Q&A: Building tracks and tracking tires in F1 2016

As the studio prepares to release F1 2016, Codemasters' Andy Gray chats with Gamasutra about what's involved with authentically building real-world cars and tracks in an annualized racing game.

This week sees British studio Codemasters launch F1 2016, its eighth realistic Formula One racing game in roughly as many years. 

While the game itself is aimed squarely at F1 enthusiasts (it even bears the official imprimatur of the FIA, F1's governing body), the studio behind it has a history of making racing games that stretches back to the mid-'80s. 

From Grand Prix Simulator for the Commodore 64 through to Colin McRae: DirtDirt Rally and now F1 2016, Codemasters has managed to carve out a successful bit of business for itself designing games that replicate the feel of real cars whizzing around real tracks.

With that in mind, Gamasutra recently conducted a brief back-and-forth via email with Codemasters' Andy Gray to try and shed light on what goes into making a realistic racing game, as well as what's involved in working with sporting officials to authentically recreate real-world cars and tracks. 

Devs who are curious about the same questions may find some of his comments potentially interesting, so we've taken the liberty of republishing them below.

Codemasters has been making racing games since the '80s, and F1 games since 2009. What challenges come with making an annualized racing game, and how have you tried to overcome them?

Gray: Working on a yearly franchise can be hard work as the development cycle is pretty constant. As soon as you finish one game, you are on to the next one. However, F1 is a fantastic license and we are fans of the sport which helps to motivate us. We are constantly striving to improve and get as close as we can to the real world sport which helps to drive the game forward.

It is a sport that is constantly evolving both on and off the track so there is always something interesting to focus on. We have a suite of ideas for where we want to take the game so getting bored is never an issue.

What's been the trickiest part of developing F1 2016, from both a technical and a licensing perspective?

Obviously F1, by its very nature, is extremely technical with a lot of nuisances, plus the sport never stands still as every team is constantly striving to improve. All of the cars get upgraded and have subtle changes throughout the season, some visible, some not.

These changes can be problematic for us and we have to lock down the cars in terms of their design and livery early on in the season in order to get the game made in time for release. We will then look to update them later on.

The same is true with issues such as tire allocation for each race. At the time of release we don’t know which tires will be used in the final races of the season, so again we will have to provide these as an update.

We have a great relationship with FOM (Formula One Management) and the teams, which enables us to ensure the game is as close as possible to real life.

I imagine there's quite a bit of work that goes into things like tire physics, for example, or track design. Are the tracks perfectly replicated? How is that done?

The track creation process is a lengthy and involved process that involves multiple disciplines from art, design, photography to production, licensing and legal. This initial phase involves gathering as much reference as we possibly can to faithfully recreate the track.

We normally hire a photographer to take numerous photographs of the location prior to the race. Formula One Management and the circuit engineering departments provide us essential additional information for us in the form of CAD drawings and architectural renders. This contains information such as the width and height variation of the track, rumble strip positions, locations of key race structures such as the pit lane buildings, grandstands, marshal lights, DRS markers and more. As the building process can be initiated well in advance of the actual track race, various features can still be unknown quantities. This can become an incredibly complex endeavour when both the digital and real-world tracks are built literally in tandem.

This information is all collated to work out an appropriate plan of how we build the track. We have numerous items to consider: the terrain, buildings, dressing vehicles, lamp posts, sponsors, trees, barriers, etc. This list can be quite exhaustive and we have to rationalize how to build this within the time frame and with level of detailing required to replicate it’s equally intricate real-world counterpart.

Our latest build, the Baku street circuit in Azerbaijan, is nearly twice the size of Monaco with the same level of complexity. Each item type is then split amongst numerous artists to build in specialiszd applications such as 3D Studio Max and Photoshop, to be then integrated into our game engine.

At the same time of development design will also become fully involved in this process to add all the necessary gameplay features such as replay cameras, racing lines, DRS markers and handling features. The art will also be analyzed by numerous departments such as legal, licensing, FOM, Design and QA to validate the authenticity of the end product.

Changes to the track can be made at any given moment in time and we try to encompass as many of the changes as we possibly can within the timeframe. For instance, Silverstone recently had a last-minute change from red and white rumbles to black and white rumbles which we rushed to get in at the last moment!

It’s the hard work and dedication of the team that brings this all together.

So if you had to give a GDC talk about the experience to your fellow devs, what lessons would you share? What pitfalls would you advise them to avoid?

Wow, that’s a tough question...My advice would be to not try to run before you can walk. You have to get the basics right first and then build upon those foundations in subsequent years.

To give an example, there would be no point in us having the most immersive career mode ever seen in an F1 game if the actual on-track experience wasn’t fun to play. You have to get the fundamentals right and then introduce more to that formula over time. It is something I feel we have done well moving from F1 2015 to 2016. This year’s game is far more rounded with the return of Career, 22 players online, the safety car, formation laps and more.

I would also say that our interaction with our community has been vital. They have been involved in the development process from an early stage, coming in and testing things to give their feedback and talk us through what they would like to see in the game. F1 2016 is a much better game for their input.

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