Keep on truckin'

We chat to Eutechnyx's Kev Shaw, the man behind Big Mutha Truckers...

British games development may have had a tough time of late, but the boys up at Eutechnyx have carved themselves a respectable niche as a specialist driving games developer, working with the biggest names in the business. But after the redneck truckin' rampage that was Big Mutha Truckers we were somewhat surprised to find that the game's lead designer wasn't in fact a confederate flag-waving hick, but actually a softly spoken Geordie... how bizarre is that?

Kristan Reed: Eutechnyx is well known for its driving games - 007 Racing, Le Mans 24 Hours, F1 - you obviously work a lot with licensed properties. How does the license process work in practice?

Kev Shaw: A publisher generally approaches us with License X and asks us to develop a game based around it. Some are more obvious, like F1 or Le Mans 24 Hours, but others, like James Bond, required considerable reflection to come up with a concept that was both true to the license but also created an exciting experience for the games player. Obviously, it was going to be James Bond driving the amazing Bond cars, but unlike something as cut and dry as F1 - where you know which teams, which drivers and which tracks are involved - it takes an additional amount of work to create a design that's new and different but also remains true to the Bond "spirit."

Kristan Reed: What appeals to you about working with licensed properties?

Kev Shaw: Every license brings something different with it, but the main bonus is that you're working on something that's instantly recognisable to gamers. A license like F1 broadens the appeal of your game beyond the die-hard racing games fans and brings in the fans of F1 who happen to also own a console. The converse may also be true that people develop an interest for the real life event based on their knowledge of a computer game. No disrespect intended, but in my experience, people associate Colin McRae with "the guy from the rally games" and not "the rally driver".

When you're working with a real life brand like Toyota or Mazda their presence in the game not only makes the game more rewarding and a more realistic experience for the player, but it also adds legitimacy to your game. What I mean is that your game is of a high enough quality for these big manufacturers to agree to use the likeness of their valuable property in your game.

And when it's a license you're particularly interested in - like 007 Racing was (I'm a big Bond fan) - then I think the appeal is pretty evident!

Kristan Reed: But there's just got to be a downside...

Kev Shaw: You'd expect there to be a lot of limitations, but that's not really the case. If you're going to all the trouble of getting the Le Mans license, for example, then you add missile launchers to the cars you're missing the point of a license. When we work on a licensed title we always stay true to the original "source material", otherwise why bother in the first place?

Because of that, we've never had any problems with any licensees -if you want to do a survival horror game, then you don't acquire the Teletubbies license! [That would be good -Tom]

The only real problem is one of approval but even that isn't too bad - usually! When you work with a license, the license holder is given approval over whichever elements of their property appear in the game. So, for example, Manufacturer X is sent images of the cars as they appear in game and, if they don't like the way they're represented, then you have to modify them to suit their requirements. That can be quite time consuming and it's one of those things you can't do until you're almost at the end of the development cycle, so our art team often have to put in some extra hours on little fixes like this.

Usually the model is absolutely accurate, but when scaled down it needs to be changed away from reality to give the perception of reality.

Kristan Reed: What are the current challenges in the industry? What are publishers asking for? Are they interested in ideas being pitched to them or are they specific about what they are looking for?

Kev Shaw: Publishers are looking for a game that will give them return on their investment. Despite what some developers may claim, we're not producing art - we're producing consumer products with a limited shelf life and a limited window of opportunity for sales.

I'm not saying you can't produce a game that is art, too - the two aren't mutually exclusive - but the fact of the matter is that a good developer knows when to stop being all arty and can get their game finished on time. That's what publishers like.

But that's also the biggest challenge at the moment - you never have as much time as you'd like to produce a game. The average game takes 12 to 18 months to develop, so you always have to try to predict what your competitor's games are going to be like and then out-do them. That can be tough and it means you often add or modify sections of the game to keep up. But if you don't impose limits on what you're doing, you'd never get it finished.

I'm not saying you compromise your game's quality or "vision" - you just make sure you're pitching a sensible idea in a sensible timescale and you behave in a professional manner. Don't go in a hissy fit because a publisher wants to "compromise your creative vision" - get on and do it and get it done in time. You can be as arty as you want if you're unemployed.

In terms of the pitch, the process is usually that the publisher approaches us with an idea they'd like us to develop for them. Outside of a few specifics, the publisher then leaves it up to the developer as to what's actually in there. That's not to say publishers aren't interested in the game content or ideas, but rather that they trust us to do what we do best.

Kristan Reed: What does your job entail?

Kev Shaw: I'm an ideas man. Usually what happens is a publisher approaches Eutechnyx with an idea for a game or with an existing license and asks us to put together a proposal for a game based around that concept. My initial involvement is turning that spark into an actual design proposal, working out what the player's objectives will be, what features should be incorporated, what will be exciting, different and interesting about this game - the list is endless.

Once we have approval on the proposal, my job is then to expand this initial concept into a full design, covering everything from what I call "mechanical design", such as menus, progression, controller configurations and so on, right up to higher level stuff like dialogue, on-screen descriptions, character development, locations etc. And I also write the manual, although nobody ever reads it...

Kristan Reed: Is it any easier now post PS2? Is it harder or easier to get games signed?

Kev Shaw: There's always a lot of competition out there, but we are happy with how it's going. We're approaching the completion of Street Racing Syndicate and the US/Japanese versions of Big Mutha Truckers, and we have just signed a new game for a prestigious publisher known for their driving games - more news on this soon.

Post PS2, contractual negotiations are now getting longer - we usually allocate six months from the initial meeting to getting a signature on a contract. Eutechnyx has a good reputation amongst publishers, based on excellent products being developed with a professional attitude.

Kristan Reed: Do you think Eutechnyx will always be known for driving games?

Kev Shaw: It's something we decided to concentrate on a number of years ago, as we are all car mad, we wanted publishers to know Eutechnyx as a driving games specialist and it's paid off very well for us. After all, why go to a "jack of all trades" when you could go to a specialist?

However, the boundaries between genres are becoming blurred - all of our new products are character-based, and as much action takes place outside of the vehicle as in it.

Kristan Reed: Which game design are you proudest about and why?

Kev Shaw: Although I'm very proud of the design, I'm very, very proud of the script work I did on Big Mutha Truckers. Our intention was always to have a script that worked on a couple of levels - not in an arty, pretentious manner, but in a double entendre fashion, so the younger players would laugh at the silly voices and funny characters, but older players would think 'did he just say what I think he said…?'

Despite the fact that there are some pretty lowbrow gags in there, some of them are quite subtle, too, so it has a very broad appeal. I also think it's also a bit subversive in places - but don't tell anybody that...

It's also travelled well and we've received numerous compliments from American colleagues on how we managed to create a script that encapsulated American humour (humor?) so well.

Bud Tucker in Double Trouble (1995) was another design I was particularly pleased with. It was a PC point-and-click adventure based in a cartoony world and the puzzles had their own kind of quirky logic. But at the end of the day they were still logical in a warped way, something that was quite a challenge to achieve.

Kristan Reed: So what's the feature you are most proud of?

Kev Shaw: The dialogue structure in Big Mutha Truckers is one of my proudest achievements. In the game, players choose one of four characters to play as, and then they can converse with any of the 25 Non-Player Characters in any order, so we had to set up a system where the dialogue was completely non-linear. We not only managed to do that, but also scripted dialogue that was interesting and didn't just come off as being "fluff" text.

Kristan Reed: What technology are you inspired by in terms of the competition that's out there?

Kev Shaw: Despite the fact that Eutechnyx are a very technology-led company, I personally am very rarely impressed by technology for technology's sake. I've seen too many games being hyped on the strength of how many polygons per second they're pushing or whatever. If you look at some of the best games over the last few years, you'll see that the average gamer (thankfully) looked for intriguing design, depth of playability or engrossing gameplay over "pure" technology.

Kristan Reed: You mentioned Eutechnyx' technology. What technology do you use? Do you prefer to use middleware or do you create your own proprietary technology?

Kev Shaw: Our technology is for the most part developed in-house. We have our own proprietary renderer and physics engine, simply because - once it's written - it's much easier and more effective to modify your own code than try to use somebody else's. Having said that, though, we use MathEngine's Karma for some of our lower-level collision detection stuff - that has "visual physics" rather than "gameplay affecting physics", if you follow my meaning.

Kristan Reed: Do you think that Eutechnyx can compete with the best in the market?

Kev Shaw: Let's put it this way - our latest product and publisher signing will make a lot of people sit up and take notice...

Kristan Reed: Grand Theft Auto is one of the most popular driving games, is Eutechnyx aiming to develop a game as ambitious as that or are you are being more concentrated?

Kev Shaw: Non-linearity for non-linearity's sake isn't really a good idea. In other words, it depends what kind of game you're working on. A plot-driven title has to remain quite focused - even GTA and Vice City are very linear when it comes to their plots. That's not to take anything away from the guys at Rockstar North - I'm a big fan of its games.

What I mean is that if you look at those titles, they give you Plot Point 1 then the opportunity to progress to Plot Point 2 or the chance to shoot people, steal cars or generally muck about. But you don't get to Plot Point 3 until you get past Plot Point 2. There's nothing wrong with that of course. After all, the plot wouldn't make much sense if it were done in any other way!

Anyway, going back to my point, if you're doing a licensed game based around, say, Formula One racing, you tend to be focused on the things that make it F1: the teams, the drivers, the tracks and so on. In a sense, because each season is a kind of plot, your F1 game will be quite linear and focused.

On the other hand, our last release, Big Mutha Truckers, was a very non-linear and broad-scoped game, yet it only really had two plot points - the start and the end. How you progressed to the end was pretty much up to you.

So to answer the question, it depends entirely upon the subject matter and whether it lends itself to a wider scope or a more concentrated style of gameplay.

Kristan Reed: What are the high and low spots of your career in games design?

Kev Shaw: High spots... Directing Rik Mayall in Bud Tucker in Double Trouble was pretty cool. I was trying to be so professional about it, but here I was sitting in a room with a guy who'd basically influenced me and all my friends from the age of about 12!

Auditioning dancers for Street Racing Syndicate was a fun experience, too. Basically, we had a room full of pole dancers, podium dancers and lap dancers all gyrating away and we had to pick the best movers… tough job!

I think the lowest spot is when you get an unjustly low score in a magazine because a reviewer hasn't invested the time to play your game properly and just gives an off the cuff score based on his or her limited experience of the first level of the game, or because they don't understand what your game is about.

A lot of people presume Big Mutha Truckers is like 18 Wheeler because they both feature trucks, but nothing could be further from the truth. Big Mutha Truckers is closer to something like Elite, as it's a non-linear, drive anywhere kind of game that's heavily trade/resource management focused. It's quite a broad concept, but because of that, a lot of reviewers haven't "got" what it's about and because it wasn't what they were expecting, it's received some unfair reviews. I always find it ironic that many games journalists berate developers for not producing original games, but when they're presented with one, because it's not a carbon copy of an existing title, they don't get it! Thankfully the reviewers who took the time to play it and understand it, love it.

I don't think some reviewers realise how much damage they can do to a game's chances if they award an unfair review - 18 month's worth of work by 50 people can be written off in an hour if a reviewer doesn't "get" what your game is about or is too lazy to bother playing it beyond the title screen.

I'm not saying that bad games deserve good reviews, merely that no game deserves a bad reviewer. Sit and play my game for a good couple of hours. If, at the end of that, you don't like it, then that's fine, just tell me why you don't like it. But don't play it for 10 minutes then spend the rest of the day coming up with "amusing" ways to demolish it in print. A review should inform as well as entertain and let the buyer make an informed judgement. And a reviewer who hates everything and is impressed by nothing must be in the wrong job - c'mon guys! It's games! They're all about having fun...!

Anyway, that's my rant over...

Kristan Reed: Moving swiftly on... If you could have designed any other game currently on the market, which would it have been and why?

Kev Shaw: I'd probably say either EverQuest, as I'd love to garner all those $15 a month subscriptions or The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. An older title, I know, but it's an absolutely beautiful game...

Kristan Reed: What's your all time favourite game?

Kev Shaw: I'm hard pressed to select a single one, as I tend to play different games according to my mood. Manic Miner on the Spectrum is one that I have very fond memories of, as it was one of the first really good games I ever played.

I'm also an EverQuest fan but I have something of a love/hate relationship with it. The game's open-ended structure and level progression are great, plus interacting with all those other players from all over the globe is pretty cool, but it does become repetitive at higher levels and it can become a bit of a drudge.

And as I said before, Zelda: the Ocarina of Time is a particular favourite, too, simply because it was such an experience. Not only are the game mechanics spot-on and the design perfect - just witness some of the Boss Battles - but it also engages you on an emotional level, something few games manage to do.

Kristan Reed: Which games are you currently playing?

Kev Shaw: EverQuest. As always.

Ratchet & Clank, Aggressive Inline, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Project Zero and Eternal Darkness. I jump from game to game, depending on what mood I'm in.

Kristan Reed: Who do you most admire in the industry and why?

Kev Shaw: Shigeru Miyamoto. I know everybody says that, but unlike most popular things, he's popular for a good reason. The man is an absolute genius when it comes to game design. He innovates without alienating his audience and he just has such a knack for getting it right.

Kristan Reed: How is Eutechnyx shaping up in the current economic climate facing the UK development scene? Has Eutechnyx had to slim its head count?

Kev Shaw: Quite the opposite - we're actually recruiting and expanding. I think our astute management, a serious attitude to development and wise contract choices have set is in good stead. We also have a policy of giving the publisher what they want and not what we think they should have. Publishers tend to like this.

As I said, Eutechnyx have been developing games for over 16 years - you don't last that long without making the right decisions.

Kristan Reed: You can't just spend your day designing games. What else do you do at Eutechnyx?

Kev Shaw: Depending which hat I'm wearing, I'm Lead Designer, QA Supervisor and Communications Manager (that's a disguise for saying I'm a PR guy!).

Kristan Reed: Finally, what can we expect to see from Eutechnyx in the coming year?

Kev Shaw: We're currently in the final stages of developing Street Racing Syndicate for 3DO. It's an illegal street racing game, but that's like saying Wagner's Ring Cycle is just a few people having a bit of a sing. The point of SRS is to recreate a whole lifestyle, not just produce a racing game, so players can fit upgrades to their cars, receive emails from rivals and their crewmates, and even acquire virtual girlfriends - who not only give tips on other drivers and secret races, but also send you the occasional saucy email, complete with real life FMV. The girlfriends are played by a lot of former Playboy Playmates and Maxim cover girls, so the sauce factor is pretty high there...

We're also working on another project, but my lips are sealed on that one...

Kev Shaw is the Lead Designer at Eutechnyx. During his 12-year tenure, Kev has designed games such as F1 World Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours, Max Power Racing, 007 Racing and Big Mutha Truckers. As well as designing games Kev also writes dialogue and in-game scripts.

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