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Racing Ahead

SEGA's UK driving studio revs its engine

On a surprisingly scenic high-tech business park just outside Birmingham, a brightly coloured car kitted out with improbably large tyres and bull-bars is churning up mud and dust into a messy melange, destroying the once-smooth surface of a dirt track and leaving behind a churned, deeply rutted assault course which will wreak havoc on the suspension of any vehicle which dares to cross it.

The local council probably won't be as upset as you might imagine, though; it's all happening inside a noisy PS3 development kit under the watchful eye of Guy Wilday, the former developer of the Colin McRae series of rally games, who has more recently been handed the reins on a fanboy dream - the resurrection of the classic SEGA Rally franchise on next-gen consoles.

Although still very much a technology demo - the game itself isn't due until March 2007 - SEGA Rally already demonstrates some of the key values of the much-loved series. The graphics are rather lovely, the gameplay promises to be accessible and arcade-friendly, and of course, there's plenty of bright sunshine and blue sky - "that's what SEGA is all about," Wilday grins, "it's what we stand for!" So, no urban gritty gangsters in this game, then? "Definitely not."

Wilday heads up SEGA's Driving Studio, a new UK subsidiary of SEGA Europe which is focused exclusively on developing driving and racing games for next-gen platforms, starting with SEGA Rally but with plenty more titles planned down the line. Managed from the publishing office in London, the studio is expanding rapidly - even during our visit, work was already underway on wiring and fitting a new office down the hall which will give the team significantly more space - and Wilday is now in the enviable position of having at his fingertips some of the best-known driving IP in the world.

We caught up with Wilday to find out more about the studio and its plans - and why a Japanese publisher has just endorsed sending one of its most valuable franchises to a studio overseas. How does the Driving Studio fit into the rest of SEGA?

Guy Wilday: The studio was established in April of last year, so we've been up and running for 14 months now. It's an internal SEGA studio - we're remote from the publishing operation in London but we're an internal studio.

Effectively, obviously, the management is here - we're a remote internal studio, more than anything else. We'll QA in London; we have sales and marketing and so on in London. Apart from that, all of the development activity is right here.

The focus of the studio is exclusively racing and driving titles, and next-generation is what we're looking at - so it's PlayStation 3, it's Xbox 360, and high end PC. The original vision, the original motivation behind setting this up is to create a flagship studio for SEGA that can develop cutting edge, next generation racing and driving titles.

How did the studio get started?

It was established with a small group of five people, including myself, as a core technology group that started putting together fundamental technology for the studio. So, we started building some of the initial low level graphics engine, started building the framework for some of the games that we're going to build, and recruiting staff, ready to start our first game development project.

The studio structure is based around a core technology group, which we've now grown to about 15 people, and then the intention is to have a number of game development teams - the plan has three teams, eventually, each doing individual driving or racing titles based on using the core technology that we're developing internally.

I think our hope is that by investing in core technology, by investing in fundamental technology for racing games, we'll have stuff that will give us a serious benefit - some serious leverage in the titles that we're making, and in the marketplace as a whole.

So you're developing that core technology alongside your games...

The core technology development is a parallel path that will run through the whole studio - it will constantly evolve and develop. It's being worked on by a separate team within the studio. We've got a core technology group focusing on that, and a game technology group focusing on our first title - obviously, the technology we're building initially is going to be tailored towards the first game that we're making, but as the studio grows, that core tech is going to diversify to enable us to develop a really broad spectrum of racing and driving titles. The intention is that we'll have a really diverse range of games that we're developing within the studio.

Are there any plans to share that technology with other SEGA studios?

Possibly - it's definitely an option, and it's something that we've discussed. It's early days for the studio, to be honest, and for the technology - but this is a significant investment from SEGA's perspective, to get this technology up and running. There's every potential that we could roll this out and use it within other studios within the organisation.

Why has SEGA taken the decision to focus its racing efforts in the UK? SEGA Rally has always been developed in Japan - what compelled them to move it to the other side of the planet?

I think that generally, within the industry, there is an acknowledgement that Japanese games are not working as well outside Japan as they used to. I think the appeal for western content within the west is growing - and I think that if you look at the big selling titles in the western territories, primarily now they're western-based titles - western content and western developed, above anything else.

Vice versa, I think that European titles aren't necessarily doing as well in Japan - there is some acknowledgement that there is a difference culturally between those territories, and obviously that affects game appeal.

That's one of the motivators; if you actually look at driving and racing studios, to my mind, with some notable exceptions the key talent lives in the west - and the key talent really lives in Europe, with an awful lot of it in the UK. We've got a fantastic track record for racing and driving titles, and I think that was key.

The acknowledgement that Japan's presence within the global games market is diminishing, and the acknowledgement that we have this talent base within Europe and within the UK that we could call upon, I think was fairly significant to setting this up. Those were the very fundamental issues, for sure.

SEGA, as you know, has a massive backlog of very exciting racing and driving IP - and I think it made sense, as part of SEGA's growth plans, to establish a studio to really concentrate specifically on developing some of that IP for the western market. That's very much what our focus is.

When you have a title like SEGA Rally - originally developed by AM2 in Japan - do you take a lot of input from the original Japanese creators, or are you really taking it over and injecting western design sensibilities into it?

The game has been designed here, absolutely - it's been designed internally here and we spent a lot of time getting through that and getting it right. Our motivation has been very much to take the essence; the original product, for me, is a landmark and arguably benchmark offroad driving title. I think it started, and defined, the whole off-road racing genre.

We've definitely tried to capture the essence of that title. At the same time, we've got to make it fit within a landscape of offroad games that is very different, now, to when this title was released and established. To me, it's not just about bringing it up to date, it's about actually trying to reinvent the title - about taking the essence of what that game was, and reintroducing that into a new market. We've taken that as a significant challenge.

We've got very good relationships with Japan - we've got help, resources and communication there if we need it, but as I say, the primary focus has been developing the game here.

You started with five people, 14 months ago; what size is the studio now?

The studio is at just over 30 people at the moment. They're pretty much divided equally between core team and game team - that's what we've done.

The idea was always to have fairly small, compact game development teams - rather than having the big goliath 70, 80 man teams, we're trying to keep our game team sizes small, because we believe that that gives more collaborative and more creative game development.

The way we're doing that is by focusing on core technology, so we've got the core technology team here which will give us some leverage that we can use across multiple titles. We're also looking to outsource a lot of content, so we're working very strongly with some artwork and audio outsourcing partners to get that all up and running. That's a key part of the studio's strategy.

The team size is going to grow some for the first title, but not an enormous amount - and our idea is to keep the team sizes, ideally, to that 20-ish mark - really quite compact teams. Very compact, very creative and very focused game development teams.

How quickly are you planning to ramp up to having multiple game teams?

We're starting to ramp up on the second team at the moment - the plan is that ideally, that team should be up and running this year.

When you're building a team like that, are you looking specifically for people who have experience of developing racing titles? You've mentioned that there's a lot of racing talent here in the UK...

That's obviously a motivator - in fact, it's unashamedly one of the reasons for being here. We're clearly looking for people who have racing talent, but primarily we want people with the right experience, the right skills and the right fit. You're right - there are a large number of racing development studios in the UK, so there's a large pool of talent to pick from.

I think enthusiasm for the genre and enthusiasm for racing and sport in general, for me, almost equates with experience; and if there's someone with a lot of experience who doesn't have specific experience of racing titles, then obviously that's still going to work well for us if they're very keen, very motivated and very interested in the sport and in driving games in general. I think that's primarily what we're looking for, for sure.

You're working on Xbox 360 and PS3 at the moment - how are you finding the challenge of getting up and running on the new hardware?

You know, whenever there's a console switch it's an incredibly exciting time. It's not an easy time, but I think it's an incredibly exciting time. Getting to grips with the hardware is not straightforward, for sure - there's definitely a learning curve there with both platforms, to find out exactly what they are capable of and what you can do.

I think that from our experience, there's enormous potential with both. The key is to get a good handle on what is achievable and where to channel your resources, and I think that's exactly where we are now. But yeah, every time there's a console switch there's a learning curve there, and it's normally fairly steep. It's a big jump in hardware again this time - it's multi-processor, multi-core, multi-threaded hardware, and it's definitely got some new challenges from a development point of view.

A lot of early titles on next-gen systems don't use the hardware very effectively; although this is your first title, it'll be out over 15 months after the launch of the Xbox 360. Will you be able to really exploit the 360, and indeed the PS3, to deliver a game that feels like a third or fourth wave title rather than a first wave title?

I'll be honest with you, starting this studio as a next-gen studio, that has always been our focus. You're right, I think a lot of people are looking at the hardware and getting things running, seeing what potential they have from very straightforward development efforts and then starting to expand later.

The E3 demo is already using the PlayStation 3 SPUs; the surface deformation you've seen is running on some of the Cell SPU processors. I think that from the outset, we've looked at techniques like deforming the surface, looked at the calculations involved in doing that, and that maps very well to the PlayStation's multi-processor architecture - so I think that's been very exciting for us from day one.

Hitting in March, it's important that we start to capitalise on some of the things that these machines can do, and that's absolutely what we intend to do. There are always iterations where people get up to speed, discover more things about the hardware and discover more performance, but I think we're looking to enter that with good performance from day one.

Has it been an advantage or a disadvantage that you've had to start from scratch, rather than porting an existing engine to the new platforms?

Having the opportunity to start again has been a massive advantage for us - on day one of the studio, we were already aware that we were developing for next-gen and that's what we planned our technology and our development time around.

Guy Wilday is the head of SEGA's Driving Studio. Interviewed by Rob Fahey.

Click here for more information about the range of development positions currently available at the SEGA Driving Studio.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.