Using the Train Simulator series as a case study, Dovetail’s Rob O’Farrell details how to make a simulator

Six steps to making a successful simulation game

Unlike a lot of other gaming genres, simulation encourages a direct and rigorous comparison to real life events and machinery, and if you get that wrong you risk ruining the illusion for the whole game and turning off large chunks of your audience. We walk a tight rope to strike the right balance between realism, entertainment and accessibility.

1. Research is key to delivering a great experience
Building relationships and trust with the train operating companies doesn’t happen overnight and it can take months or even years to establish a solid working relationship. Getting access to the right trains to collect images and sounds for our research is crucial – even if some models have been scrapped, like some of the old steam locomotives, or are just really hard to get physical access to.

2. Take care with asset creation
Our fans demand that our trains are very realistic in how they look and drive, while the train companies want to be presented in the best possible light. Train operators like their stock to look clean, while our players like locomotives to have a realistic, grubby feel.

Both know every inch of the trains we create so we need to become experts in every train we model. This is a verytime-consuming part of our development and can make planning a tough task.

3. Balance your performance data
Accuracy is king but there are times when we are unable to release certain sensitive information from the train companies’ point of view, so this requires a delicate balancing act to avoid alienating either our rail partners or our fans.

4. Research international differences
While signalling systems are all trying to fundamentally achieve the same goal – the safe transit of trains around the rail network – there are a great many different systems. Different countries combine various signalling styles and components in different ways to meet their needs, whether high speed, high-density commuter or long distance heavy freight.

5. Prepare for scale
On top of the signalling we have to lay hundreds of miles of track, which in turn leads to countless different ways the tracks can be driven. This is a huge technical challenge that needs to be overcome.

6. Make time for testing
The Donner Pass route in California is around 160 miles, end-to-end. The line speed is about 40mph for a heavy freight. That scenario takes over four hours to play and needs to be played over and over to get the feel right. Iteration and bug fixing can be time-consuming, especially if a bug is found. With the move to Unreal Engine 4 in Train Simulator, automated testing is something that is going to become a crucial part of our development and QA.

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