Blur: preview and Bizarre Creations interview

Super-fast split screen racing is heading to the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 once more - Michael finds out more about Activision and Bizarre Creations' Blur...

Blur‘s concept seems so obvious in retrospect: why not twin the photo-realistic graphics and licensed cars of Forza with the arcade-style mayhem of Mario Kart? It’s a simple setup that yields a lot of excitement, as many gamers have already found out through the game’s Xbox 360 pre-release beta, which kicked off at the beginning of March.

Based around real-world locales, like Tokyo and Barcelona, Blur pulses with electric energy, as players pick up items such as lightning bolts, mines and speed boosts to wreck their opponents, or get the edge on the rest of the crowd. 

With much of the game’s core aspects still being kept under wraps – a single player career mode that comes complete with social media parodies, for instance – plenty of attention has been given to the multiplayer, which is engrossing and fast-paced. It’s shaping up to be a racing equivalent to Modern Warfare 2, with an XP-style ‘fan points’ system, which are granted for racing and completing specific challenges, and unlock new cars and gaming modes as the player levels up.

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At a recent hands-on event in central London, various journos were shoe-horned into leather sofas and given a test drive of the game’s 4-player split screen. Trash talk was spewed, victory dances were broken out, and a few tears might have been shed.

More importantly, we were given the opportunity to chat with two representatives from Bizarre Creations, the Liverpool-based development team. I grabbed a quick chat with Ged Talbot, lead designer, and Chris Downey, lead environment artist, asking them about their intentions for the game, how to craft a compelling multiplayer experience, and looking for originality in a bloated marketplace.

We also touch on the game’s beta – now closed for registration, but expected to be released as a free, open Xbox Live download on April 6th – and the anticipation it has created, as well as their reactions to the government’s recent plans to provide tax breaks for the British game industry.

Just to start things off by cutting to the heart of the matter. Can you describe Blur in a sentence?

Ged Talbot: It’s racing, /powered up/.

Bizarre Creations is not new to the videogame racing world. What was the thought process behind Blur?

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GT: Really, we wanted something that was much more energetic, something much more action-based. We wanted a game where players felt that there was always something that they could do, that there was always a way of getting back into the lead, that there was always a way of battling with your opponents. So we started off with that goal.

Chris Downey: We also wanted to make a racing game where it wasn’t always about winning. So it doesn’t matter if you’re first or last, you’re still having those same battles wherever you are within the pack. And that lets everyone have a good time, not just the guy who’s winning.

GT: We’ve found that racing games are very skill-based, and it’s almost an innate skill. So, someone who is good at racing games will win all the time, and someone who’s bad at racing games will lose all of the time. But with the game that we’ve created, we’ve mixed that up, and we’ve allowed the players at the back to attack the players at the front. We’ve also allowed players at the front to be skillful enough to be able to evade those tactics. So, we’ve tried to make a game that is good for everybody.

CD: Good for hardcore gamers and casual gamers alike.

That’s good, and I’ve certainly noticed that accessible approach. I’m not really a racing game fan. I know nothing about cars, and a series like Forza is just a mystery to me…

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GT: This is the thing. Racing games in the past few years, they’re all starting to converge into the same design. Everybody is making the same game, and everybody thinks the cars are stars, so they give you three million cars and a couple of tracks. And everyone’s fine with that. But really, people aren’t. They want more out of racing games than that. They want enjoyment, and they don’t just want the realism. And that was what we took when we looked at racing games, and we were thinking of what game we should make next. Do we want to make a ‘me too’ game? Or do we want to make something that is a Bizarre Creations game?

There’s certainly a gap there, especially on the HD consoles. I suppose the main action-centric racing game series is Mario Kart, to which Blur has been compared. And today you’ve been getting people to sit down and play split-screen. Did you focus primarily on that local multiplayer side of the game, then?

CD: I think it comes back to trying to appeal to everybody. Everyone likes to get together with their mates and sit down, have a few beers, and nudge each other on the sofa, while you’re shooting them with a weird electric bolt!

GT: The thing is, it’s more than that. You’ve got your multiplayer game, which is very much a progression-type game, where a single person can try and get to level 50 or whatever it is, and get all of the stuff. But also, as Chris has said, it is the kind of game you can play when you get home from the pub. You can play it in split-screen with four of your mates, and it works as well in that scenario, as it does playing the single player on your own, or the multiplayer online.

We wanted to put as many different ways to play in the game as possible. We know that some people stay away from Xbox LIVE, but they’ve got friends, and they like playing racing games. So we give them that experience. We’ve got people who only want to play a single player game, and they can earn stuff and rank up, so we give them that game as well. So the players get to choose.

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It’s certainly a compelling experience. It’s that Call Of Duty approach, with experience points and levelling up, unlocking new items as you go. You just keep on playing…

GT: And that’s a huge pull. It’s that ‘one more track’ thing. We’ve even done it with when you can vote on the next track. Because getting the players to vote on the next track makes them want to play the track they voted for. You might get to the end of the race and think ‘aw, it’s time for bed’, but then the two tracks come up, and you think ‘I love that track!’. And then you do it again!

There has already been an audience that has experienced this game through the public beta, that you put out at the beginning of March. And that’s affected the game quite a lot, turning it from a mildly anticipated game, to something that a lot of people are talking about. Is that something that you expected, or planned?

GT: It’s certainly something we’d hoped for. We’d worked on it for two years, and six months. A year ago, when people first looked at it, we were very much in the early stages, and we hadn’t quite nailed it exactly. But in the last six months, the game just gone from strength to strength. From a game where, we knew what we were making, we were just building the piece, to now, where we’re playing the game every day. We’re playing it like gamers. It’s got to that stage for us. Which gives us the hope that everybody else will be experience that.

And with the beta, we’re finding that that is exactly the case. People are coming back and saying they’re having the same experience as us! Which is just amazing. So we’re pleasantly surprised, and very happy.

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And recently there’s been an expansion to the beta, with extra cars added and the level cap raised. What’s the thinking behind that?

GT: We did the beta, obviously, because we were still tuning parts of the game. One area of the game is that we found that people were ranking up too quickly, so we’ve sorted that out. People wanted more cars, so we’ve given them that as well. Just for the fact that people want that type of stuff is amazing. We’re getting people telling us how great the game is.

And, to wrap up, it must be asked, as you are from one of the more established British development companies, it’s recently been announced as part of the Budget that the UK games industry will be getting tax breaks in the future. What’s your take on that?

GT: I think, in principle, it’s a good idea. We only found out about it yesterday, and it went around the office, and everybody went ‘ooh, that’s nice!’ [laughs] And then we all went ‘show me the money’. But, until it’s a bit more clear how that’s going to pan out, and what types of tax breaks and benefits we’re going to get – as I said, we only saw a little press release – so how that affects us as a company remains to be seen.

I suppose it is also quite a step towards acknowledging the place of the games industry in this country, too.

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GT: And Britain, traditionally, has always been quite big in the games industry. We had our own computers which started our industry off, so we had a very big home-grown industry anyway. Much better than some of the other, continental countries. So, it is good. It’s good that we’re stopping the leakage over to Canada, and bringing it back over here.

It might help out a lot of the smaller companies over here as well, the independents.

GT: Yeah, you’ll find that most of the British companies are the smaller and independent places. But, if it helps us, then the more’s the better. As long as it doesn’t help any other racing games! [laughs]

Ged Talbot and Chris Downey, thank you very much!

Blur will be released on May 28th, for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.