Earlier this month Gaming Union reviewed ModNation Racers - a customizable, user-generated content driven kart racer for the PlayStation 3. The game was developed by a newly formed, Vancouver based studio, United Front Games, in partnership with Sony. United Front's game designer, William Ho, sat down with Gaming Union to share his thoughts on the finished product and the development process that lead to it.
Gaming Union: When ModNation Racers was originally announced Sony really emphasized the game is a continuation of the user generated content genre started by LittleBigPlanet. How did the project come about? Did Sony approach you or the other way around?
William Ho: We started United Front Games about two-and-a-half years ago and a lot of our team has experience working on racing games, customization, online, just a lot of factors that eventually would go into the design.
GU: Are you able to name a few?
Will: Yeah, a lot of us worked on Need For Speed, I worked on Full Auto, so I have a lot of racing combat experience. Plus, people have worked on games like Skate - EA Sports games with lots of customization. In terms of worlds and online, some members have worked on SSX, Spore, and World of Warcraft, so a lot of those skills came together into a clean sheet design. We're a clean sheet studio - new studio, company, team, IP, and games. We were looking forward. We thought: 'Hey, we can do anything we want'. We never looked to the past and tried to compete with something that already existed. That's when we came up with the core concept [for ModNation Racers]. When I expressed it originally it wasn't as short as "Race. Create. Share." but that's essentially what it was.
GU: So, you came up with the concept and pitched it to Sony?
Will: Yup, we said to Sony: 'Hey, we could do this', and they liked the idea because they have very similar values to us. They said: 'Yeah, we want to empower people to create cool stuff, race with it and put it online'. So, that's where [ModNation Racers] started, the talks started and stopped with Sony and the rest is history. We're really happy to be lumped in with LittleBigPlanet because [Play. Create. Share.] is more than just a tagline, it's a genre. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, and let people express themselves, you can't stop it, you can't put it back in.
GU: United Front has said before that the team does have a relationship with Media Molecule. What does that relationship consist of? Have they given you advice?
Will: We don't work directly with [Media Molecule], we don't collaborate, but when we have communicated, or sent messages in the past we've found that we're kindred spirits. When we talk about our values, our goals, our challenges, there's been really good advice. We've benefited from a lot of their experience, you know, they came out first, they blazed a trail. We love their game. I play it every month, I put it back into my PS3 every month to see what's going on with LittleBigPlanet. It's a totally fun game. They're going to be looked back upon as pioneers, so hats off to them. We owe them a debt of gratitude for starting this and we're happy to continue it. A few times a year we'll communicate and found out we're still on the same mission.
GU: Had your team seen anything on LittleBigPlaent when the studio was being formed?
Will: The studio was formed before [LittleBigPlanet] was released. We hadn't spoken with [Media Molecule] at the time. We didn't start communicating until after they had finished their game. We were developing completely in isolation.
GU: So, you came up with the customization idea before you had seen LittleBigPlanet?
Will: Yeah, we hadn't played it. When you look at the web, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, or MySpace, you can see that people are used to [creating content]. They are used to putting themselves on the internet, so I think it was a logical extension to put it on a PS3, to do it on a game console. People are comfortable, they're having fun, it's vivid, it's HD! Now that consoles are internet capable out of the box, it just makes sense. LittleBigPlanet 2 is coming out, we've got ModNation Racers, so we'd be surprised if there wasn't a lot more [user-generated content] going forward.
GU: Many people thought LittleBigPlanet's creation tools were overwhelming and as a result there was a perceived barrier to entry. How have you approached the track creation in ModNation Racers to make it more accessible?
Will: Well, going back to day one, we set forth as a studio to make games that would be accessible to the widest audience possible. Ease of use is essential, you have to make it so anyone within minutes can feel satisfied, you know, they get that gratification and feel confident to try out the deeper features later on. It has been a mission of ours to make extremely powerful tools, powerful enough for our artists to use them. They didn't use [external software] packages like 3ds Max to create content in the game, they used the in-game tools. They played the game day in and day out, and made sure that we had features that enabled them to create, but also boiled it down so anyone could use [the creation tools]. It was a long struggle, but I think we've achieved that.
GU: Did you have a goal in mind for how long it would take the average user to create a basic track?
Will: The impression we wanted to leave with ModNation Racers at E3 last year, the reason we did a live demo, was to show that anybody could sit down and create a track in five minutes and have it playable in that time. However, we didn't stop there, we actually lowered the bar and said: 'What if someone doesn't have five minutes? What if they only have two minutes?'. We were relentless, we struggled with it for a while, but just kept going. Eventually we were able to add features like "Auto Populate" where the player can wait a few seconds and have what looks like a finished track. People feel really good about themselves - they've created something original, that's playable, it looks nice, they can save it right away, play it in any mode, and upload it for others to enjoy.
GU: The trend so far with user-generated content seems to be a small minority of players create the vast majority of content. With ModNation's accessible toolset, do you expect a larger portion of users to consistently create content than in previous games of this nature?
Will: We'd be thrilled to have as many creators as possible, we'd love it if everyone tried the creation tools. So, there are a couple points in the story mode where we encourage the player to try it and see just how easy it is to create stuff and then to publish it. Hopefully there are 100% creators.
GU: Do you have any estimates?
Will: Well, during the public beta we were averaging a very high published creation per user ratio, and that was within only a couple weeks, without any tutorial or anything explaining the game. So, it's looking promising.
ModNation Racers is out today in North America. For more on the game and United Front check out their website HERE.