Feature: Nintendo And Velan Studios On Bringing Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Into The (Real) World

The Chain Mario Kart Live Home Circuit© Nintendo Life

Following its announcement back in September, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit recently sped into homes across the land, and no doubt many of you have been crafting intricate circuits around your home, pulling off daring manoeuvres between chair legs, leaving tyre tracks through the kitchen and speeding away from the claws of curious pets while enjoying this mixed-reality take on the world’s premier kart racing series.

Co-developed by Nintendo and US-based Velan Studios, prior to release we had the chance to question key members of the Mario Kart Live team about the project, its history and the challenges that came with mixing Mario Kart with reality.

We spoke to:

  • Karthik Bala, CEO of Velan Studios, who’s worked on the Skylanders and Guitar Hero series
  • Yosuke Tamori, Project Leader in Production Group No. 4
  • Yuji Ichijo of Nintendo’s Production Group No. 2
  • Hiroki Ikuta, Platform Technology Dept. Group and Project Leader (hardware) on Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit
(L-R) Yosuke Tamori, Yuji Ichijo, Hiroki Ikuta, Karthik Bala.
(L-R) Yosuke Tamori, Yuji Ichijo, Hiroki Ikuta, Karthik Bala.

Nintendo Life: Can you tell us how you came to work with Nintendo on this? Was it a project you were approached for, or did you pitch it directly to Nintendo?

Karthik (Velan): The team at Velan began development of the first prototype (hardware and software) in mid-2017. When we felt it was ready, we went to Kyoto, Japan to pitch the concept to Nintendo with a playable prototype. Lots of people came in to check out the demo and everyone was smiling. It was overwhelmingly positive so we began collaborating in 2018 to turn it into a true Mario Kart experience.

Was it daunting to mix a massive property like Mario Kart with such new and ground-breaking technology? Was there ever any fear that the tech wouldn’t work?

Tamori (Nintendo): The Mario Kart series is one of Nintendo’s key franchises and one that can be easily enjoyed by anyone. Over many years, the series has been developed as a tool for communication with family and friends. Whenever there’s been a new hardware or network feature, we’ve always thought about how these could be used in Mario Kart, and how they could help make communication fun.

We felt there was a strong affinity between Mario Kart and Velan Studios’ new idea of fusing a real-life kart with game footage. We were sure that it would lead to communication – getting people thinking about where they could create race tracks, the kind of tracks they could create, and inspiring others to play too – and so we decided to go ahead with developing it together.

Karthik (Velna): Haha! This is perhaps the most technologically complex and riskiest project I’ve worked on in my career. There were so many unknowns at the beginning of this project… and more seemed to come in front of us as the project went on. But the team wasn’t afraid of failure… we embraced it. Through experiments and iteration, both Velan and Nintendo teams worked through these challenges. It’s been an honor to work on a Mario game – especially as the debut title from Velan Studios!

How closely did Nintendo and Velan Studios work together on the development of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit?

Tamori (Nintendo): To speak about our roles in the development in extremely broad terms, Velan Studios handled the invention of the concept and the game software development, while Nintendo handled the development of the hardware, system software, and an IP review of the game as part of the Mario Kart franchise to ensure it meets the quality standards for a Nintendo product.

we worked together extremely closely. We couldn’t have developed the game with just one side making the decisions, because the software, system software and hardware all influence each other

So, to answer your question, we worked together extremely closely. We couldn’t have developed the game with just one side making the decisions, because the software, system software and hardware all influence each other. If we hadn’t communicated and remained respectful of each other to move the development forward, I doubt we would have been able to complete this project.

Karthik (Velan): It’s been an incredibly close partnership. Both the hardware and software are so interdependent to create complete experience for players. Velan developed the original reference hardware design and specifications and worked closely with the Nintendo hardware team who were responsible for the final design. Velan worked on the game design and content, while collaborating and getting feedback from the Nintendo software and IP teams to make it look and feel like Mario Kart.

What’s been the hardest element of the concept to achieve from a development perspective?

Ichijo (Nintendo): Game software like this – meaning ones that take on new technical challenges – tends to be a bit tricky for people without any technical knowledge. To ensure the game can be easily enjoyed both by adults and children alike, we included a number of ideas that are typical of Nintendo games, such as Lakitu providing tutorials or explanations in the game.

Karthik (Velan): This project has had so many challenges! One impossible problem to the next. We wanted to create a convincing mixed reality experience with a level of depth to the gameplay and experience to please even the most hardcore Mario Kart fans. There is so much creativity to be had with course creation and the gameplay and digital world elements had to simply work – regardless of the real world environment. AR in many games are an afterthought or an add on. The Mixed Reality experience is central to the core game experience of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit.

NL Office Kart

What aspect of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit are you most proud of?

Ikuta (Nintendo): It would have to be that we solved the issue of trying to achieve several things as once, working with both hardware and system software.

In addition to implementing the features necessary to achieve this new experience of linking a real-life kart with a game – the idea proposed by Velan – we wanted a wide range of users to be able to play in a wide variety of home environments in countries all over the world, and also wanted to design the physical kart so that it still felt like something from Mario Kart.

One issue we had was that when we lowered the speed of the kart to a level easy even for novice players to drive, the kart sometimes couldn’t run on carpet.

One issue we had was that when we lowered the speed of the kart to a level easy even for novice players to drive, the kart sometimes couldn’t run on carpet. To ensure players can enjoy Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit on a variety of different flooring, we implemented several ideas to cope with situations like that, such as making improvements to the hardware of the kart to increase torque, and taking data from the kart to work with the game and adjust the kart’s output.

Karthik (Velan): I’m extremely proud of the team and what we’ve been able to accomplish. Both Velan and Nintendo developers worked as one team on this project. There were so many unknowns and we’ve had ground breaking discoveries in game design and technology along the way. It was a very challenging project – but incredibly gratifying to see it all come together. It would not have been possible without this team.

Where do you see the Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit concept evolving from this point onwards? Can we expect to see new karts, additional trackside elements and perhaps even DLC?

Tamori (Nintendo): I’m afraid we can’t go into specifics at this time. We’d first like to see this title release.

While this year marks the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., the Mario Kart series is another of Nintendo’s key franchises that has been enjoyed by many over the years. I believe that in Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, it’s easy to see Nintendo’s philosophy of developing new, unique integrated hardware-software entertainment.

All of the developers are looking forward to seeing how this extremely unique experience that fuses a real-life kart with game footage will be received by players around the world.

Our thanks to Yosuke Tamori, Yuji Ichijo and Hiroki Ikuta from Nintendo and Karthik Bala from Velan Studios. If you’re looking for our verdict, check out our Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit review.

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