April 22, 2019
Three Fields Entertainment explains how they evolved the Burnout arcade racing formula with Dangerous Driving
While previous Burnout games did not use UE4, the relatively young studio has been steadily investing time to learn the engine and have released UE4-powered games such as Dangerous Golf, Danger Zone, and Danger Zone 2 in recent years. With nine racing modes, 27 vehicles, and seven different locales, Dangerous Driving is easily the company’s most ambitious effort yet and represents the culmination of their work.
We had a chance to interview Three Fields Entertainment Technical Director Phil Maguire as he discusses how the studio was able to execute on their vision with limited time and resources. The technical director also discusses how they balanced creating an arcade racing game that felt familiar yet fresh, reveals how they leveraged UE4’s physics to create more realistic crashes, and elaborates on how they delivered a game that runs blazingly fast and smooth. Thanks for your time! With many referring to Dangerous Driving as the spiritual successor to Burnout coupled with the fact that Three Fields Entertainment has members who created and worked on the beloved racing franchise, how do you balance making Dangerous Driving feel familiar yet fresh?
Technical Director Phil Maguire: It's been over 10 years since we made an aggressive racing game and we are big fans of the genre. We looked at what all our favorite game modes have been over the years and included them all - races where Takedowns are what fuel your speed; eliminator races where you literally fight to survive over five laps with the [racer in] last place being eliminated each lap; one-on-one races where the other guy is in a faster car and the only way to win is to try and take him down repeatedly; three race GPs; Pursuit, where you play as the cops; Survival, where you have to survive against the clock and the traffic (one crash and its game over), and genre favorite Road Rage is back. Having these modes in the game makes it feel instantly familiar, but we didn't just want to copy what we had done in the past. We wanted to keep things fresh by going beyond with new rule sets, and more.
Something totally new is what we call Persistent Wrecks. Every time you take someone down, their crashed wreck remains on the road, making each lap more dangerous.
We have tailor made our cars for each mode. In this genre, vehicles can end up being the same, just a model swap with very similar stats. In Dangerous Driving, we wanted to make car choice more meaningful. So, for example, the Tuned version of each car earns and uses boost much quicker than any other, making it perfect for Heatwave events. Advanced vehicles are stronger, hit harder, and take less damage. Prototype vehicles are the “best” in that they are the fastest, but they’re made of carbon fiber, so are the most fragile. We didn’t want there to be just one “best” car; you make a choice based on the mode and your play-style.
The Burnout franchise has long been known for its satisfying drifting and boosting mechanics. Now that you’re using a different engine, how are you fine-tuning Dangerous Driving so that it feels equally satisfying here?
Maguire: The feel of the cars was something that we spent a huge amount of our development time on. Back in the days of Burnout, while the cars visibly had wheels, we weren't physically simulating them; cars were more like boxes on springs. The arcade feel of how they drove, however, was immensely satisfying. With the power of Unreal and PhysX, our vehicles are all running a complete vehicle simulation with tire friction, suspension strengths, engine power, air resistance, gear ratios, transmission setups...If you can think of it, then the engine is probably simulating it. This presented a big challenge. We wanted to recreate the arcade feel and simplicity that everyone loved, but with all the complexity, subtlety, and physics that the Unreal Engine simulation gives us.
We have built up the techniques we used to achieve this over our previous two titles: Danger Zone and Danger Zone 2. When the car drifts, for example, it is like the car has undergone an instantaneous full pitstop. We swap out the engine, tires, and transmission to achieve the satisfying feel of throwing the car into a bend and taking it at ridiculous speed without having to resort to the brakes. When the car boosts, we effectively attach a rocket to the back of the vehicle to force it forward faster. Again, we are working with, rather than against, the simulation here by live modifying properties such as the gear ratios and max RPM to make sure the simulation is accounting for the arcade experience and keeping the feel of driving an impossibly fast car, rather than steering a rocket.
Our handling expert, Ben Smith, has spent countless hours gathering telemetry from the vehicle simulation, analyzing it, and using the data to tune the hundreds of variables that define a truly physical vehicle to arrive at handling that will feel familiar to fans of Burnout.
Reports suggest that the Dangerous Driving development team only consists of seven people and that the game took roughly eight months to make. Is this accurate? If so, how was this possible?
Maguire: Three Fields Entertainment is just seven people and the time from our first line of code to the final version being uploaded to the Epic Store was actually only seven months.
A big part of this is the power of Unreal Engine and the quality of the tools it provides. The time from thinking of an idea to playing it can be as short as a few hours. Even a "long" task is measured in hours, not days or weeks as we have experienced before using Unreal. The time between having an idea and seeing it realized is absolutely key. It is impossible to fully imagine how something will feel, work, or interact before experiencing it. Something that seemed like a great idea on paper can prove terrible in software. The speed of iteration Unreal affords us allows us to fail fast with things that are never going to be right, and to hone and polish through hundreds of small iterations of the things that are good.
In addition to great tools, Unreal has many of the core features you need to make a game built in. We aren't wasting any time creating a save-game system, for example, as there is one ready to be used.
Where features don't exist, Unreal Engine is totally open and easy to extend. We have built a complete track editing tool in the Unreal Editor, allowing us to create and edit tracks, snap them to landscapes, and add roadside details such as signs, tunnels, and barriers with just a few mouse clicks. This allows us to craft every corner to match as perfectly as possible with how the cars handle.
We have been building up to Dangerous Driving with each of our previous games. Since these were all built with Unreal, we have carried forward the technology we have built from game to game. Dangerous Golf honed our destruction and real-time physics skills wreaking havoc with a golf ball across locations including castles, gas stations, and restrooms! Danger Zone set us up with insane car crashes in an indoor test zone. Danger Zone 2 gave us the tech to take all this crashing action outdoors into real-life junctions with more vehicles and more events. We have brought all our experience and technology together for Dangerous Driving to deliver an eye-searing driving experience, running at crazy speeds in seven beautiful environments with spectacular action and crashes.
How has developing a racing game of this caliber been different as a small indie studio?
Maguire: While we are just seven people, we have a combined experience of over 130 years making arcade racing games. The power of modern hardware and tools enables our small, passionate team to work together more like a music band than a typical 100-plus person development team. Being able to work this way recreates the excitement and intensity of the early days of the Burnout franchise. The result is a game where every element is finely honed and crafted with real dedication, from the way the cars handle and drift, to the tuning and balancing of the AI difficulty.
In a typical large development team, you are an expert in a single area and are fully focused on just that. If you want to affect a different area of the game, you have to arrange a meeting with the people responsible, make a case for what you want to change, and hope against hope that the change is made and actually ends up being what you wanted. As a small indie studio, we all have to be experts in more than one field, hence our studio name, Three Fields Entertainment. This, in turn, leads to better software as everyone in our small team is passionate about every area of the game and also has the skills to go and change and improve things they are not happy with.
Considering Three Fields Entertainment's small team size coupled with Dangerous Drivings’ short development time, how was the studio able to deliver the game's impressive visuals?
Maguire: Our incredibly talented Art Director, Paul Phillpot, maximixed his time by taking advantage of all the resources Unreal brings to bear.
Being a small team, Paul was responsible for delivering all the art for the game: the cars, the road, the foliage, the landscape. The great tools meant that he could do almost all of this himself, with no engineering support, while being able to quickly see the impact of his changes in-game. The engine allowed Paul the time to carefully compose each level and define its look with the powerful dynamic lighting that Unreal gives us.
Unreal Engine, out of the box, has a great post-processing pipeline and we used this to full effect to get a super crisp image with Temporal Anti-Aliasing and made our vehicles, which drive in excess of 200 MPH, feel even faster with the great built-in motion blur.
The simple fact that the engine is so stable meant that, at all times, we could all see the latest art in the game, give feedback on it, and help Paul improve the look of the levels.
How has the studio employed modern physics to affect the collisions and destruction in the game?
Maguire: One of the benefits of the cars now being fully physical is that we can achieve all sorts of physical effects and destruction in direct response to collisions and other physical events.
When the cars crash, they lose wheels. This effect is fully simulated, so the car realistically slides and rocks on its suspension in response to a wheel coming off. As cars take damage on different body parts, we can spring the doors, hood, and trunk in response to where the impacts took place. If a car is sliding along sideways the tires grip the road causing the cars to roll.
All of these effects come together in the takedown cameras when you see the destruction you have wrought in its full glory.
Dangerous Driving is incredibly fast, yet runs smoothly. How did you keep performance in check?
Maguire: We spent a huge amount of time profiling all aspects of the game to identify everything that we could make run faster. It was a real focus to get a steady frame rate for players as the action comes at you so fast you need to be able to react.
Every bit of CPU work from the physics to the AI logic was gone over with a fine-tooth comb to squeeze out every drop of performance. We analyzed everything we were rendering on screen to make sure any costly materials were optimized or were used sparingly and to not wastefully draw things that wouldn't really be seen.
We made use of some great Epic technology to create super fast LODs for our trees. We also had some great support from Epic to questions on the developer forums when we were stuck on why things weren't running as smoothly as we would have liked them to.
Considering the seven locales in the game are based off of real national parks within North America that span canyons, deserts, and snowy mountains, how did you go about designing the tracks?
Maguire: We invest a lot of time as a studio in building tools to be as productive as possible and to allow us to craft, hone, and iterate all aspects of the game. One of these tools was the aforementioned track editing tool.
We picked the locations to be beautiful, exciting places to drive at blisteringly fast speeds. Once we had chosen the locations and created the environments, the track tool allowed us to quickly lay down roads and then tune every corner and straight to be as perfectly matched to the car handling as possible. We are really pleased with the way the cars feel when drifting so we deliberately set out to make tracks with lots of sweeping corners and hairpin bends that would show this off.
With 27 vehicles at launch spanning a variety of car classes that include sedans, SUVs, and supercars, how did you decide what vehicles to design for the game?
Maguire: The car choices were all about pushing everyday cars, in everyday situations, to the limit. We wanted to start off quick and get quicker. You start in the sedan, at 200mph, then take the SUV out for more speed and a heavier vehicle to cause more destruction. You then move up the speed range with supercars and hypercars and end up with track cars, which we call Formula DD. These cars are super fast, driving in excess of 240mph, and wreck really easily.
We have been inspired by 20 years of Hollywood car chases. The choice of sedans was in large part down to the great car chases in [the film] Ronin. We also carefully studied Captain America: The Winter Soldier for reference on how SUVs flip and roll!
Having AI that feels competitive yet never unfair is crucial to any racing game. How did you approach that with Dangerous Driving?
Maguire: In addition to giving the player a good race, while still feeling fair, we had the additional challenge with Dangerous Driving that the AI needs to be around you to battle with you and be taken down. It also has to be aware of you and act aggressively towards you.
In Dangerous Driving, we used real player performance to “teach” the AI to drive, and in most of the game modes, the AI is racing to a time set by a real human player. Take Face Offs for example; these guys are gunning for it just like the human player that was used to create their data making for an incredibly intense experience. The only way to throw them off is to repeatedly take them down.
How did you set about establishing the various modes of play?
Maguire: As previously mentioned, we wanted to bring back all of our favorite modes with new rule sets. Through playing and iterating each hundreds of times, we settled on the new features for each mode of play.
In the later Road Rage events, we have upped the challenge level. How many Takedowns can you score when Shunts are disabled, or when only Traffic Takedowns count? This can get really challenging and we can’t wait to see the leaderboards for Traffic Takedowns. Our office best is only about 10.
Pursuit mode is a team favorite. At the start of the game, it’s you against one Target vehicle, but as the game progresses, and you unlock better cop cars, you’ll take on faster and more numerous opponents. This is a really intense mode played on our Point to Point tracks, and you need to stop all the targets before you reach the end.
Take a Tuned vehicle into a Heatwave mode and you get a very special and unique advantage. Heatwave events are purer race events (more similar to races in, say, Burnout 2) and dropping a whole boost bar in one go refills the boost, meaning you can chain your boost repeatedly. Tuned vehicles are perfect because they earn and use boost more quickly so you can chain them quicker, but also each successful chain in a Tuned car adds two MPH to your top speed - until you crash. Interestingly, we have no idea what the limit is on this as we have always crashed after about 30-35 chains!
Can you elaborate on the inclusion of Dangerous Driving's persistent wrecks? Were there any performance concerns here?
Maguire: Persistent wrecks really change how the game plays adding a procedural element to the proceedings. The ends of races can get pretty hairy, as you need to dodge all the obstacles you successfully avoided on lap one plus [all of the other vehicles] you hip-checked into an inoperable state moments ago. We couldn’t put persistent wrecks in the game without using them as a crash and Takedown variant. Take someone down into a persistent wreck and it’s a Junkyard Takedown; crash into one yourself and it’s a Nervous Wreck, and believe us, you will be when you’re on the last lap, desperately hanging on to first place, hoping a wreck isn’t going to take you out.
We learned a lot from the 100 car pile-ups in Danger Zone and Danger Zone 2 about how to manage performance with vast numbers of crashed vehicles. We brought this learning to bear to bring persistent wrecks to the game within our performance targets.
Unlike Burnout Revenge, there is no traffic checking in Dangerous Driving, which means players can’t simply bum rush vehicles from behind without consequence. Can you explain why you didn’t include this mechanic in Dangerous Driving?
Maguire: We wanted the focus of the game to be getting the player in the zone of driving at stupid speeds while avoiding crashing. To this end we wanted traffic to be something to avoid, rather than something to check and push spectacularly out of the way.
We know all about traffic checking from the work we did on Danger Zone 2, so it could well make an appearance in a future game. Watch this space.
Considering Dangerous Driving is launching across PC, PS4, and Xbox One, has UE4 helped facilitate the porting process?
Maguire: We benefit a lot from UE4 when it comes to launching across multiple platforms. Every time there is a new release of the engine, there are massive amounts of improvements, new features, and optimizations for all the different platforms. The success of Fortnite means there have been untold amounts of quality improvements to every platform, which we benefit from simply by upgrading to a new version of the engine.
As mentioned earlier, if there was ever a problem we couldn't resolve ourselves, the developer forums allowed us to benefit from the experiences of every other UE developer, who might have struggled with the same thing.
Thanks again for your time. Where can people learn more about Dangerous Driving?
Maguire: Follow us on Twitter @ArcadeDriving, Facebook @threefieldsentertainment and Instagram 3fieldsent. Visit our website http://www.threefieldsentertainment.com and join the Dangerous Driving club for an email newsletter and regular updates and subscribe to the Three Fields Entertainment YouTube channel.