Mr Griliopoulos has been to see Nadeo's Maniaplanet announcements. He's come away scratching his beard in puzzlement.
We're at a ManiaPlanet announcement. But what's going on? I was told by Ubisoft that I was here to see the announcement of two new games. During the first half of head honcho of Nadeo-inside-Ubisoft, Florent Castelnerac, demo we're introduced to TrackMania: Stunters and TrackMania: Raid. Stunters is a stunt-based TrackMania spin, emphasising tricks. Raid is a huge rallying game, tracing the routes of continent-spanning real world races, like the Dakar to Paris rally raid. Confusing... Wait, I'm a doofus! These are user-made. They're mods players have created during the ManiaPlanet beta.
Strangely, though, they're given the same prominence on the ManiaPlanet library interface and during the presentation as Nadeo's own TrackMania: Canyon and ShootMania: Storm. The two new games we're here to see are TrackMania: Stadium and TrackMania: Valley. It's a little confusing.
Anyway, here it is: Stadium is ye olde TrackMania: Nations levels, updated to work with Maniaplanet. I played it and I can't honestly see the difference from the 2006 game, save for using the TrackMania 2 engine and for demonstrating how much worse I've got at racing games since Carmageddon. Valley, meanwhile, is a new environment for TrackMania 2. Castelnerac tells us it's a rallying game, where cornering involves braking early rather than drifting so I'm not clear about how this differs from Canyon, except in its skin. "Some people say we're making a car racing game for the first time with Valley," Castelnerac says. "We want to make the operating system for racing games," he epigrams.
I'm afraid this is what I got from these presentations: the lack of difference between ManiaPlanet's mods and the real new games, save for some new assets. I'm not sure that's what we were meant to take away from the demos, but so it goes.
Confused at this strategy, I ask Castelnerac if worries him that the user-made titles will eat away at sales of their main titles like Valley; "The user-made title is a child of an environment that we made," he responds. "People need to acquire this environment, this game, to access this user-made title." Ah, so these new TrackManias are more like asset packs for the modding community? "Like DOTA coming out of Warcraft III, we are trying to recreate the conditions for it to happen every day... we are providing the seeds of new genres. Racing, shooting... and inside racing there is rally-style, speed-racing... I see our games as the instruments and players do the jazz, the style. We are providing the instruments to players to create their own opera; we're at the invention level more than the composer level."
That modding ethos applies to both TrackMania and ShootMania. I'm not going into ShootMania in depth here - Brendan alone has already blarneyed enough about it for several lifetimes. Save to say that the hands-on gameplay is fast and frantic, with a similar freedom of movement to Tribes or Unreal Tournament.
One thing Brendy didn't mention last time was the huge selection of game modes, from the expected Deathmatch and TDM, to weirder and weirder ones. Brace yourself for an EXTREMELY FAST SUMMARY in 5, 4, 3... Time Attack is a non-violent foot race. Royal is a King of the Hill mode with a rapidly-shrinking play area. Joust is a 1v1 duel with very limited ammo. Elite is a 1v3 mode, where one man has a railgun and three hitpoints. Heroes is a VIP mode, where one attacker is designated as the only person who can capture the flag. Siege is a complicated point capture mode, where the attackers gradually get tougher. Beta 2 also will introduce two new modes: Victory, a melee mode which gives a new random objective every thirty seconds such as 'longest shot', 'highest jump' or 'most kills'; and Fortress, a time attack siege mode, with spawn points that can be captured.
Castelnerac also demonstrated and told us about some new movement techniques which will arrive with ShootMania Beta 2, tied into certain of the landscape blocks, that give the game an Unreal Tournament 2003 feeling of high mobility: there are hooks to grapple onto and swing from, castle walls that allow for wall-jumping, railgun jumps that behave like pole vaults, rockets that shoot down other rockets, grass that dampens the noise of your footsteps, pools of water that drain all your stamina, bunkers that change your gun into a mine-launcher and your run into a sprint, and metallic platforms that give you a railgun and a zoom instead of a jump. Oh, and you can glide in mid-air too, like a Crouching Tiger escapee.
However, the player's own level customisations can change the incentives as significantly, to such a degree that you can upload these as full games (though they're really just mods) onto the ManiaPlanet server, which is where Stunter and Raid came from; you can alter the maps, obviously, but also the starting conditions of health, armour, and weapon-recharge rate, as well as the levelling structure. For more fine detail editing, you can pop up a limited coding console that allows you to edit game elements completely on the fly.
So we build our own ShootMania mod. ShootMania: Badger (named after yours truly by Cara-chan because “Dan's like a friendly badger”) is built around a new map with a series of high and low paths funnelling players from many spawn points towards a tiny metal podium. Everyone starts with two health points, super-fast weapon recharge, and the Nucleus weapon – a timed mine-launcher. If they stand on the podium, they get access to a sniper rifle / railgun but can no longer jump (making them a sitting duck for long-range mine shots).
Badger also has custom box-art, custom videos, and a custom advert on the ManiaPlanet intranet. All the tools for these are quick and easy to use, especially the video editor – the whole thing, including map-making, took us around an hour. The only thing we find we can't implement is player levelling, another new feature. We wanted players to level down, getting weaker and slower, as they killed more enemies - turning the best of the best into sluggish glass cannons - but we seem to be using an earlier version of the ShootMania beta which doesn't allow it.
Once it's done, distributing your mod is easier than making a Walker-healing joke. You can buy ads space on ManiaPlanet using your Planets (though we still weren't quite clear where you got these from, it was emphasised that they were a free currency) which link to user websites within ManiaPlanet, built using HTML or Wordpress. This includes review and news sites. “We don't want a system of rating, like Metacritic.” says Castelnerac. “If you do ranking you end up with the popular stuff, which is the most accessible... and boring. A single ranking is not what we're looking for. It's like the RockPaperShotgun approach. This website can say 'we played with DayZ and it's cool.' It's like the real world.”
The focus on ManiaPlanet is a little disconcerting, Nadeo obviously see this as a gaming platform in its own right. Given the rabid loyalty of their fans, that might work, but the hopes they have for how the platform will combine Facebook, Steam, ModDB, ManiaPlanet-only media and an advertising network, whilst using the in-game Planets currency, seems hugely ambitious for something that's really hosting just two repeatedly-reskinned games. Or, rather three, if you count the poorly-hidden, unannounced, QuestMania.
The announcements for QuestMania are definitely in the Ubisoft marketing schedule, probably for an announcement way after ShootMania and its inevitable sequel-expansions are out. “We talk about it but never really talk about it” Castelnerac says, before proceeding to talk about it. “It started years ago, with ShootMania years ago. Playing TrackMania, a player would see a loading screen, every half hour, with ShootMania or QuestMania. We say nothing to the community. We started on the project in 2008, the first time we played a shooter in Nadeo was 2006, so it's really a long project.” The only other details I can find are mentions in the code of the ShootMania modding tools for singleplayer missions.
Castelnerac's other big aim with ManiaPlanet is to turn all eSports spectators into competitors – he wants all of us to move up a triangle (which he draws on a touch screen for us).
You see, he thinks that eSports is the future. He wants ManiaPlanet and ShootMania to pull free players into n00b-only modes first, then have matchmaking for the more hardcore, then user-made tournaments for the next level. (There's an efficient, albeit unsexy competition management tool built into ManiaPlanet, which allows players to set entry fees (in Planets), schedule matches, create a round structure, specify maps and modes, and so on. Looking at it reminds me I need to play more Blood Bowl.) The top tier of ManiaPlanet's eSports will be official Nadeo-run competitions, with official rankings like tennis for the top players.
Of course, as Eve Online, DOTA and Heroes of Newerth have shown us, you have to protect your n00bs or they don't want to stick around. Castelnerac admits that he himself is “still insulted in Starcraft. To be efficient in DOTA 2 these days, then you'd better take lessons before you start playing.”. But he feels that a critical mass of new players, siphoned off into n00b-friendly modes, is the way to get them in. “CTF is an invite to insult the N00b”.
Castelnerac declares that “2013 is going to be the year of ManiaPlanet.” Which is confusing, because my Chinese calendar tells me that it's the Year of the Snake. I'll let Castelnerac sort it out with the Chinese and the snakes. I'm betting he'll have them all playing ShootMania before the year is out.
Shootmania: Storm will be out on the 23rd January 2013. TrackMania: Stadium and TrackMania: Valley will be out shortly after that. They're not talking about not talking about not talking about QuestMania.