The Driver franchise has spent a few years licking its wounds after a severely critical response to the third game in the then Atari-published series, but now it's planning a dramatic reboot with the help of Ubisoft.
Driver: San Francisco is due for release on September 2nd this year, and features a return to the original PlayStation 1 games' Hollywood car-chase values, as well as introducing a new mechanic, Shift, which enables to play to instantly jump from and to any car in its huge, streaming recreation of San Francisco.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz talks to Martin Edmondson, the creative director and co-founder of Newcastle, UK studio Ubisoft Reflections (formerly Reflections, until acquisition by the French publisher in 2006), who has returned to the developer after temporarily parting ways following the Driver 3 backlash. (Read more about the Driver series' background in today's Franchise Cheat Sheet.
Edmondson explains why this is a concerted attempt to restart and re-establish the franchise rather than simply to roll the dice again, and talks about defeating negative preconceptions.
Q:It must feel pretty good to be showing off the new Driver after so long in development.
Martin Edmondson:Yes it is. Showing it properly rather than just little snippets after four or five years. We've hit major milestones for a number of months and years – it's just getting it to a point where we feel all the pieces are in place and also that Shift [a new game mechanic] is integrated into the game well enough that we can show it to somebody with virtually no explanation.
I've not had any comparisons to GTA for Driver: San Francisco. There's precious little that the two share.
Martin Edmondson, Ubisoft Reflections
Q: What's the thinking behind the Shift system?
Martin Edmondson:What we've done is to first of all focus on something that's unique. There's a lot of games where you can get out of cars, and obviously one of those [True Crime] has been cancelled recently, so we've tried to focus on something that's very unique and very reactive, much quicker.
Q: What would you describe the game as, given you've got rid of all the on-foot elements in favour of purely being within a car?
Martin Edmondson:I would refer to it as an action game – it's an action game with a lot of driving, or a driving action game.
The thing that makes it unique is that sort of Hollywood car chases movie angle. There really isn't anything else that competes with Driver on that particular aspect. There are plenty of driving games and racing games, but something that really nails or even attempts to nail that car chase environment, there really isn't anything out there. I'm talking about the movie car chase style, not a videogame car chase.
Q: Are you at all wary of GTA or open-world game comparisons, given the reception to Driver 3 and as you say the cancellation of the latest True Crime?
Martin Edmondson: We didn't deliberately edge away from GTA or anything. It was inevitably always compared to that when we could get out of the car and walk around, those sort of things. But I've not had any comparisons to GTA for Driver: San Francisco. There's precious little that the two share.
Q: It's more like Burnout in a way...
Martin Edmondson: Possibly Burnout, but in that there's no story and all the rest of it. So again I keep coming back to saying that it's really quite a unique little position that this game sits in. We don't have the same comparisons that we used to have, and I think that's a good thing because obviously GTA does what it does very well, and if you go head to head against a game like that you take the risk.
Q: How much resonance does the IP have to today's gamers now, given it's been away for a while?
Martin Edmondson: I think it depends on the age of who you're talking to. Absolutely anybody who played the first Driver game.
But if you talk to someone who's very young they've certainly heard of it but it's a bit how everybody's heard of Elite but hasn't necessarily played it. You've heard of something that's an old game that had a certain amount of interest and was well known.
It was interesting to me that before we embarked on it, Ubisoft decided to do some research to see how big was the name in reality, and how well-liked the Tanner character was, before all this time and energy was spent on bringing the franchise back – and the results of that were surprisingly high. High enough for them to go, "Right, off you go, we're 100 per cent all in on this."
That surprised me, genuinely, because I was a bit like, "I know it means a lot to me, and to people a similar age to me, but I'm just surprised it had a bigger following than that."
Q: How much of a foregone conclusion was it that there was always going to be another Driver?
Martin Edmondson:It wasn't, because I left years ago and was doing all sorts of things unrelated to vidoe games, and when Ubisoft bought Reflections, which used to be my company, and the Driver franchise, they said would I come and consult on the vehicle handling and also the early concepting meetings for the story and the premise for the game.
I was like, "Yeah, no problem at all," so I came to a few meetings about the design basis for the game and how Shift would work, that kind of thing, and then gradually it snowballed into more and more work and then eventually they said would I mind being the creative director of the project.
That was years ago... It's difficult to say no when it's your old company that you set up doing a new version of a game that you designed the original of, and it's something which is a subject matter that's very personal to you.
The reason I designed the original Driver game was because one of the first movies I remember going to see at the cinema when I was a kid with my parents was Walter Hill's The Driver. And then any other car chase film that came along, I was first in line to go and see it.
So it's a collision of all those things really, plus crucially being convinced that this was not going to be a game that had to be delivered to a deadline, that it was going to be delivered to an agreed quality level.
Q: Was that something you felt has happened before?
Martin Edmondson: We've had definite problems in the past, where we've run out of time and you get to that point where the game has got to be delivered regardless, and that was not something I wanted to get into again – it's wearing. Especially with an entertainment project, something that's quite creative, just to have it go "bang" like that at the end is just painful.
So I got myself convinced that clearly Ubisoft don't do that. You can see the quality of all their stuff, how much they put into it, for their franchises and big games anyway. The potential for Driver to come back at that kind of scale again was quite exciting.
It's difficult to say no when it's your old company that you set up doing a new version of a game that you designed the original of, and it's something which is a subject matter that's very personal to you.
Martin Edmondson, Ubisoft Reflections
Q: That hoped-for element of time and quality aside, what's the difference between a Ubisoft Driver and an Atari Driver?
Martin Edmondson: I don't want to get too stuck into the Atari situation, but when it comes to Ubisoft they are totally quality-orientated, so we have meetings and discussions about, "What's the best for the game?" and not, "What's the cheapest thing we can do?" It sounds like a cliche, but that's genuinely what happened.
The other difference is that staff within the company pretty much all play games, and the people that are in charge of game content are incredibly good game-players. I've not experienced that before within a publisher – people that know games well. So you actually listen to what they say, whereas I've had experiences in the past where somebody says, "No, this isn't very good and that isn't very good," and I'm thinking, "What on Earth are you talking about?"
You then become slightly [throws hands in the air]. It's the polar opposite now; it becomes much more collaborative and the game's better for it.
Q: Is there a bullish sense that this is definitely intended to be a big, ongoing IP again, not just one more roll of the dice to see what happens?
Martin Edmondson: Yeah. I certainly hope so - it's all in the hands of the consumer, obviously, as the game has to sell and be received well, but everything is being lined up in the way it should.
It's had the investment, it's a strong IP still, it's a unique proposition in terms of Shift, it feels like Driver 1 – so that's got a lot of people quite excited because never mind the story, never mind the mechanics, just driving is good fun. So it's got all that stuff, and all the effort that's gone into it – I think it's got the best possible chance.
Q: Is there any sense that you have to, as good as the game may be, defeat a certain level of negative preconception based on what's happened in the past?
Martin Edmondson: If the game is good enough, that will be a situation that exists but only for a short period of time. If the game is not good, then that will continue to haunt, and that's one of the reasons why when we got together to do this we decided that there's no half-arsing this.
This is absolutely 100 per cent "we nail it" or we just don't even bother doing it, and just release some phone games and stuff. That works for some people, but if you want to bring it back as a big IP on the big consoles, this is the only way to do it.
Q: You're releasing it on September 2nd this year, which is likely to be a very big period for very big franchise games. How confident are you Driver can get sufficient attention at that time?
Martin Edmondson: You never know until it happens, but with what we have being so different in the driving universe, and the definite story there of bringing back something to what it once was and really bringing it back up again. It's interesting - it's not just another sequel, but it easily could have been. It could have been Tanner out of the car again, running around with guns, and done very nicely, but this is really something that quite different, so I have hope.
Q: What's been the reason for the delays so far?
Martin Edmondson: It's a mixture of things. The main reason we delayed it, actually, was just to add more content. We had lots of ideas. As you develop a game you say, "Wouldn't it be great if we could do this and this and this?" but we went into one of those meetings and just said, "We've just had some good ideas but we can't deliver them on time," so you go into a long process thinking about how much these ideas are going to cost, how long will they take and we just collectedly agreed to spend the time on it and add the extra stuff.
It was extra modes, multiplayer, more multiplayer modes, split-screen two-player co-op and competitive, and a whole host of other challenges and activities to do in the city that were not originally part of the plan.
Plus obviously another year is another year of polish too, plus targeting 60 frames per second - every extra month of time that we get gets us closer to that.
Martin Edmondson is co-founder and creative director at Ubisoft Reflections. Interview by Alec Meer.