Interview – Simon Barlow, Lead Developer of DRIVECLUB
Playstation Australia invited Save Game along to a launch event on the eve of EB Expo, giving members of the gaming press a chance to get a hands-on with some brand new games coming out for Playstation 4, and something else that’s without compare, an empty Expo hall. There were a number of games on display, including The Order 1886, Little Big Planet 3, Bloodborne and of course, DRIVECLUB.
The real draw of the evening was DRIVECLUB, and Simon Barlow. Simon is the Design Director of Evolution Studios, as well as the Lead Developer for DRIVECLUB. Amidst these very comfortable surroundings, near some very shiny cars, I had the chance to sit down with Simon and ask him about his game.
Nick: DRIVECLUB was intended to be one of the PS4 launch titles but it was delayed. How does it feel now to have the game actually ready for release?
Simon: It’s amazing, believe me. It’s been three years and this is a real labour of love for us. We spent a long time working on it and poured a lot of ourselves into it.
Nick: Evolution has pretty much just done driving games.
Simon: We’re big racing fans, we’re car fans, and these are the games that we love to make. DRIVECLUB is an idea that we were kicking around ten years ago. We had this idea for a socially connected racing game for people to get together and share in car culture, but this was before social networking, before online gaming was as big as it is now, so the platform wasn’t there for it and we had to park the idea.
It’s only when we started talking to Sony about the PS4 – they came to us which is one of the advantages of being a first-party developer – they gave us early access to the hardware, they talked to us about what their plans were, and about Playstation 4 being a connected, shared experience. That’s what we were trying to do with DRIVECLUB so we thought maybe now’s the right time to do this. This is a game that we’ve wanted to make for a very long time, and it’s only really now with what PS4’s doing that we can offer it.
Nick: And at the moment, a lot of games are pushing the social aspect, while for you, it’s something that you’ve had there from the start, before it was actually possible.
Simon: Absolutely. We say social – social gets about. It’s a buzzword that’s used a lot, and when a lot of people say social they mean ‘it connects to Facebook’ and that’s not social. Social is about shared experiences. That’s what connects people together. It’s about making those connections with your mates, sharing things, moments, and that’s in the PS4’s DNA. It’s what the platform is designed to do and that’s what DRIVECLUB is all about.
Of course you can play it on your own and there’s plenty of solo challenges to take part in, but the point we’re trying to get across is that it’s great to win but it’s better to win with friends, to share in that experience with people and that’s what we’re hoping to do with DRIVECLUB.
Nick: Have you found that the delay has either increased the anticipation people have for the game or decreased it?
Simon: Increased. The buzz has been fantastic. The feedback we’re getting from the press and media, but also from fans and the community, is that the delay was the best thing to do. We had a game at launch. It was a pretty good game, and we could have launched, but we had this really ambitious vision for the title and it wasn’t quite right, so we took the decision to delay it. That’s really paid off for us, and we’ve been able to address the issues behind the delay, which was mostly to do with the dynamic menu.
I was just about to ask about that (the dynamic menu) actually.
It was a real big thing for us because it’s such a connected experience. The social networking, we have three different server infrastructures that the game supports, we have a mobile application on phone and tablet and all of these things connect and the point where they converge is in the dynamic menu. The game uses a lot of push content, not a traditional kind of interface.
We tend to curate content for the player and suggest things for the player to do, and that was the thing that took the time. That affected about a third of the team, maybe up to half at some points, but we had the rest of the team, mostly the artists, with an extra year’s development, so we looked at what we could do.
You didn’t give them the year off?
I wish! And I think they wish as well. What we looked at was: this is the game that we’ve got, we’ve built this engine from the ground up for Playstation 4. It wasn’t specifically made for DRIVECLUB but it was our next-generation engine, and it just so happened that DRIVECLUB was the game that we produced with it. It meant that the engine was made to be extensible, one that we could upgrade and enhance, so when we had this extra year’s development, our artists and the render team, the low-level tech team, sat down and worked out what they could do in the twelve months that they had.
One of the main things that they looked at was weather. Internally we wanted to do it, but it was also one of the most requested features in the community. So we thought let’s give it a go, let’s see if we can do weather, and we have. We put it together, it looks absolutely awesome, and it’s going to be a free upgrade to the game.
How extreme does the weather get?
Oh, huge. When we set out to add it to the game, we wanted it to affect the gameplay. We didn’t want this to be a screen or particle effect. It had to affect the game itself. It’s a full precipitation system. We have a full environmental simulation and what that means is when you add precipitation to the environment, depending on where you are, it manifests in different ways.
If you’re in Norway, which is a very cold area, and you add precipitation and it turns into snow. If you ramp up that precipitation, you get a blizzard. A blizzard’s pretty tough to drive in, but if you then combine that with dynamic time of day, and: you’re racing through a blizzard, at night, on a very narrow road in Norway? It’s pretty hairy, really intense, and that affects the gameplay.
In addition to Norway, the other four locations of the five are Chile, India, Canada and the United Kingdom. What drew you to those places?
Scotland was an obvious choice for us because we’re based in the northwest of England and pretty close to the border with Scotland. We’ve done reference trips up there before for different games – not specifically looking to add Scotland to the game, but because it’s an accessible location. The landscape’s beautiful, there’s lots of interesting environments up there, and we thought, why don’t we put Scotland in the game? It’s something that’s pretty close to home, it’s a phenomenal environment with such a great variety in it, so that was our reason behind that.
When we looked at the other environments, we looked at what else we could add. We took the decision that we were going to do something atypical of racing games, and atypical of games in general. That’s the reason you end up with Chile and India. These are not locations that you see and they offer such great variety.
Chile is such a fascinating country and with the tracks in the game, the racing circuit is right by the waterfront so it’s at sea level, really low down, low altitude, then one of the locations that we have is a place that’s based on a real-world observatory high up in the mountains, and that’s thousands of feet above sea level where the atmosphere is different, the light quality is different, and you’re up above the cloud layer. That variance in altitude gives you such a different range from one location.
Were the geographically-distant locations a factor in why DRIVECLUB isn’t an open-world game, or were there other considerations?
The main reason is we set out to make a racing game rather than a driving game. This was about pure racing experience and the emotion and the raw thrill you get with racing. It’s not about exploration or just driving around, it’s about on-track racing and that’s why. We could make the engine open-world, as I said before it’s an extensible engine, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t take it there if we wanted to, but it wasn’t what we wanted to do with DRIVECLUB. It was a conscious design decision – this was the game that we wanted to make.
You’ve previously done rally racing and then Motorstorm which was also off-road, what differences are there in developing an on-road racing game?
On-road with licensed cars as well, it’s a big deal. To be fair, if you’re familiar with the previous games we’ve made and play DRIVECLUB, you’ll see that it dials back into that heritage. Every studio has their own fingerprint or signature; our games feel like Evolution games and DRIVECLUB’s no exception. Our games have always had a certain weight to the handling, a certain connectedness.
The cars sit in the world really well and it’s the same with DRIVECLUB. Everything feels consistent and authentic. In terms of how different it was, it wasn’t a huge challenge to take cars on to the track because we’d already got so much experience with very detailed handling models, detailed physical simulation, and once you start with that simulation base, you can take it anywhere.
The game has been described as sitting between simulation and arcade racing. Is it a case of finding a balance between the two, doing service to each, or is it about taking elements from both and creating your own thing?
It’s the latter, really. A lot of games don’t aim for that middle ground because it’s really difficult to achieve – if you aim for two targets, you miss both more often than not. The decision was made for us as gamers – as racing fans, we look at what we felt was missing. There are plenty of simulators out there, and plenty of arcade games, but there hasn’t been a game that bridges the gap since the last Project Gotham. As racing fans we looked at it and realised we’re not getting something – there’s a game that we want to play that isn’t there.
We thought “let’s make it, let’s make that game“. As I said before, we start with a simulation basis because once you start with simulating reality, you can go anywhere from that point. All our cars are modelled to be one-to-one accurate with the real-world vehicles and what we try to do, what you haven’t got with a game, is you haven’t got your peripheral vision that you have in a real car.
Also in a real car, when you’re cornering and you feel like you’re about to lose grip, you feel it through your backside with the vibrations through the seat. You can’t accurately simulate that in a game so what you have to do is you have to add some subtle layers on top of the simulation to try to recreate that feeling of authenticity. DRIVECLUB attempts to recreate the personality of each car. It’s not enough to simulate the mechanics of it, you have to try to get across the personality of the vehicle.
It’s not just about the stats, but how it handles and how it feels.
Right, it’s about that real connection that you have with it. We took all of these cars out on the road, and if we couldn’t get them on-road, we’d get them on a rolling road. We made sure that we got in these cars and felt connected to them.
We did a road trip in North Wales where we took a bunch of supercars out and had a questionnaire, which were questions about how it made you feel. Obvious stuff like what was the driving position like, what was the gear shift like, things like that, but also what did you feel when you were racing it? We took about ten cars and everyone that went out, they swapped cars, and each person filled in the questionnaire so we had a normalised view of the emotional connection people have with the cars, and that was a huge help for us in getting the personality across.
So what’s your dream car?
I drive my dream car! I’m a huge rally fan. Obviously been at Evolution for a long time and worked on all the WRC games and I always loved the Subaru Impreza, so I drive an Impreza STI, which was a real nice thing for me to get my hands on. In terms of in DRIVECLUB, if I had the money, I have a real soft spot for the C63 Black Edition. It’s such a phenomenal machine, probably Europe’s closest thing to a muscle car, an absolute brute of a car, but it’s got that real Mercedes elegance to it.
Is that one of the cars you drove yourself?
I did but I didn’t get to drive it too far. I managed to sit in it and turn it over a few times, and it was such a pleasure being in that vehicle and listening to that engine – it sounds like the apocalypse when that thing turns over, it’s amazing.
One of the big draws with the game is how detailed the car models are. How ridiculously detailed does it get?
It gets to the point where we’re hand-painting the stitching on the leather, that’s how detailed it gets. We even measured the plastic housings on the headlights, got the material density right and the size of them, so the light refracts through it exactly as it would in real life. It feels pretty crazy to go to that level of detail.
Our cars take seven months to create, start to finish. These are the most detailed cars in any video game and the reason we did that is if you don’t go to that level of detail and don’t try to recreate those cars in that way, you lose that the emotional connection, the authenticity and the immersion.
Otherwise it’s just a skin?
Exactly. The whole experience has to be consistent.
How restricted will the (free) PS Plus edition of the game be?
The only thing that’s different between the PS Plus edition and the retail edition, is that retail and digital download have more cars and more tracks. It was really important to us with the PS Plus edition to have feature parity, and we asked Sony if we could do this. We’re not doing it to nickel-and-dime people, there’s no microtransactions in it, and it’s not that kind of game. If you get the PS Plus edition and want to upgrade, it is a one upgrade price, and you get the full game.
There’s no piecemeal, no chopping up of content and we’re not doing this to make some additional money, but because this game is about the community. The more people that play this game, the more vibrant the community’s going to be. If we can get this into people’s hands for free, we can let them play challenges, let them create clubs, and let them play online multiplayer. All of the features that exist in the retail version are there in PS Plus so you can totally just play the PS Plus edition, and all of the major content updates for the game are going to be free.
With that, and I also understand that you can also get additional cars as DLC in the future, can you go with the base PS Plus edition and still be competitive?
Of course you can. There’s no golden path in this game and no dominant car. Some cars are better on some tracks, some are better on others, and some will suit your driving style. Because each car has a very distinct personality, you will find a car that suits you or even a number of cars that suit you. There’s no one car that beats everything else.
We found that in a lot of racing games, you’ll go through the classes until you hit the final hypercars and you’d stay there with no reason to go back. DRIVECLUB’s structured slightly differently and with the challenge system, it means the challenges are organic, going on all the time and asynchronous. Each of those challenges can feature completely different cars. Even though you may be in the single player tour and right up to the hypercars, you may get challenges that are in hot hatches and sports cars and you’ll just dial back into those cars and play.
Even if you finish the whole tour you won’t unlock every single car, so there’s a reason to go back and keep playing. The whole game is a love letter to racing fans and car fans, and if we shut the door on all of the cars that you’d unlocked previously, we’ve not done a very good job.
Will that keep people coming back?
That’s the plan. We want to work with the community to make this game better, to expand and enhance this game. We’ve already announced a weather update to the game and are going to release photo mode before the end of the year. We’re also working on a replay mode at the moment and working out how we can do that.
We’ve also been really transparent with our DLC strategy, so we’ve told people about all of the updates that we’re going to make to the game over the next few months. There’s no point hiding behind this as we’re trying to develop a real close relationship with the community and try to grow this game together.
Lastly, how are you planning to help players cope with the fact they have to go back to their real cars after playing the game.
We’re going to ship a high-performance car to-no we’re not. That would be amazing if we could. I guess the point of this game is it’s about wish fulfillment. It’s driving your dream cars in some of the most incredible locations in the world. I get to make these games for a living, but I don’t get to drive these cars for a living, and unfortunately I don’t get enough money to buy these cars for real.
For me, it’s a big thing for people to get their hands on these vehicles.Tthat’s why it’s so important to recreate the personality of those cars, so they feel like they’re taking part in this experience and for those few hours while they’re playing, they can be totally immersed in this world.
Thank you so much for your time.
Big thanks to Playstation Australia and Simon Barlow for making this interview possible! DRIVECLUB will be released on October 7 in North America, October 8 in Australia and the EU, and October 10 in the UK. For more info on the game, check out its official website.