Bizarre Creations' Chris Pickford discusses his team's new racer
The games industry is nothing if not a broad church.
One end of the spectrum is going blue in the face trying to validate the Braids and Flowers as a Ulysses-meets-Citizen-Kane-meets-Othello 2.0 affair, while the other end is busy slinging mud across the internet.
A recent example of the latter emerged in the guise of EA Games Europe VP Patrick Soderlund, who offered his opinion on Bizarre Creations’ next title, Blur – a game backed by a publisher which happens to be EA’s biggest market rival.
“Blur to me is completely underwhelming,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s up with that game to be honest. That’s an official statement.”
Bizarre Creations associate producer, Chris Pickford, really doesn’t care.
“We don’t take offence at it,” he tells us. “It’s just the way some people do their PR.”
Pickford praised EA’s approach with Need For Speed Shift, a title gunning for the same market as Blur. He tells us he’s looking forward to playing EA’s revitalised racer.
There is indeed a number of people in the industry who remain undecided on Blur, but Pickford’s calm diffusion of Soderlund’s enflamed quote – one which could have easily sparked off a publicity war – is indicative of the focused and level-headed people who make Bizarre what it is today.
Pickford is - like all his colleagues which Develop has met in recent months - unembarrassed by his burning passion for racing games, level-headed in his ambitions, and confident that Blur can prove the doubters wrong.
Develop sits down with Pickford to discuss the type of games Bizarre wants to make, the racing genre itself, more about Blur and that $40m deal.
How important is it that Blur deviates from the straight simulation racer?
We certainly have the staff and the skill to make those types of games, because we do have a good racing heritage, but what we want to do is step into our own area.
We want that emotional attachment, we want the player to feel more about what they’re doing, we want them to feel anger and frustration and elation; we want the players to feel cheeky if they lay a trap on someone else.
We want that adrenaline rush, that wheel-to-wheel excitement. If we could do it, we’d want players to smell the tarmac, to feel the wind on their faces.
One of the tricks in Gotham was that players could approach the last corner, hit whoever was in front of them and get around them.
It was one of the many things that made us realise that you can’t change the way the player behaves, you can only embrace it. That’s why we’ve made a game like Blur.
We recently discovered that there’s a $40 million bonus deal agreed between Bizarre and Activision, on the proviso that Blur and other games hit their sales expectations. How does this sort of pressure affect the team?
To be honest with you, most of the staff don’t really know or talk about the business-side of things.
Our company has always looked after us very well, and we trust them, and we trust that they’ll look after us in the future.
It’s not like we can’t ask about things like this, but – and I know this sounds a bit cheesy – we’re driven by our desire to make a game as good as PGR4, if not better.
You’re only as good as your last game, and I can tell you that all of us want our new game to be better than the last. There’s a lot of pride involved. There’s a lot of banging your head against the wall until something works. [Laughs]
So as I say, we really don’t want to be preoccupied with the business side of things.
The sales clause doesn’t surprise me, but it doesn’t really affect us either. There’s always going to be a correlation between selling a lot of copies and receiving rewards. The numbers aren’t that important.
Bizarre has of course worked in other fields like with Sega’s The Club; is the studio interested in working on other genres?
The Club was an interesting project for us, we really tried to do something different with it, and there were a lot of things we learnt from it that we would want to go back on.
There was so much untapped potential in what we were doing with The Club; we could have added all sorts things to it. For us it was a bit like a Gotham 1; we had all the key components in place and we could have taken that further.
Obviously, with Activision coming in, it became a little bit more difficult to do that, for contractual business reasons. But there’s plenty of places we could have gone with it.
I can tell you definitively, we don’t want to step away from the racing genre. Apart from it being our bread and butter, it’s something that we absolutely love.
And there’s still so much we can do with it. I know people say “racing’s dead” or that everything is just different tracks and different cars but the same old way of doing things, but that’s not the way it is at all.
That sort of perspective comes from people just looking at content. When you design from a content standpoint, you’re always going to end up in the same area, doing the same equations.
When you start thinking about emotions and players and storylines, things are different.
In what context do you mean ‘storylines’?
Well, by that we mean the playthrough is the storyline. If you go through the emotions a player feels in a race - he’s scared because he’s about to hit a corner, he’s empowered because he’s flying through the air – we’re looking at how we can get the most out of these feelings.
Your recent session at the Develop Conference looked back on the evolution of the racing genre. Where do you feel the genre is heading?
Racing is escapism, a pure form of escapism, allowing players to do things that they can’t do – or aren’t allowed to do – in the real world.
So I think one of the next things for racing games is adding more emotional content; racing games are usually quite dry, a bit soulless.
If there’s one place where racers can really innovate, it’s in that extra emotional attachment. Racers tend to give an adrenaline-packed experience, and we want to give the players a whole plethora of emotions to go through.
Ben Ward previously said the he thought racing games were not meeting sales expectations. Why?
Racing games... it’s funny because they’re sort of similar to films sometimes… in that there are periods where you end up seeing a lot of sci-fi films at the same time, and a lot of fantasy films as well. They kind of come in cycles. I think the racing genre sees those types of trends.
Need For Speed isn’t selling so well these days if you look at the figures. Gotham 4, which was going up against Halo 3 at launch, didn’t sell as well as its predecessors.
What the genre needs is something to shake things up. When Need For Speed was reborn, back when undercover came out, that shook everything up, and all of a sudden everyone went nuts for it. Racing games were cool again.
Since then, everything has run its course, and the genre needs something again to spark it up.
There’s a lot of competition out there for Blur, and at the same time there’s a lot of public mud-slinging.
We don’t take offence at it. It’s just PR, it’s just the way some people do their PR. If people want to tell us our game’s good or bad, that’s their opinion and they’re allowed to do that.
We deal in reviews, fans and facts.
That’s where we get all our feedback from. If someone wants to tell us they don’t get what we’re doing, that’s fine. But that’s one person.
My boss, Martyn [Chudley, founder of Raising Hell Software before it was renamed Bizarre Creations], thinks about game design in a different way. He’s still hands-on with racing games as well. When you have someone of that calibre steering your team in that direction, it does make you think in different ways.
We don’t just want to think ‘right, lets get a load of tracks up, get some cars out and invent an arbitrary win mechanic.’ We have to think about doing things differently to other studios.
We couldn’t release a clone. We couldn’t. It would have just killed us.
I think UK developers have a lot of soul in their projects. Sometimes they get it wrong but at least they’re trying something different. We don’t like to be seen doing the same old thing. It’s almost like a weird cultural ethos that we [UK developers] have.
We don’t copy, we lead, even if we lead in the wrong directions at times! [laughs]
With this in mind, of all the games Blur will be competing with, which one are you most interested in?
Probably Need For Speed: Shift, for me personally. It’s interesting to see EA split their franchise so that each game can focus down one path. Shift will be the Need For Speed version of PGR or Forza.
I’m also looking forward to Split Second. Anything that Black Rock does interests me; they have a really, really good team.
Pure was a drastically underrated game, it was brilliant, absolutely fantastic; so good.
We played it a lot in the office and thought that the Black Rock guys really had their heads screwed on.
Metropolis Street Racer was initially intended as a single, one-off game, obviously before it sparked off the PGR franchise. Do you foresee Blur becoming a franchise that can go on and on? Does the type of racer you’re crafting have legs?
It’s probably arrogant to think that your game is going to become a big deal. You always have to temper things with caution. But we’re got a lot of hindsight at our studio, and we can take the precautions to make sure we have the space to move forward with it.
Don’t get me wrong. This game is all we're focused on. We’re not holding back.
We absolutely cannot hold anything back, we need to make sure that everything we have goes into this first game.
We need to make sure this game is as good as it can be, because otherwise you don’t end up with a franchise.
You can’t hold back, but the game itself can have enough… ‘loose ends’ almost… that we can start tying up.
That all depends on how we’ll want to do things, and of course how the game is received.