Level 91 Entertainment founder and Inertial Drift’s lead programmer and designer Michael O’Kane speaks with GamingBolt about the upcoming twin-stick racer.
The lack of arcade racers that focus more on thrills and fun than realistic simulation is felt more and more keenly with each passing year, but every once in a while, we see developers trying to break that mould and deliver something fast, furious, and thrilling. With the upcoming Inertial Drift, it seems like that’s exactly what developers Level 91 Entertainment are looking to. With its twin-stick controls and drifting-focused driving, it is looking to strike a deft balance between accessibility and challenge, while also looking like a game that wants to nail that sense of speed that we all look for in racers. Curious about the game as we were, we recently got the chance to send across some of our questions about it to the developers. You can read our conversation with Level 91 Entertainment founder and Inertial Drift’s lead programmer and designer Michael O’Kane below.
"You can think of each car in the game as its own little puzzle. Players will need to experiment with different approaches and adapt their driving styles to each car to discover the optimal ways to drive them."
Can you talk to us about Inertial Drift’s twin-stick handling mechanics?
In addition to standard racing game controls with throttle and brake on triggers and steering on the left stick, Inertial Drift adds an additional input on the right stick that gives you direct control over your drift angle. Having independent control over steering drifting lets you combine those inputs for tight turns, counter steer to hold a drift, or just make small adjustments to your line mid corner. Overall, you just have far more direct control over your car than in almost any other racer, letting even new players pull off drifts that are normally very difficult to achieve in other games.
For more experienced players we also have higher difficulty cars where precise throttle and brake adjustments are required to coax your car into and out of slides. Every car in the game is designed to react differently to changes in throttle and brakes, giving each of them a completely distinct feel and personality. The differences are so dramatic that each car basically has its own distinct control scheme that changes the way you need to approach corners.
You can think of each car in the game as its own little puzzle. Players will need to experiment with different approaches and adapt their driving styles to each car to discover the optimal ways to drive them.
How did the idea for a twin-stick racer with a focus on drifting come about?
Part of the inspiration actually came from Skate. Rather than using button inputs mapped to specific actions like other skateboarding games, Skate attempted to recreate similar motions on the analogue sticks, to replicate the feel of doing a trick, but also to give you more direct control. I’ve always thought this was a really interesting approach and wondered if it could be applied to other games. Fast forward to about 6 years ago, I was playing a simple demo for an indie racer that had a weird control scheme.
Acceleration and steering were both mapped to the left stick, so you had to sacrifice speed for maximum steering angle. It made no sense, and it was weird, but it got me thinking. If I forgot for a moment how cars really worked, what would be the most interesting way to control a car using a gamepad?
Traditional car controls aren’t bad, but there’s a whole extra stick there that isn’t really used aside from flicking your camera around, and in the spirit of Skate I figured I could use it to give myself direct control over my drift angle. A day later I had my first prototype. As terrible as it was at that stage it definitely felt interesting. Add to that several years of tweaks and improvements to turn that idea into a robust handling model with sufficient depth to support a roster of totally unique cars and you have Inertial Drift.
Do you have plans for post-launch content for Inertial Drift in terms of tracks, modes, and cars?
A lot of this depends on the reception the game gets on release. There are still areas of the handling model that we haven’t fully explored so we’d love to add more cars to do that, but the demand needs to be there to justify that effort.
"We didn’t want the game to be about blasting past a big pack of cars that are all magically way slower than you. Your opponents in Inertial Drift are challenging equals, driving by the same rules you are. Anything they can do you can do, and whether you win or lose is up to your own skill, not decided by some overly aggressive rubber banding."
Given its unique control scheme, what sort of a balance is Inertial Drift looking to strike between accessibility and challenge?
I think a certain level of accessibility has always been core to the concept of arcade titles when compared to sim racers. Often the way games try and do this is by taking control away from the player, whether through assists or “railroading” players though corners while drifting. Instead of doing that, we wanted to make the game accessible by giving the player even more control than normal using our twin stick controls.
Having said that, we also don’t think that “arcade” should be a synonym for “easy” and that’s where the brake/throttle balancing based handling model comes in. The distinct handling properties of each car that we talked about before don’t just let us create cars that feel different, but also allow us to create cars designed for players of very different skill levels.
For the simplest cars, having direct control over your drift angle using the right stick means even my Mum (who has never played a racing game in her life) was able to get to grips with the controls in only a few laps.
However, once you get to the fastest cars in the game, there are a few where even I struggle to do good laps consistently. The 16 cars in the game in effect form a spectrum of approaches to driving and difficulty that should provide an option for everyone regardless of their skill level. In addition, we’ve also got a story mode designed to introduce you to the game’s main concepts and to skill you up from the easiest cars to the hardest ones. Ideally, I’d like people who play the game to try all of the cars, not just one or two, and many of the decisions we made were to encourage that.
Why did you choose to focus on 1v1 races solely?
The decision to focus on 1v1 racers was based on a variety of factors.
We didn’t want the game to be about blasting past a big pack of cars that are all magically way slower than you. Your opponents in Inertial Drift are challenging equals, driving by the same rules you are. Anything they can do you can do, and whether you win or lose is up to your own skill, not decided by some overly aggressive rubber banding.
Another reason was scope. We are a very small team and so we have to be careful about taking on too much work if we actually want to finish the game. 1v1 races simplify a lot of aspects of development and let us focus on the unique aspects of the game like the controls and handling.
The game itself is often about studying other racers to work out how their cars work and how the techniques they are using might apply to your own car/driving style. It’s easier to focus on that in a 1v1 setting. It also allowed us to inject a lot of character into each opponent’s driving.
Can you talk to us about how much the cars differ from each other in how they drive?
There are four main areas of car handling that have a big impact on the way you drive. How you initiate a drift, how you exit a drift, how you transition from one direction to another and how you get more angle during a drift. There are different ways you can do each of these things. Take initiating a drift, your car could slide immediate when you push the right stick, only when you lift off the throttle, only when you hit the brake or one of a few other options. For each car in the game we pick a unique combination of options for each of those four areas and that combines to dictate how a specific car works. One car will feel heavy when you are accelerating but snap out to a big angle when you lift off the throttle. Another might require you to carefully feather the brake through the corner to get the car sliding just enough to make the exit without losing too much speed. We have lots of other small ways we differentiate the cars from each other, but even those base four provide a pretty big possibility space for us to play around in.
"Hopefully Inertial Drift will demonstrate that there is still a market for that subset of racing, as well as an appetite for new ideas in racing games generally."
What are your thoughts on how the arcade racer genre has, to an extent, been fading into the background over the last few years?
I think a lot about what makes a game an arcade racer. I think Burnout Paradise did a lot to shape the arcade racing landscape over the last 10 years and now most of the big franchises are open world racers where the primary focus is collecting boost from drifting or tricks or generally risky driving. I like many of those games, but they don’t share all that much in common with classic arcade racers. I’ve taken to calling games like that “Boost Farmers” as that is what I feel their central mechanic is. I grew up playing Ridge Racer, particularly R4 and I would describe those game more as “Drift Racers”, where the focus was on drifting just enough to get around a corner, not doing so all the time. I would put Inertial Drift in that latter category.
I think for people who mean Drift Racer when they say Arcade, there hasn’t really been anything around to play for a long time and Boost Farmers don’t really fill the same need. Hopefully Inertial Drift will demonstrate that there is still a market for that subset of racing, as well as an appetite for new ideas in racing games generally. The genre has barely changed since Paradise released and I think we are due a new shake up.
Do you have any plans to launch on Stadia?
I honestly know very little about Stadia and we don’t really have the resources to target any more platforms at the moment. I personally find the game experience to be very sensitive to latency, so I will be interested to see how Stadia’s claims of negative latency pan out.
As an indie developer, what are your thoughts on the Switch, which has quickly become a haven for indie games?
I finally caved and got a Switch recently. It’s definitely a nice form factor and we are committed to providing a good experience on it for Inertial Drift. The lack of analogue triggers is a bit of a shame, but we do have options there to mitigate its effects on gameplay.
Will the game will feature Xbox One X specific enhancements? Is 4K/60fps on the cards?
The game is still being built and so hasn’t been optimised. Once all the assets are in we’ll see how much we can squeeze out of it, but it just depends on where our bottlenecks are. We’ll certainly try to hit 4K/60 but we won’t really know until closer to launch.
How will the PS4 Pro version turn out in terms of resolution and frame rate?
Again, we won’t really know until closer to launch. We will be optimising as best we can for the base consoles and once we are happy with that, we will see what we can do with the extra headroom on the enhanced consoles.
"I’d love if new haptics allowed us to provide more detailed information about which wheels are in contact with which surfaces, but only time will tell."
How is the game running on the original Xbox One and PS4, frame rate and resolution wise?
Most of the game is unoptimized currently so we can’t predict yet what these values are going to be. Resolution may well end up being dynamic in some form.
What frame rate and resolution does the game run on the Switch in docked and undocked modes?
We have only done rudimentary testing on Switch at this point and so it isn’t currently representative of final performance.
The PS5 was recently confirmed to have Haptic enabled controllers. How do you think that will help games to evolve?
I’m pretty excited for better controller haptics. It’s always nice to have more avenues to give the player information. Right now, we use a combination of spatial audio and rumble to give the player feedback about what surfaces their wheels are in contact with, but there’s only so much you can do with 2 motors. I’d love if new haptics allowed us to provide more detailed information about which wheels are in contact with which surfaces, but only time will tell.