Modern commercial airports are complicated, to say the least. Nevertheless, according to the creators of two new simulation games, this makes them an interesting nut to crack, both from a developer and gamer perspective.
“They’re kind of like small ecosystems in themselves and there are a lot of complex aspects to it that you as a traveller can perceive but not directly see,” says Olof Kindblad, a developer at Apoapsis Studios and one of the creators of 2D management sim Airport CEO. “It’s a massive task to develop a game that tries to accurately at least depict some aspects of it, and that kind of challenge was super interesting about this project.”
Both Airport CEO and SimAirport, a similar but distinct title from indie game-maker LVGameDev, give players the chance to helm their own virtual airport. This covers everything from constructing terminals to keeping airlines and passengers happy, with an overall goal of making the most profitable aviation hub possible.
Players’ priorities in the games are in many ways aligned with real-life airports. But just how closely can a simulation reflect current trends in the sector?
Path to success
SimAirport and Airport CEO rely on deeply simulated systems to power aircraft, passengers, employees and even baggage handling systems. In both games, the pixelated passengers are all individual entities, with artificial intelligence informing their behaviours.
The upshot is that a successful in-game airport will largely share traits of the best real-life airports. For example, creating an effective layout can make or break operations. This not only means considering the length of taxiways and your airport’s proximity to public transport and pickup zones, but also reducing bottlenecks and ensuring passengers can move swiftly through security.
“In SimAirport, it’s absolutely critical to create an airport layout that is efficient, keeps staff in the right areas at the right times, has ample services for passengers in the correct areas, and has well-thought out roadways to allow passengers and staff able to move about at all times,” says LVGameDev CEO and SimAirport co-creator Arthur D.
“Equally important is throughput; if you’re only clearing 20 passengers and crew through security every hour, then you’re clearly going to have a substantially lower ceiling until those issues are uncovered and addressed.”
Key to both games is establishing relationships with external parties, whether it’s hiring a contractor to help build the next big expansion, or making deals with airlines to create revenue.
“We’re looking at how a CEO can work with big companies, contractors and lenders,” says Kindblad. “We have some ideas on how to improve that into sort of a negotiation with airlines, but right now it’s quite basic.”
The need to develop new technologies and processes is also vital for the would-be airport manager. SimAirport features a research tool that allows players to invest in upgrades for their airports, such as standby gates to reduce the number of cancelled or delayed flights.
Apoapsis Studios is working on its own research system that will allow players to implement technologies such as self-service check-in machines, which are being more and more widely used at real-life airports to speed up operations.
“We are trying to look at how to follow the current technology trends, but also play around with a bit of humour and talk about stuff like artificial intelligence and automation,” says Kindblad.
Keeping it real
A great deal of research has gone into making Airport CEO as authentic as possible.
“People actually reached out to us – pilots, cabin crew, ramp workers, even some management in some airports – to offer their expertise,” says developer Fredrik Lindahl, who claims Airport CEO stemmed from his love for the now-aged Airport Tycoon series.
Though Airport CEO sports cute visuals, Apoapsis Studios prefers the term ‘soft realism’ for its aesthetic. In particular, the game’s developers wanted to ensure vehicle models bear close resemblance to their real-life counterparts.
“One guy from Copenhagen spoke to us about how the baggage handling part works, and even sent us a few drawings of what their setup looks like,” says Kindblad. “We’ve tried to replicate that, together with looking at other airports and their set-ups.”
Meanwhile, Arthur D consulted air traffic controllers, airport managers and even individuals that run simulations for airport design companies to bring SimAirport closer to reality.
“Many of the systems in SimAirport have required various levels of research – from understanding how the equivalent systems work in real life, to looking at reports of airline earnings and executive compensation to help us achieve balance,” he says.
In the future, SimAirport is set to include new features related to revenue generation and government influences, based on suggestions from the manager of a medium-sized airport.
“Two key concepts that came directly from his input were related to the high proportion of revenues that he sees via passenger parking and government grants – both of which we hope to see reflected in SimAirport’s gameplay in 2018,” says Arthur D.
The difficulties of simulating airports
Both developers express that certain aspects of modern airports are harder to replicate. This may be because they are too difficult to implement or because the more accurately they are simulated, the less conducive they are to a game experience.
Arthur D relates that baggage and conveyor systems in the initial version of SimAirport were denounced as ‘rudimentary’ by players. But when the systems were made substantially more realistic, they felt that the changes had made them too frustrating.
“The reality is that the sheer volume of interconnected systems at play in an airport setting is so numerous that it can be difficult to get any single one right without tilting the balance too strongly in any one direction,” says Arthur D.
Feedback has therefore been vital for improving the airport sims. Both are currently on general release as Early Access titles, meaning they are still technically in development. Nevertheless, the games have already accrued staunch online communities. Kindblad claims this has been fantastic for nailing finer details, such as the sound effects applied to aircraft. It’s also led them to consider incorporating elements from airports around the world.
“For example we have a lot of requests on separating arrival and departure [zones], which is not done in every airport but very common in the US,” says Lindahl.
One of the main focuses for Apoapsis Studios will be improving the game’s user interface, so that players are able to track relevant data about their airports more easily.
“We are collecting and looking at certain changes so that we can simulate heat maps in relation to where passengers walk the most, which businesses are profitable and which parts of your terminal are not as visited as others,” says Kindblad.
Building an accurate but playable simulation of an airport is an evolutionary process, with modern airports being such a complex beast. Nevertheless, it’s one that those in the industry clearly believe is worth supporting.
“Not only are we honoured by the fact that people enjoy the game enough to work at the airport all day, and then come home and play SimAirport at night, but we’re also thrilled to receive their suggestions and ideas first hand,” says Arthur D.