As the current console generation enters its final lap, developers have frequently relied on social networking to invigorate the racing genre in the hope to make online multiplayer racing more compelling, rewarding and enduring.
EA’s Autolog is a shining example of social networking done right in a racing game. Suddenly, racing online meant more than simply beating your opponent to the finish line and twiddling your thumbsticks as you wait in laborious lobbies for the race to restart again. It was a revolutionary system that, coupled with a lack of load times thanks to game’s seamless free roaming, made you feel constantly connected with the competition, allowing you to compare your scores, compete in challenges and share photos with friends whilst meeting new similarly-skilled rivals. As a testament to its success, Autolog has been an integral part of Need for Speed since its inception in 2010’s Hot Pursuit, and is set to be engraved in the series for the foreseeable future under the helm of EA Ghost, who are developing the latest Autolog for this year’s Need for Speed Rivals.
Autolog spawned a slew of imitators such as Codemasters’ RaceNet and Turn10’s Rivals for Forza Motorsport, and while they were competent clones, they did little to expand the concept further. For the next generation, the stakes have been raised considerably, with Sony banking on the PS4 to advocate the next stride in social gaming, challenging developers to find new ways to drive the community. Evolution Studios think they’re up to the task with DriveClub, the PS4’s premier racing title first unveiled at this year’s E3.
I spoke with Senior Community Manager Jamie Brayshaw, who has worked with Evolution for five years during the development of the MotorStorm series after previously working with EA in a community role for various Need for Speed titles, to gain an insight into DriveClub’s community-driven mechanics and why Evolution believe racing games are heading in this direction for the next generation.
Community collaboration is DriveClub’s core concept. “In any endeavour in life, many hands make light work – you share an experience,” says Jamie. “In team sports you share victories, but you also share defeats. But it doesn’t hurt as much because you’re with your team and you know what went wrong, so you go back at it and you’ll do better next time. We wanted to apply that team mentality to a racing game.”
Staggeringly, this concept has been in Evolution’s conscious for over nine years now, but the available tech at the time simply wasn’t at a stage that could fulfil their audacious vision. Now, though, the time is finally right.
For Evolution, PlayStation 4’s raw horsepower and enhanced community support make it the perfect platform for DriveClub: “On PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3, the connectivity didn’t really empower that kind of play,” says Jamie. “All the while in the background we were looking at how the World Wide Web could integrate with this. We thought we could maybe set up a website to let people run their teams. But that would have been a lot of effort and be outside of the PlayStation experience, so we didn’t go there.”
“Over the last couple of years we’ve seen the rise of social networking websites and how powerful they are. We started to see how they can integrate with games. PlayStation 4 was presented to us two years ago and they were talking about how they wanted the console to be connected and connect you with friends and everything you do to bring people together. All those aspects clicked and fell into place.”
“We needed PlayStation 4, the rise of social networking and the understanding that we now have of communities, how people play together and what they get out of that. As we’ve been working on PlayStation 4, optimising the technology and unlocking new ways of designing games and bringing people together we thought about how we could make a racing game that appeals to the most hardcore dedicated driving enthusiasts, yet at the same time appeal to people that just love cars and bring those people together.”
Indeed, Evolution are keen to iterate how DriveClub will appeal to both hardcore enthusiasts and casual racing fans alike: “Way back then, the team had this idea of a racing game that allows everyone to enjoy racing again and bring people together, whether you’re a petrolhead who knows every nuance and technical detail about the cars, how to get the best racing line and avoid scrubbing speed, or you come from an arcade racing background, which I confess is my background. Either way, you can still get to grips with these amazing cars, get a feel for them and understand them.”
Compared to Evolution’s last endeavour on PlayStation 3 with the rampant rabbit that was MotorStorm, a series that prided itself on causing carnage in just about every vehicle class you can think of, from rally cars and bikes to big rigs and even monster trucks, DriveClub represents something of a detour from such wanton lunacy with its bevy of licensed cars and tracks based in real world locations. DriveClub is an entirely different beast: unlike in MotorStorm, you won’t find massive jumps, cartwheeling cars and crumpling buildings lurking at every corner.
“There were two drives behind this”, Jamie explains when asked what influenced Evolution’s dramatic change in direction. “One is the heritage of working with the World Rally Championship and having the official license for that on PlayStation 2 and creating those intensely authentic and exhilarating experiences that are completely grounded in reality using real cars and tracks around the world.”
“On PlayStation 3 we completely blew the doors off of everything with MotorStorm and ramped it up with each game, making it bigger and better, more cinematic and more exciting. For PlayStation 4, the concept for DriveClub was all about the heart and soul of car culture and the passion that creates. Even outside of gaming, so many people are enthusiastic about cars. So many people love fast, powerful cars. So many people want the experience of driving them – you see those track days you can go on for hundreds of pounds just to experience one car for half a day. We wanted to bring that experience to more people through PlayStation, and PlayStation 4 is also at a stage now where it looks so much more photorealistic than PlayStation 3 was.”
Jamie goes on to explain exactly how the clubs in DriveClub work in gameplay terms: “The key things in DriveClub are the driving, challenges and clubs. You contribute to the growth and fame of your team just by racing. We could be in the same club together with seven, eight, nine or ten of our friends and just by playing the game in our own time on time trial, race or DriveClub Tour (the single player campaign) everything that we do in there, every challenge that we beat, every event that we complete and every race that we win will earn fame towards our club.”
“I might work different shifts to you, play at different times or play on the weekend. You might play through the week but that doesn’t matter – we’re still contributing to the same experience. Equally, we might want to play together. The race experience is enhanced when you play together and by playing together and racing together you’ll earn even more points for your team. You’ll also be able to send challenges to the people in your club, whether it’s getting the best time on a certain track in a certain car or smaller short term goals. You can send those to one another within the club or you can challenge a rival club and go head to head with them. So they bring their best racer to the playground and you take yours and have it out head-to-head with that club. There’s various levels of challenge and competition for various abilities.”
Racing online can be a daunting experience for newcomers, with many titles demanding a steep learning curve and hours of dedication to rise up the ranks before you can be competitive. Evolution hope to change this, providing an online racing experience that provides a sense of achievement regardless of your ability. “In time trial and race modes, if you’re not the fastest racer in the world like me there are challenges every step of the way, so you’ve always got something to play for,” says Jamie.
“People that have recently been through the same section of track as you, in the race with you, your friends or your club mates that are playing with you all have their time, performance, drift score and racing line recorded. The data will then be presented to you as you play, so you’ll see their ghost. It’ll show each other’s player avatar and ID and it will put us against each other just on that section of track. So the really fast racers that are way out in front of the competition at the top of the leaderboards have something to push them further.”
“Likewise, people like me way behind everybody else in the race and at the bottom of the leaderboards still have something to focus on and help me earn fame and XP, but also help my club mates earn fame and XP as well. So even though I’m not the best racer in my team at Evolution, I can still contribute, enjoy racing super powered cars and get a lot out of that experience.”
“The people that are amazing racers can take it to the next level and compete with each other at the next level. Part of the live area of the game, which is much more than 2 – 12 player racing which DriveClub supports, are competitions, challenges and tournaments. All this activity happens on a weekly basis, which we’ll be adding to the game as part of our period of support for the game because we’re committed to supporting DriveClub and making sure it’s always fresh so that it has a long life and you get a lot of value out of playing it over a long period of time.”
Being a community-driven driving game, Evolution are dedicated to getting players actively involved in shaping the events: “Every single week there’s going to be new activities to play for, offering new things to do. The system behind that is extremely powerful and sophisticated, so we’ll be able to work with the community and get a feel for what they like and want to see, such as which cars they want to feature, and schedule that in for the following week.”
“If we put two cars up against each other in a particular challenge, e.g. a Pagani Huyara vs Henessey Venom, and it’s a really popular event, we can do that again in a week or two. If people like the concept but don’t think those cars are evenly matched on a certain track we can work, talk and collaborate with them to tweak it. So if a track didn’t work because it was too technical, the Hyrya would smash the Venom because there weren’t enough long straights. We’ll choose a different track that has a better balance of corners and straights, pit the Hyara against the Venom again and off you go. This better balance will bring a better experience that grows as the community grows.”
Clearly, then, DriveClub is primarily designed to be played online. However, Evolution assures that those who live in the dark ages and can only play DriveClub offline won’t be neglected: “DriveClub is definitely played better online and connected,” Jamie admits. “But it doesn’t matter if that’s with or without friends – DriveClub will introduce people to you and you’ll start building those challenges, networks and connections up. There is a single player campaign however called DriveClub tour. You start the game and choose your car, earn rewards and new cars and access to new events as you play through it. It’s a good tournament structure – you start off in a regional series, then advance to a national series and international series. You can set up any race type with any car, any time trial or drift event.”
Speaking of drifting, Evolution is particularly proud of DriveClub’s unique drift events, offering a deeper, more satisfying experience in a mode that’s been largely unchanged in the current crop of racing games: “Rather than just getting sideways and scoring points for a certain section and exploiting that as a lot of people do in drift modes that we’ve played before, in DriveClub it’s all about striking the perfect balance between executing an amazing drift around the corner, but then maintaining your speed before the next corner,” Jamie explains.
“The higher you maintain that speed, the more points you’ll be rewarded as you take that next corner. So there’s always a trade-off: do I just get sideways, scrub my speed and get a lot of points on that first corner and then struggle to build my speed back up to try and get a decent score on the second corner? Or do I just try and do an average drift around the first corner to keep my speed up so that I can really hit the second one? It’s quite tactical – there’s a lot of depth there, so we’re extremely proud of that.”
With EA’s Autolog and Codemasters’ RaceNet currently dominating the social scene in racing games, Evolution’s DriveClub certainly seems like a natural, erm, evolution (pardon the pun) for the next generation. I asked Jamie to explain what exactly makes DriveClub a different entity alongside its competitors: “First and foremost because it’s not as intensely competitive as they are all the time,” he affirms. “Again, this goes back to us wanting to make racing games fun for everyone again. And not just in the sense of fun for everyone and therefore people who take racing seriously won’t enjoy it. That intense level of competition is there if you want it. We do support those tournaments and rivalries between clubs.”
“But the key thing that it does better and differently is that it always gives you something to play for no matter how good you are, how bad you are, how much or little you play each week. There’s always something new to come back to and always a reason to play, a reason to push for more, new events to take part in and things to do that will help your club and things that your club will do while you’re not playing that will help you out.”
“It’s a much more rich and connected community built on groups of friends playing together and connecting with other groups of friends to form a community rather than just trying to form a community on a website outside of the game that’s entirely focused on beating each other’s times, or entirely focused on winning tournaments. That seems to be the deep end of the pool, and we’re happy to support that as we know that people who are serious about racing games will enjoy that. But we want to support people who are dipping their toes in as well. We want to take them all the way through, get them invested and enjoying racing games.”
Evolution seem adamant that community collaboration is the way forward for racing games, a genre that some have argued is in a slump until the next generation allows for innovation. They’re not alone, either: Ubisoft’s The Crew is also being built around team-based racing, and Eutechnyx’s Auto Club Revolution has adopted a similar car club premise for the PC crowd.
Sony is therefore relying on DriveClub to showcase how the PS4’s advanced online networking features will transform the racing genre, making it accessible for everyone – quite literally, since a cutdown version of DriveClub will be available for free to PlayStation Plus subscribers, thus creating a readymade connected car community.
Join us next time in part two of our detailed interview with Evolution Studios, where we look under the bonnet to discover the extraordinary lengths the team went to in order to achieve DriveClub’s stunning visual prowess powered by PlayStation 4.