Fine tuned

Fine tuned

By Rob Crossley

September 16th 2009 at 10:54AM

Black Rockâ??s Jason Avent discusses the evolution of the racing genre

It’s said you should keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

For Brighton-based Black Rock Studio, that term could indeed be taken quite literally.

Bizarrely, Black Rock’s competitors in the racing genre – not always renowned for their mutual goodwill – have lavished praise on the upcoming racer Split Second.

“Anything that Black Rock does interests me,” says Bizarre Creations’ Chris Pickford. “They have a really, really good team. Pure was a drastically underrated game, it was brilliant, absolutely fantastic; so good.”

EA Games Europe’s Snr VP Peter Soderlund, meanwhile, said that Split/Second “looks great” in the same breath as saying Blur was “completely underwhelming”.

Black Rock Studios’ Jason Avent talks to Develop to discuss what makes Split/Second stand out, and offers his thoughts on the evolution of the racing genre.

Many claim Burnout Paradise is the most significant evolution for the racing genre in recent times. Would you agree, and why do you think many studios – like Black Rock - are not following this ‘games as service’ model?

Avent: I think that if a game is successful then there is a strong business case for selling more content into it and supporting the community around it.

‘Games as a service’ is a new name for an old phenomenon.

I am a prolific games player usually playing between 2-3 games at the same time and moving on quickly. But I have in the past had periods where I played just one game exclusively.

Games like PlanetSide, Command and Conquer, StarCraft, Civilization, Call of Duty 4, Battlefield 1942 and CounterStrike all kept me playing for months. I became a dedicated fan. Part of a community.

A lot of those examples are PC games with a strong multi-player component. These games really captivated me.

I played the mods CounterStrike and Battlefield Desert Combat for about a year or more each for example but because it was the wild west of the games industry, those were both free.

I think that what's happening is some core-gaming principles that began on the PC are moving across to console games and being monetized.

All that's happening now is that these big ideas are being commercialised and branded.

"User Created Content" is a similar new-market brand for an old big idea.

On the specific question of Burnout Paradise: I don't know whether they've made money out of it yet but I'm very grateful to EA for pioneering the idea of 'games as a service' on consoles for racing games.

I believe in games as a service because I've seen it work lots of times before - albeit for free.  It's only the platform and commercial structure that's new.

I do however think that only the most successful games of each year will break out of just being finite products.

Although it's difficult to get sales data on DLC, intuitively I'd say that the really massive games sell disproportionately more DLC than the merely good games.

Games like Fallout 3, Halo and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have probably done well enough and are good candidates for being launched as services.

To put a number on it, probably games that shift 3-5 million boxes or more and ideally have a committed online gaming platform could be converted into profitable services.

Regarding Black Rock’s move from Pure straight to Split/Second, are you bored of straight sims? Do you still play them? Are they still fun for you?
My favourite racing game is Forza 2 so no, I still like sims. I'm looking forward to GT5 also. I am exactly the core market for those games because I love cars and driving.

Pure and Split/Second are both balls-to-the-wall arcade games. I'm glad about that because I believe that generally games should be fun above anything else.

Sims and licenses often bring compromise and only appeal to people who are already fans of the subject.

Is the straight sim market something you’re happy to approach?
I think that the simulation game market for any vehicle other than cars is very small. That said, a car racing sim is something I'd be happy to do but I think that going toe-to-toe with Microsoft and Sony would be very difficult and probably not a challenge that Black Rock should take on while there are still more interesting and innovative ideas at the studio.

Games such as Destruction Derby and Twisted Metal show that the action-racing genre doesn’t carry games particularly far. Would you agree?
Well those are pretty old games now and they'd need to evolve into bigger concepts if they were to be revived today.

Split/Second is spectacular enough to get people in through the door and the combination of an ever-changing racetrack and using the destructible city as your weapon creates depth that will keep people playing.

In what ways can Split/Second distinguish itself from the list of upcoming racing games, and what measures are you taking to secure sales in what will be a tough market?

Watching a race in Split/Second is spectacular and blows you away just like a top-flight Hollywood action movie does.

As a proposition that can be shown in screenshots and videos, it's truly a unique experience from other games and we think players will be excited once they get their hands on it. 

Tell us more about the tech and middleware that you’re using to achieve the game’s impressive look and sound.
At Black Rock we have a shared tech engine that develops further with each project. While there's lots of new tech being developed for Split/Second, the core is built on the foundations laid by Pure.

We use a number of middleware packages for some areas of the game - like physics for example - but on the whole the visuals and effects are produced by Black Rock developed tech.

How many are working on the game right now, and how has the project’s workforce expanded throughout development?
The team is well over 70 people now, and over the course of development the team size ebbs and flows. In an initial concept phase you may start with just a handful of people, slowly increasing through pre-production until you hit a peak as you progress through mass production.

That's not counting all the other partners and outsourcing teams we use outside the studio as well of course!

Are there plans for the staff as the project wraps up, such as DLC expansion?
I think that as the game shapes up, so will the plans for DLC. The staffing will be driven by the content. There are lots of cool ideas though.

Black Rock has worked with both licensed bikes and unlicensed cars in the past. Which do you prefer? How much of a restraint on ideas do vehicle licences tend to provide?
It totally depends on what you're trying to achieve and who you're working with. Some licensors require a lot of approvals and control. That means you need to compromise your game.

You should really only be willing to do that if the content or brand is worth it. Some games don't need licensed content to be great.