Martin Edmonson on Driver: San Francisco

Techs and the city

After years of speculation, E3 2010 finally saw the reveal of Driver: San Francisco. The game takes place in San Francisco - well, the San Francisco in lead characters Tanner's mind. Conked into a coma after a big crash, in his mind Tanner can shift from driving one car to driving another, a bit like how Sam Beckett switched from one person to another in Quantum Leap. With the game having been in development for so many years, years in which open-world driving games have taken many leaps forward, and with such an eccentric mechanic defining it, some critics are cynical of what Ubisoft Reflections can produce with its long-awaited next entry. I spoke with Creative Director Martin Edmonson about the game, including the challenges the team has faced in creating a graphically lush game in such an iconic and unique setting.

It's been such a long time since we first heard about a new Driver game, and you've talked before about the game's delay being to do with getting it up to 60 frames per second. Are you satisfied with how the game looks now? Do you feel that it's close to what you imagined it being when you started the project?

It's actually got better in some ways because when we targeted 60fps we thought we were going to have to make lots of visual sacrifices and obviously you do have to make some visual sacrifices. We've ended up being able to claw up some effects, some lighting effects that we thought we wouldn't be able to have, and there are more creeping in even as we speak. So from that point of view it's better. A lot of people were very sceptical of us being able to hit 60fps in an open-world city, especially in San Francisco in which you can park on the top of a hill and look across the bay and see 10 miles out. To hit 60fps with a high density of traffic, a high number of pedestrians, and [as such] a lot of sceptical people - I think the fact we've done it and also have some cool lighting effects in there as well is something that we're all pretty proud of.

In terms of playing it today, I'd say there's an arcade-like feel to the visuals. It's very clean, crisp, and neat, unlike the roughness of a Grand Theft Auto city. There's also a bit of dissonance between the cut scenes and the in-game footage. Is that something to expect in the final game?

Well, it depends on what you're specifically talking about. There are limitations to the various aspects of detail and resolution and so on, not just frame rate but because of the fact that you can drive continuously from one end of the city to another. If you design a game that is a track, all of your memory is devoted to this one track and you can do some pretty crazy things but then that's it, that's the track. If you want a totally open world environment you have to make other kinds of compromises. But what we've got are more effects - you can see that (points to screen) what we're experimenting with at the moment is a film grain. It isn't finalized by any means, but it is just there to grit things up a bit and to make it look more like you're watching a movie, so that you're watching a movie of the chase, a movie of the game rather than the actual game.

Outside of the visuals, in the time the game has been in development there have been a number of open world driving games including Grand Theft Auto IV and Burnout Paradise. Have you had to keep one eye on what the competition has been doing or was it more of a straight line in terms of your creative direction and what you initially wanted to do with San Francisco?

It's actually been a straight line in the sense that we set out five years ago when we designed the game and Shift was there from day 1, and the overall vision was the same. Obviously missions have been changed and tweaked around, but we never had guys running around, we never had guns, we always had licensed cars, and Shift was in there from day 1. So it's been more like this (makes a slight zigzag motion). Quite often games end up firing off left and right and then somebody comes up with something and then they're off in a new direction, but it hasn't been like that with us at all, but we obviously keep a curious eye on what everyone else is doing, but we tend not to be influenced. If you look at previous games that Reflections has done, we did really quite original stuff like Destruction Derby, Stuntman, and the original Driver. They all kind of go their own way. We think that Shift is something that is so reactive and fun to use, I hope that there's this feeling, certainly I feel it anyway when I play other games, that I want to shift out of the car and shit into another car.

Shift is, like you say, a unique mechanic. In terms of the three previous Driver games which were not necessarily serious, but it's a big change to go to something like this which is almost sci-fi. From what I played just now it feels like you're trying to take a humorous route with it, almost making it Quantum Leap-like in how you switch from one body to another. Is that deliberate?

Well, it's deliberate that it has a lighter tone. It's deliberate that it's more humours. That's based on how much feedback we had from Driver 3 and Driver 4 that people were getting a bit tired of the overly gritty, overly dry, overly serious thing. You know, these people have played Grand Theft Auto and all other sorts of things. That was the one thing we took away from that, that this was what people seem to want. They just want something that's a bit lighter. It is entertainment, it can be a long experience, and you want to smile occasionally so we deliberately took the decision to make it a bit lighter from that point of view.

The Shift [mechanic] itself and the coma itself are actually more rooted in reality than you might think. There are so many ways that we could've justified this function. You could imagine that some alien situation or some kind of teleportation element, or something that was really genuinely sci-fi. But this is a coma, and a coma is a real thing. From what we know of comas, people have sorts of visions and dreams, and also what happens in real life infiltrates your head just as it does in a normal dream. When you're sleeping, if something loud happens outside then often your dream will reflect it, not necessarily the same thing but it gets twisted and absorbed and spat out some other way. So I think actually it's not really sci-fi. It's definitely curious, but it's more rooted in reality than some sort of sci-fi thing. I think the coma is a good way of doing that without drifting off into real crazy stuff.

Is that something we'll see a lot in the game, the external world affecting the mental one?

Yes - I don't know if you reached the hospital scene...

Yeah, I just got up to it.

OK, well that's the first moment where you see Tanner in his hospital bed. I don't know if you noticed but there's a television in the corner of the room that's running the news. There's the sound coming from it and somebody mentions Jericho and Tanner's hand flinches. Then you go back into his eye again, back into the coma, and this is something that reoccurs and builds as you go through the game.

How much will the game play on the city of San Francisco itself in terms of landmarks and layout?

Well, the city is based quite heavily and closely on San Francisco, so you've got all the major landmarks: Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, the Transamerica pyramid. Any major iconic area that you could care to mention in the San Francisco Bay area is generally there. It's not metre for metre replicating because experience has told us that doing that with a game makes it actually very boring and drags people away so we compressed the areas together. What's unique about this engine, again our proprietary rendering engine - this was the only we were able to do this... San Francisco is an awkward city to build for a game because you can be on the top of a hill. When you're on a hill all of your clever systems for occluding things all fall apart - it's more like a flight sim than a driving game from a technical point of view. So you're on the top of a hill, you can see right across the bay, you can see all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond to the Sutro Tower, the observatory on the top of Marin, to Transamerica, things that miles and miles apart, and you can see all the way over there. This is something that is quite unique to the engine. Apart from looking nice it helps you to orientate yourself within the city.

In one of the missions I played through just now I had to do a 10m jump. When I think of San Francisco car chases I think of the jumps - are they going to be a recurring theme in the game?

San Francisco is obviously great for jumps, and they did that in Bullet with the Mustang and the Charger coming down the hills. We have lots and lots of movie references, and the more that you play the game the more things you unlock the more of those you'll find. We have some games and challenges that are very directly inspired by film and TV show car chases.

While Driver is quite a well-known series a lot of players might not have played any of the previous games...

Especially the younger players.

Right. How much are you trying to reset the storyline with San Francisco or will it stay true and close to the plots of the previous games?

It's not a reset or a reboot - it's been called a reboot but it's only a reboot in technology in focus, but it's the same characters from Driver 1, 2, and 3 and the story takes place six months or so after the events of Driver 3. But it's self-contained so if you haven't played Driver 1, 2, or 3 then it doesn't really matter who Jericho is necessarily. If you have then there's a bit of extra meat and flesh to the story. But he's a bad guy, he busts out of prison, Tanner clearly hates, Jones is his partner, etc. It forms its own self-contained story. If you want to go off and do the research to find out why he's in prison - well he's been sentenced for the crime of shooting Tanner in Istanbul. That's why Tanner hates him so much. Jones knows why Tanner's so obsessed - why's he so obsessed? Well, he met Jericho two games ago in Driver 2. So you can form that whole thing - we've been very sensitive to the timeline to make it all make sense, but that's there for fans of the original.

You've mentioned that Shift will be a major part of the multiplayer. Can you elaborate on that?

We're not going into too much detail on multiplayer today. Shift is totally integrated into multiplayer. You've played a bit of the game today so you know how Shift works. Imagine taking that mechanic into a multiplayer experience. You've got up to eight players grabbing cars off each other just before each other, getting to the finish line by grabbing a car - these sorts of things. They've been all designed with Shift [in mind] so it's not like we've added Shift to multiplayer, it's been there right from the beginning. And it just creates this incredibly chaotic, fun environment. One of the problems with driving games online is that you have the first bend crash and then all your friends are off down the road and you may as well reset because that's the end of your experience, basically. With Shift it's got that real right-at-the-last-minute feel where you can still snatch victory from someone. We have races and chases, base defence games, capture the flag where you grab a flag for your team and take it back to the base, but with Shift you're always right on the action. You can follow the action with Shift before you make your play, before you grab the car. We don't charge you for Shift except that it uses some of your ability juice, but you can float around in Shift for as long as you want. But in Shift you're not scoring, you're not achieving anything.

Finally, are there any ideas for where the series will go after San Francisco?

It really depends on how well received this game is and its concept is. Generally, plans beyond this - this has been a five-year development and we're still in the thick of development. The game doesn't come out until September so we've got still several months of work to do on it. Then there'll be a holiday and then we'll all sit down and think about what are we going to do with the next game - or what are we going to do, full stop.

Thanks for your time, Martin.


E3 Trailer