ANALYSIS: Driver returns

Ben Parfitt
ANALYSIS: Driver returns

Fame is, as the saying goes, a fickle food. One minute you’re on top… the next, on the scrapheap.

Driver knows that journey all too well. The first Driver and Driver 2 are firmly fixed gaming classics, beloved by many. But Driv3r? Let’s not. Fourth game Parallel Lines? Check Wikipedia.

However the brand will rebound from obscurity this year, 11 years after its first release, with Driver: San Francisco. Published by Ubisoft – which bought the series and its creator Reflections in 2006 – the game stays true to the spirit of the originals, yet is an ambitious new triple-A multiformat release.

START YOUR ENGINES

But how can you rejuvenate a series which in many respects has ‘retired’?

“Driver never retired – it just experienced an extended period of re-engineering in the workshop,” jokes Ubisoft’s UK marketing director Murray Pannell.

“In all seriousness, though, we know from consumer research that the UK gaming audience has a very positive brand perception of the Driver franchise. In fact, despite the fact there’s not been a Driver game for over five years, it is in the top five Ubisoft brands in terms of awareness. So there is a latent demand for a strong new game in the Driver series. 

“For me as a marketing guy, I think this is a fantastic opportunity to re-ignite the excitement and passion I felt when the original Driver came out way back in 1999.”

San Francisco was unveiled at E3 last year, but Ubi took the decision to postpone the game from a 2011 release to later 2012 to get it right. For some time, key Ubisoft execs have said the Driver series represents its play into a genre it hasn’t touched – driving – so it’s little wonder it wants to get it right first time off the grid.

DRIVING LICENCE

“At its heart, Driver: San Francisco is all about the thrill of driving,” says Pannell.  “It’s going back to its roots where the player experiences high-stake cinematic car chases, inspired by classic car chase movies of the ‘70s.”

He adds: “With the additional development time on Driver: San Francisco, Ubisoft Reflections have done a fantastic job making the game bigger and better in every sense. An enhanced story, additional missions, collectables and unlockables – plus  the fabulous multiplayer modes – these will all contribute to an amazing experience that will not only rejuvenate the franchise, but hopefully set the standard for open-world driving games going forward.”

No modest ambitions, then. But it’s little wonder Ubisoft is so confident after a number of years establishing new IPs such as Assassin’s Creed and redefining genres with the likes of Just Dance. Can Driver stand alongside a powerhouse like Creed?

“Driver has been massive in the past, and there is no reason to suggest that it couldn’t be just as great in the future,” says Pannell.

“Of course Driver and Assassin’s Creed are two different types of game, but they both have mainstream appeal and have the ability capture the imagination of a wide spectrum of core and casual gamers. Certainly the ambition for all our development studios is to make games that have the scope, depth, lasting appeal, enjoyment factor and sales potential of games like Assassin’s Creed. From an investment point of view we are treating both franchises like true blockbuster titles, so the ambition is there.”

DRIVE AND AMBITION

To fulfil the ambition, Ubisoft has to promote the game. And this week marked the watershed moment to really rekindle the Driver romance. Promotions started in London this week with showcases, with more planned in the run up to E3, and then through the summer to launch.

“The comeback event this week marks the start of our reboot to the Driver campaign, where press, retailers and community are invited to see the game and hear more from Reflections about what their objectives have been with the software,” says brand manager Jan Sanghera.

“Similarly, we can start having a stronger discussion with fans and community online, so we’ve been building tools to help us create this dialogue. This digital part of the campaign will continue throughout the rest of the campaign.

“E3 will be a key milestone in communication, where we know the company has some killer plans to present and make the game stand out. This is when we’ll also start building awareness at retail through initiatives in-store and online and this presence will increase in the launch phase of the campaign.

“It’s important to continue building buzz after E3 and throughout the Summer, and a big focus at this time will be on experiential activity.

“We’ll then move into the launch phase and this is when we’ll use media to build on the work achieved in PR, community, digital and experiential. We’ll use above-the-line communication such as TV, print and online to reinforce Driver’s cool ‘70s style balanced with presenting a top notch driving game experience. We may consider other media such as cinema and outdoor if we feel the timing and opportunities are right for the campaign.”

Although exact expenditure has yet to be confirmed, “Driver is a big deal for Ubisoft this year,” says Sanghera – and like Assassin’s Creed the publisher thinks the game can cross the tipping point and once again be a mainstream force in gaming.

“We’ll be focusing our efforts on building an ambitious triple-A campaign. We’ll of course target core gamers and Driver fans, but we have a real opportunity to take this mainstream, due to the broad appeal of the franchise.”

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TALKING EDS

Ubisoft Reflections studio co-founders and brothers Martin and Gareth Edmondson discuss the road trip that led to Driver: San Francisco

Are there any changes to the gameplay content and mechanics since the game’s first showing at E3 2010?

Martin, creative director: The basic mechanic of the game is unchanged but we have added a vast amount of new content since E3 last year. For example, many optional side quests and challenges that unlock throughout the city, with online leader boards. Movie Challenges that catapult players right into car chases inspired by the most famous movie and TV chases of the time, Garages in the city where you can purchase and store your favourite cars. More online game modes and multiplayer options like split screen. And finally one or two surprises for fans of the original Driver game.

In the time since Driver’s first debut in 1999, we’ve had the explosion of GTA and the likes of Saints Row and Burnout reshape non-racing driving games. How can the new Driver compete in that environment? Has the way the genre changed shaped the development of the new Driver?

Martin: We compete by being different in Driver: San Francisco. We have focused back on the original core feel of Driver, that sense of being down in the thick of a street level Hollywood car chase and all of the exhilaration that comes with that. Driver is unique in that respect actually and it’s great having people play the game and declare “Driver is definitely back”.

Other games have encouraged us, though, to take a lighter, more humorous approach to the game and character dialogue – Driver in the past was always pretty serious – and that seems to be going down well with people. But the other side to ‘competing’ is innovation, both technically and with gameplay, something Reflections has always strived to do. Whilst maintaining the familiarity and feeling of past Driver games, Shift [which lefts players ‘possess’ and jump between cars] is something totally unique to the driving genre.

How has Reflections changed since Ubi took over? The studio’s released some smaller games since – but is it fair to say that this is the first major game under Ubisoft?

Gareth, studio director: It’s true that we have changed, and in some aspects quite a lot. However, it’s important for us to retain the aspects of our studio that make us unique – our expertise and our culture. Ubisoft have the second largest development work force in the world, and as such we have had a fantastic opportunity to draw from that expertise through collaborations with other studios. At the same time, however, our specific expertise in vehicle handing, AI and physics and our understanding of open world game designs and technologies have also been invaluable.

It has been an easy cultural fit as well really, as our passion for innovation and quality is exactly in line with Ubisoft’s drive for the same things. We have pushed very hard on these aspects, so to be a developer in that environment with the support to back it up has been a challenge that we have really relished.

It’s correct that its the first major game under Ubisoft, but many of our team has worked on other big Ubisoft titles so we have a good level of expertise across the team.

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