Recently, Siliconera caught up with Shin’en founder, Manfred Linzner, to discuss the company’s upcoming futuristic WiiWare racer, FAST – Racing League.
Since the last time we spoke, you’ve published Art of Balance and Jett Rocket for WiiWare. How have those performed relative to your expectations?
Shin’en co-founder, Manfred Linzner: First we are very happy with the response from gamers. Art of Balance got exceptional reviews and Jett Rocket has also caught the heart of many gamers. Regarding sales, you have to consider that games on WiiWare have a longer tail than at retail. For instance, our first WiiWare title Fun Fun Minigolf still sells nicely. So we will know in a year or so how the games really did.
How did you come up with the idea for FAST? You’ve said before that you weren’t surprised by the comparisons to wipEout and F-Zero. Did you look to those games for inspiration?
Last year, we brainstormed what was missing on Wii in general. Quickly, we all came to the conclusion that futuristic racing was something that was totally left out on the Wii. As we’d never done a real racing game before, we did some R&D first. It showed that, with our tech, we were able to deliver something never seen before on the Wii in the racing genre. We were very excited to do such a game.
Of course, we know all the other futuristic racers. And especially F-Zero is a game we really admire. However, design-wise we moved in a different direction. When people still draw comparisons, its because when you see a futuristic vehicle without tires, you will be automatically reminded of F-Zero or wipEout, just because you know those games so well.
Most important to FAST is that it plays absolutely fresh. Its not like any racer you’ve played before. You can "switch the phase" of your ship and so you can take advantage on the track’s phase features. This gives a whole new dimension to the racing genre. We are very happy for that feature as it feels really unique and fun.
You’ve talked about "shifting your phase" a lot. How does this work? What are the phases vehicles have, and how do they correspond to the track?
The vehicles can shift between a negative (dark) and positive (bright) phase. Features on the track also have those phases. So for instance, there is a positive speedup region on the track. If you hit it while also being in positive phase, you get a speedup — otherwise you slow down.
Another example would be the jump features or the overhead features on the track. Beside the phase shifts, there is also a boost system. Using these, you can play a perfect strategy to get ahead of the other drivers. The system is very well balanced and makes the whole game very special. It doesn’t feel like anything else I have played before.
Do the positive and negative phases affect your racer in any other way, aside from speed boosts acquired while driving over their respective strips on the track?
There are many features on track that depend on the phase. For instance, if you drive through a tunnel and the tunnel ceiling has a positive phase you just switch your phase to positive and get lifted to the ceiling to drive upside down.
So, how do you come up with track design for a futuristic racer? What kind of reference do you use and how do you decide when a track is "done" and shouldn’t be tweaked any further?
We first made a list of track elements that would be most exciting to players. Stuff like really steep hills and descents, loops, twists, cliffs, etc. Then we developed some tech stuff to create tracks very quickly, while still allowing full control over the slopes and size of the features. We knew it would be crucial to be able to tweak the tracks at any time until they were perfect and we fortunately found a perfect solution.
In the end, it’s pretty easy to say when a track is done. We just watch other people play. When there are comments like "that’s unfair" or "you can’t recognize this or that soon enough," we know we have to go back to tweaking.
The big goal was to make players feel they are in absolute control. We don’t like the common racing genre practice to place giant blinking arrows everywhere around the track. This is often done just to cover confusing track design. In FAST, you know where to go. It’s just a matter of your skill, not a matter of memorizing a track. Of course, you can do some tricks better when you are familiar with a track.
I like the idea of the track being visually intuitive instead of relying on signposts and arrows to tell you which way the next turn will be. How do you accommodate that? Do you have to make the bends more gradual, or does it have to do with the overhead map?
There are a couple of things that when used together make it a lot easier to for the player to recognise the next turn. For instance, the camera position and field of view is extremly important. Also how you design the fence area that is often around the track.
Also, secondary geometry that gives hints to the eye can be helpful. The overhead map isn’t that important because you can’t concentrate on it while racing. It’s just a general hint as to where you are on the track.
How many tracks and racers are you hoping to squeeze into the final version of the game?
We don’t have yet the final number. We currently try various methods to squeze all the things we done into the 40MB limit. The tracks are quite large and have many details, and so they eat up a lot of space. Also, we have a large number of excellent songs and other audio stuff.
The highly detailed ships, the unlockables, everythings needs its share. On top of that there are also 24 racing missions with unqiue tracks as well. Well, it will be hard but I’m pretty sure we’ll get everything into the game in breath-taking quality.
Is there any chance that the game will support custom soundtracks from the SD card?
I’m afraid not.
Will you be including online multiplayer?
We think playing with others is the most fun in a racer. On the other hand, we had to decide for what price we want to sell FAST on WiiWare. We decided to aim really low, so that everyone would be able to enjoy the game.
Multiplayer unfortunately didn’t fit into the budget we had for the game. So instead of a mediocre game with a multiplayer mode, we decided for a top-notch game that supports 1-4 player local via splitscreen.
Are you going to implement motion-controls for FAST?
We support various control schemes: Wii Remote motion controls; Wii Remote + Nunchuk; Wii Wheel. Maybe we can even support the Wii Classic Controller, but that’s not decided yet.
Personally, I play mostly with Wii Remote motion controls. They are perfectly sensitive. It was also straightforward to get those implemented.
How are you finding development of FAST to differ from your other WiiWare projects? Any unique challenges, technically, that didn’t come up during development of your other games?
Yes, there were many challenges. The biggest challenge was to get the AI and Physics right. Because the gameplay allows many strategies, the AI needed a lot of attention to be challenging without actually cheating the player. The biggest challenge with the physics was to handle the extremely high velocities without spending too much CPU time on it.
Another problem was to get the game with rock-solid 60 frames-per-second for two-player split-screen. Single player was no problem, but drawing the entire world and actors twice was simply too much for the Wii. As usual, we created the worlds with very complex shaders and we didn’t like the idea of using simpler ones just to get the two-player mode running smoothly.
After a lot of smaller improvements in our rendering technology, we developed a highly efficent software occlusion culling system that used only a few percent of CPU time but freed large amounts of GPU time in critical areas.