How Codemasters' secret social network for racers keeps it on the cutting edge.
By today’s relentless release cycle, Codemasters took its sweet time with Grid 2. Where Activision pummels gamers with a new Call of Duty each and every single year, it’s been a long half decade since racer Race Driver: Grid won over critics.
The follow up, which drops the prefix and hits PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on 28 May, has been a long time coming, but with good cause, Codemasters senior game designer Ross Gowing tells Red Bull UK - it’s only now that technology has caught up with the British developer’s vision.
“The first one was 2008 [and] we needed to think about what we put in the next one. At that time there were so many ideas that kind of outstripped what we’d actually have been able to achieve with where our technology was at the time. So that’s the reason for the wait really, we wanted to make sure that we could do all of our ideas justice.”
It goes without saying that Grid 2 looks absolutely stunning: while the next-generation consoles are just around the corner, it’s only now that studios have figured out how to eek every bit of horsepower out of this generation’s. We’ve come a long way from Grid’s predecessor, the TOCA Touring Car Championship series, which first hit the original PlayStation back in 1997.
The biggest changes are under the proverbial bonnet though: the team of 80 at Codemasters’ Southam studio have been hard at work refining each and every car’s handling, and striking a perfect balance between arcade, pick-up-and-play fun and Gran Turismo style-simulation. They’re calling it TrueFeel, and there’s a lot more to it than just making gear-changes optional, says Gowing.
“The physics that underlies the TrueFeel handling system, that that’s something which has taken to develop and really get it to where we want it to be...it’s been a lot of slog to really get it feeling dead on, you know we tried a few prototypes and then whittled them down and arrived here.”
“It’s realism rather than simulation, yes. But with TrueFeel the goal is to make people who pick up the game feel like a hero after a couple of laps, and to really allow them to put the power down. You know how you see on Top Gear the sticks going up, just absolutely whaling it, there’s smoke coming off the tyres - we wanted to really capture that and allow people who were new to the franchise to get on board with that very quickly.”
Then there’s LiveRoutes: in certain modes, tracks will randomly generate in front of you, so you’ll never be quite sure what’s around the next bend. That makes Grid 2 a game of skill, one where you have to learn exactly how the car feels and handles in every situation, not memorise shortcuts. Infinitely, randomly-generated games aren’t anything new - but they’re very hard to get right. How did Codemasters avoid those pitfalls?
“We went through a number of iterations on that. There was one where we had barriers moving into place and as you came on to a straight, you would see a truck pull across and move the route but then we felt that was bordering on a little bit cheesy and so went with slightly more subtle invisible route switching,” says Gowing.
“What we do is where we’ve got a city with six different tracks in and all those different tracks have been worked on to make sure the camber of the corners suits the track - that’s what we provide as the library of combinations so it’s sections of track that will be served up to you, rather than being completely random so you end up with awful folding back sections, it’s still kind of handmade.”
Grid 2 pushes your console so close to its limits in fact that Codemasters made a controversial decision and ditched a stalwart of the racing game: the cockpit view. Gowing says that the studio’s stats showed only five percent of gamers ever used the mode though, so it was a compromise worth making.
“If you think of the memory available which we have to run our game within, the portion of that that was dedicated to making the cockpit cam work, we said, ‘Well, hang on a minute, we could make the environments that much better’...It’s a decision we feel is absolutely worthwhile, the way we can make the game better for everybody else.”
Underpinning everything though is Codemasters’ secret weapon: RaceNet. It’s the network that tracks and compare all of your times across all of the studio’s recent racing games, and with Grid 2 it comes of age.
“The goal for RaceNet was to let players unify and track their racing career across all Codemasters titles,” says Gowing. “It was in Dirt Showdown, F1 2012, F1 Race Stars, but has always been in a beta phase. Grid 2 marks the 1.0 release, all-singing, all-dancing, and it’s supporting the content driven into the game.”
That includes skill matching - so you’ll only be paired with people of a similar level to you - as well as weekly challenges, with new events pushed out every seven days. In an unusual twist, Codemasters has borrowed a few tricks from today’s mobile gaming sensations too, letting you race against your mates at your own leisure - you don’t both need to find a time to play together.
“It’s making sure that people can compete against their friends despite not being online at the same time,” Gowing says. “It’s pushing all the social stuff they’re pushing for next generation, it’s something we feel we’re bringing to the table now.”
Beating Sony and Microsoft to next-gen console social features (You can upload your laps directly to YouTube too) requires some serious dedication and manpower - a dozen people work on RaceNet’s infrastructure alone. RaceNet wouldn’t be RaceNet without decent driving games to play on it though, and to that end, even more of Codemasters’ staff are on hand to make sure that all of the 50-plus cars in Grid 2 handle like their real-life counterparts.
“We’ve worked with four or five real life racing drivers, have them come in, check out exactly what we’re doing with any individual car, tell us how we can improve it, how we can make it more like that exhilarating thrill it is to drive them,” says Gowing. “So unfortunately we don’t get to go out bombing it around in Ageras!”
Ah well - even if Grid 2’s developers can’t have their cake and eat it, at least you’ll be able to do just that.
Grid 2 is on sale 28 May.