TrackMania Sunrise Designer Diary #3 - Lemmings and TrackMania
Nadeo's Oliver Torreilles explains how some of TrackMania Sunrise is drawn from the classic puzzle game Lemmings.
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TrackMania and the upcoming TrackMania Sunrise are by no means typical racing games. Whereas most racing games are about winning a race, the TrackMania games are more about the thrill of over-the-top racing. Imagine taking the gravity-defying Hot Wheels tracks that you may have played with as a kid and turning them into a video game, and that's a fair approximation of what driving in TrackMania is like.
In addition to traditional races, TrackMania Sunrise will include a puzzle mode, which will challenge you in different ways than the more conventional modes. The idea in puzzle mode is that you literally have to solve a puzzle to succeed. The game gives you a start line and a finish line on a map, and you have to figure out a way to connect them together to create the fastest, most efficient race track possible. And then you have to drive it and beat a predetermined time to succeed and advance to the next puzzle. In this edition of our designer diaries covering the five classic games that served as inspiration for TrackMania and TrackMania Sunrise, Oliver Torreilles of French developer Nadeo chimes in on how the cult favorite Lemmings played a role in the development of puzzle mode.
The Spirit of Lemmingsby Olivier Torreilles
The fact that TrackMania was initially supposed to be a solo puzzle game might seem weird for a game known mostly as a frantic online racer. We wanted the track editor to really be a part of the game, as opposed to the editors in many games that are mainly for the advanced and dedicated players. The first way to accomplish that goal was to make the editor as simple as possible. The second way was to create a game in which the editor was not only a tool to be used after you had sucked the solo content of the game dry, but rather a real part of the game. The main idea behind the puzzle mode is pretty simple: You are given scenery, a start and a finish line, and a certain number of different building blocks. Your goal is to build the most efficient track connecting the start and finish lines and then drive it. If you achieve a satisfying time, you are awarded a medal. A simple track and basic driving skills will ensure you a bronze medal, but you will need a clever track, a bit of lateral thinking, and good driving skills to get the gold medal.
Games that successfully mix construction and reflexes are few and far between. One game that did do so was Lemmings, which was developed by DMA Design and published by Psygnosis. In Lemmings, your goal in every level was to guide the lemmings from an entry to an exit point. The lemmings were pretty stupid and always walked forward as long as they could. You could help them maneuver around obstacles by giving them temporary "jobs," such as building a bridge, stopping other lemmings, climbing a wall, digging a hole, and so on. Of course, for every level you only had a limited number of jobs available.
Lemmings required quick reflexes to find the right way to save your stupid little friends and to put your ingenious plans in practice. Most of the time, the solution to a level was far from obvious. The difficulty was further increased by the dexterity required to click at the right time on the right lemming and the vicious hidden traps in the scenery. As a result, even the seemingly best strategies usually ended in a gruesome blood bath. The most efficient way to solve a puzzle was to experiment and see how the lemmings reacted, then experiment a little more, and try again. We have a similar combination in TrackMania where you build a track, drive a little bit, build some more to optimize your path, and drive again.
Mixing action and reflexes was one of the strengths of Lemmings. You get something much livelier than just some logical problem you have to solve. You need to experiment, you need to be focused to control your lemmings properly, and when an unexpected incident happens, it's usually fun. But when you find the solution, you still have the satisfaction of having figured out the "trick."
Another point about Lemmings that probably participated in its success was originality. When you played Lemmings, you had an experience you never had before. The value of originality is hard to express, but I have the feeling that it is pretty underestimated nowadays. It is hard to say whether the twisted minds that created Lemmings got their inspiration from older, forgotten video games, from a documentary on rodents, or from cosmic rays. But whatever vision they originally had, they managed to keep it in the form of a true video game. Of course, TrackMania cannot pretend to have the same level of originality of Lemmings; after all, half of TrackMania is a racing game, one of the oldest and most overdone genres in video games.
Diverging a bit, some of you might be surprised that none of the five developer diaries are dedicated to the classic 4D Sport Driving/Stunts, since many see that game as the precursor to or inspiration for TrackMania. Stunts truly was one of the first--and probably the best remembered--track-building and driving games, and comparing TrackMania to Stunts reveals many common points. But the truth is we never really drew inspiration from that game. I believe the similarities between the two are mostly due to a process of finding the same solutions for the same problems. A closer exam will reveal many "philosophical" differences between the two games. The best way to sum it up would be to say that Stunts is more a driving game, and TrackMania is more a racing game. You might think I'm just playing with words here, but there is a real difference. This is why Stunts needed collisions with opposing vehicles and why we decided TrackMania would be a better game without them. Our model was not real car racing, but just the concept of racing in itself.
While many TrackMania players never touched the puzzle mode and just enjoy racing, we are pretty happy about this mode since it really adds another unusual and rich dimension to the game. We only regret not having the equivalent of that great feature of Lemmings: the frustration-releasing genocide nuke that let players make all their dim-witted lemmings pointlessly explode, fireworks style. Serves them right.