There are many recipes for interesting games, but here is a new one. Put one computer scientist, one Norwegian train line documentary and the FFmpeg library in a bowl and mix. Add a dash of creativity, ingenuity to taste, and serve digitally.
The man behind this rather unique take on the train simulator genre is Jordi Colomer Matutano, whose main expertise lies in the fields of artificial intelligence and complex networks. I forgot to ask whether this knowledge was helpful in creating a game where the objective is to drive the scenic Bergen-Oslo route really fast, but the interview covers pretty much everything else.
Arthur D Wolfe: FFRacer is a rather unique game, so first of all: how did the idea come to you originally? Did you have any specific source of inspiration other than the documentary itself?
Jordi Colomer Matutano: The first time I thought about creating a racing game using real footage was back when I was 15 or so (now I’m 30). It was during a summer holiday. I used to play with my camcorder, and record out of the car window while my mum was driving. It was then that I thought it would be possible to program a racing game with the recorded video. The original idea was a bit different, though. For instance, it would include a photo image of the car the player controls. The result would be a little like Mortal Kombat, which uses photo sprites for the characters.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the Bergensbanen documentary when reading the Spanish news website meneame.net. The idea came back to me, and I started thinking about the details of the game. I have had the full design of the game in my head since then, and only a few months ago started the coding process.
A: In Japan there are quite a few railway simulators, and one series in particular (Densha de Go!) has some titles that use the same method as FFRacer (i.e. actual footage, sped up or slowed down as appropriate). Were you aware of these games when you made FFRacer?
J: I really didn’t know about those games until someone posted about them in the comments section of an FFracer review. At the beginning, I was shocked to see how similar in concept they where to FFracer and by the fact that I hadn’t come across them while searching the web for games like my original idea. Now I think that it was a good thing that I didn’t find them because it would have discouraged me from making FFracer. I was very motivated by the fact that it was a new concept, but still believe it has novel features like shifting the screen on curves, and the focus on the speed.
A: FFRacer relies almost entirely on Creative Commons materials, which is interesting from a development standpoint. Do you feel this is something more developers should try?
J: I initially wanted to record my own video, and I took some shots at the New York City subway. I didn’t have a tripod, and my only option was to shoot through the always dirty windows of the subway. You can imagine the result. I’m therefore so lucky that the documentary was released with a Creative Commons licence; otherwise, I don’t think I would have ever finished FFracer.
The music is also CC-licensed. The 3 songs where taken from jamendo.com. I created the music for the intro, and it’s also under CC. I think that Creative Commons is a great idea that benefits everyone, especially small projects with very little or no funding like FFracer.
A: When you made the game, what sort of audience did you have in mind? How much attention has the game received?
J: I guess that most of the audience is regular PC gamers. But given that FFracer isn’t a common game, I believe that it also attracts the attention of non gamers as well. The game is getting good reviews and a positive reception in general. At the time of this writing it has been downloaded over 14,000 times in just 3 weeks, and I’m very excited by this.
A: Do you have any other game projects lined up or was this a one-off affair? If you make another game, what can we expect?
J: I have other ideas for new games I would like to do, but they are not mature enough to start creating. I will make them eventually, but I don’t expect to make a sequel for FFracer because I want to focus on new concepts. The next release will probably be a program to play chess on the internet using your real chessboard. It will detect the moves via webcam. I haven’t found a commercial product that does this.
A: Is there any interesting FFRacer trivia you want to share?
J: FFracer needs a database of the curves so that the program knows when the user must make a turn and to shift the screen otherwise. I initially thought about using google maps to get that information, but it was too problematic for several reasons. I ended up using a very simple approach that worked very well. The idea was to play the game myself and record the keystrokes I pressed. Then I played back those keystrokes in reverse (left meaning right) in the actual game. So actually, you are playing against me in the game!
FFRacer is available for Windows at a price tag of $10. For more information, visit the official site.