Going the Distance: Building a game - and community - over six years

Gamasutra spoke with Jordan Hemenway, creative director at Distance developers Refract, about how the studio took racing in new directions, and built a community over several years.

Distance bends and twists the racing genre, bringing it closer to parkour and survival rather than focusing solely on quick laps. With the ability to race on walls and buildings, drive upside down, or even fly, it inspired players to find new routes in increasingly creative ways. The racing isn’t the only unique addition, as an unsettling atmosphere brings a new feel to the genre, and the game’s level creator ensures constant new challenges to those rushing through its mysterious locales.

Gamasutra spoke with Jordan Hemenway creative director at Distance developers Refract, to talk about taking racing in new directions, and building a game with a community over several years.

On Distance taking the racing genre in different directions

While we’re certainly inspired by a wide range of other racers and platformers, Distance’s gameplay is the result of eight years of iterative design. It started way back with the inception of our predecessor student game Nitronic Rush. The initial goal was to create a fresh take on 90’s arcade racers. Our team did weekly playtests to continually iterate on gameplay and track designs, and after 17 months we ended up with a neon racer that featured boosting, jumping, rotating, and flying.

Only at the very end of Nitronic Rush’s development did we realize the potential for parkour-style gameplay, despite our physics engine not really being built for it. Going into Distance, that was one of our dreams: to integrate wall and ceiling rides into the core gameplay and see where that takes us. It took quite a while to get it feeling like we wanted, but eventually we found something that worked with the wild track designs we had in mind.

With feedback from Distance’s beta players, we took that gameplay and expanded it as far as we could. Eventually, we even hired three of the most impressive level creators from our level-making community to help finish our main story campaign. Each of them brought a new perspective that I think strongly affected both the gameplay and aesthetic of the final experience.

"To get the most out of Early Access I think the biggest trick is understanding how to process the incoming feedback."

Ignoring gameplay, aesthetics and atmosphere have always been important to us, and we knew they would be an integral part of the final Distance experience. I think our team is fairly unique in that everyone on the dev team has strong passion for aesthetics, so everyone is contributing to the art direction. Specifically, the “Arcade” portion of the game has allowed us to try out all kinds of visual styles and themes. We can go from a cyberpunk city to a desert oasis to a snowy fortress, and that variety makes sense since it keeps you on your toes.

When it comes to the story campaign, we started with a fairly straightforward dystopian sci-fi plot. Over time, I became fascinated with the horror genre and what opportunities it offers, emotionally. That was the motivation for me to write more “psychological horror” elements into the main campaign and see if it’s even possible to conjure up those uncomfortable feelings in a racing game.

Long story short, Distance branching into so many different directions was the result of continual experimentation and doing our best to follow our personal passions. We felt a duty to create something polished and refined, but above all, we wanted to create a personal experience that offered something fresh.

Staying motivated during Distance’s long development

Yeah, it was about six and half years in total. There were a lot of motivating forces to press onward, one of the biggest simply being that we wanted to successfully live up to our Kickstarter promises from 2012. For better or worse, we promised a fairly monstrous final product (at least for our team size), so our work was cut out for us from the start.

Fortunately, we’ve had incredible support from our player community, our families, and our friends. For some reason, they never seemed to question that we would actually reach the end, and knowing that these people were out there rooting for us really makes such a difference. They give excellent feedback with each major update, and several times they’ve let us know if we’re slipping off the mark. It’s hard to imagine making Distance in a vacuum without that outside perspective.

Another massive motivator for me was continually seeing my teammates create incredible stuff. Knowing that they’re still in it, giving it their all and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in Distance, has always been a huge boost for me. Perhaps they made a new art asset or fancy shader that I could now use in my level, or they created a new level to which I could add music or sound effects. I just loved seeing it all come together and being a part of it.

How player collaboration shaped Distance

As you can imagine it’s been both challenging and helpful at different times, but overall I’d say for Distance, [player collaboration] was very beneficial. Since this was our first project outside the safety net of academia, it was amazing getting feedback on all of our tweaks and changes, especially from a technical perspective. We went into v1.0 with little fear of releasing a buggy nightmare because we knew thousands of people had been successfully playing a fairly similar build. It’s also been helpful in that we’re getting such a wide array of perspectives, from people who just put in a few minutes to someone who’s put in thousands of hours in the level editor.

"Our level editor is probably the 'feature' that has surprised me the most. Not only because it’s enabled community creators to create incredibly varied content, but also because it’s so dramatically affected my workflow for the better. Certainly a lesson in the value of powerful tools."

Of course, there are plenty of negatives to this style of development. Since we decided to keep almost all story content locked away until v1.0, we had to be extra careful not to leak stuff into the public build. We did have a few people decompiling the game to find spoilers, but I’m still a bit shocked that I didn’t accidentally leak something big.

Changing anything major partway through Early Access seems likely to create drama and you pretty much just have to deal with it. Players who are deeply enjoying the current build might have forgotten that it’s supposed to be in an experimental state, and they’ve put in hundreds or thousands of hours into mechanics which might be tweaked or removed. We had a couple of those scenarios come up, which were quite tricky to work through, but in the end we stuck with our gut and made tweaks that improved the experience for us.

To get the most out of Early Access I think the biggest trick is understanding how to process the incoming feedback. I love getting as much feedback as possible on basically everything I release, but I try to make it clear to players that I might not act on any of it. At the start, I do my best to identify my artistic goals with whatever I’m testing and see if the feedback positively or negatively contributes towards them. You obviously want to keep an open mind, but I do find that helps me from getting overwhelmed by the flood of data.

Overall, I think Early Access was quite helpful financially. It allowed us to bring more people on the team, and it’s hard to imagine what Distance would be like without that extra support. There is obviously a time sink involved with handling the storefront and customer support, but those are things we would have to deal with eventually. I don’t think Early Access makes sense for all experiences, but fortunately in our case I’m glad we found a way to make it work.

How they built a community around their game

We were indeed able to build a strong community of players over the years. I think the simple answer to our success is just that we’ve continually invested in our community by listening to and interacting with players as much as possible. We’ve done our best to highlight and support player-run events like Distance Advent Calendar, Speedy Saturday, and several tournaments. We also have been supporting level creators however we feasibly can through our built-in level editor and Steam Workshop support.

I’d say most of our add-ons were well received by Early Access players, but the ones that worked best were probably surprises that we hadn’t previously promised. For example, I added a feature called Boombox Mode which pulsed in-game lights and other visuals to whatever music was playing. I basically just added it for fun because I thought it would be interesting to create, and it really surprised me how many players actively used it.

Another addition that had a rocky start, but was eventually well-received, was our “grip” mechanic. Holding a button allows the car to hug the road, walls, and ceilings by deploying all of the car’s rotational jets at once. At first, some thought it made certain tracks too easy since you could snap to any surface with ease. Over time, however, we started to see community level creators push the mechanic further and create levels that truly required it to complete. Now, it seems to be well received as a primary feature of your car.

Most of our other big add-ons came in the form of level editor features. Early in development, we had a community level creator repurpose various buildings, obstacles, and whatever they could find as building blocks for custom objects. In response, we added simple primitives which allowed creators to much more easily create complex objects from spheres, cubes, cones, etc. Eventually, level creators stretched this about as far as possible, so we revamped the system to optimize it and allow for tons of customization. Combine that with our custom particle and animation systems, the possibilities are kind of wild. Recently, I even saw someone create a 2D platformer playable on a TV within a Distance level. Level creators are constantly blowing us away with clever ways of using these tools.

Their feelings on where Distance ended up

I’m not massively surprised at how Distance turned out in the end, mostly because the outline for the game was set in place years back. We added plenty of features and tools that I couldn’t have expected at the start, but the overall package is basically what we hoped for. Fortunately, we weren’t forced to question our initial design too much, but if something wasn’t working, we somehow seemed to find a way around it without violating the overarching premise.

Our level editor is probably the “feature” that has surprised me the most. Not only because it’s enabled community creators to create incredibly varied content, but also because it’s so dramatically affected my workflow for the better. Certainly a lesson in the value of powerful tools.

What I’m probably most proud of is that we were able to experiment with atypical emotions in our story campaign. Focusing on atmosphere, mystery, and a sense of uneasiness in the racing genre was incredibly exciting to me, and I think players appreciate seeing new stuff like this brought to the table. I learned a lot about my own personal tastes and passions throughout development, and it was amazing being able to explore them through the process of creating our own narrative.


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