Space Dust Racers is a combat racing game that supports up to sixteen players via the use of their smartphones as controllers for the game. I got in contact with Space Dust Studios to talk a bit more in depth about the control choices, weather effects, and other features of their game. This interview was conducted with Lead Gameplay Developer Michael Davies and Senior Artist Grigor Pedrioli.

What influenced the decision for you guys to move into independent development from AAA?

Michael: Quite a few things really. We'd all been working in AAA for over a decade. When you're working on a team of, say, 500 people, you're really working on a small part of the game and have very little control over it. All of us wanted to have more control, even though we were in senior positions we still had to work under a creative director, but we wanted to work on something that was our own project. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity to start our own thing, especially because we were all going to be looking for work at the same time.

Grigor: Masters of our own destiny, so to speak.

It must be intimidating to leave a stable position in order to work on your own project. How do you feel about that?

Michael: Definitely. We wouldn't have done it any time earlier than we did because the tech that was around, the middleware, wasn't really there. We began prototyping in Unity a few years back, and while that was pretty good, once we got to Unreal Engine we sort of realized that this is completely viable and having that really mature engine to use as a base to build games on top of makes it feasible for five people to make a AAA-quality game.

A popular question I'm sure, but what made you decide on the smartphone controls?

Michael: That's a good question. The reason we did that is that we were looking around for game ideas to begin with, and the first one we came up with was this massive free-to-play space combat game. Sort of like Battlefield with jetpacks, which was cool but the scope was not something that we could work with.

Our director Nathan was playing a lot of Crash Team Racing with his two daughters, and they were still playing on the Playstation One, and I was playing a lot of Mashed with friends. We thought, well, we can probably fuse the two genres and come back to that sort of party racing game. That would be cool, but we were looking for some other way to give it something a bit more interesting, and our tech developer Glen was really interesting in Unreal Engine's plug in system. He's sort of a whiz with HTML5 and he thought that he could probably add this tech to use smartphones as controllers. So we immediately thought how many players we could squeeze in there, which we initially wanted to make unlimited. I can imagine YouTube videos with hundreds of people in there, and it'd be crazy. We realized that it would end up being too difficult technically, and we ended up settling on 16 players. It just seemed to make a lot of sense because a smartphone is something that everyone has in their pocket, so if you're having a gaming night then you don't have to have everyone bring their weird, third-party controllers that don't work right, so that was sort of the marriage of all of those ideas.

The other cool thing is that you don't need to download an app either because it is all browser based, which eliminated the issues getting it on the App Store and Android, and also made sure it can work on laptops.

What would you say would make Space Dust Racers unique compared to other combat racers?

Michael: I think that in terms of gameplay, obviously 16 players in one room is our biggest selling point. But we also have so many modifiers that we can stack on top of the various game modes, which really give the game a lot of depth and replayability. It's a game that you can keep coming back to and changing up the rules to prevent it from being boring.

Is there any progression or customization involved in the game?

Michael: The single player, the story mode, is going to progress you through to unlock the various modifiers to use. The progression is basically unfolding different vehicles and different modifiers to keep changing the rules around you.

We certainly have some stretch goals in mind that are gameplay related, and one thing we have in mind is battle arenas. We're not sure yet what they'll be, it will depend on how the Kickstarter plays out, but we're looking at battle arenas and boss encounters as some additional gameplay modes.

One thing we do have is that the players can play each track flipped or reversed. It's amazing really how much of a difference flipping or reversing the track makes, and it really makes it feel like a whole new track. Because we're a small team, that's dynamite for us because we can make more use of the art assets. We've done some playtesting with flipped tracks and even though we knew the track intimately, it really threw us off, some sort of left-brain right-brain thing.

Grigor: You can also play the tracks flipped and reversed, which really changes up the feel of the track. It really throws us off because you're sort of already preempting corners that aren't really there anymore and it really adds a lot to the game.

I've noticed that there isn't much of a focus on laps in the game, which is unusual for a racing title.

Michael: Absolutely, there's no laps or finish line or timers or anything like that. It's very much deathmatch on wheels, and that's what I was saying in the Kickstarter that it's more like Smash Brothers on wheels rather than Crash Team Racing because in those games, you know, they're splitscreen and you drift off from other people. One of the things I've never liked about that game design is that you end up on your own on the track for a lot of the time and the games will try to compensate with rubber banding or horrible, overpowered weapons to try and help people catch up. It's fun when you first play it, but it just feels a little cheap later on and I think for more advanced players they really do get sick of that rubber banding. This approach of keeping everyone on the same screen is just chaos. If you fall behind then you're out straight away so the camera doesn't need to watch what you do. The other thing about this is that the round happen really quickly, and you might be looking at 10-20 seconds for a round. When you're knocked out you can still mess with people with airstrikes.

Could you describe the airstrikes in a little more detail?

Michael: Sure, sure. Once you're knocked out, or once anyone is knocked out of the round you'll see a reticule appear on screen that is controlled by everyone who has been knocked out. It's not a case of you get your own crosshair and you can aim and shoot it. It's almost like a ouija board, and all of the players have to communicate with each other in deciding which player you want to shoot at. Once you hover over a player, they can move around and try to avoid it. Once it's over the player for long enough, it'll turn white and you'll be able to fire on them.

Are the matches one and done, or is it a best of three format?

Michael: Each round there is a set number of points. The way you earn points is defined by the game mode. There's a knockout gamemode that is our free-for-all deathmatch mode, and if you knock someone off you get a point. At the end of the round, some people will earn more points then others, kind of like Towerfall: Ascension. We're aiming on matches to take between 3 and 5 minutes, and once players hit the score limit then the match is over. It definitely does vary on who is playing and how many players there are.

I noticed you've mentioned weather effects. What can we expect in terms of weather?

Grigor: Each location we have is going to have three different variants at that location. One will start off being quite a simple location where the weather itself won't affect gameplay at all. Then there will be various sort of other weather effects. For instance, in one of the levels we have snow which makes the entire track quite a challenge to negotiate and you have to really lead into all the corners. It adds another level of gameplay and things that you must worry about. There's also a rain effect going on in our tropical track as well, which adds a certain amount of slippery condition to the track as well.

Michael: We actually tried prototyping for the stormy effect pushing people around on the track, but it was way too much. Fighting with the track as well as other players was just not too fun. We also looked at having obstacles in the track, but that ends up being more of a challenge of PVE. We found that the environment stuff just isn't as fun as messing with the other players sitting next to you.

Grigor: That said, we've implementing quite a few physics props and shortcuts in the level as well. You'll see a table and chair sticking up outside of a restaurant, and you can actually go through that like a shortcut. It won't actually slow you down, you'll get a bit of a distance bonus, but the level itself doesn't actually hold the player back, it's purely player-versus-player.

Last question guys, are you planning on releasing on all platforms at the same time?

Michael: Yup. So we're doing the closed pre-alpha and alpha as part of the Kickstarter campaign, so backers can get in now and get access to that closed alpha period. But our final release date will be on PS4, Xbox One, and PC in January 2016. That's what we're targeting for now. If the Kickstarter goes bananas then we'll try to reassess that, but that's certainly what we're going to try and hit.

I hope that the Kickstarter does well for you guys, and I really love the game. Thank you very much for your time.

Michael: Fantastic, thank you for your coverage.

Grigor: Thanks Sean.

Space Dust Racers is aiming for a January release, but you can contribute now to get access to the pre-alpha and/or alpha through their Kickstarter.