I’ve long maintained that the racer is one of the few genres that doesn’t suffer when you put it on smartphones. Racers are intrinsically simple games, and some of the the best ones are extremely easy to pick up and play. They focus purely on the racing experience, which makes them a good fit for devices with no buttons, since you actually can emulate a racing control scheme using a touch screen.
It’s simple in theory, and it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes with a smartphone racer to see how they could work. Acceleration can be automatic, while simple Left/Right and Brake overlays on the touch screen should be more than sufficient to do what you want your car to do. The rest is left up to how your car feels, how the track is designed, and what the AI is like.
In spite of this, so many smartphone racing games can’t figure out how to crack the code. I’ve tried out more than I care to admit, and so many of them fail to grasp the concept of keeping it simple. They either try to emulate an on-screen steering wheel or force in tilt controls or make you swipe the screen for Nitrous boosts. None of these ideas work particularly well on phones, and in most cases they feel ill-designed. The only two racers I’ve found that do get the idea of sticking to a pure racing experience with simple controls are Asphalt 8 and Ridge Racer: Slipstream.
Slipstream, in particular, is a game I’m very fond of. It’s a free-to-play racer on iOS and Android devices, and is an amalgamation of previous Ridge Racer games for consoles, featuring tracks and cars from throughout the series’ history. The best thing about the game is that it sticks to what makes a racing game feel good—the feel of drifting around a corner and overtaking an opponent because you angled your drift better than them; the feel of latching on to the slipstream of the car ahead of you and zipping past it; the ability to customize your vehicles and repaint them in your favourite colour.
It accomplishes these things with a very simple control scheme, too. Yes, it does include the option to use more complicated controls, but the setup that really made the game work for me was the simplest. It’s the one you see in the screenshot above. There’s an overlay on the screen that emulates a D-Pad with Left/Right buttons, one button that doubles as your Brake/Drift (on the right), and one button that you can tap for a Nitro boost. Acceleration is handled automatically.
Ridge Racer Slipstream works because it captures the spirit of a pure racing game, rather than trying to do something that’s too advanced for a phone to handle. Encouraged by my time with the game, I caught up with producer Rudy Medrano at Bandai Namco to satisfy my curiosity about how Slipstream was developed. This is a game that is being headed up by Bandai Namco in the West, and is developed by an external studio named Invictus. Namco have made other attempts at developing Ridge Racer games in the West, but they haven’t always panned out very well.
Ridge Racer is traditionally developed in Japan. How does a project like Ridge Racer Slipstream get greenlit for development in the West?
Rudy Medrano, Producer: After playing Ridge Racer Accelerated on the iOS, I worked with our Design Director to come up with a lite concept document to create a free-to-play version of the game. I have always wanted to work on a racing game, and Ridge Racer was such a fun game to play. Japan was enthusiastic and gave us approval, as well as some assistance as they offered so much information in regards to the IP and history.
What sort of things did they tell you about the IP?
Fun fact: Ridge Racer refers to what you are driving as machines. Ridge Racer will never call what you are driving a car. The look and feel of the IP is very important. Invictus did a great job artistically matching the games of old to make sure that you can distinctively tell that this was a Ridge Racer title.
What did you hope to do differently from Ridge Racer Accelerated?
I didn’t want to gate the user experience, so when we created a free-to-play game, we were hoping to attract as many users to the game that would not normally download an arcade racer. We wanted everyone to experience the game, not just payers.
In terms of feel, Ridge Racer Slipstream feels very much like a Ridge Racer game.
We wanted to stay true to the Ridge Racer brand and ensure that when you play this game, you knew that you were in the Ridge Racer world with fast, gorgeous machines doing high speed, unreal drifts.
Is there a specific Ridge Racer that you borrowed the physics from?
Not necessarily. BNGA used an engine developed by Invictus to produce the game. They reference the physics and mechanics from a couple Ridge Racer titles.
Are there restrictions on what you can or can’t use, or were you given access to every Ridge Racer game and its assets, and allowed to pick and choose whatever you liked?
The team in Japan provided great assistance with assets from the previous games. We took a look at the latest iterations of the game, as the IP itself has grown. There were definitely some rules we had to follow. For example, keeping true to naming the machines. They aren’t cars, they are machines.
Fun Fact: When customizing the tracks for mobile, we cleaned up the tracks and it was quite funny how many miscellaneous assets or little details that are on the track that you normally don’t see during gameplay. Only replays, from console, will provide you views on spiders webs behind walls, basketballs left in the tracks, etc.
What sort of feedback do you see from players that you implement into the game?
The best feedback we received was how we revamped the IP on mobile and provided a great experience. The game looks great and customers really enjoyed the way it looked. One item that customers have requested was the ability to have controller compatibility. This is something that is in progress.
More tracks and machines have also been requested. We have a good update coming soon that brings four classic machines to the new game. [Note: This update is out now on iOS.]
What sort of player trends and data do you typically gather and study? Is it mostly monetization-related, or do you keep track of other habits related to gameplay intricacies as well?
One of the biggest things that I like to collect and review is retention. This can fundamentally make or break a game. We like our players coming back on a daily basis for races, sending challenges to friends and participating in multiplayer races. If retention is low, we work on ways to increase it. For example, we would try a different approach for the tutorial or implement AI modifications for the first couple of races.
How do you define “retention” in this case? What’s the main guiding beacon?
What percentage of our players are coming back to continue playing the game. Where do they drop off? How can we attract them back into the game? Reviewing the data can provide some insights on how we can improve the drop-off rates.
Our data is saying that our users play 2-3 times a day, 1-2 races a session. If you come back to the game, we provide currency to reward the user for playing.
Can you say how many people are playing the game at the moment?
We currently have thousands of daily active users, who play several times of day. Unfortunately, I can’t share specific stats.
I know this is a tough question to answer. The game is free, but at the end of the day, you have to try and make sure that people are willing to invest money in it. Does the AI factor into monetization at all?
It definitely does. We have to tailor our game to our core demographic, as well as our casual audience. Our AI becomes challenging for different players at different times. We offer perks and upgrades so players can overcome those challenges.
Would it be possible to elaborate on how the changing AI works?
This is one of those things that we’ll have to file under the “Secret Sauce” category. Sorry we can’t go into it in more detail.
How do you promote a game on iOS devices, where there isn’t a traditional audience to sell to, and there so many games in any given genre. How do you spread word-of-mouth?
Bandai Namco has a fantastic reach on the console and mobile side. Our Facebook presence allows us to reach hundreds of thousands of fans to get them excited for our titles. Incorporating the ability to share your Ridge Racer achievements on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks also allows the game to become viral and spread among friends.
Can you say what long-term goals for the game are? Have you decided upon any new long-term features that haven’t implemented yet?
The game’s fate will be decided on the following and what the players will be requesting. From here we have many options; from only adding enhancements and possibly creating a sequel to adding a whole new expansion. We are exploring many different avenues.