Exclusive F1 2011 Q&A with Senior Producer Paul JealPlatforms: Microsoft Xbox 360 | Sony PlayStation 3
As we embark upon another crazy September one title which deserves our attention is Codemasters' forthcoming racer, F1 2011. Reinventing the ailing series since taking the franchise licence two years ago the British team at Codemasters roared onto the scene last year with the very well received F1 2010. With the series in such obvious safe hands we took the opportunity to put some hard hitting questions to Paul Jeal, F1 2011 Senior Producer and, amazingly, he was good enough to answer!
Here is the full Q&A within which we look to explore the the new features we can all expect to see in 2011, as well as discussing whether the issues experienced with F1 2010 were being addressed.
Are there any plans to improve the general AI of the teams? By general I mean race strategies and driving ability. This comment stems from the fact that after the initial learning curve the game doesn’t present a huge challenge for a reasonably good driver, even on the highest difficulty.
Yes, absolutely! Both the AI and difficulty balancing have been key areas of focus for F1 2011.
The AI in F1 2010 was actually doing some pretty complicated stuff under the hood (like defending or moving to cover the inside if they were being drafted, as well as all the driver personality modifiers), but they only had the ability to make one decision at a time which led to some dubious behaviour, and the ‘tuning’ took much longer than we expected which resulted in their ultimate pace not quite being where it needed to be.
For the most part we’re only talking fractions of a second, but of course as an F1 car is such a phenomenal machine that fractions really count. In other games if a car lifts or brakes then the closing speed is much slower, or there are brake lights illuminated so players can easily react, however F1 cars can decelerate at over 1G when you just lift off the throttle and of course have no brake lights so it’s much more of an issue. For F1 2011 we've rewritten a large part of the AI so that they can adapt their decision making on the fly if a situation changes, as well as having a whole new system where we can train them using our fastest human generated laps. They also have the ability to use KERS and DRS this year so there certainly isn’t a problem with their overall pace now. In fact we’ve been spending several weeks trying to slow them down!
Once their ultimate pace is fast enough, balancing is just a case of lots of testing and number tuning. One of the joys of working on a sequel is that this process happens a lot earlier second time around! In addition to this, we’ve seen a big advancement in the game difficulty due to the huge improvements we’ve made with the car handling; F1 2011 has substantial rewrites to both the suspension and tyre model. One of the additional benefits of this, other than the cars being great to drive, is that the ‘field spread’ of teams from the top tier to the bottom is much more like the 5 second difference in real life. This makes it much harder to overachieve in the likes of HRT, Virgin and Team Lotus early on in your career and as such really adds to the challenge of the career mode.
While a nice touch, the 'other' car indicator does actually make it very easy to block oncoming traffic, will there be an option to turn this off?
Yes there is an option to turn positional indicators off in the ‘OSD options’ menu, although they are even more useful this year with the higher consistency of AI pace, as well being available in multiplayer to let you know that someone is alongside you and to encourage ‘clean’ racing. We have a number of ideas to further improve these for next year too.
Are there any changes going to be made to the game engine to accommodate enhanced damage, and in turn will damage be more realistic? I appreciate that there is a balance to this as you don’t want to make it as realistic as the real thing, as gamers would then spend half their time attached to a crane being pulled off the track!
Damage is something that we would love to give the full treatment, but it’s difficult for a number of reasons. For one thing, the licence providers aren’t keen on ‘too much’ damage, we need to portray the sport as safe first and foremost. It’s also very complex to get looking right and we ultimately want to keep players in the race where possible, rather than watching from the sidelines. That said, it is an area where we have put considerable focus this year.
Firstly, we have balanced and improved upon the damage model seen in F1 2010, so cars are now more fragile and can also get badly scratched during impacts, in addition to having certain components break off.
The real focus for this year’s damage model though was to add a level of damage to the internal components of the car so that depending on the players driving, the car can now develop faults, some of which can be fixed and some of which get progressively worse unless the player adapts their driving to compensate. Simple electrical faults such as failures with KERS or DRS can be fixed by the pit wall during the race itself, so if a fault develops with one of them it can come back later in the race. Other issues such as brakes, gears (getting stuck in or skipping a gear) and engine can’t be fixed mid race so players will have to learn to drive around these problems or risk it failing completely which will result in a retirement. These mechanical faults are available in Single Player and Online, and affect the AI as well. There is also an option to turn them off.
One thing that is really cool on TV is when a driver reports over the radio that he is having problems. This is very quickly communicated to the chasing pack behind via their own Race Engineers and this is something which we have added in the game too. Maybe you’re 20 seconds behind the car in front and cruising for a finish outside of the top 10. All of a sudden you hear that the car ahead is having problems and the chase is back on. In F1 2011 the race is never over until you cross the line, much like in real life!
Are you going to improve the HUD display from F1 2010? It didn't seem to give you any obvious relevant information.
The HUD has had a total overhaul for F1 2011. While we would love to use the official licensed graphics, that is something which we can’t at present due to licensing restrictions. However, we have taken various elements of the TV graphics and adapted them for use in game. The KERS icon for instance is pretty much identical to the TV feed. We’ve adapted the DRS icon slightly as when you are watching on TV the main thing viewers are interested in is whether it’s in use or not. In game that changes slightly as the main piece of information that players want to know is when can I use it. Therefore rather than flashing when available & highlighting green when in use as per the TV, we do this the other way around. Not only is this a better fit, it’s also much less distracting than to see the icon flashing constantly in practice and qualifying. We use the same colour systems with regards to timing information (purple – fastest session time, green – fastest personal time) on both the lap times, sector times as well as on the mini-map, so now players can tell how well they are doing much more easily. In addition to this we also have a new bit of race strategy OSD which lets players know how many laps they are up or down on their fuel, what their current fuel setting is, and if they were to make a pit stop now, where would they rejoin, which allows them to much more easily make strategy calls during a race.
Has any work been done to improve the race engineer information? At times in 2010 it’s not all that relevant to the situation you find yourself in. All I really want to know are my lap times, how far behind or in front my closest rivals are and whether the gaps are increasing or decreasing.
The Race Engineer has also had a total overhaul for F1 2011. We have recorded a brand new voice actor and put some extensive development into a tool which allows us to test & iterate much faster. This has allowed us to get a lot more polish into this area of the game. Whilst the Race Engineer does feed you information on lap times and splits, he also sets you target lap times in order to catch the guy in front, or let’s you know tyre and fuel information on the cars you are battling with, or let’s you know if they have developed a fault with their car. We’ve also taken the Race Engineer online this year as well which is a great addition to help players understand what is going on around them. Of course different players like different amounts of information being communicated so there is also the option to scale back the Race Engineer updates from full to critical only or even turn him off altogether.
The pre and post race elements e.g. press conferences were limited in 2010, has any work gone into improving these elements of the game? What improvements can we expect this year?
Yes, we’ve put a number of improvements into this area of the game as well. Whilst F1 2010 was a good game, particularly for our first iteration, we lacked the presentation and sparkle of some other Triple A games, so the aim for this year’s was to improve all the elements we had last year as well as adding a horde of new features. Right off the bat, we’ve bought the main menu up a level so it now sits above the paddock which is animating underneath. This serves to take gamers into sessions much quicker this year as well as making the layout less cluttered and confusing. In Career mode the driver’s room has now also moved into the hospitality area which is where they reside in real life. The Agent has been replaced with a laptop which has been reworked to display emails, contract offers and press headline information. On the load into a track we still have the track introduction but that’s followed by a cinematic outlining the player’s objective for the session. At the end of the session, depending if that objective has been achieved or not another cinematic sequence triggers to re-enforce how well the player has done. If the player has managed to qualify or finish the race in the top 3 then we now have a Parc Ferme sequence which looks stunning. The press interviews work the same as in F1 2010 but on transitioning from race to race we now display press clipping headlines which help the player to understand their status within the game world and the consequences of their interview answers.
Are there any plans to include such things as warm up laps before the race start? Will there now be a safety car? Some additional pre race video, a busy pit lane perhaps?
All of these things are on our list, but the one which we are delighted to bring to players this year is the Safety Car. We’ve been working hard on that for over a year and I’m pleased to say that we’ve finally cleared the last licensing hurdle and of course proven it to be a good addition to the gameplay. The Safety Car can be triggered in races of 20% of more. It is fully playable in both single player and multiplayer although we’ve had to put some restrictions in place in terms of how much control players have whilst behind it. It is fantastic to finally experience it though and have to make those quick strategy calls as to whether to pit or stay out and gain track position. It really introduces a whole new element to a race if you weren’t really in contention for a result, or if you were out in front and had built up a lead as all of that work get’s eradicated away and it’s time to start all over again!!
Winning is a great feeling, especially with a small team. Are there any plans to implement celebration sequences, a podium video sequence perhaps? As a gamer I just want something to accompany me dancing around the lounge with joy!
Absolutely! That was one of the success stories of F1 2010 and one which we were a little nervous about initially. Normally racing games are all about winning, but that’s not the case in F1. Over half the field in real life have never won a Formula 1 race. In F1 it’s all about over achieving with the equipment you have, beating your team mate and those around you. It has an inbuilt tier structure from the top teams, the regular points finishers, the mid-fielders and the guys who are battling out to become the best new team. That lends itself well to gameplay and luckily everyone seemed to love finishing in the bottom half of the field in their first race, as that was still overachieving. We’ve built upon this further this year since it’s now much harder to overachieve with the new AI and handling systems in place.
We’ve also now mirrored this objective system in multiplayer as well. In F1 2010 lobbies were often dominated by the best drivers in the best cars, which can often be intimidating for new players as well as often resulting in players starting their own lobbies and spreading the players out into less populated sessions. With the new multiplayer objective system, the game now looks at the players driver rank, car choice and grid position before determining an objective. Players who fall short of that objective lose XP, if they just match it then there is no increase, it’s only when they surpass expectations that they will boost their reputation, much like in real life. Now we’re seeing that the best players are taking the lower tiered cars online and are having their skills fully tested, as well as all of our lobbies being full which is great to see.
The parc fermé cinematics are also carried through into multiplayer so that the Top 3 finishers are in the spot light and the other 13 players have to watch them take all the glory!
I believe F1 2011 is going to have an online co-op season, how will this work? Is it drop in drop out? Do both players receive achievements? How will the save system work? Will it involve full practice, qualifying and race or just race?
Yes, Co-op is one of our biggest and coolest additions this year. It’s essentially a fully playable season online where you setup a session and invite a friend to play along. Both players need to be there to start an event, but only one needs to be there at the end of the session to save the progress. The next session can then be reloaded the next time you are both available to play. You can set it up to a number of set race distances, with the option of having a full race weekend with 3 practice and qualifying sessions and the race, or a short race weekend where there is 1 of each. All sessions are skippable if both players are in agreement.
Once in the game itself you play as team mates, working together to help secure the Constructors’ Championship. We usually find in the office that this mode has 2 ways of panning out. If one player is better than another it’s a true co-op mode where you work together and share car setup information etc. That’s also how it starts when you play with someone of equal ability too but pretty soon when you start to see the other guy out qualifying and racing you then you tend to not be as happy to share information, or leave a session when you haven’t got the best time of the two and a fierce rivalry quickly develops, much like in real life!
Will there be the odd pitstop mishap?
Yes, pit stop mistakes are present this year as well as a big improvement in the speed and release times of pit stops over F1 2010.
Are there any other new elements being introduced this year?
There are lots of other additions: we have full 24 car grids online this year, made up of 16 players + 8 AI cars; Spectator mode online as well as 2 player split screen offline.
Proving Grounds is a new game mode off the main menu that we have moved the traditional Time Trial into, but we have also created a number of locked Time Attack Challenges where nothing can be altered in terms of car choice, weather conditions or setup. It’s all about pure driving ability. There are also aggregate score cards across all of the challenges to see how you stack up against your friends.
There are also lots of small attention to detail in areas such as; accurately modelled steering wheels, flexing body work on the cars, and the full day to night transition for Abu Dhabi.
We’ve really pulled out all the stops this year to ensure that this isn’t just a season update. There are plenty of good reasons for both existing players of F1 2010 and new players to play F1 2011 this year.
A huge thank you to Paul Jeal for taking the time out this close to the games launch to talk to The Digital Fix and provide such honest, in depth answers.