Interview Vehicle Dynamics Designer - Naomi Heinis

How would you define the job of Vehicle Dynamics Designer at KT? Can you tell us more about your role at Kylotonn?

In a few words, I adjust the parameters of the simulation to suit the different needs we may have. This can be realism, accessibility, or respecting a particular creative vision. The goal is to turn intentions into cars. I am a race engineer on virtual cars!

Can you tell us about your background?

I did math sup / math spé (editor's note: classes préparatoires aux concours des grandes écoles d'ingénieurs) to take the competitive entrance exams to go to engineering school. Originally, I wanted to do electronics for consolers, but instead of going to engineering school, I finally decided, on a whim, to do video games. So I went into game design, not really knowing what that would entail. In the end, it turned out to be a good thing, because my current job is at the crossroads of what I did in engineering and game design. It's really a job that matches my background. 

What do you like the most about your job?

It's complicated to choose one thing! I like several aspects of the job. Physics in general: I love creating models, it's always cool to try and represent phenomena. In video games, we have a constraint, which is: "it has to run at least X times per second". That's a constraint that you don't find in scientific simulation, for example. The model has to be fast and realistic, but also fun and playable. I often end up with an interpretation of reality by our dyna programmer (editor's note: a dyna programmer is a programmer responsible for understanding the actions and consequences of real physics on a vehicle and reproducing them as accurately as possible in a program, in this case a video game) with values or approaches that are somewhat different from what you might expect. It's always a pleasure to make models with these constraints, it creates a challenge! We also have other obstacles, such as making all this possible and functional for the entire TDUSC roster. Professionally speaking, it's very satisfying to find a solution that fits into several boxes: what we can do in production, and what improves the overall gaming experience, etc. It's a real challenge, but it's one that we're very happy with.
But on a more personal level, my favorite part of my job is also my colleagues who are great people, and it's always great to share moments with them!


Tell us about your typical day?

My day always starts with a daily meeting, which varies in length depending on the problems to be solved (laughs). I only take part in the TDUSC daily game designer meeting because I'm attached to that department.

"Sorry to interrupt, but why are you attached to the game design division?"

This is important because the visions of the Lead Game Designer and the Creative Director need to reach me, and logically, this is the most direct route. The vehicles' behaviour has to match the game design intentions.

After this daily, I start my day. The 'typical day' I like best starts with a test of the game. I look at what problems there might be and how I can try to solve them. I think about a model that could solve this or that problem, while considering the production constraints that could arise if we were to implement that model. Then I do a preset run of the model, testing everything to see if it works. And if I'm lucky, by the end of the day I may have improved a feature on all the cars! 

What qualities do you consider essential for your job?

I find that my job is part of 3 subsets of professions: firstly, the Vehicle Dynamics Designer group, which is part of the Game Designers group, which is itself part of the video game developers group. Each group requires certain skills. For Vehicle Dynamics Designers, it's really important to know how the maths, physics etc. work. There's a lot of instinctive research, but to apply all that to the scale of a game and to the scale of the roster, you need maths. That's what's going to give us a consistent result that can be used across the whole game.

As a game designer, you have to get away from the stereotype of 'the person with the ideas'. Everyone has ideas. For me, a good GD is someone who manipulates ideas, whether they're other people's or his own, to turn them into something coherent. We have a lot of constraints to respect, it has to work well with all the other mechanics, it has to be fluid, it has to be accessible... So for me, you have to know how to do something other than have ideas, whatever your area of expertise, and have a critical eye for your own work. All the GD work has repercussions upstream and downstream in the creative process. You have to know the ins and outs of what you want to add to the machine. I think it's important not to be afraid of communicating with other trades and absorbing their lexicon so that communication flows smoothly.


Finally, as far as game developers are concerned, I would say that the important thing is not to abandon games to the dominant discourse. It is already overrepresented because it is seen as necessary for the survival of the industry.

It's heartwarming to see that there are more games every day with queer, anti-capitalist, non-white, feminist, etc. voices. I hope this continues for studios and people who have things to say. I also hope that developers who work on games that embrace the dominant discourse will find the energy to insert criticism.

What was your favorite project to work on?

My favourite project to work on, I think, was one I did when I was a student. It was a VR project, where we played a person who... was lazy. She spent the day sitting next to a table, but she had to complete her day's to-do list with ridiculous gadgets. For example, telescopic tongs to grab things from the shelves and feed the cat, a gun that could break the light bulb to turn off the light at the end of the day... It wasn't a polished game, nor was it really well made, but it was so well managed in terms of its production that we were able to integrate all the jokes and mechanics we'd originally wanted to put into the game; it made for a super coherent and super funny whole, and it's the first time I've seen people have real exclamations of laughter while playing a game I'd worked on, and it was great. That's kind of what I've been trying to do ever since, get people to feel something with what I produce. 

How do you handle the dynamics of the different vehicles? How much detail do you go into with the different types of vehicles?

We use the same engine as WRC, and on WRC we need to have physics that are really accurate to reality. We have a really good management of many parameters, which allows us to have a large number of adjustments of all the essential parts of the cars: The torque curve of the engine, the hybridization of one or more axles, the sideways forces on the tires or their stiffness...We really have a simulation of the different elements of the car, from the engine to the ABS through the differential and the inertia of the chassis...This allows us to really adapt the driving according to the type of vehicle and the sensations we are looking for. Then, we also have other variables that result from the simulation, for example, the rotation speed of the wheels or how they slide on the ground; and all these values are then sent to other trades. For example, the sound teams will need the variable "the engine is under this much load, so we're sending this kind of sound". The UI team is going to need "We're running at so many revolutions per minute, so we need to display it on the car dashboard in such and such a way". It's a bit of a "black box" from an external point of view, where I'm (almost) alone in the box, but all the other teams will need the information that comes out of it!


So to manage all this it's a bit like a snake biting its own tail as all the variables interact with each other, but by fixing some simple points at times we manage to dig into the more complex points.

The last word ?

I've got lots of things to say 'off the top of my head'. For example, people probably think that I love cars... and it's true! I love cars. But "Fuck cars"! (Editor's note: Slogan of the eponymous movement grouping over 380K people, against car-centric urban design, which is trying to propose alternative solutions. Details here: /r/Fuckcars) Put in trains and public transport!
On a more serious note, motoring in itself, as a sport and as engineering, is a wonderful thing, and I'm the first person to be interested in it. It's one of the main links I have with my little brother, who's a mechanic, it's a passion we share and it's something that's really dear to me. But I don't think you can really appreciate motoring and motor sport if you don't realise the ecological disaster that is the daily use of cars. I'm not talking about people who don't have a choice, who have to use their car to go to work etc. I'm talking about thinking on a global scale. I'm talking about thinking on a global political scale about the use of the car as a means of mass transport, which we can use as we please, and which will remove the need to build public transport. And we need it! For me, the car should be a hobby. I'd love to drive a Miata around a circuit at the weekend and be able to take the train to work during the week. And I'd like this hobby to be sustainable, so that people who want to tear up asphalt can continue to do so. That's why I'm so keen to support the 'Fuck car' initiative.

And the real last word: Bombarde.

February 28, 2023