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Interview: Vector, Mind Control Talk  Vector City Racers ' Flash

Interview: Vector, Mind Control Talk Vector City Racers' Flash Exclusive

May 14, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander




VC-funded firm Vector Entertainment has been talking to Gamasutra about its Vector City Racers, a browser-based, kid-focused online vehicle racing MMO developed by partner MCS Games.

Vector Entertainment was previously known as Webcarzz, and received $4 million in funding in August 2008 to create microtransaction-based online games - this is its first title.

In this case, the firm has gone for something relatively rare in browser-based games - a real-time, twitch-based racing title. Its proprietary Flash 10-based V3D engine allows real-time 3D object rendering in-browser, depth of field/blur effects, and the company says its architecture is optimized for responsiveness with high frame rates.

The V3D engine joins a number of other real-time technologies for playing multiplayer browser games, including the Unity Engine, as used in Cartoon Network's Fusionfall MMO, and InstantAction.com's wrapper-based 3D solution.

The company had a vision for Vector City Racers, and the only way to actualize it was to roll its own tech, Vector CEO Chris Bergstresser tells Gamasutra.

"There are some commercial solutions out there but there really weren't built for the kind of game that we wanted to craft," he says. "It was apparent we had to create our own full 3D engine in Flash 10."

The word Bergstresser likes to use to describe what V3D enables is "kinetic." He says the engine is aimed to provide more of a "console" experience in browser-based multiplayer gaming that "really hasn't fit in an MMO yet."

"Flash has very limited 3D support," says Andrew Leker CEO of MCS Games (also known as Mind Control Software, creators of the IGF-winning Oasis), developer of the first V3D product, Vector City Racers. "It has virtually none; we'd have to handcraft and optimize to be able to render all these buildings and vehicles and special effects in realtime."

Shadowing in particular was important to the tech, says Leker, as it goes a long way toward creating dimensionality. Vector City Racers is aimed at kids and tweens primarily, and socialization is a primary draw for that demographic. That's why it was important to develop it, from a visual and gameplay standpoint, so that players could see one another's cars and have an awareness of where they fit into the space.

"Racing games are generally often first-person, or close-camera third person," says Leker, "and we wanted kids to be aware of lots of other kids they're playing with; we wanted something closer to a top-down view."

"This is something we tested with our demographic," adds Bergstresser. "We showed them different products with different perspectives, and they were practically unanimous in that they preferred the perspective in this way; they liked being able to see other kids."

Beyond the visuals, though, it's most important that V3D enables what the two say is a similar sense of responsiveness to what they might get on the Wii. "That weighed heavily in a lot of our decisions that were made in creating this game," says Leker. "In we had an opportunity to create this kinetic video game feel, this twitch gaming that kids don't associate with online MMO experiences in the browser."

Even though Flash can only go so far in terms of visual fidelity, the team's made the most of it, with a mod-minimalist cel-shaded look for the game. It also relies heavily on user customization for the vehicles -- the polygonal objects are all fully editable, so the input of the players goes a long way toward graphical diversity in the game's look.

"We can focus on a category of play," says Bergstresser. "It's more of a playground with racing -- the way we imagine our competition is there's a lot of focus just on racing, and we wanted kids to be able to play with each other, not always be forced into head to head competition. We wanted longer playtimes and we felt like if the kids could mingle and play and witness each other, then we were going to do better and provide more fun for the kids."

Aside from the basic head-to-head racing, it was important to the team that Vector City Racers support a variety of gameplay types all within the same engine -- treasure hunts, flag relays and other modes that encourage kids to maximize their exploration of the game world.

"In games like Club Penguin, you have kids talking to each other, but their interactions are very limited," Leker points out. Additionally, traditional virtual worlds often feature minigame experiences, but it tends to launch in a compartmentalized way -- in other words, there's an MMO social environment for chatting, but the games feel almost like separate clients once the users engage with them.

The ability to solve that problem was another priority for the V3D tech. "We wanted to create a game that had some of the social interaction of a traditional virtual world for kids, but also allowed the kids to play and have fun right in that same play field so that they don't have to shell out to a minigame," Leker says.

Especially since Vector City Races focuses primarily on an audience of boys, the team felt that it was particularly key not to separate socialization from play. "We don't think boys are as likely to just sit around and chat with each other," Bergstresser says.

Aside from gameplay, virtual worlds traditionally feature other social elements like profiles, stats and leaderboards, and the Vector City Racers team says they're aiming to avoid isolating those elements out into separate browser windows too. "We're doing as much in-engine as possible," says Leker.

That includes the transaction system. The game uses a digital wallet accessible from the engine, and like many popular kids' games, it features a dual currency system where players can also earn in-game currency through achievements.

"Everything's built in a generic fashion on the server background," says Leker -- "but there's nothing to prevent us from pubbing up to web pages. We want to make sure the experience is as immersive as possible."

The team's priority is actually working with Vector City Racers, which enters open beta on May 18, and not necessarily promoting the V3D engine from a licensing standpoint right off the bat. But, says Bergstresser: "The tech definitely will be in a fashion where Vector City Racers need not be the first and last product of its kind."

"Let's just say it's technology that, of course, we're going to be looking at other potential products potentially focused on different demographics, different age groups. But the focus right now for us is launching the right way, and competently and making it successful as possible. Certainly if people want to discuss licensing opportunities, I'm happy to talk to them."

So the vision for the game was the priority, and the tech came later. What advice do Vector and MCS offer other developers considering rolling their own tools for a browser-based game?

"I would say, identify your business objectives -- and primarily, the means by which you plan to differentiate your product," says Bergstresser, "and identify early whether your differentiation is going to cost you in terms of technical complexity and decide whether that's worth it -- because there are commercial solutions out there that are excellent."

"Or you'll have to roll your own -- and we chose to do that because we knew that our product was differentiating itself in terms of style of graphics and gameplay."

"Try to live within the space of what you know you'll be able to do, because you don't want to fail due to trying to create a tech that you don't have the time and money to build," agrees Leker.

"So if you can use an off the shelf solution... our server backend, not our game server but the services used to build authentication and databasing, we used every off-the-shelf component that we could. We're very much in favor of, 'don't reinvent the wheel.'"


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