Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics

Unreal Engine is just the ticket for management sim RAILGRADE

Should humanity get its act together long enough to colonize other planets, we’re going to need infrastructure to transport resources. That’s the premise behind RAILGRADE, a new sci-fi railway management sim developed by Japan-based studio Minakata Dynamics

You play the role of an administrator working on behalf of the Nakatani Chemicals corporation. Your mission: to restore industrial production following a disastrous collapse of the planet’s infrastructure.

This railway management simulation game is about much more than hauling coal and laying track, however. While RAILGRADE retains the construction and logistical mechanics beloved by fans of the management sim genre, almost everything else about the title turns the genre on its head. 

From its unique setting for a train game (not turn-of-century-mid-western), to its strong focus on story, this is a game looking to push the canon further. Combined with an artwork pipeline funded partly via an Epic MegaGrant, the result is a game that’s at once highly engrossing and visually stunning. 

A new take on the management sim 

In the management sim genre’s heyday of the early 90s, games like Theme Park and RollerCoaster Tycoon taught a whole generation of kids everything from money management to how the stock market works. 

As the popularity of consoles skyrocketed, the market for these PC-first titles steadily shrank, but the games retained a loyal and discerning core fanbase. 

Today, there are a number of game development studios looking to revive the genre. The most innovative of these are not simply looking to rehash the old formula—they’re asking intriguing questions like, where could these games have evolved to if their popularity hadn’t waned? What new elements can be brought in to give the genre a new lease of life?

Minakata Dynamics is one such studio. Daniel Dressler is the founder of Minakata, heading up the team of seven full-time staff or contractors who have developed RAILGRADE over the past three years.

Coming into the project, Dressler was well aware of the need to bring something different to the management sim genre. “We wanted to explore verticality in gameplay; high-fidelity graphics to make the world diorama-like; player-driven industry building; and five climates for variety—arctic, savanna, desert, boreal, and temperate,” he says. “And we also wanted to be the first tycoon/train game with an engaging story campaign.”
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics
Management simulations have their roots way back in the 60s, when Mabel Addis, the first female videogame designer, created The Sumerian Game, a text-based early mainframe game based on the ancient Sumerian city-state of Lagash. 

Since then, the genre has split into several sub-genres including city building games like Caesar, colony management games like Dwarf Fortress, life-simulation games like The Sims, and more others. 

As a railway-themed management sim, RAILGRADE is focused on the construction of intricate railway networks and use of trains to connect vital industries with the resources they require. To be successful, players must efficiently manage inputs and outputs to optimize production, and create streamlined supply chains using multi-level tracks and a variety of unique railway engines.
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics
It might feel like niche subject matter, but Minakata has taken pains to ensure the game is accessible to all, train buff or not. “RAILGRADE has the depth of the factory automation genre, with the approachability of a toy train set,” explains Dressler.  

“We want players to see the trains and feel an affinity, then get caught up in the engaging gameplay. I expect people who remember playing with trains as kids to be our core player base, but I have confidence that the desire to craft creations of your own making is universal.”

To boost that universal appeal, it doesn’t hurt that you can do a bunch of cool things in the game beyond the basics of building and managing an intricate network of interconnected railway routes. “Players can ride trains,” says Dressler. “Players can build towering eight-plus high bridges. Players can stake stations on top of each other. They can launch rockets using parts they assembled from the ground.”
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics
Holding everything together is the story. “Tycoon or city builders games are historically a PC sandbox,” says Dressler. “Players put together mechanical toys in a box, throw in disasters, get bored, and move on.” 

In contrast, the team at Minakata spent a good deal of time and effort developing the narrative for RAILGRADE. A well-defined goal—to fix the planet’s broken economy—and a roadmap that sees you progress region by region elevates the experience beyond merely building an intricate system of railways. “Story gives structure to justify what you are doing on the planet,” says Dressler. “And that makes the world feel alive.”
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics

Unreal Engine for simulation video games

It’s not everyday we see Unreal Engine being used to create management sim games. For Dressler however, it was a no-brainer. “Unreal is the right fit for every game, short of targeting the Famicom,” he says. 

Elaborating, Dressler reveals that one Unreal Engine feature alone saved the studio almost half a year of an artist’s development time. “Everything Unreal offers is first class,” he says. “We used no middleware besides what Unreal provided. To call out a single feature: the Auto LOD Generation system. We used LODs to optimize our high-poly industry assets at view distances. Without Unreal's Auto LOD system, we'd have needed to spend an extra six months of artist time to hand-create LODs.”

The Automatic LOD Generation system enables you to automatically reduce the polygon count of your static meshes. It works by rendering a different LOD (level of detail) depending on the distance of your mesh from the camera viewpoint. This is vital for rendering images at the most efficient LOD level, reducing image rendering time and device energy usage.
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics
For those looking at developing a management sim game, Dressler specifically points to the advantages of the delegate/event driven gameplay loop in Unreal Engine. “In other engines, a game like ours would typically run into performance problems caused by excessive code running on tick/update,” he explains. “That is because other engines encourage an on update/polling approach to game code.” 

With Unreal Engine, the gameplay programmer is encouraged to work on a delegate or event-based control flow. “This vastly reduces CPU load, and kills off the all-too-common order-of-update issues often experienced in non-Unreal projects,” continues Dressler. “We had one, and only one, order-of-update issue in all of RAILGRADE's development. And yes, that order of update happened from one of our few systems running logic on tick.”

Minakata used several of Unreal Engine’s core systems to produce RAILGRADE. The team leveraged the Landscape tool to create the immersive outdoor terrain pieces that comprise the planet’s overworld. 
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics
Render targets—the functionality that tells Unreal Engine where to render specific objects and effects—were used to bake in the game’s in-editor icons. The team used procedural meshes and runtime static mesh generation for optimized geometry generation.

They integrated a system for tracking and logging player progress using the Achievements Interface—one of the many free resources available to game developers via Epic Online Services

The team also found support in the Unreal Developer Network (UDN), Epic Games' premium support resource where dedicated Epic Games staff answer questions. “UDN was super helpful during debugging our on-console compute shaders,” says Dressler. “Having direct access to the Unreal engineers who implemented the systems we needed help with was 110% valuable.”

To create the soundscape for the game, Minakata leveraged Quartz, Unreal Engine's audio subsystem. “Many Japanese studios insist, and SFX artists prefer, one of the two dominant audio middleware,” says Dressler. “A key technical goal for us on this project was to use zero external dependencies. We succeeded: we don’t use any non-Unreal middleware. This made our console porting faster, cheaper, and less stressful—with less development risk.”

The team also used Quixel Megascans for environment textures and props. Megascans is the world’s largest and fastest growing 3D scans library, packed full of photorealistic 3D scanned tileable surfaces, textures, vegetation, imperfections, atlases, decals and more. For the Minakata team, access to these high-quality ready-to-use assets enabled their artists to focus on hard-surface modeling rather than spending swathes of time perfecting textures and background items.
Image courtesy of Minakata Dynamics
Last but not least, Dressler calls out Unreal Engine’s performance profiler system as an unsung hero of game development. The engine comes with a number of profiling tools that enable you to see where the heavy lifting is being done by the CPU and GPU—and then optimize the content or code to achieve the required performance. “Unreal's performance profiler system was vital to balancing performance and visuals,” says Dressler. “It is a true strength of Unreal that I think is under-appreciated. Unreal Engine knows what each pass is doing and gives direct visualization of that data better than any other engine.”

PC has traditionally been the primary platform for the management sim, but in keeping with the studio’s ethos of turning the genre on its head, Minakata are launching RAILGRADE both on PC and Nintendo Switch. “We developed from the start targeting the Switch and PC simultaneously,” explains Dressler. 
“The tycoon genre's focus on PC-only is a byproduct of development cycles, not a conscious decision. So we figured if we design with console in mind, the resulting game will play smoother and flow smoother than our competitors who port to console only as an afterthought.”

Epic MegaGrant support for game projects 

Minakata applied for an Epic MegaGrant early on, and the funding arrived at just the right moment. “The MegaGrant was an incredible help,” says Dressler. “With the extra money, we were able to afford a lot more art. Overnight, it tripled our achievable scope. It came during the most critical portion of development: early. The extra scope made RAILGRADE look better to players and publishers, while the validation of being recognized by Epic gave us a foot to stand on when negotiating with publishers.” 

Dressler goes on to say that it's common to count up all the funding sources after release and thus underestimate the importance of early funding. “Funding like MegaGrants goes an extra mile because it arrives when you need money the most,” he says. 

If you want to find out more about RAILGRADE, you can visit the website. The game will be available to play as of September 29, 2022!

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