The bizarre story of Ubisoft’s forgotten attempt at a ‘gangster’ Mario Kart

How Ubisoft Paris failed to create a new car combat franchise in ‘187: Ride or Die’.

Ubisoft was in a much different position in 2005 than it is currently.

The acclaimed video game publisher didn’t have a sexual misconduct scandal, it didn’t have franchises such as Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs, and it certainly didn’t have items from an Adult Swim show for sale within a Rainbow Six game. Instead, it released games such as Prince of Persia and Rayman, and had studios hungry to create the next hit video game. One of these studios was Ubisoft Paris.

This Ubisoft studio is best known for games like Ghost Recon and Just Dance these days, but back in the 2000s, it attempted to create a brand new game that would serve as a competitor to Mario Kart. That game was 187: Ride or Die, a title largely forgotten by most gamers today.

The origin of 187: Ride or Die dates back to the beginning of Ubisoft. One of the company’s first games was the 1986 game Asphalt for the Amstrad CPC, a home computer created by Amstrad. In Asphalt, players control a large truck delivering cargo in a dystopian version of America where violence and anarchy plague its highways. The player must deliver their cargo while fighting off hordes of bandits occupying vehicles like cars and bikes with sidecars.

The player can fight back by using a machine gun to take out the enemy drivers. Asphalt would lay the foundation for the racing games Ubisoft would release in the decade that followed. In 1993, Ubisoft published F1 Pole Position, its first game using the F1 racing license. The game was developed by Human Entertainment and released on the SNES. There were only sequels to the game but the publisher’s interest in racing games didn’t end there.

In 1997, Ubisoft developed its first F1 racing game, F1 Racing Simulation, for PC. The company would continue to release racing games well into the early 2000s. To lead the effort in kick-starting a new racing game franchise — one that could appeal to PlayStation and Xbox owners — Ubisoft called in Sylvain Constantin.

“We wanted to do something a bit more serious.”

In 2002, Sylvain worked as a producer on Rayman Arena at Ubisoft Pictures, now known as Ubisoft Montpellier. “After my Rayman project was finished, I was asked to take over the driving team and come up with something new because I was a big driving game enthusiast.” It was at this point, he says, that he and the driving team at Ubisoft Paris began brainstorming ideas for their next game.

They realized that they didn’t want to compete with Sony’s Gran Turismo series or Microsoft’s Forza but what if they could compete with Nintendo’s Mario Kart? “That was the start,” Sylvain said. “We did not want to do something that was too cartoonish because the audience on PlayStation and Xbox is not the same as the audience on Nintendo’s console.”

While Sylvain and his team didn’t want to go up against Gran Turismo, they would end up competing with Twisted Metal, Sony’s once-popular vehicular combat franchise. During development, he didn’t consider Twisted Metal competition because of the franchise’s perception at the time. “I remember back in the 2000s, there was no big push for Sony to revive that franchise. Twisted Metal was a big success at one point, but I think it was discontinued.” The absence of a major vehicular combat game on PS2 and Xbox gave Ubisoft Paris the opportunity to make an impact.

Sylvain and his team began to choose the game’s setting and characters as development began around August 2002. “We didn’t want to use Rayman or third-party characters,” he said, “We wanted to do something a bit more serious. We decided to have powerups, like in Mario Kart, in the form of weapons. Then we came up with the gangster theme and decided that it would be a good game for the PlayStation and Xbox. That was really the start of the project.”

Originally, 187: Ride or Die had two different names. One was Rolling on Dubs. The other was Notorious, an obvious reference to legendary rapper Biggie Smalls.

In addition to its release on the PS2 and Xbox, the game was originally meant to launch on the GameCube and PC. These ports were eventually canceled as the team didn’t think a third-party game like theirs stood a chance at success for various reasons, the biggest being low sales projections. “The GameCube was not really doing anything good for anybody else but Nintendo themselves,” Sylvain said. “The GameCube was seen as a really closed kingdom for Nintendo. There was no desire to port the game to that.” As for the PC version, Sylvain said that he and his team didn’t think there was an audience for the game on the platform.

Once the team at Ubisoft Paris decided what platforms the game would be developed for, it was time to start developing them. The team had one main goal: create a successful Mario Kart competitor. But there were challenges — the biggest coming from the development team itself. Ubisoft Paris’ aforementioned driving team was already working on a racing game before shifting to 187: Ride or Die.

That game was called either Striker or Strike-R according to Sylvain. “It was pretty fun to play, but it was very weird. There was too much fantasy and it was killed. Then it was rebooted and then it was killed again. Those guys, they never experienced failure before.” Before working on Strike-R game, the driving team specialized in driving simulation games. “They were great engineers and were making good simulations,” Sylvain said, “They knew what they were doing.”

Strike-R was a game they didn’t want to make but made anyway. “It was not in their DNA. They were not a fan themselves of arcade games and it failed.”

According to him, they did not like what they were doing when developing 187: Ride or Die, either. When Sylvain first took over as producer for the game, he essentially helped build it from the ashes of Strike-R. He and the team pitched the game to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot and other executives within the company, as well other publishing entities in the U.S. and Europe. That, too, wasn’t easy.

“It was tough to sell because we were a team of French guys from Paris,” Sylvain said, “We tried to sell the idea of building an authentic, gangster-based driving game and some people were like, ‘You cannot do that, it will feel wrong.’”

We were certainly not from the hood and we needed help.”

To combat this problem, the decision was made to hire outside help with the game’s story and dialogue. “We could not write that ourselves, '' he said, “We were certainly not from the hood and we needed help.” The team enlisted the help of Demolition Man director Marco Brambilla to assist with the story.

Brambilla traveled to Paris to meet with the team as they presented the game to him before they all traveled to Los Angeles, the game’s setting, for scouting. Thousands of photographs were taken so that the levels for the game could be built realistically. The team also made sure to take photos of cars and what the locals wore.

After the scouting was finished, the team started to create an early build of the game to present to Ubisoft’s editorial and North America teams. They hated it. The team was, once again, forced to go back to the drawing board. The studio decided to stop with Marco Brambilla and chose to work with another director named Matty Rich. “Matty Rich is a fantastic guy,” Sylvain said. “We built a great relationship. He went to live with us in Paris for four years. He brought a lot of energy and a lot of cultural references to the project. We rebuilt the characters, the city, and the storyline. We rebuilt everything.” That input from Rich is what ultimately made it into the final game.

If the theme was going to revolve around gangsters living in the hood, then the game would also need an appropriate soundtrack. This was important to Sylvain. In 2004, he worked with Ubisoft’s head of music licensing to find someone to curate the game’s soundtrack. They went to Universal Music for assistance and wound up pursuing 50 Cent.

Sylvain and others from the team attended a 50 Cent concert in Paris to discuss his potential involvement with the game, but things didn’t go as planned. Since 50 Cent was working on his own game at the time, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, he didn’t want to be involved. Rapper Gorilla Black was chosen instead. He even voiced one of the characters in the game’s story mode. Like Matty Rich, Sylvain said that Gorilla Black brought a lot of energy to the project.

With all the pieces seemingly in place, it initially appeared as if the game was going to meet its original release date of Christmas 2004. This did not happen. Sylvain blames this on the chaotic development process: “It was a very strange process where every month, we would be gathering with many people, like top execs, who are looking at the game. It was a roller coaster of emotions. First, they are in love with the game. A few months later they are like ‘Are you kidding? This is garbage. We can’t trust this.’ It was really disappointing. “

This hurt development to the point where Ubisoft Paris’s studio director left and was replaced by someone with no knowledge of driving games. The new studio director decided that he needed a new producer, which caused Sylvain to leave the project: “I said ‘Okay I'm going to I'm going to go because I don't want to just be there doing nothing.’” It was shocking to some of the game’s developers that he was leaving. “They knew that the champion of the project was leaving and didn't know who would be the replacement,” he said.

That replacement was Ali Kojori.

“Ali Kojori came and destroyed everything. He had to redo the tracks. He had to redo the physics of the cars. He had to redo the ballistics of the weapons. He wanted to put his hands everywhere. Believe me, the game that shipped in August 2005 is so bad compared to what we had in 2004. I’m really mad at that.”

Ali was the first person I attempted to interview before approaching Sylvain. Unfortunately, I was unable to interview him because, apparently, he signed an NDA. It’s worth mentioning that Sylvain was not restricted by an NDA. Sylvain seemed to blame a lot of the game’s faults on Ali’s involvement.

When 187: Ride or Die was finally released in August 2005, it received overwhelmingly negative reviews. CNET’s review called it “laugh out loud, which may have been a good thing if it was meant to be a comedy.” IGN said that the game “should have focused less on exuding street cred and more on gameplay.”

The story and dialogue, created by Matty Rich, is mentioned by every reviewer as being stereotypical and, according to Gamespot, “dumb”. One common criticism about the game is how small the tracks are.

If he had the chance, Sylvain says there are many things he would have done differently. For starters, he would have used a different game engine during development: “I was saying ‘I think we should have a streaming engine. I'd like us to be able to have unlimited lengths for the tracks so that we can really move to a city and gives a more natural vibe.’”

His suggestion was dismissed as being too expensive and risky. Sylvain says he wishes he pushed harder for it because he felt that the game desperately needed a new engine. He also wished he wasn’t overworked during the project. “Back in the day,” he said, “it was just me. I felt that I really was stretched thin, like I had like two jobs to do. I was not able to say ‘you know what, I think this will not work.’ I would not do the same nowadays. With my experience, I would say ‘This is not working.’”

Sylvain now works at Nvizzio Creations as an Executive Producer and has worked on several mobile games. He looks back on his time with 187: Ride or Die with fond memories despite the project’s chaotic nature. “I think Ride or Die has a very special place in my heart because it's a driving game. It's a genre I really, really enjoy,” he said. “I couldn't dream of a better opportunity to establish something new in a job that I love. I have great memories. We had a lot of fun. And I'm extremely humbled to have had this opportunity.”