We have an exclusive to XCN Q&A with Ben Ward, Community & Web Lead for the upcoming Xbox 360 racer – Project Gotham Racing 4. So enough babbling, lets get on with the Q&A shall we…
1. You’ve been on record to say that PGR3 was not as finished as you would have liked it to be. What were the issues, and do you feel you’ve had the time to address them with PGR4?
It’s always difficult to work on a launch title for a new console – time is never your friend! PGR3 was unfortunately a victim of this in a couple of areas. The Race Against the Clock mode didn’t have as detailed race timers as we’d have liked, and Gotham TV had to be shipped without some of the crazy plans we had in place. That’s just what happens when you’re working with unfinished hardware and software, to a completely unmoveable deadline!
Fortunately PGR4 is a different beast, and we’ve had much longer to get this one put together. We’ve also got experience on our side; we’ve been working with the 360 hardware that much longer and we’ve worked hard over the last two years to organise our teams better and improve our shared technology base by leaps and bounds. All of these things come together allowing us to make what we think is the best PGR game yet – although we’ll wait for you guys to pass judgement on that! J
2. PGR has a huge and enthusiastic (sometimes rabid) community – what have you taken from them to build into PGR4?
We learn a lot from our community. In many ways it’s a give-take relationship… we give them screenshots and they give us all sorts of feedback about the games. It’s like having a gigantic usability lab right on your doorstep! Of course the feedback needs to be taken in context; we realise that we’re speaking to the vocal minority here, and that their feedback should be taken in account along with the facts and figures we have from Xbox Live research or more traditional methods.
We’ve also gone a step further this time round, as we actually hired some of the guys straight from the forum. We wanted to have some new eyes on the game (in addition to our in-house test team), and these guys really helped us to iron out the difficulty spikes, adjust the final levels, and work on some of the dynamics quirks which have plagued the game in the past.
3. There is always talk of the give-and-take relationship between PGR and Forza. How close do you actually work with each other, what did you admire about Forza 2 and what shared technology are you pushing forward in PGR4?
Actually there’s not a vast amount of shared work between Bizarre Creations and Turn 10 (the developers of Forza). They’ve used quite a bit of PGR3 tech in Forza 2, and we did send one of our more experienced coders over to help out when they were writing their streamer. Our audio teams also share samples and various recordings every so often, usually because it’s easier for us to pop over to the continent to record some super-rare sports car than it is for the Turn 10 guys to get over here (and vice versa of course!).
As Bizarre Creations are an independent studio and not part of Microsoft, we actually have slightly different objectives to Turn 10. We’ve spent the last two years working very hard on our internal shared tech systems, meaning that PGR4 shares more code under the hood with The Club (our other AAA title in development at the moment), than it does with any other game.
4. With Forza 2 only recently off the grid and just passing 1 million units sold, how do you feel about the competition for pole position in the Xbox 360 driving game race?
We keep our heads down and do our own thing; we’re not really concerned with what other companies do around us. PGR is one of the only racing franchises at the moment to consistently increase its sales version on version, so as long as we continue to make the game as good as we possibly can make it then I’m sure people will continue to enjoy it.
5. Glitch shifting has been a consistent talking point in the community – was it intentional, and will it feature again in PGR4?
We’ve actively tried to eliminate things like shift glitching and wall riding using a variety of methods, and a bunch of feedback from our community. We think we’ve nailed it, but time will tell…
6. How many vehicles will feature in PGR4, and what new motors have you added?
There are over 120 vehicles in the game, with about a 70/30 split between cars and bikes. As the focus is now on “iconic” vehicles instead of simply fast ones, we’ve had the scope to add a lot more variety to the vehicle set this time. We’ve got classics like the DMC Delorean and Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500, right up to the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14 and Ferrari FXX.
7. PGR has always pioneered amazing Xbox Live features – what’s new in PGR4?
Lots! We’ve added a party-based matchmaking system (like Halo 2), so that you will always stay connected to your buddies no matter how many races or lobbies you move between. There are also new game modes and ways to race online, including team racing. Beyond that, there is PGR On Demand – a brand new system which we’ve developed in collaboration with the Xbox Live team. PGR On Demand lets you upload and download photos, replays, and ghosts as well as online voting and tagging, in true Web 2.0 fashion.
As with previous Xbox Live features we’ve pioneered (Gotham TV, Photo Mode uploading, online tournaments, etc.) we’ve made the PGR On Demand tech part of the Xbox Live specification. Chances are you’ll see the same technology in other games in the future… just remember where you saw it first. J
8. It’s always fun to hear about how intense the process behind the sound in PGR is – can you give us the gory details about how you captured the sounds in PGR4?
Without going into too much detail, it’s always an interesting job to capture audio for a PGR game! This time around the team encountered a few unique problems – one of the bikes we recorded was so loud that it literally shook the room. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but the shaking was so severe that the hard drive in the laptop doing the recording skipped so much that the data couldn’t be saved properly!
Our audio team has grown enormously in the last two years, and each of them has become much more experienced too. Our latest Xbox Live Arcade game, Boom Boom Rocket, was delivered virtually entirely by our audio team, with very few of the main game team members becoming involved. Having such a versatile team is incredibly valuable to Bizarre.
1. Has variable weather always been something you have wanted to implement in PGR, and what were the barriers to this in the past?
It’s definitely been something we’ve wanted to implement for some time. Having weather was planned for PGR3, but we realised early on that we wouldn’t be able to do it justice in that game – the deadline was far too tight. When the team was designing PGR4 having weather was pretty much at the top of the list. We didn’t just want to “do it” though; we wanted weather to be dramatic and dynamic in a way that hasn’t been seen before in a racing game.
2. We’ve heard that weather can cause cumulative effects on the tracks as the race progresses, or even change altogether. Can you give us some examples of how this will affect the gameplay experience?
Sure. So you might start a race in overcast conditions, with plenty of clouds brooding in the sky. Half way through the race you might see the rain start to fall, and after 2 or 3 laps it’ll be a full blown thunderstorm. Of course this affects your vehicle dynamics, meaning that you’ll have to adjust your driving style on the fly.
3. How will the weather effects affect the way your vehicle handles? Will you be able to pull off super-kudos moves like monster power slides if, say, it’s particularly wet or snowy?
Yes exactly that. We were very careful to not make the weather something the player would dread. We didn’t want people to think “oh damn, this race is in the wet but I can’t drive in that weather type”. The dynamics become even more slidey, and even more fun. Racking up Kudos becomes that much easier when there’s ice under your tyres.
The weather should be fun, not difficult.
1. Why motorbikes, and why is now the right time to put them in PGR?
Considering we have such a strong biker community here at Bizarre Creations, the idea has been thrown around in the past. Probably the main reason we chose to include bikes into PGR4 instead of a previous game is that this time around we have had the time to really do them justice. Every single previous PGR game has had the job of championing some kind of new platform or technology (Xbox, Xbox Live, and Xbox 360)… but this one was the first where we could sit down and really concentrate on nailing the gameplay and features instead of making the tech work.
2. How does the Kudos system for bikes differ from that for cars, and can you give us some examples of how the style moves work? Will car drivers have the opportunity to do similar ‘taunt’ moves?
There are some new Kudos moves available to bike users, such as earning points for wheelies and endos. Also, it’s possible to do stunts on your bike including standing up, shaking your fist, or slapping your butt at opponents! All of these things earn you Kudos in the game, balancing out the distribution between cars and bikes.
3. How awkward has it been to balance the motorbikes with the cars? Do you think one type of vehicle will become dominant online?
It’s not particularly awkward to balance the two vehicle types – it just takes a lot of time. We’ve got a dedicated dynamics team, and a dedicated test team. Both of these are in-house, and they’ve both been working on car to bike collisions for many months now. The process is one of iteration, just balancing them again and again until they feel perfect to race with.
Personally I think the cars will be dominant online initially, simply because there are more of them and that’s what people know. However, I think you’ll see a surge in popularity of the bikes in a few months as the more experienced PGR4 players move in.
4. Were you prepared for the backlash from PGR fans who would prefer the game remained cars-only, and how do you feel about that attitude?
I don’t think it was a backlash, although a lot of people are concerned that we’ve pushed cars aside and we have a new focus now. That’s simply not the case – the PGR series was made on the love and attention we’ve put into our cars, and PGR4 is the same again. Adding bikes into the mix just provides more variety, and I think people will come to love them once they see how we’ve handled the entire concept.
That said, we did plan ahead. You can play the entire game in just cars if you want to. Or just bikes. However, we think most players will use a mixture of the two.
1. How will the new team racing system work?
Several of the multiplayer game modes in PGR4 have been made with team play in mind. There are two teams, one red and one blue. Players can then face of against each other in games like “Bulldog” and “Cat and Mouse”.
2. What kind of customisation will players be able to apply to their cars? Will it still be available and visible in the single-player game, or only in multiplayer?
You can customise the appearance of your car, as well as your driver/rider. Your design is then applied across every car you own. Think of it like a football strip which you can apply to whatever you drive. You can also wrap your nation’s flag around your car if you’re feeling particularly patriotic. This level of customisation is available throughout the entire game; both single and multiplayer.
3. Arguments often arise over who crashed into who – have you considered some kind of penalty system, possibly similar to racing’s black flag, that would encourage fairer racing?
Nope, PGR is not about following complex rule systems or being forced to race in one particular way. What we have done to respond to these arguments is to physically change the layout of the course in such a way which will make racing fairer. For example, we’ve moved back the barriers on some of the more treacherous corners to provide some runoff area for crashing. This means that the pile-ups will all happen off the racing line, and not slap bang in the middle of where people are trying to drive.
4. What plans do you have for Team leaderboards, competitions, tournaments etc?
Not right now, but we are leaving our options open to maybe do something like this in the future.
1. What elements of a city make it perfect for inclusion in PGR, and how did the new cities satisfy these?
As we made the decision early on to keep the cities from PGR3 in the new game, this made our new city selection very different. We could afford to go with some smaller and less well-known cities like Quebec or Macau; it wasn’t a requirement to include any more “super cities”.
That meant that we could pick the racing environments based purely on their appeal as circuits, instead of having to cover our bases with the metropolis’. Quebec is an excellent example; it has massive elevation changes, transition from built-up city to parkland, and it’s also prone to ice and snowstorms. It hit the tone we wanted for PGR4 exactly. J
2. Why did you choose to keep some of the same cities in PGR4? And why not bring back some other old favourites like Edinburgh?
Firstly bringing back Edinburgh wasn’t an option, as it wasn’t built for the high-definition era and would look very out of place next to the detail of the new cities. As it takes 2 years for a full environment art team to build a city, remodelling one of the old locations wasn’t really an option. The PGR3 environments were handy because they only needed relatively small updates to bring them up to speed for PGR4.
However, the main reason we brought them back was a gameplay one. The old cities race in a completely different way in PGR4, given that we now have dynamic weather and bikes in the mix. We’ve also gone back and added our “racification” elements to the old cities. This involved changing the track layout to minimise crashes and aid drivers, as well as making the entire place feel more like a huge racing festival, instead of a lifeless city.
3. Do you have plans to add some new cities with DLC?
No, this isn’t possible due to the huge file size of the download, as well as the time it takes to create a city from scratch. As I mentioned previously, it takes a full team two years to create an environment, putting this far beyond the scope of DLC.
4. Will players still be able to create their own routes through the cities in PGR4?
No, the Route Creator wasn’t brought across to PGR4. This was because we listened to feedback from the community, in which they said that it really wasn’t a feature they used an awful lot in the previous game. We decided early on to spend our efforts on features which the player would enjoy, rather than something which ultimately just because a tick on the back of the box.
New Kudos System:
1. What changes have you made to the Kudos system?
The Kudos system has had lots of small enhancements made to it, such as bike specific Kudos, good line Kudos, etc. However, the main change which people will notice straight away is the new star system. What we’ve done now is to award the gamer with a star rating per Kudos move, which goes from 1 star (pretty lame) to 5 stars (super awesome!). Now it’s not a case of “I’ve got 40 Kudos, is that good or bad?!?” You know that if you get 5 stars you rock, and if you don’t then you need to improve your driving!
2. Are you making it more difficult for people to exploit the Kudos system?
Sure. But again we’ve been careful not to impose tough rules or regulations onto players – we want you to be able to play the game however you want. Several of our game modes have been tweaked in order to deter rampant whoring of Kudos, like making them time-based instead of score-based.
3. What kind of Achievements are you putting into PGR4, and what have you learned about Achievements since PGR3?
You can see the full achievements list at www.bizarrecreations.com/games/pgr4/achievements.php. When we designed the PGR3 achievements list we didn’t really know how successful the system would become, or how important it would be in the overall game experience. Obviously we’ve had an extra 2 years experience since then, and I think this shows in the selection of awards we’ve included!
Thanks for your time Ben!
Project Gotham Racing 4 hits our shores next week. If reading above has got you salivating for more, then why not pre-order PGR4 and support what we do here in the process by buying your copy from Play.com. We’ll have our review of PGR4 on the site soon.