GRID 2 Interview – James Nicholls Talks Challenges, ESPN and Cockpits
Written Thursday, February 28, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Four wheels and a metal box. Innovating within the racing genre must be tough given that the car hasn't really changed much since it was invented. Sure, it can go faster, handles better, looks nicer and... actually, cars have changed a lot, haven't they?
And so too has GRID it seems, with the sequel looking to push the envelope, taking its unique narrative aspects and grounding it all within a believable world, with ESPN SportsCenter reporting on your every move and achievement.
Heading to Codemasters' UK offices in what appears to be a converted barn (my first visit, as I've been left out of the achievement list process), we had the day to play the game before sitting down to talk brass tacks with Chief Designer, James Nicholls, a man who's clearly excited to be working on GRID 2. It's his dream project. Read on to find out why.
When approaching GRID 2, what did you feel was important to preserve from the original GRID, and what do you think needed to change?
Well, firstly GRID 1 was an amazing game. It really knocked it out of the park, so it's very very difficult to follow such a great game. I don't think we necessarily set out to fix many wrongs, but we knew we had to do more than just basically repeat the same formula again. I don't think that would have done us any favours. We also took a long time to get GRID 2 together as well, for all the right reasons, we took our time and did it right.
If there's a single big change that we've made, we've looked at the career, looked at that single-player narrative and really made sure that it's something that rolls out the welcome mat to everybody. There's a real story that drives you through the game, and we've got real high level goals to aim for here. It's not just a grind, it's not just a whole set of other races, and what we've done with that wrapper is we've spent real time making sure that not only does that narrative help push you through the game, but it also gets infused back into the racing.
You see the tracks evolving around you, you see the World Series of Racing (WSR) taking on new levels of excitement, and you're getting that reflected back to you from Patrick Callahan with the growth of the World Series and ESPN reporting on it. That kind of spectacle around the single-player is an amazing experience, and it really changes the way you play the game. That's not to say that there was anything wrong with GRID 1, but it just takes what we've got and pushes it to the next level.
I think the main thing that we had to preserve and had to get right was the DNA of the racing experience. It had to remain all about the race, and that means that we had to focus on making every bit of the game about you competing against other racers. It's not about you against the environment, it's not about you focusing in on your car and what your car's doing, it's about how you stack up relative to other people in the race, and that's what sets GRID apart from everybody else. We're completely happy that we've nailed that, we've captured that essence and taken it to another level thanks to all the other innovations we've been pushing forward.
GRID 2's career actually sounds incredibly complex and quite structurally intricate. What kind of challenges and potential roadblocks did that complexity present?
Yeah, it's very very complex. There were a large number [of challenges], but the simple and obvious one is progression and balancing, and making sure we're offering up new challenges all the time without it becoming repeated or a bit of a grind. But the bigger complexities are how we factor in the growth that we keep talking about. We've got the different clubs in the game, so we need to have them appear at the right time and have the right style to bring something fresh at just the right moment. Then we have all the different brands we feature in the game as well, and they have to have the right level of prominence depending on who they are and where they appear, and we've got to very carefully manage that gradual escalation of the worldwide spread [of the WSR].
It's really tricky. There's a large number of moving parts that come together to get that balance right, but we're now at this stage where we know it's coming together and as each bit gets locked in, it just gets stronger and stronger.
As far as licenses and cars are concerned, do you start with a wish list of vehicles that you want in the game? If so, were there any cars that you couldn't get into the game for whatever reason?
That's exactly how it works. Right at the start of the game, we come up with a list of believable brands that we think are right for the game, and some people approach us and want to work with us, which is brilliant. We also constantly seek out people, try to match up with licenses and some of them don't come through, some people would like to be represented in particular ways, which is fine, and we gradually manage that process. The same is true of tracks and locations, the same is true of the cars. It's a constant iterative, evolving process and the closer you get to the end, the more things gradually get locked down, you start to see the game take form, and you see the final lists approaching. We're nearly at that point now where we know everything that's going to be in the game is final and as soon as we are, we'll start announcing those final lists. That's when it gets really exciting.
Are there any brands that you wanted that just wouldn't compromise, and if that happens, can it be massively frustrating or is it just one of those things?
It can be frustrating. Obviously, I can't talk specifics there, but we're massively ambitious, right? We don't pull in a partner like ESPN and integrate with those guys if we're not hugely ambitious. That's a massive undertaking. That's way outside the normal integration with a partner, but that's the level we aspire to for GRID 2. That kind of process is ongoing all the time, but we can't talk specifics.
What's the audience you're trying to appeal to with GRID 2? Are you aiming more at the arcade racer crowd or is GRID 2 more at the sim end of the spectrum? Or like GRID 1, is it somewhere in the middle? Is it tough to get that balance between accessibility and more hardcore racing right, if that's the case?
That's a really good question. I wouldn't class GRID 2 as arcade or sim. We're balanced in between the two, and that is true of GRID 1 too. We're basically trying with GRID 2 to make sure that the guys who were fans of the original are still absolutely catered for, but we're rolling out the welcome mat to more people too, who we hope will pick up the game. I think the antithesis of that is obviously the TrueFeel handling system, because the reason we've done that is to make sure that we don't have to have different or compromised experiences for any one party.
We're providing an experience that encourages people to learn how each car performs. Even if you're a novice racer, you do have to learn the characteristics of the car and learn how to race with it, but without compromising the underlying fidelity of the simulation which allows the really experienced racers to push the envelope and really explore the character of every car in the game and have a fantastic experience. The biggest innovation there is that it's not the result of turning off a plethora of different options in the game. You're getting the same experience that's being rolled out to everybody. It's one of those things that sounds really simple on paper, but it's taken us all of our development cycle to get it right, and we're so proud that we've got it right. It's our big innovation for this game.
We didn't see Flashbacks or difficulty levels in this preview build. Are those features going to be making a comeback?
Yep, they both will. Flashbacks are of course absolutely a part of this game, but we're still polishing it and don't want to show it until it's ready. Rest assured it returns absolutely as you'd expect, and the iterations we're making to Flashbacks are to optimise the flow it to keep you in the race a little bit more. What happened before is you'd have to stop and rewind, select then resume, and it was all a little bit slow and clunky. Flashback now is all about keeping you in that race experience, keeping the flow going. We're really really polishing it, and we'll be showing it off soon enough, don't worry! It's coming back.
In terms of difficulty, because we're able now to minimise the number of options you have so we can really filter down, the difficulty is just a matter of selecting the AI difficulty and how much simulation you want. What you've seen so far is visual-only damage, but the moment you turn mechanical damage on, the game transforms completely. One major scrape with the barrier and suddenly your wheel is bent and you're compensating against it, and your engineer is talking you through how to get through the race. That's GRID. The big memories for me from the first one were dragging a half-broken car across the line or just pipping someone at the post with a compromised car. Those are the memorable racing experiences and of course that's absolutely part of what we're doing.
Something that's a bit contentious in GRID 2 is the lack of a cockpit view. Was deciding not to incorporate the cockpit view a tough decision to make?
Yeah. Hopefully what you've seen today though is that we've really spent the budget wisely, and that's in terms of the hardware we've got available to us and the time we've spent with the team on different areas of the game, really pushing hard on the visuals, taking it to a new level. Of course we appreciate how much it matters, and it was a big decision, but that's why we wanted to get it out there early and start talking about it rather than pretending it would be something people wouldn't care about.
We really feel it was the right choice for the balance of the game and the core of that GRID racing experience is still there. You still get every bit of that amazing experience you got from GRID 1, and we're certainly happy that a balance has been struck.
We've played GRID 2 exclusively on the PC thus far, so how is the console version shaping up, and how does it compare?
Fantastically well. You're talking the types of details that you'd have to identify with a fine-tooth comb to really set them apart. The console versions are looking absolutely fantastic. The tech that we've developed to push the PC visuals is what's also straining at the boundaries of what we can really do on the consoles. Our big headline thing is the 'spherical harmonic lighting' that you're seeing some of the night races, with all those reflections on the cars and the light sources are getting picked up by the vehicles as they drive around. We're seeing that on the consoles too, which is an amazing technical achievement and it's something we're very very proud of. It looks breathtaking.
You've talked a lot about GRID 2's TrueFeel handling system. What are the key features of that and what would you say is unique about it?
It's kind of a double-edged thing. We've basically kind of tackled a new physical simulation of the handling at the same time as overhauling the tools and the handling framework that goes into it. We've got a dedicated team of car handling guys who are just tuning the cars for years on end to get them right, so it's a slow and iterative process that they go through to really capture the character of each and every car in the game.
They normally start with something approaching simulation numbers and then they work into it to make it feel like it should feel when you're actually playing the game. In terms of why it's such a big innovation for us, I think the main deal is, as I've said before, it allows players who are relative racing novices to use the same underpinning handling system as the hardcore racers. That's a really rare thing for a game to offer, especially outside of racing games. It really allows people to learn the characteristics and the handling model of the cars over time, so while they may start not really understanding that, they can explore the depth, and we're really excited about that.
In such a competitive market, where there's a whole slew of games vying for consumer's attention and cash, do you think that it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a racing game that really stands out?
I'm very confident that we'll stand out. That's due to a combination of things, some of which we're not allowed to talk about yet. But in terms of the narrative, that's something that we're hoping will appeal to a wide range of people, whether I'm someone who's a motorsport enthusiast and petrolhead or someone who's simply looking for a great game, we're hoping to appeal on both levels there. In terms of the racing genre, I think a lot of studios have tried different approaches to make themselves stand out, and it is a fiercely competitive genre. Obviously here in the UK, we have a hotbed of racing development talent right here and we're still pushing those boundaries, and I think that GRID 2 is shaping up to be one of our finest pieces of work. It's really stacking up well.
With that narrative, was it vital that it stayed grounded in a believable sort of reality, or are there some concessions in there to make it more audience friendly? Some Hollywood moments perhaps?
Making it believable. That was something we had to push for. It's not necessarily reality-based, because what we're doing is creating this fictional World Racing league, which is probably most motorsport fan's dream; this idea of being able to bring all these racing disciplines together. Whether you'd really be able to pull it off in real life with all the different license involved is a huge question. It's difficult to know, but that's what the fantasy is and that's where we're pushing the limits.
What's important there is that as someone who's a racing fan, you don't really want to play a game that just feels like it isn't real and couldn't happen. That's where our ESPN integration comes in, and that's why it was so important to get those guys on board. It's not about being a cosmetic thing, it's about seeing your career evolving in a way that you see it could really happen, you could be that guy, this league could really happen and be seen in this context. That's what makes it really exciting, as you start to get that real buzz as you start to see yourself getting discussed as you progress through the game, feeling like your achievements really mean something. That's a key area.
How exactly will the ESPN integration manifest itself in the game then, beyond the obvious cosmetic aspects?
Some of those details will come out a bit later on, but fundamentally it's ESPN SportsCenter that we have appearing, as well as ESPN as a brand partner and so on. The ESPN SportsCenter is a world leader in sports journalism, so for them to be reporting on the rise of this racing series just gives it credibility. And it doesn't matter what other types of sport you look at, if you see them being discussed in that forum and you see the WSR logo in context next to the NFL, NBA or whatever, you suddenly see that it's a legitimate, mainstream sport phenomenon that's taken off around the world. It helps ground it and give it that reality, and that's why it's so important.
Did you actively pursue ESPN to forge that partnership then?
We did. We knew it would be a really exciting thing to do and the team just lit up when they started seeing the footage coming back, the first rough cuts from the actual SportsCenter with the actual Kevin Connors and Toby Moody, who is a really famous motorsport journalist, who's heading up X-Games, I believe. It couldn't get more real than that.
You're seeing them report on the rise of the World Racing Series, so you're not seeing through the eyes of ESPN. You're seeing the impact of what you're doing reflected back to you through all the different media. Early in the game, you're being discussed on social media and being talked about via SMS every bit as much later in the game when you're seeing it on TV. You'll get comments on your computer in the garage, messages from Callahan telling you what's coming next, as well as fans saying they loved your race. It's those kind of things that really set it apart.
What about customisation in GRID 2? Are you able to tell us anything about that?
Yeah. One thing to understand first of all is that we've pulled apart the single-player and multiplayer. Multiplayer we're not talking about just yet, but we'll announce that soon. That has a very deep level of both cosmetic customisation and upgrade levels, whereas for the WSR and single-player, we've still got the livery editor in there, you still place sponsors on your car and you really identify yourself as a brand in the World Series.
Looking ahead to the next-generation of consoles, are there any dream projects that Codemasters is looking to spearhead?
We've got ideas flowing all the time, but to call GRID 2 anything other than a dream project would be lying. This is amazing, you know? GRID 1 is my all-time favourite racing game, so to be in a position where I'm getting to bring GRID 2 to market is just amazing. We're not thinking too much further forward than getting GRID 2 finished and making it everything it can be. Right now, that's the focus.
Perhaps GRID 3 might be the dream next-gen project then?
Let's get GRID 2 done first, then maybe we'll start thinking about that!
GRID 2 is out on May 28th in North America and May 31st in Europe. Give our latest preview a read here.