Circuit Superstars’ winning design has a long family history behind it

Circuit Superstars’ winning design has a long family history behind it

The Mastrettas always knew they were going to make a racing video game. Take a glance at their family photos, and it’s easy to see why.

There’s their granddad, beaming alongside the “Faccia Feroce,” a single-seater race car he built in the 1950s. (It’s Italian for “fierce face.”) And here’s their uncle Daniel, with father, Carlos, introducing the Mastretta MXT, Mexico’s first showpiece sports car. And here’s Alberto, creator of Circuit Superstars, scooting around a tire barrier on his 125cc Formula A kart, with sister and studio co-founder Carolina standing by in the pits.

“We say the game is ‘by racing fans for racing fans,’” Carolina told Polygon, “but I think people would love to know what we mean by that.”

It would explain the “sim-meets-arcade” approach that Carolina, Alberto, and their brother Carlos Mastretta have taken with Circuit Superstars, a top-down racer that launched last fall on Steam and Xbox One, and two weeks ago made its debut on PlayStation 4.

The “arcade” portion is simply what the Mastrettas’ studio, Original Fire Games, can handle, visually, with a full-time staff of just six. The “sim” component — realistic physics and handling; tire wear and fueling — comes from the Mastretta family’s combined experience designing and racing high-performance vehicles themselves.

“You can preserve a lot of the traits and qualities of the entertainment that motorsport brings, without having to go to a full simulation,” Alberto Mastretta said, in an interview shortly after Circuit Superstars’ PS4 launch. “So that’s what we did. We respect a lot of motorsports’ rules and aspects that make it exciting, such as pit stops and qualifying. Getting pole position, you know, making a good first lap.”

a single-seater, front-engine, 1950s style custom roadster painted in red
La “faccia feroce!” Built by the elder Carlos Mastretta in the 1950s. Sons Carlos and Daniel also designed cars, the Mexican-made MXT sports coupe from 2011-2014.
Photo provided by Carolina Mastretta

Circuit Superstars, published by Square Enix Collective, the company’s marquee for indie games, launched in early access on PC a year ago. Players and fans usually start their descriptions of the game — “Micro Machines” is always a reference — by focusing on its aesthetic. But it’s a legitimately challenging racer, with the kind of stable, muscle-memory traction and handling model that video game drivers can feel in the bigger boys, like the WRC or F1 series.

There’s local and online multiplayer, and single-player events against bot fields on a variety of tracks. But even Circuit Superstars time trial mode can keep perfectionists glued to the track for a couple dozen laps, convinced they can still shave another tenth of a second off somewhere. The top-down perspective gives one the mental idea of controlling an RC car more than sitting behind the wheel. But that’s also intentional, as Carlos and Alberto also raced RC vehicles competitively, to go along with their four-wheel careers.

“We felt there was space for a detailed, modern, top-down racing game that gave you the same feeling of flow and focus that you get in RC racing, which is something we love,” Carlos Mastretta said. “This way, we wouldn’t get into the hyper-developed type of racing game, which, obviously, would have been very difficult as a new studio.”

Carlos and Alberto started experimenting with their vision for a racer back in 2015, Carlos said, around the time Carolina was working as a design lead on Age of Empires 4 at Relic Entertainment. Her industry knowledge and advice helped the brothers find Square Enix to pitch them with a time trial demo of what Circuit Superstars would become.

a helmeted driver pulls on his racing gloves before taking a seat on a Formula A kart
Original Fire Games’ Carlos and Alberto Mastretta both have competitive racing backgrounds.
Photo provided by Carolina Mastretta

Square and the Mastrettas began their partnership in early 2019, which brought Carolina over as a studio co-founder and its site executive. Two of Carolina’s colleagues from Relic — engineers Philip Wardlaw and John Werner — soon came aboard, too. Original Fire Games is also based in British Columbia (where Alberto studied game design at Vancouver Film School).

“From early access, and all of last year, it was like a constant learning mode, and the integration of [that] learning, and slowly improving things,” Carolina said of development — particularly with regard to port forwarding and netcode, where Original Fire hired on contractors, she said. “I think it was really good that we got ourselves on [Steam] Early Access, because it really helped us to enter a very iterative approach with [Circuit Superstars]; that we’re playing with the community, learning, and investigating, and integrating those lessons and improving it over time.”

Circuit Superstars garnered critical acclaim with its full version launch in October. Part of the success, Alberto said, came from avoiding design rabbit holes and experiments with extraneous features or gameplay mechanisms, to remain focused on the core satisfaction of racing the cars they’d designed. “You feel like you have a really grounded car, and a car that you believe in,” said Alberto, speaking like a bona fide competitive driver. “The feedback, even from that [perspective] allows you to push, and have a really close experience, like you’re actually driving the car and finding its limit.”

Though they wouldn’t call Circuit Superstars a live-service game, yet, the Mastrettas have plans for additional content and title updates, both to expand the game’s offerings and accommodate the expectations of its big-tent player base. Circuit Superstars’ biggest hit appears to be the Top Gear Time Attack, a branded mode featuring the BBC show’s test track and “The Stig,” its anonymous test driver. That’s where Square Enix’s muscle came in; the BBC was looking to partner Top Gear with a video game and the suits managed to do a deal.

high performance touring cars on a back straight in late afternoon in Circuit Superstars Image: Original Fire Games/Square Enix

“We feel that a particular pain point our players have faced when they enter the game, they see the stylization, and they feel like the game is more challenging than they were expecting,” Alberto acknowledged. “That has had a lot to do with the interaction between cars, so we’ve made improvements there for future patches. We’re still trying to find that perfect balance of what the game looks like and what it feels like to play.”

Circuit Superstars won’t, however, try to get more sophisticated or complex. Alberto briefly considered adding a manual transmission to the game, then backed off, figuring many players wouldn’t enjoy changing gears on a gamepad. Racing setups or tuning also aren’t on the whiteboard, as they get in the way of pick-up-and-play expectations.

But in terms of additional modes of play and vehicles, the Mastrettas are committed to robust post-launch support. Especially vehicles. With Circuit Superstars now launched on two consoles and PC, Carolina has a couple ideas for DLC vehicles — ones already designed by Mastrettas.

“The Faccia Feroce was donated to a museum in Puebla (Mexico), where our dad is from,” she said. “I think sometimes it gets added to an expo attached to the Carrera Panamericana. I would definitely love to see both cars on Circuit Superstars. I think we will do it as a gift to our dad sometime this year.”