them in the right scale if it’s at least a little bit possible. It includes the right sizes of any windows, doors, corners, railings, fences, barrels, pallets, cars, moving models of people, signs, poles and simply everything they’re going to make from scratch. However, sometimes the scale of our in-game worlds doesn’t offer us enough space or possibilities to recreate everything perfectly matched with reality. Also, we can’t forget the fact, that a model can’t contain any sign, trademark, logo etc. of real companies except for those which our company has licenses for this purpose.

But you know, most of our designers and 2D/3D artists have a big passion for video games and huge imaginations along with their vision and sometimes really good but little bit weird ideas too. So it’s quite common, that most of them would like to somehow leave their mark in the in-game world. Hence our most receptive fans may already have found some of the small Easter eggs, references to something well-known or hidden messages, anagrams, and marks of our designers. Want some examples? Well ok then. What about taking a look at billboards in the bigger cities like Las Vegas? The faces there may look unfamiliar to you, but some of them belong to our colleagues. Or did you already find the recreation of the famous building from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho? What about the big yellow duckling on the river, hauled by boats? Woman sitting and relaxing on a branch up a tree in the park?

Does it already sound like a quite difficult task? At the beginning of this article, some of you may have thought it’s only about creating some house or sign in some 3D modeling software and it’s done, but that is far from the truth. And now imagine the next part of this whole process. Once the new models/assets are done, they’re provided to map designers who need them for the new zone/state creation process. But as this process continues, sometimes our map designers discover that the models don’t fit their exact needs, in the exact places required. We’re going through three different phases (as written above) of their creation to avoid these situations but we’re only humans who make mistakes from time to time. Even when we do our utmost to prevent the wastage of any time, money or energy from each other. When an issue like this appears, our map team gives these models back to the asset designers with kind words that they’d like to have them a little bit longer, smaller, brighter, darker, bluer, less green and so on and so forth. Hence you may already feel the possible frustration of these situations, they sometimes require some highly diplomatic negotiations and finding the right compromises between our map and assets designers.


But to be 100% honest and fair, we should also mention a few tricks and ways which make this whole process easier for our team of assets designers. Thanks to the fact that our company has focused on trucking simulators for a few years now, our team have already gathered some much-appreciated experience. As was already mentioned above, sometimes they’re good to go and use some older models from a different zone to save some of their time or, as is more often, they’re able to take some older model, or if you want some models which are in a semi-completed state, and make a new and needed one from them. For simplified example, they have some prepared model of a house, which is in, let’s say, a bare square and then they can attach some other models to it, as could be for example some of the extra floors, garage, garden, fences, alcoves etc. and then make a whole model or new object from it. Like a jigsaw puzzle or block building kit. Thanks to these prepared models, we’re able to create for example buildings for motels in familiar styles, but different sizes, shapes and with different adjustments like gardens, fences, garages etc. While these tricks and ‘magic’ save some time, we’re still more often making new models from scratch. But we believe that it’s good for our games. You know, when you need to take special care for most of the new models/assets, the final look of the new content will surely be worth it.


That would be enough for today. It’s quite a long article already and we still have something more from the realm of asset/model making to share with you. The whole process of making new content for any game is something which shouldn’t be placed in one longer blog post.

So, if you like this topic (we hope you do), you can look forward to the next article from the “Under the Hood” section, because it’ll bring some more info about models. Maybe about the vegetation system which we’re using in our games? Or maybe something about the wide realm of traffic signs? Vehicles? Who knows… Which of these should be covered next? Let us know in the comments section down below, along with your opinions about anything else, but as always, please, keep the comments polite, constructive and civil.

Thank you for your time, see you next time when we’ll look together at something else hiding “Under the Hood”.