Driver: San Francisco Interview – Creative Director, Martin Edmondson Takes the Wheel
Written Sunday, May 08, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Reflections (now known as Ubisoft Reflections) has a development legacy that stretches all the way back to 1984, when the studio was first formed by Martin Edmondson, making Amiga games such as Shadow of the Beast before moving on to create Destruction Derby and the Driver series slightly further down the line in 1998.
Since then, Driver has been through several iterations, with mixed receptions for each since the original managed to garner positive praise as one of the first open-world games. Now Driver is back with a single city as its focus in San Francisco and a protagonist that gets put into a coma within the opening minutes.
This time, you can 'Shift' between any vehicle you like, engaging in the everyday lives of the people of San Francisco. We got to chat to Ubisoft Reflections founder and now Creative Director, Martin Edmondson about the latest instalment in the Driver series to talk about the game's coma premise, getting the game to run smoothly and cinematic influences.
Driver: San Francisco has been 4 to 5 years in the making, you told us. Its been quite a long development cycle, you say its 60 frames per second, why is that so important to have in the game?
60 frames per second is one of those things, that's not just a number. If you play a game running at 30 and you play a game running at 60, the difference back to back is certainly quite immense. The fluidity of the visuals, they come toward you smoothly and beautifully. It's much closer to how quickly your eye works and it actually matches the way most TVs update rather than repeating the frame twice so you get that blurred thing at 30. It's also to do with the responsiveness of the controls. It seems like a small thing but once you get that thirtieth-of-a-second gain and things are reacting within a sixtieth-of-a-second, especially in a game like Driver with all the traffic coming at you like this, it's difficult to measure. So when you flick it back to thirty, which we can do with the game, we can just switch, and we have it in there deliberately to keep reminding ourselves why it's been worth all the effort! We flick it to 30 and it's like wow! You get used to it, because a lot of games run at 30 frames, but when you go back to 60 it's so much nicer. Modern Warfare, for example runs at 60 frames and Killzone runs at 30, which means you get more detail but it's much more fluid at 60.
And presumably that affects the handling too then, making it more responsive and immediate, which is exactly what you want in a Driver game...
It does, but again it's hard to measure and prove, yet you know it's there. If you play the game at 30 frames and then play it at 60, the one thing you can guarantee is that you'll want to play it at that smooth 60 frames per second.
In terms of the game's story, where did the idea come from for the 'Shift' mechanic?
The process of Shifting was a game mechanic that we wanted to do and it was inspired by the concept of Google Earth, so you can see the whole game world, but instead of it being an image that's about six months old, what if you can see people walking around and cars driving about in real time, and I can become any single person in a car that I want to, instantaneously? That was the inspiration for it and that was at the very beginning of development as one of the very first concepts we started with five years ago. The concept of Tanner being in a coma came much later, and that was because we needed to justify the mechanic and we thought, what best suits this? Because Driver is rooted in reality, we didn't want to do crazy aliens, time travel or some weird helmet he wears or something like that, so we wanted it rooted in reality. And comas, they are real things, they really happen and when people are in comas, they have visions and dreams and so on. It's as rooted in reality as we could possibly could be with the crazy Shifting mechanic, so that's how it was. Then we just made sure that as the story progresses – you've played some, but you're not that far into it yet – and as it unfolds, while Tanner doesn't know he's in a coma, he thinks he's fine and that he just has this crazy new kind of super power, but of course, the player does realise. So you'll be watching how Tanner gradually come to terms with this, what he does and what he learns from the outside world as it infiltrates his head and uses it later on.
And the Shift mechanic gives you the opportunity to tell a bunch of smaller stories within San Francisco too, like Ray the ambulance driver and other that we saw in the demo. What other examples are there going to be of these mini stories?
There are a number. You come across various characters in the game that you'll meet multiple times, like a bunch of Japanese street racers who are getting themselves into deep trouble with Jericho and his gang. All sorts of these sorts of characters crop up and then there's the random characters who you'll Shift into, just going about their daily business and you'll complete objectives based on their troubles or whatever they happen to be talking about. You might suddenly take the role of a mother driving to drop her kids off at school, and you'll perhaps take a detour that lands you in the middle of a cop chase or whatever it may be, and it just adds some quite good humour alongside the more serious stuff.
This is the first Driver to feature licensed cars. Was that always the way you wanted Driver to be?
We would have always liked to have done it, truth be told, but it certainly wasn't practical in the early days of Driver, because at the beginning, Driver was a sort of an unknown quantity, so part of the design for this game was being in a real city, they're real car chases, based on real movies and if we want to replicate those, we need real cars. It was something that we were absolutely adamant about and we weren't sure if it was possible within the framework of the game, but we did was set up a dedicated team of several people whose day to day job was dealing with the licensing issues around the cars, and that's all they've done for the past four years. It was an enormous job. In fact, it was one of the single biggest jobs aside from building the game itself, maintaining relationships with with the manufacturers, justifying why we're doing what we're doing, setting their points, building them into the game without affecting it and ensuring that they're all aligned and the rules are the same for every manufacturer. There can be no special rules for certain cars, no one manufacturer can stand out, but we had to make sure that the game made sense while taking that into account, which was a truly enormous task.
Having said that, was there still a manufacturer you had in mind that you really wanted for the game? Dodge for instance, as it's the car with the starring role.
Well yes, Dodge was one, but not just Dodge. There was Ford for the Mustang, Pontiac for the Trans-Am and the GTO that was used in The French Connection. To pick out one would be unfair, because we want the spread. Any movie car chase you can think of, the car's probably in the game.
Driver has always been heavily influenced by car chase movies. I can remember the intro sequence for the first Driver being an almost shot-for-shot CG version of the opening scene in The Driver. Are there any other movies that you count as really big influences on the game?
I think so. We actually have some interesting references back to the original Driver, so you're going to see some stuff in Driver: San Francisco that was in the first game and hasn't been seen since. It's a nice little nod back to it. But yeah, that intro when Ryan O'Neal comes into the car park and steals the car in The Driver, the intro in the first Driver was all inspired by that. The very first movie I remember going to see at the cinema was The Driver, so that had a huge impact on me, so Driver was the dream game for me to make, based on a favourite movie of mine.
I remember seeing The Driver and immediately wanting to systematically destroy the orange Mercedes, piece by piece like in the movie.
Well that was an inspiration obviously for the garage tutorial section in the first game.
What were the challenges in creating the tutorial for the new game? Was it getting people to understand the Shift mechanic and the reasoning behind it?
It's difficult, because if I'm shown the game with no tutorial, people will think, “well, that was cool, but it didn't make any sense.” So, when it comes to a tutorial, it's not constantly hand-holding, it's just showing you step-by-step, it's not overly mollycoddling you, but at the same time it's informative and I think we've struck the balance right. It's not actually finished yet, so it's still bitty in places, but the idea is to really end a play session after 45 minutes or so, so that the player knows and totally understands what to do so that they're ready to play the game.
When I think Reflections, I remember some great games, but I remember them being some of the toughest I've ever played too. One the one hand, there's a lot to be said for a really challenging game like that, but for a more casual player it can be a turn off. Have you addressed the difficulty level for Driver: San Francisco?
Yes and the reason that those games were so difficult, unfortunately was me. For example, that garage section I could do in 23 seconds, so I think that giving the player 60 seconds is plenty of time. If you can't do it in 60 seconds, you're not good enough! You wouldn't get away with design decisions like that these days. Now there are a lot of younger players and one of the big focuses at Ubisoft as well, is accessibility. So, there's lots and lots of focus testing. Twice a week we do a focus testing group with loads of people in Paris, and we get proper reports with graphs and all this sort of stuff. It's useful data and it's data that you can't argue with, so if the overall consensus is that a mission is too hard, we'll make the changes necessary and re-test. We've been testing for the best part of a year now, so we've got lots of data. The idea is to have a smooth progression, which is difficult in itself when there's an open-world, which is unpredictable with so much going on. What we want to do, is make it so that the difficulty builds but doesn't go nutty like Driver or Stuntman did.
Would you like to revisit Stuntman one day?
Well, the Stuntman franchise is owned by THQ who bought it off Atari and did Stuntman: Ignition, which was the sequel and so I don't really know where it resides now. I'd love to do another one, because it's part of the history of Reflections. It's cars, it's crashing, it's movies. We'd do it very differently first of all, so it wouldn't be quite so linear and hardcore. I don't regret the decisions that we made, because it absolutely did the job at the time. I do look back at it with a mixture of aggravation and fondness.
That pretty much sums up how I look back at it. I had to give up by the time I got to the James Bond-style sequences.
Was that the part with the Lamborghini-type car at the end?
I think that was the one, yes. But I spent hours after that building my own stunt tracks.
(Laughs) That was actually a very robust system and if you look at some of the YouTube videos, some people did some crazy stuff with it that was incredible.
Do you think there's another car-based franchise that you'd like to create in the future to complement Stuntman and Driver?
Just talking personally, I'd love to revisit Destruction Derby, because we only did the first two and there were other ones and various online ones that went off in other directions. What I'd love to do – and it might not make sense – would to go back and do British banger racing, which was what Destruction derby was based on; Demolition Derby as it's called in the UK. So, banger racing, with relatively cheap cars just... It would never sell, but it'd be great to do it.
Well, you never know. It might sell!
Perhaps in the UK.
Keeping in mind the Reflections legacy, would you have liked to put in Destruction Derby cars or something like that into Driver: San Francisco as a secret Easter egg?
There are a few things like that in there, but we have to be careful because licenses like Stuntman, Destruction Derby and Shadow of the Beast are owned by other people, so as soon as you open up that question, it becomes a big deal. There's more stuff in there that references the first Driver game rather than stuff like Destruction Derby.
Which is your personal favourite of the Driver games?
Well, this one now. Purely because I can play it without even having to do a mission, so I can just enjoy driving around, powersliding round corners, especially in the new in-car view where I can see the hands on the wheel and honking the horn and stuff. It's the first time I've ever been involved with a game where playing it is actually, genuinely a pleasure, because it's so different and there's that fluidity of movement. If it was 30 frames per second, I wouldn't feel quite the same way and if we hadn't nailed the handling, I'd find that annoying and so there's that sort of thing. But the first Driver was special because it was brand new and no one had done it before, it was the first open-world environment that wasn't possible on a SEGA Saturn or any other machine. It needed the PlayStation one to do it, so that was exciting. From that point of view, we're shifting tech and especially considering that it runs at 60 frames, that wouldn't have been possible on PlayStation 2 or Xbox. It would have been impossible, so that makes it exciting for me, because it's not just taking tech from a previous game and moving it onto a new system, then saying, “right, let's go mad on the graphics and create loads of new effects.” This is about creating a new core mechanic with Shift, which even if we'd wanted it to in the previous games, it would not have worked on previous machines.
I must say I was really impressed with the CG cut scenes being seamlessly inter-cut with the actual game. Was that hard to do?
It was an absolute nightmare! It seemed like it would be a really simple thing and we thought we don't need to render the car for the CG, so we'll concentrate on the rendering of the faces, so you'll have noticed how realistic the faces are. Obviously that's a lot of rendering time, effort and so on, so what we do is render all of those, have the car scenes use the game engine and then the other advantage we have there is that those scenes can run at 60 frames - although it's not the end of the world if they don't, but it's a nice thing to have – and then we'll intersperse the CG parts and do this 70s style black-lined, very Dirty Harry type of thing. It was hard to do, but it works well.
Is there a lot of that in the game, or did you decide to pare it down a bit once you realised what a headache it was to do?
There’s as much as we wanted to put in, but we had to be careful with a driving and action game as we don't want too many cut scenes, because then you're trying to tell the story but you don't want people desperately mashing the button to get past the cut scene. Two guys talking in a car can get a bit boring after a while, so we keep them nice and snappy, hopefully amusing in some cases, and very watchable.
Was it exciting to revisit San Francisco in a Driver game and flesh it our more than you previously had the chance to?
Yeah, because the thing is that when we built it the first time, it was so difficult on PlayStation one to make it look like the real San Francisco. We'd have a giant bitmap of the Transamerica Building and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, now you'll be able to see the difference when you're at the top of the hill, so you'll want to just drive around between missions. From the top of the hill, you can see right over the bay, all the way over to the Oakland Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, Transamerica and the Sutro Tower, which is like ten miles away, but you can see it. That's genuinely exciting. It's useful as a location, because we don't have a draw distance, it just draws, which is some clever stuff and so when you're in the city just having a drive around, you can see Transamerica is over there, the Sutro Tower is over there, I know exactly where I am.
So, if you've visited or live in San Francisco, you'll know exactly where you're going.
Driver: San Francisco is speeding towards an August 30th, 2011 release in North America and September 2nd, 2011 release in Europe. Hit the link to read our latest hands-on preview.