TrackMania Sunrise Designer Diary #1 - The Spirit of SimCity
In the first chapter of our designer diary series, designer Florent Castelnérac describes how SimCity inspired TrackMania.
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TrackMania was one of the most underrated and underappreciated games of 2004, which is a pity because this French-designed stunt-racing game packed some of the simplest and biggest thrills around. However, the game did find a strong following in its native Europe, and hence we have the upcoming TrackMania Sunrise. The sequel will add several key features to the game, including a vastly upgraded graphics engine. However, the simple and thrilling stunt driving remains completely intact. In the kickoff chapter of our designer diary series, director Florent Castelnérac describes how the development team at Nadeo drew inspiration for TrackMania from classic games.
The easy-to-use track-editing tools of TrackMania were inspired by the classic city-building game SimCity.
The Spirit of SimCity
By Florent Castelnérac
A games journalist wrote about TrackMania: "TrackMania is not a racing game, it's a video game." We're very proud about that, since it perfectly summarized the philosophy we applied when we created TrackMania: make a fun game, where you can build your tracks and drive cars on them, without worrying about what a racing game was supposed to be like.
TrackMania is quite a phenomenon, at least in Europe. During the creation of TrackMania, we drew inspiration from the history of video games and tried to understand the strengths of the titles that marked us. Our top five games are SimCity, Stunt Car Racer, Lemmings, Super Monkey Ball, and Quake. Each of these developer diaries will focus on one of these games, its strengths and specificities, and how we tried to use or extend those strengths in TrackMania Sunrise.
I was a Lego freak when I was a kid. My parents never had to ask what I wanted for my birthday or Christmas; they just needed to refer to a Lego box. You can imagine how I felt, then, when I discovered SimCity, a game that allowed you to build your own city. As it did with many other players, SimCity glued me to the screen for a long time. The building blocks in the original SimCity were about as ugly as Lego blocks, but they shared the same strength: Once put together, they weren't just a bunch of blocks, but a city. Your city.
I believe the ease of use of SimCity was a key factor to its success. You needed only a minimal amount of fiddling around to understand how to place the different buildings. Afterward, there was plenty to learn, but it was naturally progressive. Having an easy-to-use editor for the first TrackMania was one of our main preoccupations. We really wanted the editor to be a part of the game and not just an extension reserved for mod makers. So we naturally based the interface on SimCity and other construction games, where building is the focus of the gameplay. As a result, building a short track takes a matter of minutes, but building your masterpiece track using all the possibilities of the editor can take hours.
One point crucial to the enjoyment of a building game is what I call the free-form factor. That is, the ability to create according to given rules but with a factor of creative liberty. If there had been an obvious pattern for optimal town constructions in SimCity, it would have ruined the enjoyment of building. While there were ways to build more efficiently, it was always viable to follow your inspiration, as long as it made a minimum of sense.
When we first toyed with TrackMania's prototype, we were pleasantly surprised that making a fun track was easy and, moreover, that there was always some amount of fun to be had from nearly every track. We had only a handful of different blocks (classic roads and curves, slope, accelerator, ramp, hole, and so on), but the number of possible track combinations was already huge. We believe the 400 blocks of TrackMania Sunrise will keep the players occupied for a long time.
But SimCity added a new dimension to building games that could exist only in a video game: life. Once you created your first residential area, your power plant, and some commercial and industrial zones, citizens arrived in your town. In those early days of computer graphics, their representation was quite symbolic but was sufficient to convey their presence and influence. They were represented as black dots on your roads, and their concentration made your residential areas change from slums to houses to skyscrapers. And, key to the game's balance, they brought you tax revenues and always had something to complain about, be it pollution, security, employment, and so on.
Build It and They Will Come
TrackMania is usually compared to Scalectrix, since all the building is based around tracks and cars, rather than city and citizens. But TrackMania shares one key aspect with SimCity: If you build it, they will come. So you build a track, put a lot of effort into it, add some original stunts or technical curves, add a little scenery, and create a multiplayer server, and surely enough, they come, the TrackMania drivers from the whole world.
It may take one minute or two for the first drivers to arrive, but once you have a few, your server is seen as valid, and it usually fills pretty quickly. You will see beginner drivers falling in every trap you laid. You will see ace drivers racing through your track, finding all the intended and unintended shortcuts and mastering it better than you ever did or ever will within five minutes. And you will get their feedback: "Nice track," "Funny start lol," "Trak sux," or something more constructive, if you ask. If your track is good enough, your "population" will rise to the limit you fixed for your server, and the real competition will begin. If your track is awkward, disorienting, or lacking in challenge, players will leave for other servers.
Successful or not, you will be able to correct the faults of your track and refine it further. Then you can submit it to the numerous track exchange sites and ask for feedback on forums, and who knows, if it gets popular enough, maybe your track will be selected for a championship race.
We believe that sharing is the logical extension to creation. Creating good tracks is one thing, but allowing other players to play on them is something else. Since the first TrackMania, tracks are automatically transferred by peer-to-peer to all the other players when playing online. This procedure is almost instantaneous thanks to the small format of the tracks, around 20 kilobytes in size.
After the release of TrackMania, we kept working on the editing and sharing aspect, trying to push it as far as possible. In TrackMania Sunrise, it is now possible to add an introduction to a track, set cameras for the race replay, or prepare spectacular camera effects during a race. Textures can be customized, letting you create, for example, personalized advertisement panels. We also added a tool that lets you paint your car directly in 3D. And we have a campaign editor allowing players to gather their best challenges in one pack, mainly for solo playing. But most importantly, when connecting online, all the data produced by those tools are automatically shared with other players. If you put a photo of yourself on an advertisement panel, all the players driving on your track will be able to witness your glory. If you paint your car in some beautiful purple color with green flames and your name in bold letters, the other players will see it too.
TrackMania Sunrise now has a community campaigns download feature, which allows players to get the best player-created tracks regrouped in solo campaigns. Easy to access, unlimited solo content, what more do you need? We have an incredible community for the original TrackMania that created, in 18 months, about 30,000 tracks, hundreds of skins, environment modifications, tools, Web sites, and more. As I am writing this, the TrackMania Sunrise demo has been out less than two weeks, and there are already more than 1,000 custom tracks downloadable from the main exchange site. And this is only the beginning...