THE 15TH ARRONDISSEMENT IS THE MOST DENSELY POPULATED PART OF THE BEAUTIFUL AND ANCIENT CITY OF PARIS, and home to impressive institutions, including the global headquarters of UNESCO . However, it’s better known as the place where millions of visitors every year make a pilgrimage to gaze up at, and down from, the Eiffel Tower, one of the world’s greatest architectural icons. It’s in this decidedly international and incomparably romantic atmosphere that one company’s unique vision is steering video games toward an exciting new future at gravity-defying velocities.
Nadeo Blazes Game- Development Trail
Founded in 1999, game-development studio Nadeo cut its teeth with the Virtual Skipper* sailing simulator series, which for over 10 years and through five iterations has invited players to indulge in high-stakes nautical racing on the PC. However, a very different kind of racing brought the company to the attention of leading global video-game publisher Ubisoft, resulting in Nadeo being added to Ubisoft’s stable of in-house studios in 2009. Since 2003, the TrackMania* franchise of online PC racing games has blazed a new trail and earned the company a reputation as a major innovator.
User-generated content has evolved from being an industry buzzword to being the cornerstone of a growing number of successful video-game franchises. However, while many developers and publishers refer to it as a core gameplay element or as a way to extend the content for a game’s more committed players, Nadeo rejects both of those definitions outright in favor of a more radical vision of the player’s role in game creation. “Generally speaking we try not to use the term user-generated content,” said Edouard Beauchemin, international product manager at Nadeo. “In many games that term refers to additional content that players produce on the side. For us it’s part of the core game mechanics.”
This vision has more in common with nascent crowd sourcing techniques than with traditional game development and puts Nadeo at the vanguard of an exciting new approach to game development. With the TrackMania series, Nadeo places the community of players—and the content they create—firmly at the heart of the creative process and the gameplay experience.
“We create gaming tools and systems rather than designing games with a history and a background story,” said Beauchemin. “When we start to create a game, we think about delivering the best creative tools for our community, offering them the chance to create, share, and, of course, play. The gameplay is key because the game has to be good. Then we make sure the tools are very powerful and offer the maximum number of possibilities to players.”
This player-centric approach is central to Nadeo’s success. The first game in the TrackMania series was released in 2003, and nine iterations later the franchise has become something of a PC racing phenomenon, with well over 10 million registered drivers online to date. “I think the players thrive in this kind of environment,” said Beauchemin. “The community has been growing for years now, with more and more players online, so it seems to be a good recipe.”
The Squaring of TrackMania
The most recent full-fledged sequel in the series is TrackMania2 Canyon, launched by Ubisoft in September 2011 to a rapturous reception from fans and critics. The superscript 2 in the game’s title is significant, representing the idea that—more than a simple sequel—the game is TrackMania squared, with every feature multiplied rather than simply added to. “After the success of the first TrackMania we decided to pursue two goals,” said Beauchemin. “First, to offer a better, more comfortable experience, but also to offer an experience with more of a sensation of speed and of driving, to put it simply.”
“That’s why we say TrackMania2 Canyon is TrackMania squared. It’s a more powerful game. Everything is better. We improved the graphics, the gameplay, the tools for creation, and offered it all to players for an accessible price.”
Built entirely on Nadeo’s own in-house technology with the ManiaPlanet system at its working core, TrackMania2 Canyon hands players a vast sandbox of racetrack components and invites them to construct tracks—a scenario limited by only their imaginations. The Canyon portion of the game’s name refers to the majestic, rugged desert setting, which serves as the blank canvas for the tracks in TrackMania2 Canyon. Often with games featuring user-generated content, only a minority of players take the time and effort to contribute, but with TrackMania2 Canyon Nadeo has carefully crafted the tools and the gameplay itself to put creation at the core of the experience, ensuring that barriers to participation are low and the fun quotient is high.
“It’s a game you can drive with four cursor keys,” said Beauchemin. “My five-year-old nephew managed to handle a car in less than a minute, so it’s easy to handle; but it’s hard to master because the track defines the difficulty level.” Every tool at the disposal of the in-house development team, including the track editor and even the video-creation tools, is handed over to the players, creating a level playing field where skill and creative vision are the only factors in play. “Everything we deliver—from tracks to videos—is made with the in-game tools,” said Beauchemin. “Offering tools to everyone allows people to recreate or do the same thing at home. TrackMania has over half a million created tracks and over 30,000 videos. Obviously people enjoy it a lot.”
Collaboration Breeds Innovation
The track editor makes it simple for anyone to dive in and create accomplished and great-looking tracks in very little time that can then be shared with the entire community of millions of online players. “It’s designed to be an open world where people come with their own style, their own ideas, and decide to race the way they want,” said Beauchemin. “Some people like to do stunts, some like really technical driving, and some do grand prix driving, running around for hours on a round circuit.”
It becomes a really impressive experience when the graphics are smooth and sharp. We’ve been improving the lighting with radiosity, shadows, and lights in general. Reflections, bloom, the level of detail, anti-aliasing—those are the things that require the highest graphical power.”
—EDOUARD BEAUCHEMIN, INTERNATIONAL PRODUCT MANAGER, NADEO
“Some even created a game mode called RPG where they do a sort of platformer with their car. They try to jump from place to place, and just finishing a track is already an achievement. When you get into TrackMania2 Canyon you never know what you can encounter. You can choose from what you see and choose the way you want to race.”
In addition to leading to a great deal of exceptional creativity from the community, sharing its powerful yet easy-to-use toolbox has led Nadeo to proving that it’s serious about its vision of players at the core of the development process. Not long ago, the designer who created the 65+ tracks that ship with TrackMania2 Canyon was himself just a regular fan of the series.
Nadeo was so impressed with what this fan was doing with its editing tools that he was invited to become a full-time member of the team. Similarly, the stunning official trailers of the game (which can be seen online) were created by talented players that Nadeo brought onboard, letting them continue to produce their work on a professional basis.
“They’re all people that made videos for their own fun,” said Beauchemin. “They were just so talented and gifted in deciding what to film that we hired them to work with us on the video trailers using only the in-game video editor.”
However, collaborating with the community isn’t simply a matter of harvesting created content. It’s a genuine, living process that continues throughout the life cycle of the game starting from its inception. “The TrackMania community is very much alive and very knowledgeable about many things,” said Beauchemin. “Throughout the alpha and beta process they’ve been incredibly helpful with pointing out any kind of possible issue. We also have community discussions on forums and servers. It’s very helpful to know what people enjoy, the way they want to play, and what for them is the next step forward. Then we think about what our next step forward is, and hopefully we’re going in the same direction.”
As a player, however, the sheer volume of content created and available online could easily become daunting, and Nadeo understands the importance of being able to unearth the real gems. The game server hub and numerous online fan sites make the process straightforward, showing rankings and letting players rate tracks and find the ones they want to race on. “When you connect online you’ll see servers that are more popular than others, and you’ll see quite quickly who’s successful in creating tracks and attracting players,” said Beauchemin. “There are several thousand servers to choose from, so honestly by just going around and seeing what’s popular, normally you can find something that you’re looking for.”
“Then there are many exchange Web sites, such as Mania Exchange, where people rate tracks, give them awards, comment on them, give a difficulty level, and also give a racing style,” continued Beauchemin. “Let’s say you’re into technical driving. You can find maps that are designed especially for drivers like you. And because it’s rated by other players, you also have accurate feedback. It’s not an automatic machine offering you content that may not be exactly what you’re looking for—you’re talking with humans about their creations and what they want to share.”
With the online experience such a core part of the overall TrackMania2 Canyon experience, Nadeo designed the gameplay to take into account the problems players of online racing games encounter, where all too frequently a minority are determined to spoil the experience for others. To neatly sidestep the problem, Nadeo implemented a system that makes it impossible to crash into another car. Instead, all the other cars on the track behave like ghosts, so your high-speed progress is unimpeded.
“On any public server I’d say you’d always have one, two, or three people that just enjoy giving a hard time to other people in general, so we decided to stay away from that,” said Beauchemin. “This helps keep the community sane and the competitor spirit as high as possible because you don’t have to worry about people blocking the road in front of you.”
Future Gaming and the PC Platform
Just as bold as its approach to game creation is Nadeo’s attitude toward the PC platform, which is the exclusive platform for TrackMania2 Canyon. The PC has no shortage of fans at Nadeo.
“We want to develop cutting-edge, new technology for gaming, and we believe that the PC platform offers the best possibilities for that,” said Beauchemin. “It’s accessible, it offers the best graphics, and it’s the most-used platform throughout the world, which is very important for us because we have players from many countries. We already have 96 countries represented in TrackMania2 Canyon.”
“I think the PC is the future for gaming,” continued Beauchemin. “Its integration with the Internet is best and that’s very important for us as we are a social network of players. The PC is where innovation has always happened, so that’s why we also want to be there. It’s also becoming more and more democratic, with people having very accessible laptops that are still very powerful machines. It’s just the ideal platform for us.”
Some of the most important advances in TrackMania2 Canyon, and most expensive technologically, are graphical. With the solidity of the core gameplay experience well established, Nadeo chose to focus significant resources on the improvement of the game’s visuals, both in terms of development resources and the system resources the game demands of the computer. “It becomes a really impressive experience when the graphics are smooth and sharp,” said Beauchemin.
“We’ve been improving the lighting with radiosity, shadows, and lights in general. Reflections, bloom, the level of detail, anti-aliasing—those are the things that require the highest graphical power.”
Key to bringing Nadeo’s vision to life is putting the full game experience and its beautiful graphics in the hands of as many players as possible with no compromise on quality. It’s here that PC hardware innovation counts.
One of the hardware innovations that is playing an important role in the democratization of powerful PC technology and the platform’s potentially bright future for games is Intel® HD Graphics. Thanks to the technological advances, more power is finding its way into a greater number of hands at lower cost, letting players enjoy increasingly sophisticated experiences, such as TrackMania2 Canyon, on a wider range of PC hardware, all of which is great news for Nadeo.
“What’s exciting for us is that now pretty much anyone can have a good laptop or a good desktop Intel visual for gaming and be able to run our game and do it smoothly. Computing power has increased so much that, for example, now we can run in full HD on low-end machines, which was not possible before.”
Paris-based Intel engineer Guy Grenier collaborated with the team at Nadeo during the final months of development and testing, providing them with a system equipped with 2nd generation Intel® Core™ processor family and Intel HD Graphics, and helping them optimize the platform. By Guy’s own admission, the skilled team at Nadeo, armed with their own powerful proprietary tools, were more than capable of achieving an extremely high level of optimization themselves, but he was able to help ensure that they reached their common goal as efficiently as possible. The results were showcased on the Intel stand at the 2011 GamesCom show in Cologne, Germany.
“TrackMania2 Canyon was being played on six HD graphics machines and honestly it was just looking like a great game running smoothly in full HD,” recalled Beauchemin. “German PC gamers often have a very critical eye for these matters, and they said that it looked like an awesome game. That’s great for us.”
“Just knowing that the 2nd gen Intel Core processor is such a great technology for consumers in general helps us work with peace of mind, knowing that if our game runs so smoothly on this processor we don’t have to worry too much about accessibility for our games in the future,” continued Beauchemin.
During the development of TrackMania2 Canyon Nadeo also took into account the increased prevalence of multi-core and multi-threading processors. “We made sure that the game ran smoothly on multi-threading simply because it helps players to be comfortable while running the game,” said Beauchemin. “If they can run it full window and do other tasks in the background at the same time it means comfort for them. We’re aiming at making sure they have the best experience possible, and we think those processors help very much.”
When asked whether the continued advances in PC technology are going to benefit PC gaming in the long term, Beauchemin is unequivocal. “I’m actually convinced so. With the 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processor family coming soon—and the Ultrabook™ device that also looks extremely promising—people are looking for ways to improve their way of gaming. And, I think those technologies are definitely the way forward and the future for gaming.”
As far as Nadeo’s future is concerned, TrackMania2 Canyon is just the beginning. Based on the same ManiaPlanet system, Nadeo is planning to bring the same player-driven experience to the first-person shooter (FPS) and role-playing game (RPG) with ShootMania* and QuestMania* respectively, and plans for the next TrackMania title are already well underway. Helped by the increased proliferation of powerful and affordable hardware, Nadeo’s atypical approach to development puts it at the forefront of a major evolution in collaborative, crowd sourced game creation, the fruits of which are just beginning to emerge.
As Beauchemin said, “It’s much like a social network of gamers in a 3D high quality gaming environment. The difference with games that tend to be more like platformers or mini-games is that we try to do games that core gamers like—racing, FPS, and RPG—and really put the player at the center. That’s why we say ManiaPlanet is powered by players, because without the players there’s no power in the games.”
About the Author
John Tyrrell’s career in the games industry began with the launch of Nintendo’s Pokemon* on an unsuspecting British public in 1999. After a decade of creating international PR campaigns, supplemented with work as a freelance writer, he left the position of Worldwide PR Director at Atari in 2009 to establish Hot Socket, a communications consultancy based in Lyon, France.
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