Tray Racers Preview: The Calm And The Storm

I’m sat around a campfire as easy music fills my ears. I remark that this is the cosiest online interview I’ve ever done, and the devs sitting with me say that means they’ve done their job well. This camp forms the social hub of Tray Racers, and I’m revelling in the calm before the storm. You can sit by the fire, play your musical instruments – bongo drums and pan pipes are in so far, but the team wants to add more in future – climb the rocky outcrops, stand on each others’ heads, or, as is practically mandatory for games in 2023, pet the dog.

Tray Racers started as a joke, the very same joke I wanted to make in the headline of this feature. “Forget ray tracing, how about tray racing?”, and from that, a prototype was created. Developer Bit Loom enjoyed previous success with Phogs, but forced online gaming during the pandemic made them rethink multiplayer. Instead of co-operative platforming, they knew they had to make something different. They wanted a chilled space to hang out, but with friendly competition. They wanted it to be casual, but competitive. There was a lot to balance.

“We wanted to make something else that people could do with their friends, but more in the vein of some of the online party games that we played [during the pandemic],” says Bit Loom artist and designer Douglas Flinders. “And we wanted it to be something really quick and snappy.”

What I’ve described so far may not sound quick and snappy, but the ideas for the campfire hangout came later, again inspired by online spaces that formed in the pandemic.

“We had so much fun in the early days, even just the three of us trying to race and beat each other’s times that we kept rolling with that. And then the camp aspect of it became really important to reinforce that initial feeling of wanting to hang out with friends. It might not have double ended dogs, but we want it to maintain that sense that it's a cosy chill world where you can have a fun time and it’s not necessarily a hardcore kind of competitive game.”

Let’s get to the racing. After you’ve hung out, played some tunes, formed a human tower, and all the rest of it, you hit the procedurally generated slopes. I wasn’t sure about using procedural generation for race tracks, but after a few rounds I was sold. The devs explain that the idea levels the playing field, and while I didn’t win against the people who made the game, on some tracks I did better than others.

“No one will play Mario Kart with me any more,” laughs programmer, composer, and designer Henry Pullan, underlining the problem with playing racing games against players who have every turn memorised.

“It reflects the goals of trying to keep it a bit more casual and fun,” explains programmer and designer James Morwood. “Rather than players being able to memorise ten bespoke tracks, and playing against someone who's had hundreds of hours, they know this by heart and they're gonna smoke you on it.”

The racing part of Tray Racers is split into two sections: practice and the Real Thing. You get five minutes to practise, completing as many runs as you can and trying different routes and strategies. The tracks aren’t like those in Mario Kart, they’re wide and filled with cacti to dodge, eye-of-the-needle gaps that give you boosts, and differing paths to take. “There's always something that catches me off guard, even though I've been playing this game for ages,” says Pullan. When I say the tracks are busy, it’s an understatement.

Your practice isn’t just for fun, though, as your best time here will make up half of your score at the end of the race. This part of the game is hectic, as people shout for help or squeal with joy as they perfect a difficult corner. It’s intensely social, too, as you share strategies and routes – although, as with any friendly competitive game, you must be careful whose advice you trust.

“Left is quicker, trust me.”

“Nah, right sets you up for the finish better, go right, go right.”

Each track is separated into three distinct sections, which mixes up the aesthetic and the challenges in every race. Dung beetles roll across your path on giant balls of, well, presumably dung, toads grab you with their sticky tongues and shoot you out of their mouths, and those pesky cacti can be your best friend, bouncing you hundreds of metres forwards, or your worst enemy, stopping you dead in your tracks.

As with most racing games, Tray Racers is about momentum. Popping tricks or narrowly missing objects gives you speed boosts, and the leaning mechanic is key picking up speed on the hills. Lean forward when going up, lean back when going down. It sounds simple, but it’s quite difficult to get the hang of when you’re also trying to avoid being eaten by frogs, taking the wrong route, and navigate through a field of erupting geysers. After a few rounds though, it becomes second nature.

Tray Racers is a game for everyone. That includes hardcore racers – some of the clips I’ve seen on TikTok show there is an incredibly high skill ceiling – but the procedurally generated tracks and chilled out campfire area show that this is a game designed for fun. I’m sure you’ll be able to min/max it somehow, but will you have a better time by doing that? Maybe, it’s not for me to judge. But a free to play game with surprisingly deep mechanics and a great, fun vibe? It’s on the list for a TheGamer social night, that’s for sure.

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