Formula One as a sport has evolved tremendously over the last four years. Coincidentally, so has video games development. Sean Cleaver sat down with F1 2017's creative director Lee Mather, to discuss how Codemasters have coped with changes in this generation and the process behind improving the Forumla One game franchise
You know if you'd asked me two years ago [if updating the engine] was the right thing to do, you would have struggled to find any body who would say yes.
Lee Mather, creative director, F1 2017
F1 evolves year on year. How much of a struggle is it to keep yourselves evolving with F1?
There's multiple areas of the development process that obviously depend on what it is being developed. People find different ways to motivate themselves. From a design perspective, it's never difficult because you've always got ideas that you want to add to future titles. From a tech perspective, this console generation has just fed the team beautifully. They've always got something new to play with. Anybody who's got a new toy on their desk loves pushing the boundaries, trying to work out the quirks the things they can do to really push the game, which is obviously what we've done. We were already running at E3 this year on Xbox One X. We got on that one nice and early, same with PS4 Pro.
Then you've got like the track guys. We get new circuits, which are constantly changing the layout, constantly changing the corners. So those guys always have something to work on and then again with 4K coming in, HDR, bigger screens, the graphical fidelity has got to be highe. So the team have got more work to do, the render guys have got more work to do – It is a never ending cycle, and by the time that you've got to the place where you're almost happy with everything, you start again with a new console. Formula One as a sport evolves for us quite heavily as well. People always seem to forget that on top of all the stuff that we add, we have to build the sport as well, so it's always a challenge.
The switch to the new console generation was one that was a bit hard for Codemasters, but looking back on it now, would you say from the development side that you've learnt more, maybe because of those issues?
You know if you'd asked me two years ago it was the right thing to do, you would have struggled to find any body who would say yes. But now with hindsight it was definitely the right thing to do. F1 2015 was very painful in terms of the development, it was very hard to get what we got out, but we put out a really good game. And that tech allowed us to build an enormous game with F1 2016 and expand and build another enormous game with F1 2017, which I don't think we would have been able to do had we not made the line in the sand back in 2015.
This current game is made with an evolution of the Ego engine. There must be things, that as the technology allows, you can just throw in there like a new plugin, for example, that is going to show how a tyre will degrade and lose grip?
Well there's always the element of how far do you take your simulation in terms of, do you alienate certain members of the audience for example? Do you go to real extremes? But again, we always simulate everything really impressively, and we've got a new physics guy on board as well. We've got new things – you can pick up the punctures now, and you can hit debris on the circuit. You know rubbing your tyre against the wall at Monaco is going to increase your chance of getting a puncture and impact the cars. Things like that we also like to push as well. But as you've said, as you get more power, developers always use all of it anyway. Then you start optimizing it and bringing it back.
The game itself, this year, is improved by a lot of the little things that you've managed to change, like driving around Monaco at night.There's a lot of invention in there as well for the casual fan as well as the simulation fan. How difficult is it keeping that balance when you're debating what to add or thinking of things that can possibly change the way the game plays?
I always like to think that I'm a pretty good milestone because I'm a Formula One fan, I'm a big racing gamer, I'm also a big triple-A gamer. It's very easy to suddenly think 'we should throw this in, and we should throw that in', and that's very cool. Then there's the Formula One fan in me that thinks there's got to be a balance with what we do to it. The thing that I think we've become very good at now, is recognising how to take inspiration from the sport and to translate it into the game, into a way that people can relate to and enjoy.
I think last year the big change was in the practice programs. Players asked 'why would I do practice, there's nothing I'd do in practice?'. We know that Formula One has got loads going on in those sessions. So we spawned that into the practice programs and we've expanded those this year, with a couple of extra ones. I like to think that we take great inspiration from the sport, and that's where the creativity comes in with how we apply that to the game.
It helps as well that the sport is having a good year as well, I would assume?
It always does, and any sort of technical changes, rule changes, new circuits – they're always great for us. But we've already got the core of the game in mind and what we want to build with that, so anything else is just a real bonus. It's great.
If your AI is very benign and quiet and just drive around, people generally think 'well they're ok'. But if you get them a bit more erratic and they're causing incidents and crashing, people are like 'well your AI isn't very good, they're crashing a lot'
Lee Mather, creative director, F1 2017
How do you go about the process of looking at new features and deciding what to do, Does it start in a room with lots of post it notes of what you want, all the features, community feedback and working out how you can implement that?
Very much so. I'll have a very high level idea and we'll have taken everything that's gone on board before it, because obviously we've got a huge amount of data based on what we've done before. There's a lot of Formula One fans in the office and they'll always have their say. Then as a design team we'll start to formulate a picture of what we want to do and start to speak to the wider team, so we'll gets some of the production guys involved, so that they get some idea as to whether that's even achievable in scope. Then we start to pitch it to the senior executives, see if they buy into it and get excited by the concept of what we want to make. Once they're happy with everything, then we get into production and off we go.
But then sometimes you find a little window of something within the game. This year, championships wasn't something we originally had in the scopes, but it was there, or thereabouts. We found a little bit of extra time, somebody said 'we really want to do that', so they put in a bit extra. If you get a good idea, and it's on the cusp of making it in, people will give that little bit extra to make it, so I think that's great to see that still happening in the team as well.
You've got such a breadth of talent now at Codemasters, and I know you guys are hiring more people as well, but you've got Evolution Studios that have come in, you've got all the teams that are working on other games there as well. There's got to be a thing where you know little things that people want in the game and you've got to say you can't do that or it's not feasible to do that, where do you draw the line?
I'll be honest, it's probably one of the more tricky elements of the job is determining what you do and don't do. In Formula One that's really tough because there are people who play the game in different ways and you get people who want things that maybe a very small minority would actually enjoy in the game. But they want it very strongly, and that's the tough part of it – when you determine which ones made the cut, and which ones don't.
I can say I think we've got a pretty good read on what we should be doing with the game, and you can't go chasing here there and everywhere. I think we've got a really good balance you know, we cater very well to the guys who aren't the big pros and we care really well to the guys who are the pros, and we could go more extreme either way, but I think we are in the right space at the moment
One of the things that you have worked on and improved and given a little bit more of a boost to the AI. As racing games as a genre can make it very hard to please everybody, how do you approach that AI process that you use?
There's so many layers to the AI. The big thing that our AI drivers have to deal with, is not only are they driving a car that's insanely fast and their reaction times have to be insanely quick, but they also have to take into account all the different fuel weights that they're going to run at. All the different tyre levels they're going to run at. All the different tyre compounds. All of the different temperatures and all of the different wetness levels.
Our AI is insanely advanced for that reason. Then they have got to consider what is going on around them, and then they've got to be able to race, and race quickly as well. Once we've got them actually lapping quickly, we have to address their behaviours. One of the other coders works on it and he works on things that we see from the world of Formula One, that the players expect in the game like the chasing the tow, breaking the tow, but all those things have got to play well with the lap time as well.
With pushing the difficulty, we hit 100% and this is where the AI was comfortable, they were lapping well, the race seems good, and we thought 'well let's give them a little bit of a boost'. Something that's a little bit cheeky so that you know they're pushing a little bit harder than the player could. It's for those players, like our car handling designer David Greco, who is insanely fast. He drives at a superhuman level and that's why we put the AI in at that level. But they've got to take into account all the pit stops as well, they've got all the knowledge of what the weather going to do, what the tyre grips going to do. It's a really vast system and I think that the biggest balancing act with AI in any racing game is if your AI
It's a really vast system and I think that the biggest balancing act with AI in any racing game is, if your AI is very benign and quiet and just drive around, people generally think 'well they're ok'. But if you get them a bit more erratic and they're causing incidents and crashing, some people like that, but some people are like 'well your AI isn't very good, they're crashing a lot', What's considered to be exciting and dynamic, or what's considered to be erratic and crashing? There's a balance between race craft and chaos or just Scalextric. That's the hardest balancing act really.
I was just racing Hulkenberg in the game and felt that dynamic of us having a little push-pull kind of race, with me realising when to brake and not just to throw out the inside and when to pull out and try and make the pass on the outside. But you could see that the AI was responding to that as well and the way that we were racing, so it definitely feels as if there is some actual race craft in there.
There is and I think the big difference is this year in particular that the cars have now got a much more grip. Coming out of the corners, if you've got a good drive out of a corner, it sets you up nicely for the following straight. Last year we felt the DRS was over powered, so we've rebalanced that so now. if you're trying to do an overtake, there's a lot of consideration that goes into that move, you're not just going to go flying past somebody on the straight and then
If you're trying to do an overtake, there's a lot of consideration that goes into that move., You're not just going to go flying past somebody on the straight and then flip flop the position on a lap by lap basis. As you've said, you get that wheel to wheel racing – I mean if you really want to push yourself, you put the simulation damage on, and then you know that the slides that are not going to cause you problems. So you drive very differently, a lot less gung-ho and a lot more considered in everything that you do. You might not think 'oh I'm not going to just stick the wing up there and hope the AI doesn't turn in' because if he does, you're losing your wing.
You're making more game modes for the online lobbies. Online racing and net code can be a pain in a racing game because of things like ping and connection issues. How do you then design actually going to do something that's entertaining that people will have fun with playing online, as well as serving the player that just wants to do a race?
I think the thing with F1 is that it's never just a race. There are so many other things that can happen throughout the course of the race, what with the pit stops and the weather. It mixes it up quite heavily. Now we've given the chance for people to spectate those races as well, will hopefully open it up to people who will commentate over them.
I think that's a great area for the sport to be going. Particularly with a Formula One game, or any game at the moment, I find myself sitting at home watching livestreams and if they're commentated on nicely, it's just like watching a real sport. It's absolutely no different and in some cases it can be even more exciting if you've got a really amusing commentator.
Incentivising people to be cleaner racers online is one of the big things that we're trying to do this year, We know that the hardcore guys will make their own fun online. They know what they're doing, they know exactly the experience they want to have. It's trying to get other people to dip their toe in the water and realise how much fun it is to race amongst real people and try and clean that up with the fact that you can see the stats of the players in the lobby.
I think with the physics, the car to car stuff that you'll find that when you race against the AI, it's much more robust. You don't feel like you're going to be penalised unfairly for an impact. It is more believable, and that's, and then that will hopefully help give people the confidence to try the online game a little bit more.
Cars like the McLaren MP4/4 for example was one where we were able to get the full engine spec for and you can see the power delivery of that engine.
Lee Mather, creative director, F1 2017
With the penalty system I did get a two second penalty for contact in the first corner, but it came up halfway through the lap. You've got this kind of delayed announcement as if it's a full process that's going on by the stewards. How do you approach a penalty system like that, because getting that balance right, you can't be too harsh and you can't be too lenient?
It's really difficult. We scale it based on the race distance and things like that so if you were playing a full 100% race you would get the penalties as you would in a full Formula One race. If you do less, you'll get smaller penalty numbers. There was a delay between when the penalty's given because the impact at that moment in time may not actually cause anybody to come out very badly. So in real life, you'd look at it and you'd go 'these two guys have crashed into each other, nobody's come out of it worse than the other, it's a stalemate'. In the game we need to have that period of time where we determine if somebody's gained from it.
Then, obviously, you can't leave it too long because there could be a second incident. After half a lap, a dozen other things could have happened as well. Trying to replicate what the human eye can react to in a flash, with the penalty system, is super challenging. Every year, we spend so much time balancing it out because it's all derived from how the AI can lap, so we know whether a player's gaining or losing out. It's a really wide reaching and in depth system. It's very different in the game than it is in the sport. We enforced a lot of the penalties that the sport has, but obviously, we've got gamers who are doing crazy things as well, so they have to be taken into account. It's not just real world penalties, its game penalties as well. You wouldn't see an F1 driver straight line a chicane and get away with it.
With classic Forumula One cars, part of the process of getting those cars is making sure the licenses are available to do it in the first place, but also it must be tricky getting the reference needed for how those cars work. I imagine some of the information is experience from people who've driven them, but there must be vast swathes of data from these racing teams that you are given?
Some of them are fairly recent cars, so there's not a huge amount out there. But some of the earlier cars now, the actual stats of the whole car are available online, or you can get it from the teams. The team watch a lot of reference videos as well, because that's a great way to see how the car reacts. The first port of call is to build it physically correct, get wheelbase, weight, fuel – all those things to be correct. Then get a feel for how they drive, see what sort of lap times that they produce, watch the footage and see how they behave on the circuit.
The power delivery of an engine though you can actually find online for some of the older cars, the full torque curves and power curves of the engines. And of course we can model that exactly the same. So cars like the McLaren MP4/4 for example was one where we were able to get the full engine spec for and you can see the power delivery of that engine.
That's why we have Dave responsible for the car handling side of things. Dave is one of the fastest racers in virtual racing in the world, and he's obviously raced professionally as well in the past in real life. He's got a really good feel for that sort of thing, and this year he actually went along to Barcelona to this year's preseason test, and he watched the cars go around.
He came back and he said he didn't realise how these cars were going to behave or the realise way that the cars pitch rolled at certain corners, or the way that thee cars deliver their power out of some of the corners. It gave him even more insight into what they were going to do this season before we actually saw them run properly. So that was really cool, but it always starts with making sure we build it correctly, and then we tweak it to make sure that we get the desired results.