Kart Racers – Designing Fun for Everyone ~ Design Doc

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]

100 Replies to “Kart Racers – Designing Fun for Everyone ~ Design Doc”

  1. When it comes to powerful items it really depends on the game mode. If your playing against the AI it feels cheap to fail at the last moment because of an onslaught of item hits seconds from the finishing line turning that sure win to a devastating loss. But against other players, it is completely different, I could be strategic, it could be luck it could be a combo of the 2. Suddenly it is not I just lost it is he just that player just turned it around.

  2. I hate the custom kart system in the current mario kart games as i dont want to learn stats or strategies for yet another game. Sometimes i find a good combo but forget it instantly afterwards and which speed limiter it works with.

  3. Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 8 went overboard with the items. I think Mario Kart 64 got the balance of luck and skill right.

  4. biggest problem with sonic ASRT, the items do fuck-all. I was in a race once and hit the same kart in front of me with 3 items, and it didn't slow down, they span out 3 times and it had no effect.

  5. Nice discussion! Any thoughts on LEGO Racers (around 2000)? I think it suits the category. I used to play that one a lot on PC when I was a kid 😉

  6. I wish you'd mentioned ModNation Racers. Takes elements from each of these.
    I heard the music at the ending and got my hopes up :(. Which mashup is that though?

  7. Shortcuts!
    You should have spoken about shortcuts!

    Like, they're what creates a gap between the pro and the new player. They're what the pro can use to get a feeling of acomplishment over the others.

  8. Diddy Kong racing was focused on single player campaign with co-op unlocked with a "cheat code". It was ok but the driving was meh for all the vehicles.

  9. As I child, I always thought that Sonic and Sega all stars racing(yes, the first one)was better than Mario kart Wii, but I never said anything about it. I have no clue how I'm going to break that to my friends…

  10. my favourite mario kart track of all time is easily maple treeway. it has the players and CPU's drifting along the branches of a giant forest mid atumn. it combines beautiful scenery with a theme that clearly impacts the level design, as well as being fun to play on. there is one major flaw however, it is not much for new players as you can easily fall off of some of the branches. i think that maple treeway is a near perfect example of a course done right, mind the lack of edge rails

  11. Build up turbos well you'll need a hell of a lot of metal also that a shit tone of air through the pistons engine blowing amounts of air

  12. Personally id rather race on Diddy Kong Racing tracks than a lot of mario tracks. DKR has always been my favorite racing game.

  13. Ok I play Mario kart Wii competitively but Mario Kart Wii is not “complete luck” at all and there are many mechanics that let players like me get first every time compared to newcomers who will most of the time get middle spots. You really need to improve your opinion on mkwii because it doesn’t cover much at all and there is a ton of skill in that game and arguably the most skill required for top level play out of almost any other Mario Kart Game

  14. You could have mentioned Crash Tag Team Racing and the coop shotting mechanic, aswell the shortcut/new paths that you unlock during the game

  15. I don't remember if it was said here, but one of the big reasons that people hate the blue shell, is that it is not only a random fuck you, it doesn't even help the person who uses it. You're basically giving 2nd place the lead. Which is why you rarely hear bad talk about items like lightning, which outside of team battles, solely helps the person who used it, slows down first, but keeps the rest of the pack where they are, unless they fell into a pit. And games have figured out since before Mario Kart 64, with Wipeout 2097. Wipeout's Quake not only feels and looks amazing to activate, but it slows down everyone in front of you, allowing it to be an effective comeback mechanic, while not solely screwing first place.

  16. Here's a point that I think might actually be great examples of these ideas. Take the ModNation Racers games. Despite ModNation being all about customization (thus kinda making a bad point with the course design segment as you can make tracks), it's the item design and skill gap I think is great.

    In the game, when you do a drift, draft in front of players, hit an opponent, or gain airtime (spin system included) you gain "Boost." You can then have two choices that can integral to the game. You can just use it for boosting your way, or you can make a shield out of it, which can be a life-saver if you're about to get attacked by an item (the item system is similar to Diddy Kong Racing, but the original has random itemboxes, the sequel full-on embraced the DKR method). ModNation gives you upgradable items, with Level 3 being the most devastating. There's a high risk, high reward method of gameplay with the Boost you get, and if you fail to succeed using it, you can lose pretty hard. ModNation is still another great example of a good kart racer.

  17. My favorite thing about Diddy Kong racing, apart from the vehicle choices, was the powerups not being random.

  18. I caught my son watching this video saying that Diddy Kong racing wasn't perfect in every way. I won't be having this blasphemy in my house

  19. The only thing I can add is about MK Wii, the Mega is a weaker version of a star. If you hit a star or bullet in a mega you get hit like a normal player, you don´t get a speed boost, just accelerate faster than normal and can drive faster on offroad. It´s still a good item.

  20. This made me think that kart racing games are popular almost exclusively on game consoles. Mouse and keyboard is probably not the right type of controller for a racing game. But I can't see why we haven't seen any rreally popular racing game on smartphone yet (maybe I'm just unaware of it)

  21. What is the point of decreasing the skill gap by dumbing down the mechanics? Nintendo should've done something else or just say git gud.

  22. With the Diddy Kong Racing item system, I think Lego Racers did a better job, with certain items being much more of a "hit", then just "random luck". There are only 16 items, 4 Speed, 4 Decoy, 4 Attack and 4 Shield, indicated the same way as DKR, and uses white bricks to "upgrade" the weapon, and being hit takes some of it away. You also have the "INTERDIMENSIONAL" zip which is the top of the speed range, homing rockets for attack, and the Phantom of Confusion that fucks your driving for about 10 seconds with disorientation and changing the left and right controls. It really makes it worth potentially saving to that point, but some upgraded items also have limits, like the homing missiles can't open certain shortcuts and so on.

  23. Sonic and all stars racing is not a kart racer its a Racing game Kart racer have the characters drive in Karts Not Cars

  24. I bought MK8 for my switch and i was baffled by how inferior to sonic & all star racing transformed & knuckles is

    SOME tracks in MK8 are better and the battle mode is better, but the game is slower, the mechanics simpler and the items more unbalanced

    Sanic is a fsr superior kart game

  25. This man and his wonderful videos hath committed a most grave sin ; Saying that any part of Diddy Kong Racing is bad. Thou hast gonneth too farreth!!

  26. "items dont turn it into a marioparty factory of randomness"

    …have you played mkwii?
    edit: 11:28 i really need to watch the whole video before commenting, hecc

  27. I'll agree to disagree. I loved Diddy Kong Racing. We (my fellow co-op players and myself) were pros at 10 missile destruction.

  28. This is why CTR is the best. The items feel fair. Rockets home in on targets, but they B line. So they can easily turn into walls, the warp portal targets 1st place, bombs roll and either blow up on impact or you can press the item button again to detonate it yourself, this also stops you from shooting 3 out at once if you happen to get the triple bombs. You can get the nitro off your head by bouncing over and over before it blows up, vials can be thrown forward or left behind. And so on. But most importantly, unlike in Mario kart, having 10 wumpa fruit gives all the items new effects or boosts in different ways. Warp portal hits everyone in front of you instead of only first place plus anyone who happens to be in the way. TNT turn into nitro crates that explode on contact instead of letting you bounce it off, and the vial effects you for a short time even after the initial hit. It's a good way to make people want to have 10 fruit while also not requiring you to have 10 fruit.

  29. In case of the game mechanics – there is a possibility for developers to focus on simulated karting. In other hand the typical arcadish mechanics of Kart Racers can be implemented into any type of vehicle without being sized into go-kart.

    The item strategy seems a good idea, but the luck that losing players get makes that the unfair battle race.

    Tracks are technically good if they're challenging and fit the theme, however the hazards can really harden to complete the race.

  30. Instant sub! I've been thinking about Kart Racers a lot lately, and honestly this is the sort of video that I wish I had made. Excellent work top to bottom!

  31. Honestly I feel like Crash Team Racing had the best blue shell, that power orb that just takes out each and every player, letting the person who used it actually get more use than just "fuck you, you dont get to win either"

  32. I loved diddy kong racing more than any other cart racer. The mechanics of mario kart when you go zero g or fly are barely different. With diddy kong, it truly feels like another challenge. Also, the bosses and story are amazing, and the levels are not as chaotic so developing a strategy feels more consistent.

  33. I'll just be straight forward with this…

    Nintendo shouldn't have bother with the skill gaping between the veteran and newbie players. Its not the veteran players fault if the newbie doesn't take time to learn a video game.
    So I don't care if newbies wanna cry and whine about always losing. Its the reason why I stop playing Mario Kart because its re designed to avoid skill gaping by watering down and removing certain gameplay mechanics that was actually ESSENTIAL to the game not to mention an item system that makes the races too chaotic more than 75% of the time.

  34. I feel like Mario wii actually does work pretty well with it's items in a sort of melee way in which i mean that it wasn't intentional

    stuff like when you use a mushroom at the right time you can avoid a blue shell completely
    when the shock hits and you are giant you become normal sized making it less powerful than the star in that aspect
    or how the bullet bill can take a bit to get on track if you are off road
    some other things are

    red shells that you can avoid if you get them to hit a wall which is risky but rewarding
    pow blocks which dont do anything in the air in contrast with the shock
    and the thundercloud…
    i guess it can be used pretty well in a last resort situation when you are in 3 or 2 in lap three near the finish it can be helpful

  35. rip modnation racers, it’s undeniably my favorite kart racer to date with its extensive kart customization and track builder, and some fun and interesting default tracks

  36. Modnation Racers deserves more love.
    It's almost unfortunate that it has such easy and robust track, character, and kart making tools.
    The game mechanics were sublime and addictive.
    It really was one of the best kart racers of all time.
    It only suffered from lack of bankable characters to sell it even though it sold more than a million copies. LBP Karting came out after and performed pretty bad both critically and financially.
    Which is probably why Sony hasn't greenlit a Modnation Racers sequel. 🙁
    #MNR2

  37. Lego Racers did powerups very well.

    Find a coloured brick to get a powerup related to that colour. Find a glowing white brick to power up your powerup. Do you use your powerup now, or wait until it's uber powerful? Use it to activate a shortcut? A line of them awaits up ahead. Will you sverve off track to keep your current powerup?

  38. I think Diddy Kong Racing deserves a huge break. Having been developed by about 15 people on a very short schedule, I think it makes up for the lack of track diversity in the fact that the game itself includes so much more, such as Adventure mode, than other kart racers at the time.

  39. Evey kart racing game is just a mario kart clone. Pretty much, anyway. Some have planes or boats, but mario kart was the first

  40. Ugh, no mention of ModNation Racers in a video series that was published in 2018+? That heavily sucks. It's easily one of the best kart racing games ever made, may'be even the best in hindsight. Would like to see a reboot with that game (assuming it's left out in the others) and Team Sonic Racing included. Video is still fairly good, though.

    EDIT: Omg, it's only worse that you played a BGM from MNR at during the closing of this video D:

  41. I was about remark how there's no love for Modnation, until I heard at least the main theme being played. ;u;
    Still, Modnation should definitely be mentioned for, instead of having a variety of items at your disposal, sticking to three main weapons: Missiles, Lightning, and Sound Barriers, that can pretty much turn the race around, even if you're in last place.
    Missiles go from single shot green shells, to three-missile homers, to a BARRAGE of twelve missiles that can destroy the entire competition.
    Lightning can go from a single straight-ward shock, to a homing bolt that can affect up to three racers in close proximity of the first target, to an entire storm that can stun the entire race.
    Lastly the sound barrier, that starts as a small AOE that can affect everyone around you in a close radius, to a Sonic Missile Launcher that shoots three missile shots that can dispose of whoever it hits in AOE range of the three bombs, then the ultimate Sound Wave that sends out a wave of shock that races down the track, and decimates everyone in front of you.
    The best thing about it is that you can counter ALL these attacks if you have BOOST which you collect through drifting, jumping, and tricks. Boost can either be used as a straightforward nitrous turbo to shoot you to the other racers, or as a powerful shield to defend you against any attack!
    Sad Modnation didn't get far in terms of advancement of gameplay, but it's the most memorable kart racer if you knew about it.

  42. Spaceport Alpha wants to know your location

    Living counterpoint to the idea that the blue shell shouldn't exist, huh? Tell me again how a 12th place player getting a blue shell benefits from it.

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