It’s all about the details for simulation developer Dovetail
Operating with the motto “By enthusiasts, for enthusiasts,” the company dives into the subtleties and details of topics ranging from fishing to trains in order to create digital hobbies that are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of fans across the globe. These hobbies come in the form of simulation experiences that faithfully recreate real-world situations and immerse players in environments they love to inhabit and explore.
In the midst of explosive studio growth, with the newly-announced Train Sim World 2020 on the horizon and Fishing Sim World: Pro Tour launching, we visited the team at its new headquarters in Chatham where we were able to learn more about its principles and products while discovering the role Unreal Engine plays in bringing them both to life. “At its core, Dovetail Games is about creating experiences for enthusiasts,” said Dovetail Chief Operating Officer Jon Rissik. “We talk about hobby more than we talk about games here. The basis of the company has been train simulation with lots of depth, very advanced physics, and very engaging experiences, but we moved into fishing simulation about five years ago when we first started working with the UE4 engine.”
That initial experience with UE4 went smoothly and ignited ideas about the studio’s future use of the engine. In fact, Dovetail’s experimentation with UE4 on Fishing Sim World paved the way for the team to utilize Unreal on additional projects; specifically Train Sim World. “It did really well and we were really happy with it,” said Senior Artist Jon Stewart. “A lot of us really enjoyed using UE4 as well, so we decided to scale it up and start using that on Train Sim World.”
Making simulation games on any subject isn’t quite like making most experiences you’ll find on the market today. One key distinction is the core user and their attention to detail regarding the subject matter’s real-world counterparts, which may have more impact on a project’s development than one might think. “We have lots of rail drivers and rail operators who play our game,” said Rissik, “so we need to make sure we get it right, because these are the first people to tell us if we don’t get it right.”
Software Engineer William Marshall further explained, “Our players can sometimes tell us what we’ve done wrong just on the basis that the train is acting in a strange way to them. It will turn out that we’ve got some very small value way back down the line wrong and they figured it out for us, and that’s really impressive.”
Ensuring that the details meet player demand requires the team to take on challenges that wouldn’t be possible without access to the engine’s source code. “Our physics simulation is, I think, second to none and built entirely in-house but deeply integrated with Unreal now,” said Marshall. “Source-code access to Unreal has absolutely been a boon for us. There are a number of features in our game that would not have been possible without it. Changing the engine is no bigger a deal than changing our code.”
The flexibility afforded by source-code access has allowed Dovetail to truly realize its vision for train simulation. “Obviously, UE4 does a lot of the heavy lifting for us, but it couldn’t do all of the jobs we needed it to do,” Rissik told us. “Our solution for that was something we call SimuGraph which allows us to accurately model the physics of each of those carriages as they move independently at high speeds across very large terrains.”
Although the staggering level of detail found in Train Sim World is clearly aimed at enthusiasts, Dovetail also hopes that casual players will be attracted to the beautiful worlds and stimulating simulation that their products offer. “Train Sim World is primarily aimed at train fans, but we’re also hoping to get the casual gamer or just people that haven’t ever had that interest, trying to get them in and enjoy it for the beauty that it is,” said 3D Environment Artist Jess Magnus. Of course, that’s not necessarily an easy task as both the environments and the objects they house don’t just need to look real —they need to feel real as well. “It gives you a lot of challenges in the sense that you’re constantly having to think about not just ‘I want to create something that’s really detailed, but actually how would this be in real life,” said Magnus.
While ensuring that the experience is as authentic as their audience demands is a challenge, shipping their project on multiple platforms in order to reach the largest possible audience has been streamlined by the team’s decision to use Unreal. “One of the reasons we chose Unreal Engine was that we wanted to bring [the game] to multiple platforms,” said Senior Producer Matt Peddlesden. “We’re in a state now with our build system that once we’ve got a PC build, we can press buttons and the PlayStation and Xbox builds fall out. Now, that’s not to say there is no additional work to do, but its minor, which is an amazing place to be for being multiplatform.”
Like the railroads and lakes that they recreate, Dovetail is crafting something truly immense that both educates and inspires huge audiences around the world while transporting them to another place. “For me, UE4 is about letting us do the thing that we’re really passionate about,” stated Rissik. “We talk about making real in Unreal at Dovetail games a lot and Unreal Engine has really empowered us to bring that living world to life.“