By Jonathan Gault
November 3, 2020
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing millions of Americans out of work and millions more to work remotely, we’ve all been spending more time at home in 2020. Rather than binging Tiger King or baking a loaf of sourdough, Ryan Craven decided to spend that time a little more productively: he built a video game. Specifically, a cross country video game.
While there have been a number of track & field video games through the years, cross country games have been few and far between, in part because there’s very little demand, and in part because…well, how exactly would you create an interesting cross country video game?
That’s the challenge Craven, 32, set himself. A creative sort, Craven released a running-themed music album in 2013 with song titles like “Fartlek” and “Ballad of the Injured Runner.”
“Anytime I’m looking to make something, I’m always putting it through the lens of running and trying to tell running stories in different ways,” Craven says.
Later, he became interested in 3D design. And though Craven had no experience designing a video game, he realized it might be possible with some effort.
“There were all these really cool softwares that were available that you could make the kind of things that you played as a kid that [you] used to have to buy $200,000 pieces of equipment to make and now you can do it practically in your desktop browser,” Craven says.
Craven learned how to code and, prior to the pandemic, had begun developing the game part-time while driving for Uber in Austin, Tex. Once COVID hit, he moved back home to Indiana and redoubled his efforts. He spent over 50 hours a week working on the project over the summer, creating every element of the game himself, from animation to coding to soundtrack. A free demo version is now available for download for Mac, Windows, or Linux.
The game, titled XC: Cross Country Racing, is modeled after racing games such as Mario Kart and Crash Bandicoot, with the player alternately tapping the “g” and “h” keys to run and using “f” and “j” to turn. But he also wanted the game to be grounded in reality, which created a problem. Craven felt there needed to be an element of challenge to prevent the game from being too easy. But there are no green or red shells in cross country.
His solution: drafting. Running in another athlete’s slipstream enables the player to preserve their stamina bar. Run too close and the player’s character is spun off course, losing precious time.
“I wanted it to be like you’re getting spiked, you’re following too closely and that’s your punishment for it,” Craven says.
And, just like a real race, there is strategy. Each opposing racer changes their speed 24 times during the course of the race; it’s up to the player to determine which moves to follow and when to come over top with a move of their own.
Craven doesn’t consider himself a big gamer, but has always enjoyed retro video games; one of his Christmas traditions is playing Tecmo Super Bowl against his brother every year. That’s the kind of vibe he was going with for XC: Cross Country Racing, and the simple gameplay and campy animation feel as though they belong on the NES or a mid-’90s computer game (ultimately, Craven says, he sees it as a mobile/VR game).
The game will feel familiar to anyone who ran cross country — which Craven did, to great success. He was the 2005 Illinois 2A runner-up (in a finish that spawned a famous photo), finished third at Foot Locker nationals that year, and went on to run at the University of Wisconsin — Craven says one of his claims to fame is going undefeated in cross country against Evan Jager, whom he beat at states, FL Midwest, and FL nationals.
Curerently, the demo version has one course, a classic high school layout that passes by school buses and Porta Potties and includes a wooded section and a section on the track. Craven is hoping the final version of the game, which is still under construction, will have four courses (course #2 will be a golf course). He also took great care to give each character their own distinct running style.
Craven started with character models based on Little Mac, the main character from the 1987 NES boxing game Punch-Out!!, then asked a few friends to record themselves running on treadmills and used an animation technique known as rotoscoping to trace over the footage and translate it to an animation. From there, he’d add his own tweaks before assigning each runner’s form to a different character.
The main character controlled by the player is based on footage of a runner from Eastern Michigan University’s Running Science Laboratory, but Craven says he doesn’t know the runner’s exact identity. So if you notice a familiar stride while playing the game, Craven wants to hear from you (the game has its own Discord server here or you can reach out to Craven on Twitter).
“Some runner from Eastern Michigan has a damn good stride and I’d like to keep him in the game if I can,” Craven says.
Craven isn’t totally sure what his end goal is with the game. As an independent title, Craven accepts that the game likely won’t make much money (the download is free, but users have the option to donate, tipping is always nice).
“Just being present in the racing genre and gathering some sort of audience that really appreciates is basically all I’m looking to do,” Craven says.
So far, Craven has hesitated releasing the full version of the game; he still needs to work on the multiplayer and adapting it to different platforms. But his biggest challenge, he says, has been living up to his own vision of the game.
“I still feel frustrated, in that when I think about where I started with it, it’s so much better than I would have thought it could be,” Craven says. “And then on the other end of that, there’s still this feeling of, well it’s not good enough yet. There’s still a lot I’d like to do with it.”
But Craven knows that the best way for the game to improve is to put it out there, hear feedback, and then incorporate that feedback into changes. Craven says his friends complained that the early versions were far too difficult. Even now, it’s quite challenging, even on the “junior varsity” difficulty, if you get bumped on the wrong point of the course. But for Craven, the challenge is part of the appeal. Part of what made Super Mario Kart fun for him was that it wasn’t easy. He’s hoping XC: Cross Country Racing feels the same.
Craven also hopes that, for those deprived of a real cross country season this fall, his game can fill a need and bring back some of those cross country feelings.
“It would be cool if I could get this out there now while there is that need to compete, even if it’s in a digital, silly way,” Craven says.
Download a free demo version of the game here for Mac, Windows, or Linux. A trailer/preview of the game appears below.
Discuss the game on the LetsRun messageboard: MB A cross country video games has been invented. Play it here for free.
Video Preview of Game