When I found out that Milestone had been developing games for over twenty years, I was pleasantly surprised. The Milan based studio has been specialising in the racing genre for most of that time and have kept overheads down with a smaller team, in-house software and reliable formula licences such as WRC, MXGP, Superbikes and MotoGP.
Last month the studio unveiled its new IP, Gravel. The more arcade based open world racing game was something that the studio always wanted to do but with the limitations in its own software and size, was unable to achieve. A new partnership with Epic’s Unreal engine 4 however has seen the years of experience find their creative home. I spoke to Irvin Zonca, head of game design at Milestone, to find out more about their new engine partnership and how Milestone are also helping Unreal with a genre they aren’t the most familiar with.
“I’ll start by saying UE4 is a really amazing engine,” says Zonca. “Both for what it can do for graphics point of view, like lighting [and] the way it handles the graphics but also for the tools it provides for the developers. The team at Epic Games keeps updating the engine. So it’s very good as you constantly get new features, new tools, new parts of the engine, and it’s great.
“The better part, as a game designer, is that Unreal lets us unleash our creativity with the game designs. With our older tech that was custom made, in house, we were very limited in some things. For example, we couldn’t afford to create open maps or open environments. It was impossible for us. It was impossible to apply different time of day to the games, dynamic weather was not so good and we had a lot of limits while designing the game. With Unreal the good thing is that we can really push our creativity, our brainstorming because with the Unreal Engine you could almost do everything that you’re capable of thinking of.”
When you are given total creativity, that is when the hard work comes
Irvin Zonca, head of game design, Milestone
The open world is something that Milestone is eager to explore with their Gravel, The past few years has seen a lot of racing games yet only a few have taken the open world approach like Need for Speed, The Crew and the now hugely successful Forza Horizon series. With Gravel, the Milestone team really do feel that the new found creative freedom with Unreal Engine 4 has been great for the studio.
“We had a couple of months where all the people, all the staff had to restart learning all the tools and the way the game engine was meant to be used,” explains Zonca.
“We never created an open map, an open environment. So we knew we were about to face different challenges but the challenges were more than we expected because our open maps are 35km square big. They are very, very big. The problem here is that when you start creating an open map [or] environment is that it’s not like creating a specific track, because the player can really go wherever they want.
So where you create a realistic track you have control, because you know the player can only do 15 corners. Then there, everything is given to the player, they have the total freedom of what they want.
“So we started understanding that the way we were building some parts of the tracks was not good because they had too many trees so the player got stuck in to them. Then we realised that some of the trees needed to be deformable [and] destructible, to avoid stopping the flow of the gameplay. We started to understand that when you are given total creativity, [that] is when the hard work comes.
“When you close ten designers in to a meeting room for a day, the brainstorming is huge. ‘Now I can do everything and I will do everything!’ but you have to face the problem of costs, of development time and also the problem that you would like to do a new experience and experiences as a game designer but you have to train yourself for tackling these new experiences. We knew how to make a MotoGP circuit or an MXGP [track] but we didn’t know how to make an open map.”
INTO THE WILD
The team at Milestone, buoyed on by the power of their new engine meant that they could really start taking charge of their creative process in creating an open world map. “The way we worked was starting from real locations that we really liked, since starting totally from scratch you don’t have references,” Zonca says. “I can talk about Alaska, because one of our developers went to Alaska and came back with a lot of pictures.
"So we started wanting a place in Alaska, we wanted, in the same map, lakes, rivers and seaside. We found it in a corner of Alaska so we decided to use a tool called World Machine in order capture the real GPS data of that part of Alaska. That specific part wasn’t perfect for a video game, the hills were too spiked or [there were] too many trees.
“So we put all the GPS data into UE4 and we started smoothening edges removing or adding trees and so on and now we have a very nice open map of Alaska that is really, you really feel that it’s outstanding because it comes from a real part of the world and then you work on it to make it more playable.
“You are sure you’ll arrive at some authentic gameplay and authentic style with the graphics and something that is playable and has a good flow. It was like reverse engineering starting from the real world. Why do we have to invent what nature already made and did better?”
LEARNING SOMETHING NEW
The development for Gravel is not only a learning experience for Milestone, but also for Epic. Unreal (with a few exceptions) hasn’t been a racing game engine, and so whilst there is a lot of help going towards Milestone’s transition to the engine, there is just as much information going back to Unreal. “The biggest limit for us with UE4 was physics and AI,” Zonca tells me. “UE is a great engine, it’s quite capable of doing everything but the problem is that it wasn’t used so much for racing games.
“We are the first developer using UE4 for a big release on platforms like PS4, Xbox One, PC and Steam so we are the first making this extensive use of UE4 for a racing game. Problem with the physics was that we just had a very basic physics in to the UE.
“We have quite a big R&D department that’s been working on the unreal engine for a year and a half now, fully customising it for our needs. We had to make our physics tool with PhysX (NVidia) that is featured in the UE and the same was done for the AI. UE is very good for shooters or for graphic adventures but the AI in a shooter is quite different. Because the AI in a racing game needs to know how to overtake, how to defend and everything is done at 180mph. It’s a good partnership because we’re trying to help each other to have better games but also to have new parts of the engine.”
The studio is also developing their latest instalment of the MXGP franchise in Unreal engine 4 as well, and this comfort zone of a known development quantity and a new engine really helped the team get to grips with the tools for Gravel and the future. “It was a good way to start, because we felt like we really could do everything that we ever wanted to do,” Zonca says. “Gravel was a new challenge, it’s never been scary.
What we are doing at Milestone is very tough because we are working on similar projects with a new engine with a team that we are training as we’re using the engine. But UE4 brought to the studio so [much] happiness and confidence because the team knows it can now put its talent on a game. We have some very talented staff that was limited by our old engine, and now the UE engine is available they can try and try and try again and push the boundaries and create beautiful scenes.”