The Making Of Driver
Whatever your opinion of the Driver franchise, no one can argue it wasn’t a technical marvel. It was a free-roaming 3D driving/action game that broke game genres like police roadblocks, and squeezed every last ounce of juice from Sony’s 32-bit engine.
The Director Mode was Driver’s most appreciated innovation.
Stepping back to fully appreciate the skid marks it left (that’s enough of the driving analogies from us, promise), Driver was also the first game to really stir imaginations as to what could be achieved when you combine polygons with a virtual sandbox.
Thus it likely proved a significant influence on the savvy 3D direction the Grand Theft Auto series later took – actually the obvious similarities between the two franchises spawned a good humoured rivalry between their respective developers.
Driver was unarguably a watershed sandbox title, one that sits shotgun beside the Grand Theft Auto series and classics like Turbo Esprit and Elite. And it still remains the best selling episode in the series to this day.
Tony Oakden was the lead programmer on the game, and first got into computing in the mid-Eighties after receiving an Acorn Electron and getting fully immersed in Superior Software’s adventure/platform classic, Citadel.
After pumping a scary amount of hours into Michael Jacobson’s game, Tony decided to try his hand at programming and immediately got ‘hooked’ on writing his own games.
After releasing a few games for Superior and then setting off to University, Tony began writing software for slot machines but returned to games in the late Nineties when he joined Reflections Interactive and was tasked with leading the programming team on a new project, titled Driver.
Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive was formed in 1984 by Martin Edmondson and had seen success with the Amiga hit Shadow Of The Beast and Destruction Derby on Playstation.
Effects like smoke from burnt rubber was a first for racing games.
When Tony joined the team there were five PC programmers, two Playstation programmers, plus a small art team working on Driver, but this would swell to 25 developers across both formats by the time the game was eventually finished – still a relatively small team to be working on such a big title.
Tony told us Driver’s inception can be traced back to Reflection’s owner Martin Edmondson. A big fan of classic cars and movies that involved car chases, Martin saw Driver as a bit of a pet project; a view also shared by Driver’s talented and enthusiastic team.
“I think Martin basically wanted a game which captured the essence of those car chase scenes from the late 70s. The other thing he really wanted was for players to be able to drive freely around a 3D city going wherever they wanted.”
Tony continues, “Up till Driver, 3D racing games were very limited in where players could go. Most were either linear racers or top-down like GTA. For quite a bit of the development period the only thing a player could do was drive around the city practicing cool racing stunts.”
While the concept of a racing game that allowed you to perform hair-raising stunts would later form the basis for Reflection’s game Stuntman, the team decided to add a story and missions to Driver.
Objectives varied from scaring a passenger half to death by taking him on an insane joyride, stealing cop cars, to even driving the President to safety; while Driver’s story centred on a NY police officer and ‘ex racing boy’ named Tanner who is sent to work undercover as a wheelman to infiltrate a dangerous crime syndicate.
The missions all played out across four large cities: Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, with some of the artists who were working on the game sent out to the respective cities to take pictures and get reference material. It shows too.
It may not look like much, but Driver was a technical marvel at the time.
The cities (for a Playstation game) were all faithfully recreated, in particular San Francisco. The setting for the iconic chase movie Bullitt, the virtual city of San Fran’s featured its famous undulating roads, a version of Fisherman’s Wharf and its invincible trams.
The story harked back to classic Seventies cinema – most notably Walter Hill’s The Driver. But Tony reveals Starsky And Hutch, Dukes Of Hazzard and The Blues Brothers also played a part in the overall design of the game (we suspect the crazy, slapstick and often suicidal actions of the chasing police).
Tanner is much more of a mystery though. Three games later and still we know very little about Driver’s central character, other than he struggles to function in the virtual world when not behind the wheel of a car (see Driver 2 and Driv3r) and was once voiced by actor Michael Madsen (hear Driv3r). Perhaps Tony might be able to shed some light on the inner workings of Driver’s mysterious protagonist?
“I wasn’t involved in this so can’t comment with any authority but I think they [Reflections] wanted a character who was typical of the quintessential 70s car movie drivers, so they looked at all the films from that genre and came up with a character which had the best traits from them. From the front Tanner looks a lot like Martin’s Brother, Gareth Edmondson, but I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence or not.”
One thing separating Driver from its sequels was the fact that Tanner stayed…well, pretty much undercover, and inside a car for the entire duration of the game – save for cut-scenes. But Reflections would later add on-foot sections in Driver 2.
So knowing it was possible to have Tanner stretch his legs on the PS1 hardware, we were curious as to whether it was something the team ever considered incorporating in the original game?
“We never considered it for Driver 1 although we did play about with cameras attached to pedestrians to see what they looked like”, reveals Tony. “Technically there were quite a few problems with doing it. Also the game world wasn’t designed for navigating on foot.”
The damage modelling was some of the most realistic at the time.
“There where places the player could go on foot which would break the game. From a design POV the first game was always going to be about driving. The one thing we did drop was shadow casting from the buildings. I did quite a bit of experimentation with that and had some good looking results. But we couldn’t get the performance up to the point where it was practical for the full game.”
In hindsight, not having on-foot sections was actually a deft move by Reflections. It allowed the team to focus its attentions on those subtle presentational touches, and refining the driving physics – areas where Driver excelled.
Satisfyingly overzealous, the handling of vehicles was in-keeping with the insanity of the stunts and chin-stroking moves seen in movie land. Tyre screeches, 90 degree handbrake turns and smoking rubber skid marks, even flimsy hubcaps whizzing off up the road, it was all in there.
And the icing on the cake was the game’s popular and addictive Director Mode, which only helped to highlight all of these nice presentational touches brilliantly.
A great addition to Driver, the game’s DC Mode allowed wannabe Michael Bay’s to shoot and cut their own mini chase movie using a simple, if at times a little unwieldy, freeform camera system.
Furthermore, it allowed magazines of the day to effortlessly take dynamic and exciting looking cinematic screenshots to best show off the game.
Nearly all games today feature a similar camera system, it’s just we’re not privy to it – it’s the trick to how developers can manage to take impressive looking press shots and cut exciting looking trailers of their games through perspectives not possible in-game.
Fending off police chases formed the basis for much of Driver’s gameplays.
Control of this camera is usually removed by the developer before the game’s release. So how the idea to have a dynamic replay system and director mode actually come about?
“I think Martin really wanted to make his own movies!” reveals Tony. “The director system was designed to allow a player to create a great looking movie of the game with minimum effort. I think it’s a really good system.”
“We had the replay system working fairly early in the project but the actual camera controls didn’t go in till much later. Once in we used the system to make the promotional in-game videos and when the game was run in stores in demo mode.”
Driver took Reflections around 18 months to finish, with the team facing many technical hurdles along the way. Such issues included trying to occlude buildings that couldn’t be seen in a bid to increase the frame rate, spooling data from the CD in real-time as the player drove about the city, and the biggest headache for Tony; getting the dynamic replay system to work for the movies.
“We didn’t have the memory to store position data for all the objects in the scene for each frame of animation so I developed a system which just stored player input but it relied on everything being totally deterministic.”
“Every so often a bit of code would get added which wasn’t deterministic (something different happened each time it was run) and the replays would break – e.g. suddenly the players car would drive into a wall and then everything would turn to custard – usually in the middle of the night just before a big show, and I’d end up working through the night to try and work out what the problem was.
“I got so used to seeing the replays go wrong that I got paranoid.” Tony continues “The first time I saw the game demoing in the shops and a replay was running I had to watch it through about ten times to reassure myself they were really working properly! It was a great marketing tool though because the replay movies looked great.”
Enabling players to go anywhere was a revelation for 3D driving games at the time.
Driver was released in June 1999 for the Playstation, and on PC, MAC and GBC the following year. It became the biggest hit on Sony’s console though.
Though the success it garnered is no surprise. Sony’s machine was nearing the end of its commercial life, and Driver looked better than anything that had appeared on the machine up until that point.
As a result, the franchise fast became synonymous with the PlayStation, and popular with its owners. So it might come as surprise to some of you to learn that at one stage Driver wasn’t originally destined to appear on the system at all. Tony explains.
“The game was intended to be developed for the PC but after about 6 months development the company decided that the PlayStation was going to become the dominant game hardware and that emphasis should switch to that,” reveals Tony.
“It turned out to be a very good decision because the PS version outsold the PC many times over. Technically it was a bit of a nightmare to port code from the PC to the PlayStation.
“The PlayStation isn’t particularly hard to program for, in my opinion, but by the late 90s it was already quite dated compared to current generation PC with dedicated video cards.”
“The processor was quite a bit slower than the standard PC of the day, there was hardly any RAM, no hardware floating point support at all and a rather primitive rendering system with no Z-Buffer or perspective correction.
Waiting police cars had their own line of sight that had to be avoided.
“So we had to take the version made for the PC, which had all that extra processing power and hardware, and make it work on the Playstation. We had to pull all sorts of tricks to make the game work let alone look good.”
There were things that did let Driver down though. It had harsh difficulty spikes, long loading times, small draw distances and even the occasional gremlin in the engine.
While these bugs could sometimes be amusing, usually resulting in some physic-twisting collision that threw your car in the sky, the sporadic difficulty spikes – in particular the final few levels – were undoubtedly responsible for a few mutilated PlayStation pads.
We chose our words carefully when broaching the subject with Tony. But he kindly granted us an honest and logical explanation as to why the game featured these problems.
“I think there are a few glitches but you have to remember that this game was pushing the boundaries in terms of what the PlayStation could do. A lot of people said we’d never be able to make a free roaming driving game on the PlayStation at all. That’s the thing about true pioneers isn’t it? They are exciting and great but tend to be a bit rough around the edges.”
As we’re on the subject, Driver was bookended by two particularly frustrating sections; the opening garage tutorial, which forced gamers to prove their mettle by completing an tortuous obstacle course set in a claustrophobic garage, and the game’s final stage, ‘The President’s Run’, which found Tanner on a insanely challenging mission to protect the President by circumventing an unrelenting onslaught of seemingly overpowered and super fast police and mob cars.
We remember spending an entire Sunday afternoon trying to finish that final mission, and only managed it using a combination of sheer fluke and dogged determination. So the opportunity to quiz Tony about that final stage, and exorcise a few demons, was too good to pass up.
Originally planned as a PC game, the port to PS1 needed a lot of technical alterations.
“I have a confession to make. I never got past this level! I did play through the game up to this point but by then I was so Drivered out that I simply couldn’t take anymore so I consoled myself with the fact I’d seen all the missions and seen the end of game cut-scene anyway on the artists’ machines.”
“I seem to remember that we did throw everything at the player in that final section to make it as hard as we could. But it is possible to complete with the right mix of strategy and skill. I watched Martin play the level and he made it look really easy.”
Tony continues “For a driving game, which appears to be superficially all about skill, there is a surprising amount of strategy required to finish some of the levels, including this one.”
Given the success of Driver, the game saw a sequel the following year. Larger than the previous game, Driver 2: Back On The Streets added a two-player split-screen mode and allowed Tanner the freedom to explore the city on foot and commandeer other vehicles.
Despite further pushing the limitations of the PlayStation, the game received mix reviews by the press though. Some praised the sequel for its ambition, while others criticised it for failing to address some of the issues in the first game.
Tony eventually left Reflections and the UK when he and his wife decided to emigrate to Australia. Still working in the industry today, Tony has worked for a number of developers with studios based in Aus.
He was producer on Fallout Tactics and more recently the PC version of BioShock for 2K Australia. Tony also co-owns Subversive Games, a company that make serious games for corporate clients, and flexes his love for more quirky indie games with his other venture, Charlie Dog Games.
The game’s tutorial section was notoriously difficult.
This side of pond the Driver story continued. In 2004 Reflections – then owned by Atari – released the hotly anticipated third instalment of the Driver franchise, Driv3r.
Taking even more cues from GTA, it placed further emphasis on on-foot sections and gunplay, and also added more varied vehicles to the mix, including motorcycles and boats.
It was also the first game in the franchise to allow players to mow down and shoot innocent civilians in cold blood (which got it a nice M rating for its troubles). However (and there are plenty of humorous YouTube videos to prove it) the game was criticised and poorly received by the press and the public.
While the game does have its enjoyable parts, the issues mainly lied with its unstable-feeling world, awkward combat and terrible controls. And when Martin Edmondson left Reflections in 2004, it seemed the end for the franchise.
That was until Reflections was sold to Ubisoft, for a reported sum of £24 million. Under the management of Martin’s brother, Gareth Edmondson, and rebranded Ubisoft Reflections Ltd, the team set to work on new Driver game.
Driver: Parallel Lines saw a return to something much more like the original game, with the team deciding to drop the clumsy on-foot sections and focus more on the driving.
Tanner was also dropped (though the game does make a jokey mention of him towards the end of the game), replaced with a new, but forgettable, protagonist named TK.
That famous yellow car made its way into later versions of the Driver series.
Parallel Lines also dropped having multiple cities, keeping the action centred in one: the Big Apple, and the popular Director Mode was also omitted. The game was better received than Driv3r and also received a PSP prequel, Driver 76, which was co-developed by Sumo Digital.
Today, the Driver series is still ticking over with Reflections working on a new Driver game for PS3 and Xbox 360 – a project that was first whispered to be happening in 2006.
Three years later, and with still no game, many thought the project was dropped. This year however, sees Driver: San Francisco finally get a release.
With the current-gen reboot we hope Reflections looks back to the first (and most successful) game in the franchise for inspiration. A next-gen update of Driver, with a main focus on driving, stunts and physics, bolstered with a great Director Mode, would certainly a winning formula in our eyes. Let’s hope Driver spins a full 180.