The creators of Spintires on the long, long road to an unlikely Steam smash
How Russian off-roader Spintires conquered the Steam charts
Spintires was in development for six years before it became the unlikeliest of Steam number ones for a few days in June. “It’s not as complicated as you might think,” says Zane Saxton, MD of Oovee Game Studios. “As the years went on, we just sort of ploughed more money and time into it.”
Development on the muddy driving game began in 2008 as the brainchild of a lone Russian developer, Pavel Zagrebelnyy. After making a prototype that attracted the attention of Oovee, Zagrebelnyy teamed up with the UK developer to make his concept into a proper game, and they’ve been plugging away at it for years. In fact, they’re still working on it today, weeks after release.
The effort paid off. At launch, Spintires occupied the number-one bestseller slot on Steam for a solid four days, right up until Steam’s summer sale threw the charts into chaos. Eighteen days later, the team announced Spintires had sold more than 100,000 units.
“We were surprised to be number one,” Saxton says. “I’ve always said to anyone who works for me, no matter what we do, we always try for the best. It wasn’t too much of a surprise that it was going to be successful, but I wasn’t expecting to get to number one when there’s so many other good games in the [Steam bestsellers] list as well.”
Spintires is a simple game about navigation and slow, methodical driving along mud-clogged Russian roads in heavyweight vehicles. As the trucks set out across the open-world maps to make their deliveries, their tyres chew up the country lanes and their sheer weight collapses the makeshift wooden bridges. Mechanical shifting, all-wheel drive and a winch all come into play as drivers seek to navigate the difficult terrain and knee-deep mud. The most banal of mathematical conundrums – mud physics – became the most important contributing factor to the game’s appeal, setting it aside from every other driving game. Saxton knows it, too.
“One of the things we noticed in the off-roading genre was that, at least as far as I know, there hasn’t really been a mud deformation system,” he says. “So that was the main focus of the game, and we sort of went from that.”
“Originally, it wasn’t as it is today,” studio manager Reece Bolton says. “It was more just like cool mud particle effects that would come up behind the wheels. You could dig in a little bit, but it wasn’t extensive. It was more like driving on really hard clay or something like that.”
At first, the mud physics were similar to Sega Racing Studio’s 2007 Sega Rally reboot, but by launch the muddy roads had become mires. Not only is the mud impressive in its realism, but also in its ability to retain permanent signs of your passage across the maps; Spintires’ terrain is like nothing we’ve experienced in videogames before.
The mud was useless for a racer – Spintires’ roads are driven at single-digit speeds – so during development it became a sort of puzzle game. “I always said from the start that I wanted it to be the muddy Portal,” Saxton says. “You have to stop and think about what you’re doing, and navigate. I think the navigation element and the fact that it’s not linear was the bit we focused on and made sure it stayed that way. We also want stuff to be unpredictable – bridges and stuff like that. If you drive on the wrong side of a bridge, it’ll twist and you can fall off.”
The result is a game like no other, with a typical session lasting anywhere from seconds to hours, depending on how adept you become at handling the mud and reading the map. It’s punishing, too – aggressive driving might get you down a boggy road but the damage you do along the way will leave it impassable for the return trip. Such quirks made
Spintires a hit, but it’s an unfinished gem.
After the game’s warm reception, however, the studio has the money to keep working on it, and Bolton and Saxton have many additions planned. “What we want to do is add proper 3D cockpits with all the needles and gauges,” Bolton says, “and then we want to change the dynamics of the handling, and implement a proper RPM system with a clutch, a proper gearstick system, steering wheel support…”
Oovee is already collaborating with Pole Position Production – a sound effects company responsible for vehicle sounds in the likes of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Driver: San Francisco – on a new set of truck sounds for Spintires. Once some of the other improvements are implemented, a full overhaul of the trucks’ throaty rumbles will follow. Oovee has every intention of turning Spintires into a long-lived project, and Saxton says that the engine the team built will allow it to do all sorts of other things, too. First off, it’s talking with companies wanting to use Spintires’ technology in training simulators. After six years’ work, Spintires’ creators are just getting started.
From top: Zane Saxton, managing director of Oovee Game Studios; studio manager Reece Bolton