Not many videogames are launched on the 46th floor of an office building at the Paris end of Collins Street by a state Member of Cabinet.
Once a tiny and unheralded studio working out of a three-bedroom apartment, Melbourne’s Firemint is now EA’s Firemonkeys, the new mainstream of Australian videogame development. Their games—especially the Real Racing series—are now highly visible and are routinely used by Apple to demo new iPhone and iPad hardware as gaming devices.
On Wednesday last week, the Firemonkeys launched the third installment of Real Racing for free (the game is designed with a freemium system) on iOS devices. That the launch event itself was so luxurious—yes, in Collins Street, overlooking all of Melbourne, and yes, launched by Louise Asher, Minster for Innovation, Services and Small Business—was a marker of how much things have changed for the mobile studio.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with Firemonkeys producer Kynan Woodman about the Firemonkeys history, their adoption of realism, and—of all things—how Claude Monet inspired Real Racing.
Dan Golding: I’m really interested in Firemonkies as a studio now, and how you see yourself in the Australian development landscape.
Kynan Woodman: It’s interesting—when we were acquired by EA, we thought it was just going to be us, but they put us together with IronMonkey, and it’s been great.
We’ve always known Tony [Lay, former Managing Director of IronMonkey, now General Manager of EA Mobile in Australia], and we’ve always hung out at game conferences together being Australians, you know, when you go over to [the Game Development Conference in San Francisco], you’ll hang out with the Australians instead of talking to everyone [laughs]!
We’ve always been good friends, and even rivals. We’ve got different strengths, and they’ve got a lot of freemium experience. It’s definitely been a great match for us.
DG: I’ve heard it suggested that Firemonkeys, along with Halfbrick, have become a ‘new mainstream’ for Australian game development.
KW: It’s definitely the go-to place for a job [laughs]!
Yeah, they’re big. We were in a three-bedroom apartment when I started out. Now we’re in a whole floor of a building. Mobile has taken that ride and you see where it is now when you look at those games. People come in and look at our games and say to me, ‘Oh, you’re on console!’, but no. It just looks like it. And that’s the amazing journey. The teams are bigger.
To be honest, when I first went out and got a job at Firemint, originally, it wasn’t my first preference, because they were a small mobile games company. Now, we’re the go-to people. Everyone wants to be here. People are making their own apps at home, and then if they want to go do it as a job, they come to us because we’ve got the experience and we know how it works.
DG: Do you think that that’s changed the way that you make games, with the re-centering of the industry around mobile?
KW: We’ve always tried to make the very best games possible on the platform—always. Even when it was a 64k little thing, we were making the best. If you go back and see all the awards we got in our past, the Iron Monkey Firemint past, we were basically alternating awards around the world.
The fact that these devices can do so much now means we’re world leading, regardless of platform. It’s always been about making the best game possible, and that’s what Real Racing 3 is.
DG: So let’s get directly to the game, then. One of the things that intrigued me about the game is that you’ve said you’ve spent one month designing each car. What is it about the need for detail in these sorts of games?
KW: For us, the car’s a character. There’s the track, which is the environment, and the car, which is the character. That’s who you’re playing as.
Car fanatics, our fans, they love these cars. They know if that bonnet pin is in the wrong spot. So they’re going to tell us. They’re going to ask why we haven’t got that bonnet pin. We go through licensing approvals, but that helps us because the consumers are going to know better.
We’re creating a real thing, emulating what’s in the real world. That detail—manufacturers’ care, we care, because we want to get it right, and customers care, and they love it.
DG: Yeah. For me, one of the interesting things is that emphasis on realism, as opposed to the stylisation of cart racing games, or other genres.
KW: Real Racing is about a broad community. Even when it was paid for, we weren’t making some esoteric fantasy that only targeted a very small number of people. Everyone gets racing games, and kart racing is even a stylised version of that. And even some people can baulk at that, thinking, ‘Oh, it’s cartoony’, but it’s very accessible.
So [in Real Racing] you just turn the device to drive the car. I get that. It looks real. It’s not some weird fantasy I have to get my head around. I’m driving a car on a track against other cars. You can tell anyone that, and they get the game. That’s what’s great about it.
We’re making it realistic so it’s not some strange world we’re I’m driving on Rainbow Road, it’s a Melbourne track. I’m in my car, I’m driving, got it.
DG: But then again, it’s taken to another level, it’s not just the appearance of realism. As you were saying, you’ve got the quality of the car to the point where no individual parts are out of place. Even your Melbourne track is quite believable in that sense.
KW: So why go so far?
KW: We do and we don’t. There’s a no compromises approach, which is very expensive, and there’s the thing that makes you believe it. We want you to believe it, and we do the things that people care about. We don’t need to install a full muffler system. It’s about putting in detail where it matters, and where people care about it. So we make sure we don’t spend too long making these things, but we get everything that people care about.
If you watch the developer diaries, a thing that the artists had was ‘Project Monet’. We were asking the question of ‘how do we get more detail in?’, but that was going to be the wrong approach. So we asked, ‘How do we make it look more real?’ You look at Monet and his brush strokes, they’re just splotches, really, but when you stand back and look at it, it’s amazing. That could be a photo if you squint your eyes, but he’s done it with dollops of paint.
And that’s the approach we took. What are the details that matter, that convince me that this is real, to build that immersion? So while we have spent a month on the car, it’s on the bits that matter. I mean, we only spend a month on the car—Porsche spend years! So it’s an abridged version.
DG: I think the Melbourne track is a really interesting case in that argument. Before I saw it I was fairly blasé about the idea, but then on seeing it I was struck by the familiarity of it, and having the feeling of ‘I’ve driven down these streets’. What do you think the appeal is of setting a track in such a familiar location?
KW: It is just that. It is familiar. It’s reinforcing the realism, I think. That’s what’s good about it. You haven’t driven in Indianapolis, you know? That’s the great thing about matching expectations that makes you get over that line of realism.
Even I was astounded by the detail. I’m sure there’s things missing, but you don’t notice them. You see Flinders Street Station, you see the [Arts Centre] spire, you see the tram, and you think this is Melbourne. It’s putting in the things that people expect, and then it feels familiar and it feels believable.
DG: That’s one of the interesting things for me, in that not only do the buildings seem familiar, but the spacing out between the buildings feels familiar too. It’s different from, say, the Assassin’s Creed games, where the individual buildings are very accurate but the spaces in between are almost entirely fictional. Maybe the needs of a racing game kind of changes that a little?
KW: Well, yeah. The cars perform accurately, the zero-to-sixty times are accurate, the top speeds are accurate, the breaking distances are accurate. So the statistics of the car and the tracks need to be accurate.
There are people on our forums who’ll say, ‘You can’t take that corner at 50 miles an hour.’ So we’ve gone back and ensured that we’re right. So if those straights were longer, or the corners were sharper or looser or wider, it’s not going to match what the car does on that track. So again we’re matching expectations of that track and also deliver to the casual audience the fun, and the fantasy of driving.