Back in the day, Codemasters’ Colin McRae games have had a huge impact on those growing up on a diet of video games and motorsports, and as gaming technology has advanced, it’s stepped closer and closer to replicating the real thing.
Last week we got to put the two side-by-side – you can read our preview here – and sat down with Chief Game Designer Ross Gowing for a bit of a chat about how the game is pushing to the next level in realism.
TSA: Being here in Powys, one of the nice things was how Phil explained right at the start of the day the basics of how to drift, why you’re doing it, and I’m wondering if you’re trying to bring some of that into the game? I think I asked you something similar back at the game’s reveal in September, but I’m wondering if you’ve maybe reconsidered, or worked to bring some of the high level hints and tips into the game?
Ross Gowing: Yeah, well hopefully you’ve seen today that what Phil’s told you about how to drive a rally car in real life has the parallels to what we’re doing in game. Being able to control a rear wheel drive car through the corners on the throttle and the power of how a spinning tyre works against a loose surface, that’s something that we’ve really work hard to capture as accurately as possible.
The work we do with professional drivers to make sure they feel as they should is one of the most important things to us. It’s all about how the cars feel on track. That is what people are playing the game for. The game modes and everything that sits on top of that wouldn’t be there without that experience of car in hand.
TSA: Yeah, but you don’t have a cartoon version of Phil or Jon popping up with tips and tutorials?
Ross: [Laughs] So, because we find that a lot of our players already have such a lot of experience of rallying, we don’t want an in game tutorial to be intrusive and obstructive in that way. We do have some plans for Jon to do some real driver tutorials through our social media channels, showing the key principles of vehicle attitude and weight transfer, before moving on to left foot braking, clutch kicks and advances stuff like that.
TSA: I only ask because one of the things I’ve enjoyed in the past is have a driving school or playground to mess around in, but I guess it’s dependent on the game and the audience in this case. The hardcore veterans might be like, “Ugh, not this again!”
You kind of touched upon it, but are you at the point where you feel you can really transfer skills from game to racing and racing to game? That must be the dream for what you want to achieve, really.
Ross: Yeah, absolutely, and this is something that Jon and I talked about quite a lot on the drive over here. He cut his teeth as a child in computer games and taught himself a lot of the principles in Colin McRae games back in the day. Then that knowledge went on to competing in real cars in junior championships, and then took his real life knowledge back into virtual esports…
TSA: Do you feel he’s cheating? Hasn’t he got a bit too much experience for this esports thing? [laughs]
Ross: I kind of feel he’s cheating a life, really!
But yeah, it’s really great to see people who can go back and forth between games and real driving. A lot of the guys that we work closely with in our community have real life rally experience around Europe as well, and so their feedback is really important to us in making sure we’re representing things properly.
We’re seeing more and more real life drivers, especially in tarmac motorsports, using virtual simulators to practice when they’re not allowed out on track. So yeah, the lines are starting to become more and more blurred.
At the Race of Champions, for example, we saw an esports driver beat a Formula E driver! It’s more of that that we want to see. We want to see players playing our games and taking our games and taking their first steps into motorsports. It makes us super proud when we hear stories of that kind of thing happening.
TSA: I don’t think you’ll ever quite get across the kind of cold misery of a wet day in Wales, though…
Ross: [laughs] We’re lucky enough to travel out to various rally events around the country and RallyCross events, and because it’s Britain it’s always bloody freezing, but this is part and parcel of it. It’s grassroots motorsport. You’re stood there in the forests and woods, in the rain getting soaking wet, but this is what people love! Rally fans are some of the most passionate out there. I think if you drove them around in a little silver blimp, then it wouldn’t be rallying anymore!
TSA: Maybe the game can have a little advisory note to open your windows on a cold day while playing?
TSA: One of the things I’ve struggled in my hands on sessions within the game is to really spot the deformability of the tracks. I know that it’s happening, I can see the tyre marks and rutting, but I don’t know what the difference is between starting first and starting last. How are you going to get that across to players?
Ross: So we have a UI element in the service area that will tell you what you can expect the track deformation to be like, so you can expect it to be quite smooth running or quite rutted, and there’s obviously the visual and physical changes when you get out there. I think it’s something where the more time you spend with the game, the more you start to notice it. What we didn’t want was kind of joke surface deformation. We didn’t want you to jump out there be like, “Oh wow! I’m getting bounced into the sky!”
The more we speak to guys, the more they say it’s the subtle layering of things like bald tyres, being low in the running order, now it’s getting a bit dark, a bit wet. All of these things build up a greater and greater challenge, and surface deformation is definitely a part of that.
TSA: How extreme do you go? I remember Sega Rally on PS3 where they had these huge ruts because you driving through the thickest mud they could render!
Ross: So, early in development we said to our level desingers to deform it as much as they think was physically possible…
TSA: And just how angry was Jon in his feedback? [laughs]
Ross: Quite angry, sometimes?
But our tools guys built such a great system that has allowed us to really balance that and make sure that it’s both real and playable all in one. We wanted it to be believable deformation without players being continually frustrated by wheels being ripped off by the unexpected.
It’s a fine line that we have to tread there, but we’re happy with where it is.
TSA: Another thing that I’m sure I asked you about back in September, but I’m wondering about the divide and gap between playing with a controller and a wheel. How are you managing that in the game?
Ross: So we kind of see a 50:50 split of wheel players and controller players – we know that on PC is skews a lot higher toward wheel…
TSA: I mean, most of them would be playing with WASD if they weren’t on a wheel!
Ross: [laughs] Oh yeah!
We want to make sure the controller players have as good a time as the wheel players, so it’s something that our handling team focus on a lot. You go through to their team area and they’ve got a number of different wheel rims set up, then they’ve got the pads, there’s even a motion platform they can use to test things. So we cover all levels of peripheral and try to make sure they’re balanced against each other as well. We want to make sure people feel they can compete whatever hardware they’ve got in their hands.
TSA: It did feel for me that, going from driving the car, to playing on the pad and playing with wheel, it was a bit more difficult for me to put in the same real world experience into playing with the controller of how to swing the back end through corners and things like that.
Ross: So obviously with a wheel, the force feedback system means you can feel a lot more of what you’re doing. The wheel can pull back on you and let you know how and when you should be giving it a dab of oppo, whereas on a controller we’re kind of limited to the vibration capabilities of the controller. You can get more feedback through a wheel and pedals and even more feedback through a motion platform.
We use that, actually, when we do our co-driver recordings. We’ve got Phil Mills calling the pace notes and, yeah, three runs of every stage with him in the motion platform, with the final one being him having his teeth shaken out it’s turned up that high!
He’s so professional and, to be honest, he was asking for it to be cranked up more and more and more. We were like, “Phil, we’re going to have to bolt this to the floor before long!” It’s been great working with him, the way he and Jon work to do video reccies of the stages, write the pace notes and then have Phil recording them have been a real joy to work with.
TSA: Isn’t it Jon in the car in the game?
Ross: Jon’s face is in the game, yes! You know, you’re the first person to notice that!
TSA: Is he driving all the time?
Ross: No, no, you can choose different appearance, if you want.
TSA: I just remember I was chuckling at the gesticulating after coming in 6th or 7th in a stage, and I just realised it was Jon!
Ross: You should see what gesticulations he makes when he realises that the teabags have run out in the office!
TSA: [laughs] Did you just put him in a mocap suit, get the rig in the kitchen to record?
Lastly I want to talk about multiplayer and where you’ve gone with that. I don’t think it’s something you’ve really gone into in detail, outside of RallyCross, but are there any particular nuances? One of the things I miss from Dirt 3 was having the real time rallies with delayed starts and getting a game of cat and mouse in there as well!
Ross: So, we have online custom multiplayer, where you and seven friends or strangers can set up a live session, and you can run a rally championship, RallyCross championship or a mixture of the two. If you want you can do alternate rounds of each.
You won’t see each other on stage, though, so you won’t have to overtake your buddy if they’re crawling round with a broken car, but you’ll be able to regroup at the next service area and see how everybody’s times stack up.
Thanks to Ross for chatting with us, and to Codemasters and Koch Media for organising and providing travel and accommodation for the rally school event. Be sure to check out our latest hands on impressions from the game here, before its release on 26th February.