Elite Dangerous' Developer is Building the Ultimate Theme Park Sim

By Edge on at

Frontier’s chief creative officer, Jonny Watts, loves a good queue. He’s English, of course, so it comes with the territory to an extent. But put Watts in a theme park and he’ll shun the offer of a priority pass, which offers the roller-coaster aficionado a speedy route to the front of the line. “I like to queue,” he tells us. “My family doesn’t! But I just like to look around at the theme park. Also, it’s the only chance I get to talk to my kids.”

While Watts has a professional interest in the thrill ride in front of him, he’s just as invested in the complex workings of another machine: the park itself. Books have been written on how best to structure a theme park. They’ll tell you to put the most exciting ride as far away from the entrance as possible, both to let guests get acclimatised with some lower-stress rides and to eke more money out of them along the way. They advise on the correct placement of food stands and toilets in order to maximise the visitor experience – and their expenditure. They’ll share best-practice advice on crowd management, on structuring paths and placing scenery to optimise the flow of an excited, teeming crowd. Before our visit to Frontier, we had no idea these books even existed. After a day spent in the company of a team making what is, by a distance, the most ambitious theme-park simulator ever created, we have a strange urge to read one.

Almost every team working on Planet Coaster is breaking new ground – literally, in the case of the brains behind the voxel-based terrain deformation tech, and figuratively just about everywhere else. And, as any good theme park designer will tell you, at the heart of it all is a busy, happy crowd. “It’s all about throughput,” Watts says. “The first principle is the guests are the most important thing in the simulation, so everything you do affects the guest. Whether you build a convoluted path, where you put scenery, toilets – everything affects them, and it’s all about managing this ideal throughput. They’re like the lifeblood of the park.”

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Powered by over an hour of custom animations, speaking a new language of Frontier’s invention, and individually clickable to reveal their current mood, wants and needs, a Planet Coaster park teems with what are essentially a couple of thousand Sims. As remarkable as that may seem, you really have to see them move to appreciate it: whether part of a group or on their own, there is a graceful, natural flow to the way the crowd moves through your park – providing you’ve got your pathing right, of course.

It turns out that ‘flow’ is the right word for it, as principal programmer Owen Mc Carthy explains. Planet Coaster’s crowds are, essentially, guided by an invisible body of water. “I’ve always been interested in physics and fluid simulations, and there was a lot of research into using fluid and flow to simulate [the movement of] a crowd,” he says. “Instead of simulating for every person – where’s this one going to go, then this one, then this one – you just have to do one solve of the [fluid] flow. It takes a while, but once it’s done you can have as many people as you want in there. Thousands.”

Almost every team working on Planet Coaster is breaking new ground – literally, in the case of the brains behind the voxel-based terrain

It’s a technique that’s been used before – for unit movement in RTS games such as Supreme Commander – but only on flat terrain. By breaking the map up into tiny sections, Mc Carthy has made the tech work in a game which, thanks to terrain sculpting and deformation, is a lot more vertical and less predictable. And it’s a godsend in a game where the player can relay paths and place essential objects such as benches and bins on the fly, since the fluid simulation just guides them around any obstacle. Crucially, it’s not an intensive process – for Mc Carthy, anyway; the rendering team would disagree – and when we’re shown a vast plaza teeming with a crowd of several thousand, the framerate barely dips. It’s scalable, too, the effect far from restricted to only players with monster PCs. “If you have a slow machine, the flow just updates less often,” Mc Carthy says. “And you can continue to flow on the old data until the new data is ready. They walk slowly anyway, so you don’t need to update every frame.”

It’s a heck of a sight, and even more so when you see it happen in realtime – a slight tweak to a path or the addition of some deliberately awkwardly placed scenery causing the crowd to instantly, seamlessly change how it moves. Realtime response to your actions is critical in a game whose every facet can be tweaked on the fly, and it’s a challenge that’s prompted fresh thinking in just about every aspect of the game’s development.

Nowhere is that more true than in the audio department, which began work on Planet Coaster by being told that the techniques it used in developing Elite Dangerous would have to be discarded. “You’ve got so many objects on screen,” lead audio designer Matthew Florianz tells us. “You’ve got so many people walking around your park that if we were to put a single sound on all of them and then check which ones are in range – which is how we normally do sound – just checking who’s in range would take longer than a single frame.

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“If you take Elite, or a shooter or anything, you’re a ship or a gun or a person moving through a world, and that gives us a very solid starting point. We design really cool gun sounds, or car sounds, or in the case of Elite, really cool ship sounds. It’s all about getting the sense of moving through space. But in this game, what is ‘you’? Unless you’re riding one of the coasters [in firstperson], ‘you’ is something that’s nothing at first and evolves over time.”

The solution is a sort of audio LOD: the closer a person is to the camera, the more in sync their audio. Pre-recorded crowd sounds will be played from guests that are farther away, while those in front of you will be speaking perfectly synced Planco, a replacement for the English language devised by one of the audio designers, which both avoids localisation headaches and fits with the cheery, cartoonish theme of the game. Head of audio Jim Croft calls the technique “contextual mixing. It’s definitely the future of games, because we have no hope, in these huge games, of being able to realise every single thing, entity, emitter that exists in the game. We have to think about what’s important to the player.”

Great, you’d think, problem solved. Then there was just the small matter of renting out a theme park for two days so a professional sound-recording artist could get coaster samples, which were then split up and assigned to various track components – according to materials, curve and incline, speed and pitch, and so on – allowing the game engine to call for the right sounds in realtime. Then distortion was added, since no person’s rollercoaster experience is a cleaned-up, digital one. Then effects were added for scenery rushing past. Then Frontier had Toronto musician Jim Guthrie record a 15-track album that plays when the camera’s zoomed right out, and also when you’re in the frontend, the music shifting slightly as you load into submenus, then syncing up perfectly with loading times so that it comes to a coda and stops as the park appears before your eyes.

The attention to detail is staggering, to the point that we wonder out loud – a little impolitely, in hindsight – if it’s all really worth it. “There’s nothing we don’t spend time on,” Croft says. “Every little detail, we want to get just right so that people’s experience is the best it can be. We’ve a very ambitious studio, and a very ambitious audio department. We want to be the best in class. You don’t do that by cutting corners.”

When we visit, staff at Frontier are hard at work on Planet Coaster’s third alpha, which sees the game’s simulation elements – including that remarkable crowd – come online. It’s a significant addition to a game that debuted with modular building of coasters and scenery, then added terrain manipulation in its second alpha. The update also adds what looks set to be a vital component in Planet Coaster’s likely appeal beyond the hardcore coaster-builder crowd: Steam Workshop support. Bolstered by a Frontier-designed frontend that not only brings Valve’s mod-sharing framework in-game but also gives it a much-needed cosmetic overhaul, it adds an element of curation to the game. “From a data management point of view,” Watts says, “Workshop is awesome. From a user experience point of view, it’s too much.” Frontier saves you wading through the overwhelming flood of user-made content by showing you what your friends have been up to.

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While coasters and scenery can be built, part by part, from scratch, Watts and team recognise that not everyone wants, or is able, to do so. So you’ll be able to download some unfathomably intricate work of thrill-ride genius someone has poured dozens of hours into creating, and drop it straight into your park with a few clicks. “I’m not creative at all – I’m a producer for a very good reason,” says – yes – producer Rich Newbold. “I prefer the management stuff; I’m a simulation guy, I like economies, I like managing numbers. I just want to be able to download people’s creativity, put it in my park and then worry about the price of burgers.”

Watts is especially excited about Workshop support. While there is a tremendous amount of innovation going on on the development floor, formal mod support is a truly new thing for a genre in which Watts has operated for a decent chunk of his career; he made expansion packs for RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 and worked on RCT3, too. “Ten years ago, people were sharing parks via email; now we’re fully embracing sharing. I like that because we haven’t done it before – it’s new, fresh, a challenge, the idea is good – but I think a management game is the sum of its parts. Everything we’ve done… all the disciplines working together have created a whole. If the game were to fail it would be because of a weak link that breaks the whole vision, and so far we haven’t encountered that.”

We’ve a very ambitious studio, and a very ambitious audio department. We want to be the best in class. You don’t do that by cutting corners.”

Yet Watts is lucky to have been able to get Planet Coaster off the ground at all. Mc Carthy’s work on the crowd fluid system began in pre-production, where he was given a few months to see if it could be done – a luxury that, were Frontier beholden to a publisher, simply wouldn’t have been possible. “They want something now,” Mc Carthy says, “and they want something that works. You don’t get to experiment.” Dealing with 30,000 alpha backers presents its own headaches, of course, but Watts recognises that were Frontier not now fully independent, Planet Coaster might never have happened. A publisher would see it as a nostalgia play, rather than an opportunity to revisit a beloved genre of yore with 2016-era production values. Instead, working under its own steam, Frontier is able to offer a couple of generations’ worth of progress to a crowd who are still playing RCT3 ten years after its release – while expanding this niche’s appeal to a wider audience than ever. That would be no small feat given that combined sales of the RCT series are in excess of 20 million units, but Watts clearly feels that the stars have aligned. He might just have a point.

“We’ve always wanted to make a proper management simulation again,” he says. “It’s hard to convince some publishers, because it gets too detailed – is there a market for it? Now we’re self-publishing, from a creative point of view it’s our decision. And our mistake, if it is a mistake. But with games like Cities Skylines and Prison Architect, management simulations are back in vogue. We can make the game we’ve always wanted to. Production pipelines and hardware have improved. With the cloud, we can expand upon community. In terms of timing, it’s brilliant. Everything’s seemed to slot into place. It’s a dream come true.”


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This feature originally appeared in Edge issue 298, featuring Dishonored 2. Issue 299, featuring the PlayStation VR, is available now. To try a free two-issue Edge subscription, click here for iOS or here for Google Play Newsstand.