You find our bickering crew mid-insult, as they talk bad about John's mum and make fun of Kieron's general confusion in the face of existence. But there's a purpose to this gathering, and it's to discuss the most recent Trackmania games. Let's see how we get on.
John: We should totally print this. A verdict on how Kieron can't do jokes.
Kieron: Kieron can't read, Thankyou.
Jim: I have no idea what game we're verdicting - Trackmania Unified Nations Forever United?
John: United's a year old game.
Alec: Nations Forever is free. United Forever is the latest retail version.
Jim: Forever Nations Mania TrackNited?
Kieron: Yeah, we're lost. Can we just have a verdict on their ludicrously stupid naming scheme?
John: Nations Forever is the new game. It's free. It's a standalone, or it can be added to United as a new sub-category.
Kieron: I can't see how that confused anyone.
John: I've played little else for the last week.
Jim: Okay, well let's start by pointing out that TrackMania has the worst naming system in the history of naming. Which is a long history. Kieron and I actually had to lie down after thinking about it
Alec: I wonder if it's intended to be like e.g. GeForce naming systems. Deliberate obfuscation.
John: Maybe it makes sense in French.
Kieron: Au naturellment!
John: Shall I begin with a brief description of what this game is?
Jim: Yes, John, please describe this exciting new game you've discovered.
John: Well now. TrackMania United Forever is a repackaging of last year's United, now with the free, standalone download, Nations Forever, as a part of it. So along with the few hundred tracks there were to play there, what we'll call "Forever" for ease of understanding adds in a further 65 tracks for the race car. These are divided into the usual difficulty bands, and must be unlocked by successfully completing previous tracks. But unlike before, they're in sub-categories such as 'race', 'obstacle', 'endurance', and 'acrobatic'. The bigger difference is the leaderboard thangt. With United you can play privately, gloating at your own high scores in the privacy of your own disgusting room. OR you can try and go for an "official" score, which puts your result online for everyone else to laugh at. This time people with United, or the free Nations, can compete against each other's leaderboard scores, and in the multiplayer races.
Jim: Kieron: is the best thing about Trackmania its total lack of reality?
Kieron: Trad answer would be yes. But... I dunno if it's actually the best thing about it. Which is a tad anal, innit?
John: I can tell you the best thing about it. It's the instant restart.
Jim: Explain why that matters, John.
Alec: I think there's a different best thing.
John: It's like I was saying in the Prince of Persia post yesterday: rewind means you don't have to sit through the tedious dying and reloading to checkpoint crap that spoils fun. Trackmania, if you mess up, restarts you so instantly you've barely pressed the button before you're back on the course. It means you never think, "Oh sack it." You're already back trying again before you get a chance
Jim: Alec, on the subject of best things?
Alec: Actually, I found that having to repeat even 20 seconds of race was unbearable after Trials, which is more to do with my horrifyingly short attention span than anything else.
Kieron: Trials really is crack to Trackmania's Cocaine.
Alec: Best thing for me is the leaderboards though. It's really, really good at identifying how to give you a sense of achievement. I may only be 20,000th in the world, but I'm 2000th in the UK, 300th in England, 7th in the South West of England... I narrow my focus until I find something that makes me feel like I'm awesome. There's always a leaderboard you can appear high up on, whether it's for a single track or the whole game.
Jim: Kieron: does Trackmania matter in the larger scheme of things? Do you care about it as a game?
Kieron: Yes. The thing with trackmania is that it's... Well, when I started going gaga over Trials. Ste Curran noted about Trackmania. And he's right - that's in the same lineage. He describes Trackmania as the PC's one good game. Because he is, of course, a terrible human being - but his point is it's a game which went went its own way, and continues to go its own way. In that way, it's probably more important than most of the games which are traditionally seen as important. And it's fun, which helps.
Jim: If I could hold forth for a moment, I think the reason I enjoy it is something to do with the way you're able to grasp it completely, instantly, and yet it's continual exploration. I imagine that it must be something like a toddler feels once they're up and walking: it comes naturally, it makes sense, but you've got to keep seeing what you can do with it, what trouble you can get into etc.
John: I can't think of another racing game where I care about mastering the corners. But because each race is about 30 seconds long, perfecting my approach to it is not an overwhelming experience. Finally nailing a perfect route to get the Gold is so awesome.
Kieron: I'll echo all this.
Jim: It's ultra-speed scientific method: trial and error. If science was conducted with an instant reset button we'd all be living inside the sun.
Alec: It shows you the science at play too - that moment where the ghostly rival racer suddenly emerges from inside your own car and you think "aha!" That's how to do this.
John: Unlike Alec, I find I rarely bother with the leaderboards though. I prefer to beat the medals on my own.
Jim: Yeah, I've not really looked at the leaderboard stuff much. I've just be using it as one of those games that is a toolbox of distractions. "Ooh, this, and now this" and it's different enough from track to track, mode to mode.
Alec: I've not been actively chasing leaderboard spots, but to see myself climb by like 1000 places everytime I complete a track feels good. You know there's some guy - possibly me - seeing your name on the board and trying to top you. In the Club or whatever, you don't get that unless you're Super Ultimate Guy.
Kieron: I'll say I'm with Alec - seeing my world rating skip up is awesome. Trackmania is the game The Club would dream of being.
Jim: Which is interesting in itself, Kieron, you're always more interested in chasing hi-scores than me. Like it's a definite personality trait.
Kieron: And you play Eve.
Jim: I do chase kills in Eve though, which is the most abstract hi-score system available.
Kieron: Yeah - I agree it's certainly part of my make-up as a gamer.
John: I would like to add that I'm no.1 in the SW for one race or other. Might I rant for a moment about where United failed? Sunshine had the utterly brilliant platform mode, where you had to complete a course with as few checkpoint restarts as possible. It removed the race element, and focused on hilarious leaping and BOUNCING ON WATER. But United, in an effort to make the leaderboards more meaningful, made the platform levels so STUPIDLY hard. And because you need to do well in one to unlock the next, it meant you couldn't bloody play half of them. Forever doesn't add any more platform levels (although the very few Acrobatic races come close). And I want more. And that makes me sad.
Alec: Presumably those are something players can make with the toolkit though. And, as it seems to have done pretty well for itself, hopefully that'll mean a steady stream of them.
John: That's true.
Jim: Yes, United Forever is harder, but I felt that was simply to cater for the fact that it had been around a while, and had loads of fans. But I still found plenty of scope for my lack of skills.
Alec: Which raises another point - how profitable is this for Nadeo? Do we think people are upgrading from Nations Forever to United Forever? If not, where's the money coming from?
Jim: Well isn't this one of those cases where a tiny team can make a game that only needs to sell a tiny number of copies? It's incredibly solid, but the technical task of it is remarkably simple.
Kieron: You know the odd thing - we know how many people bought United Forever.
Jim: How many people was that, KG?
Kieron: Well, the number of people on the high score table, presumably.
Alec: That incorporates the people who bought United vanilla
Alec: Last year. So we don't know how many have bought it as a result of playing Nations Forever and wanting more.
Kieron: Yes, I know.
John: We do know that Nations has been downloaded 30 million times, and four million people have created accounts.
Alec: Which is a whole lot of free, I'm genuinely surprised there aren't ads in there.
John: Apparently it's built to contain them.
Alec: It's one of those cases where I'd wholeheartedly support it doing so, too, as long as it isn't excessive.
John: So a thing that makes Nations Forever quite clever: When you play United, you tend to play the race mode in order, so you play each car type for five races, then change. And they're so dramatically different that you have to do a very quick adjustment. With Nations, at first you feel limited with just having the Stadium car. But you quickly realise it gives you an opportunity to master it like never before. And it means that in developing the 65 new tracks, they too got better at optimising it. And soon it feels like the best car ever.
Alec: Yeah, I agree.
Jim: I'm not sure I like any other car.
Alec: Playing through United, the switch to a new car feels like a real curveball, and I found myself wishing for a few more tracks for the car I'd just gotten used to
Jim: It felt like the sensible option to reduce it to that
Alec: It's amazing how much of the trad racing game Trackmania rips out, like unlocking new cars. And the more it reduces itself, the more compelling it is.
Alec: Racing games needed a Trackmania to dodge the same rot as flight sims suffered.
Kieron: It's a poster-child for the thing Soren Johnson was talking about when we interviewed him - that the features-list school of design ultimately means nothing.
Jim: Yeah, where does the features list thing come from - surely it's pure feedback loop via marketing, isn't it?
Kieron: Yes. And the gamers, of course. Look at the noise that happens whenever a developer decides not to include something.
Alec: Civ Rev (on console, sorry), which I think will be awesome, but existing Civ fans have instantly said no because the tech tree's smaller.
Kieron: There's a debate on Qt3 at the moment: Gamasutra ran a Sins postmortem and in it they speculate how high the marks would be if they *did* do the campaign mode. Except the debate notes that it wouldn't have, at least without another year in development. They'd have split their efforts and done it less well. Concentrate their attention and, by doing so, they concentrate our attention. Which is Trackmania's lesson, really. Sins didn't have a campaign. Many RTS people said "WANT ONE!". In practice, not doing one allowed them to do more stuff on other elements of the game. Trackmania is the same, but more so.
Alec: Yeah, Trackmania's strength is that it's still the same three/four-year-old game polished and polished, rather than ever being an abrupt halt and starting anew on a sequel.
John: I also love that TrackMania is a game you *could* play for about five minutes and complete three races. Except you play it for four hours and it's somehow 3am but there's one more race in this list so you might as well.
Kieron: Fuck everything else - let's just be Trackmania.
John: That's why I reference the instant restart as most important. It captures everything that TM is about.
Jim: Would you pay money for the game? Playing the free stuff seems near mandatory.
John: I would. Would would would. Also, the 3D mode is AWESOME! It actually works! (I used the 3D glasses from my Spy Kids 3D box).
Alec: I would pay real Earth pounds for Trackmania
Jim: I would pay money for it, if just because I've played it every day for the past week, quite instinctually. Like it's my default state. Not busy? Trackmania!
John: I've done little else with my spare time this week.
Alec: And there is a sense of fullness to United Forever that Nations Forever doesn't quite have.
Kieron: You know, a month ago I'd have said yes. Right now... I dunno. Trials hits the same urge, but harder for me. Mind if I abstain? I've played it the least out of you three too, and I feel that I'm giving a verdict prematurely.
Our verdict: SALE!
Jim: Any concluding remarks?
Kieron: I'm sorry about what I said about Walker's mum.
Alec: I worry about what I said to Walker's mum. I should have left it at "get out of my bed".
John: My mum says you're all rubbish at sex.