Amazon Game Studios is gearing up to release its first title on consoles: The Grand Tour Game. It’s an intriguing project, as Amazon brings together the crown jewel of its Prime Video streaming service with its still-fledgling game development arm. But even that’s not the most intriguing part here.
“I think I’m justified in saying that we’re the first video game team in history to make a game that launches day-and-date with a weekly live airing TV show,” says Craig Sullivan, who previously worked on both the Burnout and Need for Speed franchises and is now creative director at Amazon Game Studios.
“I started off underplaying how significant it is, because we kind of take it for granted now. I’ve been working on the game since April last year when I joined Amazon. And then I realised as we were talking about it more and more: ‘Has anybody done this before?’ And we realised the answer to that was no.”
What that means in practice is that the team will be delivering episodic gameplay alongside the weekly release schedule of the next series of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s escapades.
The Grand Tour Game will be sold as a digital season pass, for Xbox One and PS4, with two episodes of initial content based on the opening episodes of seasons one and two of the show available at launch. The remaining content will roll out day-and-date with season three, which was recently unveiled with a first-look trailer.
The game itself is an impressive blend of footage from the show, which introduces each section of gameplay, and driving action. There’s no single fancy effect, it’s just all done right, cutting from the live action footage to the driving game seamlessly.
“We really wanted to embrace the idea of ‘play the show’,” Sullivan says. “So we looked at it and said: ‘Right, what do video games do, what TV shows do and where where can we start to blur the lines?’ So as you will have seen there’s no traditional static screens in the game. When you start playing an episode we really embraced the idea of perpetual motion.”
And that bears out in play, with the live footage and the gameplay flowing along without a stutter or hitch – it feels as natural and effortless as watching the show does.
“So you were just playing The Holy Trinity [season 1, episode 1],” Sullivan tells us. “The TV episode is 65 minutes long to watch – we obviously cut out the footage where they are driving and you drive instead. So to play it from start to finish is about 60 minutes – we’ve aimed for it to be about the same. It’s a decent chunk of time.”
We found the balance of watching and playing to be just right, but if you’re more interested in playing the game than watching the TV segments then there’s a very neat skipping ahead function, accompanied by Clarkson shouting a belligerent: “Get on with it!”
Sullivan found that they had to warn players that the transition to gameplay was coming.
“We actually have to say ‘get ready’ because it used to shock some people, we’d have the seamless transition of the car driving through and sometimes you don’t notice it’s the game,” he explains.
FESTIVAL OF SPEED
It’s immediately apparent when playing that TV moves at a lightning pace compared to most video games. In just the first 20 minutes of the first episode the variety is startling.
“You drive five or six different cars, in five or six different locations, very very quickly in our game,” Sullivan says. “We don’t have to force players to grind out the best cars in the game – within a few minutes in our game you’re driving the McLaren P1 – some games you end up there after 30 hours of play.”
And there’s no requirement for the game to setup a reason for all this driving, such as Forza Horizon’s festival schtick or Gran Turismo’s endless fictional championships.
“A lot of other games, they work hard to try and spin these stories and make it non-tenuous. We have the perfect reason to do these things because the TV show does them,” he adds.
IN THE CAN
Following the beats of one of the most expensive TV productions today is a huge, and hugely intriguing, challenge. The game’s design has a big appetite for content, all of which must be created within the production schedule of the TV show.
“One of the reasons I joined the team is because it’s challenging. I like doing pretty hard things. Video games usually take a very long time to make. So you have to have as much information as early as possible in order to do justice to the episodes.
“We have someone who works for the Amazon Game Studios team embedded with the Chump Production Company,” which makes the show, Sullivan explains.
With the new season still largely under wraps as we go to press, we can’t discuss specifics. But the development team got raw footage straight from overseas shoots, so it could start creating assets for the game, sometimes before footage was even shot.
“We would not have been able to do this if we solely reacted to finished product. So we knew about the ideas the guys had in advance. Following the process has been amazing, because you get to see the inside of how they work.
“The development team is working to the dates, as much as we know them, for the show. We will use the time we have to make the best software we can,” Sullivan says confidently. And that’s despite the team having more hoops to jump through in order to bring the episodes to the public.
“We have lead times in terms of submitting to Sony and Microsoft, so it’s not the same thing as when you have a TV episode in the can and you can just turn it on. We have to finish a bit earlier and go through certification and make them available on the stores.”
As if that wasn’t enough to be taking on, The Grand Tour Game “will be the first game Amazon Game Studios releases on console using Lumberyard,”
With so much on their plate, there’s understandably a sizeable team on the project, though it is actually divided around the globe.
“We have a core team in Seattle and then there’s a second smaller US team as well, Heavy Iron [Studios], based in Manhattan Beach in LA. In the UK we have two teams: Electric Square down in Brighton and Stellar Entertainment in Guildford. Plus we’re also working with some guys, Studio 397, over in the Netherlands.
“The budget is up there with a lot of the games I’ve worked on in the past,” Sullivan says. “But we’re focused in a very different way. Most people when they look at doing a driving game say: ‘Right, we’re going to do a big open world experience, we’re going to have all these systems’.”
The Grand Tour Game is somewhat different. With a far tighter focus than many driving titles, which have huge rosters of cars and sprawling structures designed to provide countless hours of driving pleasure to dedicated driving fanatics. Though that’s not to say The Grand Tour Game is lightweight in terms of its systems.
“We had to do a lot very quickly and we wanted to do the best possible job – just making a fun driving model takes a long time,” Sullivan tells us. “So we were lucky to work with Studio 397, who were the guys who made rFactor and they accelerated a lot of our development – we use rFactor physics in our game.”
This makes perfect sense as rFactor’s physics allow the team to simulate any kind of four-wheeled vehicle.
And The Grand Tour has a remarkable variety of vehicles.
“[On the show], they don’t just do cars that are multi-million dollar supercars that are out next year. They go back and do historical stuff as well, they drive cars that they bought for £500,” Sullivan enthuses.
So that means the team is modelling old bangers with the wing mirrors hanging off one day, classic cars the next, and rounding things off with something that’s not even been unveiled yet.
“If they drive it in the show, we try and drive it in the games. We have a very interesting and eclectic set of cars to drive…” Sullivan pauses and then corrects himself: “...Vehicles to drive in the game.”
Which promises some intriguing variety, as you’d expect if you’d ever watched the show. Even with the show moving at pace, the number of vehicles in the game is likely shy of what some of the genre-leading titles offer up these days.
“We don’t need to be in a numbers war, I don’t need to say we’ve got a thousand cars, because we’ve got the amount of cars that we need to make a season but we have a very wide variety and we also give them to you in a very satisfying way. Like I said, you can drive one of the fastest cars in the world five minutes into our game.”
The key here being that each car you drive in the game has context, it has presence, provided by the presenters, which means even those who aren’t die-hard petrolheads can appreciate each and every offering, and what other driving game can claim that: “If you watch the TV show and you think: ‘That’s a really cool car’, you know that you can then go and play the episode and drive it.”
And you don’t have to drive alone either. In another well-considered nod to blending the game and TV experiences, The Grand Tour Game has included split-screen play, so those who like to watch the show together can also then race together. The mode is separated out from the ‘play the show’ mode but “every new episode brings new tracks, new locations and new cars… It really changes over the course of the season,” Sullivan explains.
“I know online games are very big at the moment, but we wanted to tackle split screen first because there’s a lot of funny shared moments in the show, when the guys are hanging out together and there’s a lot of laughing at each other and joking around and interaction. So we thought split screen would be perfect for that.”
Sullivan explains that you can race wildly different cars against each other, across hugely differing courses, from the iconic to the downright bizarre: “I think some of the combinations of things that we do are pretty unique and just make people laugh. That’s what it’s about.”
The annals of gaming are littered with hubristic attempts to blend the form with TV or movies, brave transmedia experiments that failed to live up to the hype, such as Quantum Break.
The Grand Tour Game’s strength lies in it being unashamedly light entertainment, just like the show itself. It’s easy to pick up, easy to play, and easy to love – presuming that you’ve ever enjoyed the show or its predecessor. Incredibly, it might even be a better way to enjoy the show than simply watching it.
“I’ve seen the same episode many times and I still laugh at some of the things they say and do, it’s fun and it’s irreverent and it should be accessible. There shouldn’t be a high barrier to entry or skill in this game at all. That doesn’t mean that it’s an overly arcadey throw-away experience. I think there’s a lot of depth to our handling but it also surfaces a lot of fun to the player very early on.
“There is a lot of things that we do in our game that’s not driving too. Over the course of a season of the show you think about the crazy stuff the guys get up to. We’ve embraced that as well. I think there’ll be some really big surprises for people, it’s definitely not just a racing game. I would say it’s not even just a driving game.”
And the presenters themselves, beyond obviously providing all the ideas and subject matter for each episode, are getting involved: “They give us feedback on it,” Sullivan tells us. “And they recorded lines specifically for the game. Jeremy has played a lot of Gran Turismo, Richard has played Mario Kart, James has actually played quite a lot of our game as well.”
And while details are thin on the ground, Sullivan is expecting there to be plenty of cross-promotion between the game and the show. If the two chime as well as what we’ve seen, then it looks to be a very promising pairing indeed.