GTPlanet Exclusive: Lee Mather Talks All Things F1 2018

F1 2018 is out in just seven days. It’s an important milestone for Codemasters; this will be the tenth year the team has put out an F1 title, and it’s shaping up to be the best yet.

We’re currently putting in miles on the title — expect the GTPlanet review in the next few days — and while it was downloading, we sat down with game director Lee Mather. From the unique challenges of classic cars, to how games have influenced current drivers (as well as future ones), Mather walked us through what goes into a title based on the pinnacle of motor sports. He even gave us his dream car/track combo…

(EDITOR NOTE: This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.)

GTPlanet: We noticed there’s a lot of ‘70s era cars now. What sort of challenges do those pose to the team from a visual and physics perspective?

Lee Mather: Oh yeah, there’s always significant challenges when you move to a completely different era with pretty much everything we do. To start, actually getting a hold of those cars in the first place is fairly difficult, so for reference material it can be a little bit challenging. For the audio that’s incredibly challenging because they don’t run very often. But we’re quite lucky in the UK; you have a country that’s so heavily into its motorsport, we have a lot of historic events that actually run through the year. Things like the Silverstone Classic, or the Goodwood Revival, or the Goodwood Festival of Speed, they’re often opportunities for our audio guys to go and bank some recordings, even if it’s cars we don’t think we’re going to use this year. So that’s always a challenge, getting someone to run a car that’s worth millions and it costs thousands just to even basically get fired up and serviced.

In terms of the physics and the handling, I think the real difference there is that we build the tires based on the year that those tires were used. We’ve already got tires that work on the majority of the other cars, but we’ve obviously had to completely re-setup a new set of tires for the classics based on what they ran. They’re so involving to drive, it’s such a different style. You really are dancing it around on the limits of adhesion all the time.

GTP: You mentioned grabbing audio just in case, even if you know it’s not coming on this year’s game, in case you’ll need it for the future. On a related note, are there any plans to include other tracks in the game outside of the calendar, or is that a licensing issue?

LM: No, it’s certainly not a licensing issue, and it’s something we did back in 2013 when we did some classic tracks. It’s very much a case of tracks being the biggest time resource that we have to put into the game. This year we built Paul Ricard which is enormous. You’ll certainly see when you play the game that the establishing cameras for the circuit give you a camera view from the helicopter, and you’ll see that we don’t just build the track ribbon and the periphery around the ribbon itself. We actually build most of the region, we represent the entire track as thoroughly as possible.

This year we also had Hockenheim make a comeback as well, so we needed to do significant work to bring it up to the spec that we expect it to be at in the game this year. So it’s more just a case of there’s only so many tracks we can do in the time available to us.

GTP: That actually runs right into the next question we have. F1 is sort of unique in the genre nowadays, there’s not a lot of others that run on a serialized, yearly thing, because you’re so closely tied to a real-world organization. What are the benefits, and some of the challenges?

LM: Well, for benefits: nobody else can do the game we do. Nobody else can replicate a full, current Formula One season. And that’s unique. I don’t think anybody else has the sense of take on racing as we do, in that we do a lot more than just the on-track. We try to replicate a lot of the world around Formula One as well, which is obviously something I think sets F1 aside from other racing games, which makes us not only a racing title, but also a sports title.

Challenges wise, we’ve got so many ideas and things we’d like to do, and certainly from a design perspective, there’s so many things I’d love us to be able to do. But in the same way that’s also really good, because it means we know where we’re taking the series.

We’ve got so many ideas banked, ready to go, that we know exactly what we’re going to be doing for the next X number of games. So even though you could say that’s a challenge in some ways, that we don’t have a huge amount of time available compared to projects with a longer dev window, it’s also really nice to know we can plan for the future, and we know where we’re going, we know that the next game is going to be equally good if not better.

GTP: Esports. We have to talk about that, have to. We know it’s a big part of the franchise these days, so walk us through the whole package.

LM: It’s absolutely crazy. I think last year was still amazing what we did. And the concept of involving the teams was both something we wanted to do, and F1 wanted to do. So the idea was to have the teams actually recruit drivers to race for them under their esports banners. Some of the teams were already planning that, other teams as soon as they heard about it thought “that’s a fantastic idea”, it’s great content for them, it’s really exciting what they can do with these up-and-coming drivers. As the ideas got thrown around by the team at Formula One, they could see that they could really create more than just a race series.

The guys that qualified for the racing this year actually went to Silverstone the week before the Grand Prix. And rather than just have them play the game and show how fast they are — we know how good they are at the game, that’s obvious, they’ve already qualified — they went through really exciting things. Like media training; it’s not just about being quick on track, it’s about how you handle the media, which ironically is one of the big features of the game this year. To have to go through that is incredible, because you see how well-versed racing drivers are when they’re interviewed, and these guys have never really experienced that. Most of them are quite young as well, so I mean that’s an incredible experience.

They also did — which I think is really quite exciting — the fitness training as well. So they got to go through some of the fitness regimes that a driver goes through, and also the more physical exercises such as changing a tire on a Formula One car. And that just shows how seriously everybody is taking it. The teams are taking it very seriously; we did the draft where the teams got to select their drivers, which was televised on SkyTV and streamed live on the internet.

It’s growing at a really ridiculous rate. If you look at last year, there was simply the qualifying, the heats, and then there was the final in Abu Dhabi, which was way more than I think we expected we would achieve in the first year. Then this year, it’s just gone mad, yeah, just absolutely incredible.

GTP: It’s been very cool to watch, because there’s so many parallels that you have that are unique due to the F1 relationship. Watching these guys get to experience the whole F1 package, and have the wide F1 audience there and also the gaming side, there’s a really nice synergy there watching it from the outside.

LM: Yeah, there really is. It’s an interesting time in Formula One in that there’s a lot of younger drivers on the grid as well. And a lot of them actively played our game before they even got into the sport. The funniest one for us is still Max Verstappen attended our F1 2009 on Wii launch event with his dad. And he was a little kid! And we’ve got photos of him as a child when he was originally playing our first ever Formula One game. Now he’s a Formula One racing driver, he’s still into his gaming, as a lot of the grid are, and they choose to play the game when they’re not at the track. It’s great, it’s really exciting to see them do that, that’s what they want to do because they enjoy it.

GTP: That must be amazing! Moving back to the game, we were wondering if you were looking at a narrative mode — and we know it already has a narrative — but sort of tying into the classics, and reliving specific races with these cars, is that something that’s even possible?

LM: It’s certainly not out there, and it’s something we’ve spoken about numerous times. The one thing that actually restricts us doing that is that it’s very hard to get across to the player what the, ah, say there’s something that happened that was very iconic in the world of Formula One. I mean, if I go back to Ayrton Senna for example, ’93 at Donington Park, when he performed all those overtakes in the wet in a car that wasn’t particularly great. If we tried to recreate that as a scenario in the game, we wouldn’t have the ability to license all the cars that were on the grid in that period, or build all those cars. That makes it incredibly difficult to do something like that.

But what we do, is we do the Events in the game. Those are used for the esports qualifiers, but we can also set up Events with the classic cars. And we also have in the Championships area of the game, different season structures used in those different cars as well. To further make even more use of the classic cars, we have Invitationals in the career but you can also go and play those separately in the Championships. That’s things like the Overtake Challenges, or the Checkpoint Challenges. We try to find different ways to use those cool cars, and certainly a narrative style to it is something we do with the Events. I can tell you the first Event that the game will launch with is one based at Spa. It’s something very topical with the race being at Spa that weekend. That’s the whole narrative element of the game I think.

GTP: Excellent. Another career-based question, which I’m sure you’re asked a bunch. Has the team ever looked at the idea of a Create-A-Team mode? Is that also something that can become an issue with sponsors, like if players want to work towards wooing sponsors, designing their own liveries, that sort of thing.

LM: Always, always a topic of conversation (laughs). It’s been a topic of conversation for a long time, I’m sure it will continue to be so. I think there’s avenues to be pursued, most definitely.

GTP: Good to hear. A similar one: feeder series. Since F1 straddles that line between racing and sports games, we’ve noticed a lot of sports titles nowadays are introducing their minor leagues. How does Codemasters and F1 look at Formula 2 and 3?

LM: I gotta say again, in a very similar vein, it’s definitely on our list. We’ve got lots of things that we’ve considered for the series over the years. There’s only so much you can do with the time available to you, and there’s always challenges around working with a licensed racing game. But those are definitely things that have been on our radar for some time.

GTP: What was sort of the breakthrough moment for this title?

LM: I find it really hard to pick one thing out of 2018, because we’ve kind of built towards it over the last two games. We knew that we needed to have a really thorough career mode in there before we started adding in things like the press element. We needed to be 100% happy with what we had going on with the on-track, with the vehicle development, the AI, the racing, and the strategy elements. We needed to know we could layer on things like the press without it feeling like it wasn’t an important element. We always wanted it to feel like it was a really key thing that matters in a Formula One game as much as it matters in real life.

In terms of that part of the game, it was when we first saw how good the characters looked when the press interview character we have asked those first questions. You’ll see in the intro to the game, the new character Claire, who gets introduced to you in the paddock at Melbourne, that was a really nice establishing way to get the player into the game, and I think that was probably one of the most exciting things.

Then it’s kind of snowballed; the visuals have taken a huge step forward. It looks absolutely amazing, and it looks just as good in photo mode as it does out of it. There’s so many things that came together; in 2015 we started out with a new engine, it was a very tech-heavy year for us, and that’s given us a really great platform every year to just build cool features. The journey from ’16 to ’18 has gone just how we wanted it to, and we ended up with the game in F1 2018 that we’ve really been aiming to make.

GTP: It’s really refreshing to load up the F1 games and feel like you’re an actual person experiencing these things. A lot of other racing games, it’s go to the track, race, whatever. But F1, there’s so much going on outside of the track as well as inside, it’s really fascinating, and it’s really easy to get sucked into.

LM: That’s really good to hear. Something we’ve always been really passionate about doing was not sort of scripting the experience for the player so that you make your own career in the game. The way you behave, the things you choose to do, the way you develop your car, in this year in particular the way that you speak to the press will have repercussions on multiple areas. Obviously the rivalries, you now choose who you want your rival to be as well as negotiate your contract.

Those are all things that you take on as a player, and the outcome is what builds the story, there’s nothing scripted about it. That’s something we’ve always been super passionate about doing, making sure the player gets a player journey that’s not written for them. As you say, a racing game is a racing game, and we are a racing game, but we’re also a sport, and I think that’s where F1 is unique amongst all racing titles in that we are a great representation of a really exciting sport.

GTP: It’s almost like an RPG if you were racing. In RPGs, you fall into this character.

Yeah, we’re quite lucky as well, we’ve been very conscious of keeping that balance. Ultimately the things people buy Formula One games for are spectacular cars, amazing recognizable tracks, famous drivers, and that race experience. But obviously there’s so much more to Formula One, and that’s where we think we struck a nice balance, things that keep the player driven to want to come back and play more and more are not just the on-track, but all the things that go with it.

GTP: Just one more question for you Lee. What’s your “last meal” car/track combo in the game?

LM: I will always pick Spa. The car is a tough one; there’s a car I would be more passionate about driving purely just based on my love of the brand and the history of the Renault, so the Renault R26 would be a popular choice for me. And it’s a really nice car to drive. I think it would probably be that, it’d be the Renault R26 at Spa.

GTP: Good choice, and it’s pretty appropriate right now given all the news about Alonso.

LM: I know, it’s crazy isn’t it? So what would your choice be?

GTP: I think the F2004.

LM: Oh yeah, exactly. We were just saying the other day, that if that car had come out today, and was on the modern tires that they’re running now, it would easily be competing now with the current cars I suspect.

GTP: Oh yeah, no doubt.

LM: That ran on the grooved slicks which would’ve put it at a great disadvantage, but yeah it was a ridiculously fast car.

GTP: Yeah, I think that, probably at Monza, it seems the most appropriate place for it.

LM: It’s at home at Monza isn’t it? Awesome.

GTP: I think that’s everything. Thank you so much Lee for taking time out of a crazy week.

LM: Pleasure!

F1 2018 lands on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC August 24, coinciding with the Belgian Grand Prix.

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