Shootmania Storm is out today. I think it’s a fantastic game; a competitive twitch shooter set in an overloaded neon castle. It’s unusually player-friendly in these modern times: it’s got a fully fledged and easy to use level editor, it doesn’t shove microtransactions down your throat, and it has a rare degree of connectivity, allowing you to compete in leagues and league tables against competitors across the world.
But it’s also unusually precise, a game designed with a fine scalpel. There are no needless mechanics in Shootmania Storm; there’s no fat or waste. There’s no crouch button. Weapons auto-swap when you run over them. There are only a handful of weapons. There’s no experience points or prestiging. It’s a beautiful, brilliant design.
It’s not the first time that Nadeo, the studio behind it, have smashed a game out of the park. Their first game(s) were the Trackmania series; dinky little racing games with wonderfully open level editors and near perfect car handling.
Shootmania’s insane focus, says Florent Castlnerac, Nadeo’s philisophical ‘leader’, grew out from a simple refrain. “Something is perfect not when you can add something else, but when you cannot remove something else. I don’t think we’re making something perfect at all, but I think...” Florent’s English is excellent, but it’s clear that it’s easier to express the ideals in his native French.
“In Trackmania, we could have added gear shifts. In Shootmania, we could have had weapon changing. It’s not a problem to add these things in. But they’re just... additions?”
He continues. “It’s not an approach to simplify. We’re not trying to make things pure. It’s more that we don’t want to add useless stuff. We have four arrow keys to move. And I’ve never found something worth adding to any other keys.”
He explains that throughout development the team continually tested more functions. A key to crouch, and hide your movement sounds. A key to jump. “I say, ‘yes. But that’s a key. The other key can make you move forward. What can compare to this?’”
That’s not to say that Florent is opposed to complicated games. “One of my most played games was Mechwarrior 2. I have a joystick with 43 buttons. And I love adding stuff. But there’s no right way to play or make games. It’s just our way to focus on basics.”
Nadeo are in an interesting position. Trackmania’s success and Ubisoft’s confidence in the studio has given them the flexibility and authority to be creative, and not necessarily bow to the prevailing business winds. Shootmania doesn’t include any microtransactions or DLC and hasn’t been published on Ubisoft’s uPlay platform. Instead, it’s tied into a global ManiaPlanet client, where players can move freely between versions of Trackmania and Shootmania. “I want to make it simple. If you take League of Legends, people are ready to buy new champions, so they sell new champions. Buying a champion is simple. I don’t find it simple enough to say “I will buy a chapter of this game. It’s more efficient just to be pure, to sell the complete game. We have one car, one Shootman, and we don’t have content for sale.”
That doesn’t mean that Florent didn’t consider any microtransactions or free-to-play models. “I looked at it more than Ubisoft asked for it, because I know they will like it. I am thinking, thinking, thinking and after a year of thinking I say ‘No, I don’t find any idea for this’.” He has kind words for Ubisoft as a publisher: I ask if he thinks that Ubisoft get an unfair beating from PC gamers. “I would not say ‘unfair’. There are parts of the company that are doing PC very well. They are making exclusive titles like Heroes, Dust, Trackmania, Anno. They care for the PC much more than what people can think from the outside. But they have made mistakes. But Ubisoft is a big company.”
What’s fascinating about Florent is his quiet ambition. He’s not cocky: just gifted with a sense of clarity. As we talk, he explains that he quietly thinks Trackmania might be one of the most popular racing games in the world. “On PC at least. I don’t know. Maybe.” Then he laughs. “On the FPS the ambition of the studio is exactly that. To make the most popular shooter in the world.”
“I don’t think that we’ll succeed. That would be crazy. But really, it’s simple. If I can understand why we are not the most popular, then we will work in order to become the most popular. It’s just about asking the question. ‘If another FPS becomes more popular because they have something great, then we have to make make that, too.’”
Key to getting there is the level editor and Shootmania’s openness to user-generated content. “For me,” says Florent, “the UGC stuff is the new dimension.” He moves into metaphor. “If you compare a 2D shooter to a 3D shooter, the 3D shooter will be more popular. If you compare a 3D shooter with a 3D shooter with online multiplayer, it’s the online multiplayer that will be more popular. And then you have creation by players.”
“By opening up to players,” says Florent, “I don’t see how it can prevent the game from being that popular.”
But there’s a problem, I point out. Shootmania isn’t anywhere near perfect. Great, but flawed. The menu systems are odd and bizarrely under-engineered compared to the rest of the game. The movement speed isn’t quite right. But most of all, while I love playing Shootmania, I only rarely load it up. It’s missing the stickiness that its competitors have: games like Team Fortress 2, Call of Duty, and Quake. It’s not just enough to create a great game. You have to create a game that you want to play more than everything else you have to play at the time.
“I asked a friend to play WarZ and Shootmania. He said Shootmania was perfect, it’s fluid, it’s fun. Every second in the game is great. When he plays WarZ he says ‘it’s just shit.’ Nothing is working. I play for an hour and somebody shoots me and I have nothing. I have died 13 times. It’s horrible.’ After a week, he was just launching WarZ. Not Shootmania. There’s a desire to play that’s different from quality of the experience.”
It’s not like Nadeo haven’t prototyped a stickier type of game structure. “We made an experiment two years ago. It was Royal XP: you play Royal (Shootmania’s King of the Hill style game mode), but each time you win some points, you get experience points. You also have a character sheet: you can improve the number of rockets you have, the number of ammo, your stamina. People get addicted to it. We had people staying online all night to exploit it to get more experience points.”
That experiment has Florent thinking of a more permanent mode. “We decided that every time you reach the maximum level you get one permanent XP point.” The results were astonishing. “The two types of games should have the same speed of ladder progression. Yet, in one month, the players in Royal XP reached the end of the ladder. They play and play and play. They get really addicted.”
Which brings us, neatly, to Nadeo’s next major project. QuestMania is an RPG built to the same standards and structure of Shoot and Trackmania. User created dungeons combined with slick, simple controls. It was inspired, in part, by a chance encounter on an aeroplane. “When I went to China,” says Florent, “a guy on the plane drew me a map of his RPG quest, and he was like, ‘Oh, this is the Ice King in the clouds...’. When I arrived in China I found that I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realised I had to start building QuestMania for real. That was in 2006.”
It’s an ambitious project, and you can sense a little bit of intimidation from Florent. “We are capable, I hope. It’s cool to have ambition. For us, we look at it in two ways. To make the shooter, we are skilled at making games for the body. For the RPG, we are making a game for the mind.”