During the development of Frontier Development’s theme park simulation game, Planet Coaster, (released in 2016), a number of ideas were generated to aid in the building of this living world. The goal being that players could feel a tangible connection to the thousands of park guests they were attempting to entertain. One suggestion was the creation of a substitution language based on English, and thus, Planco was born.
Planco has its own vocabulary of approximately 5,000 entries, plus their derived forms (such as their plural form or past tense), and continues to grow as new words are needed not just for Planet Coaster, but for Planet Zoo as well, Frontier’s zoo management game released in 2019. Managing such a huge dictionary and running an almost fully automated translation process requires a rigorous approach.
In this article, we will first share the language itself, the crucial design decisions behind its creation, explaining how it adds to the ‘feel’ of the game. Secondly, we will provide an analysis of the tools used to work with Planco.
The Language – Design Intent
Players need to care about their park visitors, and “Oooh! Aaaah! Wooow! Haha! Grrrr…” sounds did not make them feel real enough. Parks also needed to be location-agnostic, separate from the real world, real countries, and real languages. The Planet universe is an entirely different world, and the Planco language is a fundamental facet to the creation of this experience.
Dialogue is used to convey meaningful information to the player, even though the actual words used are not explicitly understood. Words that sound happy, tired or angry are created to prompt the player into a response that can alleviate the issue the character is experiencing.
In addition to this, it addresses the classic audio challenge of dealing with the players’ fatigue from hearing the same lines of dialogue repeatedly. Players were found to be less prone to fatigue with the audio if they did not understand it, therefore we can use fewer lines more efficiently to create a diverse soundscape.
The Language – Vocabulary
The brain behind the Planco vocabulary is Senior Audio Designer James Stant, who elaborates this process in great detail in his article on Gamasutra. He likes to use a number of different approaches for creating new words:
Onomatopoeia, i.e. the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named:
o Wuuf (dog): Woof woof is an expression frequently “used” by dogs all over England
o Vroo (car): A tribute to toddlers who would grab a car and go ‘vroom vroooom’
o Zoon (fast): Imagine standing on a platform and then suddenly a train zooms by
o Donc (wood): A big, heavy pole or tree falls flat on the ground, and if you have seen at least one comic book in your life, you would expect to see something like “donc” to describe the sound
o Grerk (sick): The sound people make hunching over the toilet after riding too many roller coasters!
Resemblance to existing words in other languages:
o Puurk (park): The Planco word is practically but one vowel away from the word used across many languages
o Hass (hot): It resembles the German word ‘heiß’
o Yarre (year): It is related do the English ‘year’ and the German ‘Jahr’
o Deyo (day): This was meant to mimic the Spanish ‘día’
o Mumino/Papino (mom/dad): A mash-up of ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ with the Italian ‘bambino’
o Muud (clean): This refers to the idiom “It’s as clear as mud”
o Lukma (credit): When your name appears in the game credits, and you shout, “Look ma, I’m on the telly!”
o Hitha (recipe): You take a pot and you put in this & that
o Gristach (buccaneer): Buccaneers are grisly, and they often wear a mustache
Easter eggs and some personal touch:
o Gathordis (dangerous): An anagram for ‘thargoids’, the alien race from Frontier’s space epic, Elite Dangerous. Those thargoids are indeed pretty menacing!
o Claba (audio): Clanging & Banging was an affectionate name for the audio team at James’s former studio
o Biigu (cow): When little James was learning to speak, every cow seemed like a “big cow” to him.
This is how Planco sounds in Planet Coaster; the video has been subtitled in both Planco and English.
The two main tools used in Planco-related processes are Polyglot, a software designed to build and manage constructed languages, and a translation environment (in this case memoQ), which handles all translation projects at Frontier.
Polyglot is a tool specifically developed for supporting the creation and maintenance of constructed languages, and at Frontier, it is used for managing the master glossary for Planco. Whenever a new word is created, it is added to Polyglot, along with its English meaning, its pronunciation, part of speech, and definition, if applicable. Polyglot then generates the conjugated forms based on the grammar rules that were defined as a set of replacement rules using regular expressions. The new words are then regularly moved over to a memoQ termbase, to be used for translation purposes.
MemoQ was set up to work as a simple but smart machine translation tool for Planco, producing translated documents in a matter of minutes. With a regularly updated memoQ termbase containing the conjugated forms of all our words, the translation process can rely on the Fragment Assembly functionality to convert the English text into Planco. This is a highly automated process, with minimal human verification and intervention needed.
What kind of text is normally translated into Planco?
At the moment, this process is primarily used for translating dialogue lines that would then be recorded for the visitors and staff members of the park. Since it is rather challenging to find voice talents who are close to native speakers of Planco, an additional step was added to simply performing an English to Planco translation: converting the Planco lines into something that can be read out fluently even by those who are not familiar with the language. This was achieved by adding another, this time fully automated translation step to convert the Planco output into the recording script.
The official Planet Coaster website was also available in Planco, and all the new announcements were translated alongside the rest of the supported languages, though this has been discontinued since the website was redesigned last year. Nevertheless, the Planco glossary is still published on the new website and available for anyone to have a look at and is available for the community for building non-commercial custom widgets, such as Planco translators.
Creating, maintaining, and using a constructed language requires collaboration across multiple departments at the studio, so that Game Design, Audio, and Localization can each provide their unique expertise and contribute to making the Planco language something special. Concept artists and 3D modelers have also been brilliant at embracing the language and decorating the game worlds with Planco usage.
The conclusion is that a bespoke language can be hugely influential in building a tangible endearment between character and player. This being said, building a language from scratch is a big endeavor and requires a well-thought-out process from the get-go, to support the growth of the vocabulary in terms of size and complexity.