16 September 2020

Skyrim Map in the Style of RuneScape

When encountering a new world for the first time, few things fuel the imagination quite like a map. A map can also be one of the biggest sources of nostalgia when looking back at a world that was once very familiar. My most recent geeky project has been to take the map from the video game Skyrim and translate it into a more retro style, re-imagining it in the style of another video game, RuneScape:

Map of Skyrim in style of RuneScape
Skyrim map in the style of RuneScape (full-size version)

For those curious to know more, the rest of this post will describe the process of making the map in a little more detail. After a bit of background on the two games which motivated it, I'll say a little bit about three aspects which brought interesting challenges: the scale, the terrain, and the icons on top.


Two games, two worlds 

(You can almost certainly skip this section if you're familiar with RuneScape and Skyrim - and if you're here from Reddit or Twitter, you almost certainly will be)

RuneScape was originally released by British developer Jagex in 2001. The distinctive world map style I was seeking to emulate first appeared in 2004, and is still used in the game'Old School fork:

Excerpt from official RuneScape map, showing Taverley, Burthorpe and Falador
Excerpt from official RuneScape world map

Skyrim, the fifth title in The Elder Scrolls series, was released by American developer Bethesda Game Studios in 2011. Each game in the series is set in a different region of the fantasy continent of Tamriel; the fifth game is set in the cold northern province of Skyrim, heavily influenced by Norse mythology.

Skyrim's official world map

The two games have a lot in common. Both games are set in fantasy worlds with wizards, elves and dragons. The player takes the role of an adventurer who goes on quests, defeats monsters and hones their skills at combat and crafting. Both titles had an impact which lasted long after their original release: they are still played, they are still talked about and they continue to spawn memes.

Why choose Skyrim and RuneScape for a cartographical crossover? Skyrim is one of the best-selling role-playing games of all time, making the eponymous province one of the most famous video game worlds ever crafted. RuneScape's retro, pixellated map evokes a lot of nostalgia for those (like me) who spent a lot of their childhoods using it. The wealth of resources available for map-making fans means the style is not too tricky to replicate (despite my limited artistic skill).


Scale

Almost all video games distort scale. A city might have thousands of inhabitants according to the story, but creating all of them would be a significant waste of resources if only a dozen are relevant to the player.

The challenge with translating Skyrim to RuneScape's style is that the two games treat scale very differently. Skyrim, from a story perspective, is meant to be the size of a real-world country, but in-game the world is about 37 square kilometres in size. The world of RuneScape spans several kingdoms (also meant to be country-sized), but is compressed in-game to an area less than five square kilometres.

Skyrim, where "major city" means twenty buildings 

The two games also differ in what they emphasise. In RuneScape, cities and towns are inflated relative to their surroundings. In the oldest areas, they take up about a third of the map. Skyrim, by contrast, has much larger areas of open wilderness. I think this is in part because RuneScape is a multiplayer game with an emphasis on player interaction, while Skyrim is single-player; another reason could be RuneScape's slightly greater emphasis on non-combat skills (which exist in Skyrim but play a smaller role).

All of this means that drawing Skyrim in RuneScape's style would not simply be a case of tracing over one map with the colour palette of the other. Although the map might look like Skyrim, it would not feel at all like RuneScape.

Instead, my plan was to enlarge cities and shrink the surrounding wilderness, just like RuneScape does. The first thing I did was try to figure out how I could do this while still representing Skyrim as closely as possible.

Skyrim's features mapped onto a grid
My original plan for the map

The resulting scale is a compromise: roughly 15% of the map is covered by towns and cities, less than RuneScape but much more than Skyrim. It did mean that occasionally a location from Skyrim had to be cut for space, but I always tried to prioritise keeping the most iconic places. Sorry, Narzulbur.

Aligning Skyrim to a grid helped to make the map seem more RuneScape-like in another, more subtle way. RuneScape's map is made out of "chunks" about 200 by 200 pixels in size; each chunk is loaded separately in-game and often has a unique background music track. Towns and terrain features are typically designed to line up with these chunks, which can make continents look quite "square". Planning Skyrim's map in terms of these chunks gives the world a similar rectangular feel, even if it's something people might only notice subconsciously.

"Chunk" grid overlaid on Skyrim map


Terrain

Terrain in a RuneScape-style map has two ingredients. The base layer, representing grass, dirt, sand or snow, blends between different colours, while mountains and bodies of water are shown as solid colours with sharp boundaries.

Again, the process of making the map reveals a difference in emphasis between Skyrim and RuneScape. In particular, Skyrim loves mountains, using them not only as sites for adventure but also to create natural barriers between different regions. Unlike RuneScape's world surrounded by ocean, Skyrim is bordered on three sides by mountain ranges.

The southwest corner of the map posed a conundrum: in Skyrim, this area is blocked off to the player and a lot of it is left blank.

Excerpt from the UESP Skyrim map, showing the featureless southwest corner

I considered covering the area in shadow or sticking the map key there, but in the end I opted to fill in the terrain as minimally as possible, so that the area wouldn't be distractingly busy or distractingly empty.


Icons

If a map style is a language, the icons speak most clearly. Sure, the text labels might tell you what a place is called, but the icons tell you why they matter.

RuneScape uses map icons extensively, identifying resources (e.g. fish or ore), facilities (e.g. a furnace or an anvil), non-player characters offering services (e.g. a shop or transportation) or starting points for an adventure (e.g. a quest or a dungeon).

Examples of map icons in RuneScape: general store, flour mill, quest, dungeon

In many cases, such as those pictured above, the icons used in RuneScape fit very naturally in Skyrim. In other cases the games don't match as neatly. In particular, one of the most important services for players in RuneScape is the bank, where players can store their gold and items. These don't exist in Skyrim, so RuneScape's iconic dollar-sign bank icon is nowhere to be seen.

Conversely, many of Skyrim's features lack an exact analogue among RuneScape's icons but are still the kind of thing you would want to indicate on a map. Most importantly, dragons play a key role in Skyrim's story and their lairs are landmarks in their own right. A new icon marking the presence of a dragon, based on the icon used in Skyrim, seemed like an obvious inclusion.

Skyrim's icon for dragon lairs, and my RuneScape-style interpretation


"You're finally awake ..."

Whether it's words or worlds, no translation can ever be exact. I am conscious that some of the decisions which went into this map might be controversial, especially when figuring out how heavily to draw from RuneScape and how heavily to draw from Skyrim. Nevertheless, I hope that the map manages to capture the setting of one world, the character of another, and the nostalgia of both.

27 May 2020

London's Unbuilt Monorail

Monorail systems once looked like the most futuristic form of public transport. Today, their reputation isn't quite as bright, but in the 1960s there were plans to bring an elaborate monorail network to the centre of London.

London's Unbuilt Monorail (click to enlarge)

The scheme, proposed by architect Brian Waters and endorsed by the Conservative Opposition at the Greater London Council, would have involved four loops of track elevated above London, alleviating congestion on the streets below.

The map above imagines how the network might appear in the style of a modern-day Tube map. It's worth emphasising that although we know the routes that the four loops would have taken, the exact number and position of the stations is largely speculation. Given that the monorail network was intended as a substitute for the bus network, it's likely that the stops would have been spaced more closely together than stations on the London Underground. This means that the map probably underestimates the number of stations on each loop.

For more information about the proposals, check out this article by IanVisits, or grab a copy of the original proposals.

30 June 2019

Cutting the Cost of Crossrail 2

Six months after its planned opening date, we still aren't sure exactly when Crossrail 1 will begin carrying passengers under central London. The fate of its sequel, Crossrail 2, hangs in the balance, although it has recently won some enthusiasm from the UK's probable next Prime Minister.

Crossrail 2 would be a new underground rail connection between the southwest and the northeast of London, following much of the same design philosophy as the east-west Crossrail 1. In 2015 a consultation was launched describing a proposed route, and in 2018 an Independent Affordability Review was established with the stated aim of guaranteeing the project's value for money.

Crossrail 2 route map, as of 2015 consultation
Even though the Affordability Review was supposed to conclude in summer 2018, there's been no word yet regarding its findings. In the meantime, discussion of the project has continued on less official channels.

In May 2019, the TaxPayers' Alliance published a report suggesting ways in which the cost of the scheme could be brought down and proposing alternative schemes which (they argue) could provide better value for money. In this post, I'll map out some of their ideas.

I should emphasise that, having no background whatsoever in transport planning or civil engineering, I'm not in a position to speak with any authority on the merits of these proposals. My motivation, first and foremost, is that producing colourful maps is fun. This post does offer an opportunity to explore the official Crossrail 2 plans in more detail, which I hope is useful regardless of how seriously the alternative suggestions should be taken.

Current Crossrail 2 proposals

Crossrail 2's core section consists of a new pair of rail tunnels between Wimbledon and New Southgate. In this section Crossrail 2 would serve many stations providing interchanges with other lines, including Tottenham Court Road and Euston St Pancras.

In the southwest, Crossrail 2 services would run on National Rail track and serve destinations in London's suburbs. In the northeast, there would be a branch from Dalston to Tottenham Hale and Broxbourne using existing track on the West Anglia Main Line.
2040 Tube Map
2040 Tube Map putting Crossrail 2 in context
The scheme is intended to serve many different goals:
  • Taking suburban services in South West London off the tracks into Waterloo (replacing them with Crossrail 2 services) frees up capacity for more longer-distance services to run to Waterloo
  • Building extra tracks on the West Anglia Main Line north of Tottenham Hale allows more National Rail services to run to Liverpool Street and Stratford
  • A station at Balham or Tooting Broadway helps relieve pressure on the Northern line, in particular by scooping up passengers who would otherwise have changed onto the Victoria line at Stockwell
  • A station at Euston helps better disperse passengers arriving from HS2
  • Improving transport access for outer London opens up new housing opportunities (which, as London Reconnections writes, is very often overlooked)
Any description of Crossrail 2 needs some strong caveats about the likely extent to which the plan will change. The proposal has already evolved considerably: an ancestor of the scheme (still connecting Wimbledon and Dalston) is among a set of new lines proposed in 1946. For a long time the scheme was known as the Chelsea-Hackney line and could have taken over the Wimbledon branch of the District line and one of the eastern branches of the Central line.

1946 proposal which would gradually evolve into Crossrail 2
Probably the only certainty about Crossrail 2 is that it won't look exactly like the proposal in the 2015 consultation. Among the aspects that would only be finalised at a very late stage is the name. Like Crossrail 1, which will open with services branded as the Elizabeth line, Crossrail 2 will almost definitely adopt a new name when trains start to run.

TPA's alternative

The TPA report suggests a number of revisions to the scheme. The stations providing few interchange opportunities (Chelsea) or requiring circuitous diversions (Balham) would be cut. The central section would follow a different route, avoiding Euston St Pancras in favour of destinations closer to the City of London, with three alternatives put forward. The northwestern branch would be dropped entirely, potentially replaced with a surface-level branch to Gordon Hill.

TPA proposal for Crossrail 2
The report also suggests some projects which could replace Crossrail 2 altogether. Before looking at those, let's examine (with the help of some colourful maps) the alternative route suggestions in the central section, followed by the TPA's suggested way of cutting the cost of Wimbledon station.

Altering the route

As currently proposed Crossrail 2 would serve three central stations: Victoria, Tottenham Court Road and Euston St Pancras. The Crossrail 1 station at Tottenham Court Road has already been "future-proofed" in anticipation of a pair of north-south Crossrail platforms, which can be seen in this video from Geoff Marshall (at about 3:45).
Sketch of Crossrail 2 at Tottenham Court Road, from 2015 consultation
The TPA report puts forward three alternative routes in this central section. One alternative keeps the Tottenham Court Road station but replaces Euston St Pancras with a new station at Clerkenwell (including new platforms on the Circle line, between King's Cross St Pancras and Farringdon). Another alternative would put a Crossrail 2 station between Chancery Lane and Farringdon. The third alternative serves City Thameslink as well as Crossrail 1's Moorgate / Liverpool Street complex.

There could be some headaches for tube mappers. The current tube map overstates the distance between Farringdon and Chancery Lane (by putting Farringdon much closer to King's Cross St Pancras). On a tube map where Crossrail 2 serves Farrindgon / Chancery Lane, this distortion would have to be addressed. 
Good luck squeezing in the station name labels!
That said, there is still a long way between the station platforms at Chancery lane and at Farringdon (as Franklin Jarrier's excellent CartoMetro map indicates), meaning that a Crossrail 2 station there could involve some very lengthy interchanges.

Platform use at Wimbledon

Wimbledon is one of the most complex stations in Outer London, with four District line platforms, five National Rail platforms and two Tramlink platforms. At platforms 6 and 7, trains usually run through the station without stopping, and those two platforms are generally closed to passengers.
Current platform layout at Wimbledon
Crossrail 2 would make the station even more complex. Under the 2015 consultation proposals, the existing Tramlink platforms would be relocated outside the station, and four new Crossrail 2 platforms would be built (at a lower level than the existing platforms). Platforms 10 and 13 would be used for "through" trains to and from South West London, while platforms 11 and 12 would be used for trains starting and finishing at Wimbledon (very similar to plans for Crossrail 1 at Old Oak Common).
Wimbledon after Crossrail 2 (2015 consultation proposal, with some further information from here)
The TPA report suggests instead putting the "fast" South Western tracks in tunnels under the station, so that platforms 6 and 7 can be used for Crossrail 2. This would save having to build additional platforms on the site of Wimbledon's Centre Court shopping centre.
Wimbledon after Crossrail 2 (TPA proposal)

Something completely different

The TPA report ends with suggestions for transport schemes which it argues could meet some of Crossrail 2's objectives at a lower cost. One of these is an extension of the DLR from its terminus at Bank to Euston and St Pancras.
DLR extension to Euston and St Pancras
Three more of the suggestions are mapped below:
Inner South London metro
Connection from Herne Hill to Fenchurch Street
North and East London express metro


Conclusions

A decision on next steps for Crossrail 2 is planned to form part of the 2019 Spending Review. Given that policymakers in the UK might have (*cough*) a lot on their plate in autumn 2019, it's possible that the decision could be delayed. The scheme's high price tag, the delays and cost overruns befalling Crossrail 1 and complaints of disproportionate infrastructure investment in London pile on pressure to delay Crossrail 2 or kill the project off entirely.

But as we've seen, the principles behind the Crossrail 2 proposals have been around for decades. The transport and housing issues which the project is intended to address will still need answers. For as long as that's the case, the idea of Crossrail 2 won't go away.

08 May 2019

Map of Tubewhacks and Mackerel Facts

St John's Wood is the only London Underground station whose name contains none of the letters in the word "mackerel".

The above statement is one of the most famous nuggets of Tube knowledge. It the favourite trivia question of Victoria Coren Mitchell, host of Only Connect (a quiz show which, for context, once asked its contestants to find the fourth item in the sequence "Central = 1", "Circle = 2", "District = 3"). On TfL's "Art on the Underground: Labyrinth" entry for St John's Wood, the Mackerel Fact gets top billing, winning priority over the station's other claim to fame: the site of the Beatles' iconic road-crossing album cover.

The notoriety of the Mackerel Fact is driven, in large part, by its pointlessness. It's not a fact that will help you navigate the Tube. The word "mackerel" in itself doesn't have anything obvious to do with the London Underground.

And as many others have pointed out (see, for instance, this blog post) there isn't even anything particularly special about the link between St John's Wood and "mackerel". St John's Wood is the only station whose name lacks all of the letters "a", "e", "l" and "r", so you could get away with replacing "mackerel" with "real" – but "real" is a far less amusing word.

The Mackerel Fact has given rise to the practice of "Tubewhacking", finding words whose letters overlap with every Tube station except one, and many such words exist. Twitter's Tube Mackerel Bot has been tweeting examples of these words since 2017, working its way through the dictionary.

With a little computer assistance, I found "mackerel"-equivalents for 94 of the London Underground's 270 stations. These are mapped below:
Mackerel Map
Mackerel Tube Map
Needless to say, there were many stations with a large number of qualifying Mackerel-matches. For example, Woodford is the only station with none of the letters of "language", or of "intellectual", or of "physician". For these cases, I just picked one of the possible options.

Some stations get a Mackerel-match with other Tube stations. For example, Ruislip is the only Tube station which has none of the letters of "Camden Town". But Camden Town isn't the only station with none of the letters of "Ruislip". There is only one pair of stations which both match with each other: Perivale is the only station with none of the letters of "St John's Wood", and St John's Wood is the only station with none of the letters of "Perivale". So perhaps there is something special about St John's Wood after all!

(In case you were wondering, the fourth item in Only Connect's sequence of Tube lines is "Bakerloo = 4". Each line is numbered according to the points value of the snooker ball with the same colour as that line.)

03 May 2019

Shared Words Addendum

In the last post we looked at a Tube map connecting 173 of the stations of the London Underground according to the words shared between their names. There were 97 stations left over (with 95 names between them, because there are two "Hammersmith"s and two "Paddington"s): what should we do with those?

The straightforward solution would be to arrange all these stations on a "leftovers" line, in alphabetical order. But we can try something more elaborate: what if we arranged the stations according to how similar their names are?

Two things we need. First we need a procedure for working out how similar two stations' names are. Second we need a procedure for generating a made-up network from these similarity ratings.

Evaluating similarity

We could just look at every pair of stations and score how similar they sound, but this would be fairly subjective, as well as very time-consuming (with 95 station names there are 4465 pairs of names to rate). So instead I used SeatGeek's FuzzyWuzzy library, which algorithmically works out how closely two strings (like two station names) match.

Each pair of names is assigned a score between 0% and 100%. For example: FuzzyWuzzy assigns "Northfields" and "Southfields" an 82% match; "Kennington" and "Kenton" are assigned a 75% match; and "Bank" and "Whitechapel" are assigned a 13% match.

A different procedure would likely give us different results, and ultimately change the arrangement of stations on our map. But since this is all for fun, we need not fuss about that too much.

Generating a network

Now we need to turn these 4456 percentages into a network. We can use the following method:
  1. Start with one station in our network
  2. Find the closest similarity between a station inside our network and a station outside
  3. Create a link between the two stations found in step (2)
  4. Repeat steps (2) and (3) until every station is part of the network
For example, let's start with Balham in the network. According to FuzzyWuzzy, the most similar station name to "Balham" is "Amersham" with a 57% match, so we join Balham to Amersham.

Now the closest match to "Balham" is "Archway" (42%) and the closest match to "Amersham" is "Chesham" (67%). Since the "Amersham"-"Chesham" percentage is higher than "Balham"-"Archway", we join Amersham to Chesham.

We keep going until our last link is added: "Victoria" matches poorly with every other station, but its best match is 42% with "Blackfriars" (I guess because of the shared "c...ria"), so that's where it goes.

This procedure for growing the network is called Prim's algorithm. An interesting property of the algorithm is that the network ends up the same no matter which station we choose to start with.

The final map

Then all we have to do is draw the network with a little Tube map flair, and we end up with this:

11 April 2019

Tube Map of Shared Words

How do you get from Chancery Lane to St Paul's using London Underground stations?

Easy: "Chancery Lane" shares a word with "Wood Lane", "Wood Lane" shares a word with "St John's Wood", and "St John's Wood" shares a word with "St Paul's". Probably not the route you expected!

This network of word-association connects a large proportion of the stations of the London Underground. To help navigate this network, I've put together the map below:
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/eFVH9WOzCF51gTyyTqlZ9wcnN1hSevqz6eqZmuWBFJjTy8qSiWtW1jCbjkKpgNhdc-LE8_GMPNIDI-v1fwI85YOraEb2Y2BLmjhIz3x7AsEBIe7dC8aqRWk-nxfhzhT7jEXV5NevyNc=w4000
Tube Map of Shared Words
A few points of trivia about the map:
  • Certain colours are used for certain categories of words: for example, light and dark blue are used for directions. I tried to avoid two lines of the same colour being too close together.
  • Only full words get lines (so no parts of words like -gate, -ton or wood-) but I did group plurals ("Gardens", "Hills" and "Terminals") with their corresponding singulars.
  • As far as possible, stations are arranged alphabetically along each line (for example: North Acton, Clapham North, North Ealing, North Greenwich ...).
  • Only London Underground stations appear on the map: there's no Overground, Tram, DLR, TfL Rail or Air Line. There are 270 stations of the London Underground, but only 267 station names, since the names "Paddington", "Hammersmith" and "Edgware Road" correspond to two stations each.
  • 172 station names appear on the map. The remaining 95 station names don't share any words with any other station names. I have a plan for what to do with these stations – but that will be something for a future post.

10 February 2019

Old Oak Common

Yesterday I went to Wormwood Scrubs to see the proposed design for Old Oak Common station, one of the four stations planned for the initial phase of High Speed 2. Planned to open in 2026, the station could become one of the most important rail interchanges in London, and it's being built completely from scratch.
Model of Old Oak Common station (blue, centre) and the
surrounding areas planned for development (red and white)
The station will sit between Paddington and Acton on the Great Western Main Line, on a site currently occupied by railway depots. The HS2 tunnels are planned to run southwest from Euston to Old Oak Common before heading north.

There are 14 platforms planned, putting the station in the same league as King's Cross (13 platforms), Paddington (14) and London Bridge (15). Six of these platforms, underground, will be for HS2. Four will be (predominantly) for Crossrail. Four will be for Great Western Railway services to and from Paddington, including Heathrow Express.
(Very!) simplified diagram of platforms at Old Oak Common
Sidings west of Old Oak Common allow certain Crossrail trains to turn around rather than continue west to Reading and Heathrow. A typical Crossrail train from Shenfield will arrive at platform 6, drop off passengers, enter one of the sidings (where the driver will walk to the other end of the train), reverse direction and pick up passengers from platform 7 before heading back towards Shenfield.
In earlier versions of the station plans, these sidings curved towards Wembley, allowing for a possible future Crossrail extension to Wembley and Tring (depicted on my "Three Crossrails" map). The latest versions of the plans put the sidings in a new orientation which simplifies the operation of the station but renders a Tring extension much less likely.

Although it is not easy to predict how many will use the station, it is planned with a capacity of 250,000 passengers per day. If it achieved these numbers every day, the station would have 91 million passengers annually, more than every National Rail station in Britain in 2017-18 except Waterloo.
HS2 platforms at Old Oak Common
Building such a large station from scratch presents a unique opportunity. Old Oak Common is not the familiar story of a station which opened Victorian times and was subsequently forced to grow. Instead, the station can incorporate some of the best insights from modern station design, and learn from past lessons in how not to design a busy London station.

For example, the overbridge connecting the HS2 platforms with the other platforms is not rectangular, as you might expect, but instead is wider in the middle and narrower at each end. This is in anticipation of the different levels of passenger flow in different sections of the overbridge. I was also told that the station was designed to be especially versatile in the event of disruption: parts of the station can easily be closed off without affecting other sections.

Providing further connections in the Old Oak Common area, TfL is planning to build new London Overground stations. Two of these stations, Old Oak Common Lane and Hythe Road, were consulted on in 2017. Proposals for a West London Orbital line, repurposing a little-used freight line between Acton and Cricklewood, include a new station on Victoria Road.
Old Oak Common and Crossrail/Overground connections
Proposed West London Orbital is shown as dotted orange line
You can check out the proposals yourself and give feedback at the HS2 website here. The online questionnaire is open until 3 March 2019.