Last week we spoke with Bo Andersson, CEO of Swedish games developer GRIN, about the company's origins and the business philosophy and methods that have helped them to create their first full game in the space of just six months, something of an achievement in this age of spiralling costs and increasingly complex games.
This week we take a look at the game itself to see why it has been raising such a storm on the net recently, and just what all the fuss is about...
As with any good game, GRIN's debut title is based on a very simple concept. "Graphics and cool effects aside, Ballistics is about one thing - SPEED", Bo explained, before launching into his "elevator pitch" for the game.
"Ballistics is racing as you would like it to be in the future. It's speed beyond imagination. In the races you use vehicles called Speeders, hover bikes which are either attached to a magnetic field inside the tunnel that makes up the race track, or can be driven detached from this field and freely accelerate inside the tunnel. The art for you as a pilot is to keep on the verge between maximum acceleration and control. It's like getting a new Ferrari and trying it out on small narrow city streets - dangerous and expensive."
The idea for Ballistics actually came from a remarkably straightforward source - Formula One motor racing. "Our producer Ulf Andersson wanted to nail that speed sensation you have when you're flying low in a jet or using a road camera on an F1 car. He worked out a way to get good speed reference by redesigning the usual racing road into a tunnel which gives you reference in your whole 360 spectra. Adding outside scenes he then found the final part that was to make a total speed simulation."
"Working on the design for over a year with small tests and brainstorming we got the project rolling", Bo told us. "A lot of inspiration was taken from Fifth Element and Blade Runner for the city tracks, but also places like the snowy mountains of Siberia and the jungles of the Amazon, plus a few diving trips by myself, inspired some of the environments in Ballistics."
"As for games we were very inspired by Wipeout and Rollcage in the way they display speed and how fun it is. We simply had to take it a bit further and see how graphical advanced we could get it with the Diesel Engine and today's hardware. We think we went all the way. Some will just shake their heads, others will scream of joy."
It's not all about raw speed though, an important part of the game is how you achieve that speed. "In the story you play one of the pilots fighting for fame and fortune, and between the races you can buy new parts and repair your Speeder with the prize money that you earned during the race".
"This upgrade system plays a huge part in Ballistics", according to Bo. "Each Speeder is built up from an engine, chassis, front shield and body. When you buy a new engine it not only alters your bank account, but it changes the characteristics of your Speeder too. The different parts alter features such as acceleration, magnetic attach ability, booster acceleration, heat output, cooling abilities, stability in air, friction and the way the Speeder handles a collision."
"A single part alone does not determine these characteristics; you have to find the ultimate combination of parts that suits you, and the track you are currently racing on. If you want to build an unstable speed devil you can! If you would rather go with a bulky hog which will never overheat, then you can do that too. Anything that suits you and your wallet!"
Once you have got to grips with the game, and used your race winnings to enhance both yourself and your speeder to improve your performance, you are faced with a new challenge. "If you are really good you will be allowed to compete in the elite series, where the most difficult races take place, and where the very best pilots will race alongside you in the struggle for the world championship title."
The races themselves take place on a series of seven tracks, each of which is several kilometres long. Of course, going at the kind of insane speeds which Ballistics encourages that isn't as long as it might sound. "If you are good you have lap times around 45 seconds - it is very fast!"
That doesn't sound like a lot of track, so what will keep players coming back for more? "Everything is modeled in detail, and you will have to race each track tens and tens of times before you find your personal way through it", according to Bo. "In ordinary racing you are somehow attached to a road which has two dimensions - forwards and sideways. In Ballistics your 'road' is the whole area of the tunnel. When racing attached to the wall you have a 360 degree road to race, with upcoming obstacles to be avoided and booster and cooler zones to get into."
"If you feel that you are going too slow at about 700 km/h, you can detach and fly free in the air. It is here that the real trick comes into play - you have to know the track extremely well to be able to detach at high speed at the right moment, and to use the booster to accelerate you on the straights to ridicules speeds before entering the next turn and avoiding the obstacles in front of you. Some of the guys here came up with a technique they call slingshot. They use the curves as slings and accelerate like bullets from a gun when they hit the straights. If you are positioned in the wrong way, say attach in the inner curve at too high a speed, you will be crushed into fragments! The game is all about the speed, and you will be coming back for more once you figure out how to get it!"
Over The Wire
The game also offers a wide range of course designs and surroundings to keep you interested, and "settings include high tech cities, sewers, jungles, an underwater track in Jamaica, snow passes in Novosibirsk Russia, a grand canyon setting, and finally a purpose built arena for the speed freaks."
There will also be full multiplayer support, allowing you to race against other gamers as well as the AI. "There the competition is either all-on-all, or you play in teams where the team members add together their positions and the team with the best total placement wins. We have also been looking into tournaments and leagues on a dedicated server version of the game, which we will release as a separate module. The multiplayer mode is still being explored though, and we would like the Pilot Program which we started to generate some ideas from the gamers who participate in it."
"This lets players try out parts of the completed game and add their ideas to it. GRIN is happy with the product, so now we turn to the gamers and ask them what they want. We don't want people to go 'oh they should have added this' after the release, so now is their opportunity to voice opinions to us. And no, we won't add guns - we have plenty of them in our upcoming game!"
With the almost complete game now being put through its paces by the pilot program volunteers, the search is continuing for a publisher to distribute the game. "Publishers are a bit puzzled with the development style we have", Bo told us. "JIT requires parallel testing and building of the different parts, and this made publishers look upon Ballistics as less complete than it was. When we showed it at ECTS we got a very good response though - it was a showstopper. So far most publishers have applauded the high-end gaming concept, and they are as we speak playing the game."
Even though Ballistics has yet to find a home, the uncertainty is not causing any problems for the company. "As we are financed from another source we only need the publisher to do what they do best - publishing. This means that GRIN can hold the design and development to itself for a long period and then offer the product to a larger publisher."
This gives the company a lot of freedom, and in fact they are already hard at work on a second game which is "heading for a summer completion". Although the details are still secret, Bo did tell us that it will be an action game featuring "incredible graphics combined with a serenade of great gameplay".
And that's not all they have in the works. "You can expect GRIN's technology to show up together with a certain leading 3D graphics card manufacturer. When? I can't say. Who? You guess!"
NVIDIA? ATI? Even 3dfx maybe? No doubt we will know more soon, but one thing is sure - we will be hearing more from GRIN in future...