TrackMania is one of the most unusual and engaging driving games of recent years - so much so that it seems rather pointless to describe it as a driving game. It almost defies description. You may drive, and race online, but the real fun of the game comes from building new tracks and sharing them with your friends - and the many thousands of gamers that make up the TrackMania online community clearly agree.
With the sequel, TrackMania Sunrise, on its way for the first quarter of 2005, we caught up with Florent Castelnerac from French developer Nadeo to find out what sparked particular changes, how development is progressing, and whether we can have a Eurogamer car in this one. (Such cheek.)
Eurogamer: First of all, congratulations on your success with TrackMania. Did the reaction surprise you at all?
Florent Castelnerac: Eurogamer was the first to test TrackMania in UK and I remember concluding on the fact that TrackMania could be a 9/10 if the community was there. It was an interactive answer to this issue: how do you know a multiplayer game can succeed online? It was not surprising that a community raised from an original title with addictive gameplay, but that big was unpredicted! How could we imagine that so many teams, tracks, sites, skins, news, forums, developers, tournaments, videos etc would spring up? For Sunrise, it will be a bet as well. A lot of things are new to online gaming. But this time, maybe you can conclude with the fact that readers can substract one point if the community does not grow!
Eurogamer: What inspired you to come up with the idea of a car and track-building game in the first place?
Florent Castelnerac: Our team developed building tools for games. Naturally we went in that direction. We first made a pure driving prototype with an original user editor. This looked as the best feature, so when Olivier from Nadeo came up with the idea of puzzle, he developed the first prototype of TrackMania based on fun and simplicity.
Eurogamer: The screenshots we've seen of Sunrise paint a picture of a much bigger and more elaborate game. How many track pieces and types of environment will there be in this one compared to the original?
Florent Castelnerac: The number of items should be quite the same. There is much more work for each block because of the graphic quality and the different moods. We will certainly expand the game later like we did and we are doing with TrackMania original.
Eurogamer: There's a section in your recent trailer when the cars go off what looks like a skateboard ramp, fly up into the air, and then land on another one. That's pretty smart. What sort of other ambitious track pieces will you be including in Sunrise that weren't in TrackMania?
Florent Castelnerac: There will be more freeride blocks that enable free ride tracks. They are designed to enable the player to go on wide spaces like parking with obstacles. You should find a collection of very crazy blocks that will be designed to put a shame on looping.
Eurogamer: The environments look much bigger - has that forced you to change the system requirements at all? We were always surprised at how well TrackMania ran on low-end PCs...
Florent Castelnerac: Thanks for our star graphic engineer Jean-Sebastien. There are four PC graphic engines at Nadeo and we will continue to keep the old ones for Sunrise. This means that TrackMania Sunrise will run on low-end PCs as well. However, maybe the size of the track will start to affect the frame rate. Don't be afraid though, the shortest are the funniest.
Eurogamer: What other changes have your made to the graphics engine? It does look a lot more detailed even at a glance.
Florent Castelnerac: This is mainly a team improvement. We have learned how to make a better use of the Nadeo engine with building blocks. It is not like common racing games where everything is fixed. The graphic engine continues to be improved.
Eurogamer: There seems to be a lot more trackside detail, too. Buildings, lampposts, pavements, etc. Can you place that stuff yourself? What sort of other things can you do with the environment around the track?
Florent Castelnerac: It is still block oriented. But you can "skin" your blocks with different pictures or text. By night, the light of the blocks lightens some parts of your track.
Eurogamer: There are also some tracks that seem to be set in the twilight - judging by the red glow on the water, anyway. Will you be able to pick different times of day for this one?
Florent Castelnerac: The different moods that you can pick up are: sunrise, day, sunset and night. With three environments, this will generate twelve moods. Since there is already 12,000 tracks on TrackMania original, I think it is good to have different feelings.
Eurogamer: What happens in the two new solo modes, Platform and Crazy?
Florent Castelnerac: In the original, we were maybe too serious with the level design. TrackMania enables a lot of tracks of different types. We want to include different style of tracks. With platform, the goal is not to go at the end quickly, it is only to go at the end without falling from the track.
Eurogamer: Are there any new multiplayer modes?
Florent Castelnerac: Yes, there will be new multiplayer modes, but we have to test them with the community before. One mode is designed around the new multi-lap block, which enables common racing like Formula One.
Eurogamer: How many cars can the game support - offline and online - and how difficult was it getting the whole thing working online?
Florent Castelnerac: As many as your graphics card and network can support. We did not limit it since the concept of TrackMania enables to play with network lags. You can easily find servers with fifteen cars but I already played with up to forty.
Eurogamer: Will you be able to do much damage to the cars?
Florent Castelnerac: It is not scheduled. I don't think we will take the time to make it. So many games already bring you this fun to destroy you car or others. This is not our duty to make the same things as the others.
Eurogamer: How will the car and avatar customisation work? Will there be an in-game interface for that?
Florent Castelnerac: The customisation of car, avatar, blocks, replays etc. will be easier and sometimes integrated directly into the game for more people to use it. The peer-to-peer system integrated directly into the game will enable the fast transfer of all that custom stuff.
Eurogamer: Will the old handling models and cars from the first game be usable in the new environments, or included in any way?
Florent Castelnerac: You should be able to combine the two games to have access to all environments. There will be an upgrade for the players of the original TrackMania to have access to new features.
Eurogamer: When are you aiming for release now (we heard Q1 2005), and are you on, er, track for that date?
Florent Castelnerac: Yes, we are on track! We have to do a long period of test with players until the release Q1 2005. Maybe some ideas will come up and we will delay it, but I would be really surprised.
Eurogamer: We can imagine something like this working tremendously well on Xbox, for example, making use of Xbox Live to upload tracks, race against people, etc. Are you considering console versions of TrackMania Sunrise at all?
Florent Castelnerac: An Xbox version is not scheduled. Console is not as modern as PC. That's a problem. On PC you have the forums, the painting tools, the email, the websites with all the tracks, teams, tournaments etc. But I agree, this could make a good Xbox game. TrackMania was designed to work on console or PC at the beginning.
Eurogamer: What do you plan to do after TrackMania Sunrise is finished?
Florent Castelnerac: To see what's happening and to react to this. Regarding its success, we will certainly continue to support it 200 per cent.
Eurogamer: Finally, we were rather pleased to see our names on the back of the box when the first game arrived - albeit with a rather prosaic quote from one of our previews. Any chance of a Eurogamer car in this one? Or perhaps a motorbike?
Florent Castelnerac: I am sure that some players acquired the game because of you. There are so many positive builders in the community and they are certainly reading Eurogamer on a regular basis. I am sure one of them will read this interview and make a Eurogamer car!
TrackMania Sunrise is due out on PC in Q1 2005.