How Supergonk looked to the past to create something new with Trailblazers.
Trailblazers, the high speed co-op racing game with paint the track mechanics, is out now on Nintendo Switch. We spoke to lead programmer and designer, Ben Ward, about the game’s development, and its influences.
Thumbsticks: Trailblazers has been called combination of Splatoon and F-Zero. It’s a neat summary, but were your influences really that simple?
Ben Ward: Actually, those two games did make a big impact on us as a team. Personally, I’m a huge fan of both titles, and I feel like it’s a shame that F-Zero in particular has not seen any releases in recent years. Actually, that wider stagnation in the racing genre was our call to arms. I think it’s disappointing that many of the most popular racers look and play so similar, and that many of the top-tier franchises are difficult to tell apart at the moment.
When we originally started to work on Trailblazers, the brief was simple: make a racer that tries new things and mixes up the genre. One core pillar was to explore how teamwork could be improved in a second-to-second racing experience, and the “paint the track” mechanic eventually fell out of that. We actually didn’t stop there though; we tried to apply our theory of genre revolution against every facet of the game, from the soundtrack – inspired heavily by Jet Set Radio – to the character design, to the cross-platform online multiplayer with split-screen support. We tried to take everything that other racing games were doing and push it one or two steps further, or sometimes in a different direction entirely!
The Supergonk team has a deep racing heritage with experience at studios including Codemasters and Bizarre Creations. What attracts you to the racing genre, and how have you tried to evolve it with Trailblazers?
I love racing games; they’re one of my favourite genres. I was fortunate enough to work at Bizarre Creations as we shipped Project Gotham Racing 3, PGR4, and Blur. I learned a lot about the specifics of how those games worked and what motivated players as they raced.
One thing that always stood out for me was the team-racing. In my opinion, nobody in the industry seemed to have nailed it yet. Adding up player’s times and doing some kind of post-race “scoring for teams” was ok, but what I really wanted to see was an on-track, second-to-second use of team-play that actually impacted teammates and rivals around you in real-time. That was one of the “big ideas” in Trailblazers, we implemented the track painting system to allow players to directly work with their teammates during the race.
One of my favourite moves we called the “Tour de France”, where one player would paint the track, their teammate would boost on that trail and overtake them, and then that teammate would start painting to repeat the process. Having this constant trading of painting and boosting allows players to work together, giving each other speed boosts if they’re able to maintain synchronisation. In experienced players hands this works really well.
It’s a crowded genre. What else makes Trailblazers stand out?
We really tried to stand out from the crowd in as many ways as possible with Trailblazers. Not only is the core track-painting gameplay unique, but we did a bunch of other stuff which is unusual in the genre. For example, we chose to support 4-player split-screen, and also let those split-screen players play online. That was a technical challenge, but important for us to include.
Trailblazers also features a full story mode, complete with character dialogue cutscenes. We know that stories in racing games have traditionally been dangerous territory – many games have done them badly – but we wanted to try telling a lightweight narrative to build out the Trailblazers universe and expand the world-building. It was difficult to strike the right balance between interesting story vs being too intrusive to the core gameplay, but I think this part of the game turned out pretty well. Which other racing games can you play as a space frog with daddy issues as they make friends with a rebellious rogue robot racer?!
Trailblazers’ ‘paint-the-track’ gameplay adds a strategic push/pull element to races. What was the germ of the mechanic?
Really, I wanted to explore the idea of second-to-second team-play in racing, and that’s what led to the “paint the track” gameplay. It works by allowing players to paint the track, and then have their teammates boost on that painted colour. It was tough to figure out those specifics though. We tried a bunch of different prototypes and ideas, some incredibly complex, and it took a full year to figure out exactly how those details would play out.
For example, we found in our play tests that players would naturally paint irregularly shaped lines which became messy, rather than long, consistent trails of paint. We did a few things to mitigate this, including making the boost mechanic “level up” the longer you boost, encouraging players to join their lines together and make one consistent trail all the way around the track.
The colour and vibrancy of Trailblazers really makes it stand out, and the delightful character design recalls the glory days of Saturday morning cartoons, and childhood trips to the arcades. How did you decide upon the game’s distinct visual approach?
The visuals of Trailblazers were figured out over a long time of prototyping and iteration. The brief was to make something that looked completely unique from other racing games; we knew that we didn’t want to be mistaken for another Forza/Gran Turismo/Need For Speed style game. We’re also influenced by colourful games like Jet Set Radio, and wanted to take some inspiration from that game’s positive and vibrant attitude. We eventually landed on the graphic-novel inspired look, but it took a long time to get the cel-shading working and the colours balanced properly.
Having a race track that constantly changes colour was also a challenge; it could occasionally be overpowering and not sit well with the rest of the scene. I think the look that Trailblazers finally ended up with absolutely achieves our goals: it’s unique, exciting and colourful in a way that few other racing games are.
The soundtrack really complements the visuals, and features music from a range of Future Funk artists, including Skope, The Derevolutions, and A.Skillz. Was it hard to assemble such a stellar lineup?
It was important for us to include an exciting and unexpected soundtrack in Trailblazers, so we went out to find tracks which would do exactly that. We were heavily inspired by the incredible soundtracks of games like Jet Set Radio and Splatoon, and wanted to recreate that optimistic feeling in our own game. As a small indie team ourselves, we tried to work with other small indie artists who shared our passion for creativity.
We handled music licensing ourselves, which was a new experience. Generally, it was a lot of work to get these tracks signed to the game, but I’m super happy with the end result. The music really adds a layer to the game which we’re super happy with.
Each chapter in the single player campaign features distinct and different objectives. Why did you take this approach?
We added mid-race objectives to the single-player campaign as a way of maximising the available gameplay types in a racing game. Occasionally you can play racing games which only have one objective: to win the race, and it can sometimes be a bit dull. We saw an opportunity to take our unique gameplay components and do something unexpected with the race objective. Sometimes it’s just fun to paint the track, or attack other players, or whatever. It’s not always about finishing in 1st place. That asymmetry was really appealing to me, and was another opportunity for Trailblazers to do something different and unexpected!
How was the process of bringing the game to the Nintendo Switch, and have you used any of the console’s unique features?
We really enjoyed working on the Nintendo Switch, and we’re super happy to have our game launch on the platform. We needed to perform a bit of extra optimisation for the Switch version, but we were able to maintain our target frame rate whilst still having a good-looking game. We wanted to not only make sure the game played well in both handheld and docked modes, but also to make best use of the included Joy-Cons. As such, we support a combination of input devices in split screen mode, including single Joy-Cons, and Pro Controller, etc.
Finally, another awesome thing we were able to include is true cross-platform multiplayer. This allows Switch players to compete directly against Xbox One and PC gamers in an online race – it’s very cool.
Finally, on a business related note, how did support from Creative England help with the development, and release of the game?
Back when Trailblazers was just an idea and a piece of concept art, Creative England were kind enough to offer financial support to help us get through the initial prototyping phase. That allowed us to take on additional staff, build up our ambition and spend the time to get the painting gameplay *just right*, before moving into full production. We were then fortunate to sign with Rising Star Games, who helped us to take the game to multiple platforms and also create a physical version.
We’re very grateful to our partners to allow us the opportunity to create Trailblazers, and it’s exciting to see gamers playing the game and enjoying it.
Trailblazers is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.