The Crew is Ubisoft’s latest and most ambitious foray into the racing genre. It’s certainly stacking up to be quite a strong first attempt for Ivory Tower, with a version of the USA that will take quite some time to drive across, stacks of things to do and see, and innovative online features that want to keep your world populated with a selection of real people.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Serkan Hassan, the Lead Game Designer on the project, and discuss all these areas with him.
TSA: Let’s start with an overview – what’s the core premise of The Crew?
Serkan Hassan: Okay, so The Crew is basically an open world action driving game, with a very strong social multiplayer component. We’re releasing early next year on PS4, Xbox One and PC. Basically what the game does is give you a completely open world rendition of the United States, and you’re able to explore and drive at your own leisure.
You can drive where you want, when you want and with who you want. So as you drive along, our game is streaming the locations of other players on the server to your PlayStation, and you can meet them, you can compete against them, even collaborate with them, or just ignore them if you’re a single player kind of guy.
We’ve got a wide range of licensed cars, which are able to drive on all surfaces, so when we talk about the open world in The Crew, we truly mean that – we don’t mean that it’s open world, but you’ll have to stay on the road, basically driving through a series of tunnels. What we’re saying is that if you’re driving along the road, and see some nice scenery over to the right, then you can just turn off the road and drive there – even if there isn’t a road in sight, it doesn’t matter!
You can equip your car so that it’s suitable, taking it from something like an extreme car to a Baja 1000-styled car and just go straight through the Grand Canyon, over the Rocky Mountains, or through the swamps in the southeast of Florida. So all those options are available at all times for the player.
Really the idea is that as you drive around, you’re going to be competing in activities, and if there’s something you’re having difficulty with, you can recruit other players to help you out. It’s a one for all rather than all for one policy, so if four of you go into a mission and one player wins, then everyone wins!
TSA: Out of all of the things that you’ve just talked about, what do you think the main feature is that makes The Crew stand apart from other racing games out there?
Serkan: That really is a tough one. The thing that people notice immediately when they see it – just at first glance – is the scale of the world, the promise of delivering the entire United States in the game. People are used to being told “oh no, it’s an interpretation of New York” or “here’s L.A.” but to be told “here’s pretty much most of the major cities plus everything in between” is something that I think people will latch onto immediately, without even picking up a controller, due to the potential that brings.
Once people start to play, then the social side will become a lot more apparent. All the barriers have been broken down, so from the moment you’re playing the game there’s no concept of lobbies and there aren’t even menus – we are quite sneakily bringing other players into your game. It could be a guy who’s a few kilometers away, so you’re not going to see him, but the point is that as you’re driving along the map, you’re going to see a guy over here, a guy over there and it’s really up to you whether you want to engage with those players or not.
What we’re finding is that from time to time when engaging with other players, that it brings up loads of really cool opportunities. It could be during one of the structured events, or playing PvP, or even just all the stuff you can do without our intervention. It’s like when four players set up a crew, and the leader sets a waypoint and you have an impromptu race. So you could meet in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, a guy could set a waypoint to Miami and then that’s it, off you go.
Say four of us are driving street-tuned cars, and the other guy’s got an offroad car, so while we’re snaking through the mountains, he’s just leaping off them because he doesn’t need to use roads, he can just go anywhere he likes! It’s those kind of things that people will come to appreciate but I think – from day one – the thing that you notice immediately isn’t the cars or the customisation but the scale of it all.
TSA: How many people can you have concurrently in a world at a time? Would it be possible for all your friends meet up at one point?
Serkan: The servers can obviously handle as many players as we want…
TSA: Fingers crossed! [laughs]
Serkan: [laughs] Yeah, I know, I’m not calling that shot! In terms of the number of players that are rendered at any time, it’s eight. The Crew size is set to four, which means any of the structured activities is for you and three friends, but in freeride it’s up to eight. You could arrange to meet with seven friends in a specific location, or when you’re driving around you may see up to seven other people at any given time. If you’re familiar with Test Drive Unlimited, this is the core team that worked on that, and the basic principal is getting players into the game without having to get through menus.
Say you’re in Miami, then here are some other guys in Miami – they speak your language, the connection is good, they’re at your sort of level. Now, you can choose to ignore them or you can go and say “hi”, and maybe they’ll help with that mission you can’t do.
TSA: Oh, so if your friends drive away, then you might meet seven more players?
Serkan: Absolutely. Think of it like a net that gets cast around you – at any time it’ll catch up to seven other players. So when one player goes too far away, or drops out, they’ll be replaced so you’re never on your own. That’s the advantage of doing it this way, it’s essentially a live update within two or three kilometers of your position – and believe me, in an open world two or three kilometers is a huge space, so we don’t want players having to drive to find people; we want to bring players into this space that you’ll see go past you.
So that’s why we cast a net, as it allows us to keep it tight and keep the experience that we wanted to build.
TSA: With the whole of the USA represented, how have you tried to condense this down to a manageable size?
Serkan: Obviously it was never going to be a 1:1 scale, and honestly if someone wanted to go to that extreme, the generation of console isn’t really the issue, it’s more just the fact that the size we’ve settled on is one that we think is fun at the end of the day. We saw comments after E3 saying, “The whole of the US? Driving coast-to-coast is going to be really boring.” We’ve tried to settle on something that’s going to be more comfortable.
As far as our missions and our game structure is concerned, it leads you on a path around the US, but it’s something that’s entirely optional – you can choose to just go and do what you want. In terms of locations, offroad driving was obviously very important to us, because if you look at the US landmass, it’s a tiny amount that’s actually laden with roads. Over 90% is just open terrain! It was important then to make sure that the vehicles had lots of locations to visit – swamps, canyons, mountains were always priorities there.
As for the cities, we just went for a good balance, representing the East and West coasts, picking a few locations on the way that people would recognise. While we talk about the fourteen or fifteen cities a lot, we have many other locations that aren’t included in that number but are represented in the game as what we would describe as a town.
There are places that people will recognise: you can drive to Amarillo, you can visit Roswell as a small town. You can go to those places, but we’re not shouting about them as they’re not huge city-sized structures, but they’re in there and we’ve paid tribute to a lot of locations as well.
TSA: So are there a lot of in-jokes and secrets to find, such as Area 51?
Serkan: Well, yeah, the game has over a thousand landmarks for you to discover with your friends. There’s the obvious stuff such as the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or even Mount Rushmore, but there’s a lot of ones that are more tributes or in-jokes and stuff like that. So people that are fans of films or TV may see little nods to things they’ll recognise.
There might even be things that are in a weird way a bit educational – places that you never knew existed or where they were.
TSA: What was the thinking behind the decision to go next-gen and PC only?
Serkan: Basically I started working on this two years ago, but the project dates back a while longer – around four or five years. It’s a project that has been built over long-term development, and the goal at the end of the project was always the same – it was always about social multiplayer with the US as a backdrop.
It was really the fact that we were aiming for high-end PCs at the start that allowed us to quite easily make the transition to the new consoles. If anything, it’s just a fortunate bit of timing on our part that the consoles are coming along at this stage, and also that the architecture of those consoles have more in common with PC.
From when I joined the project, it was a PC focused project but has since become console focused with the new machines. So yeah, it’s just a pleasant bit of timing!
TSA: You have a tablet app, and the demo we’ve seen of it made it just feel like a menu system – that’s putting it in simplistic terms – but what are you going to do with it to add to the experience of the game? I mean, with Watch Dogs you have a whole new game mode.
Serkan: We’ve got the companion app, but it really consists of two halves. One half I can’t talk about, and that’s what you haven’t seen yet. It’ll be announced soon. It’s fair to say that it offers more engagement, let’s put it that way.
In the terms of the half you’ve seen a hint of, one aspect of it is the shop side, buying and tuning cars, so when you get home the car is waiting for you to drive, saving you precious time. The other side includes a live map, which is cool as that map works online while you’re connected to other players as well, so if I’m at work and have a WiFi connection, it’s not about just seeing where my friends are, it’s about being able to see exactly what they’re doing.
You can even zoom in and see them in detail, so there’s a voyeurism aspect, but that’s more fully functional in the full game as you can watch them at street level. But it’s good being able to see at glance on your phone where your friends are and what they’re up to at any given time. We’re looking into ways for you to interact, such as setting waypoints for them.
That’s only one side of the coin, the other side is hopefully soon to be announced, but let’s just say that it’s more realised.
TSA: I’m glad to hear that – I was a bit disappointed with what I saw before.
Serkan: Yeah, it’s definitely more just for the convenience that it works as that, but we’re looking at ways to make the experience more rich using the app, so that you’ll still be contributing to the game while you’re away from it.
TSA: With regard to the licenses, how happy have the car manufacturers been to essentially rip their cars apart, almost like turning a little Ford Focus something much better.
Serkan: The manufacturers we’re working with have been really cool about it. While we can’t go into names, there’s one or two that said, “This isn’t for us, this is too extreme,” and that’s fair enough, but we’ve still got a really good range. There’s everything from everyday cars to hypercars, and the manufacturers have just been like “Yeah, go and see what you can do.” So we’re close to what we had in mind.
There are some tunes that in the real world simply don’t make sense. Not in terms of them not being physically possible, but in terms of them actually being de-tunes. So taking something like a performance car and saying, “I want to make it worse, I want it to be a street-tuned car,” clearly doesn’t make any sense. What we’re doing is saying, “Here’s the car you bought, and these are the ways you can change it.” – it’s only ever about making it better equipped for the activities we have.
TSA: Does each car have an individual tuning path, in regards to what you can change and the directions you can take it?
Serkan: Yeah, there’s a maximum of five tuning options, so you buy a car in its stock form, as if you’re getting it out of a dealer, but then you have a Street tune for those turns and fast reaction times, city driving; a Dirt tune which is a rally car basically, for driving on a mixture of tarmac and dirt roads; a Performance tune which is highway driving, so not so much driving in the cities but on the roads between them on the freeways; then we have Circuit tuning which is a kind of thing you see with a touring car, real professional level mods with interiors stripped out, rollcages; then we have Raid which is offroad – Baja style – driving through the canyons and the forests.
So the cars can be tuned in those different paths, and you can switch between them on the fly, as well. You could be driving a street-tuned Ford Focus, get it out of the city and see a big forest, then with a few button presses you’ll be driving a differently tuned Focus – there’s no need to go back to the garage to tinker with the car. It’s very flexible.
TSA: How does this all tie into the story of the game then?
Serkan: The entire game can be player single player or multiplayer. There is a story, there is an identity behind who you are, and there are characters you meet as the story gets told which kind of takes you on an adventure. So while the player is free to go anywhere, there is a more structured part of the game which you can choose to participate in. A tour, if you like.
We’ll reveal a bit more about that in the future, but yeah, it is there and you’ll learn more about it shortly, I hope.
Thanks to Serkan for taking the time to talk to us. Keep an eye out for more coverage on The Crew, as it heads for release some time early next year.