The Making Of: Colin McRae Rally
Sure, a new rally game today is more likely to raise the shoulders of a gamer than a follicle on their eyebrow, but it wasn’t always like that. Many people forget that there was a time when this subgenre was as empty as the countryside WRC drivers typically roar through at around 100mph. Sega Rally Championship, back in 1995, had wowed the gaming crowds in arcades (and subsequently in the living rooms) with one of the most accessible, rewarding-handling models our pastime has seen.
It’s little surprise to find it played an instrumental part in Colin McRae Rally’s creation. “The basic premise for the game was based around the car handling in Sega Rally,” confirms Guy Wilday, producer of the first four CMR games. “Everyone who played it loved the way the cars behaved on the different surfaces, especially the fact that you could slide the car realistically on the loose gravel. The car handling remains excellent to this day and it’s still an arcade machine I enjoy playing, given the chance.”
Still, as fine and enduring as it is, AM3’s creation wasn’t the only inspiration. “On reflection, the key games which have influenced the design of CMR all share a common theme – in each case the physics and control system are fundamental to their enjoyment,” says Wilday, before quoting Screamer Rally on PC as another exponent of excellent yet controllable car dynamics. And, wisely, the team cast its influence beyond the four-wheeled realm: “WaveRace for the N64 is a fine example of a game with realistic physics and an incredibly well balanced control system. The game is easy to pick up and play but it is only after playing it for some time that you start to understand the additional nuances of the controls. Initially it’s just about going left or right, but later you start to use the weight of the rider to fine-tune the movement of the jetski in the corners and over the waves. I loved the fact that this game was easily accessible but had that greater depth for more hardcore players – this was a key design goal for CMR.”
Back on land, and with the basic high-level concept for the game in place, the next few weeks were spent designing the game around this essential premise. Wilday remembers those days with legitimate fondness: “When I started [at Codemasters] it was a much smaller company with probably 50 or 60 people in total, so it still had very much the feel of a family business. For most of the people at the company – including myself – it was their first job in the videogame industry so there was an enormous amount of excitement, enthusiasm and energy. It was a really creative environment and there was a real drive to experiment and to push
This is evident in the team’s first creation. Realising there would be little point in emulating Sega’s achievement, the Codemasters crew had another clear objective in addition to an accessible yet advanced driving model, as Wilday explains: “[Sega Rally] had obviously chosen to adopt an arcade approach. The real sport was very different and it was felt there was an opportunity to create a game based more closely around the real rally formulae.”
Time would eventually reveal just how vital a principle this would turn out to be. While the handful of other rally games of the period (such as Infogrames’ V-Rally) bastardised the fundamentals of the sport, forcing them into a generic videogame racing blueprint (notably by introducing CPU competition into the stages), CMR bravely refused to deviate from its primary inspiration. This was going to be about one car, one track, one clock.
The first part of the game to be implemented was its essential core, which in this particular case meant getting a car running down a single stage. This gave the team the opportunity to test all the key areas of the game, including the vehicle mechanics and the new format – for a console rally title – of a single car racing against the clock. “I remember there being some nervousness within the team and the company about whether this idea was going to work. The real sport was competitive and challenging so I felt sure that it could be incorporated into a game,” reveals Wilday.
There was, he admits, a gradual process of ‘buy-in’ to the idea. But then, impromptu competitions started up in some of the team rooms. “Someone would set a time on one of the development stages and then everyone else would try to beat it. The hook was there. Everyone gradually bought into the concept and from that point on we knew we had the heart of the game and so moved into full development.”