We asked and Codemasters’ Chief Games Designer, Stephen Hood, listened:
GC: For a driver, one expects that the Formula One experience is immersive and all-consuming. In F1 2011, what have the development team done to reinforce the depth of involvement for the player?
SH: Almost everything you hear the teams and drivers talk about during a race weekend is available in our game. Setup work, tyre evaluation, pit-stop strategy considerations, fuel management, tire management, weather predictions… the all important gamble on setup (will it be a dry race? will it rain?) the undercut (pitting before the car ahead to be on fresh tires when he’s on cold tires) you name it we’ve got it. All of this is what makes F1 different, what makes our racing game so unique.
GC: F1 is a unique and powerful franchise, which puts the game in a good position to be bought by large numbers of people. How does F1 2011 set itself apart from other racing simulators and live up to the famous brand?
SH: We try to incorporate the essence of Formula One races into our games. Whereas most racing games are all about driving as fast as you can, lap after lap, anyone that watches Formula One knows that races are all about picking the right time to go quickly. So much more comes into play during an F1 race so we encourage gamers to race a minimum of 20% race distance. This is typically around 14 laps which might sound a lot, but it’s not when you’re having fun. 20% distance and above requires you to adhere to more of the rules so if you want a simpler version of F1, play the shorter races.
GC: How do you approach an F1 game at the get go? Obviously to make a true F1 sim would mean making a game that only a few players could so much as compete due to the difficulty of the sport, so where do you start to compromise to make the game accessible for all?
SH: We push the physics engine to deliver an experience we, and the players out there, would expect to experience if driving the car in real life. Most developers utilize data provided by manufacturers, and whilst we do this to a certain extent (teams do not volunteer too much data, it’s too precious!) we balance a lot against extensive media research. If drivers are talking about the Option being a second quicker than the Prime tyre we want to include that performance differentiator. If Ferrari say their car struggles on the harder tyre we want to incorporate that… our players main point of reference is what they see and hear from TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. In this day and age a lot of performance information is freely available and we do our best to dig through that separating out the noise so that we’re left with useful handling and performance objectives.
GC: F1 in real life, and in the game, attracts two very different breeds of player: the hardcore and the casual driver. How do you try to accommodate both player types?
SH: We make the kind of game we enjoy playing because our preference sits, roughly, in the middle of both hardcore and casual game types. We do edge towards simulating many areas found in real life but we’re after consistency, steady laps, from a wide variety of players. Without this you wouldn’t be able to capitalise on the beauty of Formula One… strategy & tactics. We don’t want a few thousand hardcore players to be the only ones to get the most from the game. The hardcore should be rewarded for being able to plan ahead, to think on their feet, to be able to save their tyres, manage their fuel loads. They can get that little extra performance from a long race but they cannot dominate.
GC: In career mode in F1 2010 it’s fair to say that the pecking order of teams wasn’t true to life; the player able to go toe-to-toe with Ferrari, Red Bull, etc even in a Virgin car. How does 2011 compare, and was this decision taken because players demand to be able to win?
SH: I think that was dependent on the difficulty level selected as well as the player’s ability. The cars were true to life in terms of performance (just look at the Time Trial Leaderboards) but the AI drivers were perhaps not quick enough on the harder difficulty levels. A lot of time went into rectifying that for this year’s game and now, certainly on Legend AI difficulty, the best drivers will have a challenge on their hands! We’re always trying to improve this without having the AI cheat. Few racing games offer challenging AI but we need to ignore the ‘standard’ effort in order to provide a compelling single-player experience.
GC: How far have your team gone to ensure the unique handling of cars from the various teams?
SH: Further than 2010. Now the handling model is that much better you can feel the difference between the cars. In fact, many of the team enjoyed racing the slower cars just because they move around a lot more. The Ferrari is very quick but a little tail happy at times. The Red Bull is pretty planted, the McLaren and Mercedes cars very quick on the fast, flowing circuits.
GC: F1 2010 included the ‘life outside of F1′ but, hopefully you don’t mind us saying that it wasn’t as fully integrated as it might have been. Does 2011 feature a similar, perhaps more expanded mode and how will it work?
SH: Adding something entirely new to an entirely new game is always a challenge but we’re going to keep pushing this feature throughout the series. A lot of the detail was missed in 2010 because not enough was made apparent to the player. This year you get a lot more feedback, emails from the agent, newspaper clippings, to keep them better informed of what is happening throughout the season. A lot has been tweaked too, so whereas in 2010 you might have struggled to stay with some teams after winning the Drivers Championship this has been eliminated. We’ve better realised the original ambitions for Career Mode.
GC: Some players commented that there was a lack of engineering options; pressures, suspension, etc. Obviously this simplifies proceedings for the layman but has this area been improved for hardcore?
SH: No, and I honestly don’t think we’ll end up going in that direction. You’re meant to be the driver, not the engineering team at the same time. A lot of F1 titles have, in the past, added unrealistic options because they believed them to be part of Formula One. Speaking to the drivers and Engineers we’ve often been surprised how few things are altered during a Race Weekend. Having said that, we do want to make car development more interesting, but you’ll have to wait and see what that entails…
GC: The massive change in real life F1 for the 2011 season is the Pirelli tyre – what sort of headaches has that caused your dev team?
SH: Very few! I think we’d have struggled if Pirelli had arrived in Formula One back in 2010 but we already had a tyre model and understanding of how we’d go about changing the characteristics of all the compound types before they turned up so it proved relatively painless.
GC: KERS and DRS are also huge additions this year, how are these implemented in the game? Are these options activated via buttons on the pad or on supported wheels?
SH: All you need do is press a button for both. It’s really quite simple to operate. The difficulty comes in managing these new ‘toys’ whilst driving, whilst racing and it’s actually great fun making use of them when racing against another driver. If you’re just ahead do you save KERS for the DRS zone when you know he’s going to deploy DRS for the overtake? DRS, KERS and Pirelli tyres alone have made F1 2011 a must have purchase in my opinion, especially when you throw the new handling model into the mix.
F1 2011 will be available on Xbox 360 and PS3 from 23/09/2011.