Franchises like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo dominate the contemporary racing genre, which is not surprising, as each series is crafted by a legion of developers and is refined across multiple iterations. But when the industry is led by photorealistic titles that lean toward simulation, that leaves a wide opening for developers to craft a title that shirks convention, opting for creative mechanics and persistent thrill as you careen across over-the-top courses. Hoping to emulate the success of titles like Wipeout, F-Zero, and even Mario Kart, we had the chance to speak with indie upstart Supergonk about their upcoming game, Trailblazers.
Tech-Gaming: Supergonk is an independent developer with a rather prodigious pedigree. Can you share a bit of information on the team’s background?
Ben Ward, Supergonk: Supergonk is an indie developer and Trailblazers is our first console game together as a team. In the past we’ve worked at various AAA companies like Codemasters, Bizarre Creations, Lionhead, and Criterion. The team is very small; we’ve been three people for the majority of development, and the biggest we’ve been is six!
T-G: (Focused on Ben Ward)You worked with Bizarre Creations, the Liverpool-based developer behind gems like Blur and The Club, as well as the Geometry Wars and Project Gotham Racing franchises. Can you share any anecdotes about your time there?
BW: Bizarre was my first studio position in the games industry after a couple of stints in QA/work experience type jobs at places like Electronic Arts. I was a *huge* PGR2 fan before I started at Bizarre, and couldn’t believe my luck when I was offered the job! Working at Bizarre was a really humbling experience though; I distinctly remember being in awe of pretty much everybody I met for the first couple of weeks – all the artists were incredibly talented, the programmers infinitely knowledgeable, and designers super creative. I wondered how I would ever be able to work alongside these people! Even after 10 years of trying, I still look up to some ex-Bizarre developers as the shining example I try to follow…
T-G: Project Gotham Racing integrated ‘kudos’, a mechanic that meant just winning a race didn’t guarantee advancement- you had to do it with style. The Club has a similar scoring system. Having played a bit of Trailblazers, there’s a similar approach. Seemingly, a majority of the interest has moved away from a system of scoring, but you whole-heartedly embrace it. Why?
BW: Trailblazers does indeed have a focus on scoring and teamplay; more so than any other circuit racer. Our aim with Trailblazers was to inject as many new ideas into the racing genre as we could. I’m a big racing game fan and I play all the big new releases, but recently I’ve not found the level of innovation in the genre that I’d personally like to see. We built Trailblazers to be daring, try new ideas and be the kind of game we want to play ourselves.
Specifically, the paint/boost core mechanic is brand new to the genre; that’s the thing that enables true second-to-second co-operative teamplay. Each part of it, from the strategic painting element to the skill-testing boosting part, is supported in a holistic design. Scoring is the way we judge how well players execute their strategy – it’s a specific way of measuring their performance… it goes further than just first, second, third – on-track scoring is the key measurement of success in Trailblazers.
T-G: While many contemporary racing games like Forza: Motorsport and Gran Turismo aren’t stanch simulations, their take on racing is relatively straightforward. Trailblazers adopts an approach that’s not far from the fantastical races of Mario Kart, F-Zero, and Wipeout. Why this style?
BW: We wanted Trailblazers to be everywhere that other racing games are not. We applied this kind of thinking to every single facet of the game, from the core mechanic to the characters to the art style to the soundtrack to the storyline. Our mission was to critique existing titles and innovate in as many different areas as we could!
One of the more obvious areas where we felt Trailblazers could have an impact is in its visual style. If you look at many of the bigger arcade racers today, unfortunately they all look very similar. It’s all realistic cars, realistic tracks and semi-realistic, arcade-style handling. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy those games a lot… but I think the genre has over-optimised itself into a corner. As a team, Supergonk miss the days of F-Zero and Wipeout. We took the opportunity to be artistically different, and applied this thinking to the entire Trailblazers universe.
T-G: Racing games aren’t known for storylines or characterization, and when they attempt to provide an impetus, the result can be distracting, as demonstrated by several entries in the Need for Speed series. What was the motivation for a plot and characters?
BW: Haha yes, racing games don’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to storyline, do they?! Our thoughts were very clear when it came to narrative: we wanted to provide a “reason to race” without the storyline taking itself too seriously or getting in people’s way. The resulting narrative was penned by the same guy who did the writing for No Man’s Sky, but the style is very different. Trailblazers’ storyline features a space frog with daddy issues, a love story between a 1000-year-old imperial bureaucrat, and a giant red alien war chief, and also a robot uprising. So it’s not too serious! We hope that people will play through the storyline to learn more about the characters and the world, as well as enjoying the gameplay-focused objectives and special races.
T-G: Another drastic departure is Trailblazers’ incorporation of split-screen multiplayer, which complements an online matchmaking system. What was the motivation behind this addition?
BW: Our core mechanic is teamplay, so we thought it was a no-brainer to include as many multiplayer options as we could. We remember the days of enjoying split-screen racing titles and many of the people I speak to say similarly; so split-screen was definitely high on our list of things to support. We’ve pushed things one step further as well, allowing people to play split-screen in online matchmaking too. So you can get together with your friends both in couch co-op and remotely online and play together! I’m really happy with the level of multiplayer support we’ve been able to implement given the tiny size of our dev team!
T-G: Rivalry in racing has traditionally been promoted through mechanics like shunting, and in more arcade-inspired games, through power-ups and weapons. While Trailblazers does incorporate attacks, they feel somewhat de-emphasized? What were your intentions here?
BW: We were careful to not include too many power-ups or attacks because it distracts from the core mechanic, which is painting. We prototyped a bunch of different ideas in this area, but opted to keep things lightweight. In Trailblazers you can shoot a forward-facing stream of paint at an opponent. It’s “dumbfire” – it doesn’t track a target or have homing capabilities. However, performing this attack uses up your entire paint supply, so it’s actually a big trade-off. Do you attack now, or do you save your paint to capture more parts of the track and invest in your future? Those kind of split-second decisions, where there isn’t a 100% correct answer, are what Trailblazers is all about.
T-G: Moving from a sizable developer team into a smaller studio must have required an adjustment in approach. What are some of the difficulties Supergonk has faced while creating an ambitious, inspired racing game?
BW: Supergonk is an independent developer; we aren’t owned by any larger entity. We self-funded the majority of Trailblazers development, deliberately keeping the team size small because we simply didn’t have the funds to scale up. Of course it’s great to have creative freedom and we made the most of that with Trailblazers, but the trade-off is that it’s very difficult to pay salaries and bring the final product to market – especially if you’re shipping on consoles!
We were very fortunate to meet with the passionate team at Rising Star Games, who were not only super excited about Trailblazers but also were able to fill in the gaps that Supergonk couldn’t fill on our own. Specifically, Rising Star have been able to provide distribution, marketing/PR and other development services which have raised the quality of Trailblazers immeasurably.
In development terms, being such a small team has meant that we’ve had to be quite creative with our tools. We use Unity as the engine that power’s Trailblazers internals, so much of the cross-platform heavy lifting is done by the fantastic Unity team. We’ve developed proprietary tools on top of Unity which allow us to create Trailblazers’ stuff. For example, we procedurally generate much of our race track and its cosmetics (e.g. barriers, signage, lamp posts, etc.) because we just don’t have the artist headcount to do it any other way. Limitations can sometimes be really useful to bolster creativity, and that’s certainly the case with Trailblazers.
T-G: Perhaps more than most genres, racing games must nail the fundamentals, with control that balances accessibility and finesse, and AI that doesn’t seem to rubber-band or act too robotically. What were some of the design ambitions for your control scheme?
BW: We spent a LONG time prototyping what Trailblazers would be. It took a while to get the core mechanic feeling just right, and getting the painting/boosting components to play off each other perfectly. You’re right in that everything in racing games are connected – one tiny change to physics requires another pass on vehicle dynamics. Those dynamics changes might mean that a particularly tight hairpin needs to be altered, and that might have a knock-on on environment art. So yes, making racing games is hard!
Specifically talking about handling, it became quite obvious what kind of driving model Trailblazers should have once we had figured out the painting/boosting prototype. We ask the player to duck and dive across the track surface, attempting to stay on their colour whilst under pressure from their opponents. The handling needed to be responsive enough to allow this quick-reaction gameplay (so we weren’t going to be a heavy, realistic driving game) but also not too lightweight as to allow players to easily dance out of any possible danger. If you were to draw a line between Arcade and Simulation, I’d say that Trailblazers sits about 75% of the way toward Arcade handling. It’s fast and frantic and responsive, but you can also lose your powerslide and end up in the barrier if you push it too far!
T-G: Talking to you while taking Trailblazers around for a few laps, it’s evident that a lot of thought has gone into the game’s mechanics and sense of balance. What are some of the design decisions that were cut from the game’s near-final build?
BW: We prototyped hundreds of different ideas and mechanics. We built specific tools to allow us to tweak and enable/disable these prototypes while playing the game (without having to restart). Some ideas definitely worked better than others, so we took great pleasure in periodically throwing out the junk and further developing what was working. This type of iteration is very common in game development; I think it’s one of the main ways to ensure quality.
One of our first ideas for Trailblazers was to have enemy trails be dangerous to your car, so you’d slow down and get electrocuted if you drove on the opposite team’s colour. We implemented it in a bunch of different ways, but always found it to be frustrating to play. You just don’t have the freedom of movement in a circuit racer that you might get in a shooter; it was often unavoidable to drive on the other team’s colour. We ended up remixing the mechanics to be more timing-based than position-based, making driving less frustrating and more action-packed. Overall it was a really good change (and a turning point in our prototyping), but it took a long time to discover that!
T-G: The game almost looks completed. What need to be done before Trailblazers release in May?
BW: We’re on the last stages of development now. As we’re shipping on so many platforms (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux) we have a lot of testing and performance-tweaking to do, so that’s what we’re on right now. We’re aiming for a May release date, so do look out for Trailblazers then!
T-G: Thank you for your time!
Tech-Gaming would like to thank Danitra Alomia, Anthony Chau,
Ben Ward, and Supergonk Games for their participation.