Chris Riesenberg and Elliot Olson discuss MX vs. ATV Alive and the improvements over its predecessor. Watch for the game (from THQ) out this May 10.
GameZone: What do you do?
CR: I’m Chris Riesenberg. I’m one of the designers on the project. Elliott Olson is our lead designer, then I’m the other designer on the project.
GZ: Can you break it down, what that means?
CR: Yeah. This is actually my fourth year on the franchise. Previously, during the last two iterations, I was a level designer. This time I’m moving over to the design side. Managing a lot of the content in the game, all the gear, all the bikes, all the graphics kits. As well as, the main thing I did was design the progression system: how you start on the 125s and progress through the tracks and how it’s all online and offline. It’s the same mode; it’s simultaneous. As a designer, one of my pet peeves is always booting up the game and having to play the single-player mode before I can go online and be competitive. I want to go and I want to play online. I’m an online player. So that was probably the biggest thing that I worked on. And then other than that, we spent a lot of time just working on the physics and the controls, the accessibility of the game. We’ve always had really good physics, but we’ve always struggled with … The guys that got the game really dug it. They were really into it. Our core fans were ready. They always wanted more. But the last game, we had a really steep learning curve. So we decided that we want our hardcore fans to still have that depth that they love because that’s what we want to build. But how do we get everyone else over that hump, so that they see the brilliance of it? So we spent a lot of time and effort on the accessibility this time. That’s where the player assists come from–to help people navigate corners and jumps and stay on the track. They get into that experience. We smoothed out the controls a lot, which was really cool, because the core players absolutely dig it. It adds to the realism factor of having to brake for the corners and catch ruts and be real smooth through the corners, but at the same time, it helps our casual fan to pick up the game right away because everything is more predictable and smooth. Stuff like that. We still have that depth that we’ve always had, even more so, just because of braking and everything else, throttle control is important now. But from a casual standpoint, you can pick up the game and get into it within a race. You’ll be up to speed and having fun, which is important.
GZ: It’s funny you should say that because it’s one of the things that I noticed. I don’t know if I missed a tutorial mode, but I’m pretty sure I started from the beginning. It just goes, and you have to glean tips and how the game works out of the information on the loading screens. I’d been playing for an hour and I still didn’t know what the clutch did. I still didn’t know how to do a trick. I got to level six, I came in first on an Xbox Live race against a bunch of other people, I did all this stuff, and I had not pulled off one successful trick.
CR: One of the things we did, we definitely do not have a tutorial mode because, again, we want you in the game right away and playing. And then, a few things we did to help to teach people the game: you start on a stock 125 vehicle, which is significantly different from where you end the game, on a modified 450 vehicle. The controls are a little bit mellower and more forgiving. You’re going slower, and we started you on easier tracks to help get you into the game. And then we’re teaching players the game via the context tips that you see pop up on the screen. If you’re not saving your wrecks, those will pop up: you need to save your wreck, you need to hit this. Or if you’re not braking for corners, we’ll notify you of that. Compounded on top of that, we have the loading screen tips, so between races, as you’re loading into a race, you’ll be able to read those and learn more advanced stuff. As far as stunts, we do have loading screen tips that cycle through that do speak about stunts. The other portion of that is stunts have taken a different role in the franchise this time. You earn race goals which will give you XP for doing tricks. There’s periodic challenges, which take the place of the old freestyle mode, where you do the 60-second freestyle jam run or the best combo. So that’s the new role of tricks in the game. It’s different from what we’ve done in the past. I wouldn’t say they have a less important role, just a different role.
GZ: When I play any racing game, I always choose the automatic transmission. I don’t know anything about dirtbikes and quads and stuff like that. Can you detail what the clutch does, and how to optimize using that?
CR: Okay. So the first one’s the clutch. It’s actually something we completely revamped for this title. Last game, a lot of our core consumers asked, “Why is there a clutch? It doesn’t do anything, it just makes me spin out.” So what we did is, this time we redid the clutch mechanic. It works just like a real clutch, actually. When you hold it in, it builds up the RPMs of the vehicle, so when you let it go, it puts you at peak RPM and you accelerate faster. To navigate the track really fast, to get your speed back up leaving corners, you use the clutch, as well as when you land off jumps. Building upon that, it’s not just the push of a button anymore. Because we don’t have an analog control for it, they’re already used for other things. The longer you hold the clutch, the clutch meter will build up. What that clutch meter does, the more full that it is, it will leave the peak RPMs up for longer. If it’s a full meter, it will hold it up for the duration, but if you only have it partway, then it just holds it up for a fraction of that. You get more power from the clutch the longer you hold it in, and then tying into that, again, tying back into the progression system, you unlock rider skills. One of the rider skills is a clutch skill, which lets that meter build up faster. Instead of holding it for a second to build all the way full, you only have to hold it for half a second, for instance.
GZ: How many rider skills are there?
CR: I believe 10. 10 rider skills. But you can only have two rider skills equipped at a time, so it’s one of those things. You can either accent one of your strong points, like I’m really good using the clutch, so I use the clutch skill because it gives me even more advantage. I can use it more often. There’s one that helps you get up quicker from wrecks, so they might actually … If they crash a lot, they use that one to make up for one of their deficits. It’s a pick-your-battle kind of thing. There’s a lot of strategy that goes in pre-race for players.
GZ: The other one was stunts …
CR: Stunts, for this game, you pull them off by holding the stunt modifier and then doing a three-button combo with the Rider Reflex stick. To maximize the use of stunts in the game, the place that they have their biggest home is in Free Ride. There’s a challenge that’s called FMX Jam, which is basically going back to the roots of where freestyle motocross started, before it was ever in the X Games and stuff. That’s taking on the natural terrain and trying to pull off big tricks. You get a 60-second run to pull off the biggest tricks that you can. And then the other one would be Best Combo, which is just the single biggest trick that you can do in Free Ride. The way to accomplish that is by doing a combination of like a backflip or a 360, as well as a multiple stunt combo. While you’re flipping upside down. You can do anything that guys are doing in real life, plus beyond. And then as far as in the races, you can still do tricks to just taunt your friends, but most importantly, we have race goals that are going on within the races. If you’re doing tricks within races, you’re accumulating successful tricks, which will unlock race goals and reward you again with additional XP. The race goals also award butt patches, the little nicknames that are on your rider’s rear during the race.
GZ: The third thing ties into that. How do you use the spring system–the shocks–properly? Obviously those are necessary for getting the most air to do big tricks, so how do you optimize that?
CR: Another mechanic that was … It was actually introduced in Reflex, but it was kind of a behind-the-scenes thing; we didn’t really show it to the player. It’s the shock, which is actually seat bounce. It’s something you do in real life. As you’re coming up to a jump and you sit down, it compresses your suspension and helps you jump further. From a gameplay standpoint, if you pull back on the Rider Reflex stick, it will give you a certain percentage of extra length and height out of your jump. But then to maximize that, one of the things we did with a lot of our mechanics is there’s just a base level of doing it, but then there’s a mastery of that skill. If you pull back and click down on the right stick on the takeoff of the jump, that will give you a maximum seat bounce, give you the most distance and height you can get out of that jump. That will come into play, especially on the harder tracks, to time some of the more challenging jump section. You actually have to use that to get over them. At the same point, you don’t want to do it everywhere around the track because if you’re in the air, you’re going slower than if you’re on the ground accelerating. So the more you do that, the longer you spend in the air. You have to pick your battle as far as, “I need to jump far on this one,” or, “I need to stay low on this one,” to go as fast as you can and win the race.
GZ: There’s a few tracks where there’s a bunch of bumps in rapid succession. What’s the best way to get past that?
CR: What you’re talking about is what they call a whoop section, which is actually called the whoops because you crash a lot there. It’s a real-life obstacle that we pull. It’s in all the Supercrosses. It’s a staple of the sport. Just like real life, again, the best way to get through them is you want to keep your vehicle centered so that both wheels hit each one of them, but just at the very tip of it. If you lean too far back, you’ll start to wheelie and eventually your back wheel will catch and drop your front end down into them. You’ll start jumping through them and lose all your speed. Or, if you’re leaning too far forward, your front end will drop in between the gaps and it’ll cause you issues again. So the fastest way through is to use the stick to balance it, to make sure that both front and rear tire touch each one and you can skim across the top, not ever actually go down into the valleys. It’s a skill that’s learned. For the beginning players, a lot of the time what I tell them to do is just pull back and try to pull a wheelie, and if you wheelie too much then let off the stick. It’s the first step to learning the balance across them.
GZ: I was thinking that the visuals are kind of … When people are racing and the mud’s flying up and the snow and everything, there’s a lot more going on. Your game actually seems kind of … still? There’s not a lot of mud, there’s not a lot of anything flying up. Even the tracks and everything seem very … It’s a set of polygons; it doesn’t feel like real mud. I was wondering, did you maybe do something like that and it interfered with the player’s viewpoint? How did you get to this visual style?
CR: A lot of what we did is actually based off our terrain deformation system that we introduced last game, in Reflex. First and foremost, we want players to be able to see the fact that the terrain is changing under them, and see in detail what’s going on around the track. And not mask that in any sense because that will affect the lines that you take around the track. As the tracks get beat up, there will be bumps that form, ruts that form, and you want to find the path that suits you. Sometimes you want to use the ruts to your advantage, to hold traction when you’re using the clutch so you won’t slide out. Other times you’ll want to go around them because they’ll cause you to get unsteady in the corners. And then from there, our tracks are based off a realistic National experience, a real motocross experience, where they are man-made tracks cut into the hills. That’s where you’ll see, it’s real natural on one side of the track, but then it’s this groomed surface on the track because it’s based on real National experiences. But yeah, we still try to play it up, we take you to some pretty exotic locations with big drops and some big hill climbs and stuff like that, to keep it exciting and entertaining for players.