The Stampede: How Onrush harnesses the chaos of a racing battle

“As soon as you’ve got 24 vehicles on the track and it’s a free-for-all you’d be surprised how chaotic that is,” says Onrush game director Paul Rustchynsky in this focused dive into the game's design.

The recently-released Onrush doesn’t work like most racing games. It isn’t about getting first place, and it’s not about racing just for yourself. 

Rather than as a racing game, it’s better to think of Onrush as a car-based Overwatch, a battle game in which two teams of six players drive around wildly dynamic tracks, out-boosting and out-maneuvering each other to win objective-based game modes. 

And it really is about team play. Victory is down to combined effort, with objectives, abilities and the deepest systems of the game tuned to reward cooperation. But Onrush is also about blistering speed and destruction, since two other games it resembles are Motorstorm and Burnout. It’s staged on tracks littered with obstacles, alternative routes, jumps and pickups, and populated by not only 12 human players but also an additional 12 AI-controlled ‘fodder’ cars, all of which are ripe for takedowns. 

“As soon as you’ve got 24 vehicles on the track and it’s a free-for-all you’d be surprised how chaotic that is,” says game director Paul Rustchynsky, explaining that its team-based design was, in part, an effort to tame the action and make it readable. Having only one set of common enemies to think about, rather than every other vehicle, reduced the noise.

Still, developer Codemasters Evo had a huge challenge to keep players abreast of what’s happening around them, helping them work together and teaching and reinforcing Onrush’s unconventional rules of play. Especially since some of those rules are counterintuitive, especially the one that says you should avoid getting out ahead. 

Commanding the stampede

That’s because Onrush’s moment-to-moment play is defined by what Rustchynsky calls the ’stampede’, a contained bubble of action which holds every player and rolls along the track. Drop too far behind and and the game will pick you up and drop you back inside it; go out too far ahead and everyone behind you will catch up. 

"The moment we introduced [the stampede], that’s when we found the fun. But then we had to build lots of rules and layers and stats to control that chaos when you’ve got so many vehicles on the track."

Designed to solve the age-old driving game problem of the single catastrophic mistake ending a race, it’s about keeping everyone immersed in the action. “The moment we introduced it, that’s when we found the fun,” says Rustchynsky. “But then we had to build lots of rules and layers and stats to control that chaos when you’ve got so many vehicles on the track.”

One set of rules defines the length of the stampede, which is to say, how far the game allows stragglers to drift behind before resetting them. ”We didn’t stop tweaking the values until patch one,” Rustchynsky laughs. 

It varies by game mode, so for Lockdown, in which teammates must drive in and occupy a moving zone to win rounds, the stampede is only 100 meters long to keep stragglers from the frustration of extended periods of chasing it. But the stampede is very long in Switch, a last-car-driving mode in which each player has three lives and the last team standing wins, because getting reset costs a life.

And then there’s a timer which is designed to stop players from languishing in ‘limbo’. “It’s specifically a response to user testing, because players complained they sometimes weren’t quite far enough behind to be reset but too far behind to be in the action,” says assistant game director Jamie Brayshaw. Trail for too long and you’ll be reset.

Building a boost economy

Some solutions are systemic, such as the ‘boost economy’, which helps to more naturally sustain the stampede. Boost is earned through performing actions such as smashing competitors, getting airtime and near-misses, and collecting ‘tombstones’, drops left by destroyed vehicles. 

There are 16 ways of gaining boost overall, but during development, Evo found that in certain places in the stampede players were getting boost-starved. One of the key solutions were the weak ‘fodder’ vehicles, which award boost when you smash them. 

“Originally we were spawning them at the head of the pack so the first player got the first pick,” says Brayshaw. “So we had to work out where they should be placed to give the most efficient or equally distributed boost to everyone.”

Aside from spawning them further back in the pack, fodder vehicles are also spawned on the more dangerous and wider parts of the track, designed to lure the pack leaders to go out to get them, allowing those behind to continue along the faster parts of the track and catch up.

Fodder is never spawned at the back of the pack, but trailing drivers will be able to snap up all the fodder that was missed by those further up, while also being able to earn boost by picking up the tombstones of all the fodder they did destroy. 

“The boost distribution tends to be that there are more opportunities to collect it than at the front,” says Rustchynsky. “Obviously the optimal way to earn boost is to be in the action, so surrounded by other teammates and the opposition.”

Class rules

That would be because boost is also earned through vehicles’ special abilities. There are eight vehicles across four classes, and they each have different abilities that support aggressive, defensive and support roles, and Codemasters Evo knew that their actions needed to be clear in the throng.

The Outlaw bike, for instance, has Drain, which drains boost from opponents in range when in Rush, an Overwatch Super-like special boosting state that charges over time. Meanwhile, the Dynamo car’s Energize supplies nearby teammates with boost when it Rushes, and Unite, which earns Rush from driving near teammates.

”When we first had the Drain and Energize ability, we didn’t have anything to communicate it,” says Rustchynsky. “Your bar just went up and a notification appeared to tell you you’re getting more boost from your teammates. It was very confusing.”

The first-pass solution was to draw a simple line to connect affected vehicles, and it instantly made the system legible, reinforcing ideal tactics to all players.

Limitations of the HUD

“We wanted it to be in-world rather than on the HUD,” says Brayshaw. “Partly because there’s quite a lot of information on the HUD already, and partly because for this kind of information, players in user testing found it easier to understand when it’s in-world and affecting the car rather than having to break their visual plane of engagement and look left and right of the screen.”

That’s not to say that Onrush avoids using the HUD. At the top of the screen you can always see icons for both sets of players, showing whether they’re in-play, when they have Rush available (quick-chat options mapped to the D-pad allow direct communication to synchronise abilities) and when they’re Rushing.

“But we found that having it on the OSD isn’t enough,” admits Rustchynsky. “It’s difficult to correlate between the icon at the top and who’s in the scene with you.” So pre-Rush and Rushing cars are decorated with flames in team colors to give awareness in the heat of play.

The color of danger

Teammates are always blue and opponents are always orange, a color choice in which Rustchynsky says the blue pops slightly more in all lighting conditions. And as well as colored icons to show a vehicle’s class, they all have coloured outlines to really make them clear.

“it took a lot of iteration to get those outlines working subtly enough that you could see them, but not too strong so they destroy the look of the game,” says Brayshaw. “We didn’t want the augmented layers to be too in your face all the time.”

The thickness of the outline varies, as does its brightness, which lightens in bright conditions and dims in dark. It also fades in intensity with distance so nearby – and therefore more significant – vehicles are more visible than distant ones.

To give awareness of what’s behind, the game places indicators towards the bottom of the screen, and early versions of the game attempted to represent every other driver. “But the amount of noise you got from it, it was very difficult to pick out what was a threat,” says Brayshaw. And it used to be based on proximity. “But that didn’t give you an idea of how quickly, relative to your speed, they’d be catching up.”

So the system was revised to show the two biggest threats instead, using orange and red indicators to denote priority. A lot of factors determine which two vehicles it displays and with what priority, including their closing speed, whether they’re Rushing, and their class. If a bike is rapidly catching up and you’re in a truck, the game knows the class difference means it’s not much of a danger. But if it begins to Rush, it’ll suddenly become one.

Administering sound 

And then there’s audio. Once again like Overwatch, Onrush’s audio manages loudness according to priority rather than proximity. “So when someone Rushes nearby it’ll be louder than other things nearby because it’s more important to you,” says Brayshaw.

“It came out of necessity; it wasn’t something we planned for,” says Rustchynsky, though it emerged from a design goal he set audio designers Tim Shepherd and Gonçalo Tavares that players should be able to understand what’s going on by audio alone. 

"It solved the problem we had in every racing game I’ve worked on...because of the stampede you’ve always got someone to follow, whether a teammate, opposition or fodder, someone who’s leading you around the track."

“I can play without the OSD at home now,” he claims. “They achieved their goal, but it was challenging because there’s so much going on. Just relating where things are in space just wasn’t working because it was a cacophony, so it was the long design task of working out what the most important things were, and how many of them should be fed back at any time, and making sure you’re served the right info at the right time.”

Track advantage

And all the while, players are also navigating complex, multi-pathed tracks. But one thing about the stampede actually deals with a common problem with racing games: the challenge of knowing where you’re going, where the track turns next and where you should be braking. 

“It solved the problem we had in every racing game I’ve worked on,” Rustchynsky says. “In Motorstorm the biggest challenge was making players understand where they were meant to be going, but because of the stampede you’ve always got someone to follow, whether a teammate, opposition or fodder, someone who’s leading you around the track.”

Onrush’s stampede is a contained bubble of controlled chaos, one that presented Codemasters Evo with many design challenges that are novel to racing games. But it also solved some of racing’s longest-standing problems. The result might not strictly be a racing game, but Onrush is no less exhilarating for being a cross-genre smash-up.

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