The PSP has already been a roaring success in Europe since it was released on September 1st. But now that the novelty value has died down slightly, and we've all finished cooing about how wonderful Virtua Tennis is, we could definitely do with some new and original titles made with the PSP specifically in mind. It's all very well taking the games we play at home on the road with us, but they don't always turn out to be the best handheld games.
So maybe that's where Pursuit Force comes in. Designed for the PSP from the ground up by Bigbig Studios, its release next month promises to give owners of the Sony handheld a vehicle-based cops n' robbers action spectacular that name-checks everything from R-Type to Burnout. But in the lead-up to us delivering a full, in-depth account of what we think of Sony's next big PSP release, why not read on and find out what Jonathan Webb, MD of Bigbig and producer of the game, had to say for himself...
Eurogamer: Firstly, tell us a bit about the team, Bigbig Studios - how did come into being, and what games have you worked on previously?
Jonathan Webb: Bigbig Studios was founded by four ex-Codemasters employees who’d previously worked on both the Colin McRae Rally and TOCA Touring Car series. We founded the company in May 2001 with assistance from Evolution Studios. When we started Pursuit Force at the beginning of 2004 and we’ve grown to over 20 people, all working on Pursuit Force.
Eurogamer: Who came up for the concept behind Pursuit Force, and was it always conceived as a handheld-only game? How long has it been in development?
Jonathan Webb: The base concept for Pursuit Force originated from discussions we had here at Bigbig along the lines of "wouldn’t it be great to do some of the cool action sequence you see in movies" and "wouldn’t it be nice if you could change vehicle in certain games without having to stop and get out". Everyone remembers great action sequences from Indiana Jones and James Bond. We wanted to take some of these concepts and put the player at the heart of them. We focused on the key elements of jumping from vehicle to vehicle and fighting on vehicles.
The core idea behind Pursuit Force - being able to leap from vehicle to vehicle was implemented about a year before we’d heard of the PSP. At the time we were working on another game concept which included vehicle jumping as a small part of the gameplay. Later, with Sony’s input, we moved the concept into a "cops ‘n’ robbers" scenario and focused on the vehicle jumping as one of the main gameplay features. It was at this time that we also looked to the PSP as the ideal platform for the game.
In taking the concept forward (starting at the beginning of 2004), the game was designed and developed with the PSP in mind. Everything from the length of the missions to the control system took the PSP into consideration. This is a PSP product through and through.
Eurogamer: For those that have missed out on the pre-release build-up, what's the game about? If I was standing in Game looking for a new PSP game, what would you say? Could you compare it to other games? How?
Jonathan Webb: Pursuit Force is a high-octane, vehicle-based action game. You take the role of a new recruit in the recently created Pursuit Force police division, set in a fictitious US state. As the sole member of Pursuit Force it’s your job to take down the five most lethal criminal gangs that are running amok in the state.
Each level of the game involves taking on one of the gangs in a mixture of action scenarios. The emphasis is on driving, vehicle combat and using our unique vehicle-jump gameplay mechanic but there are also on-foot and first-person, helicopter-gunner sections. The key thing we want the player to get from the game is the feeling of fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled gameplay.
For example, in a single mission you might find yourself chasing gang vehicles down the freeway and attacking them at range, then leaping from your car to theirs and fighting the criminals at close quarters to capture their vehicle. Later you may be picked up by the helicopter and destroying the remaining criminal vehicles with the helicopter’s Raptor cannon.
Each gang has their own unique vehicles; for example, the Convicts build theirs from spare parts - attaching iron plates and oversized exhausts and replacing glass with wire mesh. They also have their own weapons and attacks, and are headed up by a boss character who must eventually be taken out. The cop also has access to his own vehicles and weapons. There are over fifty vehicles in the game - sportscars, motorbikes, SUVs, speedboats, helicopters and more.
We’ve taken influences from games ranging from R-Type and Chase HQ to Burnout and GTA to create a fast paced driving/shoot-em-up. I suppose in simple terms you could call it "Burnout with guns".
Eurogamer: From what we know about the game so far, there are 30 missions, right? What's the split between on foot, in-car and in-chopper action?
Jonathan Webb: Yes. There are thirty missions (or cases, as we like to say) in the main career mode of the game. The majority of the action is driving-based mixed with fighting on vehicles. The on-foot sections occur in about a 1/3 of the cases but are relatively small sections which provide a nice breather from the intense pace of the rest of the game. The chopper sections occur in slightly fewer cases but are generally longer. Again, the mixture is there to fuel the movie-like gameplay.
Eurogamer: How long will it take to play the game from start to finish?
Jonathan Webb: That depends on how good you are! We’ve intentionally made the game quite tricky as the missions are only about 4-5 minutes long on average. We wanted to provide a challenge and didn’t want players to breeze through it. I guess it might take a few hours to complete once you’ve mastered the game. So, there should be a good 20 plus hours of continuous gaming in there (especially if you account for the additional game modes).
Eurogamer: The light-hearted characters seem like quite a big focus. What were the inspirations here?
Jonathan Webb: We knew we we’re designing an arcade-style game so we looked to bold, bright references such as Time Crisis and Outrun. We also referenced action movies to give us inspiration for characters that could evoke some familiarity (e.g. Con Air, The Rock, Lethal Weapon).This led to a comic-book, slightly-less-than-serious feel which permeated the game all the way through to the character dialogue.
Eurogamer: Which part of the game do you think works best, and why?
Jonathan Webb: It’s difficult to pick any one area but we’re pleased that the vehicle jumping has worked out well. It took a few prototypes to get right and a fair amount of tweaking throughout the project. It’s well cool when you do a slow-motion "justice jump", firing your weapon through the roof of a target vehicle as you go!
Eurogamer: Why did you choose to make the game only on PSP - why not do a PS2 version and port to PSP? Any plans to do a PS2 port later?
Jonathan Webb: The decision to make the game on PSP was taken for two main reasons:
Firstly, the game is a new intellectual property (IP) and a new platform is known to be the best place to establish a new IP - it’s notoriously difficult to market something new in a sales environment dominated by many well established and/or licensed IPs such as Grand Theft Auto, FIFA, Need for Speed, etc.
Secondly, we just had a good feeling about how the game might work on a handheld.
Eurogamer: A lot of PSP games sound great in theory, and then you get them on the road and find out that they're not really suited to the bite-sized demands of handheld gaming. How, do you think, does Pursuit Force cope with this issue?
Jonathan Webb: The game is designed from the outset with the PSP in mind. The screen is small compared to a TV so we went for a bright, clear graphical style. We wanted the player’s actions to be easy to achieve so they could feel like a skilled, acrobatic, cop - this really fitted with the smaller number of buttons than your average console controller. Our missions last just a few minutes. That’s pretty bite-sized. (Though, even when they’re completed you can go back to try and achieve higher grades and unlockables.) The game allows you to have bursts of play or longer sessions if you want it.
Eurogamer: Are there any plans to make a Pursuit Force game on PS3?
Jonathan Webb: We’re pretty proud of what we’ve achieved on the PSP and wouldn’t want to simply throw away that knowledge and leave it behind. The PSP is a hugely impressive piece of kit and the guys here at Bigbig, during the course of making Pursuit Force, have already found new ways of squeezing even more out of this box of tricks. At the moment our focus is delivery Pursuit Force for other SCE divisions.
Eurogamer: How have you found developing for the PSP so far? What are the good and not so good things about the format? Bias aside...
Jonathan Webb: Generally it’s a relatively easy platform to develop on. "Out of the Box" you can get up and running pretty quickly.
Obviously the graphical quality isn’t quite up there will the latest generation PS2 title but you don’t really notice that because the screen is so vibrant and fluid and the hardware has some great features such as curved surfaces and stencil buffering. At one time we were concerned about memory size but it didn’t work out too badly - we have to load in chunks of the environment as you drive through it. However, we’re not constantly streaming data in so we’re not hitting the battery life as much as we might be.
Eurogamer: One of the biggest challenges currently seems to be getting the load times down - tell us how you've managed to overcome this hurdle?
Jonathan Webb: I agree. We pretty much use up all the available memory the PSP has to give (what with any one missions needs a wide range of speech, animation, different characters and vehicles, and environments which can stretch up to 20km). For this reason we needed to use numerous techniques to minimise the size of our game assets whilst keeping them looking as visually impressive as possible. From geometry compression to curved surfaces, all these technique were used to minimise the amount of memory they took up. Obviously the less memory they take up the less time they take to load into memory.
We also looked into the best way to use the UMD drive. As with any optical drive, seeking for files is a time consuming process and the UMD drive is no different. In Pursuit Force, there is very little disk seeking (moving the UMD head back and forwards across the disk to load up different game files). Taking this into account can, in some cases, half loading times.
There’s another benefit to reduced loading times. Less UMD access means less drain on the battery and, as with any handheld system, this can only be a good thing.
Eurogamer: Wireless multiplayer is obviously a big plus for the PSP - how have you taken advantage of this feature in Pursuit Force?
Jonathan Webb: There is no multiplayer in Pursuit Force. We took this decision early on as we knew we had a big task on our hands with an original concept containing new and untried game mechanics. We wanted to concentrate on making those elements as good as possible in the time available. However, now we’ve got a good foundation in place we can now explore the many multiplayer ideas we have in our future products.
Eurogamer: Technically, how hard is PF pushing the PSP? What sort of compromises have you had to make during development, and why?
Jonathan Webb: We think we’re pushing it pretty hard. We’ve squeezed a lot of graphics, physics, AI, animation, etc. in there without hitting the frame-rate too severely. However, it is essentially a first-generation title for the machine and as with any console it will continue to have its limits pushed and pushed during its lifetime. We would expect to be doing more with any PSP game we do in future.
Eurogamer: Thanks for your time.