At EGX 2018 we sent roving reporter Jason Coles to meet with the people behind some of the most exciting upcoming games and get us some juicy scoops. You can see the others here, but meanwhile here’s his interview with the team behind Team Sonic Racing:
I am with one of the developers behind Team Sonic Racing. Why did you go for a co-operative game instead of a more traditional cart racer?
So the team experience actually initially came from Sega. So Takashi Izuka who is head of all things Sonic at Sega , likes playing games with his children but he finds that playing racing games with them felt quite negative. He would do really well at them but his kids were not as good and they struggled, so it wasn’t a very positive experience for them. So he came to Sumo saying I’d like to explore the idea of a co-operative racing game, where I can not only be on the same team as my children but actually help them out. So I want my skill to help them do better at the race so all of us can win and succeed together. That is really where the core of the idea came from. I think that the thing that we’ve done is make sure we provide that accessible experience and make sure as well that we are providing a good top end for more experienced players. We need to add in enough depth to the team experience to make sure that if you’ve got three expert players playing together that there are plenty of advanced strategies for them to use too.
What are the biggest challenges that come when designing that kind of experience?
Probably that the arcade racing games are really in your face and kind of frenetic and complicated anyway. You’re already racing at breakneck speeds and you drifting and doing stunts and getting boosts and there are items flying around all over the place. The idea of trying to layer on even more actions and techniques on top of that was a big challenge. Making sure that it wasn’t something that ended up very overwhelming players. So what we did with the team experience was we aimed to make all of the things you could do as a team things you would be doing anyway or something that was a single button press to initiate.
Things like the slingshot ability, the leading team mate leads behind a yellow trail and you can follow that trail to get a boost. This helps you catch up to your team mates. The thing is that it’s just like going over boost pads so it is something we intuitively understand and it’s the sort of thing that people would be doing anyway. So we made sure that all of the things you do as a team were easy enough to understand that it didn’t add an extra mental load to the things you are doing in a racer anyway. A lot of the team stuff ends up being more strategic, it’s about thinking about how you work with them. It is slightly longer term thinking rather than moment to moment reactions. It’s thinking about things like do I want to offer my team mates an item? When you pass an item back it becomes a more powerful item for them, so it is a really worthwhile thing to do. Similarly, by performing the different team actions you charge a team ultimate which is the most powerful boost in the game. When you use that is quite crucial because if you all do it at the same time then it is much more powerful. That came from the Power Rangers, like everyone doing the activation at the same time. We had this image in our heads of everyone shouting let’s do it now. Again, that’s a thing that isn’t hard to do so you are thinking about when you are going to do it, not how. It’s that sort of balance that we went for with it.
So with the co-operative gameplay, what is the hardest thing about trying to design that in an online space, given the gaming communities sometimes unhelpful attitudes?
Very carefully put. There were two things we obviously wanted to do. We wanted to make sure it was co-op related, so we needed to make sure it was something that people could opt into. So if you are doing team actions then you are choosing to do them, rather than someone else initiating it. We had to make sure that things were always positive things, to make sure that there weren’t techniques to let people grief each other. As an example, early on we thought a good idea for the team ultimate would be that if anyone activated it, it would then activate it for everyone on the team. We quite quickly realised that this was a bad idea, because almost immediately, particularly in split-screen, because we support four player split-screen in the game. You would see people waiting until someone was about to reach a corner and then activating it and sending their team mates shooting off the edge. It was quite funny, but it’s not really what we were going for in the game. So we had to make sure that all the team actions were something that people could choose to do, and that the outcome was a positive one for them.
Okay, so you’ve got the various team mechanics at present. Are there any other ones that you wanted to implement but didn’t work out?
It is less about things we didn’t do and more about the initial version of all of those actions was quite different to how it is now. So something like the slingshot went through a lot of different iterations, so initially it was literally just a slipstream directly behind your team mate, but what we found with that was that it didn’t feel like a team game. The reason for the chances to do that were so limited, mostly because the complexity of designing these things within a racing game. People are mostly in wildly different places, if you are next to a teammate that doesn’t last very long. You tend to end up in different places very quickly again. So what we did, it was a simple change, basically now it is still that slipstream but it extends much much further down the track, it is about a quarter of the track length, so a very long way. That means that even if they are a long way behind you are still helping them and allowing them to catch up with you. It is the kind of thing we ended up applying to all the team actions. We made sure that we had this spread of actions so that no matter where you were on the track you could help your teammates out no matter where they were. If we’d have had things that required people to be in the same place all the time they just weren’t going to happen. Early on there was an idea for team formations, like going into an arrow shape or a line, then special things would activate. It just never happened, it was so hard to do because everyone as in different places and moving at different speeds. Even when you were in the same place one of you would be over taking the other so we just rethought all of that so it would work with the way players play these games. So we aren’t expecting players to be in the same positions for any amount of time.
Instead of different weight classes you’ve gone for different specialities, what inspired that particular change?
An early conversation we had about the game was about what does it mean to be in a team. A lot of the thinking about the design of the game came from these early conversations. Some of that was about collaboration, coordination, camaraderie. A rivalry with another team. A lot of these come through in the game now, so team communications but also a rival communications too so people can come on laugh about spinning you out and things. One of the other things we thought about being in a team is that everyone brings their own ability to the team. You all bring your own special set of skills to the team and that’s when it is at it’s best. So we though well, we’ve got these different types of characters with different statistics, but can we make that more pronounced? So what we did was we gave each of the different characters a different special ability that allows them to bring something slightly different to the team. So for instance, the technique characters who are the lightweight very nimble characters, they can pass across rough surfaces like grass or gravel without losing any speed. That allows them to clip corners and find other routes that don’t exist for other racers. Power characters can break through objects without losing speed so they can find shortcuts that the others can’t. So what we found with that is that these things work with the team, if you’ve got a team with a power character on it they can make shortcuts for you that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. A cool thing we’ve seen with the technique characters is that if you run into an area of rough when you aren’t one, a team mate can skim past you and catapult you out of that area faster. So actually having that mix of characters on the team, that kind of makes for the most balanced and the strongest team. You can use any combination of character types on a team, but for me making sure you have a speed, power, and technique character is the perfect composition of a team.
The game is on multiple platforms, will you be supporting cross platform play?
We are not supporting it I am afraid.
With it being a multiplayer game first and foremost, what is the single player experience like?
We have a mode in the game called team adventure mode. Which is wrapped in a brand new Sonic universe story that we are telling as you play through these races. It explains a bunch of stuff about the game like why Sonic is in a car, why people are racing as teams and all of that stuff. It is all explored in the story itself. The other thing that team adventure mode does is act as a tutorial as well, so as you play through you are introduced to all the different actions you can perform as a team gradually so you can pick them up and perfect them before racing against the more competitive human opposition.
The previous Sonic racing games have actually been generally considered to be a lot harder than other cart racers, is this something you lean into or something you’ve tried to tone down for this more family friendly version?
You’re always trying to strike a balance on those things because you do want to make sure that it is accessible to people but you don’t want to rob the hardcore fans of that long term play. I think in this there’s a lot of depth to the team play that will take people a while to discover. There are a lot of advanced techniques that over the months after launch we will see people unlock and work out how to play better as a team. I think that is where a lot of that depth will come from. We certainly have a lot of different difficulty options in the game. I think that the top tier of those is still going to be quite a substantial challenge. I mean, I started my career working on TimeSplitters 2 so I know about making difficult games. I still think that is a nice thing because there is value for money there when something is actually a challenge. I think people will be able to come to it and if they are fresh to the racing series then they will be able to get into it, but there is definitely something there for the hardcore fans as well.
Is there anything about the game that people will misunderstand that you would like them not to?
That’s a good question. I think the thing we’ve experienced as we’ve been talking about the game is that people bring certain preconceptions about the team aspect of the game. I think people are worried about it feeling fair, or will it make it so that my individual skill doesn’t matter as much. I want to reassure people that we have thought a lot about what the experience is. What the team experience is and making sure that it feels valuable to people. I think I want people to give the team mechanics a chance, actually give it a try, learnt the basics of it and take it online. You can play this game in split-screen online, so you and two teammates next to you all playing online. For me that is a really great experiences. We do actually support solo races, so non team races in the game. Every time I play the solo races I come back to the team races instead. In comparison I feel like I’m not getting the full experience otherwise, the team stuff is a really cool feature and I think people should really give it a go. Try and see what we are doing with it, trust us at Sumo, we can make a great racing game and trust that the team stuff really works there as well.
Final question, nothing to do with the game, going back to the TimeSplitters thing. How do you feel about THQ Nordic acquiring TimeSplitters?
It’s awesome. I can’t wait to see them doing something with it. I genuinely quite regularly still get people asking about TimeSplitters when they find out about it. It’s a game that I always really loved and it’s been sad to see that it hasn’t done anything recently. So I am really glad to see them do that and I hope that whether they are doing a remaster or a new title, I am just really excited to see it back and relevant again. The other thing I am excited about is that they also bought Second Sight too, I also worked on that, and I think that game is ripe for a remake. I don’t have any contact with any of those guys, but everyone I talk to about it is just “Tell them to do a remake, they should remake Second Sight because it was awesome”.
Cool, have you got anything else you would like to add?
No, Team Sonic Racing is coming this winter, please play it.
Team Sonic Racing will be released later in 2018.