There are strange things going on with the buggy I’m driving. I’m in a field, somewhere in Ghost Recon: Wildlands’ digital Bolivia, and the vehicle is transforming while I drive it. The power, suspension, steering – everything’s changing. It’s not a bug. Next to me, the driving team at Ubisoft Reflections are fiddling with my poor ride using their vehicle editing tool, which lamentably doesn’t have a fancy name.
Reflections have been making driving games since 1995’s smashing Destruction Derby and are probably best known for the Driver series, the last of which was Driver: San Francisco, popping into existence all the way back in 2011. A dedicated driving team still exists at the studio, but now they're using their expertise in games like Watch Dogs 2 and the latest Tom Clancy romp.
The vehicle editing tool is central to their efforts to stop potential drivers from throwing down their controllers in disgust before walking up to the nearest real car and kicking it in the butt. It allows for a multitude of real-time tweaks during development that can immediately be seen while playing. And that’s why my buggy is now a good two foot taller, but barely able to escape the field because it has the power of a pram.
“The tool has existed ever since the original Driver, being extended and improved in each
successive game”, says Ben Merrick, owner of the rather singular title of 'vehicles realisation expert'. “At the end of Driver: San Francisco, the tool was made project and game engine agnostic, and that’s when it started to be used in multiple games simultaneously. I guess you could say in its current version it has been used in Driver: San Francisco, Watch Dogs 2 and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands.”
While the tool allows the team to fiddle with everything from suspension to power, one of the most important elements that can be altered – but one that may not immediately spring to mind – is the camera. It’s purely visual, outside of the detailed physics simulation, but it has a tangible impact on how a car or bike or van actually handles.
“Sometimes I think people aren’t as aware as we are that changing a camera, before you go anywhere near the physics, has a massive effect on how the vehicle feels,” Merrick explains. “This tool allows us to do this on the fly, so Rich [Towler, handling designer] can pull the camera out and you get a whole different feeling as the camera comes further out, and when we put it farther in, you get a much more visceral experience.“
Towler changes the camera again, so we can see more, and then less, of the side of the vehicle. “Is the vehicle too grippy or too slidey – actually maybe it’s just the camera, so we have to use our experience and these kinds of tools to figure out where the problem lies.”
By being able to make these changes in real-time, both minute and massive, Reflections is able to quickly see how any given vehicle reacts on a multitude of terrain types or in specific scenarios, attempting to construct, as Merrick says, “the best experience possible.” Finding that sweet spot isn’t easy, however. Each game comes with its own look and style, its own terrain – Watch Dogs 2’s hills and broad streets, Wildlands’ muddy fields and rocky paths – and its own conceit. The driving, then, has to take all of these things into consideration.
“You always look at how the game feels… we keep polishing the vehicles as much as we can, but the game worlds change during development, so we’re always looking to revisit it, and a lot of that comes from experience.” It’s a constant, iterative process, explains Merrick. And one that involves a lot of collaboration between the Reflections driving team and the other Ubisoft studios.
“The road layout and terrain have a massive impact on the driving experience. However they
also impact on the on foot navigation, parkour, shooting, etc. In open-world games with a
variety of gameplay available to the player, the key is always to find the right balance to
support all the gameplay mechanics.”
Let’s dig into that first example: navigating on foot or climbing like a parkour deity. That extra traversal mode completely changes the world and forces the developers to find a middle ground where the world makes sense at whatever speed you’re going through it.
“Open-world navigation in a world that simultaneously supports on foot is very different to an
open-world game that does not, like Driver: San Francisco or The Crew,” says Merrick. “On foot the world needs to be interesting and engaging at 15mph or below so the world doesn’t seem empty when not in a vehicle, with numerous parkour and tactical nuances. That can often conflict with what the player can process when the same level is navigated at 80mph as the time available for decisions and direction changes is dramatically reduced.“
And then there’s the explosive action and shooting. The folks at Reflections are currently working on two games where driving is only part of the experience. Guns and firefights are equally important. That gives players a lot of things to make sense of and deal with. They’re not just managing a car, but other cars chasing them, enemies shooting at them, cops trying to run them off the road – that’s a lot of distractions. The driving, then, needs to be more forgiving, less realistic.
This is why around half of the effort goes into creating ‘helpers’, those little things you might not even notice that actually have a significant impact on the game. When was the last time you took a vehicle off-road and got stuck in the mud (not counting Spintires)? It’s not fun when dirt stops you in your tracks. When you bump into another car, how often does that completely wreck your vehicle, forcing you to abandon it? And, sorry to drop a bombshell on you right in the middle of this, but you can’t actually control a car in midair. These unrealistic bits and bobs might nudge the driving away from being a full simulation, but also ensure that players get to keep the momentum that makes driving in action games thrilling.
The result is something that straddles the line between simulation and fuel-injected fantasy.
“We’ve got a lot of simulation stuff in here, but you’re not driving a car like you’d actually drive a car,” Merrick admits. “You’re driving it all through your pad. And we want players to have that love of mucking around in cars. You know when you were eight, and you knew how cars drove, but you’d never driven before, and the only thing separating you from driving like that was you maybe didn’t have pocket money for a Ferrari – it’s that. We’re not delivering a super realistic thing; we’re delivering that dream of really interesting driving. An experience.”
This is easier to do in some games than others. Those others? Games with licensed vehicles, like The Crew or Driver: San Francisco, which use a multitude of real-world cars that all come with their own caveats.
“We did use licensed cars in games such as Driver: San Francisco,” notes Merrick. “In my experience, licensed cars bring more restrictions in terms of aesthetic correctness of the models as well as what might be permissible in terms of impact damage, so that it shows the values of that vehicle brand. Normally it is understood that handling will often need to be right for the game so we are given greater freedom, however it’s in our interest to emulate the original car’s behaviour where we can because players will be expecting it.”
Throughout our chat, both during my visit to the studio and after, via email, the Driver series comes up a lot. It is perhaps the series that Reflections is best known for, even though it’s a developer with many notches on its belt. Yet it’s been five years since the last one – possibly even the best, as experimental and loopy as it was. Will we get another one? Is the team just biding its time, paying its dues to its publisher with work on Watch Dogs 2 and Wildlands?
“There is always interest in Driver,” Merrick tells me. “It’s a brand that is intertwined with Reflections’ history, and there’s still a lot of affection for it.”