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How divergent thinking helped create Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

The founders of Velan Studios reveal their approach to developing games, including Mario Kart Live Home Circuit for the Nintendo Switch and the upcoming Knockout City.

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit - Nintendo Switch
Nintendo / Velan Studios

The founders of Velan Studios reveal their approach to developing games, including Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for the Nintendo Switch and the upcoming Knockout City.

In a new talk held as part of this week’s GDC Showcase, Guha Bala and Karthik Bala from Velan Studios spoke about the development process behind the studio’s first title, mixed reality racer Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, and the upcoming multiplayer action game, Knockout City.

In the talk titled Making Magic: A Business Model for Divergent Thinkers, the founders explained that Velan Studios was started with a mission to “create breakthrough games that are magic.”

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Key to the studio’s approach is a philosophy of divergent thinking. It’s a method avoiding the lower risk convergent thinking approach that can result in iterative games that do not push the medium forward.

“Uniqueness is key to finding that magic,” explains Karthik Bala. “You feel different when you play it. It has a unique emotional response. The moment to moment interaction is different. Whether it’s narrative or a new twitch-based mechanic, it feels different at its core.”

Joint co-founder Guha Bala adds that there is always room for something new in the games industry.

“The industry is very cyclical. It’s always in a process of consolidation and fragmentation and there are always new breakthrough products, coming supposedly out of nowhere. But usually, it’s a team that has been working for ten years to get the right idea going.”

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit - Nintendo Switch

During the ideation phase of developing new games, there are three principles the studio follows. The first, says Guha, is to make sure that a new game is based on a fundamentally simple idea,

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“By simple, we mean that they’re really easy to get, easy to understand, and accessible. It’s easy to get into and start playing. And it’s something that is emotional or captivating within the first few minutes of play.”

But simple does not mean there’s a lack of complexity behind the scenes.

“A lot of times, simple ideas haven’t been done before because they are super hard to do,” Guha says.

The second principle is to make the idea “defensible” or, rather, harder to copy.

“I remember when the first couple of battle royales came out and we went to E3 with our working prototype of Knockout City,” says Guha. “It was 18 months in incubation, we got it to feel good, and we wanted to show to others. And so many people thanked us for not showing another battle royale.”

With so many competitors, the battle royale genre had quickly become saturated, and newcomers were competing for a diminishing audience. Finding that magic idea is not easy, but it will often open a game to a larger potential audience, says Guha.

Knockout City screenshot

Finally, scalability is also important. Can your game engage a player not just for a day but potentially for weeks, months or longer?

“And can you engage numbers of players?” Karthik says. “Can you do hundreds of thousands of users? Can it go to millions of players?”

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Essential to this approach is having an enabled core team with the room and scope to innovate and explore bold ideas.

“It’s all about having the smallest possible team to find that atomic core unit of fun that makes the game work. Above all, the team needs to have permission to fail. Failing needs to be seen as equally as good an outcome as success. It’s when you don’t know which one it is, that makes it really difficult.”

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More Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

Last year’s hit Nintendo Switch game, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, is an example of how the studio found the magic with its first release. But the idea didn’t come fully formed.

“With Mario Kart Live, for example, when prototyping began it was not about making a Mario Kart game,” reveals Karthik. “It was actually inspired by drone racing, and it was about bringing this visceral feel of driving an RC car in the real world, but making it drive as easily as a video game car.”

Likewise, with Knockout City, the team quickly defined the game’s core idea of throwing and catching a ball, but it took much longer than expected to refine the gameplay.

“We thought we had this core figured out, but we put it in the hands of trusted peers, and it failed. It took 18 months to rally nail that core experience that felt great in people hands,” says Karthik.

Karthik says that new ideas also bring access to capital, with investors always looking for innovation and potential breakout formats. The success of Valen Studios so far appears to endorse this divergent and principled approach. With a Nintendo hit already in the rear-view mirror and a publishing partnership with EA Originals secured for Knockout City, the studio is one to watch.


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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe.