How Codemasters is bringing back a pioneer of social gaming.
Kevin McCallister had way more Micro Machines than I did. I was only seven years old when I first saw Home Alone so that was obviously my primary concern at the time.
One of the slightly less deadly booby traps for the hapless Harry and Marv, Kevin’s collection covered the whole floor. He had more than I could count! I had about 12, plus an oil can that turned into a mechanic’s garage that I got for not dying while I had my tonsils removed.
But despite a supreme slice of product placement in what would become 1990’s highest-grossing film worldwide, 1990 was actually a disaster for the home of Micro Machines: US toy manufacturer Galoob. The recession of the early ’90s had kicked the company right in the crotch.
Micro Machines, Galoob’s most successful product to date, was chosen as the key to dragging the company back into profitability – and it worked. Sales spiked and, despite their diminutive size, Micro Machines became the biggest thing in die-cast cars – Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and Majorette be damned.
But Micro Machines weren’t content with remaining in the toy box and, following the aforementioned cameo alongside Macaulay Culkin on the big screen, the world’s teensiest turbos hit centre stage on the small screen in Codemasters’ original Micro Machines game.
Micro Machines, which first appeared as an unlicensed NES game and was subsequently released on a host of other platforms across the first few years of the ’90s, was an immediate hit. In fact, it was instrumental in catapulting Codemasters from being a budget 8-bit games publisher to becoming one of the UK’s top independent studios, and spawned a successful series.
Then, after the release of Micro Machines V4 in 2006, it went away.
But not forgotten.
“It seems to have gone down very well,” says Codemasters’ Dan Robinson on the announcement of Micro Machines World Series back in January. “People seem to be very keen to see Micro Machines come back; it’s one of the games we built our heritage on [along with] Colin McRae Rally.”
“Micro Machines is one of those games that we’ve been asked for I don’t know how many years to bring back.”
People seem to be very keen to see Micro Machines come back; it’s one of the games we built our heritage on [along with] Colin McRae Rally.
According to Robinson, Micro Machines has been one of the most requested games on the Codemasters forums for the studio to resurrect. Perhaps the most requested.
“I was always slightly disappointed it wasn’t Jonah Lomu Rugby,” he chuckles.
Micro Machines actually reappeared as a mobile only game mid-last year but it’s the prospect of a new console and PC version that’s really lit a fire in the bellies of former fans.
“It was with quite a lot of joy we announced it,” Robinson continues. “We obviously put a mobile version out in July last year; it was a free-to-play game that’s done very well for us.”
“There seems to be a real appetite for Micro Machines as a game, as a brand, but obviously we did some things in the mobile game that were a little different to how the original games were – the whole Battle Mode, and the Arena side of things.”
Robinson confirms Micro Machines on mobile racked up over 2.5 million installs in the first four months.
“It proved really popular for us,” he says. “But the amount of comments that we got that said, ‘Okay, I just want this on my console now; make an actual Micro Machines game for my PS4 or my Xbox One.’ So it’s great news that we’re bringing it back.”
Micro Machines World Series even trended on Twitter in the UK after Codemasters announced it, “which is ridiculous for a Micro Machines game, really,” says Robinson. “But obviously we’re very proud of that.”
“We didn’t get that with F1,” he jokes.
Micro Machines World Series may be following it mobile resurrection but it is not a port of the mobile game.
“It’d make my life much easier if we did,” laughs chief game designer Gavin Cooper.
“It’s a very different game,” says Robinson. “We’re aware that the free-to-play audience on mobile is very different to a console audience. If we’d done that we’d either have not made a good mobile game or we’d have absolutely peeved off all the console gamers.”
“Bringing back Micro Machines with all the fanfare that we’re doing currently… and then we go, ‘Oh, it’s just a port of the mobile game.’ People would’ve just gone, “That’s sh-t. Don’t do that.”
We’re aware that the free-to-play audience on mobile is very different to a console audience.
According to Robinson, Micro Machines World Series has emerged as a mix of traditional Micro Machines action and current game design philosophies.
“With Micro Machines World Series, it’s really a competitive, accessible, fun, multiplayer game; they’re the things that are really at the heart of the new game, but they’re really what were at the heart of all the previous games,” he says. “Historically it was always about playing with your mates. It was all about sitting in the same room and destroying each other, basically, but doing it in a fun way.”
“For us there aren’t many games out there that are multiplayer that are just for fun. You know, Call of Duty is obviously a massive multiplayer game but it’s quite serious. If you lose you’re actually really annoyed. I think with Micro Machines it is that pick-up-and-play sense of fun, doing it again, having a go. You build up those sibling rivalries. That’s what Micro Machines is always about, so it was important for us to bring that back.
“But we also needed to move it on from the original games.”
Here Robinson namechecks Toybox Turbos, a miniature car racing game Codemasters released back in 2014.
“We always toy when we talk to people: “Do we mention Toybox Turbos?” he grins, muttering under his breath. “Toybox Turbos? Does anyone remember Toybox Turbos?”
“The thing about Toybox Turbos, when we brought that out two-and-a-half years ago, was that it really represented just what Micro Machines was. It was just the racing. And I think people went, ‘Ah, this is cool’ and they played it and said, ‘I remember that; it’s really good! But now I’m going to get back to playing my 21st Century games which are a lot more fun, I get a lot more involved, there’s a lot more to do.’
“And so a lot of the comments that we had from Toybox Turbos were that there wasn’t anywhere near enough multiplayer content in there, and it didn’t have the real name – it was kind of a Micro Machines wannabe, really.
“So obviously… we toyed with the idea: is it worth us doing this again? But there seemed to be a real appetite for it.”
Robinson confirms that going back to Hasbro and resurrecting the name was important to the team from a brand point-of-view, but it was more important to the team at Codemasters to start moving the game on and make it more appealing for longer to modern gamers.
“Yes, there are people like our good selves in this room who just want Micro Machines back because I remember how good it used to be,” explains Robinson. “It tugs on the heartstrings; it makes me remember stuff I used to do when I was 15, 16, or whatever.”
“But we have to also bring it for those people who play your Rocket League, your Overwatch, your Trackmania games, who want more. They want to do more. They want to be able to battle, they want to take it online, they want to compete in leagues and on leaderboards. They want something more from the game that just a racing game.
“We’ve been very careful from a development perspective and also from a publishing perspective to make sure that this is a game that appeals to both audiences. To those guys that do want their retro hit, but they also want something new; they want something that’s gonna challenge them as a modern game.”
[Micro Machines] was one of the pioneers of social gaming before social gaming was even a thing.
Robinson stresses the team isn’t trying to distance itself from the original Micro Machines, but they are definitely focused on beefing it up.
“We can’t get away from the legend that was Micro Machines,” concedes Robinson. “It was one of the pioneers of social gaming before social gaming was even a thing. People used to block out Friday nights to get their mates around to play Micro Machines. There were Micro Machines parties. It really was quite a phenomenon.”
“But that’s not to say the original games weren’t without problems. I think V4 had some critical comments about it, largely because we’d not moved the series on. It just felt like we were making Micro Machines again and again and again and again. This all played into the design [of Micro Machines World Series] and what we wanted to do: ‘If we bring it back it has to move on.’”
The result is a game that emphasises battling as much as racing.
“We found that, with the mobile game, people came to the game for the racing because they remembered Micro Machines and they knew what it meant,” explains Robinson. “But the reason they stayed playing it were the Battle Modes.”
“It wasn’t even modes,” stresses Cooper. “It was Battle Mode. It was singular. It was just the one; it was a very simple deathmatch. We’ve built on that massively in terms of adding new modes for the console version.”
The team confirms there will be 10 race tracks and 15 Battle Arenas (which support up to 12 players). Iconic environments will make an unsurprising return.
It wouldn’t really be a Micro Machines game if you weren’t racing on the kitchen table, or on the pool table.
“It wouldn’t really be a Micro Machines game if you weren’t racing on the kitchen table, or on the pool table,” says Robinson. “But we wanted to bring in some new environments as well.”
The team showcase a pool table race and a deathmatch set in a backyard. The pool table is especially impressive – particularly the lighting, which convincingly seats both all the trackside objects and the toy cars in the world. It’s bright and bold and quite a bit more nuanced than the simple, cartoon-like world I’d expected. You won’t mistake it for an actual pool table but everything from the texture of the baize on the playing surface to the gleam of the polished balls has a more realistic edge to it. I like it a lot.
There will be 12 vehicles in Micro Machines World Series (an eclectic assortment featuring emergency vehicles, GI Joe vehicles, a dump truck, and ice cream truck, a spy car, and more).
“In previous games the cars were pretty much identical, whereas now we treat them almost like a cast of heroes,” explains Cooper. “So they’ve got their own abilities, their own loadouts and weapons and tricks that they can pull out of the bag. Those are complimentary, so I can pick something that’s got some nice support skills so I can help my mates out even if I’m not necessarily getting all the kills myself.”
Cooper explains that it won’t be crucial to make sure teams are methodically balanced before wading into the Battle Modes, but there will be certain synergies between vehicle types for players to discover.
“The reason that we called it World Series was a little bit of a nod to our American friends, who have the baseball world series but, frankly, it only involves people in North America,” grins Robinson. “Similarly, this is the Micro Machines World Series, for everyone within the confines of that one house. So it’s a bit tongue in cheek there.”
“But also – for the first time – you’re going to be able to play anyone in the world. That’s what Micro Machines is about now; it’s about going online, it’s about taking everyone else on, competing in leaderboards, divisions, monthly challenges.
“So for people who just want knockabout fun with their mates, that’s there; but if you want to take it online and become a serious Micro Machines player – if there is a thing – then that’s absolutely in there.
“We know from Dirt Rally last year the importance of leaderboards and regular challenges. Monthly, weekly, daily challenges – that just keeps people coming back for more. There’s always something to feed that hunger for more content. Reaching the next leaderboard, being rewarded for topping those leaderboard – that’s really important for today’s game. That’s one of the main things that sets the game apart from the originals.”
Ultimately, you’re in an ice cream van on a kitchen table trying to avoid jam.
Robinson insists, however, that the personality of the game remains the same as ever. At Codemasters the team has taken to using none other than Buzz Lightyear as a key example of what that personality is.
“The reason is, when you’re actually playing the game – you’re in the middle of it – it’s the most important thing you’re doing,” begins Robinson. “It really matters that you’ve just been blasted or blown up, or you’ve hit a mine, or whatever it is. But ultimately, you’re in an ice cream van on a kitchen table trying to avoid jam. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in, but when you’re in that moment it’s really important.”
“So the whole Buzz Lightyear thing is Buzz genuinely believes he’s a space ranger – he’s there to save the world and can fly. Everyone else knows that he’s a toy. And that’s a similar thing to Micro Machines. When you’re in the race you think that this is a really, really serious race, so it really matters, but when you take a step back you look at it you go, ‘But I’ve just been catapulted into a toaster.’”
The incredibly enthusiastic reaction to Micro Machines World Series is not something I find surprising but it is something I find fascinating considering the toys upon which the game is based – save for a smattering of Star Wars branded miniatures – virtually don’t exist in the modern day.
As soon as Codemasters talks about a miniature vehicle racing-based game, the world seems to lose its mind a little bit.
“I think to a certain extent we’re almost immune to it at this point,” says Cooper. “Working here, specifically; I don’t think I’ve ever performed an interview for somebody coming in where they haven’t asked about Micro Machines… There are a lot of people who are really, really up for this.”
“And it differs from territory to territory,” adds Robinson. “Like, the UK: it’s very much game first, toys second. In the US it’s the complete opposite; they know it for the toy and the game is less well-known.”
“It always surprised us, and a little bit with Toybox Turbos as well, that as soon as Codemasters talks about a miniature vehicle racing-based game, the world seems to lose its mind a little bit, and goes, ‘Micro Machines?! Wicked!’
“What we can’t do, really, is disappoint them. It’s kind of like your favourite aunt who you suddenly find out a dark secret about – ‘No, don’t ruin that memory!’’ So you’ve got to be really careful.”
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.