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Ubisoft ‘Steep’ – The Science of Slams

With Ubisoft’s open world mountain video game Steep just about to drop, we’ve been sampling some of the gameplay to see what next-gen console snowboarding is all about…

And as it turns out, when you’re not a competitive gamer, a lot of the early days are spent sending it full pelt over a blind cliff and ragdolling until you come to a full stop… For us at least.

Whether that says of our levels of optimism, we’ll leave it up to you to decide, but one thing’s for certain, for every narrow couloir you safely navigate, there’s a healthy helping, of tomahawks, half-backflips or scorpions to go with – as you may have noticed in our little highlight reel above.

But how did the folks at Ubisoft Annecy go about turning CGI stick figures into flailing humans flipping head over heels? Did they have Xavier De Le Rue don a ping pong ball suit and cartwheel down a hill? We enlisted the help of Creative Director Igor Manceau to help make sense of it all…

As Igor explained, the process is a bit more sciencey than a sci-fi movie set, with in game physics playing a big role:

“For the ragdoll phase of the falling in particular, we used a simulation physics that takes into account the weight of each body part, and you can constrain it to consider that the character is carrying still some energy, or at some points you decide to release that energy, which brings that free fall feeling that you get.”

Hold on to your dentures... Finer details get flossed at Ubisoft's Annecy studio...

So no green screens or lycra then?

“No, we did do motion capture [with the French national team athletes] for the tricks, but the falls themselves are more physics driven.”

Of course, that makes a whole lot more sense in practical terms, and also allows your free-flying character to interact with whatever obstacle they happen to hammer into on their way down. If that’s snow, Steeps water-based physics helped determine how the terrain itself reacts.

“We had a strong physics simulation already working based on water; and snow is kind of water in a different state, so that was the basis of everything in the beginning.”

“If you get too many G’s, you get what we call a ragdoll trigger – like a free physics on the body of the rider”

As you’ll notice in-game, there’s also a pretty clever system for determining how much your character can handle, based on a sort of health bar that deteriorates for every knock you take:

“The aim was that you really feel the weight of the body,” explains Igor. “So we actually calculate the force that you take as a rider over a certain period of time.

When you do get too big a shock, or too many small shocks in a row, you can see a bar on the left of the rider that accumulates and that represents all the G’s that you took while riding. If you get too many G’s, you get what we call a ‘ragdoll trigger’ – like a free physics on the body of the rider, so they actually fall in a realistic way.”

Studio sketching..

In gameplay, this means that you’re not only making sure you avoid big collisions on steep lines, but it actively encourages you to make smooth moves that flow with the terrain – at least if you want to get to the bottom in one piece. Frustrating for the newcomer, but conversely satisfying as you start to learn the subtleties of a particular line, so start getting frendly with the ‘Try Again’ button…

“We had to reduce the realism of the physics to make it feel more realistic, which is kind of weird”

In terms of realism, it acts another aspect to the whole thing, instead of just seeing a gnarly drop to a steep rock strewn landing and thinking its impossible, you’re able to give these things a good go in isolation, and the challenge becomes whether you can carry on riding while that health-bar style G-force indicator recharges.

Number crunching...

No, it’s not how the human body would react in reality, but as Igor states, the premise of the game was to fuse simulation with good gameplay, not just recreate mountain riding pixel for pixel. In fact, by starting out with realistic physics, the creators found that the experience of the simulation was lost somewhat:

“The thing we found out at the beginning was that it was almost too realistic – and when you were playing, you couldn’t feel how steep the game is.

At the places where it’s steepest, you’d keep falling for a very long time, and even though it was in line with what would happen in real life, we just don’t expect the guy to fall that much.

So we had to reduce the realism of the physics to make it feel more realistic, which is kind of weird.”

Maybe somewhere in our slowmo and CGI addled brains our perception of realistic physics is changing, who knows. Either way Steep’s managed to recreate those ouch moments pretty damn effectively if you’re asking us…

Catch more from Igor on the making of Steep here.

Look out for Steep on PS4/Xbox One and PC, out 02/12/2016.

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