It’s rather unusual that the next entry in the critically acclaimed GRID franchise, Autosport will only be heading to last generation consoles and PCs but that does not mean it will provide a bland racing experience. With games like Project CARS and DriveClub due later this year, the racing genre is apparently getting really hot. With such tough competetion where does this put GRID Autosport into perspective?
We caught up with James Nicholls who is the Chief Games Designer of the game to know how the title is shaping up. Check out his responses below.
Rashid Sayed: I found it a little surprising that GRID AUTOSPORT is not coming on the new consoles. Given the lack of racing games on the new consoles, do you think this is somewhat of a lost opportunity?
James Nicholls: I think to call it a lost opportunity would imply that it was an opportunity. It wasn’t, at least not from our perspective after GRID 2. If we wanted to go to next-gen, we’d be porting our old engine which would have delayed the project and would have tied up our talented programmers in porting an old engine rather than working on our new one(it is being worked on). And next-gen really has to mean something to the team from a design and gameplay point of view too. I think there’s a real risk that you set your benchmark at a high-end PC and next-gen console level, but then you only use that power for superficial improvements and don’t advance the game experience. When we do ‘next-gen’ we want to do it properly, not just from a graphics point of view but pushing the ‘experience’ forward, and we won’t rush that.
Instead, we had a different opportunity. At the end of GRID 2 we had the engine, the team, and the technology already assembled – but most of all a lot of feedback from our core community and the chance to address that. We’re really proud of GRID 2, but we know it wasn’t what some of our more hardcore fans were expecting – consciously appealed to a broader audience in terms of handling, the style of the game.
So we really wanted to make a game that addressed those concerns, on the platforms that those players played on, and that we can reach with our existing tech. On the consoles, we wanted to deliver a complete, content rich, and authentic racing experience that is as good as anything else available. On PC you get all of that, plus the game pushes out a solid 60fps and looks fantastic even on relatively modest gaming rigs (for those with top end PCs, you’ll get a truly special experience.)
We’re delighted with how it’s coming together and the approach we decided to take. Any other approach for this team at this point would have involved a sacrifice in quality and we’re not prepared to do that.
"Handling wise, we’ve jettisoned the TruFeel handling that featured in GRID2, and we’ve gone back to square one with GRID Autosport’s handling. We built it up, we got our community in to try it out in secret, then we tuned it some more, then we got motorsport experts in to try it, and then we tuned it again!"
Rashid Sayed: Can you describe the core differences between GRID 2 and GRID AUTOSPORT?
James Nicholls: There are a lot, especially on the multiplayer side, but to boil it down to three headline areas, I would say: Handling, Premise and Motorsport Focus.
Handling wise, we’ve jettisoned the TruFeel handling that featured in GRID2, and we’ve gone back to square one with GRID Autosport’s handling. We built it up, we got our community in to try it out in secret, then we tuned it some more, then we got motorsport experts in to try it, and then we tuned it again! We’re extremely pleased with it – it’s deep and rewarding without being a full and inaccessible simulation, and it’s a long way removed from GRID2. We’re also offering a lot of assist options to allow you to custom-tune the experience any way you like it.
Premise-wise, GRID2 had you following a relatively linear story charting the rise of the WSR. For GRID Autosport, we’re letting the racing do the talking, and we’ve structured the career mode as a fantasy racing driver’s career. We’ve made sure the career structure is really open, so that you can move from one style of racing to another as you see fit. You’re racing for teams and for contracts in this game, so you have to hit the team’s objectives if you want to improve the teams you race for.
The motorsport focus runs throughout the game, and makes a stark contrast from the city racing-focused GRID2. The majority of our locations are racing circuits, and street racing in production cars takes up one of the five racing disciplines in the game, the others being Open Wheel, Touring Cars, Endurance and Tuners. Each discipline has numerous series with them which deliver new experiences in and of themselves. We’ve also really carefully chosen the cars and tracks that you’d identify as representing those motorsports, both in terms of contemporary and classic cars that are synonymous with the sports they represent.
Rashid Sayed: Is it fair to assume that GRID AUTOSPORT is GRID 3, like a sequel made from the ground up, or is that coming later?
James Nicholls: It’s a completely new game, built from the ground up. As we were coming out relatively soon compared to GRID2 and yet repositioning the game and its style, we felt that we needed to clearly explain that this was something different, with a more motorsport-focused theme. That’s where the name ‘Autosport’ came from.
Rashid Sayed: So the cock pit view is one of the features in GRID AUTOSPORT. What are you guys doing to make it different from some of the other games out there who utilize the cockpit view?
James Nicholls: Firstly, we’ve introduced a couple of in-car perspectives: a dash mounted camera position and a head-position camera. The dash camera’s nice if you play with a wheel, because you don’t get that weird thing where you’ve got your real wheel and hands in your line of sight and then an onscreen set of wheel and hands, lagging behind yours.
For these views themselves we’ve elected to create a kind of depth of field effect where the track is in focus and the cockpit is out of focus. It has a surprisingly powerful effect when you’re racing, inducing a kind of tunnel vision as you fixate on the road in the centre of the screen, and coupled with the amazing work our audio team do, it’s a highly immersive way to race.
"Multiplayer has benefitted hugely from the feedback we received whilst running the GRID2 patching programme last year. We’ve completely gutted the way we do progression and rebuilt it in GRID Autosport, giving you the ability to purchase a garage of persistent cars."
Rashid Sayed: Can you tell us what kind of changes have you done to the Ego Engine to get GRID AUTOSPORT up and running?
James Nicholls: We’ve pushed the engine hard to up the number of cars on the grid to 16, an increase of 4 since GRID2. This was pretty essential for creating a motorsports experience and getting that density in the pack races, but it was a significant engineering feat in terms of rendering, physics and AI. Adding an in-car view was a significant amount of work for us in terms of optimizing the engine even further to keep the frame rate up when you’re looking out at the world through the cockpit glass.
The PC players benefit from further graphics improvements as well as benefitting from our Intel partnership to ensure the game runs well across a broad spectrum of machines.
Beyond that we’ve made a massive number of changes that underpin racing experience, such as the way the game flows from race to race, the technology powering the handling, hundreds of new AI improvements and features, a new mechanical damage and wear and tear system, tire wear for endurance and so much more besides. It’s staggering just how much we’ve achieved in the last year!
Rashid Sayed: What kind of multiplayer options can players expect in GRID AUTOSPORT?
James Nicholls: Multiplayer has benefitted hugely from the feedback we received whilst running the GRID2 patching programme last year. We’ve completely gutted the way we do progression and rebuilt it in GRID Autosport, giving you the ability to purchase a garage of persistent cars.
Firstly, you can buy any car in the game if you have enough cash – there are no unlock restrictions. If you find yourself in a session where you don’t own a car, you are free to loan one – there are no restrictions here either.
When you do purchase a car, you can either buy a factory-fresh new car, or a second hand one which already has miles on the clock and a history of its own. Once you own a car, you are free to customise it with your own livery, and apply sponsors to it, who will set you goals and reward you with cash when you hit them.
Your car will pick up wear and tear in each race, and will need to be maintained. As it gets older, it’ll get more costly to keep it running at top racing condition. However, the more racing miles you clock up in a car, the more ‘Vehicle XP’ you earn with it, which in turn opens up more unlocks for upgrade kits and tuning. In this way, you form a kind of affinity with your car – the longer you own it, and the more miles you race in it, the more you’ll gain the ability to customise it to your heart’s content, and set it up perfectly to your liking for every race.
Our game extension platform, RaceNet, has gone from strength to strength since we launched it and we’re extremely proud that it’s topped over 1 million accounts now. For this game we’re taking the RaceNet functionality further than we’ve done before. As well as weekly RaceNet challenges and leaderboards, we’ve introduce a new feature this year – RaceNet Clubs.
ViaRaceNet, you can create a club and invite up to 100 other RaceNet players to join it. In game, you can then create a custom livery for your club and upload. Then everyone will earn points for their club by wearing their club livery in-race. You’ll get a clantag before your name when you’re racing in your club livery, so you’ll really get a sense of a shared identity online.
On RaceNet, you’ll be able to compare how clubs are tracking against each other through online leaderboards and statistics. It’s a really great feature, and we’ll no doubt take on community feedback and improve it over time.
Rashid Sayed: Can you please talk about the changes you have done in the physics and damage model?
James Nicholls: We’ve done a lot of work on the handling, as mentioned previously. One of the key areas we focussed on, based on the feedback of the community when they played the game, was to work on the sensation of grip falling away, whether through sliding laterally or through wheelspin. This has been a real revelation to our handling, because now you get the briefest of windows to catch and correct oversteer or just bleed the speed off if you’ve carried too much into a corner without going into an uncontrollable slide. It makes the handling feel very organic and lets you feel out the limits of each car, especially when you turn all the assists off!
We’ve reworked the car-to-car collisions for this game, to try and get the sensation of weight transfer between the two cars absolutely spot on at a variety of different impact speeds and angles.
We’ve also introduced a new mechanical wear and tear system whilst you’re racing, that simulates the way the car is gradually wearing out as you race. In long races where you’ve pushed the car hard For example you’ll notice a very subtle loss of brake performance or the gear changes taking longer. You’ll even hear these changes happening if you listen carefully to the changes in the car’s audio as you race. It’s incredibly immersive, and it takes that GRID style immersion of bringing a compromised car home through the last few laps to a new level when you’re, say, nursing a gear box that has lost a gear.
"No track editor plans to announce at this time, but we’re always experimenting with cool technology behind the scenes."
Rashid Sayed: So one of the exciting new things I find about GRID AUTOSPORT is the addition of over 100 tracks. I am really keen to know whether there will be a dynamic weather system and day/light cycle?
James Nicholls: We’re very proud of our track roster, which is comprised mostly from licensed real world circuits. We’ve got 22 locations in all, and a grand total of 100 different routes. Bearing in mind you’ve got full control of racing just about any one of over 80 cars on any track, that’s a huge amount of content to go and play with, and the most we’ve ever put into a GRID game. We’ve already announced the likes of Yas Marina, Sepang, Circuit of the Americas, and Brands Hatch – iconic racing tracks from around the world. However, we’re also really happy with the fan reaction to tracks such as Jarama and Mont Tremblant, which aren’t as famous, but are great racing circuits that put different demands on drivers.
We’ve got a range of different lighting and time of day and whilst not dynamic, we do have night lighting variants for many of the tracks, with our endurance racing in career taking part in a variety of evening and nighttime lighting settings.
Rashid Sayed: Given that DriveClub and Project CARS are due after GRID AUTOSPORT is released, do you think you guys are under pressure to deliver and live up to expectations? Furthermore, what makes GRID AUTOSPORT unique when compared to those two games?
James Nicholls: We’re very focused on what we’re doing, so any pressure there has been ensuring that we’re giving our fans what they want and maybe a few things they didn’t expect. As this project has gone on, that pressure has changed into excitement as our vision becomes reality.
What makes GRID games stand out is that they are games about racing. Not driving simulators, but games. They are balanced as a videogame, and they are built to create a game experience about what it feels like to be a racing driver. It’s an important distinction and that’s what makes a GRID game feel different from anything else.
For us, the racing experience lies in the AI, the goals set to you in the race, and the atmosphere created around you that convince you that you are a racing driver, in the thick of the action.
GRID Autosport delivers that alongside a focus on motorsport, capturing what it feels like to take part in five completely different disciplines of modern motor racing and, most importantly, capturing the different skills and techniques you need to succeed at each.
I think we’ve nailed that feeling of racing for a team objective in career mode. When limping home in 5th place with misaligned steering and a damaged radiator seals your team goal for the season, it can be as elating as any podium in any other game. The memories you come away from racing in GRID Autosport are those formed out on the track – chasing down a championship rival, working with your team mate, coping with car damage mid-race, navigating a spectacular pile up with the AI… these are those racing moments that capture the sport of racing like no-one else is able to.
Rashid Sayed: Are there any plans to have a track editor? Furthermore, what kind of car customization options will GRID AUTOSPORT provide?
James Nicholls: No track editor plans to announce at this time, but we’re always experimenting with cool technology behind the scenes.
For multiplayer, we’ve made some upgrades to the livery editor seen in GRID2, such as HSL colour sliders and more livery patterns. I think one of the coolest uses for the livery editor is creating your team livery for RaceNet clubs. You can make your livery in game, upload it to RaceNet and then everyone in your club can wear that livery to earn points for it.
It’s really amazing seeing rival teams squaring off against each other in online races!
"The PC players benefit from further graphics improvements, such as our high resolution (4k) texture pack, our procedural grass technology and improved lighting and shader effects. Running the game with ultra settings at 60fps at 1080p is quite a sight to behold!"
Rashid Sayed: This is coming from personal experience; the original GRID had one of the most phenomenal AI that I have ever witnessed in racing games. How are you taking it to the next level in GRID AUTOSPORT?
James Nicholls: We’ve made a huge number of AI improvements in GRID Autosport, and you feel it from your very first race. Our AI are very tough opponents, they keep a really good race pace and they compete like human beings.
The first thing to understand is that there are separate AI set ups for each of the five racing disciplines, so you’ll see very different behaviours in each. Touring cars will defend the racing line aggressively, open wheel racers will avoid contact, endurance racers will slow through corners to maintain traction, time attack AI drivers will yield if you catch them… there are lots of details like this that make each game mode feel unique. We’ve also had to create AI for our drift mode, which hasn’t been easy.
Having an AI team mate that you can request help from makes a difference in race too. If you get him to push, he’ll attack corners and overtakes more aggressively, but risks making mistakes. If you set him to defend, he’ll protect the racing line as best he’s able, which is a great tactical option for reversed grids. When he’s in defensive driving mode, he’ll also yield to you if you catch him up.
In terms of general AI, I’m most proud of what the team has achieved with the overtaking behaviours. The AI drivers are really able to spot a gap and take it. It’s amazing to start at the back of a grid with Ravenwest and see them fighting through the pack at the same rate as you! It’s such a difficult thing to achieve technically, and they’ve nailed it. No more forcing the player to the back of the grid or starting your rival at the front!
We’ve also made sure that each AI driver has their own set of attributes for GRID Autosport, so that as your rivalries build throughout a season, you’ll get a feel for the behaviours of those drivers on track. For example, you’ll get to learn that a particular driver is prone to mistakes, so it might be worth pressuring him and waiting for him to make an error rather than trying a risky overtake yourself. Similarly, if you know you’ve got an especially aggressive driver bearing down on you in an endurance race, you’ll be extra tense that he’ll go for a gap and take you both off the track, so you’ll need to decide on whether it’s worth fighting for that place and taking the risk.
Rashid Sayed: Tell us more about the PC version. What kind of graphical options can we expect in GRID AUTOSPORT?
James Nicholls: The PC players benefit from further graphics improvements, such as our high resolution (4k) texture pack, our procedural grass technology and improved lighting and shader effects. Running the game with ultra settings at 60fps at 1080p is quite a sight to behold!
Our partnership with Intel for this title has meant that as well as these high end features, we have made a fleet of optimisations at the other end of the spectrum to make sure the game runs at a solid framerate even on a modest home PC spec. This version of our EGO technology is now very highly optimised, and you see that straight away on the PC version.
Rashid Sayed: How is work going on next-gen Ego engine? Is it safe to assume that there will be next gen announcement from Codemasters this year?
James Nicholls: Obviously we’re focussed on GRID Autosport at the moment, so nothing formal to announce for other titles at this stage. However, work on the next-generation EGO technology is continuing apace, and I look forward to our team making our next game with that tech.
Rashid Sayed: Is there anything else you want to tell us about GRID AUTOSPORT?
James Nicholls: I just can’t wait to get the game into our community’s hands and see their reaction! Developing this game in the way we have, and getting the community, racing drivers and motorsport journalists in really early to feedback on the game has been a revelation, and I’d recommend this approach to any developer reading this.
I’d stress that we’ll be listening again to fan feedback when the game is live, and I’d like to sincerely thank those who have stuck with us and are giving such positive messages of support as the team works flat out closing this game.