Wheel emotion: Redefining racing with Driveclub
We speak to Evolution’s Paul Rustchynsky about the PS4’s first real racing classic.
Ever since Namco's iconic Ridge Racer slipstreamed its way onto the Sony PlayStation way back in 1994, driving games have gone hand-in-hand – or perhaps wheel to wheel is the proper term – with the launch of fresh console hardware. No other genre seems to capture the power and passion of a brand new system as appropriately; the opportunity for developers to craft realistic vehicles and then push them around complicated, winding tracks at breakneck speeds seems to call to players from all walks of life. Simply put, racing games have become something of an initiation for new and exciting hardware; a testing ground where these fledgling machines are shaken down by early adopters before being deemed ready for the mainstream.
Prior to the dawn of this new generation, the script was seemingly already written. Microsoft had Forza Motorsport 5 revved up and ready on its shiny new Xbox One, while Sony's PlayStation 4 had Driveclub, an arguably more ambitious offering from UK-based Evolution Studios, famous for creating the critically and commercially successful MotorStorm series. However, the story didn't quite play out as expected – Driveclub hit a bump in the road and was delayed, while Forza 5 launched to a generally lukewarm response, thanks largely to the scaled-back amount of content when compared to its previous-gen forerunner, Forza 4.
Driveclub's unfortunate delay may have robbed the PS4 of one of its most alluring launch titles, but game director Paul Rustchynsky doesn't appear to have any regrets or reservations about holding it back for additional tuning. He exclusively tells Red Bull that the title's complexity was something that simply couldn't be compromised, even if it was to meet that all-important launch date.
"Developing for PS4 allowed us to be ambitious, and a big part of that ambition was creating a dynamic menu that is brought to life with info and data that other players have generated, to create a hub of activity very similar to what you’d expect to see from something like Facebook," Rustchynsky tells us. The 'dynamic menu' of which he speaks might sound familiar to fans of EA's Need for Speed series, which showcases a similar system known as Autolog. However, what Evolution has planned for Driveclub goes way beyond that concept – hence the unfortunate need to hold the game back.
"Trying to achieve all of that for the launch of PS4 turned out to be a little too ambitious for us and I’m not ashamed to admit that," Rustchynsky says. "It wasn’t as fluid or as seamless as it needed to be and so with Sony’s backing we agreed that we’d take the time to get it right rather than compromising on quality to rush it. The additional time has been used to raise the bar across the rest of the game, adding more cars and tracks and continuing to improve the visuals and refine the way that each and every car drives to get them all just right."
Driveclub's social element will allow it to stand out from the likes of Gran Turismo, Forza and the forthcoming Project CARS. "Driveclub goes a lot further than any other racing game to let you share your passion for racing with your friends and is extremely accessible," says Rustchynsky. "We’re all about the thrill of racing the world’s most amazing cars, but unlike many other racers, we don’t want it to be lonely and uninviting, so we let you create clubs so that you can share everything. It’s unique because track-hardened pros can compete together or they can bring in friends who might never have raced before and just enjoy the ride together."
As you'd expect, the cars are the real stars in Driveclub, with each vehicle taking around nine months of effort to create, from the rendering of the model to the signature sound of each engine. "We start with reference material that is the same computer design data that the car manufacturer uses to create the actual cars in a factory, and we follow that up with a photo-shoot where our designers take around 1,000 photographs covering every square inch of the car, inside and out," explains Rustchynsky. "We then build each car by hand, from scratch, building up all of the materials from the metal or carbon fibre chassis all the way up to layers of paint and colour-matched stitching on the steering wheel."
Such graphical complexity comes at a price, though – while Driveclub will boast a pin-sharp 1080p resolution, it will run at only 30 frames per second. In the battle between the Xbox One and PS4, details like these are used as weapons by each system's fans to claim supremacy, and when 30fps was confirmed for Driveclub, many PS4 owners unsurprisingly expressed their dismay. However, Rustchynsky feels that Evolution has struck the right balance in this particular case. "I can see why players assume that a higher frame rate means better quality, because in pretty much every other technical statistic the higher numbers directly translate to better performance and more detail. With high frame rates though, you’ve got to sacrifice a lot of detail, and ultimately we’re really satisfied that we’ve got a great balance of a racing game that looks stunning and plays beautifully. The real acid test for us was when we let thousands of gamers play our demo at E3 in Los Angeles this year, because everyone who cares about frame rate came away surprised and pleased with how fluid and responsive it feels when you’re driving. I’d encourage any sceptics to give it a go, because we’ve spent a lot of time and effort making sure that the game never drops a frame and that your inputs have no noticeable input latency, which even some of the games running at 60fps can’t guarantee."
That's not to say that studios like Evolution won't be able to hit the promised land of 1080p and 60fps in the future – in fact, Rustchynsky is of the opinion that developers have barely scratched the surface when it comes to exploiting the incredibly power contained within Sony's next-gen system. "The PS4 is fantastic to work with because it’s been built in collaboration with studios like ours," he explains. "We’ve been able to provide input into the hardware and system software design to make sure we get the best tools to make the greatest games we can imagine. Looking back at what we’ve been able to do in the past two years, and how we’re continually finding new ways of getting even more performance out of the hardware, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to reaching the limit of what the PS4 can do yet."
The visual side of things is only one side of the coin, however – the way each car handles and sounds is equally important to the overall authenticity. "To bring them to life, we have to make sure that they sound the part and feel great to drive too, so we go to extraordinary lengths to get our hands on every car to drive them and record every sound they make," Rustchynsky continues. "We’ve got an amazing audio team and they’re completely obsessive about the intricate details of the sound of each car. They place upwards of 16 high-tech microphones in key locations all around the car, sometimes dismantling parts of the engine block in order to gain access to a well hidden intake or a discreetly positioned turb."
As the title suggests, the concept of forming cliques online is going to play a massive role in Driveclub; instead of simply racing for your own personal glory, you'll be representing a group of players – a simple notion which raises the stakes considerably. "Connectivity is at the heart of Driveclub, just like it’s at the heart of PS4," says Rustchynsky. "We want to bring you together with your friends so that you get more out of every race. It makes your victories sweeter when you know that your friends also get to know about it or be a part of it, so we’ve designed the game with this in mind. We’ve come a long way since the limited one-on-one challenge scenarios we used to play on PS3, and it’s going to play a big part in keeping the game lively and exciting for you for a long time."
But what of those who want to race on their own? Does Driveclub offer anything for solo players? Thankfully, Rustchynsky has some welcome news. "There’s a full single-player campaign called Driveclub Tour which will give you plenty of challenging and exciting races against very sophisticated AI driver. So even if you never connect your PS4 to the internet, there’s plenty for you to do."
Like so many modern games, the Driveclub experience won't be reserved solely for those times when you're sat in front of your PS4. A mobile app is in the pipeline which allows you to stay in touch with events even when you're not in the house. "You can keep up to speed with your friends and your club, see what challenges are going on and check out your latest results and races," explains Rustchynsky. "The only thing you can’t do is actually race, but you can watch live races when a player is broadcasting a live stream.”
However, Rustchynsky reveals that Evolution has decided against pushing the second-screen concept and allowing players to utilise their phone or tablet to get an additional perspective on the action by say, using a mobile device as a rear-view mirror. "We experimented with ideas like this and found that they don’t tend to work out as well as you’d hope, because of latency, or where you’d put your tablet while racing so you can still see where you’re going; for one reason or another, most don’t work out."
As Driveclub's revised October launch date draws closer, Rustchynsky and his team are already looking at how they can expand and improve the title post-release. "We’ve always viewed it as a game that will evolve over time, growing with its players in the same way that you see the most popular social networks grow with their users. We’ve already got lots of innovative ideas to extend the experience and we’ve already announced the powerful dynamic weather system we’ve been working on, which is just one of the ways we’ll be expanding the game. We have more lined up to unveil in the coming weeks and months, too."
Downloadable content is naturally on the agenda and Rustchynsky makes it very clear that it's going to be integral to maintaining the longevity of the title moving forward. "We want to keep the game lively and fresh for a very long time and we also want to keep innovating with DLC in a big way," he tells Red Bull. "So you can expect new cars and tracks along with lots of surprises and exciting events. You’ll have lots of good reasons to keep playing Driveclub for a long time after launch, that’s for sure."
One of those reasons could be Sony's much-hyped Project Morpheus Virtual Reality headset, although Rustchynsky is keen to stress that at the present moment in time, Evolution has no plans to include support for the headset in Driveclub. "Project Morpheus is a fantastic piece of hardware and it’s something that really excites me as a gamer. Evolution has a dedicated team who have been working on it from day one, so we have a keen eye on it – but it’s not something we’re looking at for Driveclub just now."
As Evolution fine-tunes Driveclub's engine, fills up the tank and fits those brand-new tyres in preparation for rolling the game out onto the track in October, Rustchynsky can finally take a few moments to reflect on what he and his team have achieved. "For me it’s how satisfying it is to get behind the wheel," he replies when asked which aspect of the game he is most proud of. "I’ve always had the mantra: ‘gameplay, gameplay, gameplay’ and I love that we’ve designed a fundamental driving experience that is an incredibly rich balance of accessibility and depth that feels brilliant on both pad and wheel. It’s a racing game after all; making it exhilarating for everyone is what matters most to us and achieving that is absolutely what I’m most proud of."
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