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The Big Question: Games in Real Life Locations

Posted by: Will Hudson
18/04/17

Video games excel in indulging fantasy, but what problems can recreating a real life location pose?

One of the reasons we love games is that we can do loads of fun things we could never do in reality, and when that game is set in a real place the experience can pack a big punch. When you recognise an environment your feelings, thoughts, even memories of that place are brought in to your gameplay experience and this brings a highly individual type of immersion. Interacting with that location in a new way can be enormous fun and extremely gratifying. So before embarking on a project like this, what challenges do devs face using a real life location?

Jeff Seamster, Audio & Narrative Director at Criterion Games shares his thoughts “The potential challenges of a real life location can be teased out by asking yourself why you've taken on a real life location in the first place. In terms of visuals, there is a potential benefit in working with a previously established and recognisable aesthetic. It may feel like a lot of the artistic work has already been done for you. The challenge is whether your team can capture the visual hallmarks of a given place, especially when working with condensed footprint and stylistic interpretation.

Game developers tend to see play everywhere and some environments present natural opportunity in their layout and flow. In this case, the challenge is pulling together or cleverly distributing the best gameplay elements of your location. That way you don't end up with an amazing pocket of activity surrounded by realistic but otherwise uninspiring content”.

Fact versus fiction 

To recognise the location some key features will play a principle role, but the presentation of known references can be combined with artistic license in more peripheral areas. How far to push this depends on the purpose of that particular location and how stylised the visuals will be. On the one hand a real place provides a convenient starting point and some recognisable features - on the other hand these key features must at least part meet the viewer’s expectation. It’s this recognisability, rather than geometric accuracy that needs to be met. Peter Leonard, Outsource Manager at RealtimeUK points out “If the game context is on the creative side then you can have more artistic freedom, but a reflection of the real life location must still be evident, getting that balance will be the challenge”.

Storage space: Prioritising features

Col Rodgers, Head of Development at Product Madness provides some considerations “For games based on a real location (like ‘The Getaway’ from back in the day) the principle problem one faces is quite simple - the storage required to actually build the environment which is as believable as the real place. For the most part this is done by building key landmarks and having a sliding scale of ‘buildings of interest’. St. Paul’s Cathedral is of maximum importance. A branch of New Look is mid-level importance. A single unit news-agent probably isn’t that important. Landmarks may also be their location on a particular street - corners are far more important than ‘mid street’, so they should be modelled more accurately. Even if they’d normally be of ‘low importance’, they might be elevated to mid-level importance given their corner position”.

Look AND feel

Design is about balance and over-preoccupation with the accuracy of a location could potentially become clinical, or detract from the essence of the game. This is where the painstaking discipline of mapping real-life environments for architectural or informative purposes differs greatly from the creative challenges of making games. Once you’ve achieved recognition, the gameplay and the impact of the environment takes high priority. Peter Leonard, Outsource Manager at Realtime UK believes “whether the context is modern day or historical, when it comes to the authenticity of the environments the look-and-feel development is what’s vitally important to obtain players’ buy-in to the world you’ve created”. In other words, the location is not necessarily the star of the show, it’s the contribution of that world to the experience of the game that really counts. 

When it comes to look and feel, images are only half the equation. It’s logical to dissect and recreate all aspects of a real environment in order to build some of the less tangible elements of that world. However Seamster warns against heavy-handedness “If you wish to capture the spirit or 'vibe' of a real life location, consider the fact that players absorb your games with a limited set of human sensation. The defining characteristics of a place are often combinations of subtlety and nuance that go beyond what we can see and hear. Painting too heavily with those elements can result in caricature while understating them may leave you with a weak approximation of the location you hope to portray”. It’s a fine line. 

Not just reality, augmented reality

Col Rodgers brings another take on the core question “If you’re considering using locations for Augmented Reality (such as Pokémon Go) then you have the following issues:

1)     Difficult to test if it’s supported worldwide

2)     If interesting locations are automatic, then are they all reachable, and all in safe positions?

3)     Is the game likely to appeal to children? If so, are the locations friendly to minors?

4)     What is the plan should mobile signal work? Is there a fall-back?

“This makes development of AR games very difficult when they’re based on GPS. In order to get around this, the positions need to be more ‘approximate’ - for example, using a mechanic akin to a Ghostbusters proton gun where as long as you can see a ghost on the map, you could essentially ‘hoover it up’. Also, the devs would monitor the access to these points of interest as ‘beacons’ and if there was zero interactions with a particular point over a period of time, it could be assumed it was too difficult to reach and therefore an illegitimate position and could therefore be regenerated”.

Checking the legalities

One feature of real-life locations that can be challenging is where references contain commercial imagery. It would be difficult to present a contemporary image of Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London without also including the advertising hoardings and similar references. Sports games often have the same issues and it’s important to check any legal obligations around displaying IP or branded images before incorporating them. This level of pin-point accuracy gives real authenticity for the game, however it can quickly date the context as logos and sponsorship deals move on in an ever-changing commercial environment.  

Embracing your player’s story

Seamster of Criterion surmises that if the ethos, purpose and the vision is clear, designing games in real-life locations can succeed in tapping in to the eye of the beholder “The best advice I can give is to express your location from a single, confident perspective. Every person sees the world through their own lens and lives their own story. Embrace that and many of the problems with real life locations fade away”.
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