2017 looks like it’s going to be a pretty good year for Codemasters. There’s the continued success and of Dirt Rally and its imminent PSVR update, they announced a new Micro Machines games last week, and now there’s Dirt 4!
You can read our hands on impressions and thoughts on the game’s fascinating use of generated stages, but we also sat down with Chief Game Designer Paul Coleman to talk about how much he loves cars… and Dirt 4.
TSA: So… do you like cars, then?
Paul Coleman: Yes! My first word was ‘car’, much to my mother’s distress, and actually, having had a son two years ago, he did exactly the same thing and I saw the reaction of my wife. I know how painful that is…
TSA: [laughs] But I’m assuming not quite as much as these people?
It’s at this point that I show Paul my phone, opened to a page that details step by step how one might have sexual relations with a motor vehicle. It includes such sage advice as to let the tailpipe cool after having the engine running. If you’re curious, you’ll have to go and look it up for yourself!
Paul: Uh, no, that’s a new thing to me… It’s a niche…
TSA: It is pretty niche! So you’re not a car fetishist, then?
Paul: I have a strong appreciation of cars, but I’ve never sexualised them…
TSA: And we all know how sexualisation in games can be quite a tricky topic!
TSA: Um, but onto the more usual questions. You had Dirt Rally last year and the year before, which felt like it came from this skunkworks project within Codemasters. Did its success surprise you? Did it then influence the path that Dirt 4 was taking?
Paul: So, it didn’t surprise me, but it did surprise a lot of people. I firmly believed that the prototype that eventually became Dirt Rally was a strong representation of a sport that I love. I think it’s fair to say that it was very focussed and not to everyone’s taste, and certainly from a difficulty perspective it was pretty savage, but we were totally uncompromising in what we set out to do, and when you do something like that, you have to go all in and fully deliver. You can’t start compromising the experience.
We learnt a lot from doing that and we tapped into an audience that Codemasters games hadn’t really reached for a while, or certainly not with the games that we’d been making in our studio [Codemasters Southam]. We started to learn from how passionate those guys were that we were actually making a game for connoisseurs and they don’t hold any punches when they’re giving you feedback on what they want.
Listening to that feedback, we incorporated that into Dirt Rally, and then we’re using that as a foundation for this. It’s been really important and it has changed a lot about making this game.
I think that without Dirt Rally, this would have had the normal handling and perhaps wouldn’t have offered that simulation option. Now that we know that people love that, why not take those guys along for the ride, rather than leaving them with Dirt Rally and saying we’re done? That’s not right in today’s day and age.
TSA: You’ve got a pretty big task to balance keeping all these people happy. I know a lot of people who were disappointed in the very strange path Dirt took that ended up with Showdown.
Paul: Yeah, I think there was an audience of people who loved our games from back in the day, who felt that every edition of a Dirt product we made was getting further and further away from the games they used to love. Dirt Rally was me saying to those guys that we can still do this. As a player who loved playing Colin McRae Rally, I felt we were getting further away from the game that I got into this industry to work on.
But I have an understanding of business as well, and I know that you’ve got to make a game that will be commercially successful and that will resonate in the same way that the previous Dirt games have done, we needed to do things differently and turn back to that core we had with Dirt 2 and Dirt 3.
That doesn’t mean dumbing things down or going all “dudebro” anymore, it can be a lot more professional in the way we approach them. Players aren’t idiots, and we need to be giving them the tools to customise the experience in the way that they want.
TSA: Just from this initial look at a pre-alpha build, I don’t think it’s as glitzy as Dirt 3 was. Is that fair to say?
Paul: Yeah, 2 and 3 were all out. This feels like Dirt’s grown up a bit, but it’s still got that rebellious attitude underneath. The way that we set about doing stuff, like the soundtrack that we’ll have in the game, it will all start to feel a lot more like a big Dirt game used to, but without shoving down your throat!
TSA: One thing that was quite interesting is that the simulation model also feeds over to the buggies and Rallycross, but also with the option to play with standard handling. How are these options going to coexist?
Paul: Traditionally that compromise has been something that’s really hamstrung the way that the game has felt. By offering the player that choice of going with a normal handling model or going full sim, and then giving them a variety of ways to blend the difficulty preferences around that, it means that where before we only had one, two and three levels of experience for the player, we’ve now got many, many more.
It’s going to be much easier for the player to find where they sit within that difficulty curve, and the step to the next level up shouldn’t feel like the game has changed completely, or you’ve compromised the experience.
TSA: I guess the only real problem is, when it comes to multiplayer, and I know people who feel that in your F1 games, for example, that they have to have traction control turned on in order to be competitive.
Paul: So there’s separate leaderboards, we’re allowing the host of a session to control what assists and what handling model is being used…
TSA: It’s always fun when you can flip the switch and force everyone to play without ABS…
Paul: But at the same time, if you want, it can be that everyone can come alone and bring whatever. So if you’re playing with a friend who needs all of those assists and you just want to have a fun race with them, then we allow players to do that as well.
It’s really about giving players as much choice as possible, but making sure that how we police it in the background isn’t compromised with having all the people with normal handling at the top and all the people with simulation at the bottom. It’s not fair for players who want to have the simulation to feel like they have to switch the handling model to compete.
TSA: You called the Your Stage stage generator a game changer, and I think that’s actually pretty fair! Some games like Gran Turismo 5 have tried this before with a track generator, but it feels like you’re embracing it wholeheartedly this time around.
Paul: It’s an idea we had in pen and paper since 2011, when we finished Dirt 3. I’ve always felt very compromised whenever I went to my environment team and tell them how many stages I want in a game, and they tell me it’s impossible and the resources will never allow it.
This is our solution to that problem, that players always want more content and we can’t always give it to them. It started out as thinking of the world’s largest Scalectrix set and what that would be like, and that’s turned into what you see today.
A lot of it comes from complex algorithms running in the background, but it is essentially a selection of track pieces that we’ve then very cleverly placed through a landscape that is predefined. The road finds its way around the contours of a landscape, we have some that are flatter, we have some that are more mountainous, so you get more robust rock banks, we’ve got tarmac stages that go in and out of towns…
This is all going to come together into what, as I said in the video, I believe is a revelation and a game changer. There’s not enough superlatives in the world to explain how different this makes things.
TSA: But underneath all that, do you still also have the bespoke tracks?
Paul: We can curate tracks for the career, so I can say, from my perspective as a designer, that the player will be experiencing this stage, this event, at this time, and they’ll then be able to compare against the world on leaderboards, and all of the other career aspects.
But then it gives that longevity to the player that wants to keep racing and wants that fresh challenge. In online events, we’re not going to tell you what track it’s going to be, so everyone’s going to arrive on the start line with as much knowledge of what the stage is going to be as the next person. It really has revolutionised the way that you can approach the game and the mindset that you have to have as you go into it.
TSA: Finally, just a couple of “boring” questions. Dirt Rally’s PSVR DLC was announced the other day, but have you got anything to say about PSVR and Dirt 4?
Paul: Not at this stage. We’re going to see how Dirt Rally [for PSVR] does and we’ll build it on from there. I think it will come after the release of this, it won’t be at launch, but nothing to say other than we’re looking forward to seeing how Dirt Rally does on PSVR.
We know there aren’t many racing games on PSVR and I think there’s a great opportunity for us, because I think rallying suits VR really well. You can look in the direction you’re travelling as you slide around the corner, and the fact it really brings to life just how undulating our stages can be. We have things that can really play well with that, so yeah, we’re looking forward to seeing what the reaction is.
TSA: And the other question is how you’re going to support PS4 Pro?
Paul: Yeah, so we’ve got a lot of experience working with high-end PCs, so we know the stuff we can crank up when the opportunity arises. So there’s definitely things like HDR, but also just better MSAA and things like that. All the really boring stuff that ultimately will make the game look better, and you’ll feel the benefit if you have a PS4 Pro.
Thanks to Paul for playing along with our rather unusual opening gambit. You can check out our hands on impressions of the game here… and you’ll be pleased to know it’s pretty good!