While there are plenty of racing games that require you to be the first to cross a finish line, there aren't many that are obsessed with the sensation of speed like the TrackMania games from French developer and publisher Nadeo. In fact, the idea of going as fast as possible is so important that TrackMania doesn't feature car collisions that would slow you down. That lets you focus on driving on the game's many imaginative courses, many of which sport elaborate loops and jumps. The other major feature of TrackMania games is that you can easily construct your own courses and share them online with others. In fact, there's a community that supports the game with tens of thousands of user-made tracks. To learn more about TrackMania United, the next game in the series that's due out in February, we caught up with Florent Castelnerac, the director of Nadeo.
GameSpot: We had a lot of fun with TrackMania and TrackMania Sunrise, so we're happy to hear about TrackMania United. We'll go into specifics a bit later, but, briefly, what are the major new features of United?
Florent Castelnerac: While TrackMania is one of the most played online games in the world, our first TrackMania United tester said, "With the solo [mode], you just killed the multiplayer." [But] we only used the best thing ever for solo mode: online. While you can still play the classic solo mode on the 189 tracks, you can use the official mode to rank your race online. What's more, you have a limited number of tries because each one costs you some of your precious coppers, the unit of currency in the game. At this moment, your achievements are real ones. You rank in your state, in your country, or in the world. Do I care anymore to defeat a [computer opponent], or would I rather race against real players? The challenge is just better with a real target!
GS: In terms of gameplay, can we expect more of the pure racing action of the series? Cars still won't collide with one another, right? And are you adding new car models or types to the game?
FC: TrackMania United combines all the gameplay and environments that made TrackMania such a success, plus a new dirt-racing style. Cars won't collide. Players will unite and play together. The community is so constructive that this game, which combines all the previous TrackMania titles, will be an incentive for players to increase the 100,000 tracks and the hundreds of cars made so far by the community. We want players to enjoy being with others!
GS: Are there any major changes to the three racing modes in the game? Is it still time trials (try to finish as fast as you can), ramps (use a minimum number of checkpoint resets to finish a race), and puzzle mode (create a course that lets you get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time)?
FC: We have learned from our mistakes. Quality of track design should be better, even if players can create their own. We're concentrating on making an easy and fun default campaign with only quality tracks and quality modes. However, with the official mode, all these modes get another dimension. Race is still the king mode, but puzzle and platform are better than ever. And if you want more, increase the difficulty and download the best challenge created by players with a simple click!
GS: It sounds like the content editor has been improved considerably, with more than 1,000 different construction blocks now. That's a crazy amount of content. Just what sort of new blocks are there?
FC: There are many new blocks in the TrackMania Nations environment, like dirt, water, sand dunes, [and more]. But my favorite is the block that shuts down your engine and makes you coast. You don't hear any more engine sound, and you race with the fear of losing speed. Imagine a race of 20 drivers that ends with a big slope after this block. Maybe some will stop just before the finish line because they run out of momentum.
GS: What are the new ManiaZones, exactly? They look like a way to organize the community by location, but this also looks like a way for users to create customized home pages. Could you explain?
FC: ManiaZones is the concept of a combined local newspaper and sports club. For each zone, you can have local players under the lights and local forums. A zone could be a state, or you can create your own zone for a school, a company, a family, your friends, and so on. Very simply, from within the game, you will then be able to be ranked and join other group races to compete in.
GS: Next up is the ManiaLink, which looks like an online marketplace where you can download new tracks and skins. How does it work? One thing that caught our eye is that items appear to have a price in coppers. How do you get currency in the game? Do you buy it with real money, or do you earn it by accomplishing things in game?
FC: ManiaLink is an in-game Internet-connected system that gives you the ability to buy other players' creations instantly: tracks, cars, videos, skins, and so on. For example, during the beta, two players have made a good playlist of music for the game. You can buy them with an in-game special unit called coppers. You receive coppers every day that you connect to the game, and you also gain coppers when you win official medals on the Nadeo tracks. Today, a nice car is around 150 coppers. So, you need to win five gold medals or connect at least once a day for three days to earn this much (but only two days if you own the previous TrackMania games.) You can still freely share your creations through the Internet, but coppers and the in-game browser offer a powerful player-to-player marketplace! It is a fantastic link between the community and a wider audience.
GS: There's a new lighting system in United, but what other graphical improvements are there? Is it backward compatible with existing user-made tracks, or will users have to modify their tracks to work with the new lighting system?
FC: This improvement is only in the TrackMania Nations environment, and we had to modify all the blocks to showcase the new lighting system. Existing player-made tracks are compatible, and stadium tracks will benefit from the new lightning. This system took us as much work as the first complete graphic engine. I started my career in a special effects movie company, and I have learned that the best special effects are the ones you can't easily distinguish; they just make the picture naturally better. Those effects cost a lot to do but are worth it. On a simpler matter, but of obvious interest for players, we have doubled the size of the buildings in the TrackMania and TrackMania Sunrise environments. We decided that after doing a thorough CPU optimization.
GS: Will United have a higher system requirement in order to run with these graphical features, or do you think it'll remain about the same? And what sort of system requirements are you looking at?
FC: The latest environment, stadium, can require much power when set at the highest graphic quality. But we're aiming to do a racing game that produces a solid frame rate. So, there is still the simple option: nicer, or faster. [Beyond] this little option, there are five graphic engines and versions of data. We have added a new one this year: PC3 low. PC3 is the highest quality, but PC3 low enables low-end graphic boards from the latest generation to perform well. We use the features and the quality of their architecture to give the best picture quality possible. Bottom line is that you can play at 60 frames per second on a five-year-old PC, or play at 60 fps with full high-definition resolution and maximum shader quality on a high-end PC of the past 12 months.
GS: We couldn't help but notice that United is being touted as having "high-definition" graphics. Is this a hint that we could see the TrackMania series appear on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3?
FC: How many publishers ask me about this? A lot. The PC is probably the best platform around to play online and to create and share around the world. PlayStation 3 players cannot play with Xbox 360 players, and I am not going to ask my buddies to buy one to play together when they already have a connected PC. Consoles are great for "show" entertainments, but the true online is on PC. World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike are the proof. Maybe the 20 million downloads of TrackMania Nations can also be one.
GS: Finally, is there anything that you'd like to add about TrackMania United?
FC: Two $40,000 tournaments happened on TrackMania this year because of its competitive and accessible quality. At the Electronic Sports World Cup, you had Counter-Strike, Warcraft, Quake, and TrackMania. But some people say this game is now more like a massively multiplayer game. There is a big difference: You are the avatar. You do [the] driving, and you see your skills upgrade. This is why, like with sport, there is a balance between the time you play and reality. And you cannot buy your rank on eBay. This is also a good reason why TrackMania has a long life with gamers, much like Counter-Strike: People want to practice one or two sports over several years instead of learning a new one every month. And this is probably why the first players of TrackMania are still there three years later, and I salute them!
GS: Thank you, Florent.