And, Michael French discovers, the team says it has created a game with more character and innovation than anything else in the Britsoft driving game scene’s recent history…
Disney’s UK studio Black Rock proved its worth with last year’s new racing IP Pure – but now it wants to muscle in on the street racer category with action-driving game Split/Second. And, Michael French discovers, the team says it has created a game with more character and innovation than anything else in the Britsoft driving game scene’s recent history…
If there’s one undisputable thing about UK games developers, is that they are very good at racing games. Sure, excellent work is done by Polyphony, Turn 10 and Black Box overseas, but they are outnumbered by Codemasters, Criterion, Blimey, Evolution, Sony Liverpool, BigBig, Eutechnyx, Ubisoft Reflections, Bizarre Creations, Midway Newcastle – and, of course, Disney’s Black Rock Studio.
Next year sees the studio release its second title, Split/Second. But the game is very different from the usual racing fare that UK developers are so good at. Yes, there are unlicensed muscle cars and a power bar mechanic, like Burnout. There’s a tightly honed arcade-meets-sim edge to the racing, as seen in Race Driver GRID. And like Black Rock’s debut game Pure it shows an exuberance in both visuals and sound.
Yet the key for Split/Second isn’t just racing, but the environments you race through. In a bid to capture Hollywood pyrotechnics, the game is set in a television series, with all the courses acting as giant soundstages. Most importantly, “the courses are changing while you are racing,” says director Nick Baynes – but the changes are driven by the player.
The pitch runs like this: as a racer in a high-stakes reality TV show, you’re competing with other drivers in urban street races, with drifts and clever manoeuvring filling up a power bar. So far, so Need for Speed. But this is not spent on nitrous, but ‘powerplays’, on-screen destructive events. Throughout the tracks are environmental objects and explosive effects of varying size that can be activated once drivers have racked up the requisite power – deploy them at the right moment, and you can take out the cars ahead of you or coming up from the rear. Powerplays range from the small-scale, such as an exploding bus, through to a collapsible airport radar tower which splits in two, crumbles to the floor and diverts traffic onto a runaway – right up to the more audacious, such as a plane falling from the sky and crashing on said runway.
It’s a mix of cartoon-style, hyper-real and glossy mayhem designed to make players pay attention to the world they are travelling through rather than just where they are speeding to. And that’s the point.
“It’s classic car chases with vehicles flying through glass windows and smashing through buildings – we don’t want this to be like every other racer with cars bolted to the ground like Scalectrix. We want gamers to think every other driving game is boring after playing Split/Second,” says Baynes.
Hyperbole? Sure, with the game only just revealed after a carefully orchestrated tease by Disney’s PR, the team is excited to talk. But tour the Brighton studio to survey the work that is going into Split/Second, and it’s clear that after Pure this game is no sophomore slump, no ‘difficult Second album’. And, most importantly, it is designed to set the studio apart from the ten other UK studios famed for racing games – and is backed with the technology and style to realise that aim.
WORLD’S BLOWN APART
Gameplay wise, the idea has been fine-tuned to place emphasis on the environments as something to remember, rather than memorable for their shortcuts.
“With almost every racing game the tracks you experience when you first buy the game are the same no matter if you play them during the first hour or the 20th hour. You might have a faster car – but it’s the same environment. In Split/Second as you unlock more powerplays there is more depth to the courses and more variety when you revisit them,” says Baynes. Likewise the game opens up similarly in line with player performance, he adds, pointing out that as drivers get better, they’ll unlock powerplays quicker – directly binding the addition of new track elements to competency and gameplay.
“That also lets us approach racing from a fresh view – instead of a career mode in a racer, which just forces you to revisit old tracks with better opponents, here we give players environments that have the potential to be totally different after a few hours’ play.”
And while all the powerplays are essentially unlockable scripted events of various magnitude, it’s still a stark contrast to the structure of other racers, which the Black Rock team think will be characterised as lifeless once Split/Second is released next year. They don’t say it outright, but the team clearly want spectators to think days are numbered for UK-made rivals like GRID, DIRT, Burnout – and now even Need for Speed, whose sim spin-off is being made in London.
So how is the Brighton studio realising what is a high-concept racer? The core gameplay idea has been devised (but still open to tweaking – Baynes and the team admit that there’s still at least eight months of work to be done on the game overall, specifically areas like AI and juggling the fairness of powerplays triggered by NPCs). Which leaves the heavy lifting is being done to the art and code teams. To maintain the action-driven energy, the team has been looking outside of racing to inform their decisions. Ask what the inspirations are, and you’ll be given examples like Michael Bay films such as Transformers and Stallone’s TV show The Contender rather than Midnight Club or Stuntman.
“Looking outside of the racing genre has been crucial for this – its inspired us to invest in different areas, new technology and better approaches to audio,” says Baynes.
From an artistic sense, the emphasis has been taken off the cars, and put into ‘hyper realism’ for those destructible environments. Mood boards in art director Steve Uphill’s visual style guide are packed with grabs from gritty action movies with glossy visuals.
“The fact is, reality is boring – that’s not what we want to create visually,” says Uphill. “The key for any video game should be to take you to somewhere unreal, not somewhere that is drab like the real world.”
Visually, the game is trying to convey “something beyond what you’re seeing on screen,” adds Baynes.
Technical director David Jefferies’ work on deferred rendering (regularly chronicled in his monthly Develop column) has aided this approach. Explains Jefferies: “It’s been a big part of the tools we have been developing to give artists the power to create striking environments you wouldn’t see elsewhere.”
He adds that Black Rock’s technology allows for not just for creating vibrant environments, but dynamic ones: the intention is for the colour grading to change if you’re winning or losing, at which point the music will also kick up the tempo as you head towards the finish line. “Everything is being geared towards conveying a sense of achievement and excitement in the player during the intense moments – it’s something that a lot of action games do really well, but no racing game has tried to capture.
Baynes later confesses that the tension of Metal Gear Solid is more relevant to Split/Second than any obvious Hollywood reference point like The Fast and the Furious: “The end of race need to feel like the high point of a movie, when the protagonist faces off against an enemy.”
Again, the intention is to draw on genres that usually aren’t applied to racing games, hence why the team describe their signature style as ‘cinematic realism’. Furthermore, that deferred rendering system allows for multiple light sources, and helps capture that filmic feel.
Says Uphill: “It’s what film does as well – they light a single scene to make viewers buy into what is essentially a very unreal scene.”
To show that technology off, the game also promises a mix of outside environments, but plenty of interiors too (Uphill reckons it’s about a 60/40 split). Adds Jefferies: “This plays to our strengths and the engine. The renderer can let us make and light those environments really quickly – and also you don’t see those kind of environments in a racing game. The most you get ‘inside’ is usually a tunnel connecting two open spaces. That in turn creates a great way to play with lighting, with different effects for inside and outside, and ultimately means we can generate a different emotion – a closed darker space, along with a change in music, would make the player feel very different to just whizzing around a track.”
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
There’s also plenty of other ambitious tech elements too – the team want to use volumetric smoke, but not just as a means to wow the player visually or for when buildings collapse; they want to turn it into a strategic gameplay device.
“Cars could punch through the smoke, and you’ll see them burst through exhaust clouds or dust – it creates a dramatic visual effect, but has gameplay implications too,” say Jefferies. “Smoke obscures your vision, so if you’re in the lead it might not be the best idea to race ahead; you might want to let another racers speed ahead and cut a line of visibility through the smoke for you.”
The game’s audio production takes a cue from Hollywood, too, and is also set about creating realism using unrealistic effects.
Explains Baynes: “We’re looking at how we can get sound effects that don’t in theory match what you are seeing on screen, but represent what we want and mixing them with real sound effects.”
So in Split/Second the growl of a muscle car engine isn’t just the usual sample of a real vehicle with the foot on the gas, but a lion’s roar underpinned with the ticking of a motor – the noise of cars rushing past each other is in fact bullets whizzing past microphones.
“It’s important that we capture that Hollywood feel – if something explodes on screen in a cinema, you’ll have something fly over head and all sorts of completely unrealistic effects – but no one cares if it’s not realistic, they just want pure excitement,” adds Baynes. “Hopefully in surround sound that approach will make Split/Second a pretty unique experience.”
In terms of generating those effects in response to player actions, Black Rock is ditching cross-fade effects for a more granular approach to audio design.
“That means we can really control the effects,” explains audio director Steve Rockett. One demo shows individual engine noises that are chopped into grains and played on loop, its speed varying according to how heavily the player squeezes the trigger – it’s not just an audio FX sped up or slowed down. Adds Rockett: “It just feels much more realistic and responsive.”
The same approach is applied to the music. In another move to dispense with the staples of racing through urban landscapes, there will be no licensed tracks in Split/Second, opting instead for a dynamic soundtrack inspired by movie scores.
“It beats having the generic Green Day or Chemical Brothers track that developers seem to love but which blares over the gameplay with little relation to what’s happening on the screen,” says Baynes.
“It also gives us a lot more control to what the player experiences – both as a developer and a player,” adds Rockett, nodding to yet more non-racing elements: “In terms of the dynamic music, we’re inspired by films like Rocky or The Matrix. Just because we aren’t making a war game like Call of Duty, doesn’t mean we can’t look to them for inspiration.”
Adds Baynes: “The whole trajectory of the games industry has been towards making games that are ‘more real’ but developers are too focused on ‘reality’. Movies and TV are miles ahead of us in that capacity – they are about making things larger than life, not the same as life. That’s what we want to do visually and aurally.”
“And that’s why things like the lion sound effect blended in works well,” continues Rockett. “In Star Wars the ridiculous sound effects support the visuals. In Split/Second you could play spot the sound effect if you’re clever, but for 99 per cent the lion’s roar or whatever is subliminal, making an explosion or an engine rev feel uncomfortable.”
In all, the game is a clear reaction to the rest of the racing genre – an entrenched category in need of the innovation, the team says. They are careful not talk down the opposition too much – after all, when the team consists of staff which once upon a time called places like Codemasters or Criterion home before moving to the South, it would be unfair on old friends.
But clearly they do want Split/Second to be compared to the other similar games out there, and to show them up for not trying anything new.
That’s why the game features almost outlandish ideas like a volumetric-smoke-as-gameplay-device, which Baynes readily admits was just an R&D experiment which the team thought would eventually be dropped. “But we’re actually doing these things because the genre needs that kind of fresh innovation.”
And the game’s clean, HUD-less look – all the info will be shown on the rear bumper of the vehicle – is another example.
“If you look at screenshots of racing games, they all kind of look the same,” says Baynes. “It’s another example of how we’re trying something different, and really want to reject a lot of the things that are established or expected of a racing game.”
Adds Uphill: “We want to immerse the player into the environment – something that isn’t really done in a lot of other racing games, which tend to force the player to be more technically minded.”
Plus, the team says, the established technology base has meant a more fluid exchange and evolution of ideas throughout development, as both technical, art, audio and design staff can collaborate on ideas, he adds: “We’re constantly throwing around ideas about the kinds of environments we could render and then destroy.”
Adds Jefferies: “It’s been a huge transfer of ideas, which is a little different from other productions where the different coding, art and design teams can be ghettoised and ordered to just shut up and get on with it.”
It also means that the ideas get more and more outlandish as the team debate them – which has a roundabout effect on the actual tools, says Jefferies.
“You get to a point when you are developing tech that the tools are used by the artists and designers to do things that we never thought of when we developed the technology in the first place. In all there’s been a real group effort to keep pushing and try new things.”
Finally, the team adds that it isn’t just trying to show off here with its talk of high-end tools powering an equally high-end concept. As a racing studio, Black Rock has a vested interest in making sure the driving game category evolves and continues to excite, hence why the regular talk of taking it in a new direction with Split/Second.
“It helps that our inspiration is the big blockbuster movie – it makes the game a massmarket proposition, and is a good hybrid of what someone familiar with Burnout or Need for Speed might expect but also should please newcomers,” says Baynes.
“We’re all fans of street racing here, but as a genre it is relatively stale – the evolution is only coming from how you customise cars, which can only serve to remove you from the action – I think Split/Second will do the opposite.”
And as studio head Tony Beckwith concludes, the genre isn’t in as good a health as it once was – and needs something original to fire it up again: “If you look at the sales figures, the racing genre is in many respects dying out – take Mario Kart out of the equation and the category is in a dire way. I think this genre is ripe for something new and inventive to give it a kick start.”
KEEPING ON TRACK
While Split/Second’s inventive concept has fed off a multitude of Hollywood reference points and also Black Rock’s proprietary tech, the team has been keen to make sure that the title remains a racing game at heart and that this isn’t lost amidst excitement over deferred rendering or exploding bus stops.
So when it comes to track design – a key part of any racer, of course – the design team has been given strict orders to make sure courses and environments stand up, whether the walls are crumbling or not.
Explains game director Nick Baynes: “In a track design sense, the concept has on affected the way we have approached things like visibility on corners – making sure that there are no tall buildings in the way so that players aren’t overwhelmed with having to drift and keep an eye on the obstacles or powerplays ahead.
“Ultimately, we haven’t let the action element totally control the track design: all the tracks have been designed with the rule that ‘if you took powerplays out of the game, you could still enjoy it’.”