TWMX All Access: Rainbow Studio’s Rob Baumsteiger

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Back in mid-October, we visited with Stephane Roncada to check out how he built tracks for the upcoming video game, MX Unleashed. But with the release date for the game getting closer (even though it’s now been bumped back to the first week of February), we thought it’d be a good time to check in with Rob Baumsteiger, the Senior Video Game Producer at Rainbow Studios.

We visited THQ’s Agoura Hills offices to watch Rob demo the latest build of the game, to get the lowdown on new features, and to talk about some of what goes into producing the most realistic MX video game that we’ve seen to date.

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TransWorld MX: We’d heard that your original release date was for mid-January. What happened?

Rob Baumsteiger: It’s been moved to February, just because we wanted some extra time to add polish. It’s not that there are problems with the product or anything like that. With Christmas being right around the corner, people have already spent their 50 dollars or so. We wanted to give them a little bit of break from Christmas. We finished up the demo a couple weeks ago, and we should have those to give away at Supercrosses, so you’ll be able to get the game, hopefully at round one. Then you can go back and play three of the courses on our game.

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TWMX: Was it a disappointment to miss the Christmas selling season?

RB: You know, there were 260 titles that came out this Christmas, so it kind of makes it a little difficult. When we go out and meet non-motocross press, the first thing out of their mouth is, “Motocross. Oh, you guys are niche.”

It’s funny. We shipped ATV Off-Road Fury 1, ATV Off-Road Fury 2, Motocross Madness 1, and Motocross Madness 2. We’re probably one of the only companies in the off-road market that has shipped four titles, and they’re all close to a million, if not over a million in sales. The ATV Off-Road Fury line has just absolutely sold through the roof. Then we ship a motocross game and everybody is like, “Oh, it’s motocross. You’re not going to do the same numbers.” But it’s a bigger sport than ATVs.

We really do love it. Personally I’m an ATV racer, I raced motocross for years until I got a titanium rod in my leg. The ATV market is great because it’s so fresh and so young still. So those guys will bend over backwards for you. We’re finding the motocross community is the same way, especially with us doing the game.

There’s a lot of competition out there. Travis Pastrana’s got his game, Midway’s got their game that they shipped, and we’re working to make the best game we can…to make something that stands out from everything else. We didn’t go the ridiculous freestyle route, where you’re doing triple backflips and jumping through fire hoops.

What was bothering us about a lot of the games out there was that they just didn’t feel real. They didn’t have rhythm. Rhythm is the key to Supercross. It’s the key to nationals, and the key to motocross riding. The turns are fun. You can come into our game and square turns up. You can drop the clutch and gethrough the whoops. You lean back, and the rider actually leans back, and you see the rider actually move—he reacts to the whoops, so it feels real.

TWMX: How do you build in all that realism? When I saw Motocross Madness a few years ago, that was the first time I thought, “These guys get it.”

RB: The funny thing is, I was the same way. I worked at Sony for many years, and I remember the first time I saw Motocross Madness, and I met Mark Desimone, who was the company president and technology lead at the time. So I’m sitting with the president of Sony saying, “We need to get these guys to make this on Playstation.” We were trying all weekend long, feeding them drinks and trying to get them to make this game for Playstation. For me, I live and breathe this stuff. This is my passion—motocross, ATVs, and just off-road racing in general. They just got it. They understood it’s about rhythm. They watched the events. Getting a guy like Stephane (Roncada) involved makes a big difference, because he’ll sit in there and tune stuff.

But you also have to make it fun Glen Helen is a great track to go ride, but it’s horrible to play in a game, because there are no big jumps. No one wants to hit a 30′ tabletop, they want to hit the 180′ tabletop. What we do is create what we call “realism plus.” It’s taking the realism, plus a little bit of the non-realism, and get maximum fun factor. Then we tune it and tweak it. We’re a month away from shipping, and we’re still changing tracks. This rut just doesn’t feel right. Let’s carve this out a little more. This rhythm section is a little too hard. Let’s tone it down a little.

Then, for the guy that’s going to beat the game and spend 17 hours past that, we created pro physics. We created the realism, and our physics guy created what it really feels like to ride a motorcycle. But to ride a motorcycle for real, there are so many things other than turning the handlebars left or right. There’s squeezing with your knees. Knowing what body position. When we created that physics model, the bike was swapping out, and we were blowing corners. We kept toning it down until we got a level where everyone could play. Then we created pro physics, which added back some of that stuff to a point where it was still fun, but it was hard. When you get good at the game, if you learn to play it with this, you will be the master of this game.

You can whip it off of lips and keep the bike low, so you can scrub speed, and that’s just something you can’t get on any of the other games. The funny thing is, it was by pure accident that we got that. When we built the physics model, Steph was there, and he and I were talking. “Man, the way that Bubba whips it off lips is just retarded.” So we were sitting there thinking how cool would that be? Steph said, “Let’s try it.” We discovered you could keep the bike super-low by scrubbing off the faces of jumps.

For this game, we spent eight months working on physics alone. You’ve got to get the core mechanics of game play.

TWMX: How long has MX Unleashed been in development?

RB: Development has been about 16-17 months. 18 months is what you want to stay within. We’re trying to get out for Supercross. If we had our way, we’d spend another four months, and have added online capabilities. We’re still working on it. To put out the game for the fans, we’re working during Christmas week, getting everything done so that we can have a game for you guys come February. Hopefully that date’s not moving, because I’d like a vacation at some point.

I get on a lot of web sites and I answer a lot of questions. Like Stephane’s web site, I’m always on there asking questions. We’re the number one topic on his web site. I log on as Game Producer, and they know that’s actually me.

Some of the guys are mad because we didn’t do online racing like MCM2, but we look at it this way. We have to ship the best quality product that we can. People that buy our games, they’re tired of getting games that are half-assed done. We don’t ever want to ship that. So it’s like if we can’t do it the right way, we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to give the fan something that just doesn’t feel polished and done. To be honest, we just couldn’t make online work the way we wanted it, in the time frame we had. So we made a business decision to drop it. We’ve had a programming team on it for a whole year, so the next game we ship, the following year, will have full online capabilities. It’ll have everything you could possibly ever want.

Guys ask, “Why isn’t there a track editor?” There’s one in MCM2. Well, the difference really is that MCM is a PC game. So you can put a track editor there, because guys can go download whatever other programs they need to run it. You can’t do that on a Playstation. A lot of motocross games out there, I’d say pretty much all of them, they build their tracks in blocks. I’m going to build 50 jumps, and then basically I can go and block it together. That’s what their level editors are. Well, ours aren’t. As you saw with Steph, he’s in there, actually changing displacements and adding little bump and tweaks. You just can’t do that with a level editor, especially on the console systems right now.

TWMX: Speaking of 50…we heard that in addition to the usual 125s and 250s, you’ve added 50cc bikes?

RB: We love 50s. We met up with Fast 50s, and they sent us over graphics kits and parts stuff, so we built Fast 50s for our game. So you’ve got the big old guys on these 50s, and you can whip ’em just upside-down and have fun with them. We found that people just wanted to have fun. We want to do the same thing. People that don’t get it ask, “What’s so fun about riding a 50?” You’ve just got to ride it. The kids love ’em. When we have focus groups, the minute they see there’s a 50, they’re just hooked.

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We also have 500s. You want to race big open class bikes? You can race 500s. You can race pretty much whatever you want.

TWMX: THQ is the title sponsor of the Supercross series. When you signed up for that, was it with MX Unleashed in mind?

RB: At the time we had MX Superfly, but it was going forward and looking at titles like MX Unleashed.

The funny thing is, people don’t understand that THQ has been in the sport almost five years now, coming from the grassroots levels. I was at THQ before I joined Rainbow, and we were doing deals with Team Green and Ron Heben when he was there, supporting the amateur ranks. We sponsored Bubba four years ago when he was just a kid in the mini ranks. We’ve supported Loretta Lynn’s for the last four years, and the outdoor nationals.

We started grassroots and we didn’t just come in and buy the supercross. If you go back and look at the history, we’ve sponsored a lot of teams. We’ve helped Moto XXX. Kurt Haller and those guys are a great bunch of guys. We don’t want to get into the sport, be in it for two years, make a bunch of money and get out. We’re not about that. We’re about coming in, staying in, and really coming after the guys who are the fans and making something that they can be proud of and want to play.

We wanted to do something a little different. What could we add to the game that grabs the guy who may not ride a motocross bike? We went back and looked at, what other cool things can you drive? We’ve got hot air balloons, and you can actually jump into them. An artist did it, and everybody went crazy for it.

We’ve also got a monster truck in the game. You can race against it, and once you race him and beat him, you get to go drive around in the monster truck. Kids went nuts for this. We wanted to make more than just a motocross game. For the hardcore fan, for the motocross fan that reads your magaz way. We have to ship the best quality product that we can. People that buy our games, they’re tired of getting games that are half-assed done. We don’t ever want to ship that. So it’s like if we can’t do it the right way, we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to give the fan something that just doesn’t feel polished and done. To be honest, we just couldn’t make online work the way we wanted it, in the time frame we had. So we made a business decision to drop it. We’ve had a programming team on it for a whole year, so the next game we ship, the following year, will have full online capabilities. It’ll have everything you could possibly ever want.

Guys ask, “Why isn’t there a track editor?” There’s one in MCM2. Well, the difference really is that MCM is a PC game. So you can put a track editor there, because guys can go download whatever other programs they need to run it. You can’t do that on a Playstation. A lot of motocross games out there, I’d say pretty much all of them, they build their tracks in blocks. I’m going to build 50 jumps, and then basically I can go and block it together. That’s what their level editors are. Well, ours aren’t. As you saw with Steph, he’s in there, actually changing displacements and adding little bump and tweaks. You just can’t do that with a level editor, especially on the console systems right now.

TWMX: Speaking of 50…we heard that in addition to the usual 125s and 250s, you’ve added 50cc bikes?

RB: We love 50s. We met up with Fast 50s, and they sent us over graphics kits and parts stuff, so we built Fast 50s for our game. So you’ve got the big old guys on these 50s, and you can whip ’em just upside-down and have fun with them. We found that people just wanted to have fun. We want to do the same thing. People that don’t get it ask, “What’s so fun about riding a 50?” You’ve just got to ride it. The kids love ’em. When we have focus groups, the minute they see there’s a 50, they’re just hooked.

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We also have 500s. You want to race big open class bikes? You can race 500s. You can race pretty much whatever you want.

TWMX: THQ is the title sponsor of the Supercross series. When you signed up for that, was it with MX Unleashed in mind?

RB: At the time we had MX Superfly, but it was going forward and looking at titles like MX Unleashed.

The funny thing is, people don’t understand that THQ has been in the sport almost five years now, coming from the grassroots levels. I was at THQ before I joined Rainbow, and we were doing deals with Team Green and Ron Heben when he was there, supporting the amateur ranks. We sponsored Bubba four years ago when he was just a kid in the mini ranks. We’ve supported Loretta Lynn’s for the last four years, and the outdoor nationals.

We started grassroots and we didn’t just come in and buy the supercross. If you go back and look at the history, we’ve sponsored a lot of teams. We’ve helped Moto XXX. Kurt Haller and those guys are a great bunch of guys. We don’t want to get into the sport, be in it for two years, make a bunch of money and get out. We’re not about that. We’re about coming in, staying in, and really coming after the guys who are the fans and making something that they can be proud of and want to play.

We wanted to do something a little different. What could we add to the game that grabs the guy who may not ride a motocross bike? We went back and looked at, what other cool things can you drive? We’ve got hot air balloons, and you can actually jump into them. An artist did it, and everybody went crazy for it.

We’ve also got a monster truck in the game. You can race against it, and once you race him and beat him, you get to go drive around in the monster truck. Kids went nuts for this. We wanted to make more than just a motocross game. For the hardcore fan, for the motocross fan that reads your magazine, they’re going to love it.

We’ve got a trophy truck, we’ve got airplanes, helicopters, a bunch of these other vehicles that you can just got drive that we just found that people were just interested in going and having fun and doing.

There are also stunt modes where you go in and score x amount of points in a certain amount of time. There are 57 tricks in the game. You can whip it upside-down, and you can do backflips, but it instead of giving it to you as a given like a lot of games do, where it’s square, square, square, what we’ve done is make it backwards preload. Then you can do tricks on top of it. Guys are going to evolve the sport, so we have to keep it as real as we can. You can also land no-hander lander. Ronnie Renner has been a big help, making sure our tricks are right. We’ve also got Nate Adams who lives out in Phoenix where Rainbow is. He’s not in the game, but he came down and looked at a bunch of stuff. They had a freestyle contest in Phoenix, and they almost missed it, actually. We asked, “Hey, what time do you guys have to go back?” They said, “6:00.” We said, “It’s 5:50.” They said, “Yeah, yeah…it’ll be okay.” They’d sat there for five or six hours playing the game, giving us a lot of feedback.

For the motocross fans, because they understand what hits and runs are, we have hits. We basically tell you take off from here, and land in our little zone, and then there will be another takeoff. It’s basically trying to show you just really cool lines that you can hit in the game.

Freestyle mode is all about exploring and seeing what there is out there. One of the artists got a wild hair and put beach balls out in the middle of the world. I was like, “Why’d you do that?” He said, “Just trust me.” Kids came in, saw that you could hit these big monster beach balls, and they spent two hours doing that. I asked them, “You guys don’t want to race?” They said, “We’d rather just go explore and see what we can do.”

There are all kinds of fun little things out in our worlds that you can go find. If you hit a particular ramp and land on a building, you might find that there’s a landing ramp inside. Or there’s a tractor-trailer driving around with a launch ramp built into it.

TWMX: Who are your licensed riders in the game?

RB: There are 23 licensed riders. There are 10 125cc riders, 10 250, and three freestyle riders.

As far as racers, we pretty much have everybody, minus Kevin Windham, Mike Brown, Ricky Carmichael, Travis Pastrana, and Bubba Stewart. Those are the five who we just couldn’t get deals going with. Mike Brown, Travis, and Bubba had all arranged exclusive deals with Activision. Unfortunately, their deals were just a little more pricey than we could afford.

We have pretty much all the major teams, too. Guys from Pro Circuit, guys from Yamaha of Troy, Suzuki teams, Honda teams, Factory Connection. We have Travis Preston, and Mike LaRocco.

The three freestyle riders actually ran our freestyle graphic kits for the entire year. There deals are worked out a little differently. They’re actually sponsored riders that went and promoted the product. They’re Ronnie Renner, Ronnie Faisst, and Doug Parsons.

TWMX: What are some of the challenges of working out licensing arrangements?

RB: We try to do it during the year. I’m actually the guy who goes to every Supercross event, sits with all the agents, and stuff like that. The challenging part is keeping up to date. Like right now we’re trying to wrap deals up, and I have two guys that have announced their gear deals, but I don’t know what their goggles and helmets and boots are. It’s also a challenge when they change to apparel companies that we don’t have.

Basically what we do is when we go through and sign all 23 riders, then we look at all their gear, we go through and grab all that.

As far as gear design, there is Troy Le