Sunday, January 27, 2013

Racing Game Analysis

In the interests of continuing research, I'd like to take a moment to discuss one of my favorite racing games. It's not a next-gen graphical powerhouse from a major studio, and it's not a timeless arcade classic. It's a five year old browser-based game that was made by one dude. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Need for Madness:

This is the simple brilliance of Need for Madness: you can win the game either by finishing the race first, or by wrecking all of the other cars. This is a system I haven't seen anywhere else. Games like Need for Speed will reward you with points for big crashes, and "battle mode" has been around at least since Super Mario Kart... you even have Twisted Metal, which abandoned racing entirely to focus on killing people while in cars. But Need for Madness is the only game I know of that provides both options for winning at the same time. So let's look at some of the various elements of the game, how they reinforce these disparate win conditions, and how the presence of these two different play-styles enhance each other.

Need for Madness runs the gamut of racing vehicles. If it's got four wheels, you can drive it. Each vehicle is ranked by six different stats that determine its speed, agility and strength. More than in any other game, the type of car you pick matters, because you have different needs depending on whether you're trying to wreck everyone else, or outrun the guys trying to wreck you.

The tracks are laid out much more differently than in your typical racer as well: in Need for Madness, the road itself is more of a suggestion than a strict course. A series of checkpoint gates keep the racers on track, but the battlers are free to move about any which way they like, which gives them a pretty big advantage when hunting down opponents. And of course the astute racer can always get a leg up by cutting corners.

Having a big open space is also important for this game because the physics are absolutely ridiculous. Take a hit from another player or go off of a jump wrong, and you can find yourself careening clear to the other side of the map.

During the game, there's two meters to keep track of in the upper-right hand corner: the Damage meter and the Power meter. Damage is exactly what it sounds like, Power is a little more interesting. It's somewhat akin to fuel, in that it slowly depletes over time and you need it to make your car go, but it's not quite as simple as that. Having more power makes your car go faster, and also makes you more resistant to damage, which means power is a vital commodity whether you're racing or battling.

To keep your power up, you have to perform stunts: whenever you go off a jump, you can use the arrow keys while in midair to make your car pitch and roll in various directions. The more elaborate the stunt, the greater the power boost. But if you mess it up and don't land properly, you get no power and are temporarily incapacitated, which will not only put you behind in the race, but makes you a prime target for any nearby aggressors.

This constant need for players to fuel themselves with stunts has a number of important benefits in terms of gameplay and player interaction. First, it breaks up the play by allowing the player a small reprieve, letting you just enjoy tumbling through the air for a while. Second, it turns the ramps into vital hotspots: they guide racers along the track, and can create a bottleneck effect despite the game space otherwise being a big, flat empty square. For battlers, it provides an important strategic element. A battler can always be sure to find cars near a ramp, and, whether a player successfully lands his jump or not, the moment after a car finishes a jump is the best time to attack.

The other important point of interest is the healing ring. When a player jumps through the ring, their health is completely restored. There's never more than one ring, although on some tracks there isn't one at all, so it's placement makes a big difference. A racer low on health has to consider whether he can last until the track takes him back through the hoop again, or if he has to cut across to heal and then get back to the race. Occasionally the ring is actually off of the track completely, necessitating a racer take a detour if he has to heal. At the same time, a cruel battler can just loiter near the ring waiting for easy prey, so trying to heal yourself can be a dangerous task in its own right.

One thing I haven't really touched on yet is the fact that in trying to win, it's not such an either/or situation. It's totally possible to start out wrecking cars, and then go finish the race once you've eliminated the tough competition. Maybe you were trying to run a clean race, but you just can't break out of second place: take a moment to smash the first place holder, and then glide your way to victory.

Or maybe you just look up and notice that there's only one or two other cars left, so you abandon the track to go smash their faces for a quicker win.

What's so beautiful about this game is the way that the two competing play styles complement each other so elegantly; each becomes more deep and engaging than it is on its own, simply by being juxtaposed with the other. It really is a stroke of genius. Hey, I mentioned this is a free browser-based game, right? You should go play it right now. That is all.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Car Model

Here are shots of the in-progress model of a 1980s Lamborghini Countach lp400 I'm modelling for the racing game.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Level Theme and First Pass

Since my character has a pretty strong cyberpunk feel to it, I'll be going that route with my level as well. I actually think a racing game will be a pretty good format for expressing some common cyberpunk themes. Visually, it's common for racing games to be set in large cities, and by default they tend to be devoid of any actual people, which enforces the sense of detachment and despair.

Here are the two more or less quintessential examples of a cyberpunk setting.

It's also kind of handy to build a level in a city full of towering buildings at night time. The darkness and speed at which you're traveling can mask a lack of details, and if you keep enough tall buildings around the race track, you don't have to worry too much about filling out the background. Both of these elements again emphasize themes of isolation, oppression and powerlessness.

Here's an example of a great game that uses minimal elements to create a strong theme and narrative out of virtually nothing: Canabalt.

In Canabalt, you play a faceless office drone who leaps out of the window of his corporate prison to escape his life. Your character runs to the right, constantly picking up speed, and you tap the screen to jump from rooftop to rooftop until you die. And then you do it again. Also, aliens are attacking the city.

What's brilliant about Canabalt is that all of the narrative and thematic elements are right there, but nobody picks up on them right away. You notice things little by little until you finally start to get a sense of the whole, and what was a cute little runny jumpy phone game suddenly becomes this bleak and harrowing story about the futility and senselessness of life.

So with all those sort of elements in mind, what would be a good concept statement for my level? Since it's a racing game, we can try to make it somewhat genre-appropriate. Something like:

You can't escape your troubles, no matter how fast you go.

As far as setting, so far I've been speaking in terms of a pretty generic near-future urban environment, but I've got an idea that will make it a little more interesting, and hopefully enforce the theme. It's a little bizarre, but hear me out on this: The buildings have faces.

How better to make the player feel powerless and desperate than to surround him with enormous monolithic spectres who grimace at him like something they found on the bottom of a shoe? The faces are greatly abstracted, but should still be distinct enough to set them apart from completely abstract lines of something like Tron. This style will allow me to use the classic visual trope of neon lights on a dark background, but still bring something new to it.

The color scheme seems kind of garish, and is certainly subject to change, but using bright, supersaturated lights will be great way to direct players along the track, just so long as I can successfully differentiate between the track and the background.

Lastly, I've tried to come up with a few ways I can express the theme through the design of the level itself:

I expect I won't have time to implement all of these ideas, but hopefully I can get in enough to really drive home the idea of a stark and oppressive city. 

And then there's the Big Tube:

Here's the idea: There's this big tube, that slowly spins counterclockwise. You can ride inside of the tube, or on top of it. While on top of the tube, you have to avoid the series of holes that drop you inside. Inside the tube, the holes are all preceded by small ramps that give you a boost. There will probably be a big boost at the end of the upper track for anyone who can make it all the way without falling through the holes.

Thematically, the idea here is for the inside of the tube to be really flashy and disorienting. Not only spinning, but full of flashing lights and boosts and stuff. It makes you feel powerless and not in control. Riding on top of the tube, you get a sense of being above it all. You get a small reprieve from the flashing lights, and a higher vantage point than on the lower track. That is until you fall in.

I don't know if this makes sense to anyone but me; all I do know is that I'm excited.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Character Design

Here is my final concept and turnarounds for the racing game character, plus her car.

As a child, Riley Masuda was taken and used as a test subject for illicit scientific experiments, melding her consciousness to a pseudo-organic supercomputer housed in her car. Now she is a fugitive, on the run from the twisted engineers who made her, and various governments, corporations and criminal organizations, who want her either on their side, or dead.

Introduction to Unreal Kismet

Below is my account of my attempts to make a Spiky Ceiling of Death using Unreal's visual scripting tool Kismet.

For the purposes of this exercise, everything was mocked-up using simple BSP geometry. The player starts outside of a large building with a door. A trigger in front launches an animation to open the door as the player approaches, and closes it behind them as they walk away.

After they enter the room, the door closes and locks shut behind them. In this case, I created the "locking" mechanism by simply reducing the Max Trigger Count on the door, so that after the door has been triggered twice, it won't trigger again. The problem with this is that if the player were to approach the door and open, then walk away instead of going inside, they would be permanently locked outside of the room. The better method would be to place a second trigger immediately inside the door, set to a boolean switch which would deactivate the door trigger.

Once they're inside and the door is locked, the ceiling immediately begins slowly lowering towards them. They can escape by running and stepping on the big button in the middle of the floor, Which triggers the door opening animation one more time, as well as a simple two frame animation to depress the button.

I experimented a bit with how far to place the button from the door, as well as the speed at which the ceiling lowers. The problem is that there's not really any way for the player to know that the door has locked, except to turn around and run against the door a few times until they realize it's not working. I already know the door's locked, so I can't really get a reading on what would be good timing (I sorta just tried to fake it by running at the door a few times before hitting the button).

But what the system really needs is a short cinematic or a sound cue, or both, to let the player know that the door has locked behind them.

I'm now also thinking it would be better to have the button stop the ceiling. Then you could put the button farther away, add a few obstacles, and really ramp up the tension leading up to the player hitting the button. And then you get this big moment of relief when you finally hit the button and it stops, but there would still be the eerie presence of the spikes hanging just inches above your head. Then there could be another puzzle or obstacle that you have to beat in order to actually open the door and escape.

On the other hand, if you do it that way, then you don't get the moment of the player rushing out of the door just as the spikes come down and crash into the floor. I really don't know.

Which is more intense, the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, or Indy grabbing his hat out from under the door in Raiders?

Finally, here's all of the Kismet I put together for this level.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Racing Game Stunts - Brainstorm

Here are some ideas for cool things I could make for the racing game.

1. A loop-the-loop that twists back around halfway and launches you onto a higher track

2. A half-pipe that would let players pass other cars

3. Giant pillars that shoot out of the ground as you're driving.

4. A mini ramp that bumps you onto two wheels to fit through tight gaps.

5. A big springboard that launches you onto a higher platform.

6. A gigantic Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-style boulder that crushes other cars, and is controlled by driving backwards on top of it.

7. A revolving door.

8. Perpendicular ramps.

9. A piece of track that rotates while you're on it and drops you off going in a different direction.

10. Portals.

11. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge.