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Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90's is revived

17 Октября 2011

Hello! Great to meet with Driver Team! We are happy about the new Driver: San Francisco to be created by Ubisoft Reflections, the team of the original Driver. We are big fans of the original Driver released in 1999! Please introduce yourself.

Glad to hear it! I’m Martin Edmondson, Founder of Reflections studios and Creative Director of Driver San Francisco.

What do you think – What were the main changes of the game industry in recent 11 years, after the release of the first driver? Games released in 1999 and in 2010 – they are two different to be compared, don’t you agree?

The differences are huge. Driver 1 took us 2.5 years to complete with a team of around 20 or so people. Driver San Francisco took us 4.5 years and the team peaked at 400 ! So due to these huge increases, and also the incredible increases in cost the production process has become much more professional.

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

Man, why did you make us wait so long from the release of the first Dr3ver till the announce of the new Driver: San Francisco?!

It has been a long time yes ! But remember that Reflections and Driver were first bought by Ubisoft from Infogrammes/Atari, and that process itself and the subsequent integration of the Reflections team into Ubisoft took quite some time. Then from a pure production point of view Driver San Francisco is a vastly complicated game. We targeted 60fps right from the start and for an open world driving game that necessitates building all of your core rendering and physics tech in house from the ground up using no off the shelf engines. Off the shelf engines are very convenient and flexible but they are inherently compromised in ways by the flexibility. This took an enormous amount of time. And the shift mechanic also, the ability to swap between cars instantaneously with no loading or delays, even from one side of the city to the other was quite a technical undertaking. Then there is just the size of the project – 210 miles of road takes a lot of building ! And of course Driver SF is our first game to feature real licensed cars, almost 130 of them, and the protracted negotiations to bring those to an open world street based driving game took a lot longer than we first anticipated. 

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

When did you decide to start developing a new part of the game? What were the main tasks of the team in the first months of development? What were the first words of the team members when the project was finally reborn?

Mid January 2007 we all met to discuss ideas, starting with a high concept (Google Earth Live). The first few months were spend getting a simplistic driving model up and running and prototyping the shift mechanic in a very rudimentary form. But on a more general level we approached the design with 2 core pillars in mind. The First was to really recapture that classic feel of Driver and everything that made the original so unique and enjoyable (handling feel, San Francisco, US muscle cars, the original characters, features such as the film director) and the second was to really innovate again. Reflections has throughout it’s past, even as far back as Shadow of the Beast, Destruction Derby, Stuntman and so on, always had a reputation for innovation. This innovation had perhaps been lost in more recent years and it was something we wanted to firmly re establish again.

Have you ever played GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption and Gran Turismo 5? What can you say about them?

I’ve not had time to play anything in recent months, we have been absolutely flat out trying to get DFS finished ! I played an hour or so of GTA IV and similar on GT5 but that’s about it. Last thing you want to do when getting home late at night is boot up a game! I really want to play Red Dead though, and it is in my stack of games I really need to play now DSF is finished.

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

I love the atmosphere of San Francisco! Trams, roads, feeling of successful – great choice of the setting for the game! But what were your ideas when decided to choose this city for the new part of Driver Series?

For us it was a very easy decision (from a creative point of view not a technical point of view !). It was part of the concept of returning to the roots of Driver (Driver 1 featured San Francisco) and it is probably the most iconic car chase city of all time, made famous of course by Bullitt, one of the original inspirations of Driver 1. I would also say that it is one of the most diverse driving environments in the US – Many US cities are very flat and grid like in their structure, but San Francisco has that and much more. The famous hills of course, curved roads, fast freeways, dirt roads and farm land, the famous bridges and many other icon structures like the Trans America pyramid building. It really is a perfect playground for car chase action.

Can you imagine events of a new Driver to take place in Moscow or Sankt-Petersburg one day? Would you like to drive in the streets of the Russian capital ;)

I have been to St Petersburg before, although I must admit that I didn’t drive myself. I think Driver is principally about US Hollywood car chases, and although those cities may make perfect driving environments I think it would transform the feel of the game somewhat. Tanner is American born and bred undercover cop, and he loves his US muscle cars. We have tackled other cities in the past with previous Driver games but the series always felt most at home in the US.

Screenshots of the original Driver or Driver 2 look very simple and old-school now, but in 1999 they made us think that there was a real city in the! Amazing experience!

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

How many gamedevelopers do you need to make 100% realistic city in the computer or a video game, what’s your opinion? Can you imagine that a game, for instance Driver 7, would have been released in future and the city there will be even better and more realistic than the real San-Francisco or New York?

I think we will get very close with Playstation 4 and Xbox 3 (and PC hardware too obviously). But a good chunk of that console generations’ enhanced power will be absorbed by (hopefully) 60fps and 1080p resolution, perfect antialiasing, and proper high resolution textures. We really do need to get those visual basics up there (and even higher perhaps in the future) as a bare minimum. Playstation 5, Xbox 4 and later PC hardware will I think be the point at which it is just impossible for almost anyone to tell the difference visually between a videogame and real life/movie footage. So to put a timescale on it perhaps in 10 (maybe 15) years we will be looking at games that are indistinguishable from real life. Someone still has to build the models though!

What main features of Driver: San Francisco will the new generation of players that didn’t play the original game notice?

Well first of all it is not strictly necessary to have played previous Driver games even though the story follows on from the end of Driver 3. And there is so much new stuff in there that keeps the game up to date and also pushes it even further. The Shift obviously is something that no one has ever seen before and introduces a whole new style of play, tactics and fun. For the first time we have real licensed cars, almost 130 of them, including not just modern exotica but also some of the most iconic cars of all time from the movies. 80 licensed music tracks, hundreds of missions and side quests and a multiplayer element the like of which you have never seen before in any videogame.

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

And what are the main features that remained the same like in Driver 1-2 and will be possible to recognize by people who were playing it in the 90s and were pupils or students that time but now have family or a good job?

Remember that one of the core pillars of design for Driver San Francisco was to return to the roots of what made that original game so fun. We have brought back San Francisco as a city, brought back the principal characters Tanner, Jones and Jericho, and some of the features from the 90’s version too like the Film Director feature where you can direct your own Hollywood style car chases. But I think the main thing is the feel of the game especially the handling of the cars. Big tail out slides, soft suspension, spinning wheels, smoking tyres and the exhilaration of being down on the streets in the think of a movie car chase. From those points of view Driver from the 90’s is definitely back !

The developers of Gran Turismo must be proud of good car models, of GTA – city of freedom. What is you main achievement Driver: San Francisco, what do you think?

I think it is a couple of things, innovation (Shift) which brings something new and a whole new level of freedom to the experience, and technical achievement (Shift and 60fps) being up there. I think for the player it is just something they have never seen before, which is quite rare in videogames these days, certainly in Driving games.

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

How were you creating your own San-Francisco? We know that the Rockstar North created its Liberty City with a big number of references to modern NY City. What is your San-Francisco in game?

We have perhaps a more realistic version of San Francisco but it has definitely been heavily modified for gameplay reasons. First we looked at the areas we wanted to include – Downtown, Russian Hill area, Golden Gate, Marin County, Sutro and so on. We then compressed the areas together (chopping out the bits in between that would be less interesting to drive in) so that our artists spend the maximum amount of time possible working on fun areas for the player that would give the most diversity possible. The other thing we did for playability was to make the roads a bit wider than in reality. The net result is a city which very much looks and feels like San Francisco with many of the icon structures in their correct places, and the general layout is broadly correct but it is by no means an inch perfect representation of the city. A perfect representation is generally only fun and interesting for people who live there!

Driver (1999) was very hard to pass for casual players; it was very hardcore cocktail, not for everybody. I remember all these impossible 360 rotates…What can you say about necessary skills we have to gain to play Driver: San Francisco?

Driver San Francisco’s difficulty level has been set by testing not by us directly this time round. In the past we (and often me personally) would decide how difficult something should be. There were two problems with this – first of all I like hard games and not everyone else does, and second I had spent thousands of hours playing it so I was certainly not the best placed to judge how hard something was in the first place ! For DFS we had two play sessions per week (of up to 12 players) for the last 2 years of development. We collected vast amounts of data on which missions were too hard or too easy and which were fun and which should be changed or dropped. At the end of the day although I personally may have liked it to be a little tougher you cannot argue with the vast amount of data we had at our fingertips and these days (especially with the huge growth in none hard core players) you have to be sensitive to the majority of people who will be playing the game.

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

Please tell our readers about the model of physical destruction in Driver: San Francisco.

It is our most advanced system so far and allows quite a degree of damage (especially considering the sensitivities of the vehicle manufacturers who had to be happy). It is a real physics based system that monitors areas and force of impact and then deforms the appropriate panel meshes. In more extreme smashes some of these panels and wheels can become loose (bouncing around while still attached) or break off completely revealing the chassis beneath. We also have dust and scratch modeling obviously to enhance the effect. Vehicle performance only begins to become affected at the extreme end of damage as we didn’t want players to feel obliged to Shift out into other cars after modest amounts of damage.

We know that game will be release on PC/Xbox360/PS3, and then – later – on Wii. What will be the difference in next-gen versions and Wii one? Wii-version is being developed by the Ubisoft Reflections too or another studio?

And don’t forget Mac! They are very similar with the exception of the Wii version. Wii simply doesn’t have the hardware necessary to support the Shift mechanic (well not without enormous loading delays which would wreck the experience). Actually one of the satisfying things about working on Driver San Francisco was that its basic functionality demanded the hardware of PS3 and 360 and simply would not have been possible on PS2 or Xbox. Quite often when working on a game on new hardware you are exploiting better graphics and so on but it is extremely satisfying to work on something that actually requires the current hardware to enable the game to be possible at all. In terms of story they are similar again with the exception of Wii which deals with a period of time earlier in Tanner’s history. It details the rise of Solomon Caine who is actually Jericho’s boss in Driver 2.

Driver: San Francisco. Interview with the founder of Ubisoft Reflections. Driver 90

Will you try to use Xbox360 Kinetics, Playstation Move, or any 3D technologies in your game? Or it is not necessary in Driver games?

I just don’t like those kind of control methods for driving games, not one bit. And 3D technology is not good enough yet in my opinion, but for the future then yes absolutely especially with more powerful hardware that can maintain 3D framerates at 60fps or more.

In time of MMO and Facebook, it’s very important to have own online community of fans worldwide. Do you want to make something like this with Driver Series?

We have been very slow to develop this contact I must admit but it is something we are tackling properly now. If fact for the first time in Reflections’ history we now have someone on board who is solely responsible from building and developing that via the likes of Facebook and twitter

Thank you very much for your time! Best of luck with new Driver!

Thank you!

talking Ivan Vasilenko
translate by Alexander Korshun

Русская версия интервью (Russian version of interview)

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