How Bad Choices Wrecked Trackmania's Momentum

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When I asked for an interview with a Nadeo representative about Trackmania’s history, I was not expecting it to be with Florent Castelnerac, Managing Director of Nadeo. I was also expecting it to be via email. Castelnerac preferred Skype. To see “the global strategy”, as he put it in his reply. He understood that it could be “disorienting at first sight”.

So we Skyped.

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There simply isn’t a racing experience on PC quite like Trackmania 2’s three games (this is confusing and I’ll explain shortly) other than another Trackmania game. The titles are arcade racers which hark back to an older era, one where Excitebike and RPM Racing were still gold standards of fun, creativity, and financial success.

The link between Trackmania and those older arcade racers is solidified byTrackmania’s main selling point, its track editor. The track editor is remarkably robust, relying on simple block placement to create all manner of tracks which, because of the series’ loose relationship with real world physics, can be completely nuts. More importantly, because of its toolbox nature, the editor is simple to use. There’s no code or any complexity beyond testing a track after it’s made to make sure it’s able to be completed. Less mod than toybox, anyone can complete it.

Starting in 2003, with the first Trackmania, Nadeo released a steady procession of games in the series. Each entry centered on new “environments”, with each environment consisting of new physical locations and art styles coupled with a car type for each one. Those different cars handled differently, meaning that Nadeo was able to explore different styles of arcade racing over the course of their games.

The combination of user made tracks and multiple environments allowed for a tremendous depth of experience. This was made even deeper and more diverse by allowing servers to run multiple environments, changing each round. You could stick to the single environment servers, of course, but the allure of switching from the almost realistic handling of Coast to the bouncy chaos of City to the pure speed of Island, all on player created tracks you’d never seen before, was irresistible.

Nadeo was also an early proponent of e-sports. While it never quite caught on in the US, Trackmania was always at European competitions and conventions. Nadeo’s PR team very aggressively promoted this aspect of the series, offering promotion in game to high profile tournaments and racing teams. It was well ahead of its time, given the explosion of e-sports this decade.

Trackmania seemed ready to conquer the world, or at least the PC racing market. In 2007, Trackmania United came out, a compilation of all seven environments from the first Trackmania and its followups, Trackmania Sunrise and Trackmania Nations. You could log in and find thousands of people playing online. Even the niche Stunt mode, where you deliberately flipped and wrecked your car for points, garnered teeming populations on the servers running it. A release for Wii (in those heady days when everyone was decrying the imminent death of PC gaming) was announced, a sure sign that Trackmania was about to go supernova and yet another link to its illustrious arcade racer forebears on Nintendo’s older systems. Ubisoft purchased Nadeo in 2009 on the back of Trackmania’s steady success.

The explosion never came. The Wii version came out, after numerous delays, in 2010, a full three years after United. Reviews were mixed, with the outdated graphics being a sticking point. In 2011, Trackmania 2 Canyon, the first entry in Nadeo’s next generation of Trackmania games, was released. It didn’t flop, but the buzz was muted and the population undeniably smaller than what the glory days of the mid-00s marshaled.

On Ubisoft’s corporate site, Trackmania is nowhere to be found on the company’s list of top brands.

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Trackmania 2 isn’t one game. It’s three. Canyon, Stadium, and Valley, with each title corresponding to the single environment each one centers on. Each game is 20 US dollars, putting the purchase price of all three at 60. Taken together, the three environments make one Trackmania game; each of the first two Trackmania games included three environments. Neither of them cost 60 dollars. Trackmania United, which included all seven environments, cost me 50 dollars. I still have the receipt in my inbox, though the code no longer works.

When I ask about the choice to make three standalone titles, Castelnerac asks, “What would you rather have: 5 as big as possible environments, or 15 divided by 3?”

There’s a bit of a language barrier (French is his first language), but I take this to mean that the separate pricing means more room to make the games bigger, while including them all in one game means that each environment becomes necessarily smaller and more limited.

It’s an odd question. The fact is that Trackmania United did offer “big as possible” environments with no diminution in quality. It’s also a bit beside the point; the expectations for the player were set the moment all of the environments were included on one disc. You pay the money, you get all of the environments.

Those expectations could be set aside if it was only the pricing structure that didn’t line up with Nadeo’s past. With all three environments being distinct, separate games, multi-environment servers were scuttled. The staggered releases of the three games (Canyon came out in 2011, Stadium and Valley in 2013), coupled with the strange decision to sequester them from one another, meant that each game ran self-contained servers with no overlap. There was no more environment hopping; to play in a different environment, the player now had to exit out of one Trackmania 2 game entirely, launch one of the other games, and find all new servers to play on.

It only begins to make sense when Maniaplanet, Nadeo’s attempt at a universal portal for all of their games, is taken into account. The service is no more or less than that sentence indicates: log into Maniaplanet, (theoretically) access Nadeo’s titles.

The only problem is that it was only partially ready at Canyon’s release. It now has a standalone version, one which you can download and use to access Trackmania 2’s titles as Nadeo envisioned, but it doesn’t play well with Steam. Since Trackmania does good numbers on Valve’s client, this means that the long awaited return of multi-environment servers on Maniaplanet is hamstrung by shockingly low population numbers.

According to Castelnerac, the standalone Maniaplanet client was tested internally “prior to the first release of Canyon”, but didn’t reach release status until this year. That’s a three year lag time on the glue holding Trackmania 2 (and their customizable old school first person shooter, Shootmania) together. If it takes five seconds of loading to turn someone off of a website, you can imagine what effect the unloading and reloading process of switching between Trackmania 2 games has. And Maniaplanet is still not ready to go on Steam; Steam launches games, not third party game lists, which has the Steam version in what seems to be a very long beta.

Maniaplanet, itself, is a weird program. You get a certain number of windows, each of which can be a game. But that number is finite, meaning you can only install a certain number of Nadeo titles. You can get more windows, but it’s never as clear as it should be how.

There’s an opaque game economy which runs on coppers, a currency which you get by playing Trackmania 2. You can spend coppers on things like downloading new tracks and user made skins for your vehicles. But you can also get those things for free from a number of websites.

Even their new demo program is oddly worded and confusing. You can play any Nadeo title for free for the first 48 hours. After that, you can play for free as long as you want only if less than 100 people are playing the same title. If the population is more than 100, you’re limited to one hour a day. It’s both a tacit admission that concurrent player numbers aren’t what they hoped and an incredibly weird way of doing a demo, managing to be both generous and stingy at the same time.

Everything Nadeo does, right down to the sometimes charmingly overlong names of their games, seems to be more complicated than it needs to be. That seeming insistence on complexity may be why Trackmania never took off the way some observers thought it would in 2008. Stepping into Nadeo’s network of games, programs, and fansites is a maddening exercise, inscrutable to noobies and frustrating to vets. There’s just so much Trackmania out there, spread over 11 years and a boggling 13 games.

Player fragmentation and confusion reign. It’s a shame because Trackmania (even here I’m thinking of all of the games together as one Trackmania gestalt) is still the best game of its kind ever made. I don’t want to log in and see a whopping 6 people, globally, playing the multi-environment races. The convoluted presentation has slowly overwhelmed the underlying genius of the series to make that happen.

And it is genius. Setting aside the thorny issue of player generated content and labor, Castelnerac sincerely wants to deliver tools for the masses. “Amateurs”, as he calls them, are where the real fun is at and Nadeo’s commitment since 2003 to creating those tools is what’s taken them this far. With the welcome reemergence of the notion of videogames as toys recently, it’s worth bearing in mind that Trackmania’s been part of that movement for a decade now. Competitive gaming by way of playing with toys, which is just as Castelnerac wants it.

Trackmania 2 is still being done and that’s why time is our best enemy and our best ally”, says Castelnerac.

There’s more to come for Trackmania 2 and Maniaplanet, for good or ill, is an integral part of it. Hopefully Nadeo’s banking on the platform works out the way Castelnerac hopes, bringing Trackmania back to the days when it was on the verge of being an iconic series. It’s certainly good enough to deserve a little better than it’s gotten these past few years.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.

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