Gamescom 2010: F1 2010 Interview – Chief Game Designer, Stephen Hood and Senior Producer, Paul Jeal
Written Friday, September 03, 2010 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Formula One video games have been out of the spotlight for a long time, with the last offering being the PlayStation 3 exclusive 'Formula One Championship Edition' in 2007, before Codemasters acquired the FIA licence for F1 2009 exclusively released for the Nintendo Wii.
Now Codemasters is internally developing a brand new start for the motorsport with F1 2010 at their Birmingham Racing Studio, utilising the firm's superlative EGO Engine that powered the sublime DiRT titles and the equally excellent Race Driver GRID.
There's a weight of expectation bearing down on F1 2010 being a triumphant comeback for the Formula One brand, which Codemasters is taking seriously. We headed into the pit lane at Gamescom this year as the game reaches its final lap, to talk everything F1 2010 with Chief Game Designer, Stephen Hood and Senior Producer, Paul Jeal. Read on to get the latest skinny on the game.
What's the balance for F1 2010 in terms of the kind of game it's offering? Does it lean more towards the simulation end of the scale or will it offer a more arcade type of experience?
Stephen Hood: Fifty percent of people come up to us and say, “if it's a Codemasters game, it must be an arcade game.” Another group – the more hardcore element – come up and say, “it must be a simulation. That's the only way to go.” It's very hard as a developer to say that we're somewhere in between, because then people think that you're not pleasing either side when you market it. The car handling is realistic in the sense that it feels authentic when you're driving around and you get the feedback that you'd expect to have. You don't have to learn how to play the game or how we want you to drive it. If you understand how to drive the cars or you've watched F1 on TV, then you can get used to it very quickly. I just want to get away from using the arcade or simulation labels, so I suppose we need new terminology.
Paul Jeal: I think it pigeon-holes the game a bit too. If you play say, Project Gotham and those types of games, then maybe you would see it as a simulation, but if you've played hardcore PC sims, then maybe you'd look at it from a slightly different angle. It's definitely a real experience, there's definitely real physics going on under the hood, it's all the data from F1 teams and we've had Anthony (Davidson, F1 Test Driver & Advisor) in for the duration of the last year and a half, helping us fine tune it. So, it's most certainly simulation in direction, but we didn't want to pigeon-hole it with any one particular term.
So you need to create a new pigeon-hole?
PJ: Yeah (laughs). A brand-new pigeon-hole! This is stage one as well, so even from the build here at Gamescom, we've improved the car handling on... Tuesday night was it? That was probably the last update and we'll see if we can squeeze in some more!
The plan is to create a full F1 experience both on the track and off the track. How do you propose to incorporate all of the things like press conferences, test runs and stuff like that?
SH: I think it comes from some other elements we've got in the game, like for example trying to replicate that race that goes on off the racetrack. So, there's that technological race for improving the cars week after week; we've put elements of that in. That's what happens in real life and we've put pieces of that in, so that over time, you start to feel like you're in that world and things that you hear the commentators talking about on TV, you'll start to think, oh yeah, that's in the game. My team are currently trying to upgrade the car or the media are asking me about the competition with my team mate and those sorts of things you get to see on TV. They're all subtly in there. The media is a very obvious thing that adds to you living the life of a driver as well as driving around the track. Things that the media comment on, like the competition and that kind of thing are all in there.
PJ: It's breaking the seasons up really, so every F1 season runs from March to November, so our season is split into discrete chunks in terms of your stature within the team as number 1 or number 2 driver. When you get to number 1, you'll get better performance parts first and you'll be able to develop those parts and that goes for the AI cars as well, so it's not going to be Red Bull first, then McLaren, then Ferrari. From the moment my game starts or your game starts, it really depends on how the team's curves are going to go up or down during the season. Each team has its own unique set of objectives and the better you do, the quicker your team will progress through, then mid-season you can expect contract offers and again, the media play a key part in that. Are you going to say the right things to your team or are you going to try and engineer a move? These are all things that will differentiate your game from mine. At the end of the season, it'll be about picking the championship that's right for you with the guys around you in the rankings, and you can come out in the media and say that you're going to beat him to the title. So, rather than having a nineteen-race slog from start to finish where nothing really changes, everything's constantly changing across all of the races really.
If people want to get stuck straight into the races, can they bypass all of the off track stuff or is it all part and parcel of the whole experience?
PJ: It's all part of the Career experience, but we've got a series of game modes in there like a traditional Time Trial, but Grand Prix is the mode where you can jump in and play a single session or custom season or full 2010 season where you can play as a licensed driver, so you can commit as much time as you want to it. The Career Mode we really wanted to plan out, so there are longer races, so players can experience things like weather changes and other strategy elements that make F1 unique as a sport.
There seems to be a major emphasis on things like physics, weather, tyres and that kind of thing. Has that been one of the central focuses during F1 2010's development?
SH: I think so. There's just been so many of them that we've given that treatment to, like pit stops for example.
PJ: One element just tends to blend into the other really. It started off as the weather system. We spent time on that and we wanted the rain to come down, so that looks great, but then we wanted a weather system where when it's dry it effects the tyres, so that then lead into the tyre system with marbles and bits coming off, which leads to damage, which leads to pit stops. We've given our programmers a few things to think about and this one design just kept evolving throughout really. We've really tried to push the driving side a lot in this game and you definitely have to if you want to bring F1 back with a bang: we had to push all of those barriers.
Do you think there's added pressure to deliver, as F1 games have been out of the limelight for a long time?
SH: I don't feel like there's necessarily more pressure because of that. I think we've put a lot of pressure on ourselves, because Paul and I are both Formula One fans, loved playing Formula One games years ago and there's been a dearth of quality ones for a while. So, we're under pressure because we're our own harshest critics. We know it's got to come back, we know we want to revive Formula One games and this is our first step in making these other titles, and we've got some grand plans, but it's that first title that's really important to set the scene for the series. The reception to it so far has been really positive, but as creators you really feel very slightly worried, are people going to see it the same way that we are? Are they going to buy into our idea of a Formula One game?
PJ: A decision was made early on in the project to sign the license, do a lot of racing research and do a massive amount of design work, not just in terms of what could make this game, but what could make the best possible F1 game with loads of features. Then the decision not to do a next-gen one in 2009, you know that first one really does have to come out and have that impact, so if we'd have done it back then, it wouldn't have had the graphical quality and it certainly wouldn't have had the features we've been talking about in terms of weather and stuff. Once that decision was made, it eased the pressure for a while but now it's right back on again!
What's it been like working with the FIA license? Have they been quite strict or have they been helpful with your take on F1?
SH: For me, it's been a lot better than the last time I worked on an F1 title, but I mean, I experienced it maybe ten years ago or something. At that time, I didn't get to see the Formula One management face-to-face for example, but there were many elements like 'Live the Life' that was new to Formula One and having to negotiate to have media interviews in the game and commentary on the drivers and these characters that everyone recognises, that was a difficult one. It was made far easier by having people go down there and talk face-to-face and saying, these are the kinds of things we're thinking of doing and they all ended up getting into the game. So for me, this time it was far more open.
PJ: The decision to go from 2009 to 2010 is that it allowed us to have these relationships with Formula One and their teams, showing them the game at several points from the early design to prototyping, and then the last time we showed it to them was sort of pre-alpha or beta. There's certainly some restrictions there, there's no doubt about that, but there's also some flexibility there in terms of what gamers want and where we need to take it. So, Steve's team are already working on the design for 2011 and we're going to have some of the things that didn't make it into 2010, so we're going to be trying to push some of those things in for next time.
Do you think that the licence can limit you in some ways? If say, you were to compare it to other racing games with hundreds of tracks, and for F1, all you've got is a set number of drivers, teams and tracks.
SH: In some ways. It's definitely got pros and cons. One of the pros is the fact that they'll keep us on the straight and narrow, so we can't wreck Formula One. There are certain things that people are expecting that we have to live up to, which is fine. Beyond that there are only small roadblocks now and again really, where we'd really love to do something or incorporate a certain feature, and they might not be too happy with that, so we make small changes throughout the course of the project.
PJ: When you come back to the high level concept at the beginning, in some ways it makes it easier because you know you've got to create within these two walls, so you can't do any crazy stuff, so you really home in on the technical aspects and start bringing them through. Every time you look at how long it's going to take to implement and how it'll add depth to the gameplay, I think it's just enabled us to have a really focused design goal.
In F1 these days, there's a massive emphasis on tactics with the drivers, the car set-ups and when they'll pit during a race. Are you recreating that tactical aspect in the game?
SH: Absolutely. When we were talking about whether F1 2010 is simulation or arcade-based, we feel that the most important thing is that it feels realistic when you're driving, so you can push the car and go out to do qualifying runs and push the car to its maximum. But then during a race, you should be able to back off, just like the AI do, so you have a race pace. So, you can get a bit more time to think about all of that stuff, like whether you should be pitting early, is the weather changing, my engineer is telling me about the guys ahead, what should I be doing to catch up? Maybe I can dial the engine down to save fuel, these kinds of things. It gives you a bit more time to think about tactics during the race. It needs to be done, because things happen so fast during a race and you're trying to keep that rhythm whereby everybody's moving around at the same speed and you're able to consistently put in laps and think, I've gained three seconds, but then on the next lap, you might be three and a half seconds behind. Playing around with those tactics and things are really tricky in a racing game, but I think we've got the balance right.
PJ: Race strategy is one of the things that differentiates Formula One from other sports and when we were first looking at it, things like refuelling where you can choose your fuel, we though that's brilliant, but it kind of went out of the window, because we were quite a way down the pit stop path by then. At that point we thought that the strategy elements might have moved on, but we got other aspects in there like being able to monitor your engine performance and dial it up or down, so you can have mini-sprints during a race if you want to run out of fuel to pit or vice-versa. Obviously, you've got your tyre traction choices to refine, you've got the ability to change your wing angles on the fly and stuff, so there are definitely plenty of strategy elements in there. And then we've got the eight engine rule across the courses, so these may not be things players are immediately going to do from day one when they play it, but as they progress they'll be managing exactly when they want to bring a new engine across and save it for a certain time. All these tiny things add up to make it quite in-depth.
SH: Some of those bits haven't necessarily come through from an original design, we didn't anticipate the period. For example, we were talking about dialling your engine down to save fuel and we didn't anticipate that would be a big deal for racers in-game, so we were going to let you run flat out for the whole race like most racing games. But we found that people start having different tactics, because you can't just start running out of fuel and it impedes the performance of the car, so people playing multiplayer will say right at the beginning, they've decided to turn their engine down to save on fuel and like Jenson Button, go slow at the start of the race, to prevent the car from overheating and having problems, other players might start to dial it up. It's quite good having those different tactics now, and they've just come through from playing multiplayer, but it's working.
Is it hard to condense every facet of a true F1 experience within the confines of a video game?
SH: We've been suggesting to everyone that maybe the minimum distance they should be racing is twenty percent, so on some tracks there's only 7 or 8 laps, but there's still a lot there. We've got the pit stop rule, where if you are doing twenty percent or greater distance, you have to adhere to the timing, which means there's only one pit stop and I think that still gives you the experience of knowing you still have to pit stop, people will be coming in and around this kind of lap with a pit window and you can go in early or you can go in later, the weather could change and things could be sped up. So, I think it certainly doesn't take anything away from the races.
PJ: Yeah, the ability's there to do just 1 or 3 laps, but as Steve said, elements like multiplayer are better as a short, quick race. So, while we try to encourage the things that make F1 what it is, you will have to take into account things like whether its going to rain, because it won't always be raining at the beginning. And tyre management – sounds quite geeky – makes a massive difference on whether you're going to just go out and wreck your tyres, as I probably do. Then there's things like engine revs; all of these things add to the experience. Twenty percent is a pretty lengthy experience with all the things we're doing without having to do sixty laps or whatever.
So, where the weather is concerned, is it scripted or completely randomised? How does it work?
SH: Well, the weather is generated at the start of a race weekend for whatever session you're going into. That can be entirely random if you're in GP mode and it can be dynamic weather, but when you're playing Career, the track's disposition is dictated by weather types. Go to Bahrain and it's never going to rain, go to Belgium – which we always use as an example – and it can be very unpredictable, so it's not really scripted in that sense. We don't know what it's going to be ahead of time, so it's completely unknown to us and to the player. But the race engineer will have an idea and you can view the possible weather patterns for the race weekend on the car monitor and he'll give you a heads up, although he can still make mistakes as well.
PJ: He can get it wrong, so it could say it'll be raining five laps and then it won't rain at all or it rains during one lap, so that stuff is quite cool. In Grand Prix mode, you can select the weather you want and set whether you want to leave it as dynamic. In Career, we're trying to make it more of an F1 experience, so we're trying to give you all of the rules and features like penalties, weather conditions and pit stops. Each track has its own weather system and that helps to make every track feel very unique and make you feel like you're travelling the world as well.
Is there a big emphasis on the team rivalries as well? Are we going to be getting a taste of that in the game?
PJ: I think it's there for the player. You choose a certain path with the teams and there may be rivalries, but it's there for the player to experience. As you call out championship rivals in the media, you can develop your own rivalries and you'll start to learn how to be savvy with the media. You might pressure a rookie driver through the media, keep saying that you're going to beat him, raise and elevate things via the media, and then he's going to make more mistakes out on the track. If you try that with a seasoned veteran like a Schumacher or Alonso, then it could very well backfire or it could make things better for you if you beat them. I think everyone's got their own favourite rivals and teams that they aspire to and want to get contract offers to drive for.
Will the Virgin Racing Team ever finish a race?
SH & PJ: (Laughs)
SH: They do! They do now. The things is, the first season is based on things we've already seen this year, because everyone's seen the races. We know for example that the new teams are fighting amongst themselves lower down the order and the established trio are fighting for the championship. After that first season, depending on what the player has done and how they've been driving, they can switch around, so teams can have high points and low points throughout the season and over the months and years. I think when people get to subsequent years in Career mode, you'll be able to say, “Ferrari have done such and such in my game,” or “when I was driving for McLaren we had a good time, but we've dropped down the pecking order now.” And so HRT, Virgin or Lotus could become world champions. You start to create your own universe year after year.
PJ: Teams are tiered, so the performance levels of Virgin are never at the level of Red Bull, but then you might not have expected them to beat them on the track either, so making the qualifying with Red Bull would get a similar reaction to winning a race or podium with the higher teams. The races will be really exciting as you generate media interest and your reputation among your own team and other teams grows. It's probably the only racing game where coming say 16th will still be a highlight and something to celebrate (laughs). Yes! 16th place!
Using the same EGO Engine that powered GRID and DiRT for F1 2010, have you learned anything from those dev teams and are they learning anything from you?
SH: Oh totally, yeah. I mean, it happens everywhere from project to project, and certainly at Codemasters there's a big push for sharing that type of technology. We're doing some very similar games, so it makes sense for the racing teams to start sharing elements, like the weather systems will be going into future Codies games. And it's always being refined, even though we're sticking with the same engine, no doubt for 2011, it's going to be refined even further. With the entire tech you can rewrite certain modules, such as many of the physics elements that we've changed. It's never staying still, it's always moving.
PJ: It's given us a great headstart. There's no doubt that with this game we'll be taking physics and things we've learnt from DiRT, GRID and DiRT 2, but you can kind of cherry-pick the modules you want to have, so certainly there might be elements of our game that might want to be ported to other titles and likewise, some feature sets of DiRT 3 and other racing titles might come back our way as well. It's like having one and a half development teams, because you might think we can use a whole thing or just take the car physics for example, where we chose the base layers of that for Formula One, then moved it in a slightly different path in terms of aerodynamics and damage. We took the basics of that, but had to re-engineer it for F1 2010, because it wasn't quite right.
Is the plan now to make F1 a yearly update for Codemasters?
SH: If we were to make F1 2011, we'd be keen not to call it an update. We really want this as stage one of the game. We really want to push some of the features that didn't make it into this one. And we have an option for 2012 as well, but I guess it all depends on how well the game sells and how well it's received. Long gone are the days where you could just update the cars, drivers, tracks and just ship it out with a new number on it, so we'll be looking to squeeze as much into the next one as possible. In terms of release schedule, you just can't generally get it out any earlier than September. By the time the cars have had the first race of the season and all the other processes, this is about as early as you can get it out. So, the designers are getting ready for 2011 and working hard on that.
A lot of sports games get criticised for diminishing returns and churning out lazy upgrades every year. Do you think building upon F1 2010 is going to be a problem for 2011?
SH: I don't think so, no. Before we started doing the 2010 game, people were saying, “what can you possibly put in an F1 title that we haven't seen before?” And there's a stack of new stuff in there and it's really exciting stuff. We were doing the content list very recently for 2011 and there's a load of stuff that we'd love to see and love to put into Formula One, so we just decided to take the 2011 bit away and wrote down 'the future of Formula One games'. There's a whole raft of ideas that we can put into future F1 titles.
PJ: I think the next one is going to be easy, because there's so much stuff that we wanted to get into this one that we'd semi-developed, but we knew that we didn't want things going in if they weren't properly developed or unfinished, so we've saved some of those things for the next one. We're even more excited about the next one than we are for this one! (Laughs).
F1 2010 is leaving the pits on September 21st, 2010 and September 24th, 2010 in the US and Europe respectively. Vroom.