Interview – Talking trucks, toughness and the series’ future with SnowRunner’s Vitaliy Yaruta

If there’s one thing the world is craving right now, it’s a sense of freedom. With the arrival of SnowRunner, Saber Interactive have given it to us – as long as you’re ready to haul some goods across various inhospitable parts of the US and Russia in a variety of different trucks. After the strong showing of Spintires: MudRunner, it was clear they were onto something, and with SnowRunner they’ve perfected the formula. We were able to catch up with Vitaliy Yaruta, Lead Game Designer at Saber Interactive to talk about their latest release.

TSA: Coming off MudRunner, what were the key targets for SnowRunner’s development?

Vitaliy: We kind of knew two things from the very start: we want to make the game bigger and add snow environments. What we didn’t know was exactly how to do that, or what else we should do.

At the very start of pre production we came up with a list of ‘pillars’ – key things that will make the game what it should be. They included things like an open world structure, exploration focus, in-game economy that provides as much freedom as possible without forcing a heavy grind, and a number of other things.

The key target was to take the “open physics playground” core of MudRunner and make it into an offroad adventure game, with the emphasis on the game part. More openness, more accessibility, more understanding from the players who would like a more objective-focused experience. No damage to players who enjoy “sandboxes”. As you can imagine, putting all that together into one cohesive whole was a bit of a challenge.

We hope it worked!

TSA: What were the biggest challenges in getting there?

Vitaliy: Technical challenges still seem to be the hardest to overcome. We did not have the possibility to make maps any larger on the old engine without getting unmanageable performance issues, so we had to move the whole project to the Swarm engine, originally developed for World War Z, and integrate all the physics stuff. That took some serious time and effort and caused a lot of additional workarounds.

Core design challenges were making really large maps, which you can navigate the way you want to, appealing enough for the players to traverse. Think about it – you have 4 square kilometers of some boggy terrain and have to make all of it interesting. You don’t have “unplayable’ areas, which are there just for the scenery, you have to fill all this with objectives and playtest it in-depth to make sure it works as intended. Plus it can’t disrupt your in-game economy, must use local vehicles as much as possible, there has to be enough fuel on the map – and so on.

I think that every member of the team has their own stories to tell about the hardest challenges they had – every single one of them tried to deliver their best and it wasn’t easy most of the time.

TSA: What do you think makes the series so compelling?

Vitaliy: SnowRunner tries to go as far as possible with the ‘off-road adventure’ formula. We try to be very careful with our legacy and not break anything in the “physics playground” style, that we believe, makes the series attractive. The ability to go in there alone or with friends and drown a whole garage of heavy trucks in the mud. Go sightseeing and make screenshots to share. Go do some deliveries and help some people, or take your scout for a ride on a high mountain peak.

Basically, we hope that “do what you want in the harshest environments ever, and call your friends when you need help” is a compelling enough formula for the players to enjoy.

TSA: The modding scene has been very active for MudRunner. Was there anything you saw there that played into SnowRunner’s development? And what were you favourite mods?

Vitaliy: There were tons of mods, nearly 4,500 to date, for Mudrunner, and I’m not sure I’ve even seen half of them in action. The modding community helped us understand the players to a great degree. At least, we could see which mods were favored by them and make some educated guesses at which things players would really like to see – which vehicles people were most interested in, what kind of addons they liked to see, that sort of thing.

Some of the map mods were impressive to the point of being partly referenced when there was a need to explain some concepts to the level design team. As you might imagine, it can be a challenge to describe specific types of wilderness with just words or pictures.

My personal favorite mod will always be a horse with glowing eyes and an exhaust in, well, you might guess where the exhaust is in this mod. The horse would spin her entire legs to navigate and even change gears. I believe every member of the team would also have some personal favorite mods.

TSA: SnowRunner is pretty damn challenging at times. When it comes to difficulty, how tough is too tough?

Vitaliy: You know, that’s a question we’re constantly asking ourselves as well – where’s the right mark? Have we hit it? But the challenge is, of course, pretty intentional. We wanted the player to feel every inch of the terrain which they take in their battle with nature. We wanted trucks to be different and make players think on how to better approach their tuning.

Too tough? What’s that?

Well, honestly if the designer of the map, or QA guys themselves are unable to complete objectives they designed, that may be too tough. Basically, we try to playtest every objective very hard and from every angle to ensure it’s hard but fair and rewarding enough. That’s something we’ll keep in mind as we patch and update the game, too.

TSA: Was there ever the temptation to make a casual mode for those who find this kind of simulation too hard/time consuming?

Vitaliy: Honestly no, that was never a consideration to make the physics part of the game easier. I would even argue that it would require a ton of work from both technical and design standpoints. Especially if we would want to preserve both hardcore physics style and a casual style. Plus, we actually receive requests from the community for more punishing physics and modes, rather than easier.

Instead we went with a less punishing economics element, like free vehicle evacuation from anywhere and free fuel and repairs to try and make your battle with the wilderness more even.

TSA: There’s obviously a lot of love for trucks in the Saber Interactive offices. Have there been any fallings out over which ones are better?

Vitaliy: Oh, yeah, like all the time. We have fans of soviet-only approach to the vehicles; “more tractors and glorious soviet trucks from the 50s!”, we have modern vehicle fans, “look at your pitiful trucks – they oversteer all the time!”, JDM fans “where’s my Toyota, dude? Off-roading without it, you mad?”, all kinds of people.

We, however, chose to go with the combined approach. Some of the serious metal from the 70’s and 80’s, some modern vehicles. some Soviet classics. We also have great partnerships throughout the truck industry, so we were very grateful to be able to use their masterpieces, old and present, in the game. We can’t wait to add more, too.

TSA: The music in SnowRunner is incredible, and there’s a great, laid-back vibe. Is it all recorded in house? And how much of it is written or jammed together?

Vitaliy: We are very proud of the music in the game, yes. It’s completely in-house made by our two composers Steve Molitz and Michael Kotov. They work in very different styles, but both put their hearts and souls into the music you can hear in the game. Unfortunately, I do not have time sheets in my hands right now, but I would argue, there was about 7 to 10 hours of music and jingles combined written for the game. Some tracks are still yet to come, by the way.

TSA: What are you looking forward to next from the next generation of console, and how do you think it could help the next game in the ‘Runner series?

Vitaliy: Maybe I’m not the right person to answer that, but from a pure design standpoint we are hoping for more and faster memory to be able to produce even bigger open worlds for the players to have fun in. We also hope for cool online services in the consoles so we can make something even better in multiplayer. And of course we hope to be able to provide a visually prettier environment for the players to endure. Always cool when you are enjoying the scenery which you are drowning in, right?

TSA: What’s next? Can we expect to go trucking on the moon any time soon?

Viatliy: Well, not telling you anything about the moon – NDAs, you know. As for SnowRunner, we have a year-long plan of supporting the game with tons of content and new activities. We hope to provide even more fun for our players and are not going to stop any time soon.

After that…I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The series is here to stay, we are going to conquer the wilderness together!

Thanks to Vitaliy for taking the time to speak with us. Make sure to check out our SnowRunner review, the game out now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.

Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.