Bizarre Creations: Blur
19th May 2009 | 15:00
Racing games have become stagnated, according to the Project Gotham boys at Bizarre Creations, who've jumped into bed with Activision to bring back the crowds that racing sims once gathered. And that means less right-angle corners, no more platinum medals and yes - power-ups.
During a recent trip to Bizarre's Liverpool studio, we sat down with lead designer of Blur, Ged Talbot to talk about the developer's shift in direction.
The last time we were here you were very much an independent studio. Now you're part of the world's largest third-party publisher. How are things now?
Ged Talbot: We have a whole group of new people to get used to and they're very much more part of the family than I suppose Microsoft was. But we had such a long relationship with Microsoft that it effectively felt like we were part of their family.
We were in their offices all of the time, they were always coming over here... so the relationship between us and Microsoft was really strong.
While Activision has come in and they now own us, the way they operate their company and dev studios is pretty much hands off - at least on the studio floor. There's a whole group of new people that are now becoming our partners and friends, but other than that I don't see a huge amount of difference. We're still making racing games.
Would the recession have hurt you if you hadn't been bought by Activision?
Talbot: I'm probably not the best person to answer that question because they don't trust me with money. However, I asked my boss the other day and he didn't seem to suggest that he was grateful that he was bought out at that point.
He sold the company so that he could concentrate more on making games rather than running the company. That's what Martin is first and foremost, he's a designer.
The company is much, much bigger than it was ten years ago so I would imagine that the trackings of being a managing director were maybe getting in the way. I think that was more of his primary motivation, I don't think he's wiping his brow.
We were very lucky. The company was built very much on security first. As a company we'd never had to take a bank loan before then, we weren't in the situation some companies are in now where they can't get finance to pay their staff - we've never had that situation.
In choosing to move to Activision you were also choosing to leave PGR behind. How did that feel?
Talbot: On a personal level I loved what we did with PGR and MSR. We put a lot of time into it and year-on-year we did everything we could to try and improve it. By the time we got to PGR4 I certainly felt that the time was right to move on and do different things. I think if you look at the game we're making now we seem to be mixing the skills that we have in a much better way.
We could've done another one but equally the challenge to do something else with a different appeal - a much broader appeal - was too big to pass up.
It was mentioned to us earlier that you'd decided not to do PGR5 even before the Activision deal was on the table?
Talbot: That's right. I think after we did bikes for PGR4 we would've struggled to find something that was that big to put in the game.
I think we were extremely lucky with the way things went with Microsoft. Some of our SKUs were launch titles so we were able to make graphical explosions and that was our platform for making the game. We debuted Xbox Live.
But as time went on those big chunks of features were getting harder to come by and we needed to keep reinvigorating the title. Any more just would've been pushing it I think. For us it was a breath of fresh air to do something different.
So with Blur you've got a new slant, less on technical racing, more on accessibility and obviously online features. Are you worried that fans of PGR might feel alienated by the weapons and power-ups?
Talbot: Yes and no. I think when you talk about power-ups and stuff you're always going to get a certain group who think it's maybe for the kids.
But we've got a lot of fans who came with us on the PGR train and I hope they enjoyed the experience that we gave them. They're going to get a chance to try demos and try out the game before they purchase it. For those fans who want the kind of racing that they got in PGR all I can say to them is that it's there.
What we've removed is maybe some of the frustrating elements of the technical racing. That's not to say that we don't have tight corners anymore or you don't need to break - all of those things are still in the game, we just focus on them less.
We still have cool drifting and a cool handling model, but what we've introduced now is a cool damage system, interactivity with the environment.
We're seeing lots of Mario Kart and Wipeout influences...
Talbot: Mario Kart, while it wasn't a direct influence on the game, has always been something that we've talked about in terms of making a game that has very different goals from a normal racing game.
Not just coming first but taking out the other guy, interacting with the world. So yes, in a sense Mario Kart was part of our thinking, though I don't actually think we wanted to create Mario Kart.
Equally, in terms of gameplay Need for Speed was part of our thinking. These are hugely fantastic games, huge-selling games. So making sure that the game stayed in an area of reality was something that was important, because we'd seen from the Need for Speed games that that's what people like. They like the real world.
It's fair to say there were quite a few influences on us. We were trying to move away from the technical, sim type racers. We were trying to put some distance between us and the Forzas and Gran Turismos.
I wouldn't really like to say at this point, 'this is the game we were trying to emulate', but I think there were certain things about Mario Kart that we knew worked straight out of the bag.
That certainly affected the decision to make power-ups in the first place. It was about saying 'look, there's a big group of players out there who don't want to play the next simulator' but still really want a good racing game to play with their friends. We're going for those people.
The "simulator" racers you mentioned there like Race Driver GRiD didn't sell nearly as well as expected last year. Did that boost your decision to move away from the straight-laced approach?
Talbot: I said in an interview a few months ago that I felt that racing games were getting dryer and dryer.
It was harder to find where the casual player was going to get their fun out of it. Most racing games were really orientated by the player trying to get a smooth line around a corner.
It was really about personal achievement and we wanted something a lot more open. Not so much about personal achievement, more about obtainable goals. And not just cornering; cool things like taking other people out.
We were thinking that about the time that GRiD came out. So when we saw that type of game wasn't doing so well it kind of made us realise that we were making the right decision, that we shouldn't just try to make another simulator and go after the same market as those guys. There are plenty of those games on the table and even the best aren't setting the world alight right now.
It helped our decision, it certainly did. But I think we were making it anyway when we finished making PGR. We'd come to that conclusion already.
How do you balance power-ups in the game? Are they generated Mario Kart-style based on your position in the race, or are they just there?
Talbot: Right at the moment what's going through my head is how much of a mess it all is right now, trying to balance accessibility versus skill. It's a tough nut to crack.
We've taken the route of choosing which power-ups to give you based on your position on the track, but we've chosen not to do it so blatantly as Mario Kart does.
There are two equally opposing sides to this. One is that we want ten million people to buy this game so we want it to be as accessible for as many people as possible.
On the other hand we're the Gotham team and we don't dumb down games, we make games that are as fun as they can be. My only answer is that it is quite a struggle at this moment in time and it's not something we've quite finished with.
Is it fair to say that the game we're seeing now could be very different from the final product?
Talbot: It'll still have the power-ups and it'll still be a racing game set in bespoke city tracks. That will all stay the same. I think that the relationship between the battling and the racing will even out a bit over time.
At the moment it's a bit too battle-based, there's too much crashing out going on simply because of the amount of things that are going on. We'll thin it out a bit just to make it more race-based. We'll make it more likely that you get the power-up that you need at that time.
It's more tailoring the power-ups so that they appear at the right time, like giving you a nitro on a straight.
PGR2 helped launch and define Xbox Live as a platform and Blur's online modes also sound massively ambitious. Are you using your ties with Microsoft and Xbox Live to help push Blur online?
Talbot: No. As I said before we had a really good relationship with Microsoft and we still do. What we're making has to work on a number of different platforms.
Although the Xbox 360 is our primary platform and that's the game we're making it on first - it will be launched on PS3 at the same time - we couldn't rely on the back structure of Xbox Live to deliver the social network, because we knew that PSN and PC works in a very different way.
So no, we haven't really gone down the line of approaching Microsoft and doing anything that would be exclusive with them, simply because we're going for a really broad appeal this time.
So after pioneering Xbox for almost ten years, how are you finding PS3?
Talbot: Honestly, I've got a PS3 dev kit on my desk and that's about as far as it goes.
I've heard like everybody else that the PS3 is harder to code for than the Xbox 360 but I've had no experience of that. As far as I'm concerned I've got two consoles on my desk instead of one... and that's cool.
One of Blur's most interesting online features are the 'Facebook' custom groups. How flexible are they?
Talbot: What we did is we came up with a whole set of rules for custom races.
The idea is that you can tune the game using the rule sets to create pretty much any experience that you might want out of a racer.
Obviously it can only go so far because it is a racer but we're hopeful that the level of customisation will allow us to create radically different types of group.
But it's not just about creating groups that use different environments or different parts of the game; it's also about expressing yourself.
I was joking with the team before about having an "I love the Hoff" group which might sound like a joke but it is something that people would do.
On Facebook people join stupid groups with stupid names that don't really mean anything but it's something that we can identify and join in with.
Is that sort of user-generated content something you've been thinking about for a while?
Talbot: It's something that we've wanted to do for a while. Ever since we got PR departments inside the company we've had quite a big following.
We've sort of been looking at ways of integrating that into our games and when we started coming up with this idea of a social network the two ideas just fitted together. We don't really know where it's going to end.
We certainly know that it's something we want to expand for the second game. But we've only had two years to make this game so we think that what we'll do is make a good start and put a lot of the components in place.
Obviously Blur is a franchise. We can't just be thinking of one game, we've got to be thinking about three games in the future. Right now we think that the social network - especially the online stuff - over the next few years is going to get much bigger.
At the same time, if fans demanded it would you go the other direction? Would you scale back?
Talbot: If they demanded it, yeah. I think first and foremost like most businesses we're there to give the people what they want and we do everything we can to guess or find out what it is that people are attracted to.
Social network is something people are interested in right now and there are more ideas out there than can be put into this one game.