TWMX All Access: Video Game Track Construction With Stephane Roncada

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Last May, between heats at the THQ World Supercross GP in Las Vegas, the collected masses caught their first sneak peek of MX Unleashed on the giant screen. For those of you who haven’t heard, MXU is new game being developed by Rainbow Studios (the same people who built ATV Offroad Fury 1 and 2) for the Playstation 2 and Xbox consoles. Judging by the buzz from the crowd afterwards, they were as impressed as we were with the look of the game. Of course, to that point, there had been very few MX racing games that actually give you the feel of riding. Motocross Madness (and Motocross Madness 2) was close, but they were only available for PC gamers. There was also the ATV Offroad Fury series, which was probably the closest to a real riding experience, but the idea of riding a quad vs. an MX bike was hard for some riders to swallow.

Since rumors of the game first cropped up a year or so ago, we’d periodically checked in with Stephane Roncada to see what was new, and to find out how things were progressing. In the past he’d designed tracks for MCM2, as well as both the ATV-series games. At this year’s Phoenix Supercross, Stephane relayed that he’d been over visiting Rainbow Studios (which is based in Phoenix), and they’d been busy perfecting how a bike would whip over a jump.

While the release date for MX Unleashed is still a ways off (currently scheduled for January 15th, 2004…so save those holiday gift certificates), we were curious how Stephane had gotten started designing tracks, and what it took to make it happen. So we hooked up a time to meet at his house in Menifee, and after tuning a tape recorder to a frequency that works best for recording the sounds of fast-talking Frenchmen, we stared over his shoulders while he sat at his computer and showed us some of the tracks that he was working on for MX Unleashed.

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Of course, the first question was about how he got started on designing tracks. “About four years ago, I saw a video game for PC called Motocross Madness. Back then, all the motocross and supercross games on consoles like Playstation sucked. So when I saw the previews of Motocross Madness, it looked pretty cool.”

“At the time I didn’t know anything about computers, and I had to get a computer for it, because I didn’t have one. So I started with a laptop, got Motocross Madness and it was amazing for a motocross game.”

“About a year later, a friend of mine told me that you could build tracks for the game yourself, and I was really excited about that until he told me the process that what went into it. For a while I kind of forgot about it. But then I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to try it.’ So I hooked up with some people on the Internet, and became friends with them. Basically, they taught me how to do the tracks. I’d be on the phone with them for hours and hours, and they’d have to deal with me for hours and hours. They were really cool to help me out.”

“Those friends took me to E3, which is one of the biggest video game shows in the world. While we were there, we met the team behind Motocross Madness. I hooked up with them, and since I was a professional rider, they thought it would be a good idea to for me to make tracks for the and that’s how I got started.”

Judging from the room set aside for gaming, Ronron’s computer knowledge has come a long way during the last four years. There were three computers set up in there, as well as his gaming station, complete with a TV, and a monster-sized PS2 Developer’s console. What kind of software does he use to create tracks? “Photoshop, and 3D Studio Max. Those are the two I use the most, but I also know how to use video software and web site software.” How did he learn it? Just like on his bike. Seat time. Lots and lots of seat time.

Where Stephane’s expertise really shines is when it comes to making terrain that looks like something you’d really ride, whether on an outdoor track, or a supercross track. For MX Unleashed, he created 12 outdoor tracks, and 17 supercross tracks. He says outdoor tracks take him about 10 hours to create, though he might take two to three additional days to tune the jumps and ruts.

For someone unaccustomed to seeing how a track is designed, watching over Stephane’s shoulder was an interesting experience. A track is made up of many different Photoshop layers, with layers for the various textures, whether for different colors of dirt, or vegetation. Where things really happen, though, is on the displacement map, which is a grayscale layer that the 3D software uses to interpret the track’s elevation. Solid black parts of the map are the lowest elevation points, while lighter shades of gray are taller.

Once exported to the 3D software, the tracks really come to life. In Photoshop, the tracks look flat, but in the 3D program the textures and displacement map come together, so that all the elevations can be seen, and the track can be rotated and viewed from all angles.

Stephane showed us an example of a finished track and modified the displacement map to instantly turn a small roller jump into a huge peaked monster once it was exported it back to the 3D software for viewing.

He then showed off a track on his PC that he built from scratch for Motocross Madness 2 called Castaway. Based on an island, the track ran through a rumbling volcano, along a beach, and in front of a waterfall. He was quick to note that they weren’t able to use some of the features (like lots of water) in the new MX Unleashed, because the requirements it placed on the PS2 were too great. Then he exported a track to his PS2, and played it using a pre-production version of MX Unleashed. Watching the two platforms back-to-back, the difference in the bike physics was amazing. There isn’t an MX racing game that compares to MX Unleashed.

It’s based on the ATV Offroad Fury game engine, but radically hopped up to more accurately reflect a two-wheeled experience. Watching Stephane at the controller was interesting, because he was using them much like he would while racing, clutching it out of corners and when landing from jumps. Braking was sort of contextual. When in a corner, it would work as more of a rear brake, so he could brake slide in. Pushing forward while hitting the brakes on a straight, it would nose wheelie.

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Taking over the controller from Stephane, the game was amazingly easy to pick up…especially when Stephane threw in some tips, like leaning back through the corners. The visuals were awesome, and it was great to play a game that fun without the guilt and shame of the additional set of wheels.

What else will MX Unleashed include? Steph rattled off a laundry list of features. “With just a few exceptions, it will have the top 10 125cc and 250cc riders, lots of licensed gear, 21 outdoor tracks, plus a hidden one, and 24 supercross tracks. It’ll also have a large freestyle career, and lots of stuff to unlock. It will have two sets of physics. The regular game will have a bike that’s pretty easy to ride, and when you beat it 100%, you get the pro physics, which is way harder to ride. It’ll be a very long game to finish.”

“The tuf blocks move, so if you hit them on the edge of the track, you won’t always crash. You’ll be able to fly a plane in the game, drive a buggy, and a Baja truck.”

The ATV series had sold over three million copies, and while MX Unleashed won’t get the same kind of promotion because it’s not a Sony game, they expect good word of mouth to drive sales.

Wondering aloud, I asked Stephane how much of the work on the games was for fun, and how much is it a money-maker for him? “Right now? With my move to the 125cc class, it’s a 70-percent money-maker. I’m glad I have this work on the side. It will also be what I do after I’m done with racing.”

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He was also happy to emphatically add, “Nobody can make a better motocross game than we can. They can try, but they won’t do it.”

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It’ll be a very long game to finish.”

“The tuf blocks move, so if you hit them on the edge of the track, you won’t always crash. You’ll be able to fly a plane in the game, drive a buggy, and a Baja truck.”

The ATV series had sold over three million copies, and while MX Unleashed won’t get the same kind of promotion because it’s not a Sony game, they expect good word of mouth to drive sales.

Wondering aloud, I asked Stephane how much of the work on the games was for fun, and how much is it a money-maker for him? “Right now? With my move to the 125cc class, it’s a 70-percent money-maker. I’m glad I have this work on the side. It will also be what I do after I’m done with racing.”

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He was also happy to emphatically add, “Nobody can make a better motocross game than we can. They can try, but they won’t do it.”

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