Interview with Jesse Abney (Slightly Mad Studios)


Since the very first moment we laid our eyes on Shift 2: Unleashed we knew that we were in for a treat. So confident are both EA and Slightly Mad Studios that the follow up from 2009’s Need for Speed: Shift will succeed based on the fledgling sub-series’ reputation alone that they’ve even gone so far as to relegate the NFS prefix to a mere sub header. With the promise of the gaming world’s first true glimpse of first person racing, we were understandably excited to get the chance to pick the brains of game producer Jesse Abney in London last month...

It is an energetic, exciting and fun time – we like to key into fun – which you certainly don’t get when you go overboard on the simulation end

Click: What sort of improvements have you made to the game since Shift?
There are a ton of refinements. Really Unleashed, as a proposition to our simulation offering, is a progression on a lot of levels – probably a dozen if I had to count on one hand... things that Slight Mad Studios (SMS) have retooled, rebuilt, refined and improved upon. The graphics engine overhaul, lighting modelling, damage models for the cars, the tracks, degradation, particle systems, physics, AI, the career structure – Autolog is now implemented as a measure of progression – and the scope of the career spans seven different disciplines with XP at the heart of the reward mechanic for unlocks and incentives as well as... [Clicks fingers] there’s certainly more! Steering wheels, peripheral controls, full simulation mode. All those are refinements or just progression towards being a much more authentic simulation offering from the Need for Speed brand.

Click: There has been a lot of Need for Speed titles recently, what sets Unleashed apart?
Well that was a calculated step. We realised quite a few years ago that really the Need for Speed fan had grown up with us over a 16 year period and their tastes had changed, so us delivering just one title a year wasn’t really doing anyone any favours. We had a design that met a certain criteria for arcade racing – Hot Pursuit and NFS World worked really well for action fans.
And then for simulation, with SMS coming aboard as a AAA simulation developer, we were able to satisfy a hunger for some of our fans who had grown away from arcade racing and really wanted the more legitimate, authentic racing experience that the original Shift brought to market. Shift 2 really builds upon that in every way be that the experience, the position of the driver battle or the new helmet view; an innovative new camera technique that sells another level of immersion.

It’s about the feeling of being the driver; undergoing the forces moment to moment against the AI as well as the battle with themselves to keep control, especially in night racing (which is made all the more authentic thanks to the new rendering and lighting system). And really that battle and that experience sets it apart from most Need for Speeds and most definitely sets it apart from the rest of the industry. It’s an energetic, exciting and fun time – we like to key into fun – which you certainly don’t get when you go overboard on the simulation end and we’ve tried to retain the complexity without going too far towards the arcade side.

So it’s delivering an experience that we don’t compete with internally, in a niche that we doesn’t see innovation from the rest of the industry. We did a good job of keying into where we could innovate with Shift 1 and the whole team has really keyed into innovations in things like Autolog to take it to the next level of competition online and all the refinement that I listed off. And really to just take the next natural step towards that authentic experience. We see it as invitation to continue to innovate, to push. We don’t consider it a driving sim; we consider it an experience and a fun one at that.

Click: How much effort goes into capturing the detail of the cars in the game?
A lot, and you can see the proof in game; the cars are meticulously detailed. Our relationship with the manufactures, which goes back 16 years, starts with the details for the performance envelope and then the CAD files for referencing. All that stuff with our customisation engine has to be millimetre precise and any modifications have to support the aerodynamics of the physics engine as well as the clearance of the chassis of the body roll and other aspects that have to be mechanically precise.

So the guys at SMS, they’re really top of the industry – they model inside and out of these cars. And we put the race drivers in their cars and we hear stuff like “I can’t believe the rivets are in the floor where I look at them every day and all those hoses are there that I have to shove out of the way”. So all credit to these guys – through thousands of reference photos, CAD files and first hand access they’ve done a tremendous job of modelling really high levels of detail and also scalable LOD that the engine requires.

Click: You’re talking about the helmet cam a lot - do you see this almost as a first person evolution for the racer?
Absolutely – first person shooters like Battlefield from our sister studio DICE and all the work they’ve done to innovate in that space really was our aspiration. It was looking around the industry and seeing the stagnation in the racing simulation market and thinking that first person shooters in the last half decade have really innovated and improved the experience of the player, so why can’t racing do the same thing? Shift did a tremendous job of keying into the first step of that, with the dashboard cam and the G-force effect.

We wanted to take one step back to get at the driver as the heart of the machine and the experience that I described. The helmet cam just became the natural progression to present that movement and an entity for the player to associate with and to actually see the G-forces as you drive was really important for us. Now, the player has a voice, they have breath, they have a heartbeat – there’s a physical effect when they impact at speed. All of those things are part of that immersion layer that we really want to key into for Shift 2.

Click: What new features have been integrated into Autolog?
Autolog in and of itself is a simple mechanic and it’s now Need for Speed DNA. So its actual mechanics can be derived somewhat from the game’s design. Hot Pursuit has a fairly simple arcade approach with a relatively small amount of information that needs to be tracked, whereas a track-based competition has a ton of data that we can accumulate and surface in a myriad of ways. So it’s not really a feature list, although you can imagine that everything we’ve previously done online – leaderboards, stat tracking, etc. – will all be bundled up into Shift 2 and delivered to players in different ways. Autolog Recommends will still push events that your friends are playing to the surface. It’s really just creating an avenue or a nerve centre for surfacing all that data in one nice neat place and can be pushed to players in lots of different ways.

Interview with Jesse Abney (Slightly Mad Studios) on
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