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.