You might not expect a lot of depth from a game about racing dirt bikes, but THQ’s MX vs. ATV Alive looks to offer just that. Last month we spoke with lead designer Elliott Olsen of THQ Digital Studios Phoenix (nee Rainbow Studios) about the game, which hits stores today. Even though the MX vs. ATV series is a successful franchise, the development team hasn’t been resting on its heels.
For the first time THQ is featuring a real motorcross superstar on the box, the way that each year’s edition of John Madden Football puts the spotlight on an NFL player. In this case, the star is James “Bubba” Stewart, known on the circuit as the fastest man alive. Perhaps even more radical, for those outside the MX world, is the fact that “Bubba” is a 25 year old African-American from Florida. Stewart is a game-changing figure in a sport traditionaly dominated by white guys.
Stewart isn’t just on the box, he’s in the game — body and soul.
“At the beginning he’s your mentor,” says Olsen of the role Stewart plays as a character, “and at the end he’s kind of like your nemesis.” As a special day one treat, Stewart’s home compound — a sprawling facility in Florida that has to be seen to be believed — is being offered as a free download. For fans, this is as close as most will ever come to riding with a living legend.
Creating the action sports fantasy is something that Olsen and his team have been perfecting. They’ve pushed forward the physics and gameplay elements, and now look to use the lessons learned from the adoption of RPG elements by first-person shooters to create a more immersive experience for players.
“Traditionally in racing games you have like a bunch of tracks and you have points, and you just kind of race through them and race through them, and even our old careers you would a lot of times get into doing things you didn’t want,” says Olsen. Speaking from my own racing game experience I can testify to the deadening nature of that grind, where a linear progression of tracks and experiences sucks the joy of discovery right out.
Olsen and company have refocused the game’s career mode.
“We’ve kinda just changed everything around. Our system basically is based off a traditional XP system like you would find in an RPG.” The design takes into account the expectations gamers now have for sandbox style play. MX vs. ATV Alive let’s players approach the game on their own terms. “It doesn’t matter if you’re online or offline, you are always leveling your rider up and getting experience.”
The success of the series has made the MX vs ATV developers part of the sport’s community.
“We’ve gone really hard to make the video game part of the [motorcross] industry and not just something that represents it,” says Olsen. “So it’s really cool to have them call us or say ‘we’d really like to do this with you guys’ or say ‘Hey we really want to do this in the game, do you think you could do this for real’. To have those relationships now, as opposed to a couple of games ago where we’re just beatin’ down doors.”
Perhaps the best selling point for fans of motorcross is the passion that Olsen brings to the game. Being the lead designer of MX vs. ATV Alive marks the pinnacle of his third career.
“I used to be a professional snowboarder, so I was always into action sports and motorcross and skateboarding and BMX. Then I retired. Then I was in L.A. for a little bit here doing stuntwork on movies. Then we all went on strike. So I had to get a real job. I had been playing Motorcross Madness and all of Rainbow’s games up untill that point, and I said ‘well if I want to make video games then I want to work there.’”
“So I went to college, left all my stuff in Phoenix and then got out of college and knocked on their door and said ‘You have to give me a job. I want to make your games.’”
Olsen worked his way up from programming on to the top of the design team, and now heads a crew that understands and loves the sport, many of them who ride in their spare time.
This time, THQ is taking a series of gambles and pushing the envelope on just what a motorcross game can be.
The game is being released at the $39.99 price point. Which wouldn’t seem like a risk unless you understand the psychology of gamers. Games that are released at less than the “full price” of $59.99 are often looked down upon by the enthusiast press and the gamer community as being a “budget” game. THQ is betting that the lower price point will get gamers out onto the virtual track with a full featured game backed by a DLC (downloadable content) strategy that will let gamers customize their game with a planned series of options.
MX vs. ATV Alive is in stores today.