Another day, another game series that I love but has been missing for years, and another game that manages to bring that magic touch into our modern world. Today’s interview was brought with Vonsnake, one of the two-man team in Neognosis, but being the lead developer (and composer) for BallisticNG.
Regarding the initial words, BallisticNG is another love letter to a unseen game series since years, and an quite interesting one at that: The Wipeout series had its share of varying gameplay changes between the console generations, but it stood as one of the best for anti-gravity racing (alongside with F-Zero) in most of Sony’s platforms.
The main developer Psygnosis (later SCE Studio Liverpool) had released Wipeout HD in 2008 for PS3, and then Wipeout 2048 in 2012 for the PSVita. It would be after 2048’s release that the studio would be closed down, and there would be nothing else during 4 years until Wipeout Omega Collection arrived in 2017 with the assistance of new developers. While it was a great surprise, it also was a remaster of HD and 2048 for Playstation 4, which meant that there was not much exactly new in content.
However, in 2016 there would be a very promising project landing on Steam: BallisticNG was aiming to be what Wipeout fans needed during that time (considering development and most initial builds were pre-Omega Collection) and more, with a PS1-style visual design and gameplay resembling the last Wipeout entry for PS1: Wipeout 3 Special Edition (regarded as one of the best in the series).
Since it showed up in Steam as Early Access and then kept updating constantly until finally getting to a full release in 2018; and still gets updated to this day with fixes, additions and even campaign expansions! Adding very solid support, custom vehicle and track support (with a thriving community), and a whole slew of new content on top of good old Wipeout goodness, it has been quite an achievement.
With all of this said, I was able to reach out to Vonsnake to get to learn more about BallisticNG development (which has a bit more of a story than what you’d think), as well as some answers regarding from the initial prototypes to where we have got now. So without any further ado, please enjoy!
So first of all, thank you so much for this chance! There’s always something special behind games like these from indepentent developers: Basically making their own love letter to their classics, but also bringing new stuff on top of that. And of course, since I got my hands on BallisticNG, it was so good to play after I enjoyed Wipeout Pulse on the PSP. With that said, I thought that it would be a no-brainer to get to talk to you about this great project!
It’s no problem, I’ve done I think 1 interview before so it should be fun to answer some questions 😀
For a start, can you give a brief self-introduction of yourself?
I’m pretty much just a big fan of futuristic racers that’s taken a pretty big liking to Wipeout and decided to work on my own game in the same vein of it. I’ve been working at it for around 8 years now and have been using it to develop my skills in a variety of areas.
How did you get started in game development?
When I was a kid I got really into source engine modding. I never completed or released anything but I spent a lot of time building stuff in the hammer editor. It later evolved into messing around with UDK and trying to comprehend scripting (which didn’t go too well) and eventually after having an IT course at school that taught VB.net and having found Unity, it just sort of took off from there really
Around what date do you recall starting development on BallisticNG?
That’s an easy one because the date is pretty unfortunate, it was April 1st 2015.
Is there any story behind the conception of BallisticNG?
Yeah, it actually has two converging histories. The first is a game called SlipstreamGX, which was a Wipeout fan game that had started on the WipeoutZone forums in 2010, and my side of it was in 2012 with a project called AGR2280. Both projects were working towards a similar a goal, which was a fan made Wipeout HD for PC.
Nearer to BallisticNGs conception I had actually moved away from AGR2280 and hopped into SlipstreamGX to help them out with physics, but it didn’t last long because of a variety of uncontrollable factors that ultimately led to the project having to be stopped.
After SlipstreamGX had gone under, I ended up working on a recreation of the PS1 Wipeout games physics and had two members from the SlipstreamGX team interested in helping out with design and assets. The original ideas was to re-create the original Wipeout games, but it fairly quickly moved away from that and towards building our own game with what we had so far.
So BallisticNG surfaced after both AGR2280 and SlipstreamGX went under, and also had support from those previous projects devs?
Yep. What ended up happening is I didn’t have the skills at the time to keep AGR2280 going since I could code but not make assets, so getting into SlipstreamGX was a great way to apply my skills to help something bigger and not have to worry about all of the asset development. SlipstreamGX’s problem though is that they had a lot of people coming and going because it was voluntary work from people doing it on the side. The three of us that started work on BallisticNG were more or less the crazy ones that would pull all nighters constantly to get something done.
I’m aware that Neognosis (the dev team name) is comprised by you and Aidan Lee, but who is the third person you mentioned there?
Aidan is actually a 4th person that came in a bit later. In the early days the other two people were Minty and Xpand (they like to keep private so I’m not mentioning their real names). There were circumstances with Minty that I won’t go into detail about, but Xpand moved on to pursue the field he was studying throughout BNGs development.
I think I had seen Xpand’s name in some of the music tracks in both SlipstreamGX and BallisticNG.
He’s done music for both, some of his music for SlipstreamGX is actually in BNG 🙂
I remember a certain track I loved listening from a SGX video showed up in BNG, so yeah that’s nice!
Back to BallisticNG’s development, what were the first things that you started developing for this current incarnation?
First thing was the track system. From the get go there was a focus on authenticity to how these kind of games would be developed, so to drive everything we needed a purpose built structure to tracks that would allow us to treat the track surface as tiles to paint textures and define gameplay behaviours with (weapon and speed pads for example)
I also spent a lot of time developing our light mapping tool. It’s gone through a lot of iterations since then of course, but the fundamentals have been there since the beginning and has been very important to the game’s look since day one.
I would love to hear more about that soon! How much it took you to get a initial prototype working?
Thankfully I had a fair bit of code from AGR2280 and some very early ideas for BNG before it had become BNG to fall back on, so it was about a week to get a glitchy ship flying around a test track.
Checking around your earliest Youtube videos, I found this one prototype footage (from April 8, 2015; 7 days after you started development):
I wondered what could you comment about this prototype.
Ah yeah, so that’s one of the many tests I had initially built before BallisticNG had taken its final incarnation of being a PS1 styled game, you can think of this as a bridge between AGR2280 and BallisticNG basically. This was a little bit before Minty and Xpand had joined fully so a lot of it was me recycling a few things I had made for AGR2280 while building a more PS1 Wipeout like physics system. I went back and retroactively renamed those physics tests videos with the BallisticNG prefix, just so you know the name wasn’t there when that video released.
Just as a fun fact, the ship in that video is available as a mod for BNG in Radracer’s BNG legacy mod pack 😉
Interesting! Do you still happen to have this build, or is it lost to time?
I believe this build is lost, yeah. There might be a build of the game available that I released later throughout this specific incarnation, I’ll have to go digging for that.
Would be interesting that any of these early prototypes can be uncovered, considering how they were the beginning for what we got now (and how different it was; I had just thought about how that “2280 mode” code was a reference to AGR2280 as well)-
Yep, 2280 is a reference to AGR and actually has some of the original physics code used too 🙂
What were the first tracks (and ships) made for the game?
The history of BNG tracks is pretty lengthy and indepth so a lot of the development order is lost on me, but I do remember Utah Project being the very first named track and Aciknovae being the first track with completed scenery. The track in that physics test video is actually a very early layout of Utah Project. I think Harpstone might have also been one of the earliest ones.
I saw that the very first BallisticNG update annoucement in Steam is dated June 1st 2016, for 0.4.1. Was it on that date where BallisticNG finally landed on Steam?
Fairly close to that date. I can’t remember the specific date off the top of my head but 0.4 was the first version on Steam and I was pumping out a lot of updates around that time, so it was likely within a few weeks to that announcement at most
Did you have any particular inspirations for BallisticNG development and aesthetic outside of Wipeout?
For me there was a lot of Rollcage inspiration, which was one of my favourite PS1 racers when I was a kid. I ended up recreating the shield effect from the 2nd Rollcage game to use as BNGs shield effect before it eventually became what it is now. A lot of my older scenery has references to it all over the place too.
Xpand took a lot of inspiration from Ace Combat 3 which I think comes across a lot in his ship designs and in some of the track scenery he made, there’s a lot of cool stuff that came out of his love for that. I can’t remember if Minty had any particularly strong inspirations outside of Wipeout and the designers republic for his UI design language, but I do remember that in terms of Wipeout he was hooked on the art direction of Wipeout Pulse and applied a lot of its animated neon scenery design into the tracks he had made.
Interesting! I had seen that you had made some few videos of Rollcage and GRIP (spiritual successor) so I figured that could be another favorite of yours. I was intrigued by Robert Baker (the developer of both Rollcage Redux and GRIP), and was considering getting in touch with him. I’d guess that you would like to hear more of this later 🙂
Absolutely! It would be cool to hear more about how he got into working on GRIP 😀
On the topic of inspirations, I saw that some of the music tracks featured in the game were made by you as well. Any inspirations for the compositions you made there?
For BallisticNG, I started shifting my inspiration more towards Cold Storage at first. As times gone on though I’ve found myself taking a lot of inspiration from producers like Underworld and Fluke for the techno side of things and Dom & Roland, Omni Trio and EZ Rollers for drum and bass. Those last three all produced music for Rollcage funnily enough.
Did you start composing specifically for BallisticNG or did you have any stuff before that?
I’ve been producing music for quite a while now, it actually goes further back then game development. When I started getting a bit more serious about producing music I took a lot of inspiration from Savant, who’s an absolute mad lad and genius at mixing genres to make really creative and interesting stuff.
What tools do you use for your compositions? And do you end up using samples from other songs often?
Way back in the day I was using Ejay software, which I was introduced to at school. When I was getting more into it though I found FL Studio and have been using it ever since, though I’ve also been dabbling a bit in Ableton Live recently too. Outside of drums and the odd effect I try to avoid samples and make sounds myself, with my current weapons of choice being a mix between Xfer’s Serum and Kilohearts Phase Plant. When it comes to samples though, I do try to find the stuff that was used in the 90s or stuff that sounds like it could have been used in the era.
What can you comment about the single player campaign?
Even after averaging playtester times and reducing many of the time trials targets by a significant amount, it’s always a bit of fun to see the back and fourths people have about if whether the platinum times are beatable or not 😉
But for a more indepth answer, it’s gone through a couple of iterations to get to where it is now. Originally it was just a set of tournaments and you’d unlock the Barracuda ship at the end of them. Eventually it evolved into a grid where’d you start on the middle node and then unlock stuff around it. I ended up ditching this though because I felt like it was a bit too close to how Wipeout Pulse and HD handled its campaigns and I wanted to try something a bit different. What I ended up with is the current campaign, which shifted everything into a list.
The goal with this final campaign design was to spend the first half introducing players to tracks by getting them to race on the slowest speed class with easy AI and then start ramping it up for the second half where it would throw you back into the tracks but with harder AI, more involved gamemodes and much faster speeds. To link this to the first thing I mentioned, I think one thing I overlooked are the time trials as they’re all thrown into the first half of the campaign and are all designed to be a greater test of skill then normal races, so a lot of people go in expecting it to be about the same difficulty as the races but because they scale to get harder to the middle of the campaign, it ends up being harder then people would think they’d be.
There’s also been debates about whether the campaign should have had more unlocks, but ultimately the goal of the campaign was to guide the player through the games content and leave everything unlocked for custom races from the get go if players wanted to just jump in for quick sessions.
Hmmm, yes I do remember hearing some fluff regarding the time trials (lol)
Hopefully the Neon Nights and the upcoming Outer Reaches campaigns make up for that!
I remember playing some of the Neon Nights expansion; was quite nice 🙂
Now that you mention custom races, that reminds me of the custom content support. What could you say about the custom track editor implementation into the game?
I’m happy about using Unity for the authoring process since it gives people a lot of creative freedom to use Unity however they like, plus as a bonus it removes a lot of programming overhead for me :p
It’s really cool to see what people make with the tools. The first version of the ingame layout creator was pretty jank and cobbled together development tool, so not too much came out of it since it was clunky and hard to understand. The newer spline based version I developed for the game’s 1.0 release though has seen a lot more community use and it’s always great to check the Discord and see that people have done something you never would have even thought to do.
What can you say about the custom ship stuff on workshop?
More or less the same thing. Custom ships in particular have been even better as it’s much more simple to make a ship then it is a track. It’s been a blast seeing people learn how to model and texture just to make cool and funny BNG ships.
For tracks and ships in general, it’s also allowed all of the game cut content to be returned in a less official capacity through that BNG Legacy project I had mentioned earlier. It’s fun to sometimes fly around the ideas and often mistakes of the past.
Any comments about the development of the multiplayer feature (local and online)?
So the game was never actually designed to have multiplayer beyond split screen. Split screen got interesting when I found out Unity would let you split camera rendering over different monitors. It’s kinda janky because Unity doesn’t give you any control over additional windows once they’re created (you can’t even get rid of them without restarting the game), but it was cool enough that I was willing to live with that as an issue and let people play with their friends like that.
Multiplayer was a long process because I came into it knowing absolutely nothing about networking. The original implementation that I had earlier on in development was a total mess, being based entirely on Steam peer to peer where everybody just communicated with each other so you had a mess of data coming in from everybody else. That led to all sorts of funky issues with syncing players up and more often then not it would be too broken to be reliable.
Later on for 0.9 (I think?) I rebuilt it from scratch with a server/client model over direct IP (later adding Steam support), but because the game wasn’t designed for it to begin with I ended up hijacking the Race gamemode to serve as the networking base when in-game. It works with some bugs here and there, but I’ve shot myself in the foot since it’s gonna be really hard to expand it to other gamemodes If I end up wanting to do that in the future. Basically, many lessons learned there for future projects.
But at least have you been able to test it with smooth results with others or heard great feedback of it? (I never had a chance to try out multiplayer online with anyone)
Yeah absolutely, thankfully the 2nd time I had a bunch of testers that helped get it stable.
What has been the hardest thing to develop so far for BallisticNG?
It probably sounds fairly minor from the outside but the track chase camera was the hardest thing for me, it was something I was actively developing throughout the entirety of the game’s development. The most annoying thing about it is that there was a lot of other features, like math heavy stuff, that should probably be up as the hardest, but that camera required so much testing and tweaking to get feeling right that I lost count of how long I had been working on that code pretty early on.
On the flipside, what was the easiest thing to develop so far for the game?
That’s a hard one since there’s been so much I’ve worked on, but I think it would have to be the VR support. I went in expecting it to be a daunting task. There were so many complexities to worry about with rendering and performance that I almost didn’t do it just thinking about the work. It ended up being the exact opposite though. The game already had a cockpit view, was forward rendered and was low poly so performance was solid from the get go.
It was just a case of dropping in Steam VR, making some minor camera adjustments and offloading the HUD and menus into a texture on a mesh in front of the player. Most of the hard work was already done by Unity, Steam VR and the game that was already in place beforehand so I had that ready within 48 hours of getting a HMD, then the rest of it was just tweaking and QOL stuff.
That’s nice! Now that you mention VR support, how much have you toyed with that in BallisticNG? Have you been involved in other VR projects for that matter?
VR in BNG was my first experience developing for VR, though for VR in general I had previously used a DK2 and later a PSVR when the VR update for Wipeout Omega Collection came out. I used Omega Collection as a base for the features of BNGs VR because Clever Beans had done an incredible job laying out the ground work for how an AG racer should handle VR implementation
What was the initial feedback when you initially unveiled the project in the wipeout-zone forums (and when it first showed up on Steam)?
There was plenty of interest in the project since Wipeout fans had been starved of their Wipeout fix since 2012, so the initial feedback was positive. The best feedback I remember are videos from a guy called TheMadWelshman, who had previously been doing a lets play series of the Wipeout games. He had a lot of negative things to say that I took notes from and used to improve the game at lot in future updates.
Since the game was very small and niece there wasn’t too much negative feedback coming in since it was something everybody coming across it wanted, so getting that negative feedback has always stuck with me since it was breath of fresh air. In the early Steam days there was a lot of bleed over from the Wipeout community, so the positive feedback for that more or less stayed the same.
What about when the game finally came out of early access with V1.0.0’s release?
Thankfully it was also very positive. Near the end of early access we had transitioned from free to a paid model so there was backlash around that, it didn’t help that news got out just before we were going to announce it with all of the details so we got a very angry crowd on Discord demanding answers to questions that were about to be answered. We had worried it would have negatively affected the game in the future, but thankfully after everything had been officially announced it calmed down and we ended up getting a lot of support for the change with a smooth full release later down the line.
That’s great to hear! And what about the future Outer Heights expansion?
So far the reaction for Outer Reaches has been very positive, especially inside the internal testing group. We have some pretty big gameplay twists for the later tracks so hopefully people will love it!
Since you mentioned that light mapping tool, I was wondering about what could you say about it (and if it is included with the track editor).
Yep, it’s included with the track editor! With the upcoming release it’s actually been rewritten and open sourced (there’s already a less specialized version available on my Github, currently pinned on my twitter if you wanted to link that).
The way it works is by going through each vertex in a scene and calculating how every light in the scene shines light on the vertex. That information is then stored in the vertex’s color data, which is additional RGBA information that you can store into a mesh’s vertices for a variety of purposes (usually texture blending these days).
Nice! Now about some curious questions…what is your favorite track and ship? 🙂
How cruel, asking me to pick a favourite child 🙂
It’s totally Luna and Nexus though.
What are your favorite games in the Wipeout series?
It’s gotta be Wipeout 3 SE and HD/Fury. They both represent the peak of the two eras of gameplay styles they come from for me. Also a shout out to Fusion which isn’t as bad as people make it out to be 😀
Outside of Wipeout, what are some of your favorite games (and game genres)?
One of my all time favourite games is Black and White 2, I spent much of a childhood building towns in that game. Whiplash is also a strong contender, which is a platformer for the PS2 and Xbox that got criminally overlooked. Obviously there’s also Rollcage as that came up earlier.
For genres I’ve always been a big FPS guy. I’ve grown up mostly PC gaming so it’s something that’s always been there as the big thing for me. Platformers are always high up there and arcade racing games are great too (simulation racing can sometimes be good, but I’m a crap driver so I don’t get to appreciate those as much lol)
Is there any project you are currently working on outside of BallisticNG?
I normally have a bunch of smaller projects going that get pushed to the side whenever I need to do something big for BallisticNG, but I do have a potentially large project coming in the future for when I’m done with BallisticNG. Not going to spoil anything for that though 😉
For the smaller ones they’re usually just me practicing specific things, like recently I had been working on a match 3 game to try and build a code base that was as mod friendly as possible.
Anything in particular you enjoy to do outside of game development?
I love game dev so I’m usually doing it 24/7. When I get the time though I like to play about with random music projects to improve in that.
What do you expect for the future of BallisticNG?
For the main engines features the game is somewhat coming to a close so I can start focusing on other projects more. I still have plenty of ideas for some more expansions though, so there’s going to be plenty more tracks coming in the future!
What did you think when I reached out to you for this interview?
Since I’ve never really done this it took me a bit by surprise. It’s really cool to get to answer some questions like this.
Do you have any special thanks for someone?
A huge thanks to everybody who has been playing the game throughout it’s development. It’s been a great learning experience and the feedback up to and after release has been invaluable.
Also a huge thanks to Radracer who’s spent countless months reconfiguring all of the game’s old content to bring everybody the BNG legacy mod project. I’ve mentioned this several times throughout the interview already but just wanted to give another shout to him and his awesome work. To anyone reading who’s interested in the game’s cut content throughout development, be sure to check that project out!
Just for curiosity, do you have any message for Robert?
Robert’s an awesome dude. It was amazing when he decided to release the updated Rollcage builds and having seen GRIP’s development from the start, it’s been really cool to see how Rollcage was evolved into a modern era.
Do you have any message to the Wipeout (and BallisticNG) community?
Everyone in the community is awesome and it’s been great to grow BallisticNG alongside a group of very passionate people!
Alright, thank you so much for this interview! It was quite fun to go through and learn more about this game. Since I picked it up when it was early access, I was having a lot of fun since I already loved Wipeout, and of course I’m planning to do a good coverage about BallisticNG on my site after this. It hasn’t been terribly long since I started going on about stuff in my website (around March/April IIRC), but it has been inspiring to go through interviews like these!
No prob, it’s been fun talking with you 🙂 Glad you liked the game!
Again, thank you so much for BallisticNG! Really looking forward to further expansions and completing the campaign (Now that I’m nearing vacation on college, I should have time for that :p)
Just remember that hyperthrusting is key for platinum in those time trials 😉
Just like with the last occassion interview with Ben Hickling and his game Ex-Zodiac, I’m intending to do a throughout cover of BallisticNG, going from AGR2280 and SlipstreamGX, several of the pre-release revisions the game went through, to the current day version and expansions. I would also cover similarly to a review the graphics, audio, gameplay and amount of features.
Of course I’d really recommend this game to anyone that loves these kind of racing games (or if you are a Wipeout fan or at least have enjoyed any of the games before); the amount of content on top of Workshop support for a Wipeout spiritual successor is basically a must-buy. You can get it from its Steam page, and can follow its development through Vonsnake’s Twitter account. You can also talk with other players through the official BallisticNG Discord.
If you want to support Arcadex Machina, you can donate through my Ko-fi page; sharing stuff through Twitter or any other media is also helpful and very appreciated 🙂