A Train Game: Prototypical vs Playable

February 15, 2015

Late last year I was playing Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator and, being the sort that likes trains, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there were a collaborative game that simulated running a railroad? So late in December I started writing some Swift code, building the game as a Cocoa app. Here’s what it looks like today:

Here’s some video of it from around the first of this year:

The vision is for several players to operate a railroad together. One or two dispatchers, a few engineers cycling between trains. Switching cars in yards, moving trains up and down the mainline, fulfilling orders from industries. A game could run an hour or two, or perhaps a number of sessions over the course of a few weeks.

It’s come a long way over the past two months. There’s a server that clients can connect to and operate the trains, couple and decouple cars. A basic map editor. It’s a lot, or it feels like a lot to me, but at the same time it still feels very primitive. It’s a prototype, or possibly a toy, but not yet a game.

Motivation can be a curious beast, especially with competing priorities. With the basics in place, feature work becomes less satisfying. It’s time to start playing with making it a game.

At its core this game is a simulation of the operating sessions that some model railroaders conduct in their basement, but without the limitation of space. This makes it possible for maps to be very realistic, modeled on real places.

That realism presents some interesting challenges in terms of presenting the information. This is a fairly simple classification yard and already it’s pretty challenging to take in:

Picture those tracks full of cars and weep. I weep for joy and terror: there’s something very pleasing about vast arrays of parallel tracks, as well as extremely daunting if you are expecting me to make sense of it! At the moment my favored approach to this is to add a toggle-able HUD that color codes cars by their destination.

Here’s another area that needs work. Perfectly clear, right?

From here there will of course be more feature work – such as on those switch track signals – but more importantly I plan to work on the model for the industries and yards so that there is something to accomplish in the game, aside from randomly coupling and decoupling cars.

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