By Jim Rossignol on February 24th, 2009 at 7:26 am.
FUEL, the quasi-apocalyptic open world racer due later this year, is a labour of love for French developers Asobo. They’ve have been working on it for several years, while developing a series of other, lesser games. Helping them realise this vision is the racing game team at Codemasters, who already have DIRT and GRID, under their belts. We talked to racing game chap and Executive Producer David Brickley about garage helicopters, exploration-based racing, and the latest four-letter acronym.
RPS: There are open world racing games, and there’s… this. 5000km2? How the hell did you make so much terrain?
Brickley: The technology behind FUEL is based on a concept to procedurally generate data on the fly instead of just loading and decompressing it. Today’s hardware now has enough parallel processing power to procedurally create high quality environments, in real-time, while the player is moving around the world. Generated environments are optimized and arranged to get the best performance out of the machine’s hardware. As a result, the player gets the maximum amount of detail and quality of environments displayed on screen and a 40km draw distance. Generated doesn’t mean random though, it’s the same result every time, and owing to the locations we chose is in many cases accurate to satellite data, we just took some liberties for the sake of design, i.e. putting all our favourite locations in one map.
RPS: Where did the idea for Fuel come from? And how difficult was it to get the idea through to production stages?
Brickley: The Asobo team has been making racing games since the 90s in previous guises, but when they had the idea for the tech it was purely to generate the landscape. Once they had it, it quickly came to the time when they put a car in it, then raced each other around after work, just for larks.
Long story short when Codemasters saw it we wanted them to come up with a concept that did justice to the tech. It was a unique design experience to be dropped into a world that already existed and say “hey what would be great here is…” instead of labouring over what areas we were going to build before you lay down a single polygon.
That lead on to designing a race experience which was very different to a circuit constrained racing game where you would never build an entire forest or a river or a mountain just for a fun shortcut but with the Asobo engine it was already there – we use terraforming and manual object placement to finish the effect and get the races tuned the way we want them.
Given the unprecedented draw distance you always want to see what’s over the horizon but we figured we could make the horizon come to you and that’s where the extreme weather came from and, ultimately, the name FUEL in part.
We didn’t want it to be pegged as an off road racer because for one thing there’s 100,000km of roads tracks and trails, and road vehicles as well as off road, so it needed to be non specific but still fit. Sorry to say there isn’t some evil marketing plan to consciously have every Codemasters racing game have a four letter title, in this case it just worked.
RPS: Can you explain what a typical hour of play might be like? What sort of challenges does a player face?
Brickley: Ultimately we want players to take it at their own pace. We love the idea of console owners getting a taste of that MMO experience where you can just dick around if things get too tough or you fancy a break from the main career, so the design had to allow you to have many options at any given time.
So for example you can follow the career path which takes you around a whistle stop tour of the world (relatively speaking anyway, there are upwards of 70 races) to get an idea of the diversity of geography, weather, races and vehicles.
But as you drive around you’re also informed via your on board computer that there are exploration challenges available which means you figuring out first how to get there and then gaining a reward once you do. All the time you’re seeing more of the world but always with a purpose, set by us. Or you can just hang out by a lake and watch the sun go down.
The free roaming is so important to making it appealing to people who might get put off a driving game normally by the difficulty curve, or an online game of any sort once the other players inevitably get better than them. Personally I think it’s great to just be able to be in the world when it’s a nice world to be in.
RPS: There seems to be a story of some kind? What’s that all about?
Brickley: Well basically we needed an excuse for the weather to have gone to shit so we picked on global warming to explain why many of the areas you visit had to be abandoned.
It’s been picked up on as a Mad Max reference but really that was far more serious than what we intended – we wanted you to feel like surfer or a base jumper, these areas are as extreme as you get and you’re one of the nutcases who figures the only way that could be exciting is by racing around it.
That’s emphasised by everything from the places you encounter, like a drowned city or a wrecked tanker, to the clothes you can win which have a very unorthodox feel to them compared to a licensed racing game – NFL helmets instead of straight racing gear being one.
RPS: We Britishers love the weather, and Fuel is chock full of it. Can you tell us a bit about those weather effects? Do they really affect play?
Brickley: Yes, there are a series of boss style missions where the weather will make things very dicey for you – a tornado ripping up buildings, picking up cars and throwing them at you, or a lightning storm bringing down power cables. But it’s also a consistent theme – the effects of past calamities like forest fires or sandstorms are everywhere. And of course, there are weather systems in the game so you have the tangible effect, in addition to the aesthetic, that you’d expect racing in snow, rain and so on.
RPS: What’s the deal with multiplayer?
Brickley: As mentioned above it’s the key to the whole experience. In free roaming you’re meeting people to hang out and explore with, or you can play the entire career with friends or strangers. You can also design and save and play your own races, that’s really what the career is for – show you somewhere you might really like and then break off and make your own missions.
RPS: How are the various vehicles accessed? Do you have a garage somewhere? Can you get out and walk around? How is that handled?
Brickley: Basically we didn’t want you having to return to some arbitrary spot in order to change vehicle and since the world was so big we knew we wanted a helicopter in there so we made the helicopter your support vehicle.
Since races can take place in inaccessible areas or you may want to change mid free ride you can call in a change of vehicle and this big army style chopper drops it off. It’s also your method for moving quickly around the map to places you’ve already uncovered.
RPS: That sounds reasonably awesome. Thanks David.