Hands On with Happy Badger Studio's SmuggleCraft / by Benjamin Sawyer

Friday I had the privledge of visiting indie developer Happy Badger Studio for some hands-on time with their upcoming, and recently announced, procedural racing game SmuggleCraft. The first thing I recognized about the studio, a cozy, top floor space in Maplewood, was how quaint and understated it was. It was quiet. The small puppy that greeted me upon entry made the space feel a lot less "studio" and a lot more "home."

In my experience with indie devs, as limited as it may be (after all I have only visited two studios to date), there has always been a small degree of anxiety in my chest as I made the trek to their doors. Call it amateurism, call it inexperience, call it being over my head, every time I have done it, I have always been slightly on edge when I go to a studio as a representative of NerdyBits. Happy Badger was no different.

But just as with Pixel Press, my visit to Happy Badger showed me that this industry is one of the friendliest industries I have ever encountered. Everyone is supportive, kind, welcoming, even homey. But I get ahead of myself. Why was I there?

SmuggleCraft.

Happy Badger, a studio who had made themselves in the mobile gaming market, is making a game that is going to perform the console jump. Their console of choice? The indie-friendly PS4 (still not quite sure I forgive Microsoft). SmuggleCraft, as the brain behind the idea (also Game Designer and Producer) Ben Triola said, was born out of a very simple idea. He wanted to make a racing game where gamers finally weren't restricted to "racing in circles." Pretty novel idea right? "If you look at racing games you really have two dynamics," he went on, "either the hyper realistic (i.e. Forza, Gran Tourismo) or the overtly cartoonish (Mario Kart anyone?)". And while none of what he was saying was a revelation, it took me a bit by surprise. I had never really given the racing world much thought when it came to games.

I've played Forza plenty. Correction, I have tried to play Forza plenty, almost always a decision that leads to a childish rage quit, laden with adultish profanity. The games are hard. At least to me. And while Mario Kart is a change of pace car, it is on the far oppoiste side of the spectrum. There is very little realism to shooting shells at your buddies. Sorry Mario. Yes, there are titles that fill the gap, for sure. The Need for Speed series has consistently battled with the line between realism and arcade. But even with those games, there is still a defining factor that 90% of them have, that Happy Badger is trying to steer away from. Driving in circles.

I translated that assertion liberally. Perhaps only for the sake of games like Burnout and the more recent Need for Speeds. Because, while they have steered in the direction of A to B style races (rather than A-B-C-D-A, 12 times) there is still an overlying tone of competition that doesn't quite change from title to title.

SmuggleCraft is seeking to change that very thing.

Immediately, what set SmuggleCraft apart, was one word. Procedural. For those of you who aren't sure what that means, I'll clarify. Procedural is a fancy, programming way of saying random. Instead of Happy Badger creating a set number of tracks that you can master and then, as a result, get bored with, they are creating dozens of track parts. The game then algorithmically creates tracks based on quantified "connection points" between parts (piece AB connects to piece BA, BB, BC, and so on). This makes every track different from the last, and the next, for that matter. No two gamers will ever get the same track.

That isn't the only thing that sets it apart from other racing games, however. SmuggleCraft is a quest-based racing game, set in a world where over-regulation is the norm and oppression is the M.O., and Narrative and Character Designer Carol Mertz is working hard to create a story based on player decision. There are three factions in SmuggleCraft: The Laborers, the Rebels, and the Auros. Players will be able to pick up jobs from all three factions in an effort to pay off their debt. A debt that every player inherits as they take the role of Ferre Astraea, a smuggler (duh). Which jobs you pick up will change the story that you get, as well as increase your notoriety, making your trips from city to city more perilous as hitmen from other factions, and government authorities hunt you in transit.

Those cities will be procedurally generated as well. So rather than random tracks taking you to set cities, the whole world will be new every playthrough you have. With so many possibilities, replay value is bound to be through the roof.

And this is just the preamble I got, before I got hands on time. SmuggleCraft is pre-alpha. With almost a year before release date and as small a dev team as they have, it makes sense that the game be in its first stages. But even with the framework that was their demo, I was hooked. There was a distinct, Wipeout, feel to the control scheme and ship handling. Drifting around corners felt directional and not tractional, appropriate for a hover-craft. The inclusion of a strafe ability, attached to the right stick, also lent to degree of finesse that many games with similar vehicles need but almost always lack.

The courses themselves are rendered with an almost haunting aesthetic, and while Dana Huth, the Creative Director and Environment Designer, admitted to this title being her first time really helming that side of things, it doesn't show. It all fits together so well. Like pieces of a puzzle that you didn't think to align in that order. Even the early music tracks by Phil Hayes (@Bravendary) meshed well. The build that I had access to was lacking the story elements I mentioned earlier, surely still in the development phase, but the frame was there. Quests that I chose were clearly qualified on four levels: Legality, difficulty, risk, and rewards. The upgrade system also wasn't finished, but Happy Badger promises fully upgradeable hovercraft in later builds, and the finished product, a point that led to an interesting discussion about multiplayer.

Multiplayer is definitely a planned feature and, much like Destiny, they plan to give players the opportunity to use their own, upgraded craft in races that would resemble the races old prohibition-era bootleggers used to have. With similar, cut-throat stakes. "You know how when you fall off of the course in Mario Kart, you are gingerly lifted from the wreckage and placed on the track?" Carol asked, "Well we don't want that to happen in SmuggleCraft. If you crash, you're out." 

SmuggleCraft is a long way out, but with what I saw on Friday, I wanted to take it home with me, bugs and all. A fresh take on racing, with a branching, player-impacted story, and an unforgiving competitive multiplayer? Sign me up now! And all of the promise that this game holds rests firmly on the shoulders of their great development team.

I only met with three of them: Ben Triola, Carol Mertz, and Dana Huth. But it was easy to see that their passion for games, is matched only by their passion for the St. Louis gaming community. Founders of Pixel Pop Festival, a small gaming conference on the campus of Webster University, these three are fervent about the growing indie community in St. Louis and the Midwest as a whole. They reached out and contacted NerdyBits after all. Excited to reach out to a local blog. I could not be happier that I fell under that category. The Badgers are great company.

For more on Happy Badger Studio or their upcoming SmuggleCraft follow these links. The other team members at Happy Badger that I missed on Friday are Joey Paniello (@JoeyMaru) and TJ Hughes (@_Teejay5).

Follow Carol Mertz (@carolmertz), Dana Huth (@theRampant), and Ben Triola (@bentriola) on Twitter

@CalebtSawyer
~Caleb