We talk to Julian Gerighty about the vehicular MMO that's been a decade in the making.
If you read our hands-on preview of The Crew that's elsewhere on the site, you'll see that we're quite impressed with what's cooking over at Ubisoft, and it's a game that we can see ourselves playing, especially if we can get some friends together for the ride. We started off our interview with Julian Gerighty telling him just that.
Julian Gerighty: It's one of those things, I think that last year I was forbidden from saying it's an MMO because it's kind of intimidating if you're not an MMO player. If you're not an MMO players and someone says "this is an MMO" you wonder "is this something that's going to interest me?" But we've developed it in such a way that it's a very accessible online experience for friends, which means it's an MMO. So at the end of the day, I mean I'm embracing the fact that it's an RPG. It's a little more complex than a regular driving game. It takes a little bit of investment to find out what it's all about, but everything's there and it's part of what makes it unique and what makes it so fun.
There's five different classes - if you will - how have you made sure that they all feel different?
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JG: We've got different people who are experts in different things inside the team, and the one entry point is terrain. You can't disassociate the U.S. with, let's say, the gameplay, or the different specs of the different cars that we have. So you had a hands-on experience with Perf, Street, Raid and Dirt cars, and each one was on a different type of terrain. The Raid car was on the dunes on the beach, the Dirt car was a dirt track, Perf was on asphalt, but long strips, not too convoluted.
I think I raced a Perf car off-road, which was just a nightmare.
JG: I doesn't work.
No it doesn't work. I couldn't even get the bronze medal in the challenge.
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JG: And that's really the spirit that we have. Some cars are more workhorses that can do a little bit of all things, while other cars are really specialised for one type of surface. So having different types of passionate people on the team who can take care, take responsibility of like "ok, this is going to be this type of performance, and it's going to perform like this on that type of surface, and we're going to give it this type of challenge", and it's how you make those really stand out. I think it works really well. We gave you hands-on and none of those different specs feel the same as any of the others.
One of the things you said during the presentation, the soundbite if you will, was: "the car is the character," but with an ever-growing garage full of cars, how do you build up a connection to the cars that you've got in the same way you would a character in a more traditional MMO?
JG: It's one of the interesting things that we're seeing emerge from playtesting. Yeah we do have a selection of lots and lots of cars, but we're seeing people pick a car and as soon as they're happy with it, they've identified that "this is the car for me", they stick with it. Not just for two-three hours, they stick with it for ten-fifteen-twenty hours, upgrade it as much possible, and make it evolve into as many specs as possible. That sort of connection is something that's very different from normal racing games. Nothing's stopping you from choosing another car afterwards, and doing it all again, and buying the parts needed to get it to a similar level. But we're seeing people have very different behaviours to say, one of our competitors, where it's all about buying every single car and doing all of the challenges.
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In the story campaign you can play all the missions in co-op with a friend. Although you get the added edge of having someone to race while you're playing through the story, do you feel like it's a tradeoff, that it takes the edge off of having to win those races [as you need to do if you're tackling that content alone]?
JG: You're still in competition in co-op, you're still in competition with the other guys. Nothing's going to stop you doing that mission again, and saying "no, I can take you on this one - I'm going to upgrade my car and I'm going to be first". So you're trading off the fact that you need to be first let's say for the mission, to "I need to beat my friends". So there's still a tension there. When you were doing the takedown on the beach [players in Raid cars chasing down and ramming another vehicle in a coastal environment] there was a tension to see who's the one who's going to do the most damage, get the best score, get the best reward. And it's always up to you to say "do I want to do this solo, do I want to do this with friends?" Personally I always prefer to do things first by myself, and then invite other people to see if they want to play with me or not.
So boring, tech-related questions for you now. You've had the delay, what have you been able to do with the additional time?
JG: It's strange because for us it's all been about polish and getting the best out of the different platforms, the next-gen. It's fair to say that more time with final specs always helps the projects. You know launch projects were great, but the projects that are going to come out in the next year are going to be much better. I think [Infamous:] Second Son looks phenomenal, and I think that's because they had a little extra time, they had a little bit of extra access to the final hardware as well, because that's a Sony project. So that extra time; polish, pushing next-gen, making sure the launch goes with as few problems as possible, that type of thing. It's not really adding new features. There have been two or three things that have been added due to more playtesting - what works, what we do well, what doesn't work so well, making decisions like that. It's one of my favourite parts of production, is this closing period where everything's cut and dry, there's no faffing around.
You mentioned the next-gen/new-gen consoles. Is there an appreciable difference between them from a development point of view? Will The Crew be running at the same framerates and at the same resolution?
JG: They're running at the same framerates with the same resolutions.
JG: Thirty frames-per-second and 1080p on both. That's what we're aiming for, that's what we're getting. There is a difference for me, today. It's not final. The look of both - one is softer than the other. I can't tell you which one. Afterwards it's up to people to see which one they prefer if they have both platforms. But we're aiming for the same experience on both. Reflections is taking care of the entire PS4, and they're doing a great job.
You mentioned the launch that's coming up. That's got to be quite nerve-wracking. One of your colleagues told me that you had servers for each platform. Is that going to be world-wide servers, or are they going to be regional?
JG: I think it's world-wide servers for all of those.
That's going to be a big launch.
JG: I think it's a big launch, but we're doing it a lot in terms of peer to peer, and server structure too. So it's not a classic MMO server structure.
MMOs, generally, over time are supported by new content, increased level caps, things like that. Can we expect anything like that from you in the future?
JG: I'm a big believer in it. I cannot say definitive plans because it's still in negotiation, but I'm a big believer in it. I think this is a game that deserves that sort of treatment. It's what I want to do.
With something like that, what would be be thinking? Obviously you haven't got plans yet and you haven't even released the game, but would you be tempted to open up the map, add new details to the map? Islands to explore? New countries?
JG: For me there's so much there already that I think we could do a lot with events, new skills, new missions, stuff like that - without new geography. So that's what I'd definitely prefer to do with it.
One thing that I think this game is going to be crying out for is player-created content, just in terms of improving the longevity. Are there plans to introduce some sort of system for players to create their own content?
JG: I absolutely love the idea, but I can't talk about it right now. [Pause] I love the idea. I agree with you, we're on the same page.
So that's maybe something for the future?
JG: I can't say. [Laughs]
I noticed the music in the game. With MMOs people are expecting to put in potentially over a hundred hours, how are you going to make sure the music stays fresh from the first hour to the last?
JG: I think it's one of those challenges. We do have a soundtrack that's being done by Joe Trapanese, who did the soundtrack for Tron: Uprising, Oblivion [the Tom Cruise movie, not the game] and Daft Punk, to name but three. He's someone that's really good and he's got that cinematic touch. We've got about 80-100 tracks in there too, that we've been working with the guy who does the music supervision for Entourage. It's a really good mix of tracks. To keep that fresh I'd love to support it with recommended playlists on a monthly basis, stuff like that we could post up on our community boards, make sure people are keeping in the mood of what we've got. And maybe asking the community for suggestions. Stuff like that.
One of the tabs I noticed while scrolling through the menus was the Faction Missions.
JG: Can't talk about that. [Pause] I'd love to, but I can't.
Ok. One of the things you've talked about in previous interviews was the ideas that form the bedrock of The Crew, they've been about for the best part of a decade. With those ideas gestating for so long, how much has that original vision changed over the years?
JG: I think the concepts in Test Drive Unlimited were ahead of their time. This was an MMO. Nobody probably at Atari had the courage to call it an MMO, but it was an MMO, on console, when no-one was doing seamless multiplayer content. I think what's changed is the team has put the player and the social aspects at the heart of everything. And they're covering asynchronous, they're covering single, they're covering co-op, they're covering PvP, and they've got this ‘Free Ride' which is all about exploration and it's them sort of discovering the country. All of that is something that's really been worked on, reiterated on, for a few years now. Technically, everything on the backend of things has got better too. So it really isn't the same game, just the idea was out. Everybody's catching up now, it's the right time, and we're going to see more and more games coming down the road now, for sure.
Do you feel validated by the number of other racers that have adopted similar online features?
JG: No. It's not validation. It's an obvious direction. It's just great to be sitting on that tech, on the third iteration of that tech, while our best competitors, and trust me, the racing teams, some of the best teams in the world: Codemasters doesn't get enough kudos, Gran Turismo and Polyphony, Ghost Gothenburg are doing a great job for a new studio as well. All of these guys are great. It's really cool to be in the same space, and to have the tech that we've iterated twice or three times on; it's pretty comfortable.
This is probably public knowledge already, but just to make sure, there's no plans to introduce some kind of subscription? You buy the box and you're off, right?
JG: You're off. Take, please. Join us. No, no, no, there's no subscription. But [he says with a comical glint in his eye], it's a great idea. But no, there's no subscription.
So where are you now in terms of development? What's left to do and what's the roadmap ahead like?
JG: We're still in the closing phase, so we're still making some tough decisions on content. It's a great moment and a really bad moment, because you see some of your design features get cut or pushed back. But, polish, and we're still working on making the launch as painless as possible - that's with closed betas and different things that we're going to be doing around that.
Are you planning on doing an open beta?
JG: I can't talk to you about that. I wish I could, but I can't. But it makes sense [he says with a look in his eyes that makes us think that something is planned in this direction]. So that's where we are now. It's the luxury of having extra time to get everything right. That, and you saw the experience, it looks ten times better than it looked at E3. We keep on putting a lot of pressure on the team to get things to a great level of quality. It's not perfect, but we've got something that's very, very solid today. We're just going to keep iterating until it's as good as we can possibly get it.
While I'm sure you can't offer exact dates, but if you could give a ballpark estimate of when we might see the game in stores?
JG: Back to school 2014. That's what I've been told.