In case you didn’t hear back when Nadeo quietly announced it in 2009, the sequel to TrackMania isn’t just about driving. A mindboggling trio of titles built upon a single ‘OS’, ManiaPlanet incorporates TrackMania 2: Canyon (a back-to-basics, beautified refresh of its racing game construction kit), ShootMania: Storm (a philosophically identical FPS maker), and QuestMania (an RPG maker). They’ll release separately and in sequence, their creator’s purchase by Ubisoft doing nothing to its team size (still 15) or its method. Visiting Nadeo’s office in Paris for E228’s preview feature, we asked founder Florent Castelnerac for some additional info.
What convinced you to sell to Ubisoft?
We presented TrackMania 2 before deciding to sell because ManiaPlanet, this ambitious project, had already been presented for over a year to other publishers as well. I didn’t want to get into publishing, I want to focus on making games. Ubisoft was a good match. The CEO is great. Creatively they didn’t bother us at all, didn’t ask us to do something else. So we’re really free in that respect. They’ve helped us a lot. And they’ve said, ‘Okay, you can make this unit and hire these people to support your game.’
So everything is going fine, except that I probably have too many meetings trying to explain… If we’d never made another type of product before, it’d be easier because ManiaPlanet isn’t the usual thing. The problem isn’t the people because they are totally good always, but it’s the way the company is structured: sometimes it’s new people, and every time I meet someone new at Ubisoft I have to start all over again.
Was it important to keep the studio at the same size?
It’s the same team, and the same stability they have at Valve, id Software, Blizzard… It’s not like movie production where you gather a team for a year, and it’s that difference of culture that made Ubisoft acquire us. 15 at Nadeo HQ is the maximum number of engineers you can put together on a complex situation. We’ve just improved the map editor for ShootMania, for example, but to keep all the compatible features you’ve seen in our system while improving it, that’s a big challenge.
Like the way you make cliffs: you don’t have the cake system anymore, now we can build the cliffs into each other. It was very important for ShootMania because if you have gameplay landscape here but can’t combine it with the scenery there… We had to improve the engine so the gameplay could ‘surf’ on the scenery. That really required the team to be stable, to understand the code and know how to improve it.
ManiaPlanet has a new virtual currency now: Planets. Is it philosophically the same?
It’s like your money if you go in a store today: you don’t have enough to buy everything, but with your everyday salary you can buy what you like. Because the people on the other side are there to put this content at your disposal. What they are thinking is how to exactly please you and provide you something at your capacity to buy. And since everybody has the same salary, it’s easy for them to know how to provide you with this. So in a competition – the Mania Olympics, for instance – the entry ticket can be 200 coppers. That’s four days of connection. Our last four years of knowledge of player economics tell us that isn’t an issue. But for a title pak, if you have ten days to wait before you can play, that’s crazy.
I don’t know if we’re going to put a bank in there – because someone in TrackMania did make a bank – but we’ll change the way you earn Planets a little. We haven’t totally decided yet, but maybe we’ll give you 500 at the beginning of each month. But we can only do that for six months or you get inflation and too many planets going into the system. It’s a balance we’ve got to find.
Of course, if it doesn’t work then people will lower their prices or make free-to-play content. They’ll have to adapt to you rather than you to them.
Will your audience grow thanks to ManiaPlanet? In the US even?
There’s certainly some space to grow in the US [laughs]. We have 250,000 registered players in the US, but we don’t care so much about the US because they play American football. We had to explain this when we arrived at Ubisoft. They asked, ‘Why are you so much more popular in Europe?’ We had five million registered players in Europe and, at that time, about 100,000 in the US. I said I didn’t know. But recently I’ve gotten more aware of the reason, and it’s really why we don’t play American Football in France. Because there’s no club, no one else playing, so you don’t play. And your friends aren’t playing for the exact same reason. So that’s why we really like Poland and this kind of environment where there’s this high density of people enjoying the game which brings an even higher density.
But if you’re an American, what happens if, say, you want to play a really popular game in China? You connect, you understand nothing, you see strange people talking. You want to create a fansite about creating tracks and competitions and so on, and every time you look at the Chinese speaking their strange language, they’re always doing ten times better than you. So it’s not encouraging you to go in that direction. This is a subject we have to address. So the question is: in this 2.0 generation, maybe with the shooting genre we can cross the sea and attack the US from Europe and conquer the place. It’s really complicated to conquer it from the top because they have American Football : they have Bungie, id Software and Valve. We’re not at that level. We’re more interested in players in Latin America, China and Korea than the United States.
You know Diplomacy, the game? You attack one territory with the support of another. We’ve done that in Europe somehow. We started with France, we attacked Germany with the support of Switzerland, and now the whole of Europe has a homogenous density of players. And I believe that with the United States, we have Quebec, you know… [laughs]
What do you think when you look at other attempts to do UGC, particularly on console?
It’s different. They name it UGC which is what we try to avoid at all times. For us it’s like a piano: we deliver it to the community so they create blues, rock and roll, and classic. They share and they listen, and UGC to me is more like trying to make the top-ranking level. At that point the developer has to gather all the data on their servers, have moderation tools, and do strictly what has to be done.
ModNation Racers: You have a button to complete the decoration of your track. It’s the spirit of: ‘I want to have something nice, made by me. Let’s go.’ We’re more in the spirit of, ‘take your pencil and draw something that’s different. When I saw people from MediaMolecule bought by Sony, I said, ‘Oh cool, less competition.’ Because for us, the PC is where you have all your software: Word, Photoshop, music composition and so on. You’re not going to beat what’s on PC on console.
Was a console version ever discussed?
We did have a conversation about console. What I would like to see would be like a player, so you could make blues on your PC but listen to it comfortably on your console. But will Microsoft say there’s no online restriction? We don’t want any trouble with certified experiences or anything like that. It’s not our role to fight against the machine; it’s already complicated enough to work on PC.
And what we’ve seen is that people go to console development and find it hard to keep a balance. The guys from Battlefield, for example, when they see the numbers for Call Of Duty, they get distracted. There are enough PCs in the world – in China, in East Europe, in Brazil – and I like the APU [Accelerated Processing Unit, key to much smaller high-power PCs], it’s really great.
So does ManiaPlanet run on computers that are going to cost less than $200 in years to come?
We love the idea of Micro SSD, for example. It’ll cost less because there are less parts, it’s faster, there’s less damage, less noise, less energy, and more autonomy. These technologies in two or three years to come are really the future of the games machine. Everybody’s running after the ball: DS, Wii, iPhone, Facebook… That’s not bad: you have to do that if you want to shoot and score a goal, and Ubisoft are really good at it. But our role is to wait for the ball, and on PC we believe there’s a really nice place to play. This is what our focus is today.