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A Q&A on The Getaway

Matthew D. Sarrel

PC Magazine Labs Technical Director Matt Sarrel recently had the opportunity to interview Brendan McNamara of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's Team Soho about the development of The Getaway, a new action adventure game set in London's seamy underbelly. The goal of most game developers—rarely attained—is to create a realistic environment and populate it with convincing characters. Developers of The Getaway not only attain this lofty goal, they take it a step further, incorporating actual London streets and highly-detailed character models, while still providing gamers with the freedom to enjoy themselves (and wreak havoc).

MDS: How was development of The Getaway different than that of other games you've worked on? BM: The Getaway was different because we wanted to change the perception that video gaming was just for kids, or that a game was just a cartoon depiction of reality that people normally get in games. For Team Soho as a studio, we set our stall early on to compete with the big Japanese teams for quality and with motion pictures for story. The two goals for the game were to make an action movie you could play and to have a story that was compelling.

MDS: What other games have you worked on? BM: Previous to The Getaway I worked on the This Is Football series, which is called World Tour Soccer in the US. Prior to that [Team Soho] did Porsche Challenge and Rapid Racer. When I was at Psygnosis, I worked on a children's adventure called Kingsley.

MDS: What sets The Getaway apart from other games? BM: How long have you got? In the presentation of the game, we abandoned all of the old arcade conventions such as health bars, ammo meters, and scores. Our belief is that the quality of representation now possible in video games means that we no longer need this orthodoxy. In a film, you don't need a health meter to tell you that a character has been hurt.

In story, we have a complex tale that is intellectually stimulating and weaves two separate character arcs. It is compelling both to watch but also to push you through the game. Reaction to having a decent story in a video game has been overwhelming.

In design, we have a real city. There has never been a real city in a video game which hasn't been a pastiche of the tourist locations or a level designer's idea of what a city should be like. The Getaway is set in London, and it is London down to an incredible level of detail. It features pedestrians and traffic with a fully operational traffic system that the cars obey. The Getaway has real people, not idealized cartoon characters. Everyone you see in The Getaway is a real person scanned into the game with real movements—not the classic hand-animated characters you normally associate with games.

The Getaway defies genres, mixing racing, action, and adventure. Technologically, it pushes the PlayStation 2 as hard as is currently possible. The player will never see a loading screen once in the game. That's 21 square miles of textures and city without ever breaking out of the game. There are no loads on interiors either—it is completely seamless. These interiors are huge and they are also real locations. Other games take you out of the experience by forcing you to sit through long loads for tiny inconsequential interiors that add nothing to the game play.

MDS: Do you think that The Getaway may revolutionize the way that we think about and play games? If so, why? BM: I think after The Getaway, consumers will expect more. They'll expect not to have to wait for their game to load up. They'll question whether we need all of the screen litter from our arcade heritage. They won't put up with low-quality locations and phony cars with 2-D physics and collisions, which for some strange reason never take damage. They'll expect stories and performance that move them and challenge them instead of insulting their intelligence as most game stories do. I think they will expect their game worlds to be better and to be more consistent so that suspension of disbelief is instant. Being able to do these things will make us more acceptable to a much bigger audience than we have now.

MDS: I understand that the game recreates 40 square kilometers of downtown London. How was that done? BM: It was done the hard way, by sending the art team out on the road and taking digital pictures of each building on each street and then bringing them back and using them as the base textures for the building models. We then created a huge database of buildings and objects that we could use to accurately portray the city. We have over 300,000 photographs, which ends up being 3GB of game textures.

MDS: What software was used for development (animation, modeling, the game engine, and so forth) and how did these tools contribute to the game's uniqueness? BM: The main art package for the games was Maya, which we heavily customized to produce a level editor and game editor as well as attaching it to a huge database to maintain version issues. We also used Kaydara Filmbox (now known as Motionbuilder) for motion capture and as a 3-D scene and camera editor to produce the cut scenes. The game engine itself was written in house and uses a horrendous amount of assembler to take advantage of the PS2 architecture.

MDS: Wow. Assembler. I remember trying to write simple games in assembler for the Commodore 64 as a kid. After a few weeks, we'd end up with a few hundred lines of code and some pixelated stick figures. Approximately how many lines of code is The Getaway's game engine? BM: Last time we printed it out in Arial font size 10, we could roll it all the way down from King's Cross to Westminster (approximately 3.5 miles).

We had a 17 man coding team broken down into areas like animation, cameras, car dynamics, AI, traffic and police, loading and streaming data, cut scenes, and mission game play.

I think the tools themselves don't contribute to the game's uniqueness. I think it's the creativity and problem-solving skills of the people using those tools that really made The Getaway. There are so many areas where the team could have taken the easy way out—the conventional route—and they persevered to make something original and different.

MDS: Can you give us an example of an instance where the team could have taken the easy way out but didn't? BM: We experimented with many ideas and techniques to represent the concept of time, navigation aid, character health, and how to regain health without the use of any screen litter, as mentioned in another question. We didn't try to be unconventional just because, but the overall style of the game dictated the way we had to persevere to come up with this new way of feedback that the player needs to play the game.

MDS: Are you completely satisfied with the way the game turned out? Anything you'd change? BM: You are never satisfied. When I look at it all, I see things that could be better. I'm satisfied that it is finished and it now has its moment in time, as all entertainment should. I was happy to be a part of it, and it's given me plenty of clues as to where to go next to fulfill the promise that The Getaway shows is possible.

MDS: What is your favorite part of the game? Which scene do you look at and think "Wow, we did a great job right here"? BM: I think my favorite part is how the story works with the game play. Usually you want to just skip the story in games, and we have had really good feedback from people who enjoyed the way the game and the story mix. The other thing that I personally really like is the camera. I think cameras, especially third-person cameras, are the most difficult area to do in video games, and this whole area is still in its infancy. You never have to play the camera [manipulate it yourself] in The Getaway—you just play the game.

MDS: What did you learn from the process of developing The Getaway that'll help you in your work on future games? BM: I learned that stories in games don't have to be ridiculous, and that a story can make you want to complete a game. I learned that there is an audience out there that has been playing games for 10 years or longer who wants something more than cuddly platformers, schlock sci-fi, and cartoon splatterfests. I learned that video games have the potential to be the entertainment art form of the 21st century, but we need to get to a bigger audience. To do this, we need to perfect the language of camera and character interaction and control. If we can get past the technique, we can concentrate on the expression. It's an exciting time.

MDS: Do you have plans for a follow-up game? BM: For now, I'm moving home to Sydney, after 15 years in London, to start a new game development studio there. I'm currently writing the novel and game design for my next project, which will be for the next-generation of console.

MDS: Thanks, Brendan. I really appreciate your time. Best of luck starting your studio in Sydney.

Copyright © 2003 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.

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