April 1, 2020
Stainless Games explains how to design a modern vehicular combat game
The studio co-founder talks about how games like Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament along with Rocket League influenced the project and elaborates on how the team used a game-jam approach with its development. Early on, the studio decided to inject a high level of mobility to the vehicles; not only could they drive side-to-side, but they could also double jump. This injected additional depth into the mechanics and empowered the team to create more inventive modes and environments. Rounding out our interview, Barnden shares how leaning into ShockRod’s community allowed them to refine their game. ShockRods plays a lot like an arena shooter. What made the team inject cars into the equation?
Game Director Neil Barnden: We like arena shooters, and we also like driving games! It's as simple as that, really. We've been around for over 25 years, but have never made a shooter, and there was a strong desire to get into the genre as there are many avid shooter fans among the team. At the same time, Stainless has a long history of making games that feature cars and a lot of real car enthusiasts also work at the studio. So, the project actually began as an exploration of how we could take the "Carmageddon" brand in a new direction, moving it away from its previous destruction derby/death-race gameplay. The game, therefore, started out with the core concept of exploring how we could bring cars and guns together in a way that would allow players to control both simultaneously while allowing us to develop a new style of car-to-car combat.
Were there any particular games that inspired ShockRods?
Barnden: We've pitched the game as "Quake meets Rocket League," which is a handy distillation of the concept. Quake III Arena is specifically the game that we used to spend a lot of time playing during out-of-work hours at the office. We would also like to give a shout-out to Unreal Tournament.
With a history developing the Carmageddon games, was there anything you learned from developing that beloved series that you built off of for ShockRods?
Barnden: It's interesting because the further we got into the project, the less there was that tied it back to the Carmageddon games. Where Carmageddon was all about complex destruction code for vehicles and meticulous attention to the physics of car movement, ShockRods had to be built for speed, both in terms of movement and code calculations -- in order for the game to have the performance match its twitch-shooter pace. Earlier on in development, we also experimented with the idea of having human characters in the game; the drivers could be ejected from the cars and run around. But this interfered with the core gameplay too much, and was dropped, severing another connection with the Carmageddon series.
The only lingering similarity in gameplay terms between ShockRods and Carmageddon is the concept of pickups that have fun effects when you use them, such as the balloon and ice-cube guns. And this is probably more of a Stainless signature than a Carmageddon connection, because we love games that make you shout and laugh when you play them!
Not many vehicular combat games support WASD controls that allow cars to strafe side-to-side. Can you walk us through how the team came to this design?
Barnden: That goes back to the important point in our first answer: How do you make a game that brings cars and guns together, and control both at the same time while making it work in a satisfying way? This is something that games have struggled with, and either they don't solve it well, or they have to compromise how steering and wheels work. Fortunately, we discovered these things called "omni-directional wheels." They exist in the real world, and allow a vehicle to move in any direction. So that solves the problem of conventional cars not being able to strafe, because with omni-directional wheels, our cars can strafe.
We then added the jump/boost function, which is also not such a fanciful concept either. We just took jump-jet technology and adapted it to our futuristic arena.
ShockRods features a wide assortment of inventive weapons. How did you design them?
Barnden: ShockRods’ design has been refreshingly like a game jam. We’ve had a small, passionate team on the project for a couple of years, and they constantly try to see if stuff works. All of the core gameplay came about this way. Some of the game’s weapons came about pretty much instantly, while others got iterated on and refined over time. We experimented a lot.
Cars in ShockRods can double jump, which adds a platforming element to the game. Why was this a good inclusion?
Barnden: A conventional car is tied to the plane it's driving on; unless you drive it off a cliff, its movement is two dimensional. This makes a car's direction of travel highly predictable, and it's an easy target. It also limits the options for level design, particularly when thinking in terms of an arena shooter. Adding omni-directional wheels improves the manoeuvrability of the car and makes it a less predictable target, but it's still moving along a 2D plane.
As soon as you add the ability to jump, the car is far less of an easy target to predictably fire at. And now the driver is able to travel from one place to another by using the third dimension. This opens up the opportunities for levels that have a far greater 3D design than would otherwise be possible without a network of ramps and jumps. And it's fun to jump, use the "Aftertouch" control to elegantly spin your car as you fly through the air, and railgun your opponent while you're upside-down!
What can you tell us about the way Stainless Games designed the maps in ShockRods?
Barnden: The maps were developed alongside the evolution of our cars’ movement system and in conjunction with the development and testing of our game modes. Once again, this was an iterative process and involved playing simple grey-box versions of levels prior to building full levels. Some maps were completed but eventually removed or substantially reworked as the game evolved. Plus, there was the requirement later on in the project's development for the game to run on mobile devices, which also had impacted map design (although, fortunately, this was less of an issue than it might have been due to the constant emphasis on keeping the maps as economical and efficient as possible to maximize the game's performance).
ShockRods offers fun modes such as Golden Ram, which forces players to rack up points by taking control of a single battering ram and Shockball, which wears its Rocket League inspirations on its sleeves, but adds guns. How did the studio design and implement these fun multiplayer modes?
Barnden: One of the great strengths of using Unreal Engine is that its dev environment allows very rapid prototyping and testing. So, we can try out all the positive game mode ideas that we talk about on Slack. Again, with a small team of passionate gamers on the project dedicated to making the game as good as it can be, there's total enthusiasm for trying stuff out. We analyze whether or not something is worth pursuing, and then refine it until everyone has a blast playing it. If it's not fun, it doesn't go in the game.
The studio has stated that it's relied heavily on the community to design ShockRods. In what ways did the community influence the game's development?
Barnden: The community involvement has been great; thanks to our Discord channel and a band of merry players who helped us out with pre-release testing, gave essential feedback on issues, and came up with suggestions to improve the game. Lots of additional tweaking came from these tests with first time users. Some specific changes were implemented directly because of community feedback, such as when pickups slightly vacuum towards you when you drive close to them (which means you don't have to drive right over them to pick them up).
Stainless Games has said that the game was made to be easy-to-learn, but hard-to-master. How has the studio tried to deliver on that philosophy with ShockRod's design?
Barnden: The game uses a core set of controls that are very easy to pick up. The player can drive around, shoot and dodge [without] being shot really quickly. They don't have to jump at all, or double-jump, or boost in order to play the game and have fun. But as they get familiar with the game, they'll start to appreciate how much their fun increases as they start to jump around, switch to more appropriate weapons, use pickups in innovative ways, or use Aftertouch to maneuver more skilfully.
This was evident when the game was showcased at video game expos like Rezzed. Visitors of all ages who had never played the game could sit down and get straight into the action with minimal or no guidance, and were having fun within seconds of starting.
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for ShockRods?
Barnden: Unreal Engine has been the perfect engine for ShockRods because of the speed with which ideas can be prototyped and tried out. It's also optimized to allow us to achieve really good performance during network play. And because it's been developed for all platforms, we were also able to create the Apple Arcade version of the game within a really tight timeframe.
Considering the game is available across various platforms, was it challenging designing the game around so many vastly different hardware systems?
Barnden: As mentioned, making the game run well on so many significantly different devices, and within a tight schedule, would have been impossible if we didn’t use Unreal.
But there was an added challenge to make the game work on devices that used touch controls, since we originally conceived it for devices with controllers. However, thanks again to Unreal enabling rapid implementation/test cycles, the team was able to come up with a very intuitive control scheme for mobile/touch devices.
Did the team have any favorite Unreal Engine tools?
Barnden: Each member of the team is happy with their own toolset within the editor. The artists really like Material Editor. In the past, a coder would have to make a shader based on an artist describing what they wanted. Now, artists can do it themselves, and in real time. Our designers and coders are also big fans of Blueprints.
Are there any tips you can offer game designers?
Barnden: Try stuff out! If you're still having fun doing a thing after doing it over and over and over again during development, other people will probably have fun doing it, too!
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about ShockRods?
Barnden: Go to www.ShockRods.com to find out more about the game.