Image courtesy of Ironwood Studios

Pacific Drive is a run-based driving survival game with an ever changing, mysterious landscape

Mike Williams
Since its founding in 2019, Ironwood Studios has been hard at work on Pacific Drive, and is extremely proud to be working with PlayStation to bring it to life. The team’s passion stems from a love of road trips and the relationship between the driver and the car, always dreaming about surreal worlds and the Pacific Northwest—two things that feature prominently in the game. Ironwood’s goal is to create games that inspire players to tell their own stories, with systems that work together to create unexpected and unique experiences.
The only thing you can rely on in the Olympic Exclusion Zone is your car. Once a testing ground for promising new technology, the Zone is now a home to wild weather, odd occurrences, and supernatural sights. After exploring the rumors about the region, you find yourself trapped inside, with a beaten up station wagon as your only way out.

Ironwood Studios has been working on Pacific Drive since its founding in 2019. While you can explore the Zone on foot, the game is really a run-based survival game focused on driving. While the station wagon starts in disrepair, you’ll find new parts to fix it up through your repeated journeys into the center of the Zone. You’ll graft new armor, scanners, fuel tanks, and even futuristic technology to the wagon in order to survive the horrors ahead.

We talked with members of Ironwood Studios about how the game came together, its real-life and fictional inspirations, and how Unreal Engine helped the small team build the sprawling, shifting nightmare that is the Olympic Exclusion Zone.

Seeing as how this is Ironwood Studio’s first game, what can you tell us about the studio?

Alexander Dracott, Studio Head and Creative Director:
Ironwood is a studio that features an extremely talented team, with a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience. We’ve put a lot of work into developing methods and tools that help us make bigger games, better. We are all driven forward by surreal settings and compelling gameplay that actually tells a story, and we've been putting those values towards our first game: Pacific Drive.

What can you tell us about Pacific Drive?

Seth Rosen, Game Director:
Pacific Drive is a run-based driving survival adventure, set in an alternate version of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a game where you have to maintain your car and drive carefully: there’s all sorts of anomalous activity throughout the Olympic Exclusion Zone. Played from a first person perspective, you’ll sit behind the steering wheel of an old wood-paneled station wagon, your sole companion on your excursions into the Zone.

There’s an abandoned garage that serves as your base of operations: from here you can have a quiet and safe moment to repair your car, upgrade your car or garage with new items, and chart routes to explore new areas of the Zone. As you traverse strange and dangerous environments, you’ll stop periodically to get out and gather crucial materials—just don’t linger too long, or risk getting caught in a deadly storm. Explore the zone and kit out your car as you investigate what’s been left behind in the OEZ, and what’s keeping you inside its walls.

What inspired the mythology and the look of Pacific Drive?

Karrie Shao, Lead Narrative Designer and Writer:
The Pacific Northwest is an extremely unique place featuring its own folklore, character, and atmosphere. Alex has always been drawn to these quieter places—oftentimes going on road trips of his own to explore abandoned industrial areas or find the most picturesque route through the mountains back home. The love of cars comes from his trusty companions on these adventures as well; the inspiration for our in-game actually exists as an old 80’s station wagon that’s taken Alex on many runs out into the Olympic Peninsula.
Considering Pacific Drive is a run-based driving survival game that sends the player on repeated journeys into an ever-changing Olympic Exclusion Zone, why was that genre choice right for the game?

It was down to a number of things, really. Perhaps most significantly (and least exciting): production realities! After prototyping the core mechanics and moment-to-moment gameplay, we needed to sort out the structure of the game. This run-based approach allowed us to separate the game world into easier-to-build chunks, which meant we could avoid having to solve tricky technical and design problems like open-world streaming, massive contiguous terrain sculpts, and dynamic repopulation of resources for long term play.

In terms of design reasons, besides simplifying things in those ways, it allowed us to punch even more above our weight. We’ve got a relatively small team for the game we’re building and the run-based structure means we get more bang for our buck out of each bit of content that we build. It also means that we have a really clean point in the game loop to do randomization and variation to keep the game fresh for players over long periods of time.

Breaking the game up into these runs allows us to really lean into the anomalous nature of the setting, because we don’t have to worry about long term effects: within a short time, players will have made it to the exit, and are on to the next challenge. There’s tension and stakes, but the end is always in-sight. Lastly, because the garage provides a safe haven between each run, players will have a reliable moment to fix up their car and make sure it is road-worthy, which is a really nice ritual and helps to develop the relationship to the vehicle, and it even further opens up how wild things can get out there in the Zone.
Gameplay-wise, does Pacific Drive have any particular influences? Does the team have any influences?

Rosen and Dracott:
Some high-level inspirations of ours include games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Subnautica, My Summer Car, and Don’t Starve; stories like The Southern Reach Trilogy and Stranger Things; and the sorts of anecdotes about car difficulties you hear about on programs like Car Talk and Top Gear. But we’re pulling elements from all over: there’s a car-quirk-diagnosis system that draws heavily on Return of the Obra Dinn, emergence and immersiveness in the tradition of Looking Glass Studios and their ilk, and the game’s structure is strongly informed by that of Hades. And of course, there’s lots of personal experience with vehicles on the team (including a mechanic or two!).

Can you talk about how you discovered and iterated on Pacific Drive’s gameplay loop?

When we started work prototyping the mechanics for Pacific Drive, it was initially just centered around the car. The ability to get in, get out, turn it on, and drive it around—all from first-person. Then we started testing different structures for what you could do with it. Following the road, gathering fuel, etc. It quickly became apparent that there were solid foundational elements of survival games that aligned with forming a connection with the car: keeping it working, getting gas, and driving it on memorable journeys.

The game ultimately clicked into place when we added first-person maintenance interactions with the car and for gathering resources (rather than relying entirely on UI) and introduced the run-based structure. You have your car, you need a safe place to work on it, so we’ve added the garage as a central point and then from there, the road trips you were taking out into the zone. That’s when we knew we had something special.
Without spoiling too much, can you share some of the threats that players will encounter in the game?

The Olympic Exclusion Zone was the site of all manner of experimentation for decades. By the time the player ends up there, it’s pretty thoroughly covered with anomalous activity. Most of these things aren’t necessarily hostile, but they are definitely dangerous if not treated with appropriate care.

I’ll leave most of the specifics for players to discover because that’s way more fun than being told in an interview, but I can say that there are obstacles you’ll have to avoid, things that wander around that you’ll have to dodge, things that give chase if you get too close, things that steal from you or stick to your car, and things that rain down from the sky (to whit: not just drops of water). These hazards take all manner of forms, some familiar and some not so much, and come in a range of flavors. You’ll contend with and equip your car to deal with a handful of different damage and effect types.
Considering Pacific Drive is a game about survival, can you talk about all of the ways in which players will have to survive?

Although ultimately it is the player’s character that must be kept alive to keep your run going in Pacific Drive, most of the survival mechanics and related resources in the game are transposed onto the car. It’s a symbiotic relationship, though: if you take care of the car, it will take care of you. Functionally, the main aspect here is that as long as you’re sitting in the driver seat and the car is in good enough shape, you’ll be protected from incoming damage.

To maintain the car, you’ll have to take care of each part individually: everything on the car has its own health and can get status effects (plus the car can develop quirky behaviors that might crop up at an especially inopportune moment). And, of course, you need fuel to get where you’re going. So, the game mechanics and loops here will be familiar to veteran survival players, but you’ll be more on the lookout for items and resources to repair your car and keep it running, rather than materials to build a farm or something like that. A lot of the materials you’ll need can be gotten by stripping old abandoned vehicles for parts, but you’ll also be rummaging through deserted buildings and research sites, as well as making use of some of the stranger items that have started to appear in the Zone.
Considering the world of Pacific Drive changes every time you begin a new run. How do you approach telling the story given this shifting landscape?

We approached this by layering two separate, but very intertwined stories: the story of the player and the story of the world. The player’s story takes place across multiple runs and also while you’re back at the garage, working on the car. It includes completing specific objectives to progress through the story, that weaves its way through the shifting landscape, and leads you to explore deeper.

At the same time, every time the player is out exploring the shifting world outside of those objectives, there’s the world’s story to tell. The Olympic Exclusion Zone’s history, the organization that made it, the people who lived and worked there, and all the wonders and rumors within—all of that is revealed through going on runs. And players might find that getting a clear picture of what happened in the Zone can be as challenging as the shifting landscape itself.

Why did you land on the station wagon as the primary vehicle in Pacific Drive?

I think a lot of this comes from my own personal experience. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and spent a lot of time driving station wagons. From trips around town and longer drives out to the coast, it was my steed of choice. It was an experience cemented in my head and when I started thinking about making a driving game, there really wasn’t any other type of car that came to mind. It was an easy choice.

With that being said, it fits well! It was a prolific and iconic style of car that fits well into American car culture at the time of the game and because of the general “do anything” versatility station wagons are known for, it became a great jumping off point to start adding strange and unique upgrades to.
Can you talk about your approach to designing the interior and exterior of the car in the game?

For both the exterior and interior of the car, we obviously start with the basics of an 80’s station wagon. Then, over the course of the game, we want to have the player’s car visually progress.

Initially, the player is improvising heavily. Taped together doors, improvised re-use of existing parts from the world—that kind of thing. As the game progresses though, the car eventually becomes that strange retro science machine that we’ve been showing, with parts created by the player for specific purposes.

For the individual visual designs, we do pay particular attention to how things are put together, even for the higher tier elements. For us, there is a goal of “exposed electronics” that we want our designs to have. A common quote around the office was “What if Doc Brown had been in a rush?” What that eventually looked like to us is that we want to keep it looking scientific, but still something that was improvised and done quickly.

Can you elaborate on how players will be able to heavily customize the car and touch upon how you implement car damage into the game?

When you find it, the station wagon is in pretty rough shape—a missing door, a flat tire, crude parts, etc. Early in the game, you’ll mostly be restoring it to its former glory. But before long, you’ll start researching mundane, but essential, upgrades like elemental-resist doors, panels and bumpers, wheels that perform better on certain surfaces, and things along those lines. You’ll also be able to install new hardpoints on the car, allowing you to add similarly basic-but-useful things like additional storage, extra fuel capacity, battery generators, and flood lights.

As you reach the deeper areas of the Zone and find more advanced resources, you’ll get access to higher-tech parts that add abilities to the car, from the expected—a nitro boost—to more outlandish options. Every part that you craft can be installed in at least two locations on the car; a design pillar for us is “your car, your way.” In some cases, these decisions might just be aesthetic or simple preference (e.g. extra storage for spare tools goes on the rear-right window rack), but in others it might fundamentally change what the part does (e.g. installing a nitro boost on the front of the car isn’t going to get you to your destination any faster… unless it’s behind you, of course). Speaking of aesthetics: in addition to all of the above, there’s a variety of paints and decals to be found in the Zone if you want to give the car a bit of a facelift, and there are several types of cosmetic items that can be found and then equipped to the car.

As far as the implementation of damage to the car: we use an immersive-sim-style messaging system that allows us to "process" the incoming damage based on a variety of factors. Using this system, we can make sure that damage done to the car happens in a way that feels somewhat realistic, or at least makes physical sense. If you smash into something with the front right corner of your car, the damage will spread out from the impact point, dissipating as it gets further from the contact. And once the damage is applied, each part on the car will reflect that damage visually in a variety of ways, based on the incoming damage type and magnitude.
How has the team approached providing meaningful upgrades to the station wagon?

It’s been a bit of a delicate dance. We’re a driving game first, which means the car has to be reasonably drivable in most configurations. I mention that here because it means that even the baseline state of the car has to be fun to drive, which means we’re starting from a relatively high "floor." Because driving is such a core component of the experience, traversal is the primary action. So, a lot of our upgrades play into that, whether it’s different wheels to handle the terrain better (especially as you encounter new types of terrain), or abilities like a boost or a jump.

There are of course plenty of upgrades that center on the survival aspects of the game: more resource and storage capacity, generators, and structural parts to protect against specific damage types. We started with a pretty clear understanding that some of these things would be needed and were able to design those parts very early on, but there’s been lots of iteration and testing and creating of new parts to solve specific needs, as well. I mentioned the “your car, your way” pillar above—the upgrades available to the player are a huge part of this, and we want to give players opportunities to kit out their car in whatever way they want, but also to be able to anticipate the dangers ahead and equip the car to handle them.

Can you talk more about your design philosophy around creating the Olympic Exclusion Zone? What were some of your goals on that front?

When we started, we focused on the high level creative pillars for the game and the player’s experience. For example, one of these was really satisfying the fantasy of being a mechanic. Another was making sure the player would have the agency and options to set up their car, their way. These are elements we then supported as we tested and built our mechanics. Some were quite nuanced and took time to iterate to find the right route forward. An early goal we had was that the player should drive cautiously as they learned more about the zone and its dangers. It’s this goal that heavily leads us towards a more procedural approach since you’ll never know what is around the next bend of the road.
What made Unreal Engine a good fit for Pacific Drive?

For a team of our size, the immediate thing that comes to mind is what exists in Unreal Engine 4 that’s available and ready to work with. From Landscapes, to Materials, and Blueprints there are tons of existing tools we’ve used to build Pacific Drive.

There are additional specific reasons that UE4 was great for us. When it came to designing anomalies for a driving game, we were in pretty uncharted territory, so the ability to rapidly prototype was key to finding the fun. On the technical side, we also took large advantage of Houdini Engine’s integration for our foliage system. Without that, we would not be able to build the game we have today.

Were there any particularly helpful Unreal Engine tools during development?

One of the biggest pieces of tech from Unreal Engine that we’ve utilized as much as possible is Virtual Textures. Our landscapes are pretty detailed, especially considering the roads and some of the stranger things we’ve put into the game. Virtual Textures let us get away with some very fun shader tech that’s both sped up production and saved us performance.

The studio has mentioned it has leveraged Blueprints to construct the game’s surreal anomalies. Can you elaborate on that?

We definitely utilized Blueprints to build almost all of the behavior of our anomalies. With the game being a driving survival experience, iteration and prototyping were key as we tried to “find the fun” and strike the right kind of balance between hazards that are both dangerous to the player in the car (and out), but also interact with our game’s systems to help create new and unique gameplay moments.

Can you share how the team leveraged Unreal Engine’s Landscape Tool and procedurally-generated foliage in the game?

With almost all of the maps in our game being open, the UE Landscape tool was definitely critical. We didn’t want the car navigating on roads only, but taking adventure out into the woods as well. Each map being over 1 km in size and with a large number of maps total, we needed a way to quickly author content and iterate on those visuals.
For us, the solution lay with Houdini Engine, mixed with some back and forth between Houdini and Unreal Engine. Initially, our designers can rough out a map in Unreal Engine, but with a button click that rough out can get processed, landscapes are sculpted, terrain is painted, and foliage is generated. This can happen relatively quickly which means both fast iteration, and fast content!

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Ironwood Studios and Pacific Drive?

For anyone keen to investigate the Olympic Exclusion Zone, you can find more information at and our various social media channels. We’ve got Twitter, Instagram, Threads, and TikTok all being frequently updated.

Join our growing community of gearheads, theorists and more in our Discord as well!

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