08th September 2023

Track Chat: Circuits and Environments

Following on from our conversation with Head of Studio Dom Duhan, we navigated our way around the virtual Studio 397 corridors to find Art Lead Alex Sawczuk, who is heading up the Track Build Team for Le Mans Ultimate. When talking to Alex, you could really get a sense of passion and excitement for the release. After all, he has sim racing and gaming in the blood. Along with five years at the studio and 14+ years working in the sim racing industry under his belt, Alex has been enjoying racing games since his first gaming experience, way back on the 1996 Network Q Rally Championship on PC, before moving through various other racing titles until eventually being introduced to the original rFactor and then finding his way into making virtual race tracks as his day job! Le Mans Ultimate will be full circle for Alex as his first job at Studio 397 was to work on the original Circuit de la Sarthe release for rFactor 2 – now fast forward to 2023, he heads up the track development for Le Mans Ultimate and assists the Car Developers too with various Technical Art developments.

Without further ado, lets catch-up with Alex and hear about the work on the FIA WEC circuits for Le Mans Ultimate. Before that though, fun fact – Loch Drummond – a legendary, fictitious circuit for rFactor 2 was originally sketched out on a pad during a boring University lecture as a mod track for the original rFactor. Something tells us, this will be an interesting chat!

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Alex, Le Mans Ultimate. We have some new circuits to build. The page is blank – how do we begin?

The first job is to collate all the reference material, which includes photographs from reference trips and the internet, satellite imagery and with a bit of luck the holy grail of a Point Cloud. The Point Cloud really helps simplify the build as we have this constant source of truth to compare to, no longer do designers estimate the sizes of objects, or try to figure out if Google Earth elevation changes are accurate or whether you can approximate the angles or camber of roads.

However, we still have to process that Point Cloud, by trimming it down to something more manageable, and from that create reference meshes to work with. The further away from the middle of the Point Cloud the noisier the data becomes, making it a challenge to work out what objects might be – as they might be hidden or obscured. For Portimão we had one Point Cloud from a car going around the circuit and another from a drone to give us lots of detail.

After that, we can get going with the terrain and then we work out an initial ribbon of road – wrapping each development to the Point Cloud as we go. Then you build kerbs, run off areas etc and that comes together quite quickly. Following that, it’s a case of creating and conforming to the terrain – things like the road lines, barriers etc.

Regarding the Prop art (buildings, infrastructure self-contained with that circuit), we typically assign people on to the larger, key assets first, such as pit buildings, grandstands and any other detailed prominent buildings before moving onto the smaller assets – getting more defined the closer we get to finishing.

How many people work on a track to bring it to Le Mans Ultimate?

In the team we have 10 track artists in total. We split the team up into different areas depending on skill set to make sure each is contributing the most they can to the project – normally environment and prop areas. The team can focus on one area, and that way we have a consistent approach and look across all our circuits. For Portimão one of our new circuits, about eight people have had their hands on the project. About four artists are on props and then another four on the environment related development which includes terrain, walls, road lines, track branding, trees, barriers etc.

What level of detail are you striving for with Le Mans Ultimate?

We visited Portimão circuit in April during the FIA WEC round to take lots of reference photos for the cars but also the track. One of the team walked the track, taking continual photographic references. We were able to visit the major buildings and take extra reference photos of them too. This means we end up with things that you might not see on ordinary photographers’ shots, such as how rubber builds up on kerbs, variation on the grass throughout the circuit, details on buildings that no one else would ever think to take a picture of. Additionally, this reference will pick up things which are beyond the reach of the Point Cloud. All this adds up to help us produce the highest quality and immersive environment.

We strive to put as much detail as we can into our tracks to capture the atmosphere of the real-life counterpart, ensuring we have the best quality assets both in terms of the buildings and the terrain and whatever changes it has – including accurate asphalt, curb and grass variation, barrier details, tree species and much more. FIA WEC is a global series, so we will have a greater variety of national flags – 21 to be precise at Le Mans – making the scene more dynamic. You are going to have to find them all!

What things will the player notice?

On Le Mans Ultimate we have worked hard to make lots of subtle improvements to the graphics as we aim for a natural feel, and we have added lots of little details in various areas across the board. The way light reflects off surfaces should feel more natural now, and that goes for a sunny day and an overcast day. We’ve improved our wet weather effects and given night ambience one of the strongest elements of endurance racing – a big advancement.

Each circuit offers different challenges, not only for the driver but the build team. Portimão has sprawling terrain, with hills and countryside and the feel and look of the track will be quite unique, with this southern European venue, things are quite dry and arid although the round was in April.

If we take Portimão again, the big thing we want drivers to feel is the sudden elevation changes as that is something the circuit is really known for – you can’t really tell sometimes from TV or photos, but it can be sudden and extreme in places. This will be one of the first times there has been a laser scanned version of the track in a racing title – so we think it will give a real immersive, accurate experience.

Is that any different to previous titles from the studio?

The main thing for us is to have a standardisation across all the circuits. As they all form part of the World Endurance Championship, we wanted to bring them all to the same standard. Some of the newer circuits the studio have built recently are to a very high level with details not seen in other games. Bringing some of our older circuits up to that level, freshening them up and adding new additions has been very important.

We have a few tracks which were built for rFactor2… are these carried across or are there improvements to those?

We have some of the circuits already which is a big help, all of them however require varying degrees of improvement to attain the levels we want to set out for Le Mans Ultimate.  Additionally, there were various developments that we needed to add since we first visited some of these tracks. At Le Mans for example we have redone the Armco to bring it up to quality, similarly the pit lane building has been redone from scratch, new bridges added, extensive work on refreshing some of the buildings which were looking tired, and a lot of work has gone on into the Maison Blanche area for example where new buildings have been made in real life.

Spa has been done to a new Point Cloud with a terrain overhaul and the addition of new props like the new grandstand at Eau Rouge and at Sebring for example, we are adding in the WEC pitlane on the back straight as IMSA used the Start/Finish straight pits during the March event.

Feedback from real drivers? What do they say?

Feedback from professional drivers is crucial to us delivering on the accuracy needed for Le Mans Ultimate. We always listen and want to hear more feedback, as we want everything to be as accurate as possible. Even to the smallest of details. Tom Dillman gave us some feedback on some of the new curbs at Le Mans, how they are constructed, the feel as you go over them and way the car behaves when interacting with the kerb.

Matt Campbell tried an early version of the game at Le Mans and said there was a good step forward already and the lighting looks great – especially at night – getting that tunnel vision and then noticing the distraction lights from marshal posts or glints from other lights really brings things into focus.

What challenges have you faced with the new circuits?

The biggest thing with any newbuild is keeping the team focused and on target as we have deadlines to hit with each circuit. We want incredible circuits, but we can’t get too carried away in the absolute minor details that nobody will see – so we want to keep optimal quality and meet the deadlines, there is always the temptation to refine and refine. We are artists after all!

We have to balance everything in the timeline. We have to make the terrain look good, corners feel right, elevation as accurate as possible and how the lighting should be on the terrain at different times of day. The grass at Portimão is very different to other tracks for example – so there is always a challenge to find inventive ways on shaders to get the colour right. Same can be said for rock faces and exposed fresh ground at Spa which we have also just done.

Graphically it is all about the specular and the way light reflects on things. This is the most important thing, and if you don’t have that – the scene looks a bit flat. Asphalt is an incredibly interesting and complex surface and how it behaves in different light, heat and weather conditions and getting those transitions is also a very tricky job.

What have you enjoyed working on?

It’s hard to take the blinkers off as we are full steam ahead on finishing everything – so I have not had much time to think about that. I suppose it is nice to see the progress on all the circuits as we move them all forward and helping to give the other artists the tools they need to do the best job possible and push their skill set further. I have enjoyed supporting the car team as well to bring little details to the new cars. But that’s for another update

How do you feel about your work so far? Bet you can’t wait to see it go public?

We have made big steps forward across the board and it’s all coming together. I like to step back and watch cars drive around the tracks and see how light bounces off them, terrain, the trees as they come in and out of shadows, the dynamics of everything interacting with each other in the scene.

I hope people can see the improvements on previous games and the refinements being made. We are all motorsport, sim racing and gaming fans at heart and we are incredibly passionate about producing the best simulation experience possible and hope people appreciate the work being put in by all the team as we strive to make this a strong push forward on our previous work.

We thank Alex for taking time out of his busy schedule. We can’t wait to see the circuits! You can follow all the latest Le Mans Ultimate news not only on the website here, but across out social media channels @LeMansUltimate

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