In the summer of 2020, Ubisoft revealed Riders Republic, an open-world game in which extreme sports fans can explore natural areas and ride alongside their friends and other players. With its colorful art style and party-like vibe, the game preview trailer was an invitation for players to head off the beaten track and forge their own path, on a bike, skis, a snowboard, or in a wingsuit.
“I was really pleased with what we'd made, and really proud of the teams,” explains Agnès Ruiz, project manager on Riders Republic*.* “The challenge was to show something honest and appealing, all while the game was still in production. We broke down everything we wanted to say into three essential messages, focused on joy: The joy of surpassing yourself, the joy of being together, and the joy of discovering rich and extraordinary environments.”
The team also made it a point to highlight their own strong connection with nature in that first announcement.
The Riders Republic Mindset
“It's true that, in Annecy, a large part of the population is passionate about outdoor activities,” Ruiz says. “And you can find that in the studio: we have people who are mad about biking and hiking. I was already an outdoor extreme-sports fan when I started working here. And after Steep, with everything the team learned about environments working on that game, there was a real desire to offer a world that was even more beautiful and interesting to explore.”
The first team to reflect on the project, starting in 2017, was made up of a small group, including World Designer Yann Fieux. “We really wanted to promote the representation of nature and the respect we have for it,” Fieux explains, “as well as our passion for doing outdoor activities with friends.”
After creating their own version of the Alps for Steep, the team sought places that they were interested in exploring for their new project. The American national parks quickly became an obvious choice due to their reputation among outdoor enthusiasts.
“There are so many activities that you can do there, and the parks are all just as massive and breathtaking as the Alps that we know here. And they offer things that you cannot see anywhere else,” says Manfred Neber, lead game designer. “For a team of nature lovers like us, it was a perfect fit.”
The team’s initial idea was that the player, inspired by the well-known images of these parks in popular culture, would have the opportunity to visit several legendary locations in the game.
“While it goes without saying that this is the central message of the game, there is obviously an indirect message from the team, who wanted to evoke not only the beauty of these natural landscapes, but also the need to limit man-made buildings and the exploitation of resources there,” says Alex Caron, level designer on the game. Caron adds that he’d like to follow the example of writer John Muir (1838-1914) and his fight to defend American nature against those who wanted to tame it, and especially the famous sequoias that he refused to see uprooted from the earth.
“As much as we wanted to highlight outdoor sports, we also wanted to shine a light on these places for a generation who may not have discovered them yet,” adds Fieux. “It's an extension of what we see in Annecy; we are lucky to be surrounded by nature, and the game is greatly affected by our desire to raise awareness about this issue.”
Recreating the American Wilderness
Preparatory documentation work on Riders Republic lasted several months. “I spent a lot of time online looking at publications on the national parks,” mentions Fieux. “This helped us to determine, in part, the places that would stand out the most, and that we definitely wanted to have in the game. I also spent loads of time on Google Earth to see where people took 360-degree photos.”
Fieux even had fun using Google Earth to virtually “hike” through the national parks, in an effort to experience the emotions conveyed by these places as much as possible. In 2017, Fieux traveled with a team that included video artists and the art director and went on-location to collect extensive data on the parks. They filmed, took photos, captured sound, collected tourist brochures, visited the towns and surrounding meeting places, and interviewed geologists as well as “shapers” – the people responsible for shaping the ground for sports competitions.
“The team even browsed some dating and social-media apps in these areas to see what life was like for some of the people who spend time there,” says Fieux. “The idea was to truly capture the spirit of these places.” Fieux, for his part, gathered satellite data to establish the geography to a resolution of eight meters, guaranteeing the greatest fidelity possible when producing the map.
The game's team had to choose spaces from across the US that they wanted to translate into the game, which created a new challenge: The team had to offer a world that was diverse but still unified; combine places that are far apart from each other in the real world, at scale; and turn it all into a coherent whole that would be easy to explore and have fun in.
“Let's take the example of Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada,” Caron says. “There are renowned ski slopes, but its shape is not that iconic. So, we tried to reinterpret this area to make it more attractive by placing other interesting elements from the region’s topography on it.”
“We had to ‘pick’ mountains, forests, and canyons to make a patchwork, then sculpt and landscape these places to recreate cliffs or merge plains with one another so that everything seemed logical and natural,” adds Fieux. Once this "macro-geology" was in place, different simulation systems allowed the World Designers to generate snowfall, place the glaciers, and work on erosion and hydrology.
Then it was time to carry out essential work on the “ground.” The Riders Republic team decided to multiply the texture possibilities by offering earth, rock, sand, and just as many ways to explore them by bike, on skis, on a snowboard, or even in a wingsuit.
“The bike's presence implies traveling along different terrains of gravel, mud, trails, snow... It was a completely new terrain vocabulary to implement, and the player had to be able to feel these differences under their wheels or snowboard,” says Fieux.
“In the Riders Republic world, once you reach the bottom of the mountain, your trip isn't over. You can hop on your bike and head off to explore the valley,” adds Neber. “You can still use the fast-travel feature, but this option further encourages exploration and gives even more freedom to players.”
Although the quest for realism remains central to the ambitions of Riders Republic, it is not, strictly speaking, a simulation. It was essential that this world could accommodate players by offering them a fun and original experience. For the world design to be successful, it had to work hand-in-hand with the gameplay.
From the Park to the Playground
“When the World team began working on the game, we started to see the cliffs, the rivers in the valleys, the representations of snow, forests, and trees appear,” says Neber. “At the same time, the Game Design team was already working on the three Cs (camera, character, and controls), and we were able to offer gameplay made for this environment.” According to Neber, from iteration to iteration, the world fed into the game design and vice versa: “Everything evolved together. It’s a very symbiotic process.”
“When we do level design, we build a game space while keeping the gameplay in mind,” says Caron. “And in an open world, as the space is huge, we are assisted by procedural tools to place elements. We consider the makeup of the landscapes to draw the player towards places of interest.” The real challenge of his work is keeping the spirit of a natural area, sometimes strengthening certain topographical features, while adapting it to the game and its requirements (for example, by working on the placement of trees and paths to make it easier for dozens of players to navigate the same space during a mass race.
For the more urban and landscaped areas, like Mammoth City or the snow parks, the team needed to consider several entry points and create an environment that encouraged free movement. Exploring geomorphology – the study of the Earth's contours and how they develop – allowed the team to envision, through iterations and tests, interesting exploration opportunities and racing elements for players. “For example, understanding the composition and evolution of a glacier and its crevasses lets us imagine wingsuit routes, slaloms between icy peaks, or places to jump over cracks,” explains Alex.
As well as adding or moving trees, or increasing relief to create a slope, a reinterpretation phase was also necessary to hone the three Cs. “We didn't want the players to be frustrated by the controls, or for them to have too different an experience from what they can have in real life,” Caron says. “It was important to give the feeling of doing something real and not to give the technical feeling of doing these things for real. Accessibility was vital for us.”
In the same way, the famous hoodoos — crumbly rock columns also called “fairy chimneys” that you find in the south of Utah — have been slightly adjusted to encourage player exploration and trick possibilities. “It was difficult to make hoodoos that were faithful to reality, but on which players could still bike,” Caron continues. “So I reinterpreted them, to allow them to be traversed like a winding road. I'm really pleased I was able to stay faithful to them while ensuring you can have fun on them.”
“As I visited some of these parks in real life, I can say that the game really takes into account the scale and grandeur of the places, as well as offering an experience like I've never seen before,” Neber adds. "As an example, there is an arch in the game that is not a 1:1 copy of the original, but when you come across it, it’s really breathtaking. And you can interact with it! You can do things which seem scary, or which aren’t allowed in real life. Thanks to videogames, even if it is not exactly the same thing as real life, you can interact with these environments in an exciting way.”
Neber smiles as he brings up Angels Landing, a very dangerous trail that he had the opportunity to hike in the "real" Utah. “I can go to Angels Landing in the game, have the same feeling of vertigo, and even hop on my bike to explore it!”
To highlight these spaces just that much more, the team added Landmarks hto indicate iconic places. “For example, we represented General Sherman, which is a giant sequoia and the largest known tree in the world,” continues Caron. “By going there, the player will be able to learn more about its history.” The team endeavored to cultivate the players’ taste for discovery by granting collectible rewards in each of these places. “The information provided in the game is a way of gaining awareness of the magnitude of what you are seeing,” Neber explains. “And it encourages you to play in a new way.”
“There are also relics, places that are somewhat hidden in the world,” adds Ruiz. “For example, the character of Suki, who welcomes the player at the start of their adventure, will encourage them to head off in search of a former gold diggers’ camp. There are rewards for each relic found, and it is another way to encourage exploration.” These gameplay elements are part of the game's lore and its geological and human history. Yet they aren’t the only things that breathe life into the world.
Bringing It to Life
From the start, the team was interested in the different moods created by the game’s day and night cycles. “The canyons at night are nothing like the canyons when the sun hits at noon,” explains Fieux. “The evening crickets are different from the insects in the morning or the coyotes in the afternoon. We have put in place a whole package of visual and sound elements to allow players to experience what it means to be in these places at different moments. We even have a great photo mode letting them choose if they want to have a little rain or even fog.”
The game relies on a multitude of animal species, spread out according to their natural living ecosystem and their daily rhythm of life. “You never know when you will come face to face with a giant bear growling at you, or if you're going to hear a flock of bats over your head,” explains Neber. “It was important to add these natural living beings, but also to ensure they were faithful to the places in which they’re supposed to live in real life.”
“Thanks to recordings in the wilderness and a large bank of sounds, we were able to pay special attention to the animal noises, so that they are completely different during the day and night,” adds Ruiz. “We were also able to create fireflies, pollen, and dust via visual effects. All that helps to make this a living world.”
What's more – and the team insisted on this – the human presence in these environments, especially its social aspect, was given extra attention in order to populate and liven up this gigantic space. Whether it is the Social Hub(the starting point of the Riders Republic adventure), competitions, or meeting spaces like the snow parks, the “social presence” lets a player follow the “tracks” to a given place left by another before them. This is a way of discovering who other players are, how they customize their characters, and where they go to ride and explore.
“Games as a platform are constantly evolving. We hope that Riders Republic will give players the chance to break the ice with each other, get into competitions, and play and dance together, becoming friends,” Neber explains. He then goes on to highlight the importance of meeting areas and the matchmaking system that, on next-gen consoles and dedicated gaming PCs, will allow over 50 people to be on the screen at the same time. Neber also mentions the strength of the natural spaces to meet and get together in a different setting: “It's what nature helps you to do in real life. When you go hiking or biking in these spaces, unlike in cities, there’s an easy sense of camaraderie. And when there's this feeling of community, there's also this desire to protect the space where you are. It gives you a feeling of connection with the place. You are part of the environment.
“I'm not saying we're going to solve anything overnight,” Neber adds, “but I hope that the game will encourage players to nurture their interest for the environment and these extraordinary places.”
Riders Republic is out now on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS5, PS4, Stadia, Amazon Luna, and PC (on the Epic Games Store and the Ubisoft Store), and is included with a Ubisoft+ subscription. For more on Riders Republic, stay tuned to our dedicated news hub.