Unless you own a Nintendo Wii or Wii U, kart racing games are in seriously short supply on current consoles. And yet it’s easy to forget that at one point the market was so saturated with kart racing games, it was rare to find a franchise that didn’t have a gratuitous karting spin-off.
Bears Can’t Drift!? is attempting to fill this void, a retro-inspired kart racer developed almost entirely by one passionate fan who spent their youth playing the likes of Diddy Kong Racing, Crash Team Racing and of course Mario Kart. I spoke with Arran Langmead, Founder of Strangely Named Studios, at this year’s EGX Rezzed show to find out how Bears Can’t Drift!? is revitalising the kart racing genre.
The development of Bears Can’t Drift!? has been anything but conventional. Langmead, who currently works at Solent University as a lecturer on Video Game Art, took an alternative path into the games industry compared to most developers. “I got into the industry as an artist. I went to Southampton University and started training as an artist there to get into 3D design”, says Langmead. “I then started my own company when I was in my second year and started working on client projects – really boring training games and things like that before progressing into my own stuff.”
Originally, Bears Can’t Drift!? was in development for the ill-fated Ouya Android console as part of a five-day Unity project. A publishing deal with Ouya was never secured however, so Langmead set up a Kickstarter to secure additional funding. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out either as the campaign didn’t reach its funding goal. Consequently, Langmead had to let go of the project’s original programmer due to a lack of funding.
With no programming experience or coding knowledge, Langmead utilised his experience as a 3D artist and continued to work on Bears Can’t Drift!? using Blueprint, a new visual scripting language for Unreal Engine 4. As a result, Bears Can’t Drift!? was developed with no traditional coding whatsoever.
Blueprint turned out to be the perfect platform to mould Bears Can’t Drift!? “You get loads of blocks which represent bits of code and you can connect them together to make a full game,” Langmead explains. “I haven’t used any C++ or any traditional lines of code to get the game working. It’s all been done using this new system which is really nice for artists like me who aren’t necessarily code savvy; to be able to actually go in and start building things.“
Bears Can’t Drift!? adopts a colourful art style that’s reminiscent of retro kart racing games from the PS1 and N64 era. This was a deliberate design decision, but, despite being developed in Blueprint, Langmead cites his original work with Ouya as the foundation for the stylised visuals.
“Because we were working on Ouya we were making a 3D four player split screen game for what was basically a low level Android phone, so we had to massively optimise everything we were doing to get it to run at a decent frame rate. So I essentially ended up making Bears Can’t Drift!? as an N64/PS1 game. When I switched to Unreal Engine 4 and started working on it on my own I took that same style and upressed it - it’s basically a much higher poly version with nicer gradients and a softer colour palette of the original design. I think that’s another thing that gives Bears Can’t Drift!? that PS1 or N64 style because it started out as that and evolved from it.”
Bears Can’t Drift!? takes its inspiration from just about every classic kart racing game you can think of, although Langmead admits he is a huge fan of Crash Team Racing in particular and has been longing for the kart racing genre make a comeback. “I wanted to do a kart racer for a long time”, he says. “I loved them when I was growing up as a kid. I absolutely loved Crash Team Racing. There’s just not any out there at the moment. I saw a gap in the market: unless you have a Wii or a Wii U you’re pretty much scuppered in terms of kart racers, so I figured I’d make one and try and do something a bit wacky; something that was reminiscent and inspired by all the old games I played when I was younger.”
While developing Bears Can’t Drift!?, Langmead found himself revisiting some of his favourite kart racing games of his childhood. For ‘research purposes’, obviously. “I sat down and played them and tried to identify everything that really made them great,” says Langmead. “Even nowadays people talk about how they still prefer Crash Team Racing or Diddy Kong Racing over some of the later Mario Kart games. Those really were the first big ones that came out and set the standard for kart racers.”
The first thing you’ll notice when playing Bears Can’t Drift!? is that there are no menus or text prompts to guide you. Instead, you navigate by driving through hub worlds which was inspired by some of the retro kart racers Langmead re-played.
“Crash Team Racing and Diddy Kong Racing had these awesome hub worlds that you could explore and mess around in and I found that really fun, but not just in those kart racers: Crash Bandicoot 2 and 3 had hub worlds and Spyro had the Homeworlds that you could go through. I wanted to remind people of them from the PS1 and N64 era whilst playing on a PS4 console. I think it’s worked because a lot of people that played it have said ‘this feels like I’m playing on a PS1 game again.’“
However, making the game intuitive to play without the use of traditional menus proved to be a tremendous challenge. “It was a huge problem,” Langmead admits. “You make a lot of assumptions when you’re making a game that people are just going to know what you’re doing and what you’re talking about. Even now, despite the amount of stuff that I’ve tried to put in the game to make it easier to understand there are still a lot of people who struggle to understand some of the core concepts.”
“I saw people who don’t realise they were playing in easy, medium or hard mode. There are three lanes you can go down to select the difficulty. For easy mode, there's a nice little bear face with a rainbow and butterflies. Medium has a bridge that you’ve got to be able to drift over. Hard mode has a slalom with a ramp and there’s a bear face with flaming eyes. And I tried to make that as easy as possible to understand but most people just drove straight through easy without realising that’s the difficulty mode at all. So I had to put in a camera at the start when you get spawned in it that goes ‘look at easy’ ‘look at medium’ ‘look at hard’ – now you get to play. And even then people would just go straight past it and not realise.”
Bears Can’t Drift!?’s free-form design does have its merits, however. “I don’t have to worry about localisation; I don’t have to worry about any of the translation issues that would come with having text in a game released worldwide. It’s also good for younger kids as well who aren’t necessarily great at reading. It is quite intuitive - you can just pick it up, mash some buttons until stuff happens and then figure it out from there.”
Langmead also wanted Bears Can’t Drift!? to encourage old-school style player exploration. “I just want players to be able to figure stuff out as they go. This probably stems from playing older games, but it feels like there’s a lot of hand holding in games these days which I really don’t think you need,” he says. “I can imagine if Bears Can’t Drift!? had been done by a regular studio it would be something like: ‘Welcome to Bears Can’t Drift!? Press the R2 button to accelerate. Well done, you accelerated! Now let’s try braking!’ People can figure that stuff out just by mashing the keys for a few minutes and they get there.”
The cutesy graphics and pick up and play gameplay style make Bears Can’t Drift!? accessible to younger players, but Langmead believes there’s enough substance for all ages to enjoy. “When you’re trying to build a game, you have to cater to the youngest audience because otherwise they won’t be able to play it and suddenly you’re targeting 18 year olds. If there was blood splatter in Bears Can’t Drift!? it would suddenly up the age ratings and it would be less accessible to the younger generations. It is cutesy and it is fun, but there’s a level of difficulty in there I think the higher level players are really going to enjoy and get behind.”
Bears Can’t Drift!? allows you to explore three hub worlds, each with an overriding theme and unique art style. “There’s a forest, arctic and ancient ruins hub world,” Langmead explains. “Each one has four tracks to make 12 total and they all have that overriding theme throughout. There’s three different game modes as well that you can choose from. You can do any game mode in any track you want.”
“You’ve got your standard race which is three laps against 12 AI opponents or take away some for the extra players that you add,” Langmead explains while talking through the game modes. “There’s also a time trial mode which is infinite - you can literally just keep going round and round trying to beat your time. I talked to a lot of people who really liked time trial. They were saying ‘I just want to be able to hit that next score and try and beat it’ so I tried to make it as addictive as possible.”
“Then there’s the Picnic battle mode where you collect as much food as you can and be as fat as you can. Your bear gets really massive and you have to shoot each other with rockets. One of the big things I thought was lacking in Mario Kart 8 was actually the battle arena mode.”
Of course, no karting game would be complete without an arsenal of power-ups at your disposal to attack other players and cruelly snatch victory from them seconds before they cross the finish line. “There are four weapons in the game which are distilled from all the core weapons you get in every kart racer. You’ve got your forward attack, your rear attack, your shield and boost power-ups. You can then combine those in the game as well, so if you pick up two birds you can launch a mortar strike on first place.”
While the power-ups are fairly conventional, Bears Can’t Drift!? encourages player tactics to keep the gameplay refreshingly balanced compared to other kart racers. Yes, we’re looking at you Mario Kart. “Mario Kart has a banding system in place where the better you’re doing, the worse the items it gives you are,” Langmead explains. “So if you’re in first place you’ll maybe get a banana or a mushroom power-up, or if you’re in the lowest place you’ll get more powerful power-ups like blue shells or invincibility or something like that.”
“In Bears Can’t Drift!? I wanted the gameplay to be tactical so players can pick and choose from the different power-ups – unlike Mario Kart, they know which one they’re going to get. They can hold out and try to double up their weapon to get a better one, or they can use it straight away. If they’re in first place they might want to target the shields and the drops so they can leave stuff behind them, whereas the players behind will want to go for the forward facing attacks and maybe save up to aggravate the player in first place so it is much more tactical."
"As for balancing, I tried to do it as I developed. If something was really overly powerful, I would take it down a little bit. That’s one of the benefits of being in Early Access as well as I could monitor people using the weapons and how they use them.”
Prior to its PS4 release, Bears Can’t Drift!? spent a year-long stint in Steam Early Access on PC for over a year, allowing players to provide feedback and influence design decisions of the game. ”The reason we have Early Access is so the player can get involved in the game and start feeding back on it. I had tonnes and tonnes of feedback that went into the game,” Langmead recalls.
“For example some people were saying the pickups were hard to read or see, so I scaled them up so they’re now double the size they were originally. Someone else asked ‘could you make them bigger on the AI’s item so you can see what the AI has got?’ So I did that as well along with loads of different bits and pieces that have gone in and really helped form the game.”
Many people’s fondest memories of Crash Team Racing will likely be playing the game in heated local multiplayer sessions. Being a retro-inspired game, it’s not surprising to find that Bears Can’t Drift!? includes four player split screen support – something that’s been sorely lacking in the majority of modern racing games which often rely solely on online multiplayer. “I miss it - you can’t punch the person next to you in online multiplayer,” Langmead jests.
“Every single generation we’re getting less and less games that have split screen. The latest Halo came out and it didn’t have split screen. I had some really fond memories of playing Halo and throwing sticky grenades at people in split screen which was so much fun. Online is great and much easier to do, but when you’ve got some friends around and you want something to play your options are really limited now.” Still, at least we’ve had Rocket League, which has been my go-to game for frantic local multiplayer racing.
Unfortunately, limited resources (i.e. being one man team) meant that Bears Can’t Drift!? doesn’t support online multiplayer. ”Because I’m building it mostly on my own and because I’m not a programmer, I can get the game working and I can get four player split screen working quite nicely, but online is such a difficult thing to do,” says Langmead.
“It’s something so many people have asked me for. It’s one of the biggest requests on the Steam forum – people say ’we’d love this game in online multiplayer, please can you do it? I would buy 100 copies if you added online multiplayer!’”
“I’ve looked into the costing of it. I definitely don’t have the skill set to be able to do it and to get someone to do it for both Steam and PS4 and ideally Xbox One at some point; someone who has the ability to do networking code for all those platforms and potentially doing it as a cross platform release as well, hiring someone would cost at least £60,000. If the game does really well and I have enough money, I really want to hire someone and tell them ‘just make this work online please!’”
Cast your mind back a few years, and you may remember there was a brief resurgence of kart racing games. Before Mario Kart 8 became a hit on Wii U, F1 Race Stars, LittleBigPlanet Karting and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed were all released within weeks of each other. The latter was the most successful, shipping over one million copies worldwide (not surprising when you consider it was available for all platforms including handhelds at the time compared to LittleBigPlanet Karting which was only sold for PS3).
However, the vehicle handling in Sonic & Sega left a lot to be desired for Langmead. “I played a lot of Sonic & Sega because I think that is my main competition. A lot of people said ‘why not play Sonic instead?’ One of the big things I noticed about Sonic & Sega was that it felt a lot more like some of the Ridge Racer games where it feels like you’re on rails and you can control left to right rather than having direct control over the vehicle which I didn’t like as much as some of the more traditional kart racing games.”
Drifting plays a pivotal role in Bears Can’t Drift!?, considering it takes up a third of the title. The game's drifting has been designed to be easy to initiate and fun to maintain for as long as possible. “I wanted to make something that just felt cool to do and I will always drift in the game now. People will ask me ‘why are you drifting on a straight line?’ I say ‘because it looks cool!’”
Sliding around corners may be the best way to show off in multiplayer, but it’s also advantageous to the player and feels unique to Bears Can't Drift!?. “You get a solid speed boost while you’re drifting,” Langmead explains. “Obviously I want to differentiate myself from Mario Kart while still being inspired by it. So instead of being like Mario Kart where you go into the drift and hold it and if you hold it long enough you get a boost when you go out of it, in Bears Can’t Drift!? you get a constant speed boost which increments over time.”
“Once your sparks go blue that means you’re at the top point of your drift. It encourages players to hold the drift for as long as they possibly can. A lot of players have said it feels a lot better than Mario Kart which is a massive compliment – I don’t know if it’s true or not but it was a huge compliment for me! Even when I was at EGX one of the guys who worked on Sonic & Sega All Stars Transformed said that ‘drifting feels really good in this. Drifting feels a bit better than Sonic & Sega in this’ and he then pre-ordered the game.“
Racing games haven't had the most imaginative names lately: The Crew, DriveClub and Project Cars immediately come to mind as some of the worst offenders. Bears Can’t Drift!?, on the other hand, might just be the best name for a racing game ever.
Naturally, I was curious about the inspiration behind the quirky title. “Loads of people have asked me ‘why bears?’ And I haven’t got a clue. I can’t remember now - it happened so long ago. They’ve always been bears and they always will be. It was one of those things where we were just playing around with names for it and one of us said ‘Bears can drift,’ and one of us replied ‘Bears can’t drift.’ It was just messing around and it flows off the tongue quite nicely. People just like saying it out loud for some weird reason! I don’t know quite know why. I think we’re onto a winner with the title at any rate!”
Bears Can’t Drift!? is out now on Steam and PSN for the very modest sum of £7.99. Looking to the future, Langmead hints that Bears Can’t Drift!? could be sliding onto other platforms. “I’d love to do a Vita version, but I’ll have to see how that goes. I’d really want to get some kind of local co-op on the Vita if I could, but again I’d have to take a look and see how difficult that would be to do. I do want to do an Xbox One release as well at some point, but because I’m working solo I want to get the two platforms that I targeted done and then once I’ve had a rest and a bit of a lie down I’ll start looking at the Xbox One version.”
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