Of all the cars wot go fast few are as complicated, or generate as much Newtonian excitement, as F1 cars. No one knows this better than Paul Jeal, Codemasters senior producer, and a veteran of the Geoff Crammond era F1 games. It seemed advisable to ask him questions about F1 2010, and so that's what I did. Read on for our quick pit stop of facts.
RPS: So this is newish stuff for Codies, but you're not exactly new to F1 games yourself?
Jeal: Yeah, I guess as a side note it's worth saying that me and the lead designer have both worked in F1 games before. We actually sought Codemasters out as soon as we found out they had the F1 license, because we knew we wanted to work on it specifically. My first job in the industry was as a playtester on Grand Prix 3 at Microprose, and obviously it was of interest to me, I invested a massive amount of hours in Grand Prix 2 before I was in the industry in the first place. I didn't get on with these games so well when they moved onto consoles, because I think they struggled in delivering some of the base features. That's one of the reasons why this game, F1 2010, is coming out when it is. We could have quickly knocked something together for 2009 across all formats, but I don't think we'd be doing the game justice, and we'd have been in the same boat as previous licence holders. We, as a team, really pushed to do this game in 2010 so that we could do it justice. Hopefully we will.
RPS: So the release date was pushed back?
Jeal: No, not pushed back. Historically it's in line with when F1 games are generally released. We haven't actually got the information from the teams themselves much earlier than it is released to the public, because they're highly guarded of their designs and so on. We had a couple of options on the table of course, and one was "do a 2009 release, and when can we do it for", because obviously you could start the seasons and know all the stats and info from the season. But are gamers really going to want to watch the 2010 season in the TV and then go back to their PC and play the 2009 season? We fought back on that pretty hard. I mean it comes down to being a production tasks: obviously there's going to be qualifying and so on, but other stuff like refueling you want to move to the back end of development. September [the release date] is the earliest we could feasibly deliver an accurate season content to the game for release. The teams themselves like to have their car represented as it was at the start of the championship, so that's a base requirement for us. We can't build these things on their December CAD output.
RPS: So what's it like working with F1 and the teams? Is it all a bit cloak and dagger?
Jeal: We're quite lucky, I think, in that we have a good relationship with all of the teams, and the F1 2009 game for Wii allowed us to gauge timelines and figure out what to expect from them. We're effectively in the second year of those relationships, even though this is our first game on next-gen platforms. That means we've got plenty of contacts, such as engineers we can ask about specific systems, which makes getting information to make the game much easier. We've been able to show them the game in progress, backstage at a few of the races and so on. Being an F1 fan myself I've been able to pick up on all the things they're saying about the game and we can come back and think "how can we get that in game?" Stuff like the dusty tracks or the evolving tracks - you hear the technical talk surrounding those conditions and then get back to the studio and start thinking about how we get that in.
With F1 themselves there's some stuff to consider. The contract is black and white in some places: we don't depict fatalities for example, but there's a lot of grey. Everyone knows that F1 games haven't been doing well, so we need to expand the boundaries of what you get from this kind of game, which is seen in the "Live The Life" stuff. Once we were able to get in and show the F1 guys what we meant then they were able to see what we wanted to do, to give feedback, and that allowed us to work those elements into the game successfully. So I think that relationship is working well for us and them.
RPS: So that career mode aspect of F1, what's in it?
Jeal: The past ten years of F1 have had limited innovation in this area. There have been career modes, but it's generally some UI, such as an email system, linking together the time you spend on track. Our plan was for a total immersion experience, and we're basing that on the stuff we managed to do with DIRT2, with the atmosphere created with the backstage area, behind the scenes and so on. It works better in F1, because it gets you into the paddock - it's not all pretty no substance, we needed a reason for players to be in there! It starts out with some questions related to the player announcing themselves to the F1 world, and the answers to those questions are going to be configuring the game in the background - when you go out on track it's set up roughly were you think it should be. That's our solution to the problem that all racing games face: that everyone wants to dive in and see what the on-track experience is like. So you either go in with all the assists on, and hardcore fans will think it's a bit dumbed down, not a good simulation, or you turn them off and have the first experience of the car being quite daunting for a majority of players. We're tinkering around with difficulty and options based on those questions. You go into the paddock after this and meet your agent, you pieces together contracts and gives you feedback on how the outside world perceives you. As you get more popular the paddock gets busier, too, making it a bit more interesting, but it's all "RPG-lite", where you can drop in and drop out, talk to people to engineer moves and so on.
Another thing that I've never really liked is that most racing games see you perhaps do a lap, then go in and burn straight through to a podium position on your first race. That's not what F1's about, it's about working your way up. You're not going to win straight away because there are essentially tiers of car, even though they're all the same formula. So we want races within races - objectives for specific teams. HRT or Lotus or Virgin would not expect you to win outright, you'd be expecting to accomplish smaller objectives. We've put a lot of effort into making that feel like a win, making you feel like the star in the unsung team. After this players have two options: they can take the natural career path within F1 to the bigger teams - McLaren, Ferrari - or they can develop one of the smaller teams over a series of races.
RPS: It's interesting to see how Codemasters has centralised tech with the EGO engine, but then evolved it into quite different directions - OpFlash off one route, DIRT2 down another. How does that actually work for your game - do you take a particular build and say "we'll use this version"? Does it keep changing?
Jeal: A little bit of both. We took a base setup of DIRT2, which was still in development at that time of course, and then went down a different path with F1. We wanted to co-operate with key updates however, so when there's a significant update to the engine we lock our development so that we can get in all those new elements. They save you so much work in the long run, implementing DirectX 11 or whatever. And whatever tech is developed for a game, that goes back into EGO, so that it can be used elsewhere - we've got four studios all working on the engine. If there's tech that the Flashpoint guys come up with that we think is useful, we'll know and we'll have it, and there's always the core tech guys working in the background. Without all that Codemasters wouldn't exist as the company it is now. You choose your base and cherry pick the fixes you need as you go along.
RPS: I've talked to Codemasters' racing devs a lot in the past year, and there seems to be this attitude forming that you are neither arcade nor simulation...
Jeal: Ha, well I don't think we like to stereotype ourselves one way or another. Those terms can be confusing, too. If you play R-Factor on PC then Gran Turismo and Forza are arcade racing games, so it depends where your start point is whether you judge something to be arcade or simulation. Of course we knew we couldn't simply use the handling model from GRID or DIRT2, we had to include some more simulation aspects in F1. We had to re-engineer tire models and aerodynamics - it's a change to the fundamental physics model. We see this as stage one of modelling F1: the core audience do prefer realistic handling. That said, you can't make it too hard. It's a tricky balance. Our goals have always been that its consistent: the more simulation it is, the more you will see the back end step out on a fast corner and so on, but players have to understand that, and understand why it happens. Also, being F1, lap time consistency is key - you can't have wildly different lap times on the same track, it's not going to encourage the kind of racing that represents F1.
RPS: So there's been a lot of talk about the track conditions and stuff that you are implementing. How important is that?
Jeal: It's absolutely massive. When we were talking about design related stuff we were able to look at things that already exist, such as DIRT2's career mode or handling physics, and we could just work from there. But there was stuff that didn't exist: a weather system and track evolution for changing conditions. It was clear from the start that these things make a huge difference to circuit racing and we were going to have to address them. It wasn't part of EGO at the time so we were able to just get on with that as a standalone chunk of work. The good thing about EGO was we could get a car going round a track really quick, and we could spend our time tweaking and evolving the things like weather conditions so they were polished. I think that will really come across in the end game, you'll be able to see the work we put into that.
RPS: Can you talk about multiplayer yet?
Jeal: It's still relatively early, to be honest, we're still locking it down. Right now we've got twelve players online in a series of game modes, where they can jump in and have a quick race online. There's a series of modes from just the race, to a race with a pit stop, to a whole qualifying racing event, then there's the other side of it where you can set up everything, where you set up a championship, tracks, weather conditions. That's the loose skeleton of the game and we're working around that. We're aiming to be able to bring some of what people do in the career mode over to the multiplayer, too. It won't all be about winning: if you are part of a lesser team then you will get a lower objective. Pass that objective and you'll get a reward. The way we look at it is that if people get good rewards for being a slightly weaker car, then that will keep them engaged in the action which is a win-win situation for everyone racing online.
RPS: So more points for using worse teams online?
Jeal: Well we're looking at an objective-based system, but it will be dependent on both the field spread and the skill of the various people who are logging in to play online. So if you are in a certain car we might expect you to make sixth place, so beat that for a higher award. A win in a Ferrari meanwhile might net you just a general points reward, if that makes sense.
RPS: DIRT 2 was interesting in that it was one of the first games to take on DX11, and it looks pretty good on a high-end PC. I mean, we're getting to the stage where a decent gaming PC is way ahead of console power, so are PC owners going to see results of their hardware investment in F1?
Jeal: I certainly hope so. The development cycle was such that we've had to nail the game experience. There haven't been many platform specific issues, because we've been focusing on getting the weather systems, the track evolution and the career mode working. We'll be going across the PC build to see what we can get in at the back end, but the visual quality is definitely there, and there might be a few things we can squeeze in on PC. Our philosophy is very much that we've got this F1 licence for several years, so we'll do a killer game for 2010 and then add to that for 2011 and beyond. You might see formation laps and safety cars in the next one, but you should also see more platform-specific elements.
RPS: Thanks for your time.