Dan Wagner of I-Imagine

Interview - we talk to I-Imagine boss Dan Wagner about their Xbox stunt driving game Chase

The Xbox has been well served so far when it comes to driving games, ranging from traditional racers like Project Gotham and the almighty Rallisport Challenge to the mission-based antics of Wreckless and the destructive mayhem of Crash. Luckily then I-Imagine's debut game Chase offers something completely different, putting you in the boots of a sassy young stunt driver rising through the ranks of the movie industry. We caught up with the South African developer's managing director Dan Wagner to find out more.

Incubation

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Just a quiet drive in the countryside

"It has always been a dream of mine to start a video game development company", Dan told us, going all misty eyed. "After I graduated from Digipen Canada in 1998 I did a bit of contracting in the US, and eventually returned to South Africa. I found some people who believed in my dream and together we spent a year convincing investors to start I-Imagine. In mid 1999 I-Imagine was born."

Since then they have been working on Chase, but getting a team together to develop the game in South Africa did throw up some problems. "To our knowledge I-Imagine is the only game developer in South Africa. We are certainly the only company in South Africa to hold licenses with Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony for development on their consoles. I think the greatest disadvantage for us here is that we cannot hire people out of other game companies who have extensive experience in the industry. Here we have to train people ourselves. Thankfully there are a lot of bright and enthusiastic people here, and Chase is a testament to that."

While I-Imagine were bringing in talent from overseas and training up local recruits, Dan Wagner headed out to Europe to demo the game at ECTS, Europe's biggest videogames trade show. There he met senior Xbox staffers Kevin Bacus and Seamus Blackley, who were just setting up the Xbox Incubator scheme at the time in an effort to encourage independent developers to design games for their console. "We had a PC demo of our game, which impressed them both. Seamus ended up taking a demo back with him to play at his office, and the rest was history. The Incubator program was helpful in that we were no longer showing a PC demo, we were now showing a demo running on Xbox hardware. This gave [publisher] BAM! confidence that our team could develop for the Xbox console."

Advancing

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Mr Bond, I presume?

Obviously Dan has nothing but nice things to say about the Xbox, which he describes as "a fantastic console to work with". Descending into techno-babble, he added that the development team "literally had self-shadowing and real-time reflection mapping running in a week of work". This isn't just because of the Xbox's legendary ease of use and its mix of familiar tools and hardware, but also the support that Microsoft's Xbox division provides for third party developers.

"The Xbox Advanced Technology Group is always on hand to give you advice", Dan explained. "They know the machine inside out and no matter how much technology you've put in your game, the Xbox ATG Group always has some new ideas to make it better. Having worked with other consoles I can say with certainty that the Xbox is the most developer friendly machine out there."

Aw, bless. With the technical side coming together then, attention could be focused on the actual gameplay. Here Dan and his team turned to some classic stunt-driven movies for inspiration. "Being a James Bond fan it was definitely a big inspiration for any stunt game. Mad Max, Ronin and the original Gone In 60 Seconds were all movies we watched throughout our project."

Points Mean Prizes

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Being chased by a microlite - just one of the jobs you'll get to do in the Mad Max inspired futuristic movie sets

The outcome was four 'movies' which players have to work on during the course of the game, including everything from a Bond-style spy movie to a futuristic action film. All of which adds up to a varied experience. "Driving a sports car down a mountain versus driving a dune buggy on rough terrain makes for a different challenge, and each movie has some new stunts."

"I'm a firm believer in variety in a game. The environments we chose allowed players to drive everything from old style vehicles, through Mad Max style buggies to modern day motorbikes and sports cars. Your standard stunts include barrel roles, flips, spins and driving on two wheels, while movie stunts include riding a motorbike off a canyon and parachuting to safety, racing a train in a gangster convertible, being chased down by a microlite as you escape in your dune buggy and racing down a mountain in a sports car."

"Each scene has multiple objectives that earn you reputation points, which unlock new scenes and new movies, and sometimes you'll have to retake scenes in order to earn enough points to unlock the next one. It's exciting to unlock a new movie, as you not only get to drive in a new vehicle but you also get to drive in a completely different type of environment. As you progress through the game you will also unlock new cars to use in the challenge and multiplayer modes."

Two Of A Kind

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Old school gangster action

Although Chase has been in development for some three years now, it's been beaten to the shelves by the superficially similar Stuntman, which was recently released on the PlayStation 2 in America, and will be out in Europe later in the year. Dan doesn't seem worried about comparisons between the two games though. "With Chase being on a different platform for the moment, I think the awareness for how much fun a stunt-based game can only do us good."

Chase also has a different gameplay dynamic, which Dan believes will help their game stand out, despite Stuntman's higher profile. "Real stunt driving means making one mistake would have the scene cut and you would have to start again. This is the route Stuntman has taken. We went with a more arcadey and fun stunt driving aspect; each scene has multiple objectives and you can do your objectives in any order you want. You don't fail a scene for missing an objective."

This focus on fun over realism also extends to the game's physics, an all-important feature for a stunt driving game. "We have tweaked the physics for a more fun experience, so you won't be caught upside down too often", Dan revealed. "The physics system itself is very realistic and you really get to see it in action on the shocks for the dune buggies."

Conclusion

With Chase expected to appear on shelves across Europe in the second half of September, just a couple of weeks after Stuntman's belated appearance on our side of the pond, we should know soon how the two games stack up. At this stage though we certainly have high hopes for Chase, and as the two games are currently exclusive to different consoles, the world might be big enough for the both of them. In the meantime I-Imagine "is constantly expanding its team and its projects", and although Dan couldn't tell us what any of these projects are, we should be hearing more from South Africa's one and only console game developer in the near future.

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