Simon Woodroffe on Wheelman and beyond

Midway designer talks about Vin, open-world, Ubisoft et al

Cinematic action-driving title Wheelman, the latest game to star Hollywood hero Vin Diesel, is set to hit stores today. With the game's release upon us, we sat down with Midway Newcastle designer Simon Woodroffe to talk candidly about the project and the future.

What was the biggest challenge you faced completing Wheelman?

Initially our goal was to create a cinematic car chase experience, so probably working out ways to make the whole game accessible was the biggest challenge. Going through the focus testing, making adjustments; that was the biggest achievement. We wanted to make a car game that non-car game fans can pick up and play, but with enough depth to appease racing fans, too. I think that was our biggest achievement. Technically, making the Unreal engine stream an open-world was a big challenge - there was a knock on - and we had to make a lot of design decisions as a result of it. Expanding, contracting, etc.

Producer Joe mentioned you did a lot of test reviews and feedback before completion. What did you learn from this?

I think we learned from focus testing that if you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers. I think you have to be very careful about the questions you ask. Generally, we discovered that the game was perhaps a little too easy. I think that's the easiest way to sum up the feedback. We plotted the difficulty, people's frustrations, and we balanced things more - altered the nature of the challenge. We made graphs and watched how people's experiences changed over the different iterations of the game.

Is the game harder now?

Oh, the game's harder than it was in the first focus tests. The first missions didn't change much, but the later missions - 70-80 per cent of them - were made 'more challenging' but not harder per se. This is a symptom of designers and developers over-compensating for their market's ability. We all like to think gamers aren't as good as the people making the games - but the gap isn't really as big as all that. When you're dealing with an accessible game like Wheelman, I think after a few hours the player is going to be 95 per cent as good as any of us would be.

Was having Vin Diesel involved in the project a blessing or a curse?

I would have to say it was a blessing in most regards. He was very actively involved. He's a passionate gamer. That's true - he's that guy talking about games all the time - he's not faking it. If Vin Diesel could do what he wanted - which he probably can - he'd spend all his time playing games. That's the truth. From that point of view his feedback was from a gamers perspective. Talent from the movie industry don't often get the idea that games are interactive. They think they can bend and twist the story. In reality you need to consider that it is not a linear experience. Vin understands that. His high standards were interesting; they're very high. He wanted perfection.

Did Vin want anything you couldn't deliver?

He wanted some giant multiplayer stuff. That's part of his World of Warcraft thing. He wanted multiple people playing on the streets, and we wanted that as well, it just came down to time. We couldn't do a good enough job in the time, so we're saving that for whatever comes next. We tried it all out. It was fun with big maps, the melee combat, but it wasn't good enough. We built it all. We could have squeezed it in, but it would have cost elements of the singleplayer game to make it work; we felt that wasn't a good sacrifice.

What's Barcelona like as a setting?

Its a cool place. We wanted a non-US city. We didn't want an American dystopia. We wanted to get away from that. We wanted a European city, with a variety of road types, districts, etc. We wanted a globally familiar setting with lovely architecture. Athens and Rome were considered, but Barcelona stood out the most. I recommend the city highly!

Is your next project an open-world game, and are you lead designer?

Yes, and creative director for now... we're looking for a new designer... I'm not going to talk about it too much, but it will be open-world for sure, we need to build on the technology we've used in Wheelman.

Is Wheelman a stepping stone?

Yes, it is, our long term plan is to reach the point where we can be genuinely competitive with the big open-world games... the gorilla in the room! You can't do that in one iteration, you have to take steps. We'll build our skills gradually. Hopefully what we offer in Wheelman is something a bit different. We do some things better than anyone else in this game, and if you buy this, it'll help us make even better games in the future!

The game is being published by Ubisoft, was that a surprise?

Less of a surprise for me than for you guys! It was certainly something being discussed before Midway's other problems. They'll do a great job of bringing this game to market. Its a new IP. Ubisoft will deal with any negative connotations well. As a designer you want as many people as possible to play your game, if this helps that then great. They're a great company with quality products. We're honoured to be among Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed, etc on their playlist.

The arrival of Ubisoft was vindication for our design decisions, it was really good that an external vote of confidence could come in. It helped us push on and finish the game.

Will more games be published by Ubisoft?

I have no idea how that will go at the moment, we're an open-world team, there aren't many of those. I hope we'll be able to make some games - hopefully for Midway - but we'll just have to see.

Thanks for your time, Simon.

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