Q&A: Clockwork Games

Our European correspondent sat down with the creators of Vanishing Point to find out about car-physics, Formula One teams, and the company's next-generation plans.

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British developer Clockwork Games is known for its biggest title to date, Vanishing Point, which will soon appear on the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Dreamcast. Recently, GameSpot had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Neil Casini, director of Clockwork Games, to discuss the development of Vanishing Point, the game's complex physics model, and the company's further next-generation development plans.

GameSpot: With Vanishing Point hitting stores soon, what are you up to these days?

Neil Casini: Ready for a rest. It has been very hard for the entire team. The difficulty was not just making the best game we can, but keeping our vision and goals clear for such a long time. I think keeping focused and being able to deal with setbacks and other competition has been harder than we thought it would be. I'm very proud of the game and the team, because we have emerged with our vision and goals intact.

GS: The development time on Vanishing Point has been pretty long. Is it true that three physics experts worked for over 18 months on the car dynamics alone?

NC: Back in the early days of development (so long ago I can hardly remember), we decided that conveying the feeling of driving a car was of paramount importance. Sega Rally on the Saturn taught us this, and to this day, it is still my favorite driving game. On our previous game, Speedster, we had our first crack at vehicle dynamics, and it didn't take us long to realize that it is a seriously complicated field. We thought that the best thing to do was to contract vehicle dynamics experts to do this, leaving us to concentrate on the game design and gameplay. So, we introduced ourselves to what turned out to be one of the leading automotive engineering departments in the UK. A gaming company had never approached them before, so I think we could be one of the first developers to think of asking "real" specialists. Other developers have their own "math programmers" or hire physics students to do the nasty work for them, but we have a professor of automotive engineering, a lecturer in dynamics and control, and a top researcher in vehicle dynamics. Pretty hard-core, don't you think?

So these guys, all excited about the idea of creating a game, embarked on what turned out to be a two-year nightmare. The hard work was trying to get all of their "rocket science" formulas to work on hardware without a floating-point unit, particularly on the PlayStation. It was tough, but we made it in the end. There are still a few aspects that are far from perfect, but the delays due to solving our problems gave us more time to develop the Dreamcast version. The end result is a vehicle model that feeds off about 190 separate variables, all calculated and manipulated in real time, 30fps on the PS and 60fps on the DC.

I fear that some people will look at it and wonder what all of the fuss is about, but when you give it a chance, the subtlety becomes quite apparent. It's only then, when you look for this subtlety in other games, that you realize that maybe there is something special in Vanishing Point. We have had mixed reactions on the way the cars handle. But little by little, everyone ends up agreeing that once you've played Vanishing Point, it is really hard to go back to other games' vehicle dynamics.

I'm not at all knocking other games' design or gameplay. I'm just saying that we, as developers, are trying to show people something different and show people something real. Some people may not understand or care, but for those who do, this is our attempt at giving them something with more depth. Because for me, this is want I would want. I don't want every car to handle the same - I want to be able to grab a car by the scruff of its neck and really drive the thing. I guess this is what it all boils down to. Vanishing Point is not a racing game, it's a driving game. If you understand and want this difference in your gaming, then Vanishing Point is the game for you.

GS: What about a Formula One team asking for your help?

NC: Oh, yes. This is something that almost got started, but we were far too busy trying to finish the game - 8 people do not spread very far.

It all came about due to our collaboration with the dynamics specialists. They have worked for and/or know just about every important person/team/company in the automotive industry, including several Formula One teams. It came to light that one of the F1 teams wanted a custom built simulator, but didn't know who could do it. The dynamics guys saw this as an exciting prospect, but had no knowledge of computer graphics or how on earth they would even start to try. This is where we came in. Where they helped us create a game, we could help them with our gaming/hardware knowledge to create the rendering engine and environments. It is the kind of opportunity that would only have been available because of the areas that we both specialised in. I suppose it is still a possibility as we now have the contacts and the working relationship. It's an interesting prospect.

GS: Switching gears a bit, is there a PS2-port of the game planned?

NC: No.

GS: What about your other next-generation plans. Can you tell us something about your new projects, and which platforms you plan them for?

NC: First off, there is the possibility of a sequel to Vanishing Point. The second idea we have for a game is something more firmly planted in the Sega school of thought, and the third is a completely new concept in racing that is only possible due to the flexibility of our vehicle dynamics. Interested? You should be.

As for the platforms, sorry Sony, definitely not the PS2, as the market is way too crowded - for now, anyway. The Xbox will be interesting just because of the power, but the GameCube has really caught our eye - we just fancy working on Nintendo hardware next time. I've got a soft spot for the Dreamcast, and I would love to write a DC-specific game. It is a seriously underrated machine, but I am nervous about its long-term commercial success.

GS: Getting back to Vanishing Point, how did the game get started? I mean, with tons of racing games on the market you can't simply come to a decision to do a game in the genre. So, what made you think it would turn out as something unique?

NC: We wanted to have a go at creating a racing game because, as lovers of the genre, we were very disappointed with what was on offer. Sega was, and still is, the racing game king, and we wanted to try to follow in its footsteps. Yeah, futile, I know. But, we thought that we would try to capture the magic of the controls in Sega Rally and combine that with a bigger game - more cars, tracks, game modes, etc. Having barely survived through the development, I know how hard it is to create a good racing game. Like I said earlier, I don't want to knock other racing game developers, but I think the majority of their success was achieved by wearing a commercial hat - filling a hole in the market. We just wanted to create the best driving experience we possibly could, just like Sega Rally did. I understand that its uniqueness may be its undoing from a commercial point of view, but at the end of the day, it is the kind of game Clockwork and I wanted to play.

GS: What would you say was the hardest part in the creation of Vanishing Point?

NC: I think I've answered that already - the bloody vehicle dynamics. But, on a larger scale, we had to ensure that the dynamics, the AI, the traffic, and the "zero pop-up" rendering engine all ran at full speed. Yes, it's ambitious, but necessary in order to get noticed.

GS: Do you have any secret anecdotes you could share with our readers regarding the development of Vanishing Point?

NC: Lots of things made us laugh during the development, but I think the crown goes to a producer at Sony. Before Acclaim signed up the game, we went to see Sony, as Vanishing Point was designed specifically for the PlayStation and we thought that they'd appreciate it. Well, they loved the technology, but [the producer] said that in order for them to sign it, we would have to change the game so that it was more like Gran Turismo. If we did that, I think that there would have been a slight conflict of interests, don't you? Needless to say, we didn't sign, and I don't think he works at Sony anymore.

GS: Thanks for talking with us, Neil.

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