I’ve foregone the tradition of writing a mammoth year-in-review article to close out 2016 here on PRC.net, in favor of instead looking towards the future and brainstorming how developers can craft a much more enticing experience for fans of both arcade racers and hardcore simulators alike. And I think I’ve figured it out.
What you see above is a screenshot of X-Plane 11 by Laminar Research, in particular the town of Innsbruck, Austria. Beautiful, isn’t it? This is a modern Flight Simulator where 99% of the time is spent thousands of feet above the terrain, and yet the city below has been crafted in such a phenomenal way that it puts even the greatest BeamNG or Assetto Corsa free roam maps to shame. In X-Plane, as with all flight simulators, you’re meant to be replicating the route of a commercial airliner, or shooting around the continent at the speed of sound in an early 2000’s fighter jet, but the city depicted above just begs to be explored in your favorite Ferrari or Porsche.
And it’s not just Innsbruck that has been given this kind of treatment. Whether we’re talking about Microsoft’s own Flight Simulator X, the Automobilista-like offshoot known as Prepar3D, or Laminar’s X-Plane, all three major players in the virtual aviation scene rely on what’s called Autogen scenery to power the landscape below your aircraft. To put things into extremely simplistic terms, neither Microsoft nor Laminar have gone out and meticulously modeled the entire globe, because that’s fucking insane. Each developer simply makes use of a specialized algorithm within their software that imports roadways from resources similar to Google Earth, and constructs the correct type of buildings around them. The result is an environment that, while not accurately placing every last 7-Eleven convenience at its exact location in the virtual rendition of Phoenix, Arizona, still manages to come pretty fucking close. Third party modders working to refine the Autogen behavior – some of them creating stuff for free, others bundling their masterpieces as part of payware packages – have churned out some truly amazing artwork for use in X-Plane and Flight Simulator, and again, they’re all meant to be admired out the window of an aircraft.
Even though this kind of stuff is common in the world of flight simulators, never do you have the chance to rip around something like this in a GT3-spec BMW Z4. And that sucks, because… well…
Autogen scenery is the norm in Flight Simulators, yet over in the world of driving games, the biggest problem affecting many arcade racers who have chosen to stick with the free roam format is undoubtedly the map size. Whether we’re talking about the recently-released Forza Horizon 3, the final rendition of Rockstar’s Midnight Club series on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, or the timeless classic Need for Speed Underground 2, free roam driving games eventually lose a large portion of their appeal once you discover every nook and cranny of the map. I remember when stuff like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was brand new, and people would have these mammoth road tips across the map to venture out into the unknown – but by the end of the game, everyone had began to see through the lighting tricks. Combined with the artificial speed limiter placed on each car, the map honestly wasn’t that big, and most can still probably navigate from Los Santos to Area 69 with relative ease.
So while I admire the insane graphical fidelity of the 2015 Need for Speed reboot, and think it’s cool Ubi-Soft tried to build a scale replica of the United States for The Crew, part of me still wants to rip around in a 1:1 reproduction of a large American city – suburbs and all. Given what the Flight Simulator community have been able to do with Autogen technology on a hobbyist level, I think it’s time to push aside the highly detailed yet extremely condensed fictional cities seen in stuff like Burnout Paradise and Grand Theft Auto V, in favor of a large real-world environment fueled by actual geographical data. Obviously there would be some work required on part of the development team to iron out the rough edges and make the landscape highly functional – but the novelty of racing through every last suburb in Detroit or Denver would be a huge draw in a genre where each open world racing game resembles the ones which came before it.
Now a lot of people are probably sitting here thinking this is exactly what both Test Drive Unlimited games have done in the past, but the key difference is that the TDU franchise was a massive Triple-A project created during a time where Autogen wasn’t a household name, and the technology simply just wasn’t there yet. According to an interview from over a decade ago, the Test Drive Unlimited team started with a satellite scan of Oahu, and then sent a team of researchers on an assignment similar to what Google does for their Google Street View images – physically driving around the island themselves, and creating their own reference material. The Autogen capabilities that we see from Flight Simulator X, Prepar3D, and X-Plane would essentially allow developers to chop fifteen months off the modeling process, instead letting the team refine the model the game spit out via the algorithm, and then build a compelling experience around that world.
In my opinion, Autogen is the future of arcade racers. I’ve played enough open world driving games to know that the game only retains your attention throughout the exploration period, and it’s a hard sell to keep pushing onward until the end if the game world has nothing new to offer. However, give gamers a mammoth area to explore that they can’t possibly cover in any traditional length of playtime, and they’ll keep coming back. This is why Test Drive Unlimited is considered a cult classic – you simply can’t take in all of what’s available to do in Oahu (or Ibiza) in one sitting. So now that technology such as Autogen scenery has progressed to the point where it looks fucking phenomenal in simulators that don’t even make use of the actual terrain, let’s try it again in an open world racing game.