IndieCade Preview: The Addictive 'International Racing Squirrels'

By Noah J. Nelson

IndieCade --the International Festival of Independent Games-- hits downtown Culver City, California this weekend. Here's a look at one of the games that will be there.

Management simulation games were some of the earliest computer games. After all, computers were adopted by businesses largely to deal with spreadsheets, so why not craft the ultimate busman's holiday entertainment out of the blasted things?

Playniac's International Racing Squirrels is an absurdist skin stretched over a surprisingly deep management sim that hits that dark magic sweet spot of addictive gameplay. Players manage a team of "racing squirrels", which means recruiting furry talent, managing budgets (including that oh-so-seductive trap of credit), and deciding which of a series of possible races to put the racers into. Once in a race, the manager makes tactical choices while watching icons zip around the track.

The cartoon style is eye-catching, and the gameplay-- currently online and recently released as an iPad app-- is of the "suck you in and say goodbye to productivity" variety. Boot up at your own risk.

Rob Davis, founder of the London based Playniac, talked with us about the game, one of the finalists in this year's IndieCade awards.

Turnstyle: What does getting into IndieCade mean for the team? For the project?

Rob Davis: It means a huge amount to be picked by IndieCade. When you're making a game you inevitably spend long hours working on it and then other than during testing you don't really see people playing it, so how it's received when you release it makes a huge difference. It's great to know that the judges at IndieCade, people who we hugely respect, have deemed our game a worthy finalist. For the project it gives us the confidence to take it forward onto new platforms, and to coincide with IndieCade we're really excited to be releasing it on iPad.

TS: How did Playniac come together?

RD: I'd always been using computers to do interesting things, from indie music releases on vinyl to game-like art installations in European and US art spaces. Making games seemed like a natural extension of that. Games are such a brilliant fusion of different creative forms and also have the excitement of so much as yet undiscovered. When we started working on this game, I wanted to collaborate with some really talented people, so from art to script and coding to music we had some fantastic voices in the room guiding the process.

TS: Which came first: the squirrels or the team management gameplay? For that matter: where'd the racing squirrels come from?

RD: We knew from the outset we wanted to take a typical management sim game structure and turn it on its head, so that you the player would be managing something totally unexpected. We also wanted to ramp up the financial elements, so it had a whole banking system not just a single sum of cash to represent the player's status. The idea that it would be racing squirrels came quite early on in the game design process too. We were sitting around a table in a London pub and someone said "what's the most ridiculous thing the game could be?" The answer was International Racing Squirrels! We were also inspired by an article in Scientific American that compared the racing speeds of different animals and concluded that a squirrel could outrun a herd of stampeding elephants.

TS: What makes team management style games compelling?

RD: We're huge fans of more general management sims, going back to Sim City or even Dope Wars, and lots of games that aren't considered to be classic "sims" have interesting mechanics around teams and finances. Around the time of designing International Racing Squirrels I'd been playing a lot of Game Dev Story [Android,  iPhone] , and I was really amazed by how much fun a game system can be without relying entirely on its graphics. We wanted to create a complex system that appears simple yet gradually unfurls as you play it. The idea of unwrapping a toy and finding out how it works is very much part of the mastery of our game. Also allowing players to grow a team is a good way to ramp up the challenge - more squirrels means more trouble.

TS: What are you looking forward to seeing at IndieCade?

RD: It's going to be great to play all of the other games there and I'm really looking forward to meeting the other game makers. I've always enjoyed going around indie arcades, and this year it's great to be showing our game. Plus there might be rare racing squirrels in LA that we don't get to see here in London.

[International Racing Squirrels is now available on iPad.]

IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games starts October 4th with the Red Carpet Awards, and opens to the public on Oct. 6th in Culver City.

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