Codemasters’ Birmingham team (previously Swordfish Studios) has been building F1 games since 2010 and F1 2018 is shaping up to be its best take to date.
With F1 2018 arriving late next week, IGN spoke with game director Lee Mather at Codemasters Studio Birmingham to chat about some of the most exciting changes coming in the game, the rise of F1 esports, and the challenges of building a yearly motorsports sim.
IGN: F1 2018 contains plenty of improvements, many of which have been well-covered in the Developer Diaries the team has been publishing in the lead up to release. Which of these improvements are you most keen to get in front of fans and hear their responses?
It’s a very different take on the racing genre.
Lee Mather: I think it’s finally the fact that we’ve got in so many things that the player has control over in their career – beyond just the on-track stuff, which was already awesome – that mirrors what a Formula One driver has to deal with. It’s way more than any other racing game does. It’s a very different take on the racing genre, to a degree… This has obviously been a plan that’s been set in motion since 2016, and we’ve wanted to build the game out in a way that nothing felt like it wasn’t a major part of the career. There was nothing in there that was just a throwaway element. And obviously we built it up so much in 2017 that  was the next step.
We’ve now got so many things that actually come together. There was always a feeling that there’s no point doing it if it doesn’t have meaning or an impact on what the player has to consider, or do. That’s the best thing for me; that we’ve got so much in there that all pulls together.
IGN: How tough is this 12-month cadence? Also, how much can be achieved yearly, and how much needs to be planned out over several years?
Lee Mather: From the design team perspective, we’ve got strong ideas for what the major things should be for the next few games of the series, and then there’s always wiggle room around the others as to what fits in the gaps. A lot of the things that are in  are such major elements that they’re built upon things that were put in place in 2017 and 2016, and you can’t do that without a good plan on the direction you’re going to take the game, because otherwise you’ll end up doing a large chunk of work one year and throwing it away the next.
The time scale is something we’ve dealt with since the beginning of the series, and we’ve found ways of making it easier for ourselves. For the first time since 2012 we’ve partnered with [Studio] Gobo, and they helped us out. We’ve actually increased the team size internally, so we’ve already got a team working on future iterations, and that’s really going to help us get significantly ahead of the game so we’re hoping we can really make it a lot bigger year on year.
And maybe give ourselves a little breathing room, and some daylight during the Summer!
IGN: With the yearly deadlines that come with building an annual motorsport franchise, do you ever look at other teams with longer development cycles with jealousy? Is there ever much time to relax?
Lee Mather: Normally about a month after launch we get a little break; we normally get a little bit of a shutdown so that the team can get their energy back up and do the boring things like mow the lawn, paint the fence, redecorate the house.
[T]he excitement of an annual release is actually a real strong motivator in some ways.
You can look at other teams and think, ‘Oh, that must be nice; they’ve got a long dev window.’ And you know what? I’m pretty sure that, no matter how long your dev window, you will always try to do more because that’s the nature of what we’re like. If somebody sees something they can improve and it requires a little bit of extra effort, then that’s an improvement that we’ll be aiming for.
But also, you do get that gratification of a game release every year. Previously in this studio there were titles that we released that went on for much, much longer. And then there were titles that went on for a long period of time and never even saw the light of day. There’s been people on certain teams that have seen projects – and this is a long time ago, well before we were Codemasters – where things just didn’t come out. And then they moved to another project and then that didn’t come out. That’s pretty soul destroying, so the excitement of an annual release is actually a real strong motivator in some ways.
IGN: How’s the relationship with F1 these days?
Lee Mather: Formula One these days have now got such a strong understanding of the processes that we go through, we’ve obviously got a great trust relationship with them, that they don’t expect us to do anything that’s going to be damaging to the sport because, equally, we all want the same thing.
I think the biggest difference in the last few years has been how the teams have really noticed the game and run with it. I mean, the amount of stuff we do with the teams. We give them lots of bespoke assets, they get videos; they even create a load of their own stuff. And that’s really cool to see. We didn’t see so much of that in the past because obviously the teams were not so active in doing social media and some of their other channels.
I think the biggest difference in the last few years has been how the teams have really noticed the game and run with it.
I mean, look at the esports at the moment; the coverage that’s getting. [Mercedes] announced four drivers [last week], and [Shadow Project], the McLaren team, announced a new driver joining them as well, so it’s crazy. It feels like the game and the sport are now closer than they ever have been, and everybody’s treating it a lot more seriously, which is really cool. It’s always been treated seriously by us and by Formula One, but there’s areas of the fan base of Formula One that aren’t gamers, and they’re starting to see, ‘Well, actually, that’s really cool.’
And to see what the esports drivers have been going through, it just adds even more to it. The fact that they did the fitness training, the tyre changing, the media training; all those things they went through this year at the qualifying stuff at Silverstone just adds even more credibility to it. They could become real celebrities off the back of it.
The visibility of [the game] these days is helping loads. Not only is the game advertised at the circuits and they’ve still got the game live in game zones for people to play, but the coverage we got for the esports has been enormous. I mean, to be on Sky TV with a game, with its own show. I mean, that’s amazing.
IGN: Could you have pictured this 10 years ago, the games being where they’re at now?
Lee Mather: Game-wise, yeah, but not in terms of general acceptance from the wider audience. It was always going to be a tough call because the Formula One fans who aren’t gamers are very, very passionate about the sport, and you know what people are like when they’re super passionate about one thing: they don’t like change. I think now they’ve seen the F1 esports and the quality of the work that’s being done there – the quality of the broadcast and how seriously it’s taken – and the calibre of the entrants. It’s really closed the gap.
IGN: As we all know, rules can change in F1 a lot faster than a modern video game can pivot. How tricky is it being able to react to that stuff, and how much of it are you ever aware of beforehand?
Lee Mather: It depends on what it is. Obviously there’s different levels of severity of what’s changing. For example, a few years ago, FIA was going to make that rules change to qualifying. And that was decided very late by the sport, so we really couldn’t turn that around in such a short time – that’s a huge logic change, and it reverted back before the game came out anyway – but we did have to do all the due diligence and go through all the research to see what we could achieve in the time available to us. We would’ve moved mountains, basically, to make sure we were right at launch.
So sometimes it’s reactive, and there’s nothing you can do about that, and we know that’s sometimes going to be the case. And it’s great to see they’re trying different things in the sport as well… sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t. Most of the time we get a good, early heads-up, but depending on what it is we can’t commit to doing work early on something that might not happen. That’s then a large chunk of time that we’ve burnt that we’ll never get back.
We were talking the other day about the Miami circuit. Miami’s been rumoured for quite some time; it was getting quite advanced by the sounds of things. So we took a punt and started getting together the reference and started building Miami, because we thought that would be a safe bet, and then obviously that progressed to the point where they’re not going to have Miami on the calendar next year. So I guess that’s a little bit of time that’s been used up, but sometimes you have to hedge your bets a little bit.
IGN: What do you think is going to be particularly well-received about F1 2018 by series regulars?
Lee Mather: The multiplayer Super Licence is really going to be well received. It’s there for multiple reasons and it’s a thing that we’ve wanted to do for a while, but a lot of it’s because the feedback we get from people who don’t play in leagues – who just go on in the evening to have a race – is that they want [clean racing]. There’s nothing more rewarding than a good race in F1. Especially a decent length race as well, where there’s some strategy, some weather changes. All those things happen in the most rewarding races you can ever have. But then if you get some maniac on the last lap driving the wrong way, taking you out and destroying your experience, that’s enough to make you throw your pad out the window. So the Super Licence is there to match people of similar skill but also similar driver etiquette, so hopefully we’ll be able to clean up the racing and give people that experience.
[I]f you get some maniac on the last lap driving the wrong way, taking you out and destroying your experience, that’s enough to make you throw your pad out the window.
But something that really stands out for me, and after playing it even more yesterday and watching some of the AI training going on, the AI are just phenomenal this year. They are so natural and so interesting and so exciting to race amongst. And I think that’s something that everyone will appreciate. In the past we came under fire that the AI didn’t block very well; they maybe didn’t move and cover the line very well. You watch them now in the game and they will start to frustratingly move, just a little bit. Just some Max Verstappen-style ‘Which way yer goin’?’ You don’t know whether you best take the inside or the outside. Inside’s obviously going to be the shorter line to the apex of the corner, but if you’ve not won that corner, that AI driver is gonna turn in on you, and you’re gonna end up losing your nose.
Those are things that we didn’t do before; they’ve got that awareness of where people are but they will shut the door. So you then need to put yourself in the mindset of, ‘What would a real driver do?’ They’d dip out of it otherwise they’re going to have an impact. So not only is the defending really cool, but the overtaking with the ERS massively mixes things up.
IGN: The F1 series has a great range of options to scale the difficulty in many areas for solo players, but how difficult is that to get right, so everyone can have those down-to-wire races that test every ounce of their skills?
Lee Mather: It’s incredibly difficult and a lot of the time it does come down to the user’s self-discipline to get the experience that they want out of it. I always like to make sure I’ve got my difficulty level at something that gives a realistic performance from me. So if I start out in a specific team, I want to be finishing my first race weekend where that team would be finishing in real-life. And then from that point on I’ll manipulate the difficulty level should I need to. Some people will just pick whatever team they want and set it to super easy to just get wins in a team they love….
You want people to, whatever their skill level, get what they want out of it, while still giving them the structure to not spoil Formula One, basically… I find it more rewarding to drive for a lower to mid-tier team and really mix it up in the midfield and get the points. I think I’m at the point now where I don’t even chase the championship as much; the journey along the way is so engrossing.
That’s what we always wanted to do. And that’s a really tough sell to a lot of people, because a lot of people expect, in a racing game, to pick the car they love and just win races. I’m guilty of that in so many racing games; I go into them with a mindset of, ‘I’m gonna win every race’ because that’s generally how it’s structured. But in F1, I go in thinking, ‘I’m gonna have an absolute gloves-off battle for the next 25 laps or whatever I’m doing, and that’s where the real reward comes for me.
IGN’s F1 2018 review will be published early next week.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter every few days @MrLukeReilly.