Hello hello! Thanks for joining me for another Game Dev Insight sitdown. I’m so excited to be able to share a fun chat I had with Paul Rustchynsky about his start into video games, the nature of designing racing games, history at Evolution Studios and much more. Paul is the Game Director on a new game at the UK studio Codemasters. You might also be familiar with other franchises he’s worked on including the recent PlayStation 4 exclusive DRIVECLUB, the MotorStorm series on the PlayStation 3 and the WRC franchise. He’s a racing game guru and I had a great time picking his brain! Be sure to hit him up or give him a follow on Twitter at @Rushy33.
I’m happy to have Paul Rustchynsky with me today. Thanks so much for taking time out of your schedule to chat with me Paul.
Paul: It’s a pleasure, I love nothing more than to chat about games.
That’s what I like to hear! You’ve got a long history working with video games. Did you go to school for it? How did you first get started in the industry?
Paul: I did actually. I joined one of the first gaming university courses in the England, doing a BSC in Computer & Video Games at Salford University. I played probably a little too much Quake 3 & Counter-Strike on the university network, but it was a fantastic learning experience – especially the final year where the project was to build a team and create a game. Trying to a build a game as a team with no experience was a heck of a challenge, but it put me in good stead for the industry.
Straight after university I started applying for jobs, primarily QA jobs as I knew that with zero industry experience it would have been hard to jump straight into a design role. I luckily got an interview fairly quickly after applying with Codemasters to work on Indy Car Series 2005 as a tester. I obviously took the job when they offered it to me, and that was my gateway into the gaming industry and I’ve never looked back!
I often hear a lot of people saying they got started with QA. So why racing games in particular? I take it you’re a car buff?
Paul: QA is a fantastic way into the gaming industry, but if I had to give any advice to those looking for an opportunity, try and join a smaller team – as a QA tester you’ll be able to get much more involved with the development team in general and show them your skills.
Back then when I started in the industry I certainly wasn’t a car buff. I had an interest in MotorSports, F1 & WRC primarily but it was racing games that I was really into. Everything from Mario Kart to Colin Mcrae, from Gran Turismo to Wipeout – anything that involved vehicles and tracks was a thrill for me. So I guess you could call me a racing game buff, but it was only when I started to work on racing games did I really get interested in cars a lot more in real life.
Ahh, so it was sort of the opposite for you [laughs]. After Blade Interactive, you joined Evolution Studios for the majority of your career. I was a big fan of the Motorstorm series!
Paul: Yeah after Codemasters I briefly joined Blade Interactive to work on my only non-racing game ‘Pool Shark 2’, but when the opportunity to work at Evolution in a design capacity came along I couldn’t refuse it. I started there on WRC Rally Evolved, which to date I still think is one of the best games I’ve worked on. But obviously it was with MotorStorm that the studio really made its name and I love that people still ask me about the series and always have positive things to say about those games.
The chaos during every race was a ton of fun. Do you have any fond memories during development? Anything that stands out in your mind?
Paul: I remember working on the original MotorStorm – it was a crazy time for us. We’d scaled up the team massively in a short period of time, we were working with new (complicated) hardware, and we had a very short amount of time to make it to get it out around the PS3 launch window. I never learned so much in a short space of time about gaming development, I never had more fun but neither I had ever been as stressed.
One memory that always comes to mind is when lead designer at the time Nigel Kershaw told me that the ATV handling that I had been working on was the “worst vehicle he had ever driven” followed by a few expletives. This might sound odd as a ‘fond’ memory, but I remember that as a turning point for me on the project. It made me look for different solutions to problems I was trying to solve and gave me the drive to deliver something that was much better.
Hah. Sometimes tough love works best I guess, right? Speaking of which, the PS3 was pretty new at the time. It became a little notorious for being such complicated hardware. Was it especially tough during the early days?
Paul: While tough love isn’t always the right course, in this instance it worked, and I think because most of us at the time were good friends, not just colleagues. We all respected one another, and knew the stakes.
Working on a new concept, on new hardware brought a huge number of challenges. We had some extremely talented guys, some of the best in the industry and even for them the learning curve was steep. It was very late in the day when we actually pulled it all together all running at a playable frame-rate. I still look back and wonder how we managed it, especially because I’m still extremely proud of what we achieved.
Once we had got to grips with the system and had a better understanding of the unwieldy and unique architecture I like to think that we made excellent use of it, taking advantage of what it offered, delivering some stunning looking games.
Oh definitely. Motorstorm: Apocalypse was probably one the most accomplished games on the PS3 visually, I think. Now, “game designer” is a fairly vague term [laughs]. What did you do exactly? What were the every day tasks you took care of?
Paul: My design role throughout the games I worked on at Evolution was extremely varied – which I was always so lucky and so grateful to be exposed to so many areas of the game. On the original MotorStorm I set up, tuned and balanced all of the vehicles – which I must thank Dave Kirk the physics programmer, for developing the core handling model. I was also responsible for the boost system, the rumble, the ragdoll thresholds, vehicle cameras and more, but it was primarily the core gameplay systems that the player interacted with.
I did get involved with some track feedback, and various parts of the single player and multiplayer designs, but only really because I stuck my oar into those areas to give my opinion!
So that gets me thinking, and I’ve been thinking about this for a little while, and that’s the way racing games are made. You have a general template with shooters, mechanics that are necessary. You have to build out a level and environment with platformers for example. I know it’s not *that* simple, but with racers, you have an object continuously moving forward at a fast speed or certain parameters that have to be kept. Is there anything that’s specific to racing game development?
Paul: There’s definitely a template of sorts that we’ve followed for most of our racing games – that generally revolves around the handling model. As you live or die in this genre by the quality of your handling – which is more than just a vehicles physics model. It’s about how you interpret the players input, how the camera behaves, the feedback you get from the rumble and how you communicate speed using various effects. This is always was always our ‘base’ that we then build the game around – as if the vehicle isn’t fun, predictable and engaging to drive around on a virtually empty track then it’ll never be any good.
So is it mostly thousands of hours of trial and error to get a vehicle feeling just right? How do you know when you’ve hit that perfect mark?
Paul: In the early days is was predominantly trial and error, and feedback from the team. On later titles we started to utilize user-testing for a broader range of opinions. Then we introduced telemetry recordings and analytics data to assess the handling.
Even with all these types of systems you can never be certain if you’ve hit that perfect mark, if there is such a thing, but it helps guide and steer you in the right direction. As at the end of the day someone has to make that decision and say “That’s it, don’t change it”.
This may be a touchy subject Paul. Are you ready? How do you feel about open world racers versus closed circuit? Any preference?
Paul: Depends on my mood! I remembering falling in love with Test Drive Unlimited, I explored every inch of Hawaii. The freedom and exploration that it offered was something that stood out at the time, and it certainly sold me on open world racers. But at times I just want tracks that I can learn, that I can master and fight for tight overtaking opportunities. I’d hate to have to choose just one, the racing genre is much richer for having both types of experiences.
Arcade versus sim?
Paul: Give me both! There are days were I want to sit behind my racing wheel and push my limits of car control, and then other days were I just want to relax with a pad and smash people off the road.
If anything I’d argue that the difference between arcade and sim is far more pronounced than open world and closed circuits. Imagine a racing landscape without the contrast of arcade greats such as Burnout and Mario Kart, or the superb sims Gran Turismo & Forza.
Just give me more types of racers, I love them all! [laughs]
Bringing things into a more recent period, DRIVECLUB was the last game released by Evolution Studios. How long did you guys work on that before release? When did it first become something the studio decided had to be made?
Paul: It was not long after MotorStorm Apocalypse (MSA) in 2011. I went off to work on MotorStorm RC and a group of guys worked on the expansions for MSA. That left a small team that started to put together ideas for what our first game on PS4 would be. I only joined the DRIVECLUB team after wrapping up MotorStorm RC in 2012, at which point the development was really gaining momentum.
What was your goal with DRIVECLUB? What I mean is, what made you think “Yea, this is different. I think people will really appreciate this”?
Paul: Our goal at the time was to quite simply create a socially connected racer. Where players would have their racing experience enriched by their interactions with others, share in the rewards from being part of a social group [a club] and engage in competitive E-sports like tournaments and leagues together.
Yep. You guys supported it for a long time post-launch. It’s arguably one of the best looking games on the PS4. Besides having great artists and programmers, I have to ask how you guys pulled that off.
Paul: DRIVECLUB always had a service planned to support the game, but it evolved and grew way beyond our original expectations. And that was down to the community, the way they engaged with us and kept asking for more content and features – I had so much fun working with the community during that phase.
I’m not sure I can put down the visual quality of the game down to anything else other than the talent of the individuals in the team. But what I will say is that we’re perfectionists in this area and the leads across the various teams responsible are always pushing each other for better techniques, better tools and better assets. And it’s this combination of talent and drive within a team that have worked together for over a decade which allowed us to push things so far.
I’m sure there was discussion internally on whether to target 30FPS or shoot for 60. What made you want to stay at 30?
Paul: Ultimately that was down to our Art and Graphics leads – they wanted to push advanced features such as SSR, PBR materials, dynamic skies & fully dynamic weather. My only caveat to the team being that the physics & game systems had to have the lowest input latency possible, with a 100% locked framerate, to ensure that the feel of the game wasn’t compromised, and I believe we achieved that.
So after Driveclub, you and the team joined Codemasters. How’s that going?
Paul: It’s really exciting for me to be a part of the Codemasters family again. Not just because this is where I started my career many years ago, but because of where this company is going. The growth and success in recent years is phenomenal, and there’s a huge sense of confidence and energy across all of the teams, which I think speaks for itself in the quality you see in the games.
And within the company the culture is fantastic. There’s a strong focus on empowering everyone who works here to do great things, to learn more, share more, and bring new talent into the teams, which keeps fueling our success and ensures that we keep making great games that last forever. It’s inspiring and uplifting for me and the team, especially as we’re all hard at work bringing a super secret new racing IP to life [laughs].
I realize it’s getting pretty late in the night so I have one last thing on my mind. What is that new IP and when are we going to see it?!
Paul: [Laughs] I was waiting for that question! I have to admit it’s killing me that I can’t talk or even hint about it yet. You have no idea how frustrating it is, but ultimately the wait will be worth it. The only thing I can say is that I’ve never had so much fun with a game so early on development, and it’s only getting better every day
I can’t wait to finally see it. Thanks so much for taking time and hanging out with me a bit Paul. Best of luck in the future.
Paul: Cheers, it’s a pleasure chatting with you.