Lee Mather is a developer truly living his dream. As a lifelong F1 fan and gamer, it’s hard to think of a better job for him to have in his industry than as the senior creative director of the official Formula 1 game franchise.
“We’re very lucky,” Mather says of his Birmingham-based team. “I mean, the majority of us are massive F1 fans. I think some people would struggle to work on a game for as long as some of us have! But it just never gets tiring.
“I couldn’t be more excited to be tied to the sport that I’ve loved my entire life. Gaming and motorsport are the two things I love the most, so it’s the perfect combination.”
A franchise in flux
Early May is a crucial time of the year for the team at Codemasters. As an annual sports game franchise, this is the point when each upcoming release is finalised ahead of going gold for release in late June. But the last few years have brought major challenges for those in game development, with the Covid-19 pandemic and rise of working from home forcing compromises across the industry as deadlines remained static.
The team adapted to its new work environments while tackling sudden changes to F1’s calendar and last-minute livery modifications. But Mather says Codemasters were already used to reacting to the unexpected.
“They’re the sorts of things that we contend with on a regular basis anyway with the sport,” Mather says. “It’s a fast-moving, ever-changing sport.
“Obviously there have been other things thrown into the mix and when we transitioned to working from home, that went incredibly smoothly and we were able to get things done. As you saw with the previous releases we didn’t have any [delivery] issues with F1 2020 or ’21.”
The biggest challenge of producing the official F1 game in a pandemic, Mather says, was the limited access to the drivers.
“The toughest parts were really getting access to people and travel,” he says. “We laser scan all of the drivers and that’s the sort of thing that really is tricky to do.
“During the absolute peak of things, the risk of going near anybody was just too much for a driver – the last thing you need is to get a driver infected and spread it across the paddock. So things like that were trickier, we had to obviously find other ways to do that, but overall it’s not been horrendous.”
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Perhaps more potentially disruptive to Codemasters’ day-to-day operation was the studio being acquired by publishing giant EA at the start of last year, bringing the F1 name under the EA Sports banner for the first time in almost two decades. With EA Sports holding exclusive simulation game making rights to the NFL, NHL and having the biggest sports title on the planet in FIFA, news of the $1.2 billion acquisition of Codemasters caused alarm for many players worried that the F1 series could go the same direction of many of its major franchises and prioritise microtransactions and Ultimate Team modes at the expense of the core single player experience.
However, soon after buying Codemasters, EA CEO Andrew Wilson insisted the company had no plans to start interfering with their franchise and would allow the studio to “continue to be who they are, because that’s what made them special in the first place.”
So, with F1 22 adopting the same naming convention as its fellow EA Sports franchises and having the benefit of a full year of ownership behind it, have EA remained true to their word about taking a hands-off approach to Codemasters?
“That’s 100 percent how it’s gone,” says Mather. “That’s what we were told, that’s what we were expecting and that’s exactly how it’s gone.
“It works very similar to how it did at Codemasters. We still come up with what we want to do, we’ve still got our roadmap – that was part of when we were acquired, that roadmap was something that all of the EA executives were very aware of.
“Obviously now we have a much wider marketing resource available to us. We have so many other departments that we can feed off and get great information from. Straight after the acquisition, we reached out to our peers on other sports titles within EA and it’s been so nice to share what we do with those guys and vice versa.”
One major example Mather points to is the Miami Grand Prix circuit that has become a major part of the pre-release marketing. As the Hard Rock Stadium is the home of the Miami Dolphins NFL team, Codemasters were able to take the stadium model from EA’s Madden NFL series and convert it to their own game, along with a whole range of reference photos and material they could use to help model a racetrack before it had been completed in real life.
The resources of EA have already enabled Mather and his team to add additional features to F1 22 that they would not have been able to otherwise – including some that are still yet to be made public. However, introducing virtual reality support for the series on PC was apparently “always in the budget” for 2022 – a reflection of what he says is how Codemasters listen to the feedback from players who have been asking for certain key features for a while.
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Under the hood
As F1 22 will again run on Codemasters’ own Ego engine, the takeover by EA has caused some in the game’s community to question if the F1 series could move to a different, EA built game engine, such as the Frostbite platform that the FIFA, Madden and now NHL series all run on, as well as many of EA’s non-sports titles. However, Mather says the priority for the F1 franchise right now is to include as many features as possible.
“In the past when we’ve transitioned between engines – which we did with F1 2015 – it kind of took us back a step and we had to reset,” Mather explains. “So obviously that’s a big consideration if we do have a look at swapping tech in the future. But it’s very much one for the technical directors to determine.
“Ultimately what I want to be able to do is have as much capacity to create cool features and to replicate the sport of Formula 1. And if somebody comes to me and says, ‘we’re transitioning to another engine,’ and I say, ‘great, I’m not going to lose anything’. If I’m going to gain – brilliant. If it’s a case we’re transitioning to another engine and we have to take a bit of a step back on the feature set. I might not want to go with that.
“It’s very much that, as a team, we’ll make sure whatever we do in the future will always allow us to keep building on what we’ve got now, whether that’s on new tech or existing tech.”
For this latest entry in the series, F1 22 has required extensive work to reflect the major changes to the cars introduced for this season. This is not just a new era for the sport, Mather says F1 22 also marks a “new era” for the game.
“The real core of the game, the real core of the F1 experience, has had such a big revamp for us in the game as well as in the sport. Be that with the handling model, with the visuals of the cars, with obviously the new Miami track. But it’s the work we’ve done on the formation lap and parking the car in the box, the pit stops where you now do a timed pit entry, the mistakes in the pit stops which are tied to driver career and MyTeam. The things we’ve done to add the broadcast elements to things like the Safety Car – so for players who don’t necessarily want to drive it, they can view it as they would on TV.
“It was a great opportunity to go back and revisit elements we’ve had for a very long time and improve them, do them better, do them to cater to a broader audience. So that’s the big takeaway for me.”
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Perfecting physics and penalties
With even the real-world drivers only experiencing their new cars themselves for the first time back in February, there has not been a lot of time to rewrite the physics engine to reflect the very different way the new cars generate downforce. Thankfully, Mather says, Codemasters received data and insight from Formula 1 and sporting director Ross Brawn in the years leading up to 2022, to help them plan their aerodynamic and tyre modelling for the new game.
“We’re always continually trying to improve areas of our physics tech that we felt needed some work and one of those was in the tyre model as well,” he explains. “So we’ve made some significant changes to the tyre model.
While the recent games have been among the most critically and commercially successful entries in the series’ history, they have their critics. Among the most common of these is the penalty system – anyone who has raced the game online will no doubt have their own stories to tell about an outrageous penalty they’ve been served for, say, hitting an opponent who has brake-tested them under Safety Car.
Asking Mather about how difficult it is to try and create a functional and fair penalty system, he points out that even the real sport struggles with how to apply its own rules.
“It’s very difficult in real life to determine the outcome of a situation,” he says. “And in a video game, we’ve got the numbers, we know exactly what the outcome of something is. Sometimes player perception of the outcome of something is different.
“So the car-to-car collision ones, they’re the trickiest ones. Because there’s no way really, without physically seeing it, of knowing how something came about. So two cars having an accident, it may have been that one of them’s done something really strange, or they’ve had an accident themselves on their own and somebody’s been collected within it. It’s hard to know how that came about in full detail.
“If there’s multiple cars, trying to work out who’s caused what and why something’s happened is really difficult. Which is why some penalty systems penalise all cars involved, because that’s actually fairer than trying to pick it out and have somebody get away with something that they didn’t do.
Mather says that one of the biggest challenges with the penalty system is working out how to define the “penalty situation” lasts for, which, he explains, is why track limits are so strict in the modern game, especially in time trial mode.
“People will push the boundaries and do things that you really would never do in real life, or would ever expect to do, and you would view it as ‘well, they’ve not done anything wrong. They’ve gone off the track, but they’ve not done anything wrong against the rules, so it’s not a penalty’. And yet the long-term outcome of what they did was beneficial.
“It’s very similar in terms of a car-to-car collisions. Two cars might have an impact and there’s no outcome. You think it’s fine because both cars carry on, but a lap later you realise that the distance between those two cars has been significantly impacted because one came out of the incident far worse than the other, which compromised their lap.
“It’s a very complex system. There are so many more variables in Formula 1 than in most racing games for the penalty system. Those are some of the challenges that we have to face when trying to balance a penalty system.”
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New era, new audience
Having been a part of the development team from the franchise’s early days when FOM was still headed by Bernie Ecclestone, Mather says that the Liberty Media-led rejuvenation of Formula 1’s popularity has been felt in how much more scope they now have to bring in features such as driver transfers and MyTeam.
“They are far more aware of the digital space, which previously Formula 1 didn’t really court at all,” he says. “There was no YouTube channel, there’s no social media. They’ve realised that is the future. That’s where the market lies.
“So we’ve now got someone we can talk to who understands what we’re trying to achieve and what we bring to the package as well. We’ve always said it’s a partnership and as much as we get so much from having the Formula 1 licence, gaming’s one of the biggest spaces now in the world – gaming’s worth more than the movie industry – so they should be looking at us as well as a really strong way to bolster the sport.
“Somebody commented about our new box art: ‘oh great, you’ve got three famous Twitch streamers’. Actually, we’ve got three of the greatest drivers in the world who also have played the game online or streamed on Twitch – and that’s a whole new audience that we’re reaching. So I think there’s been a real shift in the last few years, which we were always pushing towards because, as a game, we were aware of the space we were in. It’s really given us the opportunity to do more things like the supercars because they understand why we want to do them. It’s allowing us to continually grow the product and then push those boundaries.”
Before heading back to continue the important work of finishing off what could be one of the biggest sports game releases of the year, Mather has time for one final question: Will players who bought F1 2019, F1 2020 and F1 2021 feel like they are truly getting a new game if they buy F1 22 on release?
“Yeah,” says Mather. “Especially with the on track experience, you’ll certainly feel that those cars feel incredibly different.
“And again, the presentation, the style of the game and there’s a couple of things we haven’t spoken about yet. You’ll feel something different from the game when you start playing.”
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