“Morning, sunshine. Good to see ya again. We’re going to play a little game…”
When is a movie more than a movie? That was the question posed back in 2002 when an intense, memorable live-action promo helped pioneering open-world crime saga The Getaway jostle its way onto PlayStation 2. Sure, the popularity of the British gangster movie had been reinvigorated by Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels but that kind of widescreen Cockney swagger was very new to the world of video games.
Whereas Hollywood-grade production values are taken for granted in AAA video game development today, that gruff two minute promo was a revelation, promising an all-action, open-world London, recreated on your TV screen thanks to the power of PS2.
So, it only seems fitting that we celebrate The Getaway’s 15th anniversary with a few of the original developers from what was Team Soho (now Sony London Studio) to get beneath the gritty fingernails of a PlayStation classic…
“I’m not sure any of us actually knew what we were getting ourselves into,” remembers Gavin Moore, The Getaway’s Director of Animation (now Creative Director at Sony Japan Studio). It’s easy to see why – before it became a massive, photorealistic game map taking in 10 square miles of London, The Getaway started off as a spiritual successor to PS one hit Porsche Challenge.
Merging that game’s open-world driving concept with The Italian Job-inspired gameplay (nicknamed “Minis in a Field”), the core idea took shape.
“It was a mission-based game where you were a getaway driver for hire on different robberies around the world,” explains Gavin. “Brendan McNamara, head of the studio, saw the potential of a massive, narrative-driven open world on PlayStation 2 and suddenly a small heist/getaway driver game became a giant gangster action movie where the real star was the city it was set in, London.”
“Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea…”
As the team expanded to over 60 people, so did the technology required to fulfil their ideas.
“We didn’t want to break the recreation of London into areas and impose loading times,” says Gavin. “We wanted the player to remain immersed in the game. But there was no hard drive on the PS2 and no way to load the whole city into memory.
“So the engine was completely rewritten to stream geometry and textures of areas that the player was close to, which was ground-breaking at the time. To load and stream the data that fast put a lot of pressure on the PS2 disc drive, so the data for the city was burnt onto the disc in sequential order to reduce the strain.”
Similarly, the game was also one of the few titles at the time to favor a minimalist on-screen user interface. There was no visible health bar, ammo counter or map, meaning you had to pay careful attention to subtle cues like the blinking indicators on the back of the car to guide you to your destination.
“I loved the opening and how you transitioned straight from intro to gameplay,” says Will Burdon, Technical Director (now at Sony London Studio). “This wasn’t a typical game with loads of cluttered graphics on the screen. It just felt very cinematic from start to finish – it was hard work, but ultimately very rewarding.”
When black suits meet blue uniforms
There were long nights involved to make the action adventure look and feel the part, but there were also plenty of memorable moments during its development. It was the first time any game studio had done full face, body and voice motion capture of seven actors at once and Gavin remembers some of the more comedic elements of being part of such a new set up.
“All of the actors who played the gangsters in the game were big men,” he recounts. “But I used to have a good laugh – in secret, of course – watching them in the motion capture studio acting out intense, often violent scenes, with a lot of colorful language… dressed in these skin tight, black suits.”
And then there were the jokes that came with the live action commercial, which was given a VIP movie-style premiere at Leicester Square’s Odeon cinema.
“I was dressed as a police woman and riding around in one of the stunt cars in-between takes on London Bridge,” recalls animator Tara Saunders, now Head of Studio Operations at London Studio.
“We pulled alongside a van driver who was drinking from a soft drink bottle and shouted ‘you shouldn’t drink and drive’. The van driver looked at me in uniform and gushed ‘I’m really sorry ma’am, I won’t do it again’. Then we sped off with blue lights to do the chase sequence!”
A London landmark played across the world
The Getaway went on to become one of PlayStation 2’s biggest and most popular games, its slick cinematic style influencing the third-person action adventure genre in the following years, although very few titles attempted to ape its London-based flavour.
In fact, it was the same team that ended up carrying the torch for the gaming-based Cockney capers that came after, creating the commercially successful PS2 sequel, The Getaway: Black Monday in 2004, and its PSP spin-off Gangs of London in 2006.
15 years on from its launch, The Getaway and its team still casts ripples throughout the games industry, with key members of its staff delivering acclaimed games such as Puppeteer (Gavin Moore) and L.A. Noire (Brendan McNamara), while Designer Dominic Robilliard is now Creative Director on highly anticipated PS4 exclusive Concrete Genie, recently unveiled during Paris Games Week.
Not only that, but both Will and Tara are working on the action-packed PlayStation VR exclusive, Blood & Truth, which looks to recapture the same London crime thriller feel of its PS2 forbearer.
It’s been emotional
Given its legacy, it’s easy to see why The Getaway still has a faithful following, especially amongst those that spent years of their lives working on it.
“The Getaway was my first project and also still one of the largest and most successful franchises I’ve worked on so it will always hold a special place in my heart,” says Tara.
“For me personally, still being part of the studio after 15 years and seeing us return to some of our London crime scene roots with Blood & Truth is very exciting! It’s incredible watching the action narrative genre be re-invented for virtual reality.”
“It was my first big project,” recollects Will. “It seems strange today with how far games have come along in 15 years, but for its time The Getaway was very cutting edge.
“As the development process for Blood & Truth shapes up, everything that comes with the experience of making a game of this scale – the anticipation, the energy – reminds me of my Getaway days. Its spirit definitely lives on in PSVR.”
“I’m very proud of the Getaway and what we achieved at the time,” says Gavin. “Even though the process of creating the game was long and hard, I look back on those times with great fondness.
“In London Studio, if your game sells a million copies you get a plaque with a platinum disc. I brought mine to Japan and it’s hanging in my house in Tokyo. It’s a good reminder of my roots and that however impossible the task looks, you can make it happen. Happy 15th anniversary to everyone who worked on The Getaway!”
6 things you didn’t know about The Getaway
- The team took over 500,000 reference images to capture London streets and locations used in the game. The large scale led to one of the team’s artists being banned from local planning offices, as he spent too much time looking at reference material.
- The grooves on the back of The Getaway disc are a digital map of London.
- Some of the art team were chased by club bouncers whilst on a reference photoshoot around Soho.
- There’s a secret first-person drive mode in the game involving Free Roam mode, a pink shop front, Charing Cross Road and a very tight time limit – can you figure it out?
- The character Eyebrows was played by Paul ‘Fish’ Burfoot, who has a successful hair product company based in London’s Soho neighbourhood. Other actors in the game went on to star in both Hollywood and Bollywood movies.
- The Getaway was the 100,000,000th disc to go through Sony’s DADC (Digital Audio Disc Corporation) supply chain – a big milestone for the company.