Codemasters on F1 2012 and the challenge of innovating in an annual series

It’s three years since Codemasters took on the F1 licence and brought its racing expertise to the that most serious of racing genres. F1 2010 entered the pantheon of truly classic F1 games that include Geoff Crammond’s Formula One Grand Prix, Bizarre Creations’ Formula 1 ‘97, and Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP II. The studio’s latest iteration, while ticking off predictable updates such as an improved weather system and the debut of the US grand prix at Austin, Texas, also ushers in some brave revisions to the car handling models. We spoke with F1 2012 creative director Stephen Hood about the difficulties of innovating in an annual series, how you go about balancing the needs of new players with old hands and why the real sport is getting more like a videogame with each year that passes.

The physics in this year’s game require more considered driving to master – it’s easy to understeer out of a corner if you get your braking wrong.
Because we rushed with 2010, we were modifying things that already existed within Codemasters’ games that were quite different from the demands placed on us by Formula 1 in terms of how the cars should handle, their aerodynamics, their speed and the fact that you don’t start off in a low class and work your way up – you’re almost thrown in at the deep end. I think we probably over-gripped the car to cover some deficiencies we wanted to work on long term. Then 2011 was a bit too slippery – I think it went the other way at times, there wasn’t very much grip at the back of the car. 2012 is trying to combine both of those elements and I think we’re still searching for that holy grail.

The pad steering dead zone has gone too…
Yeah, we worked on the pad a lot. We always tend to build the game with steering wheels anyway, because you get a pure input. We put the pad code in later, once we’ve got the car handling sorted. But we did put a lot of effort into improving the pad this year, and I think there’s more to come. Because, let’s face it, the majority of people are playing that way; I play a lot of racing games on the control pad. Formula 1 can be quite unforgiving at times, just because of the speed you approach the corners and travel through them – if you make a small miscalculation, it can cost you a lot of time or put you off your racing line, which hurts your race massively, so we’ve tried to dampen that down.

So you feel like you need more iterations of the game to get to a point that you’re happy with?
Definitely. When you look at Formula 1 on TV, it looks so exciting to drive those cars, but they’re driven by professional drivers. One of the things we’ve always wanted to do, for example, is put enough love into the handling that it makes people want to drive time trial. I always think that’s a good indication of decent car handling, the fact that you just like to go out on the track and just lap and get accustomed to the car. And eventually, when you feel as though you might be reasonably confident in the track and what the car’s capable of at its base level, you might want to start playing around with KERS [kinetic energy recovery system] or DRS [drag reduction system]. Or this year, changing the brake balance just to get those few extra tenths.

The KERS and DRS systems were introduced last year. How did you feel about the real sport allowing you to introduce such gamey functions?
It’s perfect, isn’t it? If it wasn’t in the sport and I added them, then people would say I’m turning it into an arcade game! All those little bits and pieces, that we call toys in F1, have a big impact in terms of differentiating us from the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo to be a proper, accurate portrayal of the sport – and they’re great fun. KERS is easy for players to pick up – DRS is harder, but it’s fun thinking when you’re coming out of a corner, ‘Can I open the wing yet, or am I going to lose too much downforce and slide out?’ That’s great in time trial as well: it’s not just about lapping the circuit, it’s using these toys to their max as well. In 2014, turbos are coming back to Formula 1, so the engines are changing completely. We’re going to be playing around with engine temperature, boost coming out of the corners, the sound of the cars – that should be awesome. So if they keep updating it, that makes my job a little bit easier. I’ll give Bernie a call and say, “You need to spruce it up, mate!”

Maybe you could introduce red shells for 2013?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised, the way it’s going.

As a designer working on an annually updated series, is it frustrating having to hold improvements that you’d like to make back until a later version?
I think the problem with Formula 1 is that a lot of people compare us immediately, and understandably, with existing sports franchises like Madden or FIFA or Forza that have been around for a while and have established themselves. But it only seems like yesterday that we got the F1 licence and started putting these games out. We’re trying to attain that level of quality and premium feel across the board, so there are challenges and frustrations involved in that, but it’s exciting at the same time. I think we’re still accelerating in terms of progress and improving year on year.

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