Image courtesy of Gameloft Brisbane

Gameloft talks successfully modernizing The Oregon Trail for a new era

Jimmy Thang and Mat Paget
The original The Oregon Trail is a pivotal classic. For numerous generations, it has been a fixture in schools, serving as an iconic educational game. The franchise’s long-running roots carry on strong decades later, with Gameloft Brisbane carrying the mantle with the popular and critically-praised 2021 mobile release of the same name. 

But how does one modernize and keep a game engaging over three decades later? Gameloft Brisbane believes that staying authentic, giving the player choice, and making it as replayable as possible are key—and with the suite of Unreal Engine's tools and coupled with their in-house talent, the team was able to successfully achieve their goals. 

"We basically tried to look at it as if we were making it for the first time," explains Senior Designer Rowan Ryder. "[But] following the same guideline as that 1985 version." Gameloft Brisbane took that classic and modernized it in multiple ways. The most apparent is in the new game's art style, which incorporates pixel-art characters into 3D worlds. Gameloft specifically designed the two disparate types of art to work well together, juxtaposing the detailed pixel art with 3D environments. Unreal's Landscaping and Mesh Painting helped the teamwork quickly and efficiently.
"Being able to work in engine like I could with Unreal was really important," said Senior 3D Artist Hannah Crosby. "And, also, all of the natural environment landscaping tools that Unreal has really sped up the process because we had a really small art team for creating the environments.”  She added, "Speed was everything, and Unreal's foliage tools, all of their Mesh Painting tools, were really important for creating a very fast pipeline for creating a lot of content quickly."

Another important new element is the studio's dedication to historical authenticity. This includes the art team researching the types of terrain actually found in Oregon and replicating the true foliage that populated the region at that time. It was also important for the developer to include more accurate indigenous representation in the game.
"We noticed in the original there wasn't a lot of Native American representation," noted Art Director Liz Ballantyne. "It's funny, the original developer on Reddit, he actually called it out as well and said if there was one thing he could add back into it, it would be to tell more of those stories."

Bringing the whole project together was made possible with Unreal Engine's Blueprints. They allowed the team to quickly test ideas, bring them into reality, and iterate quickly.

"I think we have just shy of 400 events in The Oregon Trail," Ryder said. "We wouldn't have even half that with any kind of lesser system."

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