With over ten iterations since the first game debuted in 1987, the Test Drive franchise is one of the more underrated franchise in the gaming industry. While the franchise has been in the shadow of the Burnout and Need for Speed franchises for the last few years the series is positioned to take break new ground with Test Drive Unlimited which will be on store shelves this September. We got a chance to catch up with the producer of the game to see what Atari has planned to put the franchise back on top.
GamingNexus: Can you introduce yourself and describe your role on the project?
My name is Ahmed Boukhelifa and I am the producer on Test Drive Unlimited.
GamingNexus: The game has been delayed a few times over the last few years, could you provide some insight into the delays? Was there ever a temptation just to crank out a new iteration of the series with upgraded graphics and a few new features (i.e. the Madden approach)?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: When we started on Test Drive Unlimited, we knew we were attempting something that had never been done before. With that ambition comes technological hurdles and obstacles that we had to work out before we could be confident that we would introduce a racing game with the potential to redefine the entire racing genre. We didn’t want to just put another racing game out, we wanted to blow the roof off of what fans could expect.
GamingNexus: How do you think Test Drive Unlimited will differentiate itself from the other racing games on the market?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: The first and foremost differentiator is in the online play – no other racing game out there today allows you to race online like this. There are other aspects of the game that completely set this game apart as well – no other game has ever offered over 1,000 miles of completely replicated roads; we have recreated the entire island of Oahu. There’s also the soundtrack – Test Drive Unlimited will feature the most ingame music ever offered on a DVD. I also feel that the attention to detail and the level at which each ingame car is represented by its real-life counterpart is unrivalled by any next-gen game out there.
GamingNexus: In an MSNBC article I read, they detailed about how you modeled the entire island of Oahu. What was your source for the mapping? 1000 miles of Hawaii is a lot to explore, but let's face it, how much environmental variety can you squeeze out of one island? If Unlimited succeeds, are there plans to expand out of the tropics and into other climate zones?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: Well, the great thing about Oahu is that it’s a contained environment, so we have set boundaries. There were several steps that went into recreating the island: satellite-rendering being the most obvious one. But satellites can’t recreate roads as it’s just a top view of the island. What really caused the most data for us to manage was the fact that we sent a team to the island for a week and strapped a camera to the dashboard – that’s how we mapped all of the roads. Imagine going to Oahu and driving 10 hours a day to record as many roads as possible….what a vacation!
GamingNexus: How are the servers going to be setup? I take it we won't have all players on one server as that would be a very crowded island. Will it be easy to match up with your friends depending on the server they are located on? Will different platforms be able to race against each other or will each platform be “siloed”?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: All of the gameplay will run through the Xbox Live servers, which are more than capable of handling what we could throw at it. It won’t matter where you are in relationship to anyone you want to play, but you will have to be on the same console.
GamingNexus: Are there any major differences between the different versions? Besides the graphical differences, how is the PSP version going to stack up against the console version? Will it have the online capabilities of those as well? Are there any plans to port the game to the PlayStation 3?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: Obviously there are graphical capabilities with the 360 that are not in the PSP. However, the same great (and robust) single player and multiplayer will be available for PSP and PS2. As for PlayStation 3, nothing has been announced, but we’re not ruling it out. We love that platform and think it has amazing potential.
GamingNexus: Seeing as Test Drive Unlimited is a persistent world, are you guys planning on adding more features and updating areas over time? Will this content be free or will people have to pay for it (or a mix of both)?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: We plan to offer downloadable car packs every month until June 2007 starting six weeks after launch. This will feature a mix of cars (free and for sale.) It will depend from manufacturer to manufacturer. There will also be additions to the music in the game as we’ll be releasing more “radio stations.”
GamingNexus: Often the key to creating a long-lived online service by giving players the tools to create communities. Aside from flashing headlights [to initiate races] and 16-person teams, what other things will be available for online communities to formulate and thrive?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: The online play in this game is amazing, and with it comes an array of club features for fans to create and “live” in. Each player can create, join or race a myriad of clubs – imagine the Italian Car Club vs. The World and so on. The options for creating clubs and “clans” is limitless!
GamingNexus: There are definitely a great deal of customizations and options for your vehicles in the game. What can you say to those casual gamers who want to get into the game but might be overwhelmed by what it has to offer or perhaps fearing the game might be too complex for them to get into?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: Good question – and one we had a lot of time to consider when making the game. One of the greatest things about this title is that it can be as involved or as casual as you want to make it. You can jump on and cruise around in free-roam for fifteen minutes here and there and just enjoy the ride. Or you can build your own car empire, be the president of many different clubs and have the best wardrobe money can buy. We think that the casual appeal of this game makes it a must-have.
GamingNexus: Many MMOs host special events or put up festive decorations during holiday seasons. Will any national holidays be observed in Unlimited? In other words, we know it will be a persistent world, but will it be an evolving one as well?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: Nothing has been announced around this, but it’s a good idea and ideas are floating around…
GamingNexus: Gold farming companies like IGE are still big business. Since money is the name of the game in Unlimited, are you taking any special measures to defeat companies that exchange real-world currency for in game currency or is this not a concern for Test Drive Unlimited?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: This is not a focus for Test Drive Unlimited.
GamingNexus: Music and the open road are culturally inseparable marriage partners. Will players have the ability to upload personalized soundtracks, or will everyone be tuned into the same station?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: Test Drive Unlimited will offer the most ingame music of any racing game ever. We will continue to offer downloadable “radio stations” after the title launches.
GamingNexus: The game features both cars and motorcycles, are there area’s of the game where only motorcycles can go or is everything open to all of the vehicle types?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: The great thing about the Test Drive Unlimited world is that everything is Open! It’s what the O in M.O.O.R. is all about: Massively Open Online Racing!
GamingNexus: The game features quite a few licensed vehicles, where there any vehicles that you wanted to get but weren’t able to get a license for? Do you have a favorite vehicle? Will the vehicles show damage from crashes at all?
Ahmed Boukhelifa: We do have particular vehicles that we wanted to put on the DVD, one being BMW, but they don’t license their brand out. That’s not to say that they won’t change their minds, but for now, they are not included in the game. We have a ton of favorite vehicles, it’s hard not to develop favorites as you work on the game and play the game. Some of our favorites are Aston Martin, Koenisegg, Ferrari (of course), and some of the smaller more niche vehicles like Pagani and Noble.
The vehicles will not show damage for several reasons, the first of which being that we didn’t think it would be fair for an enthusiast to spend numerous hours obtaining a rare car and then have some amateur jerk online only to wreck other people’s cars come along and smash it. We felt that it would take the fun (and the point) away from the game. The A.I. cars in the game can be damaged but your car will not receive damage.
We’d like to thank Ahmed for taking the time to answer our questions and to Stephanie for helping to coordinate the interview.