Video game genres necessarily don't come and go in the blink of an eye, but some of them do go away for brief periods of time while others step into the spotlight to be loved by gamers and the industry. In some cases it can be disappointing to see one genre immediately become the go-to game for the industry since it does limit creativity and it also means something we love is put on the backburner.
Some admirable attempts have been made to resurrect interest in the arcade racing genre along with breathing new creative life into it, but most failed to make a lasting impression that changed the landscape of the games industry. However, at long last a new indie game has surfaced which could be poised to finally resurrect the arcade racing genre thanks to combining new elements with ones made memorable in classic arcade titles.
Comprised of a few talented game designers, Distance is a new project from Refract Studios. While relatively new on the scene, the team at Refract have already made several notable indie titles including the entertaining and innovative arcade racer Nitronic Rush. Now wanting to follow-up Nitronic Rush and further evolve things, the team at Refract decided to make Distance - a sci-fi laced arcade racer in which almost nothing, even gravity, can hold the player down.
Refract Studios’ Creative Director Kyle Holdwick spared some time from the on-going Distance Kickstarter campaign to discuss the finer points of the game along with what gamers can expect from the title.
Ian Fisher: For those who sadly haven’t heard of Distance already or the previous projects made by members of the Refract Studios team can you tell us a bit about how the studio was formed and how the concept of Distance came about?
Kyle Holdwick: We met while attending DigiPen Institute of Technology trying to get our Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation degrees. Yes, getting that degree was about as gnarly as that name makes it sound. In the first couple years of school each of us had been apart of different teams working on a few different award-winning games including Sowlar, Solace, and Subsonic.
For our Junior year we decided to work together on Nitronic Rush which ended up being a pretty big success for us. We became great friends in the process and decided to turn down AAA job offers to start Refract Studios instead. We tossed around a few different ideas but we always came back to wanting to do another racing game. There was a lot that we weren’t able to do with Nitronic Rush which we still wanted to work on. That’s when we decided to start working on Distance. It’s been a blast so far and we’re really hoping our Kickstarter is successful so we can continue working on it!
Ian: With Distance you’re trying some really unique things within the arcade racing genre by allowing a greater sense of freedom and control through the ability to fly in addition to racing on walls or even the side of buildings. How has it been to work in features such as those while still maintaining a true arcade sense that doesn’t make things feel cluttered or perhaps unbalanced?
Kyle: We’re really inspired by the fun feel and spirit of arcade racers, so the controls and car handling are more based off of those games rather than off of realistic simulation racers. The freedom aspect of the game is one thing we’re really excited about. It’s a bit strange for me to think that many racing games lock players to the race tracks and don’t allow them to go off and explore.
From our perspective it really only adds to the fun, but if you only want a great arcade racing experience you’ll still get that. Working on these features is great because it opens up a lot of possibilities when designing the world and levels. With the cars being able to jump, fly, and drive on walls there are a number of challenges that can be explored. The balancing act is a tricky one, but it helps that the cars all have the same abilities. Playtesting really helps with figuring out and iterating on balancing problems, and we’re definitely making sure to playtest continuously.
Ian: Those familiar with the previous work of Refract Studios will obviously know that Distance is the spiritual successor of Nitronic Rush. Having already made one arcade racing game, what sort of things did you take away from Nitronic Rush that are really helping you craft the experience in Distance?
Kyle: The list of things we’re taking away from Nitronic Rush may be even longer than Santa’s naughty list, but I’ll do my best to narrow it down to the main points. One thing I will say is that you can’t teach experience, so several things we’re taking away are the methods that worked when making this kind of game before. One thing that isn’t often talked about in game development is playtesting and we learned a lot when playtesting Nitronic Rush, so we’re making sure to playtest Distance as much as we can.
We actually discovered the car rotating mechanic because it was a physics debug feature that was left in for playtesting. We only found that feature midway through Nitronic Rush’s development, so that’s a big one we’re taking away and rethinking. We’re also taking the different modes that were in that game and re-applying them to the new world and atmosphere of Distance. Overall the free and fun feel that was so prominent in that game will be taken and improved upon.
A sample of the gameplay featured in Distance
Ian: The genre may not be as prominent as it once was ten years ago or in the mid-1990s, but arcade racing games are still hanging in there, especially thanks to the work of Refract Studios. When it comes to Distance what sort of direction is the development team taking when it comes to the length of an average race or even the campaign mode? Can we expect action that’s quick, fast, and built around replaying stages to beat times/high-scores or will the game feature longer races with multiple events to compete in?
Kyle: For the most part the game is about fast, adrenaline pumping action, but we’re doing our best to have a variety of modes and track lengths. The primary race mode will be on high-replay value obstacle course-like tracks with an average time of about 2-3 minutes to complete. There may be some longer tracks though, as we’re still experimenting with it. Some of the other modes are in more of an open and explorable environment where you can play for as long as you’d like.
Ian: Aside from the occasional game from talented indie studios such as Refract and the release from a major franchise such as Need for Speed, the arcade racing genre isn’t as prominent as it once was compared to genres such that have struck a chord with this generation of gamers such as FPS titles. So with that said, as developers is it perhaps difficult to know how to approach certain elements in Distance, perhaps making it accessible to an audience that sadly didn’t grow up with Rush 2049, or is the game being made as a love letter more or less to the arcade racing genre and its fans?
Kyle: I’d say this may be an advantage for us since the industry isn’t over saturated with games like this. It allows us to focus on innovation and uniqueness in the genre without having to hit the absurdly high bar required for something like an FPS. We’re focusing on crafting Distance into our own experience and one that can be enjoyed by not only arcade racing fans but someone who has never picked up a racing game before.
Distance in many ways is an action racer where you will be trying to navigate the obstacles and survive through the grueling tracks. If you’ve played a bunch of arcade racing games before, the controls and gameplay will welcome you. If you like fun and action packed experiences, the world and track designs will be right up your alley.
Ian: Distance has an art style that I find captivating since it has a minimalistic look to it in a sense but a lot of depth can be found through the design of certain structures and the use of colors. So can you talk a bit about the design evolution of crafting the general look of Distance and how the levels play into a race?
Kyle: The city in Distance is old and run down, so when designing the general look for the game we ask ourselves if it fits into the general feel we want for the world. It’s set in a dystopian metropolis where it’s uncertain whether or not humans even exist anymore. Many of the structures and use of colors are in place to give off a certain emotion we want the player to feel when playing through the levels. Since the cars can fly and drive on buildings we have to take that into account as well when designing the art and visuals. We’re still working on the look for Distance but overall we want the style to be unique and memorable.
Ian: Will each level within the game sport a specific trap/gameplay mechanic/theme or can we expect to see a variety of obstacles strewn about in one particular stage?
Kyle: There will be a bit of both actually! Some levels will focus on a specific type of challenge whereas others will be more of a gauntlet of many different types of traps and obstacles.
Ian: Whereas the levels in Distance sport a futuristic look that is unlike anything we’ve seen in a racing game before, a level of familiarity is present in the actual cars that gamers will be able to control. Was the choice of providing vehicles that look like futuristic sports cars an intentional decision to provide a level of connection for gamers or did the development team toy around with more unconventional designs at some point?
Kyle: We’ve discussed this a bunch and one conclusion we’ve come to is that cars are well understood everywhere in the world. There just seems to be an innate excitement that is built up around cars for the vast majority of people. With that said, we did think about more unconventional designs and even though we’ve only ever shown cars in Distance, it doesn’t mean there won’t be different kinds of vehicles in the game.
Ian: One element that Distance is set to feature is the inclusion of a level editor and modding tools. Obviously such news will please the modding community since the premise of Distance could allow folks to create some truly breathtaking stages. I know it may be early in development, but can you talk a bit about what gamers can expect from the level editor and modding tools? Will the level creating tools be similar to other titles such as TrackMania or will Distance provide a greater sense of creative freedom?
Kyle:If you’d like, you can actually check out recordings of a few streams we’ve done of me building levels using the pre-alpha level editor here.
We're working as hard as we can to make the level editor in Distance very powerful, flexible, and easy to use. We already have a number of features in the current version like interactive icons for the placeable objects, free or snappable object translating, rotating, scaling, as well as tweakable properties for objects. A more advanced feature is the level editor's spline-based procedurally generating track system. How it works is basically you can select one of the ends of a road piece and move it wherever you'd like or snap it to another end of a different road piece. Using a mathematical spline curve, it will generate the track based on the end points. It makes building levels and iterating on them much faster and honestly more fun!
I'm actually programming many of the level editor functionalities while also designing and crafting the levels. This is an interesting challenge but it makes coding new level editor features that much more rewarding. Currently it is a very freeing type of editor where you can place any objects wherever you’d like to place them. I don’t plan on sacrificing the capabilities of it just to make it the most user friendly thing ever, but I will say that it won't be hard to pick up and try for yourself. I intend on playtesting the editor constantly throughout development to continually ensure that it's intuitive and robust.
Ian: In general why do you think there has been a lack of true arcade racing games this generation? We’ve seen some nice efforts through IPs such as Split/Second, but none have really caught on. So do you think it’s simply a case of the current tastes of the industry and gamers being in a different place or are arcade racing games possibly the next genre to go the ultra-niche route?
Kyle: I think racing games as a whole have been going through some tough times this generation. I think it may just be that gamers are starting to get bored with the typical racing game that has cars racing around a looped track. I really see a bright future for games that have racing elements but don’t focus completely on racing alone. A great example of this is the Trials series on Xbox. They’re great games, loved by many, and have some awesome racing elements. I think developers just have to rethink what racing in a video game can be, and the possibilities are very high still.
Ian: So far Distance has picked up some steam amongst the gaming community and the industry as a whole thanks to the backing of developers such as Cliff Bleszinski But in the off chance that the Kickstarter campaign for Distance doesn’t meet its funding goal what’s the plan moving forward? Is the team at Refract Studios still dedicated to making the game no matter what, even if it means it may take a bit longer than expected?
Kyle: Honestly there’s a good chance that if we aren’t able to get the funding we’ll have to indefinitely postpone the project. We’d still love to make this game down the road, but it’ll most likely need some major restructuring to bring it to light after a failed Kickstarter. Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that.
Ian: The talent and passion of Refract Studios is apparent in the work that has been done on Distance so far since the game looks stellar. I may be jumping ahead of myself, but post Distance what sort of path would you like to see the studio go towards? Can we expect projects along the lines of some of the individual projects the Refract team members worked on in the past or will the studio perhaps put its unique stamp on another established gaming genre?
Kyle: We’re open to working on all kinds of engaging and impactful experiences. I think you’ll see us working on a bunch of different kinds of games going into the future. We have a wide variety of skills and passions so by no means are we locked to only working on the types of games we’ve done in the past. The future looks bright with more and more innovative technologies coming along like the Oculus Rift, and with whatever the next generation consoles bring. We’ll certainly be embracing it and we’re excited to continually make experiences unlike anything else in the world.
The ingenuity shown in Distance thus far is beyond impressive since the game clearly takes some nods from past arcade racers such as Rush 2049 but puts a unique spin on things that results in an experience that’s more frenzied than what we’ve seen before. In an era where arcade racing games are lacking it’s a true pleasure to see a developer step up to the plate to not only show their love of the genre but try something different.
As always the fate of Distance ultimately is in the hands of gamers since the team at Refract likely won’t be able to continue development without the funds they require. So if you want to experience an arcade racer that pays respect to the genre while evolving it at the same time then head over to the Kickstarter page and make a pledge.