The story of a famous motorist always begins with numbers. At the time of writing, the number of tracks available for TrackMania United Forever, the latest version of Nadeo’s virtual slot-car racer, is 168,813. That’s three more than when we began writing this article, and 309 fewer than it’ll be when it’s finished. A monster of user-generated content that predates even the term itself (at least in mainstream usage), it’s also an object lesson in how to grow, regulate, support and sustain an online community. Not bad for a studio which, recalls founder Florent Castelnerac, “knew pretty much nothing of making videogames” when the wheels started turning.
Instead, Nadeo’s expertise lay in CG movie and TV production, which it realised gave it an engine with much wider capabilities. “We’d made videogame technology to make a cartoon,” says Castelnerac, “so we should really make a videogame as well.” The developer had no experience, “no money” and little idea of what that game should be. “We didn’t even have any graphics artists. We had one and then he left.”
TrackMania, then, is the racer you invent when you can’t make a racer. “The biggest thing for us was making tools to create something quickly. We started making the simplest game we could envision, a racer, then realised the value of giving the tools away as well.” He laughs. “Then we realised that’s all the value we had.”
With such a barely defined kernel to build a studio around – an editorbased prototype stalled with publishers – Castelnerac had some big questions for early interviewees. “I said to one guy: ‘If you can find a mode halfway between building and driving, we’ll make a prototype together’. He came up with Puzzle [the mode in which you build and drive between two isolated points] and from day one I thought it was a problem. People like to think or they like to drive, but very seldom do you find them enjoying both at the same time. It was something, though, so we started with that.”
An asynchronous multiplayer game as much about trading as lap times, TrackMania is nothing if not incremental. Building a working model “in about three hours,” Castelnerac talks about physics rather than handling. “When it’s truly physical, it stops being an imitation of a real thing. Every time I changed it, something new would appear and something else would disappear – but it was always fun. The gameplay in the first one was quite sensitive, though. You had to be pretty stressed to play it at its best.”
The famous control scheme, meanwhile, which hands complete car control to the cursor keys, initially went even further. Picturing the game on consoles as well as computers, Nadeo designed the whole thing – driving, editing and frontend navigation – around the keyboard, only later adding the mouse. One thing it knew from the off, though: TrackMania needed a different look to the studio’s actual debut, the publisher-commissioned naval simulator Virtual Skipper 3.
“We were more focused on that because it was a sim, and on TrackMania we kind of gave up. We needed nice graphics but not great graphics. If you try to make impressive graphics, you’ll probably end up making graphics that get older quicker, so there’s a balance to be struck.” That said, people often overlook the complexities of an engine built to build as well as race. Even Castelnerac himself, he admits, remembering a conversation with a man who made Forza Motorsport 3.