TrackMania Sunrise - Designer Diary #2 - Stunt Car Racer

The designer of TrackMania Sunrise recalls how the game is inspired by the granddaddy of all over-the-top racing games, Stunt Car Racer.

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TrackMania Sunrise is the follow-up to last year's TrackMania, a highly enjoyable stunt racing game that let you perform all sorts of over-the-top racing maneuvers--such as loops, insane jumps, and more--while racing at breakneck speeds. For the sequel, French developer Nadeo has rebuilt the graphics engine to deliver beautiful visuals, as well as introduce several new features. However, rest assured the high-octane heart of the game remains the same. In the second edition of our designer diaries, Florent Castelnérac, director of Nadeo, describes how TrackMania drew inspiration from the classic 1989 racing game Stunt Car Racer.

This track captures the roller-coaster spirit of the game.
This track captures the roller-coaster spirit of the game.

Stunt Car Racer

By Florent Castelnérac
Director, Nadeo

Geoff Crammond's Stunt Car Racer is a game that many elder players fondly remember. I was around 12 when I played it on my Amiga 500. Stunt Car Racer put you in command of a high-speed dragsterlike vehicle. Each race consisted of a roller-coaster-like track where you had to beat one computer opponent. The game consisted of four divisions that you had to beat successively, and each division had two tracks and two opponents. Beating the final division was truly a worthy feat, because it gave you access to the super divisions, which were essentially the same but with much harder opponents. One of the particularities of the game was that it was in full 3D. It was in a day and age when 3D games were still pretty uncommon and rather experimental (Indianapolis 500 and Hard Drivin' are two other examples that come to mind). For example, it was released at a time when the polygon budget of cars, track, and scenery--combined--was 10 times smaller than the number of polygons used to render tire rims on today's average racing game's cars.

Getting immersed in those games was pretty similar to seeing "stereo grams," those 3D images hidden within other pictures. Either you had the "requirements" (in the first case, a good level of abstraction, while in the second, flexible eyes) or you didn't. Those of us who, when seeing five cubes, said, "Well, it's a car, of course!" had the ability to enjoy those games to the fullest. Others had to wait a few generations for technology to catch up with the way people expected a car to look. Anyway, the point is that while using 3D at a very primitive level, Stunt Car Racer managed to capture the same sensation that modern 3D games convey: immersion. This is the feeling of being in a world rather than observing a world.

When we began working on TrackMania in 2002, 3D had been the norm for racing games for a long time. Despite this, you can still distinguish two kinds of philosophies when it comes to 3D worlds in racing games. The first, found most often in serious racing games, is to make you drive on a rigid path. The racing area has the shape of a long ribbon, and you are not allowed to leave it. You can always try to throw your car from a cliff, à la Thelma & Louise, or hit low walls at 200mph, hoping to jump over them, but those attempts will only be met with an invisible wall or some respawn. Those constraints allow numerous advantages for the developer, plus not having to worry about the player doing some weird thing, such as diving into a lake. For TrackMania, it was clear from the beginning that the player would be able to go everywhere. Many tracks exploit this. Some require you to go off-road for some time, driving between trees and other natural hazards. If you miss a jump and fly off the road, you might be able to drive back on to the track if the terrain layout is favorable.

To ensure that the illusion of a real world remains consistent while exploring it, you also need a good physics engine. The physics in Stunt Car Racer were simple but efficient and fun. Your car reacted to every bump on the road and had a very elastic suspension. As a result, a steep-curve exit could be very dangerous, since the smallest shock before being realigned with the road could send you flying off the track. Stunt Car Racer's physics worked well within the confines of the track, but as we have seen, TrackMania offers a much wider world to explore. It would be pointless to let the player drive through the offtrack environment only to realize that the car cannot collide with trees or that the car does not sink when falling into a lake. TrackMania's physics engine permits coherent off-road sessions, but most importantly, it allows players to use every element as a track element. You can't find a ramp steep enough for your ultimate jump track? Use a hill or a mountain instead!

While many players enjoyed the graphics of the original TrackMania and found them adequate for the game, it was obvious that a lot of players would never consider buying a game devoid of impressive graphics. And that's pretty understandable. Even if many old-school gamers consider that gameplay is all that matters, the fact is that pretty graphics are enjoyable. Good graphics appear as a kind of proof that the game has production value, and it is only natural to want perceptible value for money. One of our goals was to make TrackMania Sunrise visually competitive with the current level of racing games. Realizing that this was not a concern to be taken lightly, we took drastic measures: We doubled the size of our art team. We were worried that so many artists would be too much for the programming team to manage, but, surprisingly, we succeeded in containing both of them. As for the results, we are pretty pleased, but you can judge for yourself from the screenshots.

If a real car could go 500mph, it would surely rebound on water, too.
If a real car could go 500mph, it would surely rebound on water, too.

When I played Stunt Car Racer, I thought that stunt car racing really existed. Not in France, of course, because we do not have crazy stuff like that in France. But in the US, surely there had to be stunt car racing. After all, Americans had monster trucks. They had dragsters, they had stock cars, and they had the biggest roller coasters. So stunt car racing seemed to fit in pretty well. I wondered about what kind of tracks they had and what kind of security measures they took to ensure that drivers falling hundreds of feet in their vehicles managed to survive. The reason I believed such races could exist, apart from my naïvety, was that Stunt Car Racer was set in a realistic world...as realistic as the computer technology at the time allowed, that is. The vehicle and the circuits were believable, and even though they did not exist in real life, they could have. The tracks were huge wooden structures-- not that different from roller coasters--the vehicles looked like existing vehicles, and the championship had a classic structure. If the scenery had been some futuristic race in a sci-fi environment or a wacky race in a cartoon environment, the game would have probably lost some of its appeal, even if the gameplay remained the same.

I believe that this kind of contrast between a realistic setting and excessive/extreme action is a good recipe for fun, perhaps because the over-the-top nature is more familiar in realistic settings. A spaceship flying at 300mph over huge metallic structures is fun in its own right, but a car jumping at a similar speed over buildings, only to land on the road and go through a perfectly banal finish line, is just funnier for people, I guess. Huge jumps are as fun in TrackMania Sunrise as they are in Stunt Car Racer. But the technological gap between the two games allowed us to push the concept further. Better graphics and physics mean a better depiction of the world and thus a stronger contrast between the realistic environments and the crazy stunts you can pull off. Driving over building roofs, jumping over mountains, or, if your car is fast enough, rebounding on water are feats that few racing games will let you pull off.

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