This week I was invited to Sony HQ in Auckland, New Zealand to have a sit down Q&A session with one Simon Barlow, the Design Director on PlayStation 4’s flagship social racer; DriveClub.

Originally trained as a Level Designer on the legendary Colin McRae Rally games, Simon has spent close to 15 years at the forefront of game design. Having held the lofty position of Head of Design for SCEE’s North West Studio Group, Simon has been one of the driving forces behind the WRC and MotorStorm series.

Simon Barlow - Design Director | #DriveClub

Simon Barlow – Design Director | #DriveClub

When it came to work on DriveClub the task was simple: deliver a cutting edge user experience that draws inspiration from social media, and redefines the console racing game experience. From coding the user interface backend to directing the game’s companion application, Simon has left his mark on every aspect of DriveClub’s development.

Upon sitting down with Simon I queried him on hos role and how that integrates into the game that we will expect to see.

DriveClub

Simon: So I am the Design Director on DriveClub, one of two Design Directors, myself and another guy called Richard Baresh, we pretty much 50 / 50 split the design work on the game. So I am responsible for the UX (User Experience) which is the hardest bit to describe.

It’s basically that intangible thing that sits between the game and the player. The way the player experiences the game. The most obvious thing that the people see is the User Interface, like, both in the Menus, OSD and the game and how the visuals kinda hit the player. But it’s also how like the game feels and how the game rewards you and stuff like that.

How all [of the] little systems connect and Rich is responsible for the meta-game, the architecture of the game if you like, or the different Game Modes and the way they all fit together, the reward structure and everything.

Between the two of us we kinda carved the game up and [if you] tried to the whole thing, you’d just go crazy. It was pretty well between the two of us, we both got a good understanding of how each of us works and able to kind of refine the game.

DriveClub

Shane: DriveClub is the first racing title from Sony PlayStation (1st Party) on the PS4 and is a new IP for the console, what sets this aside from, say Gran Turismo or any other racing title we have experienced before?

Simon: The real differential for me is the… well, it’s two fold I think. We’ve built this as a kind of social connected racer experience. And I guess that’s what the difference is, the gameplay or the overall structure of the game. It’s built around what PlayStation 4 was designed for which is connected play [and] share, being able to share the experience with your friends.

So DriveClub was very much built with that in mind and it’s a way too, I guess, explore the game regardless of your skill level or your preferences. There’s so many different reward streams.

So many different ways to play DriveClub, that we were hoping we could come up with and get a nice mix between kind of a more Arcadey, accessible, so you can just pick the game up and have fun with it. And that’s all cool. But, with enough depth to it [so that] the more you play it the more you realise that there are very subtle nuances in the handling and each vehicle has it’s own personality and the underlying simulation model is very, very accurate.

Almost 1:1 accuracy to real life, so if you want to be that Pro racer, for example you’ll find that there’s enough depth in the game to satisfy you.

DriveClub

So that was a really big thing for us. If you are trying to pitch… if you aim for two targets, you miss both of them and that’s why there’s not too many games [that are both]. They are either Arcade or Simulator and not many people try and go for that middle and unify the two and that’s what really has taken the time with DriveClub. 

If you strip away all of the social elements, the meta-game [and] everything else, at its core the driving model was designed to recreate the raw emotion of racing a high performance car in a unbelievable beautiful location. And that goes above and beyond just the pure mechanics of simulators. Getting that emotional connection is really hard to do.

We felt that there weren’t anyother video games doing that.

We’re gamers too and alot of us petrol heads and racing game fans.

We play alot of racing games for enjoyment and we felt we weren’t satisfied, there was a section of the market not there anymore. I guess that the last game that tried to {social gaming] was the Gotham Series (Xbox Classic & Xbox 360), to try and unify those two camps of racers and give them an experience that [was] rewarding and connected with them on a much more emotional level [while] simulating the mechanics o the car.

So, yeah… it’s a big ole game. There’s alot there for everyone. And that was deliberate.

DriveClub

Shane: Yourself being the Design Director, were you responsible for the entire look / aesthetics of the game or did you also contribute to the playability and handling?

Simon: A bit of a mix really, we are a pretty small development [team].

There’s like just over 100 staff. And that’s pretty small these days. So I guess we are a mid sized developer [studio]. It means that in the team you have to have a lot of very dedicated people that can do a bunch of different things.

For me, personally, I spent most of last year programming. Just because I needed to do it. It was something that I felt needed to be done on the team. I stepped into it. You kind of have to do that, people do different things on the project and your role sort of changes over time just coz you need to help out where you can. That was the best way for me to get my message across was to just code it myself and kind of, lead by example.

From my point of view the UX (User Experience) I had a hand in; certainly the User Interface, the branding of the game.

DriveClub

The way that the game looks from a graphical point of view.

We have an Art Director on the project who was responsible for the in-game visuals themselves. The game looks unbelievable and alot of that is down to the Art team and the Rendering team. Alex Perkins has done a bunch of interviews and presentations online and he is the Art Director and he worked with the Render team and one of the Senior Render guys Olly Wright, who’s a real industry veteran. One of the best Render programmers in the industry.

Between the two of them and the rest of the team they have constructed, created the visual language for the game.

Their goal was to try and recreate the real world as accurately as possible, to try and create a game that’s immersive, connects with you on that visceral emotional level, you have to recreate everything. You have to make it so that no one piece of the puzzle is missing. Otherwise you’re pulled out of the experience. If something is wrong the brain says, ‘I’m not buying it’, you know?

Alot of the visual queues for the game were from real life [and] almost obsession with the subtle details in reality. And yeah, I helped out with that aswell, [but] most of the stuff that I was working on was the flipside of that. Which is the graphical branding of the game, you know, the stuff that you see in the artwork (points to a DriveClub poster on the wall in the interview room) like, that side of things. And that’s even harder sometimes.

We have a really good creative team that produce all of this work and I work very closely with those guys to try and define that.

DriveClub

Shane: There are always challenges when designing and producing a game. What was the most challenging aspect for you with Drive Club?

Simon: I would say the User Interface. That was the main reason that we delayed the game.

The dynamic Menu system. We have been through twenty seven iterations of the Menu system, like, it was just… It’s such a complex game that the absolute worse thing that you can do is make it complicated for players so you have to take all of these complex systems and different infrastructures and bring them together harmoniously so that it’s second nature to players. They just see. They don’t have to think about it, there’s nothing disjointed about it and to get that right was just a long, long, long hard slog.

It was constant iteration and user testing. Underneath the game there’s a social network that underpins everything, we basically built our own version of Twitter, effectively to try and like, it’s crazy, to deliver on this vision that we had. An ambitious vision.

We work on what is called ‘Push Content’ so most games are traditionally ‘Pull Content’ where the player drills down through a Menu, pulling content towards them. You knw, like, ‘I’ll go here, go here, go here…’

DriveClub

DriveClub’s Menu system is completely different, it’s very flat. If you imagine alot of games are a series of buckets and you dive in and out of each one, DriveClub is one bucket with everything in it.

And you have to be able to access every bit of content from anywhere else in the game. You have to be able to. I could be playing a single player racing tour and I get a notification through that says you’ve challenged me to an event, I wanna be able to drop out of that (existing single player race) and play your challenge, post on a Leaderboard, share that experience with people, go back into single player… Everything HAS to connect.

And it has to be seamless, be quick, it has to be rewarding. That was a hell of a challenge to do that, and the reason that we needed the extra time.

I’m not saying it’s perfect, [but] it’s way way better than it was and it’s absolutely now at the point where we think we can release this now, this is good enough, this has delivered on what we set out to achieve. But we will continue to refine it and work on it and make it better.

DriveClub

Shane: Drive Club’s release was delayed. Was this a design decision or more of an overall player experience quality assurance reason?

Simon: It was a combination of the two really.

Initially it was our decision as a studio, there was no pressure on us from Sony on that front. We had a game that we could release at launch that was good. It [probably] would’ve sold pretty well, would’ve reviewed pretty well but it would have had quite the longevity that we wanted from DriveClub. It didn’t quite deliver on the mission that we set out with. And that’s why [there’s a] combination of ourselves in the studio looking at the product we had and thinking is this really the best that DriveClub could be.

It just wasn’t quite right. So we made that decision. We went back to [Sony PlayStation] Worldwide Studios and  said can we have some more time please.

DriveClub

And he was really supportive and [we were told] take as much time as you need to get this game right. We would rather have the game late and great rather than release it and then not really deliver on what we set out to do.

It was a difficult decision, yes. It was the right decision and certainly the feedback from the community has been absolutely overwhelming and positive. Everybody that… you know, I read the forums, the Facebook, our official Facebook account and Twitter account and stuff like that. Even people talking directly to me, everybody seems to be saying the same thing; that this is the best thing that you could’ve done. We want the game, but we want the best it can be. It was really good to have that support.

DriveClub

Shane: If you could describe the game to someone who knows nothing about Drive Club, in only a few words, what would those be?

Simon: (Laughs). Crikey… umm… If you can imagine the kind of raw, visceral excitement of racing with a high performance car at 120 mile per hour down a narrow Indian road in the middle of the Jungle in bright sunlight cascading through the leaves… if that sounds like something that you would love to do and probably should be, that’s what DriveClub is. That’s what we are trying to recreate.

DriveClub

Shane: That was actually pretty good! you should be on their Marketing team.

Shane: Bonus question: What was your favourite toy or game as kid?

Simon: Oh, I know, did you guys get M.A.S.K. over here?

Shane: The movie, the Jim Carrey one?

Simon: Nooo the cartoon. I love M.A.S.K. toys. The TV Series was an American show and everybody had a different mask they put on and that gave them different power. But each of them had their own different vehicle.

Like one guy had his car that would turn into a Hovercraft and then there was a bike that turned into a helicopter. It was the toys… I love miniturised toys for some reason. I just have a thing for things that are really tiny. And all of the M.A.S.K. characters, when action figures were like 6 inches or whatever, these were like an inch and they were fully articulated. They had their little masks and all of the cars transformed and everything.

I loved them to bits. They were an ’80s cartoon. The toys were amazing. Absolutely amazing (laughs).

Shane: They sound awesome! We didn’t have those here. Well, on behalf of shanethegamer.com thank you so much for chatting with us today. It was very cool to meet you.

Simon: Yeah same. It was fun!

Drive Club - PS4

 

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Shane - Site Admin | Snr. Editor

Shane - Site Admin | Snr. Editor

Owner / Senior Editor - NZ & AUS at Shane the Gamer
First playing Pacman and Astro Wars Shane then moved to Nintendo's Game & Watches and the mighty SEGA Master System II. He has owned every major gaming console in the past 30 years of gaming and been in the Video Gaming industry for over a decade. He is also a diehard fan of all things horror and any Jim Carey movie aswell as anything gadgety and with blinky lights. He tries to convince others that he has Super Powers. He doesn't.
Shane - Site Admin | Snr. Editor

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