The Future of the Blog

August 31, 2008

Hey guys 😀

This is a bit of a personal announcement as well as something serious affecting the blog. As of today, I officially hand over the power to lead the blog to Alcator. He will, hopefully, be the main poster and writer in times to come, and I will basically retire.

The aim is that this will make the blog more active again. According to stats, you guys don’t seem to quit anyway 😛 So you might just as well get something to actually read, and I’m afraid I’m unable to deliver that.

This doesn’t mean I’m gone, though. My attention is just elsewhere. I still play TrackMania, and I hope to be a little more active as a member of the TMX crew. Perhaps a new contest coming up soon? 😉 School is starting – first year of university – and I even got an (unpaid) job on GameOn.co.uk: as a monthly column writer in their new and free gaming magazine! Next (second) issue is due very soon, if it isn’t out already by the time you read this 😉

Now, I’d also like to remind you that despite having been with us for a long time, Alcator is new to this. He’ll have to keep the blog active and varied, a job which I know isn’t easy! But with your support, feedback and ideas, I’m sure things will work out perfectly. The blog needs a change, and Alcator has the means to make it.

I guess the only thing left to say is goodbye (to my old position on the blog) and good luck. But then again, I will still be around, and hopefully you’ll be too 😀

Enjoy!

– Jozii

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How to build a platform track

August 29, 2008

written by Alcator

Have you tried the Platform mode in TMU(F)? Quite difficult, right? Even with unlimited amount of time and the knowledge that each section is passable from the last CP, there are sections where you just stare in plain disbelief at the seemingly impossible task ahead. Such as when you were getting faster and faster, finally facing a sequence of about a dozen air CPs that you were supposed to fly through in one pass…

Most track builders only build race tracks; this is mainly because online servers usually rotate race tracks, so building something else automatically lessens the chance of your track becoming known.

How to build a good platform track?

Let’s start with the basic “rules” of platform mode. Although some of them may be violated a bit, it would be better to respect them.

  1. The track must be finishable from any CP respawn. No exceptions.
  2. After respawning in a CP, the respawning player should be able to pass the next segment by going forward – no backtracking should be required, although an alternate route may be available for a particularly fast jump etc.
  3. Your author score must be “0 penalty points”; the gold medal should be set to 0 as well, with 3 penalty points for silver and 10 penalty poins for bronze. That’s the setting for official platform tracks, and it should be followed in custom tracks as well. Don’t make the limits harder just because you built an “easier” platform tracks – those are needed too!

OK, that would be the basic concepts, but what to build to make the track challenging as a platform track?

There are several “themes” for this as well:

Engine killers – the #1 tool of platform track builders, the engine killer forces the player to pass the next area with a car that keeps getting slower and slower. This means that wall scratches, sliding and braking may result in halt, and a respawn. In combination with the other themes, this seriously increases the challenge.

Technical corners – forcing the player to find the optimum path around corners, especially in combination with an engine killer, is also very common in platform tracks.

The right speed – a thing that is very difficult in trackmania to achieve is keeping a particular speed. Unless you are using foot pedals, you are either gaining or losing speed, which means it’s nearly impossible to travel at one exact speed. The above mentioned jump through a series of air CPs required that the speed of the car fall into a narrow range – cars that were faster crashed into the upper parts of the CPs, while slower cars didn’t make the whole jump. In combination with a long jump through a narrow spot, such as a “hole” in the wall, forcing the player to try and get the right speed may be very challenging.

Dirt – dirt, the loved/hated alternate ground for Stadium, can be very tricky. Not only do the formula cars oversteer and slide on it, but it is also known to randomly bounce, flip or slow down the cars when they land on it. Which means a slight difference in speed, jump angle or airbraking moment may have a huge impact on whether you make it through the next section or not.

High speed – similar to full-speed tracks, by making a section of the track mandatorily fullspeed (meaning: either the player drives it fullspeed, or he won’t make the final jump etc.), you can increase the challenge a lot. Please always verify that the section is playable by keyboarders as well – there were cases of Coast tracks with high speed turns that were only doable by steering wheel users (coastal car slides if you turn at full speed).

Downstairs! – by forcing the player to perform “non-driving” things, such as walking the car “down the stairs” (a set of descending platforms), you can increase the challenge, because such tasks are uncommon (rare) and it may take the player some tries to truly grasp the concepts of airbraking, spin-drops etc.

Security by obscurity – I’ve borrowed this term from computer security, where hiding (obscuring) information about the programming language or operating system you are using can make it harder to crack. Likewise, if you obscure an obstacle the player will only have a limited time to react to it. In combination with an engine killer, this may be deadly (the player’s car cannot continue after crashing into the obstacle). The christmas trees on Stadium, heaps of rocks or cargo containers on Desert, or all those decorations available for Island – they can all be used very effectively to obscure the situation.

Tire them down! – make the track longer. It’s always harder to stay 100% focused for 2 minutes than it is to stay focused for 30 seconds. This is especially good for making the gold medal (0 penalty points) harder to reach – players are more likely to make a mistake after a long race.

The MT madness – nothing throws a player out of ballance more than if you suddenly switch the view to some unusual angle. If used with caution, this may increase the challenge without frustrating the player. Of course, if you choose an angle that makes it impossible to guess distances or steer properly, they will hate you!

What other tips for making challenging platform tracks do you know? Share them in the discussion!


The Trackmania Perils – part 2

August 27, 2008

written by Alcator

The editor

The ingame map editor has “Show helpers” option, which displays somewhat obscuring grid at the current height level. But what many trackmakers would need is an independent display of map borders so that we would know how far from the edge we are. Especially in Sunrise environments which have ocean as the base it is difficult to guess how far from the edge you are without moving the mouse there.

There are other things that can be frustrating in the editor: The absence of “Undo” in the MediaTracker editor, the absence of Zoom-in/Zoom-out functionality for the time axis in the MT editor, or the fact that you cannot rearrange the content of one Clip (i.e., if you later add another element to the clip, it appears as the last item in the list and you cannot drag it or otherwise move it to a different place where you might need it (such as where it would be easier for you to make a headway).

A function many would appreciate is “Shift the whole map” — simply, the ability to select all the things you placed to the map, and shift them elsewhere, such as when you find out you’ve built yourself into a corner and would need to shift the whole map by 1 tile towards West and 2 tiles towards South. Vertical change of position would be great, too…

Random booster WTF?

I don’t really know whose idea it was to add a random booster to the game, but it ruins the fair-play concept. I ran some tests to check if these boosters behave deterministically (so that if you drive the track in the exact same way, you get the same boost), but no, they do not! I guess if the God Almighty loves you, you get +200%, but if you sin a lot, you only get +100% or less. Who is responsible for this? What will be the next step? Will the windmills in Rally suddenly start smashing cars (note: until now, those moving parts are collision-free, so you can go through them)? Will there be waves on water, so some cars will bounce off of the surface, while other cars will sink? Or perhaps we could ask for random artillery bombardments, and if you happen to be hit by it, you lose? Remove them random boostaz, for fairness sake!

Crusard is driving me nuts!

Just recently, I installed all the stuff for Crusard’s awesome “The Trump Card II” track. It’s really amazing, but the undesired effect is that Trackmania is now using Crusard’s custom “car” models as opponents in Solo mode. And trust me – driving against an airplane, speedboat, or, in the worst cases, a dustbin, ammo crate or wooden “no entry” barrier, is just so upsetting 🙂 Perhaps the “allow custom models” option should be extended so that the player might, for each opponent, be it online player or recorded ghost, choose whether that particular custom model should or should not be used.

A dustbin. Got beaten by a dustbin. Oh God…


The Trackmania Perils – part 1

August 25, 2008

written by Alcator

Even a game as great as Trackmania can sometimes be a bit pain-in-the-foot’ish. So, in these few articles, I’ll mention stuff that annoys me, frustrates me or just plainly makes me angry. It goes from minor nitpicking issues to larger problems in the concepts of the game, as indicated in each case.

Selection of opponents

Being an intermediate player of Trackmania, the ghosts that are most likely to be a challenging match for me in Solo campaigns are Silver and Gold ghosts. However, when you launch a track, the game only allows you to select one of them, and if you want to race against both of them at the same time, you need to wait for the map to show, then go to the Escape menu, select opponents and tick those you want. Couldn’t there be a global setting “Desired opponents in Solo mode”, where you could set this once and for all, perhaps with additional options such as “Only display those opponents who are better than your best attempt”, since after you beat one or more of them, you have your ghost to compete with…?

Tracks locked

I’ve made quite a lot of progress in the Solo campaigns in TMU, and I raced many of the tracks in official mode; then I reinstalled the game to a new computer, upgraded to TMUF, and guess what: Even tracks that I have previously conquered were suddenly inaccessible, because I didn’t meet one of the pre-requisites, such as beating the Gold time on all the previous tracks at the same difficulty, or even beating Gold time on all the tracks; since in TMU, all the tracks were accessible right from the start, I can’t really understand why the Forever version now blocks access to them.

Physics changes

As you probably know, I’m the proud author of “Alky PF”, a PF Stadium TMU track that is over 5 minutes long. However, the track won’t work in TMUF, since the physics got changed a bit. Now, normally, this wouldn’t be a problem if TMU was still playable, but unfortunately, Nadeo pretty much cut off TMU(non-F) from existence — you can’t find any non-F patches for TMU anymore, you cannot play TMU online… but what is worse: you cannot find the installer for TMU anywhere! If I hadn’t burned the installer when I purchased TMU, I would be helpless. When I contacted Nadeo and asked for a pre-Forever patch for TMU, they replied that there are no patches for the game.

Now, what are trackmakers supposed to do? Where’s _any_ guarantee that their tracks will be playable in the following years? What if Nadeo comes with TMU-Eternity the next spring, changing physics AGAIN (!), and disconnecting TMUF from the internet?

The wrong way to preload

When you launch TMU(F), there are two steps the game tries to do.

  1. It preloads all tracks it can find, so that the subsequent browsing of tracks is faster
  2. It checks the connection to the internet and loads stuff from the master server.

However, the game does these things in the wrong order: it first checks the connection, and if it fails, it requires a user response, or it won’t continue. Which means that if you are like me and have 200+ custom tracks in your TMU(F), and the connection is for one reason or another down, you will go to the bathroom (since the preload takes a long time), and when you return, you have to click “Stay offline”, only to see the long process of preloading. While if the two activities were swapped, you would get a cup of coffee or a toilet break first, and then you would only have to deal with the connectivity problem…

Don’t ask me again means Ask me again?

“Your framerate is low, should I switch to a lower resolution?” (paraphrased) – that’s what the game asks me whenever something slows the graphics card’s performance down. And when it asks, there’s a checkbox “Don’t ask me again”. Which I tick. And then I click “Cancel”, as there is no “No, I don’t want the resolution changed!” option (there’s only OK, which means “Yes”, and there’s “Cancel”).

So, “Application development 101”: If you ask a user a Yes or No question, you should provide buttons “Yes” and “No”. Providing “OK” and “Cancel” as options to answer a Yes or No question is a big no-no.

Well, that’s it for today, what do you think about these things? Do you have have another “peril” that you are facing from time to time when playing Trackmania? Please share it in the comments!

Thank you!


Three Years of TrackMania

August 6, 2008

Today I did something I haven’t done in a very long time: I sat down, fired up TrackMania (United Forever), picked a server and spent some time just playing.

I can still remember the day when a classmate of mine said “hey, check out this new free game called ‘TrackMania Nations'”. I did, and I was immediately hooked. That was almost three years ago, which might not be too long, but in the world of videogames, it is.

Since then, TrackMania has been with me almost every day. Yet, I’ve never been much of a player. I’ve organized contests, events, written articles, helped newbies, built tracks, spent endless of hours here on TMX, and so on. But I seldom actually sit down and just play. If I play a track, it’s because someone has asked me to, or because it’s part of some event or contest I’m working on.

Just playing a few tracks at random online obviously isn’t a new deal for me, though. Of course I’ve spent my fair share of time in-game racing random tracks, and of course I’ve loved it. After all, isn’t the online part one of TM’s strongest assets?

Today was different, though. It’s been a while since last time, and with an extraordinary eventful summer, it feels like it’s been even longer. I’ve moved to a different country, I’ve been doing a lot of travelling, and I’ve been generally away from TM during the past few months. That made today’s launch of TM extra special. It didn’t feel like coming home, it felt like opening the door to an entirely new home for the first time. Weird but exciting. And I immediately knew I would like the place.

With a new school year starting, a lot of changes made during the summer, and generally more new hobbies, I will, however, slow down the TM activities quite a bit. No more late night blogging, no major events (maybe the occasional minor one, when I can’t help myself).

But still, I’m not leaving TM entirely! Just slowing things down. And who knows, perhaps not being too dependent on TM as a whole will make it easier and far more enjoyable to play that out-of-the-blue online race I did today. It would certainly feel more relaxed, thus making the experience more of a pleasure.