Kart Racers – Designing Fun for Everyone ~ Design Doc


Man there are so many Kart Racers. M&M’s Kart Racing, South Park Rally, Garfield
Kart, that Shrek one, and all the good ones. Kart racers have an absolutely enormous appeal. Everyone from young kids, casual players,
adults who rarely play games, veteran players, or speedrunners, they cover practically every
segment of the gaming audience. It’s not by accident either, it’s a product
of their design. Let’s dissect some of the parts that make
up a kart racer – Course Design, Driving Mechanics and Item Design and see how different games
create a layered kart racing experience that appeals to just about everybody. First up: course design. For a kart racer to be appealing, Players
of all skill levels need to be doing something more than just ‘turn now, turn now, accelerate,
now turn some more’. More advanced players spend time thinking
about things like race lines, item strategy, positioning, that kind of thing. For total newcomers though, the easiest way
that a kart racer can grab a player’s attention is through colorful and mind bending courses. Modern Mario Kart is great at using the track
theme to create interesting track layouts. To design a great track you can’t just create
a quick circuit with a few turns and call it a day. The best tracks thrive on a healthy mix of
set pieces and distinct themes that make the track memorable, to see and to play. The work of the track designers shows up in
courses like Daisy Cruiser where you blaze through the decks of a cruise liner while
avoiding tables that slide around as the ship rocks back and forth. Coconut Mall, where you’re bouncing through
fountains, escalators and parking lots with cars that are permanently in parking purgatory. Or Dragon Driftway, which is inspired by the
sleek form of a Chinese dragon and uses that form to create a series of smooth snake-like
turns and a bumpy section of jumps. The Sonic and Sega and All Stars and Racing
and Transformed and Knuckles series themes their tracks well too. These tracks are little love letters to the
classic Sega games that they’re based on. The Monkey Ball courses are laid out like
actual Monkey Ball mazes, The NiGHTs stage is full of elaborate callbacks to that game’s
boss fights. But what’s more interesting is how Sonic
Transformed adds in a little bit of a narrative element with scripted set pieces that change
some of the courses. The Skies of Arcadia track starts with a normal
driving section through a village but on the final lap, the village is blown up and turns
into a flying section. Without variety, identity and depth, a track
is just kinda forgettable. While modern track design is usually pretty
strong, some earlier tracks in Mario Kart weren’t very memorable. Due to technical limitations, the tracks in
the mode 7 Mario Karts couldn’t be much more than flat tracks with different sky boxes. Some of Mario Kart 64’s track design was hit
or miss, but some of the tracks hinted at what Nintendo’s approach to track design would
evolve into. Bowser’s Castle and DK’s Jungle Parkway are
intertwined with their theme, with unique sections that pair their track design with
their unique settings. Bland track design might be the biggest shortcoming
of another ambitious (and very popular) kart racer: Diddy Kong Racing. I hear people describe these tracks as just
circles and after revisiting them, I totally agree. Diddy Kong Racing has a total of 20 tracks,
each tied to one of five generic themes like winter, dinosaurs, the beach, medieval times? palette swaps? The tracks themselves don’t feel ingrained
into the themes. There isn’t a real sense of identity in
most of these tracks so you could swap out the theme of one with another and it wouldn’t
feel out of place. Diddy Kong Racing did make up for its track
design with its variety of vehicles. The cars, hovercrafts and planes all control
very differently. Tracks are playable with multiple vehicles,
but most tracks in Diddy Kong Racing feel like they’re really only designed with one
vehicle in mind. While you can play with different vehicles
types in multiplayer races, it’s almost impossible to make them all feel unique without making
one of the vehicles objectively better to use on any given track. The track design can’t accommodate for multiple
vehicles so some end up being more fun to play than others. Diddy Kong Racing’s multi vehicle design lives
on in Sonic Transformed and the modern Mario Karts. They each have sections dedicated to different
vehicle types. Sonic Transformed has vehicles similar to
Diddy Kong Racing with boats and aircraft. Mario Kart is more subtle with the vehicles,
just changing the driving physics in the underwater and zero-gravity segments and adding some
basic maneuvering in the gliding segments. They get the benefit of the variety that each
new vehicle brings, but they don’t have to deal with balancing each track over three
different vehicle types. Maybe most importantly, the on-the-fly vehicle
transformations give the track designers a ton of creative freedom to come up with new
and interesting track designs. And that’s great. Anything that helps create interesting tracks
will also help keep players interested in the game. So we have tracks, but how do kart racers
design their driving mechanics to keep all kinds of players happy? Where racing sims are more about using realistic
driving techniques, kart racers simplify how their vehicles handle. You can drift around corners like it’s nothing. Fishtailing and spin-outs are barely a problem. The cognitive load of just taking a kart around
the track is way, way lower. But, just because you don’t HAVE to think
that hard about kart handling doesn’t mean there isn’t a technique to it. Kart racers make factors like racing lines
and drifting less important, but more advanced players can still use them to get better times,
and kart racers have added extra gameplay elements to reward skillful driving. Enter the mini turbo. Mini Turbos are nearly universal in kart racers,
different games pick and choose from a lot of different flavors: Rocket Starts, Drafting,
track surface features like zippers and ramps, but the most iconic might be the drift mini
turbo. Drifting pulls double duty – it helps you
smoothly take turns without losing much speed, but if you know what you’re doing you can
also drift to build up turbos. In Mario Kart 64, Double Dash, and Mario Kart
DS, these turbos would be built up by quickly turning back and forth while in the middle
of a drift. More advanced players can drift all over the
track and chain together a ton of these mini turbos. This is called ‘snaking’, and it became pretty
controversial in Mario Kart DS. It created an extreme skill gap in online
play – you either snaked around the track, or you lost. Nintendo recognized this skill gap and considered
snaking to be an unintentional exploit. From Mario Kart Wii onwards, drifting mini
turbos were charged up by just holding the drift. The change made the turbo easier to pull off,
but made it harder to chain drift turbos together without going off track, which closed the
skill gap a bit. Mario Kart may have taken the inspiration
for the change from another classic kart racer, Crash Team Racing. When you drift in Crash Team Racing, a red
and green meter builds up. By hitting L1 while the meter is red you will
release a mini turbo. Crash Team Racing also lets you gain a boost
by hopping off of the apex of ramps and bumps in the terrain. With these mechanics, chaining these drift
turbos together with jumps separates the novices from the veterans while still being easy to
learn. Since the Wii, Mario Kart has adopted a very
similar system with tricks. Sonic Transformed also uses Mario Kart’s
chargeable drifting and its own version of tricks. Here you manually perform spins and flips
while airborne. But if you hit the ground in the middle of
a trick, you will crash and lose any boost that had already been built up. Drifts are important, and fun to do, but maybe
more important to advanced players are racing lines. The problem with racing lines is that they’re
pretty static and they can sometimes make the ‘optimal’ strategy a bit too predictable
and dull. Kart racers have shaken up the racing line
idea with speed boosting collectibles. Mario Kart’s coins, DKR’s Bananas, CTR’s
Wumpa Fruit. These collectables add another strategic element
that challenges players to make a choice to either take a more optimal path or sacrifice
the ideal racing line to build up your max speed for later. The combination of these different types of
speed boosting systems does wonders for the track design. The way a player thinks about the track layout
becomes deeper than just the geometry of the turns. It makes players incorporate the behavior
of their competitors into their decision making, like whether or not the person in front of
you has already grabbed your coins. It tweaks the optimal lines and makes you
think about just which path is the right one. Mini turbos and speed boosters give everyone
from little kids to world champions plenty of chances to find something fun to do and
plenty of opportunities to improve the way they attack the track. Kart racers wouldn’t be the same without item
pick ups. Bananas, shells, nitro crates, homing missiles,
drones, stars, shields, coins, boosters – items are the linchpin that lets novices play with
experts without the game turning into a bloodbath. Skilled players may hate items, but items
that mix luck and randomness are crucial in making the game palatable for newer players. And it’s not like they turn the game into
a Mario Party-esque factory of randomness. Skill still plays a big role, even if items
do shake things up. Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing and Sonic Transformed
give items to players hitting an item box depending on what position they’re in. Front runners get weaker, defensive items
like green shells and bananas while players stuck in the back get huge, powerful weapons
to try to catch up. Blue shells to target leaders, Bullet Bills
to zoom ahead, red shells to zero in on players ahead of you, stars to become invincible and
go off road, and lightning to slow down everyone else all contribute to Mario Kart’s ‘comeback
mechanics’ which prevent runaway victories as well as give less skilled players something
fun to do. Sonic Transformed doesn’t really have effective
comeback mechanics. Supposedly powerful items like the character
all-star moves don’t really have that much impact and never affect those in front. If you can get a lead in Sonic Transformed,
you rarely have to fend off players which makes the game simpler and a little less compelling
for those winning and frustrating for those losing. Diddy Kong Racing scraps random item boxes
and instead has different colored balloons that each give a particular item. These items can be upgraded up to 3 times
which in theory adds another layer of strategy. But it doesn’t quite come together for one
big reason. The array of weapons are not all that useful
aside from the speed boosters and homing missiles. What’s considered an upgrade here is debatable,
the third missile upgrade feels more like a downgrade going from a reliable homing missile
to 10 unreliable straight shot ones. Other items like the shield and oil slicks
aren’t much better and it’s hard to find many uses for them. Also since Diddy Kong Racing doesn’t have
weapons that target front runners, the players in the middle are the ones left to target. The middle gets held back, and the leaders
zoom ahead. If you fail to get an early lead, it’s an
uphill battle for the rest of the race. Diddy Kong Racing is a living counterpoint
to the idea that the blue shell shouldn’t exist. When done right, items help level the playing
field and keep an element of unpredictability within each race. But designers can absolutely go too far. If they’re done poorly, these comeback mechanics
can straight up ruin a kart racer. Mario Kart Wii went WAAAY too far with this. Items like the POW Blocks which are like a
weaker lightning, Mega Mushrooms that are like a more powerful star, the thunder clouds
that shrink you unless you can pass it to another player, and very frequent blue shells
cause way too much chaos. Too often you won’t get a chance to separate
yourself from others before another big item targets you. It really does turn the game into a game of
luck, and is just as annoying as veteran players say it is. However, without the ability to make a comeback
the race outcome is never in doubt, which makes the race boring to play through. Comeback mechanics exists to let kids play
with their parents, or casual and hardcore friends to play the game with each other,
which keeps everyone entertained, and helps share the fun of the kart racer with a much
wider audience. Kart racers are made and broken by their course
design, driving mechanics, and item behavior. Compelling courses bring in newcomers. Drifting and mini turbos let experts puzzle
out their perfect line. And a properly designed set of items keeps
veterans on their toes and even lets the newbies win once in a while. Design them well, and they’ll make a kart
racer fun for everyone. [Chill vibes outro music from Mod Nation Racers]

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