Nick Burcombe has spent most of his career chasing Super Mario Kart's shadow. The Wipeout co-creator and Playrise founder remembers a time, before Wipeout's release, when Shigeru Miyamoto and his entourage came to the game's E3 stand to check it out.
"It took all my effort not to run up to him and start screeching about how Mario Kart was the best game ever and how it had been a massive influence on my thinking about Wipeout's game structure," he recalls. Instead, he froze, gave a slight bow, smiled for a moment and tried to hand Miyamoto a game controller. "He smiled back, bowed a little and thanked me before moved on to the next part of the stand."
It's a moment that's stayed with Burcombe as he continues now, with this week's Xbox One release of Micro Machines-styled combat racer Tabletop Racing: World Tour, to look for ways to capture the perfect blend of difficulty, accessibility and depth. Influential as it was on his thinking, though, Mario Kart wasn't the beginning of Burcombe's obsession with cars racing around a track. Back in the 1970s and '80s, he spent his Sundays watching Formula One with his dad, fascinated by the high-tech approach to circuit racing and the sheer speed of the cars. He never had much of a natural ability out on the real track — even now he's yet to win a go-kart race, he says — but he could get a taste of it in video games.
He got a BBC Micro B computer when he was a teenager and immediately fell in with Revs, one of the earliest racing games, and poured his energy into mastering the tracks. He felt a profound sense of achievement just in "getting a clean lap in without skidding off the track." The framerate never got higher than low-double digits. The controls were keyboard-based and a little unresponsive. But in his imagination Revs captured the essence of Formula One racing, and it started a lifelong obsession with the driving genre.
"I've played virtually every driving game since those days," he says.
Burcombe got his first taste of game development while he was still in high school. His father owned a printing firm, which was hired to produce the boxes that would showcase Roger Dean's memorable cover artwork for Psygnosis' games. He nagged his dad to show him what they were working on, and dad went one better: he hooked the teenager up as a tester at the company for the summer holidays.
"I went into the Port of Liverpool building," Burcombe recalls, "and sat and tested [simulation game] Terrapods. Looking for bugs, and trying to make it crash, which wasn't too hard to be honest." It was a dream to be meeting some of his heroes, and to be helping on games at the cutting edge of technology.
A few years later it got even better. In 1989, when Burcombe was a year into college, Psygnosis offered him a job as the company's first full-time tester. He arrived in time to see the company's rise, which began with the release of the critically-acclaimed Shadow of the Beast later that year.
"To watch a company like that explode into what it did before Sony bought it [in 1993] was incredible, and it was very very exciting to be part of," Burcombe continues. Psygnosis' technical talents — in both art and code — were universally hailed, but they weren't well backed-up by good design. This presented the young tester with an opportunity to stand out and progress within the company.
"Not that many people at the time were focused on what was actually happening to gamers," he recalls. But his boss, John White, soon recognized a potential in him to do just that and promoted Burcombe first to "gameplay coordinator" — providing early gameplay testing and feedback — and then to "gameplay director" — a design support role that he describes mostly as a bunch of "salvage jobs" to get things playing better.
Then along came Wipeout.
The idea for Wipeout began in a pub with artist Jim Bowers discussing his concept animation for a high-speed racer with Burcombe, who had just completed Super Mario Kart on its 150cc mode thanks to a little help from some techno music. The regular game music had put too much pressure on Burcombe, especially during the final lap — when its tempo and volume rises. "I just couldn't handle it," he recalls. "I'd lost six or seven races in a row."
"I had a friend of mine at the time who used to work at Psygnosis called Digby Rogers on the couch next to me. And he couldn't understand why I just kept trying and trying and trying," Burcombe continues. "And when I finally turned the music off and put on my own stuff, it sort of took me to another place. It took me to this kind of trance-like zone where it just flowed." Suddenly he could beat it comfortably.
Burcombe still thinks of Super Mario Kart as a seminal title. "It's very, very well balanced," he says. "And the difficulty's about perfect." As you get better, you advance to more complex tracks and faster speed classes, and the game reveals itself to you. "When you knew when to slide, which shortcuts you could jump over or take, it had this extra layer of depth to the level design that was sort of — you knew it was built-in after you'd discovered it," he says.
"They knew you were going to end up at this point, and I've always tried to replicate a bit of that, [to] make sure that people who end up mastering my games can go much further than me with it because they'll find flexibility in the system, effectively, that allows them to play at an even higher level."
In Wipeout, he thinks he captured both this and the zen-like flow experience that had set the project in motion. But only partially. Wipeout was too hard to learn, too hard to master. "A lot of people gave up on Wipeout very early because it was very, very hard," he says.
Most of the difficulty problems were fixed in the sequel, Wipeout XL (2097 in Europe), after which he opted to leave the company with several colleagues rather than make the third entry. Burcombe looks back on this decision as a mistake. "There's a moment of career reflection where I'd probably say now, to anybody who's seen some modicum of success, yes, it may have been tiring and have been very stressful trying to get these games out and doing whatever," he says, "but don't walk away from a good thing."
He soon found just how hard it can be to strike gold again. The group's new studio, Curly Monsters, released two games, both commercial failures. The first, N-Gen Racing, made the mistake of thinking that people would be into a Gran Turismo-with-aircraft game, while the second, Xbox-exclusive Wipeout-like futuristic racer Quantum Redshift, lacked the inspiration and coherence of its spiritual predecessor.
A few years later Burcombe was back at Sony Liverpool, working on his dream project, Formula One 05. During development he got to try a Formula One experience that included several laps driving former F1 racer Luca Badoer's eye-catching banana-yellow 1996 car.
"The acceleration and the grip was absolutely astounding and blew me away," Burcombe recalls. It was also difficult just to see anything. "Every time you rev the engine your eyeballs are vibrating at the same frequency as the revs of the engine."
The team introduced a distortion in the F1 05 graphics to emulate the sensation, but Burcombe found that there are physiological effects that simply don't translate into a game. "The instant G forces that apply to your body," he says, "that push you back in your seat, and you're holding onto the wheel just to keep enough forward [so] that you can see where the track is — it was incredible."
Now, over a decade later, after two more F1 games and a stint in consulting, Burcombe's running his own studio and he's back to reimagining Mario Kart. Playrise found early success in 2013 with mobile Mario Kart-meets-Micro Machines combat racer Table Top Racing. "But after that everything moved to free-to-play at a rate of knots I'd not seen before," Burcombe says. And that wasn't going to work for them. "You need to be a different shape of business, really, to understand how that works and how to make the most of it," he continues. "It's all analytics driven. We didn't want to be that kind of company."
Instead, the team turned to consoles — to PlayStation 4 and Vita, and soon Xbox One — with a new version, dubbed Table Top Racing: World Tour. The franchise now has 11.5 million lifetime downloads across all platforms, and he's delighted to be able to say that Playrise owns the rights — which means that if it continues to succeed, the team can call the shots and set its own future direction.
Either way, he'll be sticking with the racing genre. "I'm not one for chasing down FPSes because they're the biggest hits at the moment," he says. "I like to focus on what I like and make games that I still want to play." And despite having now developed around 10 racing games during his career, Burcombe still believes he has more to contribute.
"You never feel like you've achieved your goals," he explains, "because by the time you've finished a project you're thinking about what could we have done? Where could we have taken it? Where would we like to take it next? How do we expand it in a different direction? How do we surprise and delight in that area?"