Driver: San Francisco Interview (Xbox360)

Fast cars, fast chases, and fast... comas? Driver: San Francisco may contain some unusual elements for a franchise that prides itself on classic Hollywood style driving, but there is a clear vision for this game that may yet shake the genre. Just ask Producer Marie-Jo Leroux and Senior Designer Jean-Sebastien Decant. You may be surprised...

Strategy Informer: The main stated reason for the delay has been the fact you wanted this game to run at a constant 60 frames per second. When you get a game though that's been in development for five years or more, sometimes the original vision can change. Has this happened with Driver: San Francisco? Has anything changed since the start?

Marie-Jo Leroux: Yes things have changed, but not the overall vision - which is to bring Driver back to its roots. And to bring back the driving as it was in Driver one, and that was the reason for the Shift mechanic - to be able to jump from one car to the next without having to run in-between, to really keep in the action of the driving. Plus all the elements the franchise is based on - movie-like car chases, that sort of thing. So... things have evolved, obviously, but not the overall vision. Because we made Shift, we also decided to develop this Coma story - several ideas came out of that, including having a story that's across multiple layers. So you have the real world, with Tanner in a coma and his partner talking to him, but then you also have Tanner's dreams as well.

Jean-Sebastien Decant: Also, the vision is really Martin [Edmondson, Creative Director], he brought that, and Driver is still Driver. But at the same time - how to rejuvenate a franchise that was so amazing 15 years ago? That's when the collaboration with Ubisoft came in.
Strategy Informer: As you mentioned, you have this new Shift mechanic, which in itself is quite interesting. Why did you feel the need to justify it to the audience though through the coma plotline? I get the feeling it's going to be something people either love or hate...

Marie-Jo Leroux: Well, first of all Driver is very much a story-based game. Also Ubisoft, for them it's important that their titles have very emotionally involving stories. So the player just move forward because of fun - I mean that's great, it has to be fun, but we also want something that will resonate with the player, with memorable moments.

Secondly, because Driver is grounded in reality, and since you have this extra-ordinary ability, we didn't want to justify it through paranormal or science fiction means. A coma seemed the most realistic way of dealing with it.

Jean-Sebastien Decant: Driver is about cops, it's about cop stories and undercover missions, and that's something we wanted to preserve. But as the same time, with something like Shift, if you don't find a way to mix it with that, it will just become super-whacky. Why can I just change cars just like that? No we really embraced it and tried to create an original story. And if you look at Source Code or Inception, we're quite in sync with what's going on in Hollywood at the moment.

Strategy Informer: Speaking of films like Inception, Source Code et al, how did you make sure you balanced things so that the audience didn't get confused? Some people can watch Inception and not have a clue what's going on.

Marie-Jo Leroux: A lot of what we call signs and feedback. I mean at first there will be some confusion, but it's intentional. You know how sometimes you can be in a dream, and you don't know what's going on but you don't challenge it either, you just go with the flow? There's a few signs at the beginning of the game that suggest something's off, but Tanner is just going with it. Although you know as the player that he's in a coma. We also have several narrative devices to recap things, and to tell you where Tanner is and how the investigation is going - because that's what it's about, it's trying to figure out where Jericho is going, what his plan is, who is that woman etc...

Jean-Sebastien Decant: We brought back... I think they were using it in Driver 3, the recaps. You would boot the game and have a recap of where you'd left the story. So we have plenty of devices to make sure that we don't lose too many people with an Inception-like story.

Strategy Informer: I understand that, along with Reflections, there are several other Ubisoft Studios involved as well? How has that been?

Marie-Jo Leroux: It's been good, there's a lot of different expertise involved, and we've been able to draw on different strengths... but it hasn't been an issue because the vision has been so strong.

Jean-Sebastien Decant: It's important to note though that the coding, the art direction.. it's all been done on site in Newcastle (Reflection's base). So whilst the others were helping us, the game has been conceived up there.

Strategy Informer: Coming back to what you were saying about the frame-rate - have you hit 60FPS yet?

Marie-Jo Leroux: We're at 55 FPS now. I have a date in mind... but I'm not going to share it!

Jean-Sebastien Decant: Yes we're close.
Strategy Informer: How hard is it at this stage to get the game up even one by 1 fps?

Marie-Jo Leroux: As long as the game is still moving, as long as things are still being done and as long as they are still polishing it's extremely difficult. But it's more a matter of what kind of game you're making, what shortcuts you allow yourself - and we're not allowing ourselves any shortcuts. I mean we're talking about the ability to go into any car, with a whole city in memory not loading, ever. It's a huge challenge.

Jean-Sebastien Decant: What's amazing is, like all designers, we're like spoiled kids. We ask for the moon. By asking for 60 fps, with an open world, all this content, even the programmers are like "Hey! You're crazy!". But they have managed to give it to us.

Marie-Jo Leroux: All 145 cars potentially driveable, anywhere in the city.

Jean-Sebastien Decant: The benefit for the end-user is really the smoothness of the experience, something that's really sleek and seamless.

Strategy Informer: Would it be the worst thing in the world if, say, you got to 59 FPS and realised you couldn't go any further?

Marie-Jo Leroux: No, it's not like that. It's more about the stability of the frame-rate and getting it high enough. The rest of the car games... I don't want to say 'the competition' because I don't think we're in direct competition with anyone, but the other games have a very low frame-rate, so I think what we're doing already is really good, and I'm confident we'll hit that 60. But no, it wouldn't be the worst thing if we only got a firm 59 FPS.

Jean-Sebastien Decant: And also with multiplayer, you can have split screen, so obviously the frame rate is going to be affected sure.

Strategy Informer: Speaking of multiplayer, we've only really been shown one mode so far - which is trail blazer - can you speak any more about that at the moment?

Marie-Jo Leroux: We have 19 modes: 11 online competitive modes, 3 co-op split screen and the rest are competitive split-screen. Because of Shift - which has really changed the game - we've been able to bring to the driving genre modes that only exist in first-person shooters, usually...

Jean-Sebastien Decant: ... like Capture the Flag, Protect the Base. Because suddenly all the cars in the world are like tools - What tool are you going to use to solve a certain situation? And also you can just Shift back into the action. All this creates a real new dynamic in terms of online driving, and it's pretty exciting.

Marie-Jo Leroux: It's very frantic, very very past faced compared to what we've been used to before. It's an FPS frantic.

Strategy Informer: Will multiplayer feature a player progression system or anything?

Marie-Jo Leroux: Yes, but we shouldn't really go into details. I mean, yes, it has progression and you can unlock upgrades and stuff, but that's all we can say.

Strategy Informer: Obviously Shift is such a unique idea for this game, but don't you think it conflicts a bit too much with your vision in wanting to bring the franchise back to how it used to be?

Jean-Sebastien Decant: The biggest challenge in terms of design for this game was to find the right balance. We spent a LOT of time on that. The focus was really to bring back the driving in Driver. But at the same time we have this amazing new toy, and yes, at the beginning, this could have just become a Shift game, but we wanted to do a driving game with this new device - this game changer. It gave us ideas for missions and modes that are pretty unique. But the main thing is about driving these cool cars, and if you play the main story, you'll see that this is still the core experience. Even in multiplayer... I mean for other reasons the rules of how Shift is used are changed are little bit. You can Shift all you want but if you don't drive well, you WILL lose.

Marie-Jo Leroux: It may seem like a paradox - how can we be going back to the roots is we're introducing this Shift that's so weird and crazy? It really comes from this idea that I want to drive any care, a large variety of cars fast, without diluting the experience by having to walk. Usually if I walk it dilutes the experience because I then get into fist fights or whatever. So it was a way of focusing on the driving experience by introducing Shift.

Strategy Informer: Not to preclude any future plans, but do you think you'll want to take Shift into future titles? Or is this a one-game thing?

Jean-Sebastien Decant: Design wise we have plenty of ideas of what we can do with it. But it's also a question of market, it's a question of Ubisoft issues, and Reflections.

Marie-Jo Leroux: We're definitely not at liberty to say what the road map is going to be as to the future of the franchise. We'd be speculating as much as anybody else at this point! But there are a lot of places where it could go.
Strategy Informer: Ubisoft has announced plans for DLC for this game, but there's been no specifics yet - is there anything further you can say about that?

Jean-Sebastien Decant: We have UPlay challenges and cars that you will be able to unlock, but for DLC specifically, I don't really have any answers right now.

We'll admit, before going into this interview we were a little sceptical at what Reflections were trying to do, but the potential in the multiplayer alone has convinced us that this Shift mechanic may not be so much of a bad thing after all. Love or hate the plot, you can't help but agree that it's not as weird as it initially seems. Unless of course you hated Inception, but then there's nothing we can say that will change your mind. Don't forget to check out our hands on preview.