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Behind the scenes at Bizarre Creations

March, 3, 2010

Behind the scenes at Bizarre Creations
By Nick Akerman

Vroom Vroom...

Situated in the heart of Liverpool's industrious estate, you'd be forgiven for not having a clue where the Bizarre operations take place. Echoing the wardrobe into Narnia, Bizarre's headquarters doesn't look much from the outside, but once you enter a world of chirpy characters, spacious offices and vivid walkways, you're quickly made to feel welcome. With the bleak British weather taking grip, we entered the studio eager to learn about Blur's development, and hoping to gain a rare insight into how things work at one of England's top development teams.

It was with pleasure that we were met at the door by Junior Designer Andy Kearney, our tour guide for the morning. Welcoming us with open arms, our first stop put us with Lead Environment Artist Chris Downey. Nonchalantly turning round from his work desk, he began discussing what makes Blur's tracks more exciting than the competition.

A lot of thought has clearly been put into the track design on Blur. Although environments are simple, they represent their influences excellently. Downey proudly showed us real-life images of London's Hackney area, and San Francisco's famous Golden Gate Bridge, and then revealed in-game comparisons. Each map has been mirrored almost identically, but Downey and the team placed the emphasis on finding visually interesting areas and then adapting them to create a number of straight-forward routes.

By opting to design like this, Downey excitedly announced the team are trying to create iconic moments. Instead of incorporating a huge rock that would cut off the route around the Golden Gate Bridge, they place a neon-lit tunnel in place as an alternative. A huge bunker also stands in the shadow of the real landmark, but the team have made it bigger and brought it closer to the route players will take, all in aid of “breaking up something visually uninspiring” and adding flair to it without losing familiarity. As we moved on from Downey, he announced that Bizarre's scouting team only had one limitation when mapping environments: the element of danger. He proudly revealed that every location they scouted made it into the full game: a testimony to their design skill and pedigree.

Our next stop had us sitting in the offices of Lead Car Artist's Jason Bowers and Ben O'Sullivan. Concept art littered the walls, all ready for judgment like Simon Cowell choosing his American Idol finalists. Bowers and O’Sullivan explained in-depth as to how over twenty five fully-licensed cars have been adapted to the Blur world – all of which had to be approved by the manufacturers themselves. If BMW didn't like the shiny new rims or view-sapping spoiler, it would be back to the drawing board. Luckily, Ben announced most manufacturers were supportive in their designs, and appreciated the unique, hand-drawn visions the team came up with.

Interestingly, the two designers also digressed into talking about the multi-layer damage model for Blur. Each car's visual damage is based round contact points, and also have to approved by manufacturers. Highlighting a particularly flimsy door or front bumper in the game could have an affect on business in the real world, and comes under strict scrutiny from the powers above. Understandably, there wasn't a single manufacturer who agreed to showing damage on the driver's section of the car. Even if you get ripped apart by a number of Bolts (three shot blast), flipped out of control by the ridiculously powerful Shunt (homing missiles), or even crumpled under the exploding Barge (360 degree blast), you're driving side will remain in tact. It's creepy, but you'll be hard pressed to find a game where licensed vehicles allow you to damage the driver's seat with anything more than a few scratches, particularly directly above your character's head.

After speaking to the environmental and car designers, we progressed into a small office near the recreational centre. Lead Audio Designer Mike DeBelle and Audio Designer Nick Wiswell ushered us into their cramped office, sporting huge smiles for what was to come. This was certainly the highlight of the trip, as the guys spoke about their influences behind the audio set-up, and showcased how the team's “clean slate” after joining Activision has paid off. With influences from Hollywood from films such as Star Wars, Ironman and Transformers, DeBelle and Wiswell quickly stopped talking and turned the volume up in order to treat us to the best of Blur's firepower.

It must be said, witnessing a Blur race unfold with full 5:1 surround sound is an enthralling experience. Projectiles creep up behind you, making their way from the back of the room and towards your trembling chassis in an intense battle to get out of the way. Just as impressively, any shields you use act as a barrier against sound. This means if you're racing in third-person, your car's engine purr and screeching tires are hushed out, but if you're racing in first-person, any noises from outside your shield's protective radius become quieter and less intense. It's a smart touch, and certainly gives the sense that you're taking part in a skirmish that's come straight from the big-screen.

Humorously, the audio designers then decided to show us their favorite prop for creating Blur's audio: a beaten up car door. Wiswell told us stories about how they created the individual tremors of mud hitting your car, or gravel spewing from under tires. It seems that throwing stones and forcing two grown men to bash car doors together is a simple yet highly effective way of recreating a high-speed chase, as once the two hundred layers of active sound are pieced together, it's rather impressive.

The two designers announced that there aren't any stock sounds in the game, as everything from heavily modified engines and twin exhausts have been modeled separately to provide a sense of scope that many racers overlook. Acknowledging the success of racers such as Forza Motorsport 3, DeBelle and Wiswell confirmed they “keep an eye on the competition,” and so far, haven't been outdone- aside from Blur's inability to include a honk for each car, as the designers jokingly taunt themselves over running out of buttons.

Bizarre Creations have certainly put their success to good use by building the custom studio we enjoyed visiting, and shaping a workplace that invites creativity. With graffiti-clad walls, all of which has been custom designed to showcase Bizarre's greatest character's and games, and housing just under two hundred staff members, there's a real feel-good factor about the place. Awards litter the brightly colored halls, as employees from all over the world set upon the task of producing the best game they possibly can.

It was a real pleasure meeting the team who've modestly been going about their business on Blur for two and half years now. As the release dates of May 25 in the US and May 28 in the UK draw nearer, one question still begs to be answered: how the hell do they get any work done with a Killer Instinct arcade machine near the kitchen?

Gw
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