Though there are well over 60 racing games for the Nintendo DS, few have managed to draw interest from media and gamers the way console titles like Burnout Paradise or the Project Gotham Racing series have -- while even the PSP has several distinguished handheld racers in its catalog.
Glasgow-based Firebrand Games and its in-house, impressively 3D Octane engine, however, have been adding to the short list of options for DS racing fans.
First came Race Driver: Create and Race, an online-enabled game lauded for its "accurate feel" and extensive Track Designer feature, and then its follow-up, Race Driver: GRID, refined and expanded on the previous title's strengths.
The studio's next game, TrackMania DS, brings developer Nadeo's revered stunt-driving and track-building series to a non-PC platform for the first time. TrackMania's approachable arcade racing format and customization features seems tailored for not only the Nintendo DS, but for Firebrand as well, considering their experience.
Gamasutra talked with CEO Mark Greenshields and creative director Pete Shea recently, and talked in-depth about contending with Mario Kart DS, creating a portable racing game that can compete with home console titles, and the company's Octane engine that has enabled its racing titles to stand out from the pack.
TrackMania DS will be Focus Home's first published Nintendo DS title -- did you pitch the idea to Focus Home or did they approach you?
We met up at Game Connection in Lyon and it sort of went from there. Obviously, we were fans of Trackmania and knew it would take a serious amount of work and a technical achievement to get it on the DS, but we thought it would be perfect. Focus also thought it would be great on the DS but did not think it could be done, until we got together and made it happen.
What is the quality that, in your opinion, most distinguishes a TrackMania game?
The key things about TrackMania are: sheer speed, sheer fun and the ability to immediately restart the whole level with a single button press. Along with keeping TrackMania’s visual style and approach to track layout, I’d say those three are the essence of TrackMania and obviously, are the paramount concerns for a DS conversion. We had to make sure those central pillars were in place from the very beginning.
As an arcade racer, TrackMania seems already suited for portable play, but what other changes to the formula were needed to tailor the game for handheld players?
In reality, we had to alter very little indeed. What you’re getting with TrackMania DS is a direct translation of the PC titles with as little compromise as possible. Obviously there are reductions in poly counts, physics simulation, and so on, but those differences are either entirely understandable or simply trivial differences. We think the incredibly loyal TrackMania community will be pretty impressed with how close the DS version is to the original.
What can console developers of racing games stand to learn from your handheld releases?
I’d say that the key point for us is to focus so that you can push the hardware we target as far as possible and to optimize wherever you can. Tight, efficient coding and in-depth hardware knowledge are applicable to any project, really. For us, the real lesson is that you can always make things run better, faster and smoother, no matter what hardware you’re working with.
I guess it’s an 8-bit philosophy of sorts -- there was always a strive to wring that little bit more CPU time, clear a little bit of RAM, streamline a subroutine and so on. Maybe that’s been lost a little with the more powerful home consoles and the demands of the market for how a modern game should look and run, but we think the idea that you can always make things look and feel better (if you iterate enough and have the talent in your dev team) applies across the board.
Also one huge thing is we treat the DS not as "just another format," but the main format, and we put top notch people working on it - all our staff would be equally at home on a PS3, so it’s talent and dedication as well as attention to detail. This should apply to any format that any developer targets -- do what can be done well on that platform and avoid what you know will be rubbish.
Racing titles (not counting Mario Kart DS), as with sports games, haven't seen as much success on the DS as other genres (action/adventure, platformers, RPG, casual), in terms of garnering media hype and moving units. Why do you think that is?
A big problem here is Mario Kart DS -- it was the racing title that everyone was waiting for and, of course, it totally delivered when it arrived. Early racing titles from third parties weren’t really up to much -- the hardware wasn’t properly understood, and people were still experimenting with how you ‘do’ a racing game on the DS.
We believe, however, that as the DS install base continues to expand at an incredible rate, more and more people will be looking for different handheld experiences including ‘proper’ racing games.
While developing titles like Race Driver and TrackMania for the DS, do you feel like you're creating them for the same audience that buys the PC/console versions of those titles or any other racing games?
That’s a yes and no answer! We know fans of IP we’re converting (or even the genre we work in) will be interested in handheld versions, but we also have to make sure we appeal to the unique audience the DS has developed. On the most part, we approach DS development by treating it as an equal to the bigger home machines.
We focus on gameplay primarily -- that has to be the main concern -- and if your gameplay is in place and everything’s easy to grasp, then you don’t really need to pay attention to any perceived division in audience – racing is simple, pure fun, so the appeal is pretty broad.
However, slightly to contradict that, we believe a lot of DS buyers have never played any console or PC game, and as such, we need to make the games are highly accessible to a non hardcore gamer but still have the depth and growth a hardcore expects -- a bit of a challenge.
Do you feel like you're competing against the developers (e.g. Codemasters) working on the console versions of your multiplatform projects?
In terms of prestige and technical achievement – sometimes! On the whole, we view our projects as complimentary to home console versions. We might even share assets and design tweaks from time to time. However, I think we’re competing against ourselves more -- each time we employ the Octane engine, we find ways to improve it as we apply it to specific game designs. It is frustrating sometimes that the PS3 and Xbox 360 are the only platforms that seem to matter, but our focus is on doing the best possible job for the games we do, and so we will always push to be the best.
How do you persuade gamers with limited budgets to purchase your version out of multiple releases, convincing them that the DS game isn't a watered down portable release, that it's as compelling, if not more so than the console counterpart?
Well, we offer the version that can be played anywhere, which is one clear advantage. One thing that Firebrand stands for is we do not do ‘handheld’ versions of games. We do a top quality standalone product that fully exploits the game and the system. Our intention is a gamer sees the Firebrand logo on a box and knows 100% it will be a quality experience and will buy it, irrespective of the publisher. We want to be seen as a mark of quality and a mark of confidence for both the consumer and our publishing partners.
On all of our products, where possible, we look to add something extra such as a Track Designer which suits the DS hardware’s strengths and adds real value to the game beyond the home console version.
What mistakes have you seen in other DS driving games and their engines? How have you accounted for them for your own titles and your Octane engine?
The primary concerns for Octane are frame rate and fidelity -- we strike an excellent balance between graphical complexity and stable refresh rates. For us, that means maxing the 2000 polys-per-frame limitation on the DS and keeping everything running at 60 FPS, though the frame rate is king in this regard.
A fluid experience is crucial for any driving engine, so I’d say that’s where some driving titles fall down. Other mistakes aren’t mistakes as such, more a case of not appreciating where you can optimise or compromise and still have each frame looking visually impressive for the platform.
Other problem areas are control methods and a lack of imagination -- too many people are happy to copy existing successes and templates. Depth of simulation is also important, whether you are making a fun arcade racer, or a serious driving game, it has to feel good.
Conversely, what ideas have you seen and incorporated into your games and engine?
We look at every racing game released on every platform, but we also draw ideas from other genres and other DS games. Our team has experience in many different genres and there are design lessons and ideas that have been influenced by a range of games- not just racing. From a design perspective, we always look to Nintendo as the masters of simple but deep gameplay and particularly for their UI and GUI design.
Several driving games for the DS have chosen to use the touchscreen for controlling their vehicles (whereas Firebrand's titles stick to a more traditional control scheme). Your opinion on touchscreen controls for a driving game?
Touchscreen controls for racing games are generally ill-conceived gimmicks. We have experimented with these control schemes in the past in an attempt to see if we could solve this problem, and while we managed to produce something that was controllable, it just wasn’t as much fun or instinctive as using the Control Pad.
Why didn't online multiplayer and level sharing didn't make it into TrackMania DS?
We had to make a choice of trying to do it all or getting the best possible game experience on the platform. Of course online is possible, but the technology required to be able to run a game such as Trackmania on the DS, with the proper interaction between the editor and game, meant considerable development time. We believe gameplay was and is king and so we concentrated on that.
The DS is a portable platform and therefore more people play it when they are out and about, rather than sitting by a WiFi hotspot, so Focus and Firebrand agreed to make the best Trackmania possible on DS. Obviously, if this version is a success, gamers can look forward to a future with those missing features in place. There is still very solid multiplayer in the game now, just not online.
How has the Track Editor changed, coming from GRID to TrackMania?
It’s a completely different approach. TrackMania demands a track editor that works in three dimensions and to keep parity with the PC version, the player needs to be able to race immediately on anything they’ve created (provided it fulfills the logic-check criteria for a valid track). That’s what we’ve accomplished with TrackMania DS. People had said it was impossible to do, but we’ve done it and it works like a charm.
And the Octane engine?
With the core engine, we’ve made further improvements in physics simulation and scene complexity per-frame, whilst keeping the framerate stable at 60 FPS. Amazingly, we think there’s still room to further optimise and our driving simulation is continually being revised and tweaked.
Though most reviews were very positive for GRID, 1UP published a particularly acerbic review for the game -- what did you take away from that review, and how has it affected TrackMania DS's development?
The first thing to say is it’s perfectly valid for someone not to like one of our games or to not enjoy it; 95% of the reviews did praise GRID and rated it highly, so we’re confident the game was very well received.
However, having said that it did seem a little narrow minded to dismiss the game simply because it was a racing game on DS and the reviewer prefers home console racing games.
What was Firebrand's involvement with Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli? Did you help Climax develop the game or did you simply license the Octane Engine to the studio?
We developed the DS version of the game entirely in our Glasgow Studio. Climax were not involved, but we did work with Eutechnyx (who did the console SKUs) on sharing some assets and ideas.
Is Octane licensing a big part of Firebrand's strategy as a studio?
No. Absolutely not. Firebrand does not license its technology out. All our tools and technology are proprietary and we protect it vigorously. You will only see Octane in Firebrand Games (or Firebrand subsidiaries’ games). We believe that we have the edge in what we do because of our team AND our technology, so we would rather not risk either to a third party
What challenges have you met with implementing Octane for the Wii?
The Octane engine has always been designed to be cross-platform- with as little specific DS code as possible, so porting over the core elements of the engine was not difficult. The challenge for us comes in attempting to push the graphics and physics simulation on the Wii far beyond what anyone has shown so far. This process is ongoing, but we’re extremely confident we can make Wii games that deliver on the potential power of the console.
Back to TrackMania DS's Track Editor, what have you been able to implement that isn't present with the PC version of TrackMania?
The key difference is in the control setup - going from a two button mouse to a single touch screen always presents challenges. So we’ve redesigned the core user interface and camera controls to suit the DS. We’ve also introduced some new features such as the ability to quickly drag and drop pieces into place, and to draw track layouts directly in 3D space using the stylus.
Any hints on your two currently unannounced projects?
One of them is about to announced any day now, and in many ways is our biggest and most ambitious title to date. The other title may not be announced until next year -- it’s is a little more left field, and might pleasantly surprise a few people, while still offering all of the fun elements of a Firebrand game.
We also have another three games in early stages of preproduction -- so 2009 is looking like being an even busier year for us than 2008 was!
Does Firebrand have any intentions of developing a racing game that's more cartoonish/Mario-Kart in style, similar to the studio's first release, Cartoon Network Racing?
We’d certainly consider it and may or may not have something in the pipeline! Taking on Mario Kart directly with Cartoon Network Racing was always going to be a near impossible task, but our engine is more than capable of it, and our team has a broad range of experience with previous companies ranging from Tom and Jerry games to ultra-violent action games.
Are there any plans to develop titles outside of the racing/driving genre?
Again, we carefully consider every opportunity presented to us, but specializing in racing games has given us real strength -- both in expertise and in positioning ourselves as a developer. We also really enjoy making them. So it would take a special opportunity to convince us to move into other genres in the short term.