Friday, September 30, 2005

Does It Make Sense?

"How did it get that way?" is a question I often asked myself while growing up. One area in particular - the entrance from New York's East Side Drive in Manhattan onto the Triboro Bridge - always made me puzzle. This particular stretch in a tight urban setting, is particularly tortured, involving a left-side exit, steep uphill ramp, sharp right turn and merge with fast traffic curling in from the left. We drove through this nightmare every summer Sunday afternoon on our way to Jones's Beach on Long Island back in the late 1940s.

In school, meanwhile, we were learning about the early settlers arriving in the new world, sailing up the Hudson River, and eventually buying Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for $24 worth of trinkets and beads. The transformation of untouched nature to modern-day New York City in my mind took a bit of imagination. Later, as an architect, I could understand the process by which changes occurred, especially the compromises that must have taken place in the planning and building of the Triboro Bridge.

The same kind of thinking infuses my efforts at designing train simulation routes. My conscience, like a bird perched on my left shulder, whispers in my ear: "Does it make sense, Matey?"

Most of us, unless we are building a route to match the prototype, do as the model railroaders do - at least those who are challenged by space limitations: lay the track and then form the scenery ("existing conditions" in the architect's language). We then do our best to make the existing conditions appear to have been there all along, providing a challenge for the railroad's builders and a formative influence on its final configuration. This is truly reverse engineering, even if not exactly what the term usually infers.

When planning our railroad, we also think in terms of traffic: what are we going to haul and why? Again we are forced to think about how things are really done and try to carry that over into our design.

Interestingly, an entire class of simulators - the strategy-based games, many named Tycoon - come at things from the opposite direction. They begin with existing conditions and ask you, the game player, to construct and operate a transport system that makes sense: economic sense, determined by how successfully you satisfy the needs and desires of your patrons. You have to please your customers and your board of directors, or be fired - GAME OVER!!!

The instruction manual for some of these games - RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is a particularly good example - read like a class you would expect to hear in architectural school, except our teachers preferred to let us figure out such things on our own. You read such warnings that your patrons, while coming to the amusement park primarily to enjoy the rides, will have other expectations once they get there. These include food vendors and comfort stations. Where you place them bears some thought. Do you really want to place a food vendor next to a thrill ride where patrons are apt to get sick? You may also want to think about organizing things to advantage, such as using a gentle ride on a waterway to give patrons a good overview of the amusement park. The same kind of thinking applies to building a transport system. Factories and industries will draw more traffic than seaside resorts. Newer, faster, more attractive and reliable vehicles will attract more patrons than aging clunkers; and so on.

If you're tired of reverse engineering your sims, why not take a break and work in the normal direction by using a strategy-based sim?


Thursday, September 15, 2005

September issue of Virtual Railroader is ready

You can get the September issue of Virtual Railroader at - it's free with NO strings. We've got 61 train sims listed in the issue.