Debugged: Formula 1 2011
When Codemasters relaunched the faltering ‘Formula 1’ brand last year, even their confidence in the final product could not have prepared them for the huge amounts of commercial and critical acclaim that Formula 1 2010 achieved. The game somewhat undermined the long-anticipated release of Gran Turismo 5 and its sales (at least within Europe) remain strong now, ten months after release. This year’s release therefore is being met with significantly greater expectations; something that chief game designer Stephen Hood is all too conscious of.
“We were extremely ambitious with the first title [F1 2011]. Many of the lofty goals were in place before key people became heavily involved in the project so when we did join, the scope increased a little in some areas (in favour of the driving experience). On reflection I still think we did the right thing because Codemasters has dragged Formula One back into the big-time. Sales had dwindled over the years and it needed to come back with a bang. We achieved that. What’s important now is to keep our foot on the gas.”
In existing previews, much of this ‘keeping the foot on the gas’ has been seen within the multiplayer component. Whilst functionally non-complex, the game generated a thriving online community of which Codemasters hope to renew and build upon. In order to promote competitive but fair play, the ‘Penalty system’ has been elaborated on in order to better arbitrate against foul play on the track. Expect to see Lewis Hamilton asking for a credit note at Gamestation within the week, then. These refinements of key features will not be exclusively for the online component.
“A huge amount of content was included last year and many of the subtle elements were, at times, lost within 2010’s Career Mode. 2011 uses new features such as Press Clippings and Emails to keep the player better informed of where they stand in the world of Formula One. We’ve tweaked everything, even the logic behind contracts, so that it’s a more refined experience this year.”
“The QA team received a lot of stick for the above [imbalances between AI, pit-lane releases etc] last year but let’s not forget it’s down to the development team, of which I’m a part of, to fix the issues they find ahead of release. What I would also say is that no matter how much testing you do it simply can’t compare to having over a million people playing your game once it comes out.”
Whilst there have been several key areas to improve, Stephen is focused on once again raising the bar for what a gamer can expect from a Formula 1 game. Whilst F1 2010 provided massive potential to “live the life of an Formula 1 driver”, the game largely failed to immerse whilst off the track.
“The license prohibits driver moves, we retain R&D (car developments) from last year and yes, the new rules such as KERS and DRS feature in the 2011 game. Lotus, HRT and Virgin start without the power boost of KERS.”
“Don’t forget Career Mode can deviate from the 2011 season once you’re a year through the in-game cycle. Perhaps you improve the fortunes of Mercedes or Renault. You can turn the tables on Red Bull or perhaps you’ll join them in an attempt to create the ultimate team. Even though Red Bull, (certainly with Vettel) are strong at the moment, much of the season remains. It’s not a negative to go to a track in the game and see your rivals as the Red Bull drivers. It’s an achievement to beat them. It’s important to reflect reality.”
Career mode has also received an on-track refreshment due to the introduction of the Indian Grand Prix, as well as the now-alternating German Grand Prix, which this weekend returns to the Nurburgring (last year’s release featured the Hockenheimring). But what challenges can developing a new circuit actually bring, before a single seated car has even set its wheels on the fresh tarmac?
“If you’d have asked me this question last year I’d have given a very different answer. Korea [which debuted in last year’s title] was working in the unknown but that turned out well so we’ve no fears about the Indian track. In fact our version may look a little further ahead than the real thing! Obliviously lap times, general performance data and other telemetry is non-existent at the moment but it worked last year so I have every faith we will be somewhere near this season as well.”
But what of the seventeen circuits that have featured in both seasons?
“This kind of motorsport is all about pushing the car to its limits, working to overcome twenty-three other drivers, finding those couple of tenths to improve your standing in relation to your team mate and rivals. Knowing a track well helps this become a reality. Changing the circuits dramatically every year would appease some people but would miss the point [of the sport].”
After the success of Formula 1 2010 both within the niche and mainstream audience, it is clear that Stephen’s team of developers know and love the sport as much as those who tune in every other Sunday. Refinement however, can only take a series so far before it begins to stagnate in the same way that the ‘old’ series did in the middle of the 00s. This is why Codemasters have taken future-proofed precautions to expand the series on to portable consoles; reaching the widest audience possible and increasing the pressure on the franchise. Those worried about split priorities can rest easy, however.
“In the last few years Codemasters has proved that there is a real and hungry audience for Formula One in the games market. It is therefore sensible that the company wants to explore the opportunity to take that franchise to the new handheld platforms. The handheld versions are being developed by Sumo Digital, the same team that made F1 2009 for the Wii and PSP, so it is in very safe hands and allows us to concentrate on the home console and PC version.”
So that’s the future of Formula 1 games assured, perhaps even more so than the sport’s itself. But what of ‘The Future’, in the guise of GP2?
“At the moment this is not possible because the license does not allow us to include GP2 even if we wanted to (plus we would need a much bigger team). Maybe in the future this is something that will change. I can’t see it becoming a standalone game but it would certainly make for interesting downloadable content one day.”
A combination of grit determination to make the best product possible combined with the virtual impact of this year’s successful rule changes should ensure that come September 23rd, the season will truly begin.