July 22, 2012 7:00 PM | John Polson
[This is the final entry to Driving Discussion, a week-long feature aimed at examining unique racing and driving indie games and the developers who are pushing the genre forward.]
Nitronic Rush's neon-lit, futuristic feel and gravity-defying acrobatics have helped ingrain the game in the minds of driving fans looking for a thrill beyond the realistic bumper-to-bumper experience often offered in the AAA racing space.
The DigiPen-developed Nitronic Rush actually has no racing opponents. Instead, this free game offers an experiment in survival driving on Windows that has become widely acclaimed, earning the 11-person team recognition from IGF, Indie Game Challenge and Independent Propeller Awards and more. Nudged by continual fan interest, Nitronic Rush has already received four major updates since it released last year.
In this discussion, Jordan Hemenway of Team Nitronic shares his thoughts on what makes the game so special. He explores the hurdles developers have to overcome in creating a driving game, while presenting a vast area ripe for indies to tap into.
Are driving physics harder than, say, a speedy platformer's physics?
3D platforming physics are definitely in a similar realm of difficulty for similar "feel" reasons. From what I've seen of many physics programmers, it's hard to break the engine in a way that leads to predictable but fun behavior.
In terms of innovation, Nitronic Rush's spinning and flying mechanics presented a challenge since we had very little to reference early on. In fact, the flying nearly got cut at the end of the game since we struggled to make it fun until a couple months before shipping. I really hope more people push the boundaries of racing since I feel that traditional racing games are just barely scratching the surface. From my perspective it's an immense challenge to create something both engaging and innovative in racing, but totally worth it if you push all the way through.
Is a speedy racer just a platformer from a different perspective, then, especially when cars jump and take ramps?
For the most part I'd say that they are, especially when jumping is involved. At least many of the platformer design issues can quickly come up when you're thinking that way.
Oddly enough, one of the new Community levels we just included in the Nitronic Rush update has a bunch of floating platforms which you're supposed to jump across with some accuracy. I learned very quickly that under those conditions it was pretty difficult since I always thought of the car as a platformer but realized that you have to have momentum to make the jumps. Maybe it's not the super precise Super Meat Boy-like platformer, but it's definitely fun in it's own unique way.
What are other big hurdles for indies who make driving games?
I talked with our physics programmer (Jason Nollan) for a bit about what he thought, and he basically agreed that creating solid driving controls is definitely the epic battle devs must overcome. Jason spent about 15 months (out of the 17 it took to make the game) making/tweaking the controls for Nitronic Rush. This was with weekly playtesting and even several complete rewrites of the car logic. Most gamers seem to have an innate sense for whether a car's controls are "correct" or not, and finding that sweet spot can be a challenge. Oddly enough, whether you're making a "realistic" or "arcade" racing game, you're never just implementing a general physics engine and tweaking some numbers. You have to create a solid system to work in, and then break that system in the effort to find something that feels fun. Creating an arcade racer is challenging enough, I can't imagine an indie pulling off a realistic racing game in the near future with such high expectations from racing sim fans.
Otherwise, car games are generally expected to have loads of content (car models, several race tracks, skins for the cars, etc.). This easily leads to a heavy content load that alone could kill a team if they can't deal with it creatively. For Nitronic Rush, we decided to put an emphasis on graphics post-processing and other procedural effects instead of highly detailed models and textures. In a similar way, it looks like Krautscape is doing something similar with fairly simplistic art and some procedural visuals.
Do you think something similar to the seven-day FPS challenge can be applied to the driving/racing genre?
I think some sort of a game jam like 7DFPS or Ludrum Dare for driving/racing games would be great. I'm not sure how I would organize it, but I would probably make sure everyone has a good starting point in terms of getting a vehicle running (i.e. tutorials, resource materials). Of course, not providing any starting materials might help spur creativity but I'd imagine that many would get lost without some solid ground to start on. Seven days might be pushing it in terms of a polished experience but I imagine most experienced devs would have something fairly playable by the end. The original prototype for Nitronic Rush was actually built in about a week in Blender, complete with boosting, flying, jumping and another mechanic that didn't make it into the final game.
Where can indies innovate in driving, then?
Atmosphere, story, and progression.
A lot of racing games have some sort of story, but usually it's a 'Death Race' or 'Fast and the Furious' style of story and not something particularly imaginative or abstract. I'd love to see something like Limbo or Journey's stories portrayed in a racing game since a fascinating world can tell a story all on its own. You might have to change how the game's progression unfolds dramatically, but it's experimentation I'd love to see.
Overall car control and mechanics.
My favorite part of Nitronic Rush is the feeling of control I have over the vehicle with the rotating jets and the wings. It almost feels more like a platforming robot instead of a traditional race car, but I love how easy it is for me to be deeply engaged while manipulating it. It would be cool to see some completely different controls and mechanics for the car since most racing games seem to have quickly settled into a specific form of control.
There's been a good amount of multiplayer innovation in the gaming world recently (i.e. Journey, Portal 2, At a Distance). It'd be great to see more local/online multiplayer innovation in terms of how people play, as well as how they interact outside of a race.
This is more of a personal thing since I've always been involved in fairly experimental audio work in games, but this is a place where there could definitely be tons of innovation. Sound design for car games has quickly gotten to a incredible point in terms of realistic quality, but there could be innovation with creating unique sounds that tell a story and build character for the car and the world. Even more so, music in many racing games comes down to getting the best set list of licensed songs. I'd love to see more unique music that better couples with the visuals and interaction. Even with Nitronic Rush we strove to create music that fit like a glove with the environment and pacing for each moment of the game.
There's actually been quite a bit of experimentation when it comes to displaying the HUD for a racing game (i.e. nitro/boost, laps, time, and the list goes on). What I mean is trying to innovate in what information we pass onto the player. Trimming the fat of unnecessary information and keeping only essential data (in the game's design) might help to keep the player more connected to the car and the experience.
And what should indies imitate?
The general "fun" spirit of older arcade games.
Many racing games of the 90's and early 2000's had a fun, goofy feel to them. While it's a bit cheesy, I think many modern racers have taken on a serious tone that seems a bit forced. I'd love to see more arcade-y (not taking themselves too seriously) games that might have a serious story, but more fun (and even goofy) mechanics.
While this doesn't have to be exclusively splitscreen multiplayer, I feel like we've lost something with many modern racing games being online only. Similar to how Joust brought something interesting in terms of physical proximity, I'd love to see more done with players that play right next to each other like many older arcade racers.
A lot of older games are still fairly timeless to me in that they're still fun over a decade later. Instead of making racers that make sense in today's world but seem much less relevant in a couple years (i.e. many realistic sims), I'd prefer games that are less focused on modern references.
General older arcade game mechanics.
We gained a lot of inspiration from older arcade racers in the creation of Nitronic Rush, and in many ways we're showing older mechanics to a new audience that missed out on those games back in the day. From that perspective, it really helped get the game going in a direction that was easier to manage since we had a proven basis to stand upon.
On an aside, I've always felt that nostalgia (for older games) can empower a developer in creating something as fun or even more fun than what inspired them. At the same time, I believe it can also hold us back since we might naturally not want to stray far from what we loved. Going forward I think that there are tons of interesting mechanics in older games that could be expanded upon today, but for ourselves and others I hope we can really push new experimental ideas with instead of remakes of the same games over and over.
And what should developers put the brakes on?
I couldn't think of 5 literal things racing games should stop doing, but in general I'd say the preconceptions of a "race" have held back a lot of racing games from pushing forward. Removing the concept of "racing" from the equation and thinking more about it from the idea of "driving" is a refreshing perspective in my opinion. Games that have lap times, competing opponents, and well defined tracks (even in urban environments) can definitely resonate with players since it's something they understand, but it requires a lot of overhead. Nitronic Rush has called itself a 'survival driving game' since the beginning because we wanted to differentiate ourselves from what people expect in a racing game. We wanted to make sure people understood that it would play differently, but offer much more variety than normal racing game.
It's a subtle thing but I think it really opens the doors to new ideas in the racing/driving gaming world. Most people tend to identify well with the concept of a racing car, so taking that at its core, combining it with a sense of speed, and giving players new features to explore has incredible potential.
As for kart battle racers, there are a lot of cool mechanics I think we can pull from, but we could definitely use a break from that same type of game over and over again :)
You mentioned removing the concept of racing. Can you expand on how developers should proceed?
The basic premise of a driving game from my perspective is that it's about the sense of speed, momentum, and the manipulation of a machine that you don't fully understand. In a platformer, you traditionally control a humanoid character that you might expect to behave a certain way. Because of this you might have a greater expectation for what the character can and can't do. For me, this has always made implementing 3D platformer controls really hard since the player always wants to do something slightly different than what the character provides (it's hard to feel natural). Cars, on the other hand, can be a bit robotic and you might give them some leeway in how they perform since it's supposed to be out of your realm of understanding.
Using this you could attempt to work within a few different frameworks. For example, I think that it would be interesting to try experimenting with puzzle mechanics where you might need to use driving mechanics to move around, but in the end you're more or less solving puzzles. You could try something as simple as the unlocking mechanics of PaperPlane, or maybe something like Closure or Parallax where the world creates its own puzzle. Even something like Portal could be interesting since there's a significant use of momentum as you traverse the level.
Another way you could try to sidestep racing preconceptions is to emphasize the exploration elements of the game, and focus less on going from point A to point B. It could be a fairly open exploration like Proteus or Minecraft with procedural content, but it could also be a fairly linear exploration like Dear Esther or Journey. In this way it's all about the journey or adventure and less about a race against the clock or opponents. I still think that this was an interesting part of Nitronic Rush, where you could pretty much explore anywhere you wanted with just a few limitations. Unfortunately we didn't spend much time developing the world to the point where there was a ton to explore, but many of our players loved to just fly and jump around while finishing the track was a secondary goal.
[Be sure to check all of the Driving Discussions with Online Racing Championship developer Ashley McConnell, Krautscape developer Mario von Rickenbach and Proun developer Joost van Dongen.]