Over the last 18 months the Formula 1 game has exploded in popularity. Thanks to things like Drive To Survive and the 2020 Virtual Grand Prix Series, more and more eyes are on the F1 games.
The latest title in that series, F1 2021, is coming over the horizon and is taking on the challenge of a brighter spotlight. Codemasters is coming armed with a raft of new features and improvements to the already superb F1 2020.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Franchise Director Lee Mather and talk all things F1 2021.
Braking the mould
Story modes are notoriously hard to get right in sports titles, but Codemasters tested the ground in F1 2019, and are now taking on the monumental task by introducing a story mode to F1 2021... Braking Point.
This narrative-driven mode puts players into Formula 2 in 2019, and reunites them with Devon Butler. The villain turned fan-favourite character of F1 2019's Feeder Series.
"It's something that's been discussed for quite some time. I would say that it probably started not long into the previous console generation. In 2019 we did the feeder intro [...] to dip our toe into the water of well 'we're a team who make racing games, can we do something where characters, story, and emotions are a key part of it?'"
"The confidence we got from seeing how well the characters were received proved that we could do that."
The success of Devon Butler is something that has certainly helped Codemasters feel secure diving into a full story mode.
"I'd like to say I wasn't [suprised], but yea I was to a degree." said Mather.
"To put something that's a little more narrative-based and takes some of the freedom away from the player to some degree and places them more in our hands could have been considered a risk. Once we started work on it and we knew what we were doing with it we knew people would engage with it."
While a stand-alone mode for F1 2021, Mather is not discounting the idea of making it a perennial fixture in the F1 titles.
"It's not out of the question, we've got a lot of ideas on the table as always. We're very excited to see how people react to Braking Point [...] When you consider what we did in '19, this is night and day ahead of it."
"I can't wait to see what people think of what we've achieved. We always wanted people to feel a certain way about Devon Butler, and they did and we were really pleased with that. We hope that they experience emotion through the journey and that they understand what we were trying to achieve with it. I think they'll enjoy the on-track experience and the Drive To Survive-esque off-track experience."
Expanding the multiplayer world
When you think of multiplayer in F1, you think crazy online lobbies full of erratic driving and wild divebombs. Well, not anymore. While some changes are coming to multiplayer to make it a little more friendly to new and casual driver, the biggest overhaul comes by melding single-player and multiplayer; the two player career mode.
Now you can get all the "Road to Glory" feel of a career mode, with the R&D journey and customisable racing environement, but with a friend.
"If you remember a long time ago, back on the previous-gen game we did have a two-player career, but it was very much just a straight two-player season without any of the embellishments that we have in our career." Said Mather.
"We always thought 'people really enjoy playing together with a friend, and the career is super popular and everyone enjoys the game mechanics, and Formula 1 is a team sport so why wouldn't you want to play with a friend?' and that's what we set out to achieve with two-player career. [...] it's you and a friend versus the game, there's something really quite nice about taking on that challenge of the game with a friend."
It's a mode that opens up the cooperative or competitive nature of gaming like no other sports title has attempted before. What players get out of it will very much depend on the dynamic they choose, will they be teammates working together for the Constructors' title, or create a titanic Senna-Prost battle within the team?
Of course, you can be on separate teams too, creating more of a Hamilton-Vettel dynamic, just hopefully a lot more even than the late 2010s were!
A fresh feel to F1 2021
Braking Point isn't the only thing players will have to get to grips with in F1 2021. As ever, Codemasters has to keep its handling model up to scratch and in-line with the ever-changing regulations in Formula 1. With less downforce and slower lap times this year, Codemasters has reworked their own models, something they are getting very good at.
"Dave Greco (Senior Designer) has been doing this for some time now, and it amazes me how quickly he can arrive at there or there abouts. It doesn't take him long."
"We got a really solid handling model fairly early. Obviously, it's based on what we know of the rules at the time, and until a car's turned a wheel you don't know 100%."
One of the big points for Codemasters was developing the tyre model. "The car now feels a little bit more nimble a little more darty".
Those early stages then go through a huge amount of testing from across the spectrum. Not only does Codemasters run a closed beta with their general player base, but they get feedback from Formula 1 teams and the F1 Esports teams. That process of elite feedback has only accelerated since the 2020 lockdown, which saw the likes of Lando Norris, George Russell, and Charles Leclerc jump into the virtual cockpit.
"During the 2020 development as teams were twiddling their thumbs we had really good access to those teams and great conversations, and those have continued."
"There's already been feedback from a lot of the Esports drivers and teams in that the changes to the tyre model and aero model mean that the setups they ran in previous years, where most people kind of felt that similar setups worked for everybody, that's not the case this year."
When asked if moving away from the setup meta that we saw in F1 2020 was a conscious decision or a happy accident, Mather candidly said: "It's a bit of both. By the nature of the changes we've made, there's going to be more loss and gain in what you do with the settings. But also it's something Dave was always conscious of that there was the 'golden setup' almost and that's not necessarily what we wanted it to be. And certainly not where one setup would apply successfully across so many of the circuits that shouldn't have been the case, so we've been able to work on alleviating that."
All of that comes with a new damage model, where far more pieces of body work than ever before can be broken. This results in different losses of performance, with rear diffuser, sidepod, floor, and even wing mirror damage factoring into the way a car handles.
New tracks, extra challenges
The constant calendar churn of 2021 has left Codemasters with a monumental task, but one they are taking on with gusto.
Coming as free post-launch DLC, Codemasters will be introducing Imola, Portimao, and Jeddah to the F1 game. And while fans are disappointed not to see the newly profiled turns in Australia and Spain, three fresh circuits is certainly enough to make up for that.
"It's a big undertaking for us, three tracks [...] they do take so long, we have to draw a line in the sand as to what we can and can't do. It's not just the creation of the tracks, it's the training of the AI, the setting up of the racing lines, generating all the data that goes with it. Obviously our tracks have to be built to a really high visual standard as well. [...] I don't think we've had a season where we've had three new circuits at any point during our time with Formula 1."
Codemasters has a window for when these tracks will arrive in the game for players, but they aren't letting us in on that date just yet.
Life as an EA Studio
Arguably the biggest gaming news of 2021 was EA's acquisition of Codemasters, which was finalised in February. With it came a lot of speculation about the future of the F1 series and how much could change with the franchise under EA's umbrella.
While F1 2021 was so far down the development path that input has been minimal, what about going forward? Mather was upfront about just how supporting EA has been in giving Codemasters the tools to achieve their ambitions with F1.
"Instantly we were obviously having more meetings with more people, but they were for them to come to us and say 'Look this is what we've got as EA, what would you like to use? [...] These are the great tools, the great systems, the great backend things we can do, would you like to use them in your titles?' and that was really lovely. That's how it's progressing. We've been offered help and assistance to continue to grow and to make Formula 1 bigger and better."
"Somethings might be bigger and better than we originally planned, maybe a little grander. The roadmap for what we wanted to achieve with Formula 1 is still very much the same. I don't think that's going to be deviating too heavily from what we have planned for the coming years."
F1 2021 release date
The official release date for F1 2021 is 16 July.
Gamers that are anxious to get their hands on the title earlier can get three days early access with the Deluxe Edition. Along with the early access, players get 18,000 PitCoins to start the game with and the addition of seven Icons, these are historic drivers that will be available to sign in My Team. There is also a Devon Butler cosmetic pack.
The future is bright for the Formula 1 franchise, and F1 2021 is set to raise the bar once again.