Q&A: Black Rock Tricks Out, Gets Agile With Pure

With the well-received offroad racer Pure debuting this week from Disney-owned Black Rock Studios, game director Jason Avent talks to Gamasutra about agile development and the con
The well-received offroad racer Pure is debuting this week from Disney-owned Black Rock Studios, game director Jason Avent talks to Gamasutra about agile development and the concept of story in racing games. Black Rock Studios has its roots in racing titles -- formerly Climax Racing, its team developed both the Moto GP and ATV Offroad Fury franchises, and was acquired by Disney in late 2006. It's just now debuting its first Disney-published Pure for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which combines speed racing with trick racing, with game mechanics that make the two elements interdependent on each other. Thus, Black Rock's Avent recently spoke to Gamasutra about the unique challenges in developing a race title with so many elements incorporated in it -- especially for a developer with a background in slightly more realistic titles. You guys have been doing agile development since the Climax Racing days; is that correct? JA: Aspects of it. We started off with aspects of it in Moto GP '06; they ran it a bit in Moto GP '07; we didn't do it, really, on ATV. So this is the first product, really, that we've really braced it and structured the teams completely differently around it. So now, rather than having a quarter of the room full of programmers, a quarter of the room full of managers, quarter of the room full of designers, and the rest of them artists, now we have functional units. We'll have the presentation team that [works on] the front end, the HUD, aspects of special effects, and networking -- because the lobbies, and the front-end, that's where most of the work is. You've got these kind-of autonomous units, so you set the overall goal over three months, they say what they're going to do each month, and you get to the overall goal. And they define how they do the work, and what work they do, and what order. That means that because they're closest to the work, closest to the jobs that need doing, they make better decisions than the people who are further away. So it makes people happier, it makes people much more productive, it means they don't have to work such long hours, and the product is better. It's such a hands-off management method, it does make you bite your fingernails a bit, initially, but once you see the results, it's huge. Each of the different groups has a couple of programmers in it, a couple of artists, a couple of artists, a couple of designers -- depending on the needs of that group, and who the group [is]. And also, you keep it fairly flexible, so you've got these main groups, but if you've got a specific job for a specific milestone, then you don't mind breaking the groups up so that they can do their own thing, and, you know: I'll have that guy from here, that guy from there, and I go in and solve this problem. And it's working well for you? JA: It's really, really, really good. I mean, working with Disney means that we're lucky in that we have the freedom to do this. As an independent developer with lots of different publishers, trying to do this would've been pretty much impossible. But Disney is very understanding, because, I think, they're a very creatively-led company; because they come from Walt Disney, and making films and things. We've had a lot of creative freedom; we've been able to say that these are our focuses, and they've backed us up and provided the support wherever we need it. So, it's been really, really, really good. It can be difficult, with traditional milestones, sometimes, to work into new production. JA: Right. Even how long the milestones are are usually dictated to you, you know? And the order, and what's delivered in each one... And the thing is, I've just said that I'm not close enough to make task decisions and mechanical decisions -- and I work at the developer on the project, you know? If you don't work at the developer, and you work at the publisher, and you've got five projects, you can't make those decisions in an educated way, nowhere near as good as the programmer who's working on it, who's been working on it for years. So yeah, it makes it really difficult if you're working with that; especially if you're working with lots of different publishers, because everybody's got different views; everybody's got a different mechanism. What do you have to do differently when you're building tech specifically for racing, like your engine? JA: Well, that's why we did it. We specialize in racing games because it means you can develop a really strong technology base; you don't have to be dependent on something like RenderWare who can get bought by somebody else, and suddenly you've not got an engine. You try and predict what games you're working on; especially when you do get to have some say in what games you're going to work on, you can make sure that your two paths for two games converge; you can share technology much more that way. So there are huge benefits that way. Huge benefits. The main things are that there are things that you don't have to focus on, you know? So you can focus purely on the things that are going to matter for a racing game. So, we have some height-field technology, and we blend it together with some polygon technology, so that's why our environments can look so rich -- we've got the best of both worlds. So that technology has been built up from probably three generations before. And we've been able to keep that line of evolution, because we only work on racing games. And we don't need to plan lots of character-to-character interactions; we don't need lots of really complicated cut-scenes and stuff; you focus on what a racing game needs. Do you ever feel constrained by racing, and want to go beyond it? JA: Sometimes. But, I think, in a creative industry, it's good to have a framework, so you can define the problems. You were talking about if players get off the track, the game puts them back on; is that how you're keeping people from breaking the world and getting outside of things? JA: Well, during development, we actually had a mode called Free Ride, and inside Free Ride, there were lots of multiple ejectors and stuff. But we use an iterative approach to development -- we use agile development, so we commit to quite broad goals initially, and then as we go through the game, we refine, and refine, and refine. So we wanted to be really focused during the development; to do a few things, but do them really, really, really well. We had this Free Ride [mode] -- you could go anywhere, you could do anything -- but as we went through development, we realized that wasn't actually the core of the game. The core of the game was going really fast, going forwards all the time, and doing tricks. And the tricks were the core to the racing experience. If you're off the track, we put you straight back on again, so you're straight moving forwards. But at any one point on the track, there are always three or four different route options. So there's a lot of perceived freedom... but if you're moving away from what's going to be fun, we bring you back and kick you forwards. We created a really fast-paced, intense experience, and I don't think that you can have that intensity if you're wandering around all over the place. How much work did you have to do on the HUD? Because especially in the freestyle mode, you've got boost, you've got gas, and you've got multipliers, and you have which tricks are ready... There's a lot of information to pay attention to. JA: Yeah. So we've done a lot of work on the HUD. We had one almost completely done, and then we threw it away and started again, and did what we've got now. Also, freestyle doesn't come in the career mode, in the Pure World Tour, until the end of the second tour... so when you're ready for it, we've brought it in. We've been really careful of the learning curve, and bringing the mechanics online as you're ready for them. But also, yeah, we've gone through a lot of iterations on the HUD to get it right. I think the success of the HUD can be judged by whether it teaches people mechanics of the game without having to go through much of a tutorial. If it does that, and it doesn't overwhelm, then it does a good job. If it looks cool and really dynamic as well, then that's a bonus. Do you think you have a more hardcore audience for this game, besides? JA: I don't know! I think it's surprisingly easy to get into. We've done a lot of user testing; usability with this product has been absolutely vital. Probably five hundred blind user tests have been done on the game, during the last five months. We've literally just got people in from the universities, and from the rest of our building. We've always had people who have never played the game before, and have a wide range of abilities, and they can get into it now. It is, literally easy to get into and hard to master. So I think it's got quite a broad appeal. I mean, we did ATV Fury 3, and ATV Fury 4, Moto GP... those are sims; those are hardcore games. This is just fun! It's a rollercoaster ride! It's fast, it's about jumping off mountains and flying through the air. Who wouldn't want to do that? As a team, what was it like taking a departure from simulation games to do some more off-the-rails stuff? JA: Well that's why the game has turned out how it has, really. There are rules that you have to abide by [in sims]; you can't just do something because it's fun. And this is our opportunity to do something where if anybody comes up with an idea, you test and see if it's fun, and then you put it in the game. There's no, "Oh, it doesn't fit with the fiction," or, "You can't do that! It's against the license!" you know? We've been able to do everything that we wanted to do, and it's a lot more creative freedom. So, we've taken some things from our past, and thrown away a lot of stuff as well. I got an inkling that there was some story to this? Is that the case? JA: It's really difficult to have a story in a racing game... There's a context. You have this environment where racers are competing, and there's some character dialog -- how much time can you spend on something like that, when you know that most players are really going to just skip it? JA: Well, I think that you need to have a background for the things that are in the game, otherwise it's literally just a game, rather than being a universe. This is an arcade game, right? So it needs to be fairly fast-paced, and it can't have a shitload of depth -- excuse me! -- in terms of story, because you just don't need it. But each of the characters has a background, and it plays into their styles, the special tricks that they've got, and they've got a bit of a history. I think it's important to have a context for all the stuff in the game; it ties it together better as a universe, then. By the way, there was Climax, and there's Climax Games, and there's Climax in Japan; how did everyone get away with having the same name? JA: Don't know! I really don't know. I think because it was probably registered in Japan first, and then Karl [Jeffery] registered Climax fourteen years ago, and they found out about one another once they were both really well established. And one's probably called the Climax Group, and one's called Climax Co. or something.

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