The PlayStation One marked my induction into gamerdom. Across my subsequent travails with character classes, luxuriant open-worlds, tremulous first-person shootings to name a few, I am reduced to a grinning, squealing, hand-wringing, controller-hoarding tot at the mention of wacky cartoon mascots, and the mere sight of an orange bandicoot frantically hula-hula-ing upon attainment of candy-coloured gems.
So with my nostalgia in full-motion and not at all in-check, I attended this year’s EGX Rezzed and reached out to Arran Langmead – founder of indie dev Strangely Named Studio, and the creator of Bears Can’t Drift?! – a vibrant, Early Access kart racer inspired by PS1 and N64 classics.
So, as I understand it, Bears Can’t Drift?! has had a bit of an interesting time with publishing, having started with Ouya, then trying out Kickstarter…
And failing the Kickstarter (laughs).
How’s the development process been for the game since then?
So, my big thing with developing Bears was that I kind of started out trying to get it published talking to Ouya for a little while about it, for funding the game’s release. That ended up not happening and Ouya’s kind of…disappeared a little bit now. After that we were in a little bit of a tough spot, because we were relying on that going through to kind of…pay for our food for the next year or so (laughs). So we tried the Kickstarter. Kickstarter didn’t really work out; we didn’t have the initial user base for us to really get it through, and combined with the fact that Ouya’s kind of a limited platform in terms of actual user base, we just couldn’t get the initial funding we needed for that. I was working with a programmer at that point because the game was built in Unity, with programming and I did the artwork for it. The programmer had to move on, find another job, which is a shame that we kind of parted ways. Then I started going “Okay, screw it. I’m going to try and build this game myself in Unreal, and it’s here! (gestures at the Bears Can’t Drift-smothered television screen). I teach games art at Southampton Solent, so I used that as my main income, and then worked on this game in my spare time. So you know, I spent about 18 hours teaching and the rest of my day and most of my night working on Bears Can’t Drift?!
Fueling up on the Dr. Pepper a bit?
Yes. I’ve got an IV that just puts it in now.
The first thing that grabbed me when first seeing gameplay was that there’s quite a vibrant, almost Pixar-ish art style – what inspired that?
Oh, I mean Crash Team Racing is the pinnacle as far as I’m concerned. When I first started working on the game, I sat down and I played Diddy Kong, I played Crash Team Racing and I played Mario Kart. I wanted to just get a range, and when you play the game you will get the inspiration in it. You’ll see those points, like the weapon-combination stuff we took from Diddy Kong, and loads of stuff we’ve taken from all these great kart racers. And this (Bears) is what this kind of is, it’s a PS1 game but running on a PS4, and looking a little bit prettier, hopefully (laughs).
So why bears, and why can’t they drift?
I can’t actually remember. We knew we wanted to make a kart racer when we started with Ouya because apart from Mario Kart there’s not really any other kart racers out there. It’s a bit of an undersaturated market. It certainly was very oversaturated back on the PS2. Every franchise and their mum had a kart racer at one point, then it kind of died out a little bit. So we thought “Okay, let’s do a kart racer – something a bit fun, little bit stylised, little bit quirky.” And obviously because we were doing it on Ouya, the graphics resolution was actually much much lower, so it did end up looking like an old-school PS1 and N64 game. Then when I upscaled it, it ended up looking like this.
Can you give us a run down of the modes and powerups we can expect with Bears?
Sure thing. There are twelve tracks, spread across three different hub worlds. We’ve got the Arctic hub world, we’ve got the Forest hub world and we’ve got the Ancient Ruins. They each have a different difficulty level; The Ancient Ruins are actually the hardest tracks in the game, while the Forest ones are nice and easy, and then the Arctic ones are you’re middling tracks. We’ve got four different pick-ups, which you can actually combine with each other to make four different pick-ups on top of that. If you pick up four birds, you can actually launch a mortar strike at first place, which is awesome. There’s three different game modes. We’ve got classic time-trial, which is infinite; you literally just keep going round and round. We talked to a lot of people who loved time-trial mode and that’s their mentality. They just wanna hit another lap, continually going. That’s kind of what we went for with time-trial. We’ve got classic single race, which is three laps round the track with as high a rank as you can. Then we’ve got our Picnic Battle Arena, which is just awesome. There’s food everywhere, you collect as much and eat as much as you can, your bear gets fatter and fatter as you collect more food. You hit each other to steal the other bears’ food, and you’ve got to fill up your picnic bar before any other bear.
And it’s first to max out the picnic bar wins?
And there are no menus you mention in the game. How have you integrated the options into the hub world?
There’s also no text, apart from the title and credits. I don’t like menus; I don’t think they’re very good. They’re quick, but I wanted to bring it into the world. So the hub world is something people remember from PS1. So many games had hub worlds- Crash 2 had it, Spyro had it, Crash Team Racing had it as well. It was really cool, and I wanted to bring that back in on the PS4, and have this nice overworld that we do. And you can do anything you need to in the overworld. You can change character by pressing the select button and moving left and right. You can add players by pressing pause and increasing or decreasing the number of players you want. You can pick your track, your difficulty all inside this hub-world without having to go through any menu stuff.
It sounds like it could make it more accessible to very young children and across different languages – is that something you intended?
More reason not to include any text in the game – to be accessible to very young children, and for localisation reasons as well.
What’s your favourite reaction you’ve seen from players of the game so far?
I think it’s gotta be just very excitable children just flipping out when they’re playing it, and they’re practically throwing the controller across the room. Literally just going mental, that’s just been so awesome to see. And then having the standard mother next to them saying “Come on, we need to go. Can we go now?”
Being inspired by PS1 and N64 classics like Crash Team Racing and Mario Kart 64, which elements are unique to Bears Can’t Drift?!
One of the big things is that we’re taking inspiration from a lot of different games, but we’re also trying to keep it unique, and keep it new. One of the big things is that a lot of the older games – we’re kind of bringing that stuff back. One of the things you don’t really see anymore, which I’m sad to say is split-screen multiplayer, we’re bringing back. I hate the fact that split-screen is kind of a USP now. So we’ve got the split-screen mode, and we’ve also got our unique weapon combination system, and just the world we’ve set it in. It is a classic kart racer that you’d expect from a PS1 game, but it is set now and it’s on the PS4 and on Steam.
Obviously, there is 20 years between the PS1 and the PS4 now. How have PS4 and current PC capabilities benefitted or influenced the game?
I think the biggest thing is that I’m not a programmer, and I’ve managed to make this game. I have no C++ or programming experience whatsoever, but the barrier for entry now has really gotten lower, so people of different disciplines throughout the games industry – people who’re artists, people who’re musicians – can actually start building games themselves without really needing any programming experience, or financial backing. That’s the big benefit. I would not be able to make a PS1 game back in 1994. You had to have some really high level knowledge to be able to actually get a game working. For me, I’ve got Unreal Engine 4, I’ve built the game all using Blueprint – which is Unreal’s visual scripting language. You can do that now. You don’t need to do any coding, type anything. You can just press ‘build’ and it builds to the PS4.
Are there any other games that stand out as huge inspirations for you as a developer?
I looked at the core three, and they were my kind of guiding lights. I looked at Crash Team Racing, Diddy Kong and Mario Kart and those were the ones that really stood out for me.
And finally, what’s next for the game and Strangely Named? Do you think there’ll be any add-ons for the game, and what would you most like to work next?
I’ve actually got my next four games planned. I can’t stop coming up with game ideas, and it takes every fibre of my being to stop working on this instead of working on something else. Hopefully I’m getting Bears out end of spring on Steam. I’ve had some minor issues with the PS4 build, which I’m still working on, so that might come out a little bit later, but I do hope to get them out close together. It’ll be coming out of Early Access into final release, then the PS4, then after a short break where I’ve slept I will go look into the Xbox One release. Depending on the popularity of the game, maybe looking at doing Online Multiplayer, but that is very very iffy.
Bears Can’t Drift?! is currently available on Steam’s Early Access. The game is scheduled for release on PC at the end of spring 2016, with the PS4 version soon after, with plans for release later on Xbox One. For more information, Strangely Named’s official website can be found here.