This week, the latest game from the Need for Speed garage, SHIFT 2 Unleashed is launching on PlayStation 3. I recently caught up with the Lead Game Designer at Slightly Mad Studios, Andy Tudor, to talk about friendly rivalry with Criterion and how the game has been influenced by such unlikely titles like Silent Hill.
Hot Pursuit isn’t your game but you do share the Need for Speed umbrella with Criterion. Is it a friendly relationship or more like the Red Bull F1 team at times last season?
We’re both competent at what we do and eager for success but we approach the racing genre from totally different angles. We collaborate on many things, the obvious thing being the Autolog, and there are some other crossovers that I won’t spoil for you, but if you’ve played Hot Pursuit then you might find some nice surprises when you play SHIFT 2. I personally feel that we’ve improved on the Autolog system, which in itself is a perfect fit for SHIFT, which is all about shaving hundredths of a second off your lap times.
What are those Autolog improvements?
The first change we’ve made is the access point – in Hot Pursuit Autolog is accessed from the main menu but, in SHIFT 2, we’ve mapped it permanently to a button that is often overlooked: Select. We’ve expanded the ability to share replays, as well as photos, and we’re bringing in real-world data from needforspeed.com and speedhunters.com to keep players up to date with the world of cars and motorsport.
Autolog, as a social network in its own right, is a real game changer.
How healthy is the racing genre right now?
Just look at what we have had recently – everything from Hollywood action games like Split/Second and Blur, MotorStorm Apocalypse and DiRT 3 both looking great, Test Drive: Unlimited is out there, there’s Hot Pursuit of course…the variety is wide and each game satisfies a different itch.
When it comes to simulation driving, we’re now in a position to gain some ground on our rivals with new game modes and innovations to things like night racing, which is a common feature that has never been done properly.
The headline feature in the original SHIFT was shaping your own driving personality. Is that still there?
A lot of that has been dialled down in SHIFT 2 to make it deeper and more streamlined. We realised that there are a lot of currencies in the original game, like stars, XP, cash, aggression vs. precision… We’ve unified all of that with a new XP system that doesn’t try to represent what kind of driver you are, but how good you are.
You’re no longer rewarded for trading paint with other drivers, because the feedback we had was that overly aggressive drivers were disruptive to many players’ experiences.
We’ve also added further depth with additions like vehicle tuning.
Some people are turned off by vehicle tuning because it requires such specialist knowledge. How do you break down those barriers?
We’ve got this eternal dilemma in that racing game fans want more tuning options but, and let’s be honest here, tuning is one of the most boring things out there because you’re basically just moving sliders around and then going on the track to try and differentiate something that is potentially imperceptible, like how ‘good’ the car is around a corner. Everyone understands top speed and acceleration but something like weight distribution is, like you say, specialist knowledge. Unless you teach people this knowledge, they’re going to go from game to game not knowing what the hell it is and never using the feature.
The first thing we decided is that, if you do want to tune your car, you want to be doing it on the track, so you can do it at any point in SHIFT 2 by hitting pause. Additionally, if you’re going to have a slider for tuning then at least tell people what it does and how it affects those three recognisable attributes – top speed, acceleration and handling.
On top of that, we’ve included real time telemetry to give you information like tyre pressure, temperature and G-forces, and we educate you about what that stuff actually means so we can increase the use of those features and push the genre forwards.
How do you convey speed?
It all starts at grass roots and that visceral feeling of being behind the wheel. Cockpit view is the best way to experience that but we realised that relatively few players use it, so we’ve made improvements. There are lots of stylistic things you can do to convey speed, like motion blur, and one of the techniques we’ve used is to gradually blur out the cockpit as you increase your speed and your concentration on the road intensifies – that’s a focusing technique we’ve taken from first-person shooters.
At SCEE we sometimes use a continuum where you have colourful kart racers at one end and Gran Turismo at the other and a plethora of racing games between, according to their style. Where would SHIFT 2 sit?
That’s the racing spectrum and yes, we use that too. The original SHIFT was definitely in the middle as we tried to get the best of the arcade and simulation worlds, but with SHIFT 2 I’d say we’re hot on the heels of Gran Turismo. We talk about GT a lot and it’s a great game that people get hyped for and spend hours upon hours playing, and while we’re not trying to compete in terms of numbers, we think we can offer brand new challenges to those fans.
If you take a look at something like night racing, it has been done hundreds of times but never like we’re doing with SHIFT 2. We make it authentic and scary, drawing influence from games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, where you’re descending into the darkness guided only by torchlight. Real racers will tell you that you can only see the ten feet in front of your bonnet and it changes the way that you drive. Try a night race in SHIFT 2 and I can guarantee it will be nothing like any you have played before.