Driving games are in a league of their own when it comes to excess. Between the number of licensed cars in Gran Turismo and Forza, you might almost be convinced that more equals better. Darren Jobling isn’t, and he thinks the big names have lost the plot.
Eutechnyx want to make driving games about ownership with browser-based Auto Club Revolution. It’s already convinced BMW that this is the case. The studio’s COO talks to Develop about the game’s free-to-play model, its openness and how a closer relationship with users has completely shifted its production process.
You’ve pitched ACR as the first “true” collaboration between a games company and a car manufacturer. Tell us a bit about your partnership with BMW.
We thought there was a huge gap in the market for collaboration between developers and the big brand owners, such as BMW. To reflect their brand values much more in a racing game, the sort of stuff you’re interested in knowing about, if you’re a BMW fan, like what Frank Isenberg, the lead designer [of the BMW 1 Series M Coupé], thinks of the car. He’s not some developer offering an opinion, he actually created the physical car and helped us to create that exact same feel in the game.
Where did the idea for ACR originate?
It was GDC 2005 and I was looking at online poker. I was thinking: ah, this whole free-to-play hasn’t really made it into mainline gaming, as in gambling gaming. I thought it would be really good to apply the business model that was successful in Asia, as it was then, to what we know people like to do in the west, which is buy officially licensed cars and customise them with officially licensed parts. That was all the way back in 2005, so it was quite ahead of its time. It’s taken us seven years to go from that original idea to where we are today.
There’s been a hell of a lot involved, over 50 car manufacturers, 150 upgrade manufacturers. It’s exhausting, but also very, very rewarding.
How does it compare to the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza?
I think that GT and Forza are great games, the problem is the car is only the vehicle to take you to the next car. So it’s like constant progression, there’s no joy in ownership, or expressing yourself and showing that off to other people. [ACR] was really about spending more time concentrating on producing one thing at a very, very high level.
What has it been like forming your own publishing division for ACR?
We come from a publishing background. Back in the day, when we started, we used to publish games all the way up until 1996, so we weren’t totally naive in terms of what was involved and we’d always kept our hand in, in terms of licence of all the big brands, so it wasn’t a total shock to the system, but it has been an almighty amount of work. Anybody else contemplating it shouldn’t underestimate the amount of work involved.
Does it feel like it could be make or break with ACR?
No, not really. We haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. We have the worldwide rights to NASCAR, and we’ve got another game in development with Activision on console. We’ve got Ride to Hell, too. So currently about one third of our business is ACR. We’re well backed, we did a deal with Prime Ventures and North East Accelerator Fund in 2010 specifically to do ACR. So it’s not make or break, but I think it’s definitely the path to the future.
Free-to-play, as a business model, has been adopted by more and more games. But do you think there is still an aversion to it, particular from the enthusiast audience ACR is targeting?
I think historically, but it’s changing very, very rapidly. In the last 12 months there’s been a quantum shift and people are saying: 'hey, free-to-play games can be exactly the same quality as their console cousins'. So I think more games, like ACR, will make free-to-play more and more accepted.
We definitely wanted to appeal to auto enthusiasts in the broadest sense of the word. So you're either a BMW person or an Audi person, a Porsche person or a Ferrari person; and we wanted to appeal to those exact same people in ACR. Core gamers are very important to us, but also if we can broaden that market by getting people who don’t see themselves as gamers, who are maybe playing games on other formats, I think it will be really interesting.
ACR’s browser experience and its social connectivity appear to give it lots of viral potential. What does this combination mean for ACR?
Its social functions [will help us bring people in], but also the way you access ACR. You can look for a new car at BMW.com, and test drive a new car, or if you’re a fan of BMW on Facebook, they can gift you a car. I think stuff like that [is us] talking to people in much broader sense than we’ve done in the past in the games industry. It’s literally getting rid of the communication barrier and putting people in touch, giving them the tools in ACR to create the sort of game that they want and responding quickly to what they ask for.
Do you think other driving games have missed the importance of dialogue, then?
As a keen racing gamer, I just felt the big franchises had lost their way. They’d got so wrapped up in them themselves that there was an opportunity, and we just wanted to grab that opportunity and test it out. I went to see a major motor manufacturer, and he said to me: 'Darren, I’m really sick of having the big guys in here, and they say they’re going to do something creative, but all they do is want to licence more and more cars for bigger and bigger ranges. I’m really pleased that you’ve actually come up with something that is genuinely creativity and offers something different for people who are interested in cars.'
We’re literally at the tip of iceberg for what we’ve got planned for ACR. From the reaction from the beta community, people are liking it.
[ACR is] more open. Literally, if you’ve got a web browser, you can get in there, you can experience it on various different devices. It’s giving people tools to create a game of their choice rather than taking what we want to predefine for them. It’s very unusual for a console developer because it’s a different mindset. [We have to] look at what [users] are doing this month, because that’s going to affect what we produce next month, rather than having an 18 month development plan with milestones. It’s pretty much: “hey, look at what these cool people are doing in the game, let’s change next month’s release to build in that direction”.
Has this changed the production process at Eutechnyx?
It’s been a total step change in the way that we work. It’s primarily data analysis, because the game throws out all sorts of data. We need to look at that data and analyse what that tells us about what people are doing in the gameworld, then react to it. So you listen to what people say, but you [respond] to what they do.
What have you learnt from the process of making ACR so far?
I could literally write a book about what we’ve learnt. The main thing is that big brands, such as BMW, are actually accessible. They are not some huge corporate beast that you can’t talk to. They’re just normal people who are very passionate about what they’re doing, and they like to deal with other people who are passionate about [their own craft], because that gets the best results.
ACR’s a long-term game plan, and the ACR you see now is going to be virtually unrecognisable from the ACR you see in two year’s time. That’s the beauty of free-to-play, it’s got a much longer shelf life.
And developers, generally, can learn that there are huge opportunities now. If you’re thinking about changing your business, now is the time to do it. I think with the success of Zynga, there is money available for this type of project from investors. If you can have a compelling story, a compelling concept and you can back it up with strategic relationships, now is the time to be making that sort of move. It’s like there is a gap in the traffic, but pretty soon that gap is going to close.
See more at autoclubrevolution.com.