Racing simulations aren't exactly common on Nintendo's family friendly Wii. There's no Nintendo equivalent of Forza or Gran Turismo on the motion control console, with EA's Need for Speed ProStreet probably being the closest Wii owners could get - and that's not a comparison that's going to end well for the EA racer. Codemasters and UK developer Sumo Digital are about to give Wii owners a proper racing sim in the shape of F1 2009, the officially licensed game of the 2009 season that finished last weekend. We caught up with Ned Waterhouse, lead designer on F1 2009 at Sumo Digital, to find out why hardcore fans shouldn't write off the Wii game.
VideoGamer.com: If you've got a Wii and an Xbox 360 or a PS3, why should they get this version now rather than wait for F1 2010?
Ned Waterhouse: This game is as faithful to Formula 1 as it possibly could be. It's got all the cars, the tracks have all been approved by the FIA. We've put a lot of focus into recreating all the circuits exactly as they should be. The grand prix race weekend setup is all available in the game, so if you're a real F1 enthusiast you can do your Friday practice, get your right tyre set-up, change your suspension stiffness, sort out your gear ratios and get feedback from your race engineer. You can then do the three sessions of qualifying, earn your grid position and then, if you so wish, you can set up your pit stop strategies and, if you're really dedicated, adjust your race length to be 100 per cent. You can race the 72 laps of Interlagos if you want to in real time. All that depth is there for real F1 buffs.
It was something that was important for us. We didn't want to compromise in terms of realism and how we recreated the sport. If you enable the option for fuel use and tyre wear you will have to use both hard and soft types of tyre compound during the race and you will have to set your pit stop strategy accordingly. If you forget to come in for your pit you will have to conserve fuel because you might not make it round for the next one. That depth is there if F1 fans want it. We haven't made any compromises in producing the game because it was for the Wii. This is a game for F1 fans that offers the tactical depth and subtlety that you'd expect from an F1 game.
That said, we've also been conscious to make it accessible for players who don't necessarily want to spend hours tweaking their vehicle set-ups and so on. It was a fine line to walk. We're conscious of the Wii demographic. It needs to be an accessible game. If you want to jump straight in and do three laps against Jenson Button around Monaco then you should be able to do that without working out the format for qualifying or whether you need more oversteer or understeer for this track. So throughout the design process it was a case of identifying the important options which should be visible all of the time and then maybe tucking away some of the more advanced features so as not to overwhelm new players or players who are new to F1. But if players who want that depth of simulation want to go looking for it, all those options are there and they will find a real tactical advantage to using them.
VideoGamer.com: What was your approach to car handling?
NW: Driving a Formula 1 car is really f***ing difficult. That's why not many people do it. What we did from the ground up was create a handling model we felt represented an F1 car. Then we layered the driving aids on top of that. You have, effectively, stability control and anti-skid controls and so on. If the player wants the real in-depth experience of driving an F1 car they can turn off all the aids. They can do it part way through a race if they like to see how it feels. There is a technique to it. It is difficult. You don't get the amounts of down force on slow corners, so the back end will step out and you've got to be careful not to doughnut the car. Also with that you get more wear on the tyres. If you're spinning the wheels the tyres will wear quicker, although it's a technique. If you want to get your tyres to optimum temperature you can lay down rubber on the track and get them up to the heat they need to be, although it would be at the expense of them degrading quicker. Players can make their own assessment of their relative skill level. As they feel they're advancing with the game they can slowly disable these until they find the handling model that's at the right pitch for their skill level.
VideoGamer.com: Will the aids enable players to keep their finger on the accelerate button and turn the car?
NW: Yeah. If you turn all the driving aids on you will be able to race Interlagos with the best of them.
VideoGamer.com: Given the Wii's a family-friendly console, were you tempted to do an arcadey OutRun-style version of F1?
NW: We talked a lot at the start about what the core vision of the project should be, particularly in looking at the Wii, because it doesn't have a lot of hardcore racing titles. But our feeling is that it should. There is no reason why a serious racing game can't succeed on the platform.
VideoGamer.com: There are a lot of hardcore F1 fans who aren't hardcore gamers and own the Wii, right?
NW: Yes. We spoke about whether we should be doing things like mini-games in the pit stops and so on. We thought that would dilute the gameplay. This is a game about driving cars really fast and conveying that sense of what it's like to be an F1 driver, what it's like to hurtle into a corner at 200 miles an hour. Rather than do things like mini-games in the pit stops where you tinker with your car or whatever, we wanted to get across the agitation an F1 driver must feel when they're sat there waiting for that lollypop to flick over. So you will sit there and wait for your tyres to be changed and your fuel to be put in, and then you're just itching to get back out on the track. That's something we were conscious of.
That said, we also identified what we thought was an important thing for the Wii platform: split-screen gaming. Being able to play next to your mate, put him off and have a laugh together in the same place. We felt for the Wii platform in particular it would be a good feature to have.
VideoGamer.com: It's two-player split-screen, right?
NW: It's two-player split-screen but you can do an entire championship split-screen. You can progress through the whole 17 races, follow the race calendar and play all the way through. You can play cooperatively, so you both pick drivers on the same side, or versus, so Ferrari versus McLaren or whatever.
VideoGamer.com: The game won't have online multiplayer. Why?
NW: We felt the most important thing was the split-screen multiplayer, particularly for the Wii platform. That was our focus.
VideoGamer.com: It was nothing to do with the Wii's online infrastructure and that you have to use Friend Codes?
NW: The online infrastructure on the Wii is good, to be honest. I worked as a designer on New International Track and Field. We developed a massive online feature set for that. It would notify you of when your friends are signed in; it would tell you what they were playing, what events they've done, whether they've broken records recently, it would help with skill-based matching. There's no reason you can't do all of that on the Wii.
VideoGamer.com: So why not do it?
NW: For us, as I say, we wanted to focus on creating a good local experience split-screen. That's where we wanted to focus our development on.
VideoGamer.com: What was your reaction to criticism of the Wii and PSP versions of DiRT 2, games Sumo also developed?
NW: I didn't have a reaction. It's not a product I worked on, so I don't feel I am in a position to comment.
VideoGamer.com: One of the things DiRT 2 on Wii suffered from was framerate issues. Some people who are interested in F1 2009 on Wii are worried about the framerate. What can they expect?
NW: We have 60 frames per second on the Wii. What you've seen hopefully is a realistic recreation of what it looks like to drive a car at 200 miles per hour. Framerate was important for us from the start - keeping it up and making sure we conveyed that sense of speed. It's a brutal sport. The driver gets thrown about ridiculously, and we wanted to make sure the player has an appreciation of what it's like to brake into a corner at 200 miles an hour. So the framerate was important in that regard to convey that sense of speed.
VideoGamer.com: Does the 60 FPS remain consistent throughout all modes and no matter how many cars are on screen at once?
NW: I believe so.
VideoGamer.com: We're not used to seeing that level of technical proficiency from Wii games.
NW: The Wii, people sometimes say, oh it's not an HD platform. There's no reason you can't make good games for it. I hope we've created a game of sufficient polish that players will appreciate it.
VideoGamer.com: The Wii is often scorned by some core gamers who own an Xbox 360 and/or PS3. Some of the games on it aren't great graphically. Is it the case that developers are simply not getting the most out of the console from a graphics point of view?
NW: I'm probably not the best person to answer the question because I have a design background. I'm not a technical person. My personal opinion is great games may not have the peak of graphical polish but they're still great games if they've got the gameplay, whereas you can have good-looking games which don't have good gameplay. Sometimes people forget what non-HD games look like. But there is absolutely no reason why great games can't be made for the Wii. You can make good-looking games for the Wii but ultimately aesthetics are no substitute for gameplay. Gameplay should come first. Then you build the look and feel of the game around that.
VideoGamer.com: How is the PSP version different?
NW: We didn't want to compromise anything making the handheld version. Everything you get on the Wii you get on PSP, with the exception of split-screen multiplayer. No matter how much we thought about it we couldn't get it to work! There's a series of driving challenges in the game, stuff you would be used to seeing in maybe more arcadey racing titles. We wanted to put them in an F1 context. There's stuff like slipstream challenges, cornering challenges and a whole set of mini-games that are there so you can take a couple of minutes at the bus stop. There are 70 challenges in all, so it's a comprehensive mode. We were able to make these multiplayer on the Wii, so you can play all those challenges multiplayer split-screen. Four-player multiplayer ad hoc on the PSP though.
VideoGamer.com: Have you played Gran Turismo on PSP and is your game better?
NW: I'm afraid I haven't! I would very much like to hope that it stands up to Gran Turismo.
F1 2009 is due out on the Wii and PSP on November 20.