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23 Mar 2011
By atheistsw


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TUTORIAL - Step by Step: Creating A Visually Interesting Track

23 Replies 3,278 Views Created 23-03-2011
23 Mar 2011
By atheistsw

So, I've decided to make this tutorial to try and inspire people to think beyond auto-populating their tracks and show just how easy it is to create visually unique tracks with a variety of scenery to keep racers interested. This track was created in about an hour and a half and, while only a simple 30-second circuit, does demonstrate how simple it is to make your tracks stand out by creating different areas within the track so that each section can be memorable to racers (by comparison this tutorial took twice as long to write ;). Also bare in mind this is a pretty rough creation, so it doesn't have my usual meticulous attention to detail and is, by my standards, rather basic, the point was to show newcomers and novices some of the techniques I frequently use in my tracks to try and make them stand out.


Also, this track IS remixable*, so please feel free to download it and open it up in the editor for a closer look. It is called simply TUTORIAL.


* No doubt some unscrupulous so and so's will take advantage of this and download and re-publish as their own track but in this rare instance, I don't actually care. :)


ModNation™ Racers_20.JPG


So, how did we get from a blank canvas to this? Step inside my studio and let me show you... :)


Step 1 - The Track Layout



ModNation™ Racers.JPG


I created the track in about 2 minutes, just randomly driving with the roller, moving up or down a bit and generally being as haphazard with the curvature as possible. For the purposes of this tutorial I just wanted something short and simple, so I didn't put any thought into the layout. Ordinarily however, I draw out a rough track on paper first, then try my best to create that using the steamroller. I usually draw the track straight, rather than to the terrain and try to start at the end of the longest straight bit of track, so that once I've almost finished I can just hit auto-complete to join it up with a long straight piece (useful for say, mega MEGA jumps). Believe it or not, doing this actually gives you more track budget to play with. Strange but true...


I took the above picture after using auto-populate, just to demostrate how bland and uninteresting that feature has made my track. Note how auto-populate only creates scenery for the immediate area beside the track, makes no effort to re-size props and creates absolutely NO blocking effect to try and make the track appear self-contained (more on that a little later). No, if you want to get your tracks noticed then NEVER use the auto-populate feature, experienced racers can always notice and we are rarely impressed. :(


Step 2 - Setting The Scene


In order to make your tracks stand out, it's important to spend the time creating visually different sections of your track, preferably (although not always essentially) with a logical linkage as you go. For example, If you are making a city track then it would make sense to have a harbour area or nice large park to drive in, but dump a bunch of tiki huts in the middle and things can look strange. That said, never be afraid to experiment with your props, particularly mixing themes as this can produced some wonderful results. My personal favourite is the jungle trees and foliage, which can look good in a variety of settings. Also, the Far East theme has some interesting foliage as well as some unique buildings that can slot in nicely to the seaside style. Additionally, Far East and Jungle combined is excellent for creating that overgrown, dense jungle look.


For this tutorial I will show you how to create three distinct areas that can combine to create a cohesive and realistic whole. These will be City, Harbour/Dockside and Mountains.




Anyone that has played a few of my tracks will know how much I love creating urban environments, but what they may not realise is just how easy it is to create a wide variety of cityscapes within your tracks. Here I'm going to turn one section of the track into a towering downtown district.


ModNation™ Racers_1.JPG


I start by selecting a few different buildings from the seaside theme and placing them along the track. Note how I've left a gap so they are not right next to the track, but if you want to create a more claustrophbic feel then position them so they are just overlapping the barriers of your main track. See how I've used the techniques in prob_alex's Advanced Buildings tutorial to create the stacked block of flats on the right? I then used smaller buildings placed around it to reduce the unfortunate side effect of the raised ground emanating from the radius of the building's base. I've placed a few taller buildings behind to try and give the impression of scale and density as well.


ModNation™ Racers_2.JPG


The next step is to take a full-size rectangular block from the alpine theme and sink it into the ground so that only the top is showing to create a paved effect. I then place them in an arc shape so they sit underneath all of the buildings. If you didn't already know, you can dislodge a prop from it's linear position by holding Triangle and pressing the d-pad up or down. This not only allows you to adjust the height of your prop (mid-air or sunken, it's up to you) but also allows you to 'blend' props within one another. I use this technique A LOT with trees and other foliage, which we'll move onto next.


ModNation™ Racers_3.JPG


So the next step is to actually decorate this section, placing trees, foliage, plants and signs to creat that 'lived in' effect'. I tend to work in mathematcical terms when it comes to prop placement, using things like symmetry to determine how things are laid out. That said, there's nothing wrong with randomness, as this adds to the 'naturalistic effect' and is particularly useful when creating more rural areas. In the picture above, note how I've used the 'blend' effect to combine the trees into the buildings so not all of the object is showing. This helps to create variety in what the racers see when they are going round the track. I've finished this section off by placing a couple of telephones, fountains and a large billboard. This section isn't complete, there's more to come, but we'll return here a little later in creation process.




The next section of the track to create is a large harbour with a lake/ocean spanning the horizon. If we were using the seaside theme this effect would be much better, as you get the whole ocean vista to play with, but in the alpine theme your're surrounded by mountains, so the effect is dulled somewhat. Still, when you're racing around you rarely notice the fact that 'ocean' runs into a vast section of mountains! ;)


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To start with I just create a large body of water using the terrain edit then narrow my cursor to bring it inland and create a smaller lake running through the centre of the track. To finish I've changed a couple of the road types to bridges.


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Next up I select the Marina prop from the seaside theme and place a few of them along the edge of the water. These can be dislodged using Triangle and the d-pad, so I place them quite low so they are just peaking above the water. It's always best to place larger objects like this first, then place your buildings and smaller objects around them, as doing it the other way will often cause problems, like not being able to go above a certain size because of the way the game handles hitboxes and objective space population (I just made that term up, but it basically means how many objects of certain sizes can occupy an area of terrain). :D


ModNation™ Racers_6.JPG


Next I add a few boats, a couple of large ferries and some cranes and warehouses. It's now starting to look like a dock area, don't you think?


ModNation™ Racers_7.JPG


Smaller details go next, things like crate piles, floodlights and spotlights for the warehouses and a few trees dotted around, just as a small change from all the drabness the dockworkers have to put up with. ;)


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I've moved over a bit now to concentrate on the lakeside. A few jetties, some boats and a line of trees running parallel to the start/finish straight section. Again, I've sunken those light green trees into the ground so they look like they are lakeside shrubs. As I go along in the process I'll add a few more details, such as additional trucks, a few more trees, some rocks by the edge or more crates. Track making should be an organic process and often I'll find myself adding little things just to enhance the visual appeal of a certain area. One thing I don't like is plain areas, but there's a big difference between plain and sparse. Sometimes, in the right circumstances and settings, sparse can be a good thing as it can actually enhance the effect of your track. At the end of the day, it all depends on the specific theme you are trying to capture with your track, so whereas a city/urban track should have lots of detail and variety, a rural farm track can get away with large sections of very little. However, even if you are doing this, don't be lazy!


Say for example you were creating a bunch of fields for a farm track. Well, don't just use a different ground brush and call it a field. Wrap a stone wall around the edge, add a couple of isolated trees and hedges, maybe a few cows or sheep as well. Likewise with a forest effect, don't use 101 pine trees of the same size. Use 4 or 5 different tree types, adjust the size, the shape, even the height in some cases to make them all seem unique and different. Experiment with overlapping effects and vary the height of the terrain to create a more interesting overall landscape.




Mountains can be an excellent way to 'block' your track, particularly if you are running low on prop budget. There are many different brushes in the 'terrain edit' to create a whole host of mountainous terrain types, but for the purposes of this tutorial I'm using the basic default height brush to create my peaks and troughs.


ModNation™ Racers_10.JPG


I always start with the largest, highest cursor setting first, then work downwards. So, initially I create a random tall mountain all at the same height, then I reduce the radius of my cursor and lower the height slightly and paint around with little prejudice to create the random mountainside effect. Continue with this process until you reach the bottom, then touch up any odd or awkward looking parts to finish. I've decided to run the side of the mountain parallel with the river as this is not only visually interesting but also aids with the blocking effect.



'Blocking' is the term I use to describe closing off your track to make it seem self-contained. Particularly for smaller tracks, a lot of the available area doesn't get used and so this often remains empty on many occasions. This is an ugly effect when racing as you can see large sections of plain nothingness as you drive. :( The techniques shown above can help you to overcome this, as they effectively 'close off' your track and give racers the impression that something else, unseen, lurks beyond. :)


Think of it similar to a movie or TV set. Everything that is necessary to be seen for the scene being shot is visible to the camera, everything else is not. So there may be a ton of cameras, wires, producers and members of the public off-camera, but it's only what is on-camera that is important. So if you make the effort to make what is on-camera (i.e. what can be seen whilst racing on your track) as impressive and interesting as possible, covering any areas where racers may get to see 'off-camera', then you effectively create a 'world' for your track to exist within and the audience (the racers) don't get to see all the ugliness behind the scenes. This is why you can be almost care free with your 'background' scenery, as the side-effects of things such as advanced building stacking are not visible to racers as they are hidden away, unseen.


ModNation™ Racers_11.JPG


Creating your mountain effect is incredible straightforward, just place lots of trees at different heights, a few buildings and, to finish, a couple of wind turbines on top. While racing people are only going to see what's down below in any detail, so make everything higher up as large as possible to minimise potential pop-up issues later on.


ModNation™ Racers_12.JPG


This area has already linked up pretty well with the city section, but I'll concentrate on that a little later. On the other side, I've added more mountains behind this part of the docks, which also creates a rather cool valley effect running alongside the river. Also, a few rocks sunken into the water at different heights always creates a visually appealing effect. Add a couple of sunken hedges or shrubs poking out to complete the effect.


Step 3 - Shortcuts/Alternate Routes


Although not essentail, it's usually a good idea to include at least a couple of alternate routes in your tracks as this provides variety and replay value to your track. There are two ways to create shortcuts. The first is to use the "branches" feature. The problem with this though and why I rarely ever use it, is because this eats into your track budget and I usually use all my track budget on the track itself, with none left over for branches. :( However, if you are making a shorter track this shouldn't be an issue and it's easier for you as well, because you don't have to worry about those pesky breadcrumb paths! Also, as a nice bonus, the AI can drive them perfectly well, which is more than can be said about their abilities negotiating breadcrumb paths!


For the purpose of this tutorial, I'm going to create an alternate route cutting through a park that uses the breadcrumb technique. It's an alternate route, NOT a shortcut, as the distance is roughly the same (perhaps even a touch longer) as the main track, but I'm going to place a couple of orange boost pads on this section and some item pods on the main track to give racers a decision to make each lap.


ModNation™ Racers_13.JPG


I start by creating this 'X' shape using the light dirt. This will be my driveable terrain. Rule of thumb when it comes to terrain types is Light = Fast and "Dark = Slow. This is however void when it comes to any grass types as ALL grass will slow a kart down. I have used 'terrain edit' to raise this area to the same height as my track and have gone into "road types" to remove the barriers covering the entrance and exit to my route. I also used advanced edit to lower the right-side of the main track to allow a smoother transition onto the alt route.


ModNation™ Racers_14.JPG


I've used the metal fence to plot out the path of this route. I've opted to turn sharp left to rejoin the track at the midpoint of the final bends apex. I could have just run it straight ahead, but not only would this have been ridiculously easy but it would have also been severely unbalanced as it would have given racers a big advantage and would have cut the final corner completely.


ModNation™ Racers_15.JPG


Fences don't look particularly visually appealing, so I've covered them with hedges from the alpine theme instead. The reason I put the fences there initially was so that they provided a barrier to prevent racers going off track as, had I just put the hedges down straight away, racers could have flown straight through them as they are not solid objects. I've added more trees, a statue behind and some all-important chevrons to aid speeding racers. I'll add the orange boosts pads later on, it's usually one of the last things I do in my tracks and this will prove no exception. ;)


ModNation™ Racers_16.JPG



We now have a pretty cohesive track, but there's a section of green nothingness here alongside the start/finish line, so I create a small apartment complex, set some more blocks down underneath as paving and add a few trees and things to complete the effect. At this point you can drive around the entirely of the track and not see any 'empty' space as you go. :D


Step 4 - The Finishing Touches


Ground Cover


Using ground cover can help to add life to your track. Try and decide which sections of your track should have it and which should not, as well as how dense the coverage should be. Here I've made it quite dense as this section is running alongside a lake so it's supposed to be fairly rural and natural looking. I've gone around with the ground cover brush and used the different effects at different sections of the track, approriate to the area they reside within.


ModNation™ Racers_17.JPG



It's also a good idea to use different terrain brushes to help differentiate the sections of your track. I've used dark dirt for the outskirts of the docklands and grass for all the rest. On a larger track I'd probably be using 4 or 5 different terrain brushes throughout the track. Again, choose them appropriate to the surroundings and if you're planning to drive on them then use the 'light' varieties instead.




Never under-estimate the importance of chevrons to aid newcomers on your track. Just because you've tested the track to death and know every bump, camber change and shortcut like the back of your hand doesn't mean everyone else does! One of the key reasons for downvoting on tracks is because people get lost or confused, so make sure to use plenty of visual cues to aid them on their way. For the main track chevrons are the suggested method, place them on the edge of corners and try and make them big enough so they can be seen as racers are approaching the turn, NOT when they are right on top of it!


ModNation™ Racers_18.JPG


When it comes to shortcuts and alternate routes more subtle visual aids can be employed. Some of my favourite methods include concealing part of the entrance with foliage, tunnel or underpass effects and stacked objects for racers to smash through. Of course, you could just use triggerable barriers and or blockers, it's entirely up to you, just try and make them somewhat noticeable, otherwise they'll end up going to waste!


Step 5 - Race Objects


Practically the final thing I do on my tracks is place all of the race objects, such as pads and item pods. There is no real 'right' way to do this, it's all down to the individual creator, but it is a good idea to make item pods a frequent feature of your track, I'd say about every 8-10 seconds of race time should provide the opportunity to yield one, but every racer has their own opinions on this matter. As for boost pads, I tend to put green pads on the racing line path of the track, red boost pads are used sparingly, say after a jump that lands you at a slight angle to try and get you going the right way again quickly. Orange boost pads give racers 25% extra boost, so I usually place these on alternate routes or shortcuts. Sometimes I'll give racers a choice in the same place, so there may be a green pad next to an orange or a boost pad with item pods either side. These kind of choices play into the whole 'risk vs reward' idea, so try and think in these terms while placing your items. A fun technique is to place item pods close to unprotected edges, forcing players to take a real risk in trying to retrieve them, but ending is disaster if they get it wrong! :D


ModNation™ Racers_19.JPG


It's also worth pointing out that how and where you place these items is hugely dependent upon the shape and style of your track. One with a lot of drifting opportunities can afford to have less orange boost pads and more weapons as racers have much more opportunity to gain much needed shield juice to protect against them. Conversely, a track with little boosting opportunity should either have less item pods or more orange boost pads to allow racers to deal with the inpending barrage of missiles effectively. Finally, any prolonged straight section should have a combination of green and orange boosts pads spread about rather liberally, as straight road driving can be rather tedious, just ask a travelling salesman!


At the end of the day though, it's all about finding a balance, which is why it's vitally important to thoroughly test your track before publishing. Make sure the track drives smoothly and all jumps and deviations from the main route work smoothly and as they should. Ensure breadcrumb paths are wide enough to accomodate the less co-ordinated racers out there and don't give you any 'illegal shortcut' messages. If possible get others to drive your track beforehand, this a great way of getting vital feedback and often they will spot things you didn't, simply because you've gotten too used to your handiwork. Also, eliminate any random kinks in your track that send you off the edge unexpectedly or crashing into things. These are a surefire way to ruin the raceability and flow of your track and are so easy to remove. Simply start your cursor on the start/finish line then use the 'quick edit' then 'continuous edit > banking' and move along the entire track back to the start once more. This will remove the irritating banking artefacts the game creates in your track layout by default and ensure a much smoother ride for everyone. :) It's best to do this at the start of your process, start as you mean to go on!


Final Steps


Once your track has been tested, dissected, torn up and put back together again and you are finally satisfied that it's the best it can possibly be then what then? Well, first off, you'll want to take some pictures to show off its unrelenting beauty. Go into the 'Preview' mode within the track editor and move around until you get something in frame that shows off a cool or interesting section of the track then press R1 to take a snap. I like to create little walkthrough posts on here so I'll take pictures of all the main sections of my track, plus the shortcuts, a few showcasing a unique visual element and a couple of wider shots showing the track as a whole (like the one below), just so I have plenty of choice when I'm putting the promo together. For the less obsessive among you though, about 5 or 6 pics should suffice. :)


Finally, choose a suitably appealing thumbnail image by pressing L1 to take your snapshot. It's worth bearing in mind that when taking the thumbnail image the game reverts to a 4:3 aspect ratio, so things on the left and right of your screen will get cutoff. To get a good thumbnail can take a bit of patience as you move your camera around to get that "perfect" snapshot to sell your track. Because that's what you're doing, your thumbnail is how 90% of people will decide whether or not your track is worthy of a download so if it's a topdown, default birds-eye view then many (myself included) won't bother. But, if you take the time to get a nice, visually appealing thumbnail then you stand a far greater chance of people taking a chance on downloading your track. Also, choose an interesting, catchy name for your track, use approriate capitalization (not essential, just a personal preference) and write a little description to further sell your track to anyone who's ventured as far as the creation screen to find out more. Don't just write generic stuff like "fun track", "in the jungle" etc, try and create a snazzy paragraph that sums up your track and what racers can expect from it. It's all part of the sales process and, like it or not, if you don't do well at this part then you're unlikely to reach a mass audienc in-game.


It's also a good idea to advertise your stuff as much as possible. Take those pictures you took, pop them on a USB stick (they're found in the 'Photo's' section on your XMB, in a folder titled 'Modnation Racers') and stick up a thread on these forums to promote your work. Who knows, you may even be selected for hotlap or the 'spotlight track of the week' over on the Modnation Monday Blog. :) I'd also recommend joining as this is another outlet where your creativity can be viewed and is a good community of MNR players to boot.


Finally, DON'T resort to D4D, no matter how tempting it may be. If your creations are good enough then you'll reach the "hallowed" level 30 sooner or later and when you finally get that silly trophy and have the number 30 sitting next to your mod in the raceroom it'll be a whole lot sweeter knowing you did it the right way.


You'll get a whole lot more respect as well. ;)


ModNation™ Racers_20.JPG


So there we have it, a visually interesting track created in far less time than it took to create this tutorial! ;)


I really hope you guys find this a useful and inspirational tool on your quest to create better and more unique tracks in the future. If you have any questions at all about the track creation process then please feel free to post them and I'll do my utmost to try and answer them for you. :)


See you on the track!






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