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Developing a regional identity with friends in ‘The Crew’

The Crew screenshot Ubisoft

Ubisoft’s and developer Ivory Tower’s The Crew feels like a game that could only exist in the next hardware generation. With an open world map than spans a stylized, truncated version of the continental United States and a completely merged single player/multiplayer experience, the scope of what’s going on here feels too big for what current game consoles can pull off. That’s not how the racing game was originally conceived, however.

“This game started over four years ago,” Ivory Tower creative director Julian Gerighty tells Digital Trends. “The game hasn’t changed, its just taken that long to get it working and working as well as we want it to be working. All of the concepts that we have here are concepts that the team has been working on for the last 10 years. The massive open world that’s shared with hundreds of other players? That’s something that the team did for Test Drive Unlimited [in 2006], which was ahead of its time.”

“The game hasn’t changed, its just taken that long to get it working and working as well as we want it to be working”

The idea of shared worlds is very central to a lot of the next-gen discussions. It’s what Gerighty describes as “the console’s take on the MMO.” It took multiple evolutions of The Crew‘s engine to get the game to where it is right now – a PlayStation 4/Xbox One-exclusive – but it’s a change that happened organically. The ideas eventually just outgrew the old tech, and that’s right around the time that the new tech came along.

“It happened about a year and a half ago, where we realized we can push this a little bit further, we can push the personalization of the world, the non-procedural nature of the world, a little bit further if we do it on Xbox One and PS4,” Gerighty reveals. “So our Miami is radically different from our New York, which is normal but it takes a lot of work to get it to that level of quality. And that’s only possible on this next-generation.”

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What’s in a crew?

The Crew is an unusual title for a racing game at first glance. Need for SpeedForza MotorsportGran Turismo… all of these immediately summon up vivid thoughts of speed, of cars racing, of motor oil staining a well-worn track. NASCAR enthusiasts might see the name The Crew and think of pit crews – which isn’t so far off, as it turns out – but an uninformed consumer wouldn’t necessarily make the connection. That said, the game’s title speaks directly to Ivory Tower’s goals for the game.

“It’s two things,” Gerighty says of the unusual title. “One, it’s a reference to the multiplayer side of things and the fact that you’re gathering your different friends to form a crew with you. That’s the whole spirit [of the game]: driving as a multiplayer team. It’s the crew.”

“But it’s also about the single player story, which you can play cooperatively, where you’re going from area to area, from city to city, and you have to recruit a crew of people who are going to supply you with the power-ups. That is your crew. So story-wise there’s a crew; just like in Fast & Furious, you have a crew of people getting together.”

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Building off the Fast & Furious comparison, the crew that you assemble in the story portion of the game is filled out by a range of distinct personalities that all bring along a different set of skills. “They’re NPCs who really represent a skill tree of different options you can choose to personalize, to tailor the driving experience the way you want it to be,” Gerighty says, noting that building an entertaining plot was just as important as nailing other aspects of The Crew‘s vision.

“The story is written by the writer for Red Dead Redemption [and] we’ve got a writer for GTA on the game. What I say is, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a fun story to play through.”

State pride

Little has been revealed of The Crew‘s faction-based multiplayer, which sees the U.S. divided into five different groups: East Coast, West Coast, The South, Mountain States, and Midwest. The regional factions give U.S. gamers an added sense of investment in the multiplayer events they participate in, but Gerighty is well aware that there’s an audience for this game that exists outside the constraints of the map. That’s why there is an effort being put into giving each factions its own, unique personality.

“We’re getting a tattoo artist who works on the team to develop a visual identity [for each faction]. I genuinely think it’s a question of visual identity. That’s why we’re working so much on [answering questions like], ‘Okay, what is the spirit of the West Coast? How do we design a West Coast that is super-attractive to people who don’t know the West Coast?'”

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“So the visual identity of these places, and the types of vehicles and specializations that you’re going to have, those are important things to put forward. Even just the balancing; are we worried that the Midwest is going to be chosen a little bit less than the West Coast, for example? We’re going to have things like bonuses to encourage people to sign up for the Midwest. These scores are going to be refreshed after a certain amount of time and you’re going to be able to change your faction and allegiance after a certain amount of time as well.”

Gerighty clearly has more he’d like to share, but a more detailed reveal of The Crew‘s multiplayer is being held back for Gamescom in August 2013.

Pulling ahead of the pack

“The goal here is to make a really fun game, it’s to make the game that we’re passionate about. We’re gearheads.”

The big challenge that The Crew faces isn’t a matter of title messaging or delivering a comprehensive next-gen experience, it’s a question of finding a niche for an entirely new racing IP in a genre that is already brimming over with high-quality competitors. Gerighty admits that the competition is indeed daunting. “Forza? Incredible game. Need for Speed? Incredible game. But they’re very different games,” he says.

“So what are we bringing that’s really different? Apart from a massive open world that’s completely seamless online/offline, a persistent world with a focus on customization that’s going to allow you to live all of these different adventures of racing – from circuit races to street races to offroad races – well apart from those massive elements, not so much,” he says with a laugh.

When the core ideas of The Crew are laid bare like this, you really do get a better sense of how Ivory Tower intends for its game to stand out. It’s about realizing the dream of the shared game world that so much of the new console hardware is built to support. Most gamers appreciate having an expansive open world to explore, but The Crew takes the added step of delivering a way to share in that experience.

The Crew screenshot form E3 trailer

“The goal here is to make a really fun game, it’s to make the game that we’re passionate about. We’re gearheads. I’ve got a kid, I don’t need to play twitch when I play. I want to relax, so there’s exploration. The street racing is for those guys that want a little more adrenaline. The circuit racing is for a little bit more simulation-style gameplay. But it’s all fun.”

“You can teleport your car,” Gerighty continues. “We’re not married to reality in a way that we’re going to stop you from fast-traveling if you want to fast-travel. We’re not going to force you to drive from New York to Los Angeles unless you really want to, or unless that’s the mission. All of this is, how do we make the game fun first? And I think that’s the major difference.”

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