Interview: Driver: San Francisco
Driver: San Francisco is somewhat of a homecoming for the long-running Driver series. A return to its roots, or so the PR machine speaks. This time, however, the words don’t ring hollow. Tanner is back, the focus on breakneck racing thrills is back, and perhaps more importantly, Martin Edmondson, Ubisoft Reflections’ creative director and studio founder, is back. Edmondson left the Newcastle-based studio in 2004 as a result of the controversy surrounding Atari and Driv3r, but with the newly-renamed Ubisoft Reflections now in more stable hands, he has agreed to return to oversee the next evolution of Driver. We met with him to talk about his experiences.
Driver‘s open world racing format was considered revolutionary when it was released. How did you shift gears from creating Demolition Derby to Driver?
We’d designed Destruction Derby about a year before Driver. One of the tracks we had in that game was a simple figure of eight circuit, which being what it was, had a crossroads junction in the middle. We were in the middle of a playtesting session and the thing that triggered Driver was the thought: ‘what if there were traffic lights there?’ So, instead of following a line, I had the freedom to turn left or right, and so did all the other cars. That was how the idea came to be; once it had formed it was further inspired by the old 1970′s style car chase movies, which was the vibe we always wanted to recreate.
It must have seemed a bit of an abstract idea at that point. How was it received when you pitched it to publishers?
We felt Demolition Derby‘s technology was perfectly suited for what we wanted to achieve with Driver, so we built a fully playable car chase demo from Derby’s engine and pitched it to the publishers that way. It was really the only way to get it off the ground because as you say, when you explain a concept that’s a bit ‘different’ in words, you’re always expecting a reply along the lines of, "well, it’s a good idea, but it sounds really difficult to do…” Since Reflections was my company at the time, the cost all came out of my pocket and there were no publishers to answer to in that respect. In the end, GT Interactive were so impressed they ended up buying the entire company on the back on the Driver demo.
Do you think it’s still possible for developers to push through creative or offbeat ideas by putting together prototypes in this manner – almost as a hobby?
Not so easily unless you’re willing to incur substantial losses. It was still a risk back then – Driver cost several million to develop to a playable stage – but now we’re talking about tens of millions at least.
Driver has always been inspired by the great car chase movies of yesteryear such as Bullitt. But what other influences has the series picked up in the previous decade? Are there any games you admire for pushing the genre forward?
We’re not influenced at all by other games because we still think that despite all the years that have gone by, there still isn’t anything that’s quite like Driver. We’re fully focused on nailing the perfect car chase; 90 degree bends, flinging the tail end of the car out into the slide, and having everything be done through physics rather than trying to fake it. No one else has put that amount of thought into that one single aspect of a driving game, and that’s why our influences haven’t changed and Driver continues to be rooted in film mythology.
The quality of the Driver series tailed off, culminating in 2004′s Driv3r receiving some very frosty reviews. Do you think Driver got caught in the trap of trying to keep up with the open-world environment trend that dominated the previous generation?
We certainly defocused from the driving in Driv3r. We got the balance just about right with Driver 2, but then we pushed it further than we should have done. Getting the running around sections working properly was an enormous task which drew development time away from what the game really should have been all about – driving.
In the end, something had to give because we couldn’t get it all finished to the deadlines we had to work under. I have no problems with the driving sections at all in Driv3r – I think that part of the game was spot on – but ultimately we couldn’t get the on-foot sections finished at all and the entire thing suffered for it. To go back to the present day, Driver: San Francisco’s Shift mechanic was also a drain on resources to get up and running to our satisfaction, but it doesn’t actively push our developmental team away from the core focus of driving – and it doesn’t take up as much of the player’s time, too.
Is Shift [Driver 5's mechanic whereby players can instantly jump from car to car] is a means to an end; a way to eliminate on-foot sections without restricting the player to a single vehicle?
In a sense, yes, but it wasn’t conceived as a direct replacement. The true inspiration behind it came from Google Earth. We wondered what it would be like if you could play a kind of ‘Google Earth Live’, with all the traffic driving around the city in real-time and you could grab any car you wanted at any time…we weren’t sure how it was going to turn out, but once we got it working we quickly realised that the mechanic, being so instantaneous, opens up a world of possibilities that just weren’t there before. Take today’s demonstration as an example. [Earlier in the day, Martin showcased Shift to the assembled press by warping ahead of his target and forming a roadblock with an oil tanker]. How would you do that in normal circumstances; get out of your car and try to sprint up the road ahead of the other guy?
The last Driver game to be released, 2006′s Parallel Lines, met with lukewarm reviews and sales. How much of this was due to a reputational ‘hangover’ from Driv3r?
Although I didn’t personally work on it, I understand there were several problems with Parallel Lines from the beginning. Firstly, the team were working to an extremely tight (some might say crazily so) turnaround cycle of under a year, so all we got were small evolutions and fixing of problems – not the revolution that was needed. It also didn’t help that Atari’s financial problems were public domain and this led to issues with the way the game was marketed. We didn’t have anywhere near the right amount of money or time to reshape the series at that time.
Reflections has a reputation for making some of the toughest games around; in many cases, they’ve been just a little too tough for the masses. Is there a reason why your studio sets the bar of entry so high?
That is because, above all reasons, I like difficult games. With previous publishers, we were left to our own devices and if we wanted to make them difficult then that was what we did! With Ubisoft there’s a lot more focus testing and to tell the truth we’re better for it. We do as a studio actually acknowledge that our previous games were too difficult. Take the original Driver’s garage as an example – there was no need for it to be as tough as it was – it was a design mistake, basically. But it didn’t get caught because no one outside the studio took a look at it until the game was on the shelves. It took me by surprise just how difficult people found it, actually, I felt terrible about it.
Was it a mistake, or were you just making games the way you feel they should be?
Oh, it was definitely a mistake because difficult shouldn’t mean frustrating. Speaking personally, I like games to throw up a challenge, because otherwise I don’t feel like I’ve had value for money. It should never feel like a procession, but we can hit that target without frustrating our audience.
Finally, why have you waited until now to bring back the Driver name?
It was never our intention to go four years without a Driver game – it just happened as a result of many different things colliding, including the development of proprietary engine, which took an awful long time because Driver has always been about realism and realism needs power. Then you’ve got what was happening on a corporate level, with Atari selling us to Ubisoft while we were still working on the rendering engine. But what surprises us is how high the brand recognition of Driver actually is. We’ve got kids today who won’t even have had a PlayStation 2, far less a PSOne, so we were thinking it might be around 20-30 per cent of the market, but in actuality it’s a lot, lot higher. The public still feels a connection with Driver and we hope San Francisco will continue that rapport into this decade.