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Meet the champion racing driver turned indie developer

Can you handle a twin-stick?

Recent years have seen the rise of one particularly positive story; that of the gamer turned professional racing driver, as personified by Lucas Ordóñez, Jann Mardenborough or the eventual winner of McLaren's world's fastest gamer competition that's been running through the year. This one, though, is entirely new to me - it's about a bona fide racing driver turned game developer.

You might not have heard of Mike Bushell, but he's certainly got the credentials - the 28-year-old has a season of British Touring Cars under his belt, as well as two national championship titles earned in the Renault Clio Cup. Such things don't come easy. Bushell is seriously good behind the wheel.

Bushell won this year's title - no mean feat.

And now he wants to prove that he's just as good behind the computer, as he indulges his other passion. "I've been racing since I was 15," says Bushell as he takes a break from struggling to fix a clutch as he lends a hand at his family garage in Tonbridge. He started his racing career when he outpaced his father - a Formula Vee racer - during a test session, though it's always something that's ran alongside another of his interests. "My dad was racing long before I was born - I was a late starter. He was always trying to take me along," he says, "but I was always more interested in playing CounterStrike."

Bushell's been tinkering away ever since then, first dabbling in CounterStrike maps - "My friends would never play on them because they said they were so bad," he admits - before games development took a backseat to his racing endeavours. That was until, at just 25, Bushell had a heart attack and was forced out for a while to recover. During that period of convalescence, he began tinkering with JavaScript to make his own twin-stick shooter.

Which is perhaps the first surprise - after the initial one of finding a racing driver that's making a video game, of course. Bushell isn't making a racing game, as you might expect him to. Instead, he's working away at a hard-edged arcade shooter.

"Racing games aren't games I actually enjoy to play," he says. "You can't actually recreate that same feeling. To a degree, I do use racing games for pure simulation. All this year, the week building up a racing event, I'll use Project Cars - they've done a fantastic job, because the Clio set-up is so accurate, it responds exactly the same way that mine would do doing set-up changes over a weekend, so it's quite handy trying different things and scenarios."

The second surprise is the fact that Bushell's game, Arena, is seriously handy. It's a twin-stick shooter in the vein of Geometry Wars, the likes of which you might have played plenty of times before, but it sets itself apart in its willingness to wrongfoot you. The demo starts off as a simple arena shooter, before turning into a horror game with a twin-stick slant and evolving once again into a Gears of War-inspired horde mode. All this, and it's slickly put together - hardly what you'd expect from a solo developer who's still finding his way around the ins and outs of development.

So neatly honed is Arena that it reminds me of the importance of having fresh perspectives in games, and the amazing things that can happen when someone from a very different discipline applies themselves to the art - think, for example, of Shigesato Itoi and Earthbound, or even the filmmaker Josef Fares and Brothers. There's a precision approach in Arena that you'd likely only find in the work of someone who spends most of their time chasing apexes and stealing split seconds out on the race track.

Oddly enough, the development has also helped in Bushell's racing career. "There's a lot of data involved, and I sit for countless hours between sessions going through it all, making calculations for wheel slip angles - my experience with maths certainly helped. I'd say game development has complemented my racing the last two years - my understanding of programming is a little stronger, so using data-logging software, it makes being able to do a bit more high-end calculations much easier, much to the surprise of my team boss!"

Arena 3D is emboldened by its inventiveness, as well as its execution. Its explosions fizzle like fireworks, and it's a slick package even in its current slim state.

That approach works on-track, too. "The two are interlinked! The focus, the determination, it's all hand in hand. Everything I've been doing with my game, I try and put 100 per cent accuracy into it. It's a mindset that comes with both - and it's gone well together. I nearly won the championship last year, and won it this year."

There's still a way to go, though, with Arena trickling along on Kickstarter. "It's not looking overly fantastic at the moment, which is fair enough - I'll just look to going down Steam Early Access and develop the multiplayer publicly. I'm really doing this on a day-to-day basis - I'm on my own and I have no experience with it!"

"But really I get the same buzz out of development as I do from driving the car. It might not seem it when you're on your computer late at night, but when you create something and it works the way you want it to, it's a really satisfying achievement. What I've said to myself for now is I'm going to put my racing to one side and focus on doing this game. I've put so many hours into it, and I want to have the success from it. This is becoming my number one priority.

Mike Bushell has been a champion in one field, so there's no reason to believe he can't achieve greatness when he applies himself to another

"I want to try and conquer whatever I do," he says as our conversation draws to a close. "Well, apart from this clutch this morning... I still haven't quite conquered that."

Arena 3D is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter, and you can try a free demo over on Steam.

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About the Author
Martin Robinson avatar

Martin Robinson


Martin worked at Eurogamer from 2011 to 2023. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.