Drive Club, the Evolution racer nine years in the making

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Drive Club’s audiovisual sheen, as revealed for the first time on PS4 at PlayStation Meeting on February 20, might suggest that this is a videogame created in the here and now.

That’s not the full story. Studio game director Matt Southern and tech director Scott Kirkland have been developing the idea since even before the UK studio started development on its PS3 launch title MotorStorm.

Here, we find out why Drive Club took a backseat for so many years, Evolution’s ambitions to push the game beyond simulation and arcade racing, and how the studio is using PS4’s increased horsepower.

It’s a little unusual for a game to have been at the concept stage for so long – can you tell us what forms it has taken as it has existed and evolved over the years?

Matt Southern: I’ve been here nine years and it was probably one of the first concepts I was told about. Over the development of Drive Club over the past couple of years we’ve revisited some of those old materials to look at how it is the same and in other areas different. And certainly right from day one we wanted to use everything we’d learned about recreating real-world locations and that lovely feeling you get when something just looks breathtaking.

It’s our favourite element of shows like Top Gear, where they just do it so well, you’re reminded of an absolutely staggering vista and that in its simplicity can be such a wonderful thing to see, that’s always been a core part of the game. So has recreating real vehicles with real love. Try to communicate not just the technical side of a vehicle but the way these things are built with love and passion and just how amazing it feels to sit inside, that’s always been a part of the Drive Club experience. Looking at some of those, again, those very early pictures back when we were independent, some elements made their way into bits of Motorstorm, we had those two ideas [of Motorstorm and Drive Club] on the boil at the time.

Why was Drive Club deferred, rather than MotorStorm?

Matt Southern: There’s a number of reasons, really. It was all kinds of things lining up – we chose to go with MotorStorm and I think it was because we’d made a licensed game and we really loved making the WRC series on PS2. We’d lived that life, attended rallies, got to know rally drivers, gone all around the world, just been absolutely willingly absorbed in that sport. And so when it came to decide on a new IP for PlayStation 3 we just wanted to go insane. I don’t mean this in a kind of negative way, but we were free from the constraints of a licence and we wanted anarchy and insanity to be the hallmark of the game we made. So MotorStorm was a really liberating game for us to work on initially. Both felt like valid choices but that meant that some of the things we wanted to do with Drive Club, there were levels of details and accuracy, we could actually wait a little longer for technology to allow us to build it. There are online interviews with our previous owner Martin Kenwright – I think he says: “We’re already thinking about PlayStation 5.” What he was alluding to was this idea that we’d decided then that there was going to be another next gen at some point, and that Drive Club was probably best to wait for then.

And it’s always had this strong social element, and I’m not claiming any huge level of prescience here, but at the time social meant something else, it meant websites. And we looked at all kinds of things, we looked at personal ads on the internet… dare I say it there are even mock-ups [for Drive Club] that look like dating sites. This game has always been about social clubs wanting to race together, and having waited now we can, with a certain degree of hindsight, say the time is now right for that. Those social mechanisms, the transformation of the internet, the explosion of connected groups of people online means that the time is now to make the game, when it just wasn’t previously. And you look at what Facebook says about the phenomenon of social networks, and they describe it as connected groups, that’s what Drive Club has always been about. Now is the time for connected group racing.

Obviously you feel there’s room on PS4 for two very high-fidelity sim-racers… was there any internal hand-wringing over moving into a space that traditionally Gran Turismo has owned on Sony platforms?

Matt Southern: I don’t think there was any hand-wringing. We don’t regard ourselves as a simulation as such, that has a lot of attached associations in terms of the core experience, where it sits in the overall gaming landscape and we’re very happy, comfortable that we sit somewhere else. Particularly in terms of how many people we’re aiming to have play the game together.

Sony chose to acquire two first party racing studios, one a long time after the other. I can only speak on behalf of one them: us. We’ve not had any resistance or issues in terms of developing this as a concept on its own.

With MotorStorm you’ve owned that more arcade kind of racing, with Polyphony operating in the sim space – is there more convergence between the two now?

Matt Southern: Well, the way we’ve tried to look at that is to say… I basically issued a challenge to the team which was to say that time again you’ll see presentations or articles online that there’s this landscape for racing. And at one end of the landscape there’s simulation and at the other end is arcade. You can maybe add a vertical axis with singleplayer and multiplayer. I said we want to see that as a last-gen delineation. There are new spaces to occupy that transcend those old definitions and that move us away from all other racers, that try to create a new kind of experience that is accessible and fun and social, but is nevertheless breathtaking to look at and sophisticated and deep at the same time as it’s accessible. So we didn’t really look at those landscapes, any other titles, except in the sense of saying “let’s try and move beyond them all and be ambitious, try and carve out a new space for a new generation.”

That said, how are you looking to harness the extra power a new generation brings?

Scott Kirkland: I mean, in terms of features that really help us out, there’s the CPU, having that symmetrical architecture, that’s made it really easy for us to gain great performance from the outset. When we look at PS3 development, it was very powerful architecture, but one that took a fair amount of time to get up to speed with and exploit, and that showed on each iteration of Motorstorm. Whereas with Drive Club that power is just there, on the table, all very accessible right from the outset. Knowing every console is going to have a hard-drive in it, that’s something we’re able to plan for, we’ve got brilliant strategies for boosting the time spent playing the game.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Play-Go initiative which Mark Cerny spoke about, that’s something we’ve been bringing in and we’ve been heavily involved in the discussions on that. We know that that, combined with the Blu-Ray disc for physical delivery, the hard-drive is just going to allow us to deliver awesome experiences to players in a fraction of the load times and download times that players experienced on PS3 and Xbox.

From a GPU perspective, there’s a whole load of special sauce that’s gone into the GPU development. And that paves the way for us to do all sorts of general purpose compute work on there as well. It’s always going to be a balancing act between the kind of hardcore graphics guys who want to use all that power for what goes on the screen, but there’s some great complimentary stuff that we can do with the GPU as well.

With it being a very contemporary GPU core [there’s] a whole bunch of new graphics features probably familiar to PC developers but we’ve spent a lot of time in PS3 land so we had to play catch-up on some of those. It’s given us lots of great things to work with, things like texture arrays, hardware instancing, volume textures, tessellation, texture compression, they’re all really cool features that we’re leveraging in all sorts of interesting ways.

The cool stuff, again from the announcement event, the suspend and resume side of things, that’s really exciting to us as well. That means, again, less time players will spend waiting for the game to load and more time spent playing. You get home from school or work, hit the power button and very quickly you can be back in Drive Club and enjoying that social experience. There’s the activity feed system, I can’t remember if it was talked about at the announcement event, I think it was around Mark Cerny’s presentation, he showed some things with both the game live-streaming and the activity feed. We’ve done a lot of work with those features so Drive Club will be out-putting all sorts of social, or status, updates that will drive social activity, giving important updates on what your friends are doing and will drive people to get involved in different things. And then the game live-streaming as well, that’s a really powerful tool to promote awareness of what players are doing and kind of encourage people to get involved in those kind of activities.

With the spectating functions, is there room to create an e-sports-type scene around that functionality?

Scott Kirkland: It’s awesome. I mean, the controller has a Share button on it. You hit the Share button, if you’ve configured your streaming service connection, then the stream is out there. I don’t think there have been any announcements about the kind of partner services who’ll be providing that, but in development we have simple tools, the service runs on my desktop PC, I hit the Share button on my devkit and I can just see what’s going on in my devkit through a web browser window. That’s brilliant. You get the output from the camera as well so you can see your friends’ reactions to your overtaking manoeuvres or spectacular crashes.

You can read more on how Evolution Studios influenced the new design of PlayStation 4’s new pad DualShock 4 here.