What a year: E3, Gamescom, i61 and now with EGX 2017 recently over its Play Expo Manchester that’s soon to follow. However, let’s get back on track with our EGX coverage with an interview with Rod Chong – Slightly Mad Studios CCO.
Interviewed by Jimmy Dean at EGX 2017, this was originally a video feature; however, sound in the background was rather noticeable and caused issues within the clarity of the recording, so it’s been transcribed instead. Enjoy!
Hi, I’m Jimmy from Invision and if you’d just like to introduce yourself: who you are, what you’re working on, what studio you work for?
My name is Rod Chong and I am the Chief Commercial Officer for Slightly Mad Studios working on Project Cars 2.
So, regarding Project Cars 2 then, to put this into perspective, the original game was released only a few years back in 2015, with the sequel now arriving only two years later. In regards to the motivation behind this follow-up, what was it and what did you hope to create with the sequel?
That’s an interesting question… I think with Project Cars 2 we could have done the typical thing – the expected thing – which would be to come up with one new feature, then you have new cars and tracks and that’s it, but we went a little crazy, as always – there’s a reason we’re called Slightly Mad Studios. We wanted to give racing fans and sim racers a lot of new driving experiences – we wanted to really push the boundaries. We looked at what we had achieved with Project Cars 1 and we knew we had a very, very powerful simulation engine that could do some incredible things. We already had 24 hours of lighting, we already had dynamic weather systems, but we wanted to push that further so we came up with this concept called ‘Anytime, Anywhere’. So ‘Anytime’ refers not only to the 24 hours of lighting and all that stuff but also we added four seasons. So now every single track has not only 24 hours of lighting and completely dynamic weather, but now there are four seasons. So you can go to the Nürburgring in Germany in the Winter, or in the snow, if you want, and drive it that way.
Assuming that affects gameplay as well with the traction and handling?
Absolutely! So, within that concept, we have a feature we are calling ‘Live Track 3.0’. Live Track is looking at the gaming environment – the track location – as a living, breathing environment where every changed condition affects the driving experience, and that’s something that we’re embracing. Especially in Northern Europe, you could go racing and suddenly it starts raining and puddles form. Or, if it’s an endurance race and the sun goes down, things cool down and it’s a change. The track cools down; how you drive it, where you race it – it’s a shift, so that was a big important feature. Especially the rain simulation – maybe because we’re UK based [laughs] – we really wanted to bring that to life. This is a big new step from Project Cars 1 to Project Cars 2. The water simulation, when it rains; puddles form, and it’s not a graphical trick it’s an actual simulation of rain and water. The sun comes out; it starts evaporating, the water drains in different ways. We simulate where the water drains – so where the drainage systems are and the water collects there – the water will run downhill to collect in pools, and then if the sun comes up there are still some areas where there are puddles. You may end up on a dry track that’s mostly dry, but there are still puddles you have to avoid.
So, getting back to this concept of Anytime, Anywhere, the ‘Anywhere’ concept refers to multiple surfaces to race on, and that’s personified mostly by the Rally cars that you’re driving, which is mixed-surface racing: gravel, clay, tarmac… All these different things. That’s coupled with the dynamic weather, so you can imagine that you’re in a RallyCross mode – part of the track is dirt, it rains, turns to mud and then all the different types of Rally Cross cars come in and it all feels quite new.
So, you mentioned there about simulating the weather and the seasons, so off the back of that, when I played it just now on the showfloor, I realised just how immersive the game feels to play. In terms of capturing that quality simulation experience, how do you go about actually establishing the realistic car handling so that it’s got a genuine feel to it?
Well, we have a very sophisticated simulation engine, and we plug all the technical data for any car into that. It actually has virtual suspension systems, virtual drive chains and all the components for the engine in there, and they work in a virtual fashion. So, by replicating all the technical aspects of the car, you are going to get a car that handles like the real thing, and it’s from there you have to really work on the tyre model which is a bit of a black art. We’ve done a lot of work on that – a lot of upgrades from Project Cars 1 to Project Cars 2 – so now you can feel the cars on the limit more, or, if you go over the limit, you start sliding, you can really get the car back. As a result, you can be way more aggressive, you can have more fun, too. So, it’s not only more realistic, but more fun.
We believe there’s a misconception that games to be realistic are supposed to be incredibly difficult, but if you look at modern supercars and modern race cars, they’re designed to be not too hard to drive, interestingly. If you look at all the rich old men that buy Ferrari’s [laughs], for example, you don’t see them just spinning them left, right, and centre – they’re able to keep them on the road. There’s a reason for that: a lot of engineering effort that goes into making these cars handle really well, so that’s an interesting discussion point for us, but we think we’ve captured the essence.
The other thing I’ll say is that it’s very important that we have a lot of professional racing drivers as a part of our development team. There’s seven drivers on our development team who work on the game and work on the handling of the cars. Not only that, but the manufacturers also give us their drivers and they also test their cars in-game.
Off the back of that as well, you talked about how you were able to replicate the actual car handling, but in terms of the sound design perspective, one of the other things I noticed was how incredible it really sounds whether you’re in the cockpit or behind the car – it’s crazy. How did you achieve that?
One thing that is new is that we’ve added sound emitters, so the sound of the exhaust is in 3-dimensional space and comes out from behind the car, and the transmission is also emitting sound, the engine is emitting sound, but they’re in a 3-dimensional space – something that is new from Project Cars 1. You’ll notice that as you move the camera position around, the sound quality changes, or, if you’re in VR, there’s now positional audio. So, if you’re in VR and you hear a car over here beside you, and you look, as you move your head the sound rotates, so that’s a new feature in VR. It’s quite nice – it adds to the immersion.
[Craig did ask if they were using Dolby Atmos as that provides a 360 Degree soundscape, but Rod was unable to confirm. This might be their very own in-engine sound technology.]
One thing I wanted to pick up on was that the driving simulation space isn’t crowded as such, but there are the big players in there; the Xbox has the Forza series (Motorsport and Horizon) and PlayStation has GT Sport coming out. So, on a more personal level or from the studio’s perspective, what made you push down the driving game route in the first place?
Ultimately, we’re car fanatics. We live and breathe cars, right? So those are the only games I work on and you will find me at the racing track on the weekend whether I’ll be working there or not. I just go because I can.
It’s a pure passion for you and the team, then?
A lot of the team are absolutely bonkers about cars, they live and breathe it and that kind of passion has to be there, too. I think you can see that in the game how much passion we have for cars.
Following on from that question, I wanted to ask you what separates Project Cars from the rest of the competition? Would you say that the passion is a big aspect of that and the fact you guys love cars just as much you love video games?
That’s a very hard question because we don’t know those people, so we don’t know what their focal points are. There may be passionate people at those studios as well, so it’s very hard to just look at a list of things and say: “Yeah, we’re better at that… They’re no good at that…”. Everyone has their weak points, their philosophy of what’s important to their title, so it’s very difficult to say: “Yeah, we’re better.” I could sit here dissing [laughs], but it’s not a very good thing to do – we respect what they achieve.
We’re in a unique position because we’re cross-platform. In one respect, we are a mainstream console title. I think the last count was over 2.3 million from Project Cars 1 – it’s a mainstream racing title. But, at the same time, there’s the PC simulation space which is totally different, and that’s where you get into eSports people, you get into racing drivers to participate and practice, you get people that spend £20,000 on their racing setup. I know people who might have 10 different steering wheels, so every car they test they change. I’ve got four different steering wheels, so you change the steering wheel and put it on so that it matches the car you drive, you’ve got gear shift down here… It’s a totally different head space, so being part of the PC simulation world and console makes us different – you can quote me on that.
Our space, because we’re multi-platform and we’re in the PC space, we are trying to be wide and mass-market for racing fans, but also very deep for the deep hardcore simulation where you have triple screen support, VR support, the high-end steering wheels… We have all of these supported, so that’s one thing that definitely separates us from any other major title.
Expanding upon the point you’ve made about being a multi-platform game, we’ve already had the PlayStation 4 Pro out in the wild for a little while, the Xbox One X is fast approaching with its release, and you’ve mentioned about getting onboard with VR as well. In regards to Project Cars 2, how is it going to be enhanced by this new technology?
We’re not actually releasing that information right now in detail, I think you can expect to see that from us shortly.
…but you are going to show support for that new technology and the extra power?
Oh yeah, absolutely! Some of them we’re still benchmarking, but that information is not being released right now because we’re more focused on just getting it out of the door, and then you’ll see some of the tech specs coming out later.
Fantastic! Well, thanks a lot for your time – I appreciate it.