Nick Baynes on Split/Second

Nick Baynes has come a long way from his memories of playing his first video game, Punchy on the Commodore 16. Now actively creating games as a member of Black Rock Studios, Baynes is eagerly awaiting gamers’ responses to his newest project, Disney Interactive’s Split/Second, when it releases on May 18. Serving as the game’s director, he took time out his schedule Friday to give members of the press some development insight and detail rundowns of what he calls a “massive, action-packed, arcade racing game.”

A demo has been made publicly available for gamers to check out this new twist on the racing genre, but for those that haven’t been able to download the trial, Split/Second details a fictional reality show where some of the greatest stunt drivers compete in a season of races to determine the greatest. In video game fashion, the races are much more than jogs around a track, though. Littered throughout the course are “power plays,” with which the player can trigger rigged explosives littered around each course to wreck opponents, create shortcuts or even completely change the current route of the track. As Baynes describes the premise of Split/Second, “Just imagine a Hollywood movie director was given control of NASCAR for a weekend.”

Black Rock Studios is no stranger to the racing genre, formerly being known as Climax Racing and developing titles such as ATV Off Road Fury, Hot Wheels Stunt Track Challenge and the ’06 and ’07 versions of Moto GP, prior to being picked up by Disney Interactive in 2006. Baynes even indicated some members of the team had worked on racers prior to Climax, so it was noted the studio has a lot of expertise in the genre. Following the acquisition by Disney Interactive, Black Rock Studios began work on more projects, with the first being Pure, an offroad racer that was well-received.

Baynes indicated Split/Second’s development was started around the same time as Pure, with the projects dating back as far back as almost five years ago when the studio began judging what it could do with the current generation of hardware.

“We judged what we couldn’t do on the Playstation 2 and Xbox,” recalled Baynes. “Many of those games had customization and car damge … all of the innovation (in that generation) was based on vehicles. We saw an untouched potential in driving around a dynamically changing track.”

Before settling on the power plays, Black Rock Studios had some brainstorming sessions to decide how it would implement the dynamic element. Baynes threw out a few concepts that came up including severe weather conditions and even futuristic tracks with hydraulic lifts underneath them.

Black Rock Studios is now well known for its dedication to the racing genre and Baynes stated the studio isn’t worried about being “typecast” into future games in the genre.

“The goal is to stay experts and stay within the realm of racing,” he explained. “We don’t want to stand still and do the same thing. We thought Pure pushed what we wanted to do with that concept and we wanted to do street racing with Split/Second. We’re always looking at new, innovative ways to bring fun, new exciting gameplay to racing games. We are proud of the games we make and we have love for the games we make.”

The unpredictable nature of the game’s racing is complimented by the reality television show concept, which gives the premise some legs to stand on.

“With the TV show, we wanted to go larger than life the player is constantly blown away by the scale of the reality a little bit further,” Baynes detailed. “The presentation point-of-view provides a nice look and feel that you may not have seen before.”

Likening the setup to hit shows such as Lost and 24, Baynes also explained why the reality show setup will keep players coming back for more.

“There are tracks and hidden content waiting to be triggered,” he noted. “Players will go through the season mode, unlock a new episode, new tracks and game modes. Like Lost and 24, there is a concept of cliffhangers with teasers at the end of episodes where players get a ‘next-time’ trailer and they will want to carry on and see what happens in the next episode.”

Each episode in the season will have qualifying events. As players progress through the races, points are awarded based on performance and the player will need to have a target number of points across these races to join in on the final elite race in the episode. The top three racers in the elite race are invited back for the next episode and there are unlockable vehicles, tracks, modes and more to earn through the course of the game. Outside of the reality show season, players can come back to the game to enjoy modes such as survival (where players try to survive a storm drain run, inspired by films like Transporter and Terminator 2, where trucks throw explosive barrels at your vehicle), elimination, a detonator time trail mode and even another survival-based mode where a helicopter chases the players and rains down missiles at them.

Breaking down the gameplay and development of Split/Second, the first thing players may notice is the lack of a screen-topping HUD, which is predominant in nearly any racing game on the market. Instead of packing the top of the screen with text, Split/Second places a small HUD directly beneath the player’s vehicle. While this may seem out-of-place, Baynes fully defended the decision, asserting the positioning lends itself to the presentation.

“We’re not doing things for the sake if it,” Baynes began in explaining the HUD. “In racing games, it does seem there are certain aspects implemented because others do it. Many racing games have a lot of uncessary information on the screen like the best lap, current lap, spreads and more. We looked at what was needed for the player to play the game and this game is all about the environment. It seemed crazy to cover this up. We had the idea of putting it behind the car to free the screen up for the player. It was one of those things that once it went in, it was really popular with players.”

Even though Baynes stated the ideas and concepts of Split/Second were amazingly consistant throughout development, he did note some challenges and difficulties. With the unique premise of the title, he noted the development of the tracks became a larger process as opposed to going from conception to layout to scenery. Including power plays meant involvement from other teams in the studio, such as animation, and found the tracks being bounced around in a longer process. Baynes also commented on crafting a title that will please racing enthusiasts while still drawing in other types of gamers.

“We have a deep physics model so the hardcore racer can paly and all of the subtlties are there,” he explained, “but we have layered enough on top for pick-up and playability. We kept the power plays down to a couple of buttons and didn’t add in reticules or aiming. The speed works well with the concpet as well. We tried to keep it open to more people, not just racing fans, but also people that like action. We don’t want to alienate those players.”

The greatest difficulty in piecing together a racing title, according to Baynes, was in develping the AI of opponents.

“The very nature of the race is pitting you versus opponents,” he said. “You want to win, but you still want the AI to give you a challenge. Making the race believable is a real challenge and is the most difficult thing.”

Of course, the real star of the show in Split/Second is in the power plays and Black Rock Studios spent a great amount of time developing these features. In order to trigger these attacks on the other racers, players will build up a meter by drifting, drafting, jumping and performing other extreme feats. The studio has taken time to balance the gameplay to allow players behind first place to catch up without the experience of any “blue shell moments” while not allowing first place racers to trigger and waste power plays.

“Some of the tracks and environments lent themselves better to power plays than others,” Baynes recalled in developing tracks and their associated power plays. “Coming up with the ideas wasn’t hard, but doing it in a way that was fun … that was tricky. Sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘let’s have a wrecking ball fly in and smash all of the cars across the road,’ but timing that and making sure it’s balanced is where the challenge is.”

At the same time, the team also had to have some restraint to keep things from getting too crazy.

“When you come up with these ideas, we want to push it further and further, but you can’t push it too far,” Baynes stated.

A specific example came in a casino, Vegas-style environment that was eventually axed from the game because, as Baynes explained, “from a gameplay point of view, it didn’t offer anything new.” The enviornment spurred an idea of having a giant, one-armed bandit slot machine that released a mass of explosive barrels when triggered.

While these features didn’t make it into the final game, the casino enviornment did influence some of the features players will see in the Downtrack track, which players can experience themselves when Split/Second releases on May 18. The final game will allow for two-player splitscreen local play and up to eight players in various modes online. Through the course of the title, players will be able to control around 25 different vehicles after all are unlocked through progression and milestones. Split/Second may be another racing game on the shelf, but Baynes indicated players won’t find the action of this new racing title in any other game in the genre.

“It’s the intensity of the experience,” he said. “Sometimes you have races where it doesn’t let up from start to finish. It’s an adrenaline-filled experience. In a lot of other racing games, you do get that, but it comes in bite-sized pieces. Players haven’t experienced any other racing game as action-packed as Split/Second.”

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