Sat in Ubisoft Reflections studio up in Newcastle, we put pedal to the metal in the new Driver game. As we cruised around the streets of San Francisco, Creative Producer Martin Edmondson talked us through the game, giving us a live developer's commentary as we played. We managed to steer this commentary to our own tastes by throwing a few questions his way. Read on for how the game's revolutionary Shift mechanic came about, how the narrative supports that mechanic, and what Edmondson's favourite cars in the game are.
Q: It's been some time since the last Driver game, and in that time there have been a fair few open world driving games. How does Driver: San Francisco build on what they've achieved and what does it do differently?
Martin Edmondson: It does quite a lot differently. Obviously the Shift mechanic that we have here is unlike anything in any other driving game. We've specifically avoided trying to duplicate anything that is being done in other open world action driving games. When we first produced the original Driver game, it was the first game to have an open city environment, and then the second Driver game, Driver 2, was the first game to have the getting out of cars, into cars, stealing cars. But then along came Grand Theft Auto and a bunch of others, and there are now a lot of games that have that mechanic.
Q: So this time around you weren't keen to have the character running around outside the car?
ME: No, absolutely. As a point of design, we deliberately stayed away from that, because as I said there are a lot of games doing that now, and doing it very well too, so it wasn't desirable for us to just copy that exact mechanic.
How exactly did Shift come about? What was the creative process behind that?
ME: The instigator for that was Google Earth Live, or the concept of Google Earth Live. Obviously we all know what Google Earth is - but it's a static image that was taken 6 months ago or whatever, and people who are not used to tech or don't know Google Earth - like if my Mum was to ask about it, and you show her the house, she'd say "so is that like what's happening now? If I go outside will you see me?" - it's kind of a cute question, but that's the instigator for it, to do that, so when you're in the Shift mode, and you're hovering above the city - that is Google Earth Live. Pick any car you want, grab the car.
Q: One of my favourite aspects of Driv3r was the movie maker mode, is that returning for San Francisco?
ME: It is, yes. There was no film director in Driver 4, but we've brought it back for Driver: San Francisco. The game is about Hollywood style car chases, and for me that is a core pillar of the experience, and you can't have a game that's about a Hollywood car chase without being able to see that car chase from the point of view of a film camera.
Will Shift come in to play with the Director mode? Will it affect how you're able to direct that action?
ME: Yes, because you can shift and change cars and drive them and so on - you do influence it in that way. For me, the addition of the film director is to create a cohesive car chase, rather than to be able to fracture the action, because for me it's just part of the core experience of the Hollywood car chase.
Q: Obviously this is the first 'next-gen' Driver title; are you going to use community features over Xbox LIVE or PSN to share these videos?
ME: We're not talking about how we do that, but obviously it's a feature that's ripe for uploading and sharing these things. In fact, people actually did it with Driv3r and Driver 1 - I think with Driver 1 there was no such thing as YouTube - but people found ways of sharing them online and producing videos and so on. So yes, absolutely, it's a feature that's ripe for that.
Q: Going back to the Shift mechanic; it seems to have a huge impact on the narrative. It's all taking place in Tanner's mind - is that correct?
ME: From the point that you're in Shift, yes it is. Tanner is in a coma, after the accident [at the end of Driv3r] and just thinks he's had a lucky escape, and the player knows that he's in a coma. So this is all playing out in his mind.
Q: So does that mean that nothing in the story that has happened has actually happened?
ME: It doesn't necessarily mean that at all, because the way that comas work in reality is that people that are in a coma take outside influences, things that are happening around them in reality, and those things infiltrate their state of mind in a coma. It's a bit like, for most of us, if we have a dream and something happens in the real world, like a dog barking for example, then some element of that often creeps into the dream. So for the player, the interest really is how does this play out and what happens in the real world that infiltrates this state of mind?
Q: OK, because after first hearing about this, I was slightly worried that the whole plot would be redundant.
ME: It's not the Bobby Ewing moment in Dallas, it's not like everything was a waste of time. It's crucial to the story, and actually what Tanner learns, and what tanner's experiences are compared to other people in the real world. And his actual experiences as an undercover cop - because even though he's in a coma, he doesn't realise that he is, he thinks he's completely there, he just thinks he has this weird ability to do this [Shift], but he still thinks he's an undercover cop - he is an undercover cop - he still has his powers of deduction and reasoning, even though he's in a coma.
Q: So from the story telling point of view, how are you able to create cutscenes and develop the story when Tanner is shifting from car to car and people to people?
ME: Well remember that you always come back to your own car; you always come back to your own self. Jones is perpetually in the world, and Jones is your partner, and there's communication between the two of them. So, if you go into Shift and shift into an ambulance, and you're taking someone to hospital or whatever, then at various points, multiple points throughout the game, you return back to yourself in your car. Now when you're out of your car, and in someone else, Tanner is still in the world, still driving around, he's still got Jones sat next to him, but from Jones' point of view - this plays out in the dialogue - Jones is a bit like "God, you've really been spaced out the last ten minutes", he's still there, he's still driving, he's still being a cop, but he's like "Err, what Jones, sorry? What were you saying?" - that's because Tanner is floating around in Shift mode.
Q: Are TK or any of the other characters from Driver: Parallel lines going to make a cameo in San Francisco?
ME: No, they don't. That was a separate story, as none of the characters were the same at all. No, they don't make a cameo. Ubisoft were really keen from a marketing point of view, to bring back Tanner, because believe it or not, there is still a huge amount of brand awareness for Driver. I was surprised, with it being so long, with there being so many new young players who weren't exposed to PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2 even, for many of them PlayStation 3 is there first machine. Take a random sample of people, and maybe 20% of players have heard of it, including the new players. But it's massively higher than that so they decided to go for it.
Q: Has the same actor returned to voice Tanner?
ME: No, we haven't. That was Michael Madsen in the first three games. I'm not sure who they used in Driver 4 - I wasn't involved in Driver 4 actually - but the trouble with using famous actors is two-fold; first of all, for me anyway, hearing the voice of an actor, I just think of the face of the actor and I can't disjoint that in a game. The other thing is from a purely logistical point of view; we found it very difficult in Driv3r, when we made any changes to the missions that we couldn't get these guys back in the recording studios. So, you're sort of a bit knackered really. And the third thing that affects us for Driver: San Francisco is that - for the first time in one of our games - we've got full performance capture. Which is when you suit up the actors with the full body suit, and facial capture, and mic'd up as well. So they're actually acting at the same time as they deliver their lines.
Q: That sounds good, so many games feel disjointed in that respect...
ME: That's because they record people separately. So we do full performance capture - and it's impossible to get Mickey Rourke, Iggy Pop and Michael Madsen all in a big room together, it's just not going to happen. And no matter how good the actor is, acting in that way is always going to have a bit of woodenness to it. You know, you're not playing off the other characters and such.
Q: I haven't been able to see this from the Multiplayer mode, so I wanted to ask how the resource system for Shift will work? You mentioned previously that points are amassed for 'cool' driving?
ME: Yeah, things like big consistent power slides, rapid overtaking of cars, driving against oncoming traffic, big jumps, that sort of thing. That all contributes to charging this Shift resource and whenever you go into shift it uses an element of that, and if you're floating around in the world, then it's burning that down.
Q: So you have to shift as quickly as possible to preserve that bar?
ME: You do. We've been very careful not to make this something that is so valuable that you're under stress. A lot of games I remember back in the day, used to give you such limited ammo that you were nursing every last bullet - and for us that's no fun at all. No, it's a resource that's there, it's basically to stop you spending the whole time just floating around and zooming around at 150 miles per hour in Shift.
Q: A random question I'm sure we'd all like to know the answer to; with the Delorean, if you get it to 88mph, will you travel through time?
ME: [Laughs] You'll have to find out. It's interesting that the car's in there because we've chosen the cars specifically for their iconic status. We would never have had a Delorean in there if it wasn't for Back to the Future.
Q: One last question then, what's your favourite car in the game?
ME: It's a difficult question, because I have favourite cars for different reasons. On the rally tracks, the dirt tracks, there's an old group B rally car called the Ford RS 200. And that's an amazing group B turbo charged beast, which is a great thing. But the thing that always brings a smile to my face when we're showing the game to others is actually the 1974 Dodge Monaco, because it's the vehicle that the Blues Brothers drove in that big car chase. So it's all black and white, done out like a police car, and it's also exactly the same car that the Duke boys had in the Dukes of Hazard. Sorry, not the Duke boys - that was a Dodge Challenger - Enos and Cletus, the two cops who were chasing after the Duke boys in this old Dodge Monaco. So it's got that for its nostalgic reason. There's McLarens and SLRs and stuff like that - which are all great - fantastic cars, but you can see those cars in other games as well. For me it's the cars that are very unique to Driver.
Q: Thanks very much for your time.
ME: No problem at all.
Driver: San Francisco is due for release Holiday 2010 on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii.