IGN Wireless talks to I-play's junior game designer about Tokyo Drift.
Two weeks ago, IGN Wireless had the rare opportunity to visit I-play's development studio in Dunfermline, Scotland and look over several shoulders during the final stage of the development of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The drift racing game is due to be released on the decks just prior to the release of the summer movie on June 16.
During my visit, I sat down with I-play's Kirsty Rigden, the junior game designer on Tokyo Drift. Rigden is bright, chatty, and very passionate about her job -- which is revealed not only by her grasp of the industry, but the infectious smile she wears during a pitch meeting where she tries to sell a new game concept to I-play's sales department.
Meeting and talking with mobile game developers
is always interesting, especially after several years of immersion with traditional console game developers. With shorter dev cycles, smaller budgets, and tinier teams, mobile game
development is a different animal completely. Whereas a console game designer can be assigned just one facet of the game and not see the rest of development through a wide-angle lens, mobile game developers often handle several aspects of design during the course of a project. Rigden refers to a friend that works at Rockstar: "He has been stuck on the same thing for six months while I have worked on three games."
As an example, Rigden designed the tracks, wrote in-game text, designed the logical layout of the user interface, and was pivotal in the creation of the in-game garage where players upgrade their wheels after successful runs.
Mobile development also offers some pretty exciting opportunities for advancement. Rigden's mobile ascension started out working in quality assurance (QA), leaving a brief gig at THQ Wireless' London studio before coming to I-play's Scotland office. She worked in QA for just over a year, impressing her supervisors and other team members wither suggestions and ideas. (Her degree in artificial intelligence and computer science from Edinburgh University probably didn't hurt, either.)
Rigden was the lead designer on last year's Nate Adams motocross game, which was not designed by I-play, but by an outside developer: Xendex. "That, very thankfully, worked to my favor," said Rigden. "Nate started off being a distribution title, but I got a lot of design input into that." During the QA process. Rigden offered several suggestions on how to improve the title -- and to her surprise and delight, they listened.
Around that time, she started submitting game play concepts to I-play. Her concepts (which will go unmentioned, as at least one is currently under consideration) lead to a trial position as a junior game designer. The position was only meant to last six months while the team looked for a more seasoned replacement for a designer that left to join Reflections, the developer of the Driver series.
It has since turned into a permanent position.
On Being Fast,
At the start of Tokyo Drift's production, Rigden began noodling around with track design while waiting on input from Universal. Using a tool called Mappy, Rigden started laying out some basic tracks to "see how they felt with drifting mechanic."
(The drift mechanic was designed by Graeme Harkness, who developed a toolbox so they could easily adjust ratios and values and try out new drift mechanics. Another benefit of mobile, according to Harkness, is that game engines can not only be easily changed and manipulated, but you don't have to wait hours on end to prep a new build to test your work.)
Rigden then began to work on the AI of the rival cars. The goal was to give players opponents they could follow, but not simply memorize. "You plot basic routes," says Rigden, "but they don't stick rigorous to it." After playing a few builds of the game, I see what Rigden means. The rival wheels do behave in very specific ways, but they don't run the track over and over the same way like zombies. However, she made sure to include routines so Tokyo Drift is occasionally unpredictable. "Depending on how you are playing the game and what direction you are going, they will either move out of the way or smack into you."
After getting knee-deep into development, Rigden finally got her hands on a script so she could name tracks, finalize the feel of each course, and start writing in-game text so the game mirrors the tone of the movie -- for example, your southern boy racer is referred to disparagingly as cowboy.' "I tried to take up the general tone," says Rigden, "without sounding too cheesy."
She succeeds for the most part. Winning a race and being told "You rock!" does smell a little of the Velveeta.
Rigden has every plan to stay in the mobile gaming area. She's seen the other side of the spectrum during her time at the BBC where she worked on console and PC games (for franchises like the Teletubbies) as well as her friendships in other sectors of the industry.
"There's a bit of elitism when it comes from consoles or PC," says Rigden. "That they are 'proper games.'"
It's an assertion that Rigden laughs off. She feels she's helped design several proper game. And she's looking forward to working on more -- especially with some fresh concepts, something that mobile definitely has over console and PC. Considering that mobile budgets often hover in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand as opposed to the eight-figure budgets now seen regularly on console titles, Rigden says, "There is a lot of opportunities for original stuff." (Having sat in on the sales meeting where Rigden pitched her concept, I'm inclined to agree.)
And if a new concept doesn't turn out to be as clever as the designer had hoped? "If a game crashes and burns, its not the end of the world," says Rigden. Thanks to smaller budgets, it's much easier for a mobile publisher to absorb an underperformer. Constrast that to the bulging budgets of next-gen games -- some PS3 and Xbox 360 games are costing upwards of $15-20 million. A dud can ruin more than a quarter -- it can seriously hobble a company.
With over 4 million worldwide downloads of Fast and Furious games to date, Tokyo Drift is not likely to crash and burn for I-play, based solely on the strength of the license. But Rigden and the rest of the Tokyo Drift team aren't relying solely on the power of the franchise to coast to a victory lap. After E3, I'll look at the art and visual design of Tokyo Drift and how I-play is ensuring the game matches the look of the movie, as well as making sure it's as compelling to the eyes and the thumbs.