Ask Developer a Question: Neil Barnden / Carmageddon

Neil Barnden, creator of Carmageddon, answers questions about PC gamers’ favorite psycho-killer-racer.
Not so long ago, we have announced that Carmageddon is coming soon to, and told you that Stainless Games, the guys behind the original game, are trying to revive the series with the Carmageddon: Reincarnation Kickstarter campaign (only 64 hours to go!). Since so many of you (and, honestly, many employess) absolutely adore all this killer-car carnage stuff, we’ve decided to get in touch with Neil Barnden, Stainless co-founder and Executive Director on Carmageddon: Reincarnation, and ask him a few questions about the past, present, and future of the goriest PC racer.
How did you come up with an idea for Carmageddon?
The idea for the game was influenced by Death Race 2000, which was entirely by design – because the publisher was trying to secure the license to a comic book follow up to the movie, which was going to be called Deathrace 2020. But that project didn’t happen, so I came up with the new name, ‘Carmageddon’ and we continued on in the same vein anyway with the theme of a driving game where you scored “points for pedestrians”.
What was your main inspiration behind the game?
It all hinges on two things really: Firstly, Patrick Buckland (who founded Stainless with me) was an avid destruction derby competitor, and really keen to bring the visceral, kinetic fun to a videogame in a way that no-one had done at that time. It was the demo that he and I put together of dynamically deformable cars you could race around an oval track, while the car’s driver screamed his reactions in the prototype “Prat Cam” that brought us to publisher SCi’s attention, and got us a contract to do the game that became Carmageddon.
The second inspiration is very simple – that compulsion we all have in real life, when faced with the situation when we’re driving a car and someone walks across in front of us, to pretend we’re going to run them over and shout, “Old lady with a Zimmer frame – 50 points!” (It’s hard to know whether this reality “driving game” came about as a result of Death Race 2000, or the film was also inspired by this phenomenon...)
The game is famous for the crazy power-ups and bonuses like Explosive pedestrians or Splatter Bonus. Can you describe the creative process behind it? Did we miss any particularly odd or gruesome ones?
Our creative process was very simple, and democratic. There were only 8 of us working on Carmageddon, and everyone on the team was equally welcome to shout out their ideas for gameplay and power-up ideas as we were making the game. We’d try them out, and if it turned out to be yet another thing that made everyone cry with laughter, then it got left in. If it wasn’t funny or spectacular, then it got ditched.
The power-ups got sillier and more extreme in Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now, because the pedestrians were 3D rather than 2D sprites and suddenly we had the opportunity to mess with their meshes. We gave them Giant Heads, made them into Stick Insects, filled them with Helium, and loosen all their parts so they exploded during a “Dismemberfest”!
What was the most difficult part about developing Carmageddon? On which part of the game did you spend the most time on?
I think for all of us, there was a huge learning curve having suddenly become a company with a bunch of people in, from it just being me and Patrick beavering away as a two-man team from respective our bedrooms (in our respective pants). So you could say that actually “running a company” was more difficult than making a game. As far as the game goes though – I guess we spent an awful lot of time trying to optimise the content of a very, very ambitious vision for the game. We wanted big, open world levels, realistic physics, real-time damage and destruction, and we had to make it all run on a P133 PC. There was lots of artist heartache at the limit to the amount of polys we could use, and the game’s single 256 colour palette. On the code side, there was also the sophisticated Action Replay system, which had to store and replay everything that happened in the game, and allow the player to view it in reverse, slo-mo, with total accuracy. That was some feat of programming.
The game raised a hell of a lot of controversy and was banned in several countries. What was your reaction to this? Did you expect the outrage?
I think the bans and the level of controversy did surprise us. But when it was pointed out to us by the Head of the BBFC (the British Board of Film Censors) that their reason for refusing the game an age 18 and over Certificate, was because the game “encouraged the player to kill innocent pedestrians”, well the penny dropped that we were actually doing something that hadn’t been done before. In all other games, your victims are bad – monsters, or Nazis, or criminals, or zombies – and in ours, they were just bystanders. But heck, they were only (badly) painted sprite bystanders, and the game was FUNNY! Surely no-one could be offended by that?! But they were… And we were forced to turn the pedestrians into zombies to secure a UK release. ( A ruling that was fortunately subsequently overturned, so we were able to release the game TWICE, the second time with regular pedestrians and some extra publicity!)
What is your response to criticism of brutality in video games? has your point of view changed over the last 15 years?
I think that media develops, and like it or not we become more desensitised to extreme imagery as time goes on. The internet has opened up the great big (often brutal) world to us all, and the ante gets upped with every new TV show, pop video, movie and videogame that comes out. So, although I’m getting older, and less tolerant, and I start to find myself grumbling about what youngsters are getting up to and seeing on their screens these days, I have to throw my hands up and declare myself a hypocrite, as we plan even more graphic violence and outrageous ways for the innocent public to die in Carmageddon: Reincarnation! BUT THEY’RE ONLY PIXELS!!
Tell us more about your Kickstarter project.
We decided that we’d launch a Kickstarter campaign, after we became aware of the successful campaigns by a couple of other dev studios that had decided to resurrect their old titles from back in the ‘90s. We were already self-funding the development of Carma:R with a small internal team on a kind of “Skunkworks” basis, and so we thought it would be great if we could boost the money available to us to pay for the development, and start to raise the profile of the Brand somewhat wider at the same time. We set our target goal at a level that we felt would help us along with the development (and that was also recommended to us by our contact at Kickstarter as an achievable-looking aim for a videogame).
We’re really pleased with the reaction to the Campaign. We’ll get to our target soon, and then begin to achieve what we hoped – getting beyond it, giving us the extra funding to move or employ more guys onto the project and really start to eat into the full production tasks.
GOG’s support for the project provided an instant additional boost. Making the announcement that GOG is bringing back the original game resulted in us getting an unprecedented spike in pledges on the day.
Is there anything you wanted to include in the original Carmageddon but couldn’t due to technological barriers? Is this feature coming to Reincarnation?
As I mentioned earlier, making the original games was frustrating in part, because we were restricted by the hardware horsepower of the day. So making a game now is all about being able to deliver the experience at a smooth frame-rate, with richly detailed graphics, and even better technology and software at our disposal with which to make and play the game that we always dreamed it could be. So, it’s less about features (although we have plenty of new ones that we’ll be introducing this time round in the form of Achievements, Challenges and side-missions), and more about the opportunity to make the game with far fewer technical hurdles to overcome than we faced in 1996.
Do you think gamer-based funding is the future for gaming industry? What kind of impact this will have on big publishers and their decision-making process?
I think that crowd-sourced funding will settle down to be a long-term, valid and useful option for developers – particularly indie devs with a smaller scale project to fund. Really, I can’t see that this Brave New Model is going to have much of an impact on the big publishers – except for the times in the future when one of the crowd-funded projects goes on to be a massively lucrative success, and someone at a big publisher gets shot for having turned it down! After all, many of the developers on Kickstarter are there having started off pitching their idea to publishers, who decided to pass on the opportunity to be involved.
What is the future of battle racing games like Carmageddon? Single-player, Multiplayer, MMO?
We have fantasised for many years over what we’d like to do with the Brand, if we ever managed to get into the position of owning it. Clearly the genre of battle racing game is completely perfect for Multiplayer, and the LAN games we enjoyed back in the old days are still remembered fondly. Multiplayer is here to stay, and will be core to us re-establishing the Brand. The idea of some sort of MMO Carmageddon is one we’ve discussed and taken as far as documenting… It’s a direction we want to look further into. In the meantime, we’re focussed on Carmageddon: Reincarnation as the next stage in our plans to reintroduce the World to the joyous evil that’s been absent from our gaming lives for far too many years!