Martin Edmondson on Driv3r: "The strength of criticism took us aback"
- Driver: San Francisco
Read part 1 of our Martin Edmondson interview, where Martin gives us the lowdown on the development of the original Driver.
Continuing our interview about Driver's heritage with Reflections founder Martin Edmondson , when it came to the first sequel it’s clear that Reflections wanted to expand Driver and get the Wheelman out of the car, a feat that had not been attempted before in a 3D driving game.
Unfortunately, the ageing PlayStation was clearly past its prime at this point and Driver 2 suffered from these technical limitations. You therefore have to wonder how Driver 2 would have panned out if it was developed for PlayStation 2, which was launched to the market the same year.
“It certainly would have been better if we developed it for PS2 because we would have more power,” says Martin Edmondson. “We were already pushing the PlayStation very hard with Driver 1, but we wanted to expand it and make it more interesting, so it was a very obvious way to go to have Tanner get out of the car, walk around and get into other cars. But it was always supposed to be a light touch – it wasn’t supposed to be an in-depth gameplay mechanic, it was just a way of changing cars when you’re driving around. You could also flick switches and things but very simple stuff.”
“It was just technically a step perhaps too far. It was just churning that CD drive so hard that it was always on the edge of dropping frames all the time and that spoilt some of the fluidity.” And he’s right: you only have to play Driver 1 and 2 to recognise that Driver 2 has a significant frame rate dip compared to its predecessor. It makes the abundant popup of Driver 1 seem trivial by comparison.
However, this wasn’t the only reason for Driver 2’s technical misgivings. “It was a very tight development time – the publisher wanted it within a year, so we had just over a year (I think it came out during the Thanksgiving period) so very little time.”
That’s not to say that Driver 2 was an unmitigated disaster, however. Far from it in fact, as it added several new and innovative features. “We also added proper curved roads instead of just 90 degree turns, overpasses and a looping spooling vehicle system – as you were driving along you’d see different types of cars. I thought the cut scenes were fantastic, the music was great and it was a much more cohesive story that flowed well. Driver 1’s story suffered a bit from ‘oh we had to take that mission out’ so the story was a bit tricky to follow.”
With Driver 2 clearly restricted by the limitations of the console, a PC release would have possibly rectified these issues. As it stands, Driver 2 remains the only Driver game to date which has not seen a PC release, which is puzzling.
“That sort of thing is a publisher decision rather than a developer decision”, Martin affirms. “We could have done it but the PC market at the time wasn’t particularly strong and certainly not very strong with Driver games, so the effort involved in producing it was judged by the publisher not to be a cost effective investment to develop. Plus if we did that it would have defocused us developing for the PlayStation version which was the most important.”
Unfortunately for Driver 2, Rockstar released the ground-breaking GTA 3 was released only a year later to universal acclaim and fascination, which brought 3D city driving and free-roaming action to an unprecedented scale. You could therefore say the timing was unfortunate, since Driver previously had the upper hand when GTA was still in 2D. “Timing wise, GTA came out after Driver 2 but before Driver 3 so it had the advantage of the newer generation of hardware, which obviously frees you to do a whole ton of things,” says Martin.
“Driver 2 came out and was the first to have getting out of the car in a very limited way and then GTA 3 came out which had getting out of the car in an enormously broad way. In fact, driving was not a very big focus of GTA. And then Driver 3 came out. We had already planned on expanding the out of car action but for us it was always about the driving rather than the on-foot.”
This in-turn sparked something of a rivalry between both Rockstar and Reflections, who took jabs at each other at every opportunity in each successive Driver and GTA release. It started with GTA 3’s “Two-faced Tanner” mission, but quickly intensified with Driv3r’s Timmy Vermicelli parodies of Vice City’s chief protagonist Tommy Vercetti, only for Rockstar to retaliate again in San Andreas by asking “How could Refractions screw up so badly?”
“I like to think it was good natured, it certainly was from our point of view. But yes, it was an obvious distinction to make,” Martin jests. “We have cars in the city and getting out of the car and GTA obviously has that too. I still maintain it’s a very different game. It got compared but we were always about car chases and car chase movies and the movie experience such as with the Film Director. But journalists would tend to take those key pillars of the design and compare them.”
This is no more true than with the release of Driv3r, which is undoubtedly a sore point for Martin, with its stupid spelling and all. Driv3r sustained a brutal beating of critical backlash amid a torrent of anticipation when it came on the scene in 2004 in a less than road-worthy state, and is generally considered to be one of the most disappointing sequels of all time.
The reason for its downfall was universal with the critics: Tanner resembled a constipated crab wallowing with arthritis on-foot. Martin speaks frankly about Driv3r’s shortcomings: “With Driver 3 we just didn’t get the on-foot stuff finished, there’s no doubting that. When you look at the game you can tell there were quite a lot of bugs.”
Despite this, the development team were still genuinely taken aback by some of the more vengeful critics who completely laced the game. “I was surprised because we did get quite a few good reviews. There was all sorts of nonsense about us bundling envelopes full of cash to publications – they just liked the game and it was as simple as that! I still get interviewed by all sorts of magazines and websites who say ‘I really enjoyed it.’ They had tons of fun with it and they loved the Film Director. Given the out of car problems, I think scores of 9/10 was generous but I was seeing reviews of 1 and 2 out of 10 which was completely ridiculous,” Martin muses.
“The out of car stuff was a bit raggy and unfinished, and it should have been, there’s no excuse for that, but it wasn’t that bad. It should have been marked down for the out of car sections but you didn’t spend that much time out of the car – it was a predominately driving game. The people who really disliked it strongly disliked it, so I think the strength of the criticism took us aback, but the fact it was criticised didn’t surprise us because out of the car was clearly unfinished.”
Driver fans were quick to defend the third instalment, however. While the on-foot clearly left a lot to be desired and was rightfully lambasted, Driv3r’s other merits were often left unaccredited. Driver was always predominately about the driving, and in this regard you couldn’t say that Driv3r didn’t deliver.
“I was very happy with the driving: there were good car dynamics that had the classic Driver feel. I think the cars looked good and the environments looked really nice and interesting to explore with Nice up into the hills and Istanbul – the cut scenes were great, the music was great and the damage was cutting edge. All that was good, but the out of car sections really let it down, especially if you had been playing GTA where there was lots to do,” Martin admits.
“I think if you played GTA and played all the missions then you were expecting Driver 3 to take those out of car sections and be be even bigger and more amazing then you were clearly going to be disappointed because they weren’t even finished.”
“This is what irritated me about the some of the crazy reviews because you’re not acknowledging a lot of good stuff if you say that. When you sit down to review a game, if there’s anything in there that you really don’t like, if you’re professional about it then you would comment on it and mark it down for that particular thing, but you wouldn’t let it annoy you so much that the whole thing becomes an angry review.”
Driv3r’s demise proved to be a steep learning curve for Reflections and Martin Edmondson decided not to become involved in the next Driver game, Parallel Lines. “It made me think ‘I don’t want to be in a situation where the game is being released whether it’s finished or not.’ It’s a soul destroying position to be in when you’ve spent a lot of time on something but it’s not finished when given enough time it would be finished, but no, doesn’t matter what, that’s the date it’s got to go. And you end up puttling half-finished stuff out,” reflects Martin.
“There’s always a little element of that with games but to push something out that’s not finished: it’s about being absolutely clear from the beginning what the development schedule is, that you’re not going to be up against it right from day one and that you’re going to have the time to finish it properly.”
“The other thing it taught us was the importance of focus. There was time spent on things that were pretty irrelevant. The bikes for example were a nice addition but took a lot of time to get right. Again, Tanner running around needed a lot more time so we should have been clear about the focus.”
“If you’re going to do running around there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I wouldn’t even say Driver should never have running around – we might possibly do that again at some point in the future but the one thing it taught us was spend the time efficiently and make sure you have enough to do it properly. I don’t know how long we spent getting it so that Tanner can jump into the water and swim across the bay in Miami for example – it seems like a small thing but it took time and that time could have been invested in something more beneficial to the game as a whole.”
My personal peeve wasn’t any of this, however. During the development time, the game was simply known as “Driver 3” but a last minute change saw it renamed to the godawful “Driv3r” at a time when being “l33t” was the in-thing to do on the interweb.
“That was somebody clever in marketing who decided that it was a ‘cool’ thing to do”, says Martin despairingly. “As a development team we were not for it and thought it was a bit tacky. It was a nuisance for everyone because if you’re typing the game, what do you do? You’ve got to do that stupid thing and it’s annoying. It was a needless and pointless thing to do that made life difficult for everyone. The only thing was we said ‘listen if we do a Driver 4 it can’t be DrIVer’.” So there you have it, even the developers were against the abominable misspelling alongside the critics and public alike.
With Driver accumulating a somewhat colourful history when it comes to sequels, can Driver: San Francisco redeem the fledging franchise after a five year hiatus? Find out in our exclusive hands-on.
This article was originally published on Drivinggamespro.com.
Words by Martin Bigg (Twitter: @drivinggamespro)
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