Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Simon Barlow, Driveclub Design director talks

Simon Barlow, Driveclub Design director talks

On the eve of the launch of Driveclub, I caught up with the design director Simon Barlow to discuss the game, its delay, its new weather system and its community-led focus.

You've been quiet for a little bit after the game's launch was put back, but now you're out there, talking about the game - what's the reaction been like?
Really, really positive. It was ultimately our decision to delay the game; we were in a position last year, where the game was good, we could have released it and it would have sold okay, would have reviewed okay, but it wasn't quite what we wanted for Driveclub. We had a much more ambitious plan than that for it - and so nearing launch, we were thinking we'd like some more time to refine it and really deliver on that vision, so we went back to Sony and asked for extra time and Shuhei Yoshida, the president said OK, take as long as you need to get it right. To have that support was incredible, as we were really nervous about that meeting.

There's more of a focus these days on getting the games right, do you think?
Yeah, definitely. And I think that was why they were supportive of that decision. Similarly with The Order as well, Watch_Dogs, there are other companies waking up to this attitude that it's not going to harm us; because in terms of sales, it's actually going to be more harmful if we release it unfinished. So from our point of view, the reaction has been very positive. I'm on community forums, so I try to get a sense of what the community is saying. There seems to be this sense that this really was the best thing for the title - and people are saying I'm glad you delayed it because this looks awesome now and this is the game we wanted to play.

How far do you go with community feedback? Does there come a point when you say enough is enough and don't dwell too far on what's being discussed? Or do you dive into the feedback/ comments?
It's going to be a mixture of both I think. We have talked a little bit about our plans post launch. We have 12 months worth of content, both free and paid DLC. Most big features are going to be free - so things like a new location for free, photo mode for free, the weather update... In fact, weather and photo mode were requested by the community when we first re-announced Driveclub at the start of the year, one of the things was what would people like to see in this extra time. One of the most requested things was weather, so we started looking at it and I guess we have our own visions for where we want the game to go, but we've deliberately not tied up all developer resources into that, just so that we're in a position to look at what the community's response is to this product. And to make sure we can allocate the resource to that. Ultimately though, it's going to be our decision though, because we have a vision for the title. But we are launching this as a service, not just a standalone product so we have to be able to respond to and engage with the community.

Is it bizarre to you that as a developer of a game about driving that weather's become such a big thing to you?
Yeah, I suppose so. It depends on your definition of weather. Even in our WRC games, we had rain and snow even but pretty much every other video game, when weather's added, it just tends to be an effect. Maybe there's some kind of dynamic particle systems or stuff like that, it just doesn't really tend to alter the atmospheric conditions. We built this engine from the ground up, it's a physically based rendering, it has a full material based system, so rather than just applying textures to things, we know the properties, the density, how porous the material is, how light reflects off it. So that when we looked at adding weather to the game, specifically precipitation, you're adding it to an already existing atmospheric simulation so what that means is it integrates directly into that environment and has an effect on everything that's going on. The weather is so integrated into the simulation that it's all encompassing; if you were to put the rain on full, the river levels around the game would rise over time, because everything is simulated. It was key for us to do that because if it doesn't affect the gameplay, or hit how the gameplayer is playing, then there's no point doing it - it has to be tightly integrated into the game experience. It was absolutely essential for us to visit the places we wanted to create. If we're going to do a full material definition database, you need to sample those materials exactly, you cannot in any way approximate them. Whereas in the past traditional reference trips and most games were still built, you'd go and get light refence; that was enough for the last generation of consoles but for this generation you really want to push things. As a developer, we are moving closer to virtual simulation and approximating reality as best you can, so you have to go the extra step. We have a bespoke process for doing all capture. People have commented how natural the game looks, how the cars are seated in the world, how the light bounces off things. None of that would be possible if the base reference wasn't as accurate as it was. Even with these cars, some of them we put like 16 microphones on them and in crazy places on the cars; we'd  crawl inside the carbon fibre body and pin them to the inside; we'd listen to it, and wherever we thought we were getting some interesting noise, we'd put a mike in there. We got to the point where what we were doing was producing such an accurate representation of the world, even the likes of BMW and Mercedes Benz wanted our sound libraries.

So is Driveclub an arcade game or a simulation?
It's a real blend of the two. And it was a real tough job to get that right, because invariably, if you aim for two targets, you end up missing both of them. So, what we did was - we have a fairly unique approach to development; we are a tech company first and foremost, known for delivering really cutting edge technology and because of that we have a really detailed physics simulation model. So regardless of what the expectation is, whether it's WRC or Motorstorm, both of those series were built on real world physics and Driveclub is no different. You start with the simulation and trying to recreate the mechanics of how these cars work; how the tire model is so critical, so you have to get that right; once you've done that, then you can start playing around with how the car feels. I've been doing this for like 15 years now, personally I've learnt a lot. I'm not saying we know everything at Evolution Studios, but we have a lot of experience making these types of games. What we've found is if you try to simply just recreate the mechanics of a vehicle, something doesn't feel right. Even if it gives you the feeling of a car, that's not enough from the game, because you don't have the same senses as you would in a real car, no peripheral vision, no bounces through the seat. You can't simulate that; you have to approximate it, you have to alter the way the cars behave, to try and recreate driving that car. We're trying to capture not just the mechanics of the vehicle, but the emotion, that intangible feeling of racing these high performance cars.

Tell me more about the dynamic of the club element...
It has to be inclusive, because we're a socially connected racing club. It's a game that's supposed to be shared and experienced with other people. That being said, you have to have as broad a community as you can, because we live or die on this community. So if the game is impenetrable and if you're a member of a club and you're not the best driver out of your mates, we don't want to be in a position where they're going to kick you because you're bringing the club down because that wouldn't suit the game experience. What we've done is make it that there are multiple different reward streams for whatever your skill set is; there's ways for you to both enjoy the game but also contribute to your club, so you can be the elite racer or you can be the drifter, hooning round corners, maybe you like Mercedes or Ferraris, you may just be a car lover not the best racer, but we reward you for a loyalty towards a brand or manufacturer. The way the challenge system works, we've built little mechanics in there that encourage you to share things with other people, so that if you're in a club challenge, it's advantageous for you to invite other people and your club-mates to take part in that challenge, even if they're not going to be winning, the more people that take part the greater the rewards for your club.

Have you seen anything on your travels that you'd like to incorporate into the game?
I've been so busy with press that I've not yet had chance, but you're always looking. Even things like flying over into New Zealand and looking at the landscape and just being absolutely blown away by the look of the land, it's such a beautiful place and I've probably explored around a 100th of it. I wanted to come here - I was due to come here a couple of years ago and the trip got cancelled, but I was desperately trying to get back. Your eyes are always open - but it's difficult when you've got so little time to pick any specifics out. Even when I'm driving my own commute to work every day, there's probably still things I notice - even the way the lights catch the trees or subtle things like that, you think it's a nice effect and I'd like to try and recreate it. You never stop trying to take it all in.

What's the one moment of the game that you're proudest of?
The one thing that still blows me away is the day to night transitions. It's hard to articulate without seeing it or experiencing it, but this is an atmospheric simulation; even the star maps are accurate; somewhere in the game you can go to where an atmosphere is so thin and quality of light is so different from the rest of the game. You can just park your car there, go into photo mode and wait for the day to night transition, and see the stars come out. That never ceases to amaze me and I've been playing the close-to-complete build for about 12 months now. I'm always amazed by things I see - it's an incredible thing to try and recreate that.

Tell us a secret from the game
(Laughing) We've been so open, that we've not hidden anything. There's no Easter Eggs in the game; it is what it is. We've been really open and I think that was really important for us as we want to have a good relationship with our community. Every time we've released footage, it's been live game-play footage, not rendered, we've not done any treatment on it; we don't do any pre-rendering, everything is in game. So we've got nothing to hide!

What are your plans for DLC post launch?
We're going to release 3 cars every month along with paid for car packs that are optional; there's going to be new tracks delivered, they're going to be free as we don't want to segregate the community, so even the new locations are going to be free. The weather update and photo mode are going to be there too. We're looking at a replay system as well, it's coming, we're working on it. We've been upfront about what we're going to do for the next 12 months, and honestly, I don't know what this game is going to look like in 12 months. We've got an idea of where we want to take it, but I don't know what it'll look like in 12 months' time, that's kind of exciting!

Driveclub is out now on PS4.

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