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Interview: Motorstorm Apocalypse's Matt Southern

matt southern

Evolution Studios has finally unveiled the third outing in its massively popular MotorStorm series, exclusively for PlayStation 3. MotorStorm Apocalypse is, in the words of game director Matt Southern, “just f**king lunacy.”

We’ve played through the first demo level that the developer was showing off at a recent pre-E3 event in London, and you can read our first impressions on that here.

In the meantime, we also sat down for a good chat about what is new in MotorStorm Apocalypse with Evo’s Matt Southern, who told us a lot more about his thoughts on 3D gaming on PS3 (“it’s going to blow games wide open”), why multiplayer gaming is becoming more important than single-player gaming and how the team drew inspiration from various recent classics such as Starfox and Modern Warfare 1.

And from gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson.

Oh. And before anybody asks. There are no jet-skis in the game. Or rockets.

[Interview by Adam Hartley]

VG247: Firstly, congratulations on the first MotorStorm Apocalypse demo level. It’s looking f**king awesome.

Matt Southern: Thanks very much!

VG247: It really is a very polished demo, for a game that is still at a ‘pre-alpha’ level.

Matt Southern: Yeah, it is still pre-alpha. News leaked online recently because someone had noticed that somebody was playing what we had called ‘the first playable’ – you guys mentioned it on VG247 – and that was actually a very early version of this track that we have shown you today. And this track is very much further ahead than the rest of the game. We are not launching the game until 2011, so we still have a lot of time for more polish

And while this is a more polished version of this first track, there are still going to be lots more visual improvements, gameplay will be tweaked massively – there will be tons more gameplay testing – and the non-player characters, the life of the city, the crazies and the private military, we still feel that there is a lot more that we can do with those guys. So I think that will be something that you will see change as well.

VG247: It’s been two years in development already. When in 2011 is it due?

Matt Southern: Well we are looking at the first quarter, but we are not sure yet. You know, when it is done, basically.

VG247: Also, I suppose Gran Turismo 5 is THE big PlayStation 3 game in 2010.

Matt Southern: Well the way I try to look at it is like this: sometimes people call it ‘simulation’ and ‘arcade’ but if you like motorsports such as Formula One, NASCAR and WRC then GT is the game for you. But if you like car chases and action movies and just f**king lunacy, then MotorStorm Apocalypse is the game for you. And together, they both take care of everything.

VG247: The environments really interesting this time around, this apocalyptic urban setting. What was the thinking behind that? Did you consider any other environments? I noticed some fans were hoping to see jet-skis in the next MotorStorm!

Matt Southern: Yeah, some others were asking us to set it on the moon! [laughs]

VG247: And you made a point of saying that it is NOT ‘post’ apocalyptic, I noticed.

Matt Southern: That’s right. If we had just said: “It is MotorStorm and it is going to the city.” Then all we would have done is made yet another urban racer. There are hundreds of them. And that just isn’t MotorStorm.

So we wanted to try to do urban off-road racing. So even though you are in a city and you do race on the streets – and there are new cars such as supercars and muscle-cars and sports-compacts to support all of that – we still needed to make this MotorStorm. So let’s have loads of cool vehicles taking in not only various locations throughout the city, but also other parts of the city that you haven’t raced before, such as the sewers, the rooftops, the parks, down on the beaches and really try to offer as much variety as possible.

And then let’s not just have a typical city. Let’s wreck it. Let’s really provide a brilliant catalyst for being able to race on every different part of it. And have exciting things happen while you’re racing.

VG247: I didn’t notice many short-cuts in that first level that we just played through?

Matt Southern: Yeah, in some ways it’s not totally representative of all the tracks. We’ll still have circuits and point-to-point and we will still have that classic multiple routes, with a lot more dynamism this time. A lot more opening and closing. And we’ll still have routes that flatter particular vehicle types.

That is kind of part of the DNA of MotorStorm – loads of different types of vehicles, but no one vehicle has a major advantage over the others .

VG247: So it is only going to be land-based vehicles that are playable in the game? No flying or water-based crafts?

Matt Southern: Yes. Well, there are plenty of helicopters flying around in the sky. But they are going to be mainly attacking you.

VG247: It looks like it is going to be a game that is going to be brilliant for showing off the 3D-capabilities of PlayStation 3. Can you say anything about that? Will you be showing this off in 3D at E3?

Matt Southern: Like I say, watch this space. [laughs]

I tell you what I’ll say. If you have played any 3D games on PlayStation 3 then Evo [Evolution Studios] did it. We’ve had two or three of our technicians working mainly on 3D. We’ve been playing 3D games for about five years in the studio. We had our local racetrack, which is called Oulton Park, we built that in stereoscopic 3D and then we’ve raced around it in a bucket seat with a decent steering wheel… And I’ve seen people throw up on the studio floor after playing it! That was kind of a very early phase. Where we knew this was going to be something special. And so we got better and better and better at it. In terms of understanding what works and what doesn’t. And we see 3D as being something that can fundamentally transform lots of different types of games.

And not just visually, but it is something that can actually change the gameplay experience. I mean, the way I look at it is that one day – however far away it is – games will be fully immersive 3D. And we are not talking about that gimmicky VR stuff. We are talking about completely believable virtual worlds.

And one of the biggest steps towards that is some of the stuff that the PS3 can do now. Not just 3D, but motion tracking and head tracking and the computer vision stuff with PlayStation Eye. That combination of technologies is just going to blow games wide open. So we’ll see!

VG247: You mentioned earlier that the racing genre was experiencing a dip in sales recently. Do you think 3D technology complements racing games? And, by extension, will it boost sales of racing games?

Matt Southern: I hope so. We’ve done a hell of research. And we are all a little bit against that “design by committee” and “excessive focus testing” approach. But at the same time we wanted to know, “what is it about racing games in this generation that just doesn’t do it for people the same way that action adventures or shooters do?”

And weirdly after doing tons of research, we completely came up with the most obvious answers. They are just not exciting people enough, or as much, as something like an Uncharted 2. So we are really just trying to make sure that this thing is unbelievably exciting. From start to end. Not just ‘A Good Racer’.

And I totally agree with the increasingly levels of immersion that 3D can provide. It is going to be one of the big paradigm shifts for this genre in particular.

VG247: Now these three main characters in MotorStorm Apocalypse – it’s quite an interesting way that you have decided to use them, because they also represent the three difficulty levels in the game. Tell us more about how that works?

Matt Southern: We tried to look at what fans were saying. We’ve been working on this prior to the second game. After that second game launched we were able to look at what the fans wanted. And one of the things that people wanted to see us get back to was the overall game. So individual races

One bloke posted about ‘The MotorStorm Paradox’ which I will never forget. Which was this: “How come individual races feel like one of the best racing games ever, but the overall experience doesn’t give me that ‘just one more go! just one more go!’ feeling?”

So we wanted to do something that really nailed that. And obviously, in other genres, one of the key ways to do that is a good story. But if you say, “we are doing a racing game with a story in it,” then I think most people would, rightly, cringe.

So we hired a couple of writers that we felt got it. And what they said to us was, “the story is never going to be as important as the gameplay,” which is a very encouraging thing to hear from a writer. So we got them in and we talked about how we wanted a very light back story that encourages players to see what comes next, but doesn’t intrude too much and doesn’t require them to sit through self-indulgent cut-scenes and so on.

And the absolute brainwave, really, was this idea that the characters have a back-story but also, more than anything else, they are drive three different difficult-levels. Actually, one of the big inspirations for this structure was Starfox, which also really played around with the fact that there were three different ‘play-throughs’ in the game.

So in MotorStorm Apocalypse, the player experience isn’t totally linear. So let’s say that you play as the rookie character on the afternoon of day two. You will see a load of wreckage. A load of downed skyscrapers and you will be thinking “it is fairly early on in the game, how has all that happened?”

Later on in the game, you might play on the morning of day two, as the middle character, and you will SEE all of that chaos and destruction happen. And so you can sort of fill in the gaps and pull together the pieces as the game unfolds. Nothing too heavy, mind. We’re not making ‘Memento’ here!

But there will be plenty of opportunities for the player to go, “aah, I get it that thing happened when I played as the rookie.”

VG247: So that 48-hours of virtual racing that you mentioned earlier – that’s how long you estimate it takes you to play through the single-player game?

Matt Southern: No, for single player, we are shooting for around eight or nine hours. Once you get into multiplayer recreation then we reckon around 150 hours. What we used to have with the MotorStorm Festivals, the proposition for those, was “race by day, party by night,” but now we are saying that MotorStorm Apocalypse is two or three days of non-stop insanity – day and night. So let’s do racing AND partying 24-7 for a couple of days.

And then the reason why the festival has to end is because there isn’t going to be a city any more. So they get in. They have a party. And then they get the hell out. And that chronology, continuity and persistence of that story will absolutely dominate the single-player game. So it is 48 ‘virtual’ hours, but the game itself can be played through much quicker than that.

VG247: There are some noticeable graphical improvements in the game. The dynamic lighting, for example, looks like it is going to add something new and cool to the gameplay. Are there any other notable graphical improvements?

Matt Southern: Yes. I think it is almost impossible to know where to start on this, to be honest. You will continue to see graphical developments appear. Lighting was a big thing for us with Apocalypse, because we had lots of fans ask us, “why no night-time tracks?” and, “why no headlights?”

And it sounds like a really easy thing to do. But actually it was an incredibly difficult thing for us to achieve. So we really want to explore more night-time tracks, taking in things like fairgrounds with lots of really nice neon lighting, lightning-effects, lights coming on and off during races, races where you start in daylight and then head down into subterranea, into complete darkness with only your headlights to guide you… and then we might smash those headlights to make it even more challenging.

Almost everything else too, whether it relates to your field of view, or whether it is a particular type of motion-blur, the texturing – so you can pretty much see right down to every single scratch on your car – this is what a lot of the last two years of work has gone into. Evo has always been known for quality graphics.

Just lately, we’ve started saying that we have reached that point this generation where graphics are what we call a ‘hygiene feature’ – you know, we’ve all got them! Who is impressed by good graphics anymore?

It is what you do with them, in terms of movement, the dynamic changes to all of the effects and so on. It is those kinds of graphical improvements that we have focused on this time around.

VG247: Back to the storyline in the game, you mentioned that these ‘shady’ organisers of MotorStorm play a big part in the story in Apocalypse.

Matt Southern: Again, it’s not that classic ‘beginning, middle and end’ story that you might get in an action-adventure. What we want to do, much more, is have loads and loads of really snappy and short cut-scenes that make you laugh and are entertaining and, more than anything else, really present the culture of MotorStorm. And what it is like to be part of this touring group of crazies who have kind of turned their backs on ordinary lives.

So we have a journalist character called Cutter, who is inspired by Hunter S Thompson. He is your classic gonzo journalist. So he doesn’t just report on what he sees, he LEAPS on it. He becomes a part of it. So he falls in love with MotorStorm and lots and lots of our cut-scenes will just be interviews with the different crazy guys who run it and are involved.

And we have an organiser figure, a lady with a particular history (in terms of one of the veteran characters who is also one of the founders of MotorStorm). We have guys who work on the [aircraft] carrier, guys who work on the tracks, the graffiti guys… Each one will get a small amount of coverage in the cut-scenes, but we don’t want these scenes to be massively intrusive. Again, it is a racing game, so almost all of the time these scenes will be happening during your loading times, so you will be sitting watching them while you wait for your next race.

[Assistant Director] Si Barlow and myself attended a talk by Ken Levine at GDC and he talked about the ways in which BioShock had a story that was there in a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of way, whereby if you wanted to you could just barrel through the game and shoot stuff. But if you wanted to pay a little bit more attention then you might want to look closer at what was on the walls and stuff. And if you really wanted to know more then there were audio tapes and diaries and a complete fleshing out of that world.

And it is a very similar approach for us with MotorStorm. It is like, “look, it’s a racer, if you don’t care about this stuff, then fine…” but if you do, you can find everything out about MotorStorm in a lot of depth – where it’s come from, what its origins are and so on.

VG247: And then you have that multiplayer world to get stuck into, with 16-player online, 4-player split-screen – how many players do you expect will continue through the single-player game and keep playing the multiplayer game?

Matt Southern: It’s actually flipped recently. If anything, we put more emphasis on multiplayer now than we do on single-player. I think the key is this – for a long time it was only the really hardcore gamers that played online, and therefore it was really inaccessible for noobs and you would get humiliated very quickly. I mean, I’m one of these gamers that plays FIFA and GTA. I’m what a lot of our guys call a “top ten gamer” and I’d always shied away from online for a long time.

But you can really see now how that culture is changing and we are doing everything we can to make sure that, if MotorStorm Apocalypse is the game where you are taking your first steps online, then we make sure to walk the player through it and make it as highly accessible as we can for them.

I think Modern Warfare 1 was probably the first game that started showing that was achievable. With lots of perks and unlocks and rewards and online progression. And we took massive inspiration from that and that’s why I’m really happy that we can do split-screen online, because if I am inexperienced online then I can sit alongside a much more experienced gamer and together we can play online against others. They can help to show me the ropes and we can win the awards together.

VG247: The vehicle customisation in the game is interesting – are you looking at ways of letting players export their cars, to Facebook, for example – so they can take their MotorStorm vehicles outside of the game?

Matt Southern: Yes we are looking at Facebook support. But we also have a community website which has ‘lockers’ so players will be able to export their designs to their own locker on the community site. And then share them with others. You can make any design you like, and they will automatically work on any vehicle in the game – whether it is a chopper or a big rig. There will be a hell of a lot of sharing this type of content in the game.

VG247: There are lots of pre-E3 rumours floating around about PSP2. MotorStorm was a massive game for the PSP. What are your future plans for the handheld versions of MotorStorm?

Matt Southern: There’s probably not a lot I can say. Our studio group – which includes BigBig and Studio Liverpool – are really now trying to plan.

There are some really very ambitious and exciting hardware ideas out there. But to be honest, I cannot say much more.

BigBig did do a remarkable job getting MotorStorm to work on PSP and whether this franchise is going to go forward or not on handheld… watch this space.

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Adam Hartley