Game Design Deep Dive: Creating a new language for Planet Coaster
Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Check out earlier installments, including creating the striking pixel animations of Crawl, achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions, and creating the intricate level design of Dishonored 2's Clockwork Mansion.
Who - James Stant, Senior Audio Designer at Frontier Developments
My name is James Stant and I’m a Senior Audio Designer at Frontier Developments in Cambridge, UK. I attained my BA(Hons) and MA degrees in Music Composition from Coventry University before embarking upon a career in game audio.
Primarily working as a sound designer, I joined Frontier in 2013 and have contributed to titles like Zoo Tycoon, ScreamRide and Elite Dangerous. Most recently I have been working on Planet Coaster, an original IP that continues Frontier’s substantial body of work on coaster park games, such as the multi-million-selling 2004 game Rollercoaster Tycoon 3. Planet Coaster has established itself as the company’s second major self-published franchise alongside Elite Dangerous. I looked after many crowd/staff-related aspects of the game’s audio and was responsible for conducting the vast majority of spoken word recording sessions.
What - Planco, a language to call their own
Our coaster park management game Planet Coaster tasks the player with building and managing the park of their dreams. Guests are enticed by attractions placed in the park and staff must be hired to serve/entertain those visiting the park. The player must maintain the happiness of the guests and staff by responding to their needs.
Players must keep shop vendors motivated, well paid and well trained in order to maintain their happiness. Contented vendors welcome guests with spirited Planco, but once dissatisfied, their greetings quickly turn to grunts.
All guests and staff members communicate with each other using Planco, a language that has been conceived and realized specifically for this game.
Planco utilizes English grammar and alphabet characters and effectively adopts a word-for-word replacement system. New words are typically created using one of three approaches: word association, onomatopoeia or bearing a similarity to an existing language (or a combination of any of these). The Planco glossary currently contains over 7,000 unique words and continues to grow on a daily basis.
The fourth installation in our series of development diaries focuses on the sound of Planet Coaster, including the background, creation and role of Planco
The coasters and rides may be regarded by some as the primary stars of Planet Coaster, but the happiness of the guests/staff in the park is paramount. In the words of Frontier’s CCO Jonny Watts: ”Not only are guests the audio and visual soul of the park, they are the lifeblood of our one-to-one simulation.” The more your guests enjoy themselves, the more money they will spend and the longer they will stay, so the better chance the player has of succeeding. By instilling personality and emotion within these individuals, we had the opportunity to highlight the correlation between guest happiness and park profitability.
From the early stages of development, guest readability was identified as a priority. We wanted players to be able to look at a guest or staff member and quickly gauge their happiness without browsing through multiple menus and/or bodies of text. Thanks to Frontier’s world-class animation team led by Nick Rodgersguest expressions and gesticulations made their mood relatable at a glance, in turn tasking audio with the challenge of complementing their work.
Planco would not only give a voice to visiting guests, but to members of staff, a park radio DJ, ride announcers, singing animatronics and many more.
Choices, Choices, Choices
One of the first (and most favored) suggestions was that of a genuine, learnable language, but it was also one of the first rejected. We anticipated that it would require years of work and the expertise of a creative linguistics specialist.
We toyed with the idea of a completely gibberish language, allowing VO talents to improvise freely with whatever sounds graced their mouths. Although it had the potential to be wildly expressive, it became apparent that such an approach would lack coherence and believability. We also wanted to be able to vet all spoken words, so that we did not risk voicing sounds that were either unintentionally obscene or undesirably distracting to idle ears.
Our next experiment was to compile a toolkit of select sounds/phonemes and improvise with these. This established a greater sense of consistency, but ultimately felt limited and unconvincing. It was a very intriguing effect, perhaps best described as sounding like a film/TV dream sequence where a character can see mouths moving but all they hear is ‘blah blah blah’.
While we continued to trial new ideas, the appeal of a fully-fledged language lingered overhead. I had no formal further education in any aspect of linguistics, other than rudimentary schooling of French and German (and a little holiday Spanish). But I did have the influence of EA’s The Sims franchise and its use of a bespoke language, Simlish, a feature that had inspired my 12-year old child self as I poured countless hours into the original Maxis title. I’d been left inspired and awestruck by the realization that people had gone to such effort of crafting a language specifically for a game and this ambition resonated with me as we continued to search fora solution that not only satisfied but exceeded expectations.
The notion of a custom language did however fit beautifully with the Frontier company ethos imparted by Head of Audio Jim Croft and Project Lead Audio Designer Matthew Florianz. Entrusted with control, we are granted a considerable degree of ownership and freedom to explore avenues of innovation.
Where to Begin?
Beginning with only a blank slate, knowing where to start can be intimidating. One aspect that eased this process was that we were creating a contemporary language for humans. Not for an alien race from across the galaxy and not for a prehistoric tribe centuries ago, but for modern day people. It is often advised; “stick to what you know best” and for me, that was English. I knew that I wanted translation to be simple; like the levels of simplicity made possible in an age of Google Translate, but without the uncertainty of grammatical mishaps. Using English grammar/alphabet characters offered a familiar foundation to start with, with the appeal of being able to substitute a sentence word by word. Throughout I kept newcomer accessibility in mind, whether that be for the developers or for the players. I have always been very happy to retain ownership and direction of Planco, but if it ever became necessary to impart creative responsibility to others, having an established ‘ruleset’ would be a strong starting point.
VO lines were typically printed in a three-column format for the actors; English provided the context and phrasing, while the Planco and Pronunciation columns provided them with the translated phrases in both written and deconstructed formats
Look Who’s Talking
With structure defined, I next began to outline the sonic aesthetic to be pursued. At its most fundamental level, I wanted it to have two characteristics that each represented contrasting levels of guest happiness. When guests are happy, their language can sound smooth and spritely, yet as they become unhappy, their lexicon is characterized by heavier and harsher staccato sounds. The intention was that as conversations layer together, happy crowds gel together to remain unassuming, while unhappy crowds attract the attention of the player with piercing and penetrative sounds. As we began to prototype sentences with this in mind, words with positive connotations such as ‘happy’ (wippi) and ‘candy’ (zingi), contrasted from those with negative connotations like ‘hard’ (ock) and ‘sick’ (grerk), giving weight to the credibility of the language.
The concept was not completely free of problems. In pursuit of a smooth, soft sound to represent contented guests, I increasingly began to use sibilance as I felt it complemented the creative criteria. However, as a sound designer editing these VO lines, I found myself frequenting my de-esser to minimize the hiss that would manifest itself within such sibilant content. This did not become a huge deterrent, but did prompt me early on to consider recording practicality while expanding the glossary.
With this in mind, I did begin to rely more upon long monophthongs (more drawn out vowel sounds), as these would typically encourage a legato delivery that I struggled to achieve with consonants. These vowels possessed a beautifully fluid nature to them, always feeling as though they were leading onto another syllable or word; they became the adhesive that helped me glue my words together.
This, however, did not act as a magic wand that would miraculously gel any and every letter together. Care had to be taken with consonant sounds such as plosives, where sudden releases of air can result in a popping sound and tainted recordings can prove quite difficult to clean. These sounds were mainly reserved for onomatopoeic words such as ‘boom’ (plohm) and ‘explode’ (bozampa), which tended to be inessential when penning the everyday conversations for guests to speak.
With the help of Senior Localization Manager Tamara Tirjak, a dictionary of core words was compiled, functioning as an aid for those looking to translate to/from Planco.
Recording in 3, 2, 1...
Once the glossary began to take shape, dialogue lines could be written and proof-of-concept recordings could begin. I adopted the role of writer for these lines, as I wanted to ensure variation of sentence pacing, structure, inflections, tone and length. We didn’t want 50 variants of closed, uninviting statements along the lines of; “I’m so pleased to be here”, “I’m having a great time,” etc. Instead we sought back-and-forth interactions between family/friend groups who arrive and explore the park together, with a varied sense of tone and dynamism.
For the initial tests, VO talents were given scripts and asked to read the translations with very little demonstration given on my part. Readings were inevitably stunted and hesitant as the actors processed the written foreign language while focusing on pronunciation intricacies. It was only when I started working with more bi-lingual talents that I appreciated the value of fluidity at the expense of accuracy. They generally possessed greater confidence speaking in a language that was not their own and tended to have a more casual demeanor to their delivery. These recordings would sit much more naturally in the mix of the game and be regarded as more authentic, even if the interpretability was perhaps a little questionable.
The 1.3 Summer Update introduced video and image billboards, allowing players to place display screens in their park. Included were a number of videos advertising the in-game brands, with each one bearing a unique Planco slogan.
Let It Flow
I then set about establishing a workflow that would make fluent Planco more achievable for all talents and for many the answer lay in mimicry and repetition. I would often read the full sentence and encourage the talents to repeat after me. Breaking down sentences into single or paired words and then incrementally piecing them back together meant that familiarity and confidence started to grow.
Not all Planco words combined together seamlessly. Occasionally we would find ourselves dealing with instances of glottal stop (where by airflow is obstructed and two syllables/words become disjointed) and we needed to be suppress these if we were to pursue fluidity. In other instances, we would contemplate the introduction of contractions in order to cut out syllables that were acting as hindrances. These were measures we were taking to imitate the treatment of language in modern discourse, but it was also indicative of a more overarching rule; you must have confidence to break the rules you set, for it is these bolder strokes that help you paint a stronger picture.
In It Together
Perhaps unconventionally for VO recording, I sat in the live room with the voice talents during recordings, rather than behind the glass of the control booth. This is something I did from the outset, as I wanted readings to feel conversational and reactive. I also wanted the talents to feel comfortable asking any questions, which is inevitable when working with a truly foreign language. We would work in a treated booth with dialogue that typically did not constantly require the gain to be ridden, so as long as you have the ability to sit still and remain silent during takes, then this way of working is definitely feasible.
In-house voice over sessions were sometimes carried out slightly unconventionally, sacrificing formality for functionality, favoring back-and-forth communication in a highly iterative process.
Spoken word opened many doors for us; guests were now engaging in conversation together, children on the carousel would call out for their parent’s attention and a DJ would host the radio station that pipes through the park shop speakers. However it was the music that was one of the most liberating components, as it truly helped us to ground the in-game branding and theming. Maybe some of this diegetic music would have sufficed without such detailing, but it breathes so much life and personality into the world that we would not want to do without it now.
Lead Audio Designer Michael Maidment composed a delightful sea shanty for the Whirly Rig, a gentle pirate-themed family ride with alternating barrel and octopus-styled cabins. To this I added rhyming Planco lyrics that would tell a contrasting story for each rotation direction. Head of Audio Jim Croft and Senior Audio Designer Jamie Lewis also collaborated on a sophisticated 1940s big band jingle for the in-game brand Hat’s Fantastic. An accomplished composition in its original form, it was further authenticated by the sublime performance of the three-part vocal trio The Bombshell Belles and its lyrical translation to Planco, the latter being a seamless process made possible by the established prefixing and suffixing system that ensured all rhyming and melodic integrity was retained.
Track to the Future
For the launch Planet Coaster, we shipped with text localization into five languages (English, French German, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese) with the intention of adding more post-release (including Korean, Japanese, Simplified and Traditional Chinese). Rather than mapping Planet Coaster to the languages of individual territories, our substitute language unifies players to experience Planet Coaster as a place where the inhabitants have their own lives, their own needs and their own language. This is entirely in line with the unique art-style devised by art directors John Laws and Matthew Preece.
Like Elite Dangerous, it has always been intended that Planet Coaster would receive substantial post-release support, adding various new features to the core game to enrich the gaming experience. More than six months after the full release of Planet Coaster, Planco continues to evolve and has fully cemented itself as a viable alternative to localized audio.The 1.2 Spring Update, for example, saw the introduction of the Security Guard, a swaggering staff member who exudes personality and has the authority to reprimand any vandals and pickpockets sabotaging the player’s park. With such expressive gesticulations and varied mouth shapes, he was a character begging to be infused with personality. As just one of the many new additions contained in 1.2, once we had one performance set we were happy with, we were able to shift our attention to another feature that required our focus instead of preparing, casting, directing and implementing comparable performances across seven other languages.
The official Planet Coaster website is available to read in several different languages, including Planco. Visit www.planetcoaster.com/ and navigate to the base of the page to choose your language.
Planco was nurtured from being a comprehensive audio solution to a fully-fledged game feature that stands tall in its own rights. The core values it holds are rooted in aural aesthetic rather than linguistic formalities, functioning as a further form of feedback in an interactive medium. Its creation and recording methods may draw criticism from purists, but for an ever-evolving product that is so artistically rich and exhibits such an abundance of character, Planco was the perfect complement to the originality of Planet Coaster.
With thanks to: Jim Croft (Head of Audio), Matthew Florianz (Project Lead Audio Designer), Michael Maidment (Lead Audio Designer), Jon Ashby (Audio Programmer) and Tamara Tirjak (Senior Localization Manager)