Since this interview was conducted, Bizarre Creations has been acquired by Activision.
After the mad rush to get PGR3 done that preceded the 360 launch, PGR4 has been a bit of a gentler ride. Relatively, anyway. You'd probably be too weak to make it the whole way. But Bizarre is full of strong, masculine characters, like design manager Gareth Wilson and community hero Ben Ward, who sat down with us during a recent visit to the studio to tell us about how the game was made, and - most importantly - how excellent motorbikes are.
Eurogamer: You were quite rushed at the end of PGR 3 and the second half of the game ended up unbalanced. But you seem much happier with this one.
Gareth Wilson: Yes, very much so. We just had a lot more freedom with the game. Starting with a finished product was just such a huge benefit to us. I mean, 360 is fairly straightforward to program on if you've got the final 360. Trying to build it on Apple Mac alpha kits is probably not the best thing. That's what really held us back on PGR3. It was Tron world 'til quite late on, to be honest. So this time around, we had the whole of PGR3 to work with, so if we wanted to try something out we just fired up PGR3 to play it, so that really helped with the prototype. So yeah, much happier.
Eurogamer: Alan [Mealor, lead artist] was saying that the best thing was simply being able to sit back and actually take stock of what you'd been doing.
Gareth Wilson: The biggest improvement in the environments has been the lighting, and a lot of the lighting effects - bar the weather effects, which are new - were in PGR3, but now you've got the completed game you can go back and have a look at how you did everything. You can see it in the PGR3 cities that are in PGR4 - it's the same geometry, but they just look so much better.
Eurogamer: With the handling model, Forza's come out recently and is obviously completely one end of the spectrum, simulation, and the other end is your arcade fantasy racing -
Gareth Wilson: Ridge Racer -
Eurogamer: Yep, and you're somewhere in the middle. How do you come up with a new car's characteristics? Because people do associate your cars with realism, but at the same time there's that element of fantasy.
Gareth Wilson: We make double the work for ourselves, because our physics engine is as complex as any physics engine out there - as complex as GTR's engine or GT's engine or Forza's engine. But we then put a car in with its basic performance characteristics, and it drives like a sim car - it's quite hard to handle and you crash a lot. The next stage is then we have a whole new stage of parameters you get in a Gotham car. So I'd probably say that our actual engine itself is more complicated than other engines. We start with a sim car, and then we make it fun to drive.
That's what we did with the bikes as well. To begin with, in the early development of the bikes, they were more like MotoGP bikes or Tourist Trophy bikes, and that's fine if you're doing Tourist Trophy but we're doing Gotham, so the huge amount of our work was trying to make the bikes handle like Gotham bikes - make them drift, make them endo, make them wheelie, without falling off all the time, make it fairly straightforward to get round corners.
Eurogamer: In terms of introducing the bikes and coming up with a handling model that was Gotham... I can't even get my head round how you would go about doing that!
Gareth Wilson: [Laughs] You have to put in a certain level of control, and with bikes it's predominantly to do with braking and driver balance. In MotoGP they will expose the balance of the rider and the front and the rear brake and then the player has to learn how to use those, whereas in our game we have one brake and the "drifto" button, which is kind of more rear-brake, and extra stuff on top of that.
All of that stuff, we have extra code over the top that makes sure the balance of the rider - that the rider actually moves in a particular way so you won't fall over when he does an endo, or rather it's hard to fall over. Don't get me wrong - you can - but it's not like MotoGP where it's quite easy to fall over, and then we can tune that, so some of the bikes are fairly straightforward so you don't fall off even if you're drifting. Later on, the faster bikes and the harder bikes, they are more simmy in a weird sort of way, so we can control the amount of "simmy-ness" and manipulate that.
Eurogamer: Is it more complicated to make that gradient of skill for a bike than it is for a car?
Gareth Wilson: I wouldn't say so - I'd say the hardest thing about the bikes was to get "the Gotham bike". Once you got the Gotham bike, you could then make variations on the Gotham bike, so you could have the drifty bike, you could have the one that's easier to stunt, you could have the heavy bike, you could have the one with good cornering, but it was getting to the prototype that was most difficulty.
And we had that for PGR. The car which sits in the middle of the vehicle set - something like, I dunno, the Ferrari 599 in PGR4 - which is quite drifty, quite stable, that's the benchmark, and the other cars come off that either way and there will be bookends, so at one end you'll have a super-grippy car like the Mazda RX-8 or a Lotus, and at the other you'll have something like the Camaro, which is an absolute beast and a nightmare to control, but some people love it.
Eurogamer: How do you test things and decide what to change, because you must get an enormous amount of feedback from playtesters?
Gareth Wilson: Yes. We have two ways that we do the playtesting and balancing. We have an internal team, so once the game's getting near to completion we basically hire a load of people - just people off the street [laughs]. People walking past - "hey, do you want to come play this game?"
Ben Ward: They're skilled professionals, come on.
Gareth Wilson: [Laughs] It's generally friends of friends, so it will generally be cousins that are looking for a university gap job between courses or whatever. So we get a lot of people that haven't played the game at all, and we get them to drive or play all of the games and then get them to fill out these great big forms and put it into a big database and analyse trends as opposed to actual data. You have to take a trend. You'll have one tester come up to you one day and say "that platinum is so hard, it's impossible" and then another one will go "that platinum is so easy", but as a trend you can look at 20 people playing it and see that on average that race had more retries than any other race, so it's probably too hard.
That's one thing we do, and then Microsoft are excellent at usability. They have a huge usability lab in Redmond, and you probably read -
Eurogamer: The Wired story about Halo, yep. [Feature story in the current issue.]
Gareth Wilson: With Bungie, yeah. They've got this great big usability lab and they hire people and they put them into these little pods and they have a build, and it's a slightly modified build, and they analyse them behind one-way mirrors and stuff like that. They come back with these quite scientific reports, which will be, again, trends, with good things - because hopefully there are good things - and bad things, which we tend to focus on. It'll say "19 out of 20 didn't understand how to do an endo", and then you'd look at reasons why and work out "oh, we never told them what the control is - duh".