From Paris to London in Sixty Minutes

View of the Eiffel Tower just after take-off.

View of the Eiffel Tower just after take-off.

The Grand Zeppelin is an adventure of conspiracy and subterfuge, taking place in the European skies of 1914. As a passenger of a great air ship, you are tasked in uncovering and thwarting the work of saboteurs hell-bent on igniting world war.

Crafting a period piece focused on intrigue and political machination is complicated work. Setting it 300 meters in the sky - that altogether is its own challenge.

My friend and fellow designer Phillip Justman approached me to develop the dynamic, panoramic view for Zeppelin. The plan was to depart the Eiffel Tower in Paris and travel the 470 kilometers to Buckingham Palace in London. These vistas were to be realized in immaculate detail while running on four, 60-inch 4k televisions that served as the port-side window bay. The Great Zeppelin was slated to open Labor Day weekend to take full advantage of the Dragon*Con foot traffic. This gave me a little less than three weeks to complete the project.

From the outset, I knew that rendering was going to be our biggest hurtle to quality. In order to realize believable far-view terrain, which included forests, rivers, mountains, and our two starring cities, many technical tricks had to be employed behind-the-scenes to greatly reduce graphics overhead.

Mobile-friendly rendering techniques were used to generate the 18,850 meters of in-game land traversed along the sixty-minute experience. The land mesh itself extended another 10,000 meters into the horizon to give the impression limitless terrain. The land was split into several chunks to allow the renderer to display only what was on-screen. The benefit of remaining locked in the same rotation for the majority of the experience meant that 2D billboards could be used effectively to render large swaths of forest across the entire landmass. Cloud cover was a single camera-facing quad paired with a highly-optimized shader that approximated volumetric clouds. Real-time volumetrics were used for close-up cloud cover and hanging fog; this effect was the most computationally expensive out all the graphics used in Zeppelin.

The city of Paris and several London landmarks were premade assets purchased from Turbo Squid. These models were several million polys and weren’t necessarily meant for real-time rendering (lower poly alternatives looked unpolished by comparison). For this reason, each needed to be processed in order to run consistently on a GTX 1060 graphics card, which displayed all four screens simultaneously. I brought these assets into blender to split them into pieces, which made occluding unseen buildings easier within Unity3D. In addition, I removed extraneous geometry and ran each through a reduction algorithm that netted a small, but notable performance boost.

The voyage takes a dire turn as spontaneous engine failures, fires, lightning-storms and altitude emergencies plague our adventurers. My favorite of these is the unexpected altitude ascension. The zeppelin loses mass, hurtling skyward. In the distance you see the earth shrink beneath you, as the sky fades from blue to cold, black space. The windows freeze at this altitude and the lack of oxygen threatens to cut the adventure short. This effect and the lightning storm proved to be the most complicated of the many mini-emergencies within the experience. For these effects, I built several particle systems and leveraged a bevvy of plugins from the Unity Asset Store. Orchestrating these in tandem, I was able to craft visually impressive effects in a quarter of the time it would have taken from scratch.

Finally, the arrival in London had to be an epic and fitting finale. Due to time and budget constraints, it was impossible to render the city in the same level of detail as Paris. This turned out to be a relative non-issue, as the sun sets well before arriving on the English shore. The majority of the city was realized in super low-poly buildings shrouded in low-hanging fog and the darkness of night. Emerging from the dense fog, you first see Big Ben as the zeppelin turns toward and lands resolutely in front of Buckingham Palace. The sheer number of buildings, coupled with their light-emitting windows, sells the grandeur and expanse of London as players touch down.

The journey and ensuing emergencies are cued surreptitiously by the in-room actor/game master, from an appropriately themed prop on set. This prop is arduino-based hardware, interfacing with the Unity 3D application via serial connection. This level of control ensures a custom, challenge-appropriate experience for each group.

To start your maiden voyage across the English channel and thwart the onset of World War I, please visit:


Jeremy Ledbetter