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The Crew: can a racing game really work as an MMO?

Design Director Stéphane Beley has spent several years coordinating Ivory Tower, Reflections and other Ubisoft teams in a monumental effort to construct a digital version of North America. But he was well aware of the challenge that goal posed, having already directed open-world driving game Test Drive Unlimited at Eden Games. With The Crew finally out, we ask Beley about his studio's remarkable interpretation of the States, and what it took to make it.

MMOGs are more commonly focused on sci-fi or fantasy themes. What made you decide to build one around car culture instead?

I'm a huge fan of MMO games, and I've played World Of Warcraft for ten years now. The whole team are huge MMOG fans, in fact. For us, the idea really came about at the end of Test Drive, and it felt very instinctive to begin work on an MMO game. Because when you think about a car, you think about all the parts – that's how The Crew was born seven years ago, when we decided to use RPG elements for customisation. It's a simple and natural way to customise and tweak your cars. And we felt the driving genre lacked new propositions. The Crew fosters an unusually strong relationship between the player and their cars.

For me, when I started to talk with the team, it was very important that we give real value to the car that you drive. If you want to stick with a Ford Focus from the start to the end, that's fine. The game will never push you to buy a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. They're there if you want them, but you don't need them to win. It's not like other games where you're bombarded with cars – here it's important to customise and take care of the car you have.

The Crew 3

Why did you decide to require first-place finishes in every event to progress?

It was really just related to playtesting. When we started, the game was more generous and you only needed to come third or second in the first areas, and you didn't have to come first until you reached the later events. But each time we gave it to testers, it was perceived as too easy and generous, and the start of the game got negative feedback as a result. So we decided to keep things more challenging from the start.

How did you coordinate with Reflections, which built the PS4 version?

It was a long journey! The Crew has been worked on by many studios, including [Ubisoft] Shanghai and Reflections, as well as Ivory Tower. But to develop with Refections, we first created many bridges between the teams at every level. The only way I've found to make something like this work is to have [a single] The Crew team. Not Ubisoft, Ivory Tower and Reflections – we were just The Crew team. It takes a while to establish respect and trust between the developers in each studio. But I'd already worked with Reflections – when I was with Atari, I worked on Driver 3 and 4 – so a lot of that mutual respect was already there.

There were some server issues at launch, but it seems to be settling down now. Is that all in hand?

Most of the trouble has been totally solved, and in the four days after the game launched we really stabilised the server and there were no big hiccups. Some small ones, but it's getting more and more stable.

The Crew takes on some of Ubisoft's traditional open-world structuring. Was that something that was suggested to you?

To be honest, it's my idea. I work a lot with [Ubisoft Chief Creative Officer] Serge Hascoet and together we try to go in the same direction – creating an open world with a systemic way for the player to discover it. It's really something that we have in common. And seven years ago, when I presented The Crew to Serge – at the time it was named Route 66 – the Data Stations were already in my mind. It's something that's completely natural for me, and a simple way to unlock areas.

Given that exploring the world is such a key part of the game, why is the camera so restrictive?

This was a production constraint. We have a camera better suited for exploration in the pipeline, but it's something we'll update in the future. I had to decide to cut it for launch due to time constraints; development was a long run, and the baby really needed to go! This is really just the start, and we'll keep updating the community with, for example, an exploration camera and the ability to create movies and things like that.

There's also no way to challenge other players to ad-hoc races. Is that a planned addition too?

Yes, absolutely. In the near future we'll be adding Instant Challenge races as a free update. You'll be able to do a race with anyone around you, proposing it to everyone in the session or your crew.

Any plans to expand the game's borders out into Mexico or Canada?

[Laughs] That's an interesting question! At the moment I'd prefer not to add to the world. It's already enough for players. But we'll see what happens in the future – it won't be Canada or Mexico, though.