By Rich Stanton on November 1st, 2013 at 11:00 am.
It is Trackmania’s Tenth anniversary. It is worth remembering.
It looks like one car. Then the race starts, and from this single vehicle fan out a thousand ghosts – swerving left and right, zooming straight ahead. A sea of overlapping roofs crash forwards over the track, undulating over hills and ramps, lone cars spinning out like flecks of foam. This thousand-car wave is part of the 1K project, and one moment among tens of millions. Or in other words, this is Trackmania.
Let’s take off.
It has been ten years since French developer Nadeo made its debut with two games side-by-side: Virtual Skipper and Trackmania. In 2003 the internet was not as it is now, and nowhere near as all-consuming. But as games inexorably moved towards a community-based and online future they were becoming more social, more personal even. With hindsight you see that some fade away, some become memories, and then there are the special ones: those that turn out to contain multitudes. Trackmania is, by design and by luck, an evergreen.
Over eighteen million players. More than ten million tracks. Trackmania was made by people with no preconceptions about how a racing game ‘should’ work and, more importantly, it’s remade again and again every day of its life by people who don’t care either. Perhaps this is all because Nadeo wasn’t, at first, a game developer. “In the early years we were basically making an engine dedicated to making animation pictures and movies,” says Florent Castelnerac, founder and managing director of Nadeo. “So when I was hired to do that, I asked if we do an engine that can do this kind of stuff then can Nadeo make games with it? So that became part of the deal.”
A team of around eight people started work on Trackmania in the first half of 2002 – the game’s overall design wasn’t settled, but Nadeo knew it would be a driving game of some sort. “Just because it’s more straightforward to produce and to play with physics and graphics somehow,” says Castelnerac. “It’s a good interface to enjoy physics. The goal was to have a game as soon as possible, we’d developed engine physics, and rendering, and also because we didn’t have a lot of graphics artists these tools. And the tools in themselves were really fun… well, maybe not fun but powerful and different from the rest. Right from the start we could build tracks and drive on it. ”
Trackmania’s original form, however, focused less on the tools and more on puzzles. “My question to a developer was can you bring me something that combines building and driving? So the idea arrived with the puzzles where we give a set of blocks. The idea was good because it’s doing something that is different to other games.” This original version had the player building routes towards a goal – but then Castelnerac got the kind of feedback money can’t buy.
“What changed Trackmania was Christmas a year before the release when I made my family play,” laughs Castelnerac. “And I realised the puzzle was not the most addictive part and they were enjoying just trying to beat the record. We kept the puzzle because it was really original and interesting, but now we decided it had to be multiplayer at the same time.”
From this comes one of Trackmania’s most iconic features – in a roundabout way. Trackmania is known as an online multiplayer racing game, but you might not know from that description that the game doesn’t feature any vehicle collisions. You may be playing with others, but you’re always racing ghosts.
“For me the first thing was to decide to make a multiplayer game before asking how we would do it,” says Castelnerac. “The question of collision was not in our picture. It was just that we needed to make a multiplayer race. So in the end we didn’t have to include collision because we found it didn’t interfere with our mandate to make multiplayer racing.”
These were the kind of decisions that Nadeo was able to make because it was fresh. “The way it is is just natural,” says Castelnerac. “If you take four people and put them side-by-side with four PCs and say let’s do a race and just try our best, they will still want to restart the race after every mistake. It’s totally natural. In fact I didn’t think of it as good idea, I just thought it was logical.”
Such clear thinking is behind almost every killer feature of Trackmania. Nadeo may have been free from preconceptions about how to design a game (“No no we have no documents. We are not really a company with documents”) but it had a knack for making good long-term decisions. Publishers did not see this. “It was quite bad,” says Castelnerac of their reaction. “We showed Trackmania and it was like… one big publisher said ‘maybe you could do something other than games.’ Really! The response was bad.”
Perhaps Trackmania was too original for them. “No it was just because it was based on fun more than seduction,” purrs Castelnerac. “It’s really difficult to communicate the interest, to sell even a fun game when there’s that lack of seduction value. Is your game seducing to people? Otherwise you will have a big trouble to sell it. So I can understand that. Our game was based on fun and how do you communicate fun? It’s complicated.”
This kind of thing probably sounds easy to say in retrospect – Trackmania is one of the biggest online racing games ever made, perhaps the biggest. But initially the publishers were right. “We had 50 people connecting online at launch,” says Castelnerac. “For the first six months Trackmania was a failure.”
Let’s brake for a second. The original version of Trackmania was very different from what came afterwards, though every idea that would come to define the series was in place. The press failed to see the game’s potential, and dismissed what was there as a clunky toybox. Trackmania did need an extra level of polish and a few tweaks but, much more than that, it also needed advocates.
This must have been a frustrating time at Nadeo. “It was not frustrating,” says Castelnerac. “When you are a developer you know what you do. So if people they don’t understand what you do then they do not understand. But you are not that frustrated, it’s not exactly that.”
Trackmania had earned itself a small but committed community, many key figures from which would stay with the game throughout its life, and Nadeo took inspiration from their attitudes and creations to work on an expansion called PowerUp! This is where things start moving.
“PowerUp! had improvements and this polish and also an understanding of the people behind it,” says Castelnerac. “Because the players gave the proof to other people, and perhaps journalists, that the game was fun. It was the same trouble we had with the publishers. It was not an instantly seducing game. Even if a game is instant fun, you need to play it to know that.”
“A lot of things were decided without seeing how big an impact it would have, like making updates,” says Castelnerac. “For us we were just doing updates, but it worked well at the stores to bring out updated versions. So it was kind of ‘cool, we can continue.’ For online games it is also really important to be able to update the game, and so it continues like that.”
PowerUp! established a precedent for quickfire expansions and updates which Trackmania would follow for the next seven years, a business model that served to both improve the game over time and periodically refresh the community with new members and returning veterans. “But the community came even before the first release,” says Castelnerac. “Five years after the release of Trackmania most of the key people in the community were even in the beta before the game. I believe, for me, that there are some places that are to be taken and when people take them they become like the champions of those places. And that is why they’re there for a long time.”
One of them was Edouard Beauchemin. “So back in 2003 Trackmania came out and I started playing for fun, the community was very small then about a hundred people. Basically I started meeting people who were fun and some small competitions started to be organised, so we teamed up and were the second or third team in Trackmania.” Beauchemin pauses for a second, and you sense there’s a wry smile at his end of the line. “We were called the Rush Riders.”
Years later Trackmania would become an eSport, but at this time it was all about fun. “A few amateur competitions, a Sunday race against another team and that kind of thing,” says Beauchemin. “I wasn’t the best so I didn’t take it seriously in quite that way of being a performing racer. I was quite active on the forums, online, and doing tracks.” I should add that if Beauchemin’s name sounds familiar, it’s because these beginnings eventually led him to land a job at Nadeo, where he’s now perhaps the best-informed product manager in the industry.
It’s worth remembering why Trackmania was able to attract and grow a community that consisted of far more than experts. Bluntly it was easy – not just to build, but to share. “The innovation was that you would connect to a server and the files were just like 40k,” says Castelnerac. “So ‘next map next map next map’ and there’s always a new map. This was a kind of fascinating experience.” There isn’t quite a word for this aspect of Trackmania, and indeed you’re not even ‘playing’ while doing it, but it was always a major part of my enjoyment. In a sense it’s a consumerist fantasy, realised, where you flip through an endless catalogue of cars and tracks with the satisfaction of being able to own any one instantly.
I just want to mention this recent track I found while browsing, called Spaghetti Ready, which makes me laugh every time I look at it. Bright green and yellow lozenges, a Mario Kart vibe, a kind of giant half-pipe, and general air of cheery randomness. Soundtrack: METALLICA: FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.
Whatever you call this, Trackmania had it – which gave rise to an enormous community of browsers, builders, forumites and dedicated sites. The gorgeous and huge Trackmania Carpark is regularly updated with car skins, but perhaps the best-known is the Trackmania Exchange, which caught Castelnerac by surprise. “It was the first big one and created really quickly, impressively quickly. It’s strange because I realised it existed afterwards! I was on the forums every day but things at this point were growing quickly in different areas in the community. TMX took the place of map sharing very fast in a well-designed way.” Of course, we all have personal favourites.
One of the things about Trackmania’s community of construction artists is that it goes through phases. There were trends throughout the game’s lifetime, many of which would eventually acquire a kind of official status as Nadeo tweaked the environments and tools to accommodate them. “The community really made it more and a more a multi-faceted game,” says Beauchemin. “Like you have some people who are crazy competitive and only want tracks that are a minute long and very technical. And you have other people who only do lolmaps, and a huge number of people who enjoy freerides, or people that only want dirt tracks in the stadium.”
Freeride maps are one of Trackmania’s earliest and biggest genres, the idea being a wide expanse of road somewhat akin to an engorged F1 track. “After Freeride the publisher called me one day,” says Castelnerac. “And said ‘did you relaunch the game? It does not look at all like it did.’ And this was because of the fashion of freeride maps, people were using the parking lot blocks to make really wide wide tracks. That movement was really big and though some people got bored with it, today when we make an environment we have to make a freeride set of tools and blocks.”
A lolmap, on the other hand, is a track that’s basically about having a laugh rather than racing, and Castelnerac remembers making the very first one. “The track is just you go down steps in your car and you cannot adapt the stability of your car. And we had so much fun and laughs with these kind of stupid tracks that I remember inviting some journalist to play them. It was the first ever preview of Trackmania, based on lolmaps, and of course he totally missed the point.”
In that way, however, lolmaps are the fulfilment of Trackmania’s promise – because it’s not the kind of thing a developer would make, much less release. But with a community of builders, free of the encrusted wisdom of an industry, such ideas can lead to an explosion. Some of what became Trackmania’s best-loved styles of track would never have made it past a publisher’s meeting room. Yet a joke can be the first step towards an elaborate masterpiece.
“There was quite a bit of ‘press forward’ for a while,” says Beauchemin. “You have nothing to do. It’s racing for noobs where you literally press forward to complete the race with almost the exact same timing every time. I would say it’s more almost an artistic discipline where you look at your car doing all sorts of crazy twists, riding on the top, riding on the side, riding backwards and doing multiple figures, and that’s all due to the crazy talent of a mapmaker who managed to both calculate every trajectory really well and place blocks accordingly so you can complete it.”
A ‘Press Forward’ map sounds silly – Gran Turismo directed by David Cage – and indeed they are, but at the same time the craftsmanship in these things is awe-inspiring. Check this out:
We could list types of map all day – the point is in the range of creation the game allowed, and so the range of players’ tastes it came to serve. “Back in the day there were a lot of these Extreme tracks, they were basically the ancestors of the RPG – this is a track that’s so tough to complete you can spend hours managing to get to the end,” says Beauchemin. “Those have always been very popular for players who want to get into kind of longer play sessions. Lolmaps are the opposite. You need to rely on a bit of luck to win and it’s usually a very short session, less than five minutes, the tracks are between fifteen and thirty seconds. Freestyle is a huge community. So you make a car and make crazy figures, and it’s down to your ability to do corkscrews and 720s and whatever else, they’re tough ones – like Tony Hawks as a car game.” If you want to see some frankly astounding creations and driving, check out the RPG community’s introductory video.
Nadeo developed Trackmania for a total of seven years, growing slowly as a studio and watching a game that began with 50 players rise to become a global hit and even an eSport. “The WCG final in Chengdu China was really cool,” says Beauchemin. “You were just seeing the game become very global. I think more exciting finals have happened around the world. But just because I was there, and seeing it on a huge stage with over a hundred thousand people in the one place, it was surreal, and very exciting.”
Great decisions were made during Trackmania’s development, and these were followed by the kind of support most other games only dream of – and yet, part of the game’s success also comes down to the right conditions. This all adds up to an uneasy feeling. It pains me to see Nadeo developing games like Shootmania, which I think is great, and reaching a fraction of the audience. Can it ever repeat Trackmania?
“I think it’s repeatable or I would not work here,” laughs Castelnerac. “The success of Trackmania 1 is full of luck I would agree. But now what we are doing as a company is to try to build it without luck, to repeat the success. I do think that is totally feasible, and we have innovations that are helping us, but it takes time. It is like with sequels. We made Trackmania over seven years, and then it takes time to build something that is much bigger. It is more a question of time than whether if it is possible – it’s about when is it possible.”
The reason it’s important to raise a glass to Trackmania isn’t because it was a great game, or allowed a free-thinking developer like Nadeo to grow, or even because it was so popular – though all of those things are true. Trackmania is a landmark not merely because it showed what players were capable of, but because it focused on letting them show each other.
“I think we underestimate a lot,” says Castelnerac. “Each player is as capable as any game developer or game publisher or game writer. I don’t know… I mean a player is a human. It is somebody with a brain, with a creativity, with their own designs and style. And what is difficult is creating a good space for this expression.”
This is a game that lifted racing away from dreary simulations, crossed tarmac with Escher, and sped away from the pack – all thanks to one special developer and the creativity of players in our millions. Trackmania was and is a surreal and wonderful space for expression that never stopped surprising. So then a toast to Trackmania; to PowerUp, to Sunrise, to Nations, to United. And, finally, drink deep to Trackmania Forever.