Nitronic Rush was one of last year's hidden gems - a slick arcade racer set in a glittering digital city and starring a flipping, flying, rocket-boosting car. It was the final year project for a group of students at DigiPen, the Washington-based game development university, and picked up awards from multiple indie competitions - including the IGF, Indie Game Challenge, and indiePub. We liked it alot, and featured it in last year's New Years free games round-up .
Three members of the original Nitronic Rush team - Kyle Holdwick, Jordan Hemenway, and Jason Nollan - are now going indie full-time as Refract Studios. Their first game is Distance, a spiritual successor to Nitronic Rush that is currently entering the final week of its Kickstarter campaign .
I spoke to the guys about their plans for the new game, the benefits of getting a second shot at a good idea, and their experience of graduating from university into a maturing indie scene.
What are the main things that you're doing now that you couldn't do first time around?
KH: A lot of it just comes down to engine. We built Nitronic Rush from scratch and when I say that I mean it's all C++ - we used DirectX and some APIs but it's mostly from scratch. So networking and multiplayer were really challenging and we didn't really design the game with that in mind right away. So that's a big one - just the fact that we're using Unity. One of the biggest reasons we didn't have multiplayer in Nitronic Rush is just because of that [original] engine.
I'd also say, just design-wise... a lot of the things we found in Nitronic Rush were found mid-way through or even towards the end of the development, including Hardcore mode. One of the coolest things in the game is that the car can turn and rotate. A lot of that was thrown in right at the end. We know that mechanic works, and obviously a lot of people have a lot of fun with it, so what if we can take that back and design a game around it from the beginning?
We're trying to make it so that Hardcore mode is more integrated into the entire game - it's not just a separate mode - and we're trying to do it so it makes more sense cohesively as part of the world. They're not just random floating tracks like they were in Nitronic Rush, they're actually built into the world and mechanically make sense. Also the level editor, too - we had a level editor in Nitronic Rush but it was kind of an afterthought - you had to go outside into the Windows browser and enable it in a notepad file. This time, the level editor will be much better and it'll be something that you can go in and easily select from the menu.
JH: I feel like we got lucky, in that a lot of the the playtesting along the way really helped focus what was fun and cool - the flying almost got cut at the end because we could barely figure out how to not make it punish the player for going up into the sky because if you're going too fast you'll crash into stuff. We found a happy medium in the end but this time we're starting with that and seeing if we can make it a lot better. So I guess it's taking a lot of that knowledge bringing a professional edge to the whole thing.
KH: One of the big ones, too, is atmosphere - Jordan and I worked on a number of more experimental, poetic games before working on Nitronic Rush, and we want to bring some of that into Distance. We want the world to have this mysterious past to it, and have some depth. I think one of the best examples of that in Nitronic Rush was the billboards - we had posters and billboards around the world that had some propaganda and stuff on them. That's exactly what we want to push a lot further in Distance.
You've mentioned Half-Life 2 as an influence from an atmosphere point of view - but it's a very different way of interacting with the world when you're a flying car. How do you establish that atmosphere, given the way players will be interacting with the game and what their goals are?
KH: I think that's one of the most interesting challenges that we have to face with this game. Initially we threw out of a lot of ideas and one is the fact that you're moving pretty quickly through the city. But we also want you to have a lot of freedom when you're playing through the game - it's not an on-rails racer, so you can jump off the track and go wherever you want. We're going to do our best to encourage players to do that, there will be hidden areas in the level and we want there to be moments when it's obvious that, hey, there's something over there that you should check out.
Another one is actually having a lot of the HUD UI built right into the car. That's again another thing that we're experimenting with to help with the immersion of the game. I don't know if you've played Dead Space, but they did some stuff like that. I thought that was really interesting.
It's interesting, having the UI on the back of the car - on the rear windshield. It's the place the driver would never see - if there is a driver?
JH: One thing that was funny coming out of Nitronic Rush was us asking the question “is there a driver inside the car?” He's getting exploded 24/7, does that make sense? If there isn't a person inside the car, is the car the person? Is it kind of a Transformer? That's a part, I guess, of the mystery - what are the inhabitants of this world? At the moment I guess they're car-people, or something? That's the mystery I guess we're going after. We're doing some things - if you look inside the car, we're hinting a little bit at what we think it is.
I guess it's an ongoing process for you guys as well.
KH: Oh yeah, absolutely.
What kind of person would be a car?
KH: [Laughs] It's fun! That's actually something that we can take a lot further. It's that idea that the car is a character in the game.
To dial that back, then - why is that important? People will come first and foremost for the feel of the thing, the arcade racing and everything else. Why is it then important to have a sense of a character, a sense of a place?
JH: I think for us, we have fun making it - that's a part of it! Also a part of it is that we really didn't think about the car in Nitronic Rush having character until people brought it up. We had an idle animation where it would move the jets and stuff, and it started to feel like maybe that's a person of its own. Especially as an indie team, we're really avoiding humanoid characters and all that because it's incredibly hard to get right without it feeling strange. But it's an interesting thing to just inject a bit of human or animal personality into the car because it's a chance for us to experiment. It's something fun - I don't know how many people are going to be pick up on it, but it's something that adds to why the car's more unique than a random Need for Speed racer.
KH: That's exactly what I was thinking. To elaborate further, honestly that's sort of the process of every game we've ever worked on. We come up with a lot of ideas initially and we playtest them and we work with the feedback we get. One of the feedbacks we did get with Nitronic Rush was that the car felt like a character. I thought that was fascinating at the time.
You mentioned that you don't want to attempt humanoid characters because that's beyond your tech budget as an indie. I think that's true generally, and has influenced the aesthetic of indie games - you see a lot of low-fi characters presented in emotive ways. Games like Braid that take a particular retro aesthetic and try to make it meaningful in some new way. You're doing that with, as far as I can tell, 90s PlayStation racing games.
JH: [Laughs] Yeah. Yes!
So what is the feeling that you want people to get out of their flying car in space? What is the emotional correlative of 'flying car in space'?
KH: I think it's a strange combination of curiosity and adrenaline. Obviously we want to have that adrenaline and that high-energy feel when you're racing and you're trying to beat your opponent and beat the obstacles, but we're also trying to inspire that curiosity where you want to see what's hidden in the depths.
JH: Even for us... we're heavily inspired by a lot of the indie games recently. We mentioned a few of them trying to explain to people what we're going for. Journey, Limbo... because they do have such a strong curiosity element that is just fascinating. You want to believe in the world and see where the developers were taking it because you think they have all the keys. The nineties element is just taking what was really fun - the innate fun-ness of the car. I think a lot of indie games do nail this, but normally you either get one or the other - you get games that are super arcadey, and then you get things that are really focused on trying to figure out what's going on in the world. It's just a fun fusion for us.
You've mentioned the potential for mod support, there's also a map editor - will you have a facility built in to share that stuff?
JH: For the level editor, we want to make that as integrated as possible to the point where you're sharing the levels within the game. In terms of mod functionality, a big one is allowing people to make their own cars and stuff like that. Honestly what that'll come down to is tools - what tools we have that we're using ourselves.
What's the appeal of supporting that, in general? It's a tremendous amount of work, and you're handing over a big chunk of the game to the community.
JH: I think the biggest reason is instead of doing the game for consoles we really wanted to stay with the PC because we really like what's happening with mod communities right now. It's really powerful. We've gone in a few times and talked to people at Valve and it's always inspirational coming out of there - they want their company to feel like a modding community and they're really powered by that. It's something really unique about being on the PC platform - it's something that on the consoles, you just can't do.
KH: As hard as it is to make tools, we're going to be making those tools for ourselves so we might as well just add a little bit more time and make it good enough for the user. That's one reason. Second reason is that if you can do that you can really extend the length of the game. If anyone can make can tracks, the creativity is endless at that point. I'm really excited to see where the community goes with their tracks - even the few tracks that were added to Nitronic Rush were some of the coolest ones in the game, afterwards.
It's a debate that's happening everywhere - giving the player tools versus selling DLC separately.
JH: We may change our mind a year from now, but we're not as excited about having DLC packs. We haven't had as much passion for saying that we're the gatekeepers of content. We're a small team, and it's almost easier for us to let the community continue to put in content. I guess it's just more exciting from that angle, for us, to be one of the few racing games to still do that.
KH: Realistically there is still room for both - and I'm not saying that we're going to do this - but as much as we try to open up our tools to players to be able to add content to the game, I still think there'll be room for us to add features. Potentially new mechanics for the cars, new AI in the world. Programming stuff, basically.
Next: leaving DigiPen, the appeal of Kickstarter, and the importance of not being locked into a single job.
How straightforward a decision was it, for you guys, to go fully indie and Kickstart a sequel?
JH: It was actually kind of funny, because when we initially thought about doing any game after DigiPen... we really wanted to start a company, and we wanted to work on experimental games like we had been doing. A lot of our friends got AAA jobs in California and Washington, stuff like that... but we just loved working in these small teams at DigiPen and didn't want to stop doing it.
We were thinking about doing a much smaller experimental game, kind of a 2D thing - we talked about doing it for iPad, but we still wanted to stay with PC. Then we looked at what we could do if we were using something like Unity and if it'd even be possible for us to go and do another racing game like this again, and we set out to just try it. If we we're able to do it, it'd be amazing because there's so much stuff... mainly the atmosphere and the experimental edge of the car was the most exciting thing for us there. It was really cool what we were able to do with Nitronic Rush, but what if we were able to take that further? That'd give us a really interesting chance to mess with racing, still. So we just went out and tried it, and that's what we've been working on for the last few months. Once we got to the point where we thought we really could make this, we thought we'd go back to the community that supported us in the first place and see if they were interested in us making this game.
KH: Yeah, and a lot of the community initially wanted multiplayer in Nitronic Rush so that was one of the big decisions on that whole process - looking at Unity, seeing how their multiplayer worked, and once we were happy with it we thought “you know what, I think we can do this.” at that point we thought about and designed a lot of different modes for multiplayer, and that's something we're going to be experimenting with still. We do want the multiplayer to be more than 'race on a track against opponents'. One of them is tag, for example, where one player is 'it' and you have to go tag them. One of the more unique mechanics in Nitronic was the stunt system, so we're going to be integrating that into the multiplayer - an easy example there is just like a stunt mode where whoever gets the most points wins, but another mode that we're looking at is combining racing and stunts. It's one that I'm kind of excited about, where the end result is based on how many points you got in the race as well as the time that you finished with so it factors in both.
It sounds like you never really considered not being a studio, after DigiPen?
KH: The decision was sort of easy. After going to all of the indie conferences we were at with Nitronic we were really inspired to try to stay indie if we could. That's one of the reasons that we're doing the Kickstarter - just “hey, let's see if we can raise some funding by ourselves”. Another reason is the friendship that we gained by working on Nitronic specifically, between Jason, Jordan and myself. It was so powerful that, okay, I want to work with you guys - and I know that these guys wanted to work with me. That made the decision on its own really.
You've graduated into an indie scene that has matured quite a bit. Kickstarter is far more of a known thing than it was. Do you think that has changed the status quo substantially for graduates of the kind of courses you guys were on?
JH: It's definitely changed a lot, even at DigiPen. When we first got to DigiPen we were told “every year, this is the school where they win the IGF”. Once you're in your junior year is going to make an amazing game and it's going to win the IGF and everyone is going to throw jobs at you. You'll be living the dream, or hoping that's going to happen one day.
Kyle in his first year actually got a game into Indiecade, and it's like “oh, I guess more people are able to create content at this point that is competing with the professional indies.” In my sophomore year along with Jason we both got into a few indie competitions, and people are like “okay, it's strange that sophomores are now the ones going to IGF.” By the time we got to Nitronic Rush, there are so many competitions to enter... we submitted it to everything, and luckily got into quite a few things. We even got to go to Toyko Game Show, to show a game... not Nitronic, actually, a totally different game called Solstice. We were both in IGC for different things.
In terms of what DigiPen's scene's like... not only are you able to get into a million different competitions now, which gives you a lot of interesting opportunities for jobs and what not, but the games that people are making at DigiPen are just like professional indie games in a lot of people's eyes. The game class at DigiPen has always been a really big deal in that every year you make a game, but now it's not just “can you make a game” but “can you market it, get people playing it”. I don't know about other schools, but that seems to be what has happened.
Certainly there seems to be less pressure to sell yourself to a developer. Going back a few years, even teams with really great game ideas would often be adopted wholesale by a bigger company.
KH: Yeah, and a lot of that is attributed to Unity, and other engines just making games a lot easier to make. We built Nitronic from scratch - we went through the hell of doing that - and I think Unity is just so much easier than going through that process. I'm actually kind of excited to see, beyond today, the future of where games are going. I think it's very cool that a five year old can draw a picture with crayons - I'd love to see what a five year old could do making games, and I think it's headed in that direction.
Do you think there's a lot to be gained, then, from lowering the technical barrier to entry for game development? I.e: maths?
KH: Yeah, I think there is.
JH: At the end of the day, though, having done four years at DigiPen if we hadn't done that there's no way we could make this game. The math involved - especially for the car physics, getting that stuff right - is just incredibly challenging. Luckily we've got Jason on the team, who is excited about doing that kind of stuff [laughs]. It's a good way to learn, I guess.
It may have the result of course that a lot of games are extremely similar, all of a sudden, because everyone is using the exact same tools and you don't have that much flexibility. But it could also creative a bridge between the the super-crazy Unreal engine people and the people who are using the super simple stuff.
You guys all multi-task, given how small your team is - so you've got to cover a lot of bases.
Do you find that more satisfying? If you'd all gone off and gotten jobs at big companies, chances are you'd be more heavily focused, more milestone-driven.
JH: We definitely get a kick out of it. Even for me personally - okay, I'm working on business, PR or whatever. Later I'll be working on music. Later I'll be working on tweaking the visuals in the game, or I'll be writing some random game logic. We're all balanced people, I guess, in terms of both technical and art, and we love both areas - so it's a lot of fun. Jason can randomly switch between the car art to making the car controls with the physics, and then Kyle can do pretty much everything in-between. That's definitely something I thought of personally when I thought about getting a AAA job - it'd be tough to sit and just be focused on one goal all of the time. It could be a really big goal, of course, but that's something that isn't as interesting I don't think.
KH: There are definitely moments when we can focus on a task all day or potentially all week, but I think the ability to be able to jump around is a healthy thing. I'd be pretty bored if I only had to work on one task every single day. That's just my personality, I guess, but I do like that we can do different things here and there.
Again it seems to be something that engines like Unity have freed up, in that having some of the baseline tech sorted gives you more freedom to do other roles. Is that the case, in your experience?
KH: I'd say that's true. Especially for me, doing the networking... I've done a lot of internet related stuff but I'd never done multiplayer in a game before. I understand how the basic logic works but Unity's handling a lot of the low-level stuff. It makes it more satisfying, I guess, that you don't have to spend a month or two just writing the base level stuff. You get to the point where you have something moving on the screen and you're like “yaaaay, I'm glad that exists now” - but it's a lot more satisfying to be able to bust something out in a night and get it moving and doing stuff.
It's starting to sound a lot like modding, actually.
KH: It's similar to that in some ways. We're making a game from scratch in that all of the design and all of the art is going to be new but as a developer it is more similar to modding than it is to building a game from scratch, because when you build a game from scratch there are a zillion things that you know about this engine, you know all of its limitations, all of its quirks... you treat it differently, than when you're modding another game because you don't know any of those things. You're trying to make things that are cool! Making games in Unity is a little bit more like that.
JH: The downside is looking at documentation, looking at things online and trying to figure out the quirks of that engine because you don't know the guy that made it. That's definitely similar to modding - there are things that are blocked off. How do I get this little thing to work? They don't explain it very well on the website, so you just keep poking and prodding until something happens.
You've only just set up a studio, but what's your long term plan? Do you anticipate expanding? Is this a stepping stone to something else - or is this the status quo you want to maintain?
JH: I think the core of it right now for us is that we really love small teams. And a small team... well, technically Nitronic had eleven people that were involved with the project and that's still a pretty small team to us. But I definitely think that we do want to grow, and our mentality as a company is like a bigger company, but we do love to work like indies.
We love the fact that we're handling every single part of the game, the business, the art, and everything - and as we bring more and more people into it we're going to try to keep that mentality. Everyone has a strong say in what's happening in the game.
Thanks for your time.