NOT PIERLESS: The Santa Monica Pier is one of many area landmarks depicted… (Rockstar Games )
For a car racing game set in real-world Southern California, such as this week's new release Midnight Club Los Angeles, the devil is in the details.
"L.A. was to us a very natural fit with car culture," says Jeronimo Barrera, vice president of development for the Rockstar Games title. "It's such an iconic place. Even if you're not from there, you're familiar with the landmarks."
The Chinese Theatre. The Chateau Marmont. The Santa Monica Pier. Los Angeles City Hall.
Barrera and his team sought to re-create these in an effort to give the street racing as accurate an environment as possible yet still keep the action fast.
"You can't do a road-to-road representation -- with the traffic and everything, it would be kind of boring," Barrera says. "So what we've done is made a caricature, which if you're from L.A., you can get around."
Barrera and a team of five flew here from their New York office and met 20 artists and designers from Rockstar's San Diego office (the main developers of the title) scouting and photographing L.A.'s nooks and crannies for "months on end."
"It's an immense amount of work, just on the research alone," Barrera says. After all, "the city is a main character in this, so we paid lots of attention to detail."
Only a handful of video games have been set in real-world L.A., some more successfully than others. Activision's 2003 title True Crime Streets of L.A. used an incredibly accurate map of the city as its layout. Though the game-play was little more than an imitation of Rockstar's hit Grand Theft Auto series, True Crime let gamers drive real streets and see a few real landmarks. Still, parts of the city looked very little like real life.
Other games have used L.A. as an inspiration, such as the fifth installment of the Grand Theft Auto series, GTA San Andreas, released in 2004. Set in the fictional area of San Andreas during the early '90s, the parallels between "real" and "inspired" are clear: The rough neighborhoods of South L.A., the glitz and glamour of Rodeo Drive, the giant compounds of the movie studios and even the Hollywood sign were all represented in one way or another.
So although Midnight Club Los Angeles is not as accurate as it could be in terms of a map (see review), Barrera and his team spent "hundreds and hundreds of man-hours" trying to capture not just the roads of L.A. but, more important, the feel.
"Even though ours isn't street for street, when you're down in Santa Monica somewhere, you go, 'Oh, on that corner there should be a cafe,' " the 35-year-old, Brooklyn-based Barrera says. "We're going to have that cafe."
And it's not just neighborhood buildings. By harnessing the full power of the next generation of gaming systems (something unavailable to the developers of previous L.A.-based games), Barrera and an undisclosed number of developers successfully replicated the city's minor details down to the pavement textures of some streets and the color and design of the street signs in different parts of SoCal.
Speeding down Hollywood Boulevard looks as it should (there's the familiar giant dinosaur at the Highland Avenue intersection). The blue-and-yellow signs of Santa Monica appear as they do in real life (next stop, Ocean Park Boulevard). And billboards appear everywhere touting MCLA's advertisers (the giant iPod billboard at the start of the Sunset Strip looks just as overpowering in the game as it does in real life).
But for each choice of what to include and what to leave out came repercussions: "If you have the Chateau [Marmont], you have to have Miyagi's, which means you have to have the strip club across the street, and you have to have Carney's . . . ," Barrera explains.
This being Los Angeles, traffic was another detail the developers worked into the game; traffic patterns change, depending on the virtual time it is during game-play. "There might be more traffic on certain boulevards at certain times of day, whereas on the freeway there is always traffic," Barrera says.
They also sought to re-create the quality of light here. "L.A. has that magic moment," Barrera says. "When it's sunset or dawn, you get sort of that hazy-orangy look that makes everything look beautiful in L.A. I think we captured that really well."
Barrera's favorite part of his virtual L.A.?
"It's really cool to drive up in the Hollywood Hills, and there's a couple of places to park your car and look over the entire city, and it's pretty awesome."