Norfolk Southern Coal District Interview: Setting the Scene

Written by: TrainSim-James

Engine Driver caught up with Colin Ross, an Environmental Artist at Dovetail Games who is part of the team working on our first Norfolk Southern route for Train Simulator.

Click here to read Gary Dolzall’s introduction to the Norfolk Southern Coal District or ‘The Mon’. 

If you have driven GEML: London – Ipswich, the Riviera Line, Pacific Surfliner or the West Somerset Railway, you will already have seen Colin Ross’s work up close and personal – you just didn’t realise it! Colin joined Dovetail Games just over a year ago as an Environmental Artist for Train Simulator, and since then he has created scenic assets for some very popular routes, including those listed above. His latest project is the upcoming Norfolk Southern Coal District, a route with its own challenges and requirements – more on that later.

Colin studied 3D Games Art at the University of Hertfordshire, before spending some time at Sega Europe working on Sega Rally for the PS3 and Xbox 360. After that he moved to Dovetail Games, where his first project was GEML: London – Ipswich. ‘That’s a long route, about 100 miles altogether, and I learned a lot about the value of research. My first job was to recreate Ipswich Station, which had a lot of good feedback from the community. After that I spent some time on a very exciting overseas route project which is still unreleased and not yet announced, so I can’t say any more about that!’

Colin’s first job for Train Simulator was to recreate Ipswich Station on GEML: London – Ipswich.

Colin then worked on the West Somerset Railway, Pacific Surfliner and the Riviera Line. ‘The Riviera Line had a strong emphasis on detail because of the nature of the route, which was good preparation for Norfolk Southern Coal District. I learned how to focus my time so the user will see a detailed environment when they’re running along the street in West Brownsville at 10mph. In West Brownsville, the track is the road. I wanted to recreate it very accurately because the engineer is so close to the buildings. The route needed more highly detailed buildings and lots of ‘clutter’, plus we used decals on the roads.’

West Brownsville church is one of Colin’s creations for the route. Note subtle use of decals to recreate tire marks or oil on the road & sidewalk.

Decals are 2D images, like skins, which can be made to look however the artist wishes and then applied or laid over an existing surface like a wall or road. ‘We made use of the TS2014 decal technology to use decals on the roads to improve realism and add dirt, cracks and seams, drain covers and so on. This breaks up the single road loft texture you would otherwise have.’ Research is key to all of this, and Colin and the team use all facilities available to them, even measuring buildings using Google Earth. Colin also got involved in researching the rolling stock, working out the numbering of Norfolk Southern’s 23,000 coal gondolas including their Top Gons.

Another of Colin’s buildings: this is a disused office/store building near the track.

Buildings created for the route by Colin include the West Brownsville church, office buildings, the Alicia barge loading facility, plus the huge Emerald and Bailey mines, two of the biggest assets ever made for Train Simulator. ‘We have concentrated on the loading process, actually seeing the coal loading into the gondolas and particle effects to simulate dust.

Loading coal at Bailey Mine. It may be a rural setting, but the work is hard and the going is heavy. 

So, what has been Colin’s favourite project so far? ‘The Dawlish area of the Riviera Line, along the coast through the tunnels. I’m very proud of what we achieved as a team. Also I am pleased with the way we have focused on detail with Norfolk Southern Coal District.’ And what would you like to make? ‘Spanish high speed, maybe around Barcelona or Madrid, like Madrid to Barcelona Plaça Espanya station up to the foot of Montserrat Mountain. Or Italy, hmm, there are lots of options!’


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