Exclusive talk with F1’s franchise game director about creating My Team, driver ratings and new tracks.
Photo credit: Koch Media / Codemasters
F1 2020 is just around the corner. Before the game finally hits the market, OverTake spoke to Lee Mather, franchise game director of the Formula 1 game series. Lee has been working on the F1 games for eleven years. He gives us an exclusive look behind the scenes of developing F1 2020.
Hi Lee, thank you for joining! Which feature do you personally look forward to playing the most in F1 2020?
I think it’s quite obvious what I’m going to say: It is the new My Team mode. I actually grabbed a copy this morning and started my first proper playthrough from a player and not a developer perspective. That was a really nice way to start out the day.
It is a mode that we’ve been wanting to do from the very beginning and always had in mind. In 2019, there were some key things that we brought into the game which allowed us to bring in My Team this year, like Formula 2.
This has given us the opportunity to build the driver market so your first driver will be a Formula 2 driver. We also have custom cars where you can have sponsors on it, you can change the livery, and you can change the colors.
The other thing that we really wanted to get in was the ability to have the real engine suppliers in My Team which we were allowed to do this year as well.
F1’s career mode always evolved, especially over the last years. With My Team, there’s a completely new dimension coming into it. How much will the career mode actually be about things like management and how much will it be about racing?
It is first and foremost a racing game. That is always what we have set out to be. Now, Formula 1 is a racing game with a management element.
A Formula 1 team has many things that go on throughout the course of the week. You have to manage those elements. It might be that you decide to send your aero department off on a course to learn some additional stuff. That might cost you money, but the result will be that you gain a boost in your aero development. There’s always a balancing act.
In the traditional career, if you’re not so interested in managing your R&D, there’s a suggestion button where the game will manage everything for you. You can do the same thing with certain elements of My Team as well.
But ultimately, F1 2020 is all about the on-track experience and the racing.
Let’s say I’m a really lazy person, and I’m not really interested in managing and distributing resources. All I want to do is race together with Lewis Hamilton on my own team. Can I just buy him right from the start? Will he join?
No, Lewis won’t join you from the start, definitely not. All the drivers have requirements and the driver market system in 2020 is way more complex. It would be very strange for a new team to suddenly get Lewis Hamilton. Even if you had the funds to get Lewis, he still would have requirements to be on your team.
For example, Lewis Hamilton is not going to join your team if you don’t have a level three wind tunnel or a level three chassis facility. He wants those to produce a car that he can win with. It wouldn’t be realistic for Lewis to join your team just because you’ve got the money.
Some of the feedback that we got quite a lot last year from the community was that the driver moves in F1 2019 were sometimes a little unbelievable. That’s not something that we wanted to have to deal with this year again.
One of the new features that heavily influences the driver market are the driver ratings. Those ratings consist of several factors like racecraft and experience. Based on which data did you assess the ratings?
It’s a huge amount of data, spreadsheets we have collected for over five years. We have scouted the FIA website and took all the data that we needed to build this information.
We also had to look into any sort of retirements and whether they were car-related or driver-related. We looked at penalties. We looked at the positions a driver would gain across the course of a race, based on their expected position and many other things. We also had to look at how drivers maintain their position at the front.
It was a vast task that we worked very closely with Formula 1 on. We tried to take the driver away from the car so it’s the driver’s performance because it’s easier for a driver who is in the best car to perform close to the front of the grid.
It was a vast amount of data that we took into account for this. We worked close with the team of Formula 1 to be able to come up with a system that everybody was happy with.
We’ve spoken a lot about the new My Team feature. But are there any other new things coming up in the career mode besides My Team?
Yes, the career is an evolution of what we did in the previous years. There are two areas where it benefits from some of the work we have done in My Team.
In My Team, we have the real engine suppliers. We have now got the manufacturer upgrades on the engines. If you’re driving for Racing Point, for example, and Mercedes have a power unit upgrade that is part of the power unit pool, that will come over to your team as well.
The driver market is similar to the one in My Team. But in My Team you’re the person in charge, trying to get the best driver to your team. Whereas in the driver career, you are the commodity, you are the driver.
So, you’re trying to get the best deal to get the best pay, to allow yourself to buy the best perks to improve your car. But it’s also important you’ve got the skills and requirements that the teams have.
Let’s talk about the gameplay. You announced that you would add some features to make the game more accessible for new players. What are those features and are they going to influence other parts of the game like competitive racing?
We put in a separate set of options for the game. It is helping to bring the game to a broader audience without compromising. These are quite heavy-handed. They are very tailored to a player who is very inexperienced with a racing game or maybe just wants to experience the excitement of a Formula 1 car.
The steering is assisted which makes it much easier for the player to get around the circuit. That along with the braking assist makes navigating along the track significantly easier.
While the off-track surfaces are very realistic in the game and slow you down or make the tires slippery, we have removed those properties from off track surfaces in this mode. Players who go off can get back on much easier. We have an automatic reset to track as well. It takes away the frustration that we saw people get.
We still have the standard game where it plays exactly as any other year. But because these assists are so aggressive to help the player, they will not be able in competitive game modes.
The Virtual GPs made many F1 drivers play your game. Did you make use of their feedback to improve the simulation part of the game?
We gave the F1 teams more beta codes a little while ago. And because they were taking part in the Virtual Grands Prix on Sundays, a lot of the teams and professional drivers were getting coached by guys who would normally be dealing with them over a real race weekend.
We’ve been getting incredibly detailed feedback from some of the F1 engineers. The way we’ve set up the inertia on the wheels and the tires this year gives the car a much more realistic feel. You’ll notice the cars have a much more solid and planted, grippier feel to them.
Their feedback is a big step forward and we’re really pleased with that. We also changed the way the ERS is implemented. That is something which we got back from Lando Norris.
We’ve also made some changes to the force feedback. Essentially the player will get better feel on the brakes.
F1 2020 also features two completely new tracks for the franchise with Zandvoort and Hanoi. There have been no races with modern Formula 1 cars on both tracks. Zandvoort was renewed and just finished a few weeks before the scheduled day of the Dutch GP. Hanoi is a completely new track. How did you approach the development of the tracks?
The circuit of Zandvoort is built on a flood plain which means that the local government have really good lidar data for the entire region. We had a prototype of the track very early in the building of the game. That was fantastic and all accurate to the lidar data.
It looked amazing because we’ve started to bring in some new techniques on how we built the scenery. Then there were the changes that were made much later in the day. We did not have lidar data for that. We were provided with cam data which we had to make the adjustments from. That’s how we created Zandvoort.
For Hanoi, there was a discussion with the government about what the layout of the circuit was going to be. They had a rough idea of the circuit. We took all the data for that area and started to build the area that we expected the circuit to be in. And once the route was determined, we were able to focus more on the details of those particular areas, things like iconic buildings.
How do you like both tracks in the end?
It’s cool because they’re both very different circuits. Zandvoort is a really traditional track. It’s the sort I like. I like old-school Formula 1 tracks with a bit of modulation and banks. And I like to see grass around Formula 1 tracks for some reason. Being in the UK, most of our tracks are out in green.
But then you got Hanoi which is a very glamorous-looking city track with enormous straights, huge speeds, and massively intense braking zones. Both ends of the straights have some really tight hairpins. But then they’ve got a series of esses as well which is quite fun.
They are both very contrasting circuits which is nice to have in the game this year.
Multiplayer racing is a big part of the F1 games. This year, you brought back the split screen mode. What led to this decision and why wasn’t it available in the previous games?
Split screen was something we had on the previous generation. But when we transitioned to the current generation we started with a new engine and split screen was not something that was built into the technology at the start. We were concentrated on getting 4k or 1080p depending on your platform and trying to get it over 60 frames per second, those were the targets.
As you’ve seen on the series, the visuals have improved year over year. This is where the focus has been from a tech perspective. But we knew that split screen was something that people were still asking for.
It is still something that people want in a racing game. So, this year, we partnered with a newer studio to give us a hand on this one and they developed split screen for us.
Another popular way to race against your friends is online racing which had some problems concerning connectivity and lags. Which changes did you make to the online mode?
As we have done for the last few years, the team has continuously worked on the network game. There is always the issue if someone’s in Australia and somebody is in the UK, there is no internet connection on the planet that could give you a quick ping time between those two machines.
The game has to compensate for that the best it can. And that is where we have continued to work to make sure that everybody gets that good experience.
In terms of the game modes, we have refined what we had last year essentially. We have refined the leagues a little bit, just tidied things up. Those are areas that we continue to look at post launch as well. We have a team who continues to work on the game once it is out. If we find that some people would like to see changes, that is certainly an area that we can look at.
We already talked about a lot of things in F1 2020. But from your perspective, what was the hardest challenge of developing F1 2020?
It depends on what you consider to be hard. I think the most challenging was definitely working on how we would do the driver stats. That was a really intense process. A couple of guys on the team spent months and months discussing with the team of Formula 1.
It was quite a sensitive subject because if you’re rating a driver, they obviously have an idea of how good they are.
Of course, there was the slight challenge towards the end with the COVID-19 lockdown where we all had to transition to working from home very quickly. But that had a very negligible impact on the team.
And then for the whole team in general, My Team is an enormous game mode. It is essentially building something like the driver career, which we refined over a series of years. Putting something larger in the existing career in one game iteration, that’s a big feature to have done.
Except for F1 2020, which game of the franchise has been your favorite so far and why?
That’s a really tricky question because there are three games that stand out for different reasons. I am going to be cheeky and say: F1 2010 will always be special because it was the first one we did.
There were some things that were really lovely in that game and it was the first multi-platform Formula 1 game for a long period of time. You know, it was outstanding. On the previous generation I think F1 2013 was the pinnacle. I think that was a really good balance of content and gameplay.
Moving to this gen, I always feel that F1 2019 is my favorite. But I think 2016 was a pivotal point for us on the series where we really started to find the direction where we’re taking the series in.
So, F1 2010, 2013, and 2016 are key points in the series for me.