Amidst all the games clamouring for attention at this year’s Indie Booth in Gamescom, one particular game stood out – if only because of its striking ‘Tron’-esque neon visuals, and the strobe lights adorning its booth. And whilst I had heard of the game previously, it wasn’t until I had seen it in action that I became a fan. And to be honest, Distance is definitely looking to be one of the most striking games I have seen in recent years.
Describing itself as a next-generation arcade racer, Distance is “survival racing game that combines the intense action of arcade racing with the exploration of an atmospheric world. You control a unique car that allows you to boost, jump, rotate, and even fly through a chaotic and mysterious city. The game is a spiritual successor to the multi-award winning Nitronic Rush created while attending DigiPen Institute of Technology.”
After creating Nitronic Rush and graduating from DigiPen soon afterwards, most of the team decided that they enjoyed independent games too much to want to work in the AAA sector, and turned down multiple AAA jobs as a result. Forming their own Refract studio with the intent of creating more independent games, they started working on what would become their first project – Distance. I spoke to Jordan Hemenway – one of the Refract’s key developers – to find out more about his development studio and game.
How would you describe Distance to somebody who’s never heard of the game?
It’s an atmospheric racing platformer. The main idea is that a car has all these different abilities like jumping, flying, and rotating. So you can do hardcore maneuvers like ceiling rides and wall rides.
The aesthetics remind me of ‘Tron’. What inspired the visuals of the game?
Originally, we worked on this game called Nitronic Rush. That was a student project. We all met at a college in Seattle called DigiPen.
Is that where you’re from?
Okay. How old are you?
I’m 27. We all met up there. We worked on this game called Nitronic Rush, which was basically combining ‘Tron’ and Rush together. And we were definitely inspired by ‘Tron: Legacy’ that came out about that time. I think the main thing was that there’s a timeless aesthetic to the neon glow. It’s amazing that it worked in ‘80s and still works now. That drew us in.
Yeah, absolutely. So when we moved to Distance, we said, “Okay, that was just a love letter to ‘90s, racing plus ‘Tron’, stuff like that. How can we make it more interesting?” Because that game was very black and really bright neon. We wanted something more realistic. So we were like, “Okay, can we build a real-ish world that gives us creative license to do stuff but is it enough of a grounded visual?” So we started integrating lighting and started integrating a lot of different pieces to even out the look of it. And then from there, the most recent visual inspirations are more in the horror and the traditional sci-fi genres. So we were trying to make it more surreal, give it a little bit more of… a not less grounded but more fantastical, building on top of that ‘Tron’ layer that we started with.
Both ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Tron: Legacy’ had exceptionally good soundtracks. Does Distance also have a good soundtrack?
I’m biased because I’m the one that did the soundtrack. I hope people like it. It’s mostly electronic, a wide range of electronic. It’s whatever that gets me excited. And it does blend a live atmosphere, ambient tones, and stuff like that. But at the end of the day, I wanted something that felt natural to the speed and the motion of it. I wanted something that matched the feeling of the levels as best as I could, and that’s really the guiding force behind it. In terms of genre, it’s just electronic music. It’s hard to get more pinpoint than that. It is more ethereal in certain places. I wanted to create that mood of you’re in a new space and it’s curious. And then it gets more menacing, darker, and heavier as it goes along and turns into more synthy… There is a little bit of an ‘80s feeling at certain points using classic Moog synths and stuff like that. Showed a lot of experimentation, honestly.
How long has the game been in development for?
Five and a half years.
Wow! Sorry, when did the game start? Was it when all of you guys were at university?
It was after we left. The first thing we did after we left was we actually did a Kickstarter for this game based on the popularity of the student game. The student game had a few million players.
Yeah, it was surprising. It was back in the day when things went viral, at least for video games. And the indie games could do that. And it was just a really amazing opportunity because not only were people enjoying the game, but people were building a community. We were just students. We didn’t know what we should be doing with that. And we eventually were just like, “Okay, Kickstarter seems like a pretty logical thing,” because we wanted to build the game with the community if we could. From there we did Early Access, and then here we are.
How many people does Refract consist of?
There are three full-time people and there are nine part-time people that are at different places around the world that work remotely.
I assume you’re one of the full-timers?
How long did that Kickstarter money last?
Actually pretty far. We just kept the college lifestyle going for pretty much until now.
Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll?
Yeah… No, but actually, we’ve been fine. We got pretty good living cheaper. We found a good situation where we could work, or it wasn’t a big stress. We had half of our funds when we hit the Early Access. We burned through half of it. And then from there, we used some Early Access money just to be able to hire more people. Basically, the way to reward ourselves was not to pair ourselves more, but to hire extra people that we wanted to work with… surround ourselves by brilliant people.
But the game still took five years, so based on that, how long did the Kickstarter money last?
How did you support yourself for the last two?
Steam Early Access.
How has Early Access panned out for you?
Really well. We are not a perfect Early Access game. There are parts of Early Access that we love, the Steam Workshop concept, being able to allow people to upload their own levels, create their own inventions. And the feedback side of things, working with people on Discord and on Steam forums. But we aren’t the kind of people that are uploading new builds every day. We like to release really big updates every couple of months or every few months. And we also have a story mode that we don’t want to release in public until V1 is done.
When is V1 out?
It’s either going to be at the very end of this year or potentially at the beginning of next year.
Any hints in terms of what the story mode consists of? You did hint at the final boss…
Yeah. In a weird way, it is similar to the short, kind of paraphrase story mode that’s on Early Access but way beefed up. And what that really is is you’re dropped into this sci-fi environment and there’s some kind of threat that’s looming in the city. And you’re essentially drawn into it and trying to deal with it. The big experiment is how can we create some kind of a motivation and interesting character stuff to go along with the racing game. Our main focus in the story is not to tell a very traditional story. It’s more about the concept of you being in the space and you being fully engaged and immersed in the space. Otherwise, you would want to just make a movie or something that’s telling a very direct story if you wanted to focus on you being thrown in an alien world, even if it was built by humans or whatever. And there are a lot of pieces in there that are inviting different elements of mystery. There’s a bit of a horror element that we’ve been adding to it to spice up that mystery.
The game is coming out on Steam. What about XBox One and PS4?
It’s coming to PS4 when we hit 1.0 which is later.
Do you have a publisher for that? Or are you going to self-publish?
What about looking further afield in terms of getting a boxed copy out there?
If we do a box copy, it would be after the launch. The Kickstarter backers are going to get a boxed copy, so there’s going to be that special version. That’s only just for Kickstarter people.
So you can’t pay the £50 or whatever?
Okay, that’s a sucky thing…
Yeah. I don’t know. It’s interesting because I think a physical copy every year just becomes a little bit less interesting. I’ve been a recent collector of Blu-rays. That’s been my little hobby or whatever.
They’re cheap now. I live in the UK, and they’re like £2 second-hand or whatever…
That helps. I totally appreciate the idea of a really good box copy. The full-sized box copy that’s really high-quality and everything, that’s what we want to do. We wouldn’t want to do a cheap version. That’s why it’s like, “Okay, maybe some day.”
Distance is getting quite a positive response by people. Are you surprised by the reaction?
I am a little surprised, it being day one and everything. We’ve done crazier booths. And we really enjoy building the booths. It’s an extension of the game. It’s some kind of experience that makes you feel excited about being part of the game. Gamescom is always one of those that I really love because our game is fairly minimalist in terms of needing you to understand any English or anything like that. Anybody can just come in and be a part of it. And I really love being able to meet the players that I see online and be able to have that like, “Okay, we’re really here.” We’ve been having a blast at Gamescom. We’re trying to pace ourselves. It’s a long convention but it’s been a good one so far.
Given the number of games that are competing for players’ attention, why do you think Distance stands out so much and “goes the distance” in terms of being able to grab people’s attention, keeping it there, and maintaining it as well?
I think a lot of it is luck, to be completely honest. I think we try our best. We don’t have an internal mentality that we want to be insanely famous and have this game be the insane, multi-million seller. The core thing is we want to make the game that we want to make. We’ve gone through so many lengths… We want to appease the backers that bought game and we’ve promised them a certain thing. But we have a certain amount of creativity and artistic license that we want to be able to express. And we try to ride that line of, “Okay, the flashy booth, the gameplay, and the visuals that are flashy… that works really well for us.” So it’s a convenient thing that it happens so well for other people too. I feel really fortunate that that has worked out for us. But if we were working on a game that’s really quiet and somber, it probably wouldn’t work as well at a convention. We would’ve had to find some other way to get in front of people. So things like conventions do actually work well for our style. It’s harder to take in the story elements and really get into that atmospheric mentality. But there are a lot of people that want to go fast and have fun, and this environment does work okay with that. That’s why I say it’s luck, but it does make some sense based on the genre and the style.
Refract is focused on finishing Distance this or early next year. Do you have any ideas in the pipeline or prototypes that you’re working on for future games?
We definitely have some ideas, but I can’t unfortunately say what anything is.
You can tell me… For the record.
Okay, I’ll tell you… To be completely honest, we are really deep into finishing Distance. It’s one of those where you try to keep your sanity. You’ve worked on this game for so long. You try to move yourself around a bunch so that, “Okay… today we’re working on the music, tomorrow we’re working on the lighting for the booth, and then we’re working on some boring programming thing.” And we have some of that where we’re like, “Okay, maybe this weekend, I’ll do a quick prototype for some dumb idea.” And a lot of those just end up being put back into Distance. Horror was an interesting thing to me halfway through working on this game, and I became obsessed with it. And I was like, “I have to figure out how to put that into Distance.” Long story short, we’re really focused on Distance at the moment.
But I would say the one line about the next game would be people shouldn’t be too surprised if we end up going in a completely different direction, that it wouldn’t be a Distance 2 or just another racing game. It could be something radically different.
Any last words?
Thanks for talking to us. For anyone who wants to check the game out, you can go to survivethedistance.com. We’ve put links to pretty much all the social media, but one of the most important ones is the Discord channel. Our community created its own Discord, and they’re basically doing all kinds of events throughout the year that are really fun to watch. I’m inspired by our community, so I hope other people can check that out too and be inspired.