Interviews F1 Online: The Game hands-on

Interviews

Martin Bigg

Writer

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Codemasters’ foray into the glamorous world of F1 was a predictable one. Having developed a reigning reputation in the racing genre, it made perfect sense for them to apply their expertise to the most prestigious racing license in the world, and the results speak for themselves. F1 2010 successfully revitalised console F1 games after a long hiatus, winning a BAFTA in the process. 

Imagine our surprise, then, when it was announced that F1, a sport that prides itself on sophistication, was about to be made into a casual, free-to-play online browser game aptly titled F1 Online: the Game.

At first it may sound like a drastic departure for Codemasters, but F1 Online comes at a time where we’ve started to see a new wave of free-to-play titles from major racing game developers in the industry. EA Black Box continue to support their MMORG Need for Speed World, and more recently Eutechnyx’s Auto Club Revolution is showing some serious promise. Even the social networking giant and chief time wasting tool Facebook has started to become a haven for car lovers, with the likes of Car Town and StreetRally leaving tyre treads all over Farmville’s soggy soil.

We chatted to producer Michael Rowland, whose 11 years experience at Codemasters has seen him move up the ranks from QA testing to community management and production roles. He explained that F1 Online is the result of Codemasters’ previous experience with racing games and online MMOs he was personally involved with, such as Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, which led to the formation of Codemasters Online Studio to develop F1 Online for the past year and a half.

On first glance, it’s genuinely remarkable to find that F1 Online is streamed entirely through your internet browser without the need to download the game. Despite these limitations, F1 Online's visuals look crisp with impressively detailed cars and environments for a browser game.

Powered by the 3D Unity engine, it all becomes clear how Codemasters achieved such high quality graphics after speaking to Michael: “We’ve been working very closely with our Birmingham Studio (the guys that brought you F1 2010 and 2011)”, he explains. “All the assets you see are from F1 2011, so everything from the HD console version is what we’ve used in the game including all the licensed cars and tracks – that’s console quality assets in a browser game.”

For veteran players of the console F1 games, the most immediately obvious change in F1 Online is the new overhead perspective. Michael maintains that this was a deliberate design decision, however, rather than a technical limitation:  “It was an actual design decision to create a game that was different to the console games. We wanted the overhead view on purpose – we were heavily inspired by one of our earlier titles, Micro Machines. It’s surprised a few people, but the game looks and plays beautifully so we’re very happy we made that choice.”

Unsurprisingly, converting the console game assets into a browser game presented a few technical challenges. Additional work was required to accommodate for F1 Online’s overhead perspective: “Take for example you’re in Monaco, you’re racing round the circuit and you’re in the cockpit view, so you really see what you see from a driver’s point of view which is the sides of buildings and perhaps a bit of the harbour”, said Michael referring to a typical race in a console F1 game.

“We’ve had to add additional elements like water and roofs of buildings – people don’t think about this, but when you’re driving in the console version you don’t see the roofs. You don’t need to see the roofs, so they don’t put them in. When we get the assets we have to tidy them up and add roofs because of the viewpoint of the game. Then we have to re-render and optimise it enough for the Unity engines.” 

Being accustomed to the console games, this new viewpoint initially made it a tad difficult to judge cornering speeds since your field of view is obviously restricted, but Codemasters have added driver aides to make learning the tracks less problematic. “We’ve added in corner markers and things like that. If you remember back in the Colin McRae days, you had corner markers that were called up by your co-driver, so we added pre-warnings to the corners.” Auto brakes can also be enabled for novice drivers who struggle with learning braking points, but where’s the fun in that?

As you would expect, F1 Online is an overall more accessible experience with extremely simplified controls. By default, you drive the car via the mouse whereby the left button is your accelerator and the right is your brake, whilst an on-screen chevron sticks to the front of the car acting as a steering guide – the car will then follow wherever you point the mouse. Meanwhile, DRS and KERs can be initiated by pressing their respective buttons on the keyboard, the timing of which can be crucial for securing a podium position.

Control of the cars felt fluid with the mouse, but it is also possible to drive using the keyboard if you prefer. F1 Online’s physics are far more forgiving than its console counterparts – kiss the wall and you’re much less likely to instantly lose the race. It’s therefore by no means a simulation, but the driving experience remains satisfying and fun with just the right balance of depth and accessibility. Conservative use of the throttle and brakes as you master the racing line is key is to success, filing F1 Online under the ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ category. 

All the licensed tracks, 12 teams and 24 drivers from F1 2011 are present (we’re told that F1 2012’s assets will be added towards the end of the year), but this portion of the game is limited to quick races of 3 laps against up to 24 onlnie players and offline championships. Race goals are adjusted accordingly depending on which driver you select, so expect the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Hamilton to have more demanding race position objectives. 

What the official F1 license doesn’t allow, however, is full customisation of their momentous machines, and this is where F1 Online comes into its own. The main bulk of F1 Online is found in the custom team management, which initially allows you to name your own team and choose custom liveries, helmet designs and car colours, with the simple 3D Unity interface allowing you to admire your craftsmanship from any angle.

It all adds an element of personalisation you simply don't get in traditional F1 games. “The whole purpose of the game is to become an F1 boss. It allowed us to branch into something that’s not been done before by allowing you to build up your own team. Over the course of the game you get to the heights of F1, which was a key focus for the custom side of the game. It’s proven very popular so far in the beta – the first thing people do is create their teams, create their emblem and create their brand, and that’s what we want from people. We want them to be the next McLaren, or the next Ferrari.”

Due to licensing issues, 15 bespoke tracks were added for the custom races in addition to the 19 official tracks, many of which are clearly deliberate homages to F1’s real world circuits, whereas others simply replicate recogniseable corners or sectors. The original circuits can be quite challenging, however  – after all, you’re no longer racing round the same circuits you’ve meticulously memorised over the years in previous games.

Vehicle customisation isn’t restricted to cosmetics, either, as additional parts can be fitted to improve performance. Everything from front and rear wings, engines, air intakes, suspension and brakes can be upgraded, which will then place your car under a specific performance class as you level up. These range from the entry U1 class before moving onto U9, C, B, A and S class, which match the top tier official F1 cars – the difference in speed between the early custom cars and full-blooded official cars is striking.

These classes play a significant part in the online matchmaking process, which ensures that cars are grouped within their respective classes so that an S-class racer will never be pitted against a C-class racer, for example. While tuning your car within each class can offer advantages, such as drag and downforce reduction to accommodate for different circuits, there’s little overall advantage when racing against competitors – it’s all about pure driving skill.

Further upgrades are unlocked by earning development points from race wins and completing team objectives. From here, you can then spend these points on hiring a team to research new components, before putting them into production. Progress is monitored through F1 Online’s central Team HQ, but since the research and production process is done in real time, you are encouraged to dive in and out of the game.

Everything is represented in an elaborate Sim City-style 3D map of the various buildings, facilities and networking roads that make up your HQ. “This is where you get to build your HQ from a cow shed in a field up to the Ferrari-type facilities where you have thousands of staff able to create hundreds of types of components.”

While the management mechanics are clearly not as deep as a dedicated F1 management sim like Pole Position, or that of a Football Management game, the drip-feed of constant updates, objectives and vehicle unlocks make for a compulsive experience that will keep dedicated players hooked. It should be seen merely as a means to improve the performance of your car as you level up rather than a true management strategy sim.

This could change however, as F1 Online's team management could apparently evolve in future updates. “I think for what we want it for it works exactly as we’d like it to, but there are areas we want to dig further into and we have plans in the future to do a lot of that – watch this space, because changes will be coming.”  Considering F1 Online’s focus on managing your team, it makes you wonder if we will see an equivalent, but more advanced, team management system in future console F1 titles.

One of F1 Online’s major perks is that it is of course free to play, but micro-transactions will be available for purchasing additional content. Do not despair, however, as these are limited to inconsequential items such as custom liveries and colour pallets for example, with content rotating on a cycle. Time enhancers will also be available: “These allow you to speed up processes so you don’t have to wait 24 hours for an item to be developed. You can cut it down by 12 hours, 18 hours if you want to – it’s more for the people who don’t have time to wait around for those components to be made.”

Michael also touched on being able to buy cash boosts, but stressed that none of these transactions will give the player an unfair advantage as you can’t buy extra components that aren’t already in the game, i.e. you can’t simply buy a turbo boost that allows you to blast around the circuit quicker. Prices are still being finalised, but we’re told it will be modelled around an iTunes-esque pricing bracket of around 50p – £2.00.

F1 Online has been undergoing rigorous testing in an invite-only closed beta for the past few months. This phase has since ended as Codemasters prepares F1 Online to come out of the pit stop this month in an open beta where anyone can join.

Once in open beta, F1 Online’s free-to-play platform means that Codemasters aren’t tied to a final release date. “One of the fortunate things with being an online game is that we can update whenever we like. We have a massive 3 year plan for the game and future updates. Think of it like an MMO cycle – we’re going to be pumping out stuff every couple of months.”

We managed to prompt Michael to divulge a few hints of what future updates could entail.  We already know the F1 2012 assets will be added later down the line, but he also hinted at the possibility of visual damage, full weather systems, qualifying, pit stops and the ability to race custom cars against the official F1 cars in future updates. Community feedback will also be pivotal in shaping future updates as F1 Online evolves over the coming years.

F1 Online is clearly trying to strike a balance between appealing to the casual player and the F1 fanatic, a balance that Michael admits is hard to achieve. The pick up and play nature of the short races, overhead view and accessible handling meet the casual market’s needs, whereas hardcore F1 fans will revel at becoming their own team boss, starting from scratch and ranking up to a Ferrari standard of prestige, whilst also understanding the technical tuning aspects of the sport.

From what we've played, F1 Online is a thoroughly engaging expierence that's well suited to the platform alongside the fully-fledged console titles. As a racing game, it's fun and accessable for quick sessions, whereas the addictive team management and the promise of MMO style content updates ensures that devoted players will get plenty of longetivity.  

You can sign up at www.f1onlinethegame.com/ for when the open beta launches, which should be later this month. 

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