Aside from its hugely successful F1 console series - with F1 2012 due for September - Codemasters has also been working on a free-to-play browser game. F1 Online combines racing and management, allowing players to build their own Formula 1 team from scratch.
Last week we sat down with producer Mike Rowland. Read on to hear his thoughts on how the game compares to the console titles, why Codemasters is using the Unity engine, and what the plans are for in-game dynamic weather.
Q: Why make a F1 browser game? What was the thought process?
Mike Rowland: We'd been looking at Unity for a while as an engine to use. Browser games are very accessible, and we wanted to do a free game that complimented F1. It kind of met with our business requirements from the online studios' point of view - we wanted something people could play and get into, and it wouldn't take us two or three years to build an engine for. The main things seemed to be there and available for us. We managed to build a really good relationship with the Unity team, and a lot stuff with Exit Games who do the Photon Engine, which does all the networking. It seemed to fit what we wanted to do, and allowed us to do some other investigation into other platforms and things like that.
Q: Do you see this as targeting a different audience to F1 2012?
MR: I think it targets a more casual-friendly audience, but it still has elements that an F1 fan will love and enjoy - the management, being your own boss, being able to build your own team from scratch right up to Ferrari levels, it's something people will enjoy.
We're looking to get the F1 fans in, and obviously some of them aren't familiar with the console games or just don't like the simulated thing. It's a cross between the casual and the hardcore, we're trying to find a nice balance between the two. Our overall goal was to make it more Zynga-esque, more accessible to people. I think we've managed to find a good balance in the racing and the management, and then we've got all the stats below it. So the hardcore can still say, '|Actually, I like my KERS to be a bit more powerful for the straights,' and things like that. It gives us both sides, especially when you get higher up into the management.
Q: Could you see yourselves porting the game to tablets? Clearly you've got mouse-based controls here, but it looks like the kind of thing that could work.
MR: There's definitely room to move us across to other platforms, even if it's a case of cutting bits out - racing stripped down to the management and building on that, or going straight into a racing game. We're fortunate enough to have such a good engine as Unity, that we can adapt for other SKUs, let's say. It's definitely something that it's in our minds, but who knows. There'll be a future announcement if we ever do something like that.
Q: Unity seems to be an increasingly popular engine - Brian Fargo recently announced that inXile would be using it for Wasteland 2. Do you think it could be one of those engines that really catches a wave, like Unreal?
MR: It's been growing and growing in popularity, and I know a lot of the big studios are using it. The toolset itself is absolutely fantastic, and the support from those guys is brilliant as well. Everyone here, in the company, has had training here with Unity, so it's definitely one of those things that we're going to be working with a lot over the next few years.
It's one to watch. They're very, very good at what they do, and it does what you need to do it. And it's got a lot of support, so...
Q: What is it that sets them apart? Why are so many people adopting Unity?
MR: The tools are incredible, and there's not a lot of browser tech out there - apart from Flash, and the sort of standard stuff - that does what Unity does. They've got a massive uptake in install base, and the engine itself is unreal, basically. It's full 3D, you can do so much with it. I know there have been early games which were alright, but we can pull assets from the console game and make it look like that [points to computer running the game]. You look at it for the first time and you think, 'Bloody hell!' And we're running it on five-year-old PCs there. Try it on a nice, modern-day rig and it's absolutely stunning.
Q: Where do you see browser games going? Google and Microsoft have been stepping up their efforts to turn Chrome and Internet Explorer into gaming platforms.
MR: I think browser gaming... it's already a massive place. With other platforms such as Facebook, all the social networks, all the stuff the Apple guys are doing, it just seems to be the future. Everybody's all over this, and we've been saying this for a few years, getting up to speed with what we need to do. I think it's just a very easy way to get into people's homes. You look at the Xbox 360 install base, the PS3 install base, and then think of all the people who have PCs, laptops, iPads and things like that. You've got all that in people's homes, in their offices. If you're an office worker, you can totally game in your office, you can be playing a game and no-one will know.
It's certainly an interesting place to watch. We're investing a lot into it ourselves, from our team. It seems to do what we need to do, and the console team in Birmingham can do what they need to do.
Q: Finally, what's the deal with the pit lanes? They're not functional at the moment - will they ever be?
MR: That's one of the future updates - pit stops, and using your pit crew. If you look on the HQ there's a race crew; we wanted things there to reduce pit lane times. We'll also be adding things, stuff like dynamic weather and things like that, to add a bit more to your race.
Q: I've spoken at length to Steve Hood [creative director on F1 2012] about what dynamic weather can add to an F1 race. He's right, of course.
MR: It's a good addition, it's an extra element of, 'S**t, I have to think about this now!' It's one of the things we wanted to put in, but we've pushed it back to an update. It'll be a really good update, changing up the dynamics of the game. We've got really good physics in there, and it all plays its part.
Q: We'll look forward to that then. Sorry for asking about future updates when the main game isn't even out yet.
MR: It's fine, I don't mind talking about future updates! People need to know that the game is going to be around for a long long time, and we'll be pushing out updates over the next few years. We're here for the long term.
F1 Online will be entering open beta within the next few weeks.