The Average Gamer

E3 2011 – Paul Jeal “Now we’ve almost got an AI driver with 6 brains.”

Paul Jeal from CodemastersI met up with Paul Jeal, Senior Producer of the Formula 1 games at Codemasters at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo to ask him a few questions about F1 2011. I was interested to find out if the criticisms levelled at F1 2010 had been addressed and how they were coping with the raft of changes to the rules and the cars in the 2011 F1 World Championship. Read what Paul had to say about jump starts, driver AI, the penalty system and the difficulties of driving whilst using KERS and DRS.

I’ll be meeting the F1 2011 team again next week to get some hands-on time with the game. So if you’ve any questions you’d like me to ask then leave them in the comments.

What’s your history with F1 games?

PJ: My first job in the games industry was on Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 3. I was a quality assurance tester. I just remember walking into the studio for the first time and seeing all the guys on the steering wheels and thinking to myself, “man I’ve got to be involved in this.” I then worked at Pivotal Games on some shooters and as soon as I heard that Codemasters had got the F1 licence I thought I’ve got to get back in as I’ve been a massive fan of F1 since about the mid-80s. I thought I can do great things if I can get in there. Luckily enough I got the job and here I am.

To start off with Geoff Crammond, that’s pretty impressive.

PJ: I know, I know. For me that’s still the barometer in terms of driving experience and the consistency of laps. It was very, very different to any other racing game where they are all about winning and those all-out qualifying laps, where as in Geoff Crammond it’s all about reeling in the guy in front and you know you’re on a bit of a roll. That’s very much the feeling that we’ve got in F1 2011.

How closely did you work with the F1 drivers?

PJ: We work amazingly close actually. I’ve personally met them all, which is a dream come true, I have to say. We work more on a consultancy basis with test drivers Garry Paffett, McLaren test driver and Anthony Davidson, Mercedes test driver. Those guys, because they do a lot of simulator work anyway and with their engineers just to get a basic set up, they are naturally better placed to help us do the same thing and move our model forward. But I know that drivers like Bruno Senna, Adrian Sutil and Sébastien Buemi have all played F1 2010 and indeed a few of them used it to learn Korea. We are expecting all of them to buy it this year to learn India [laughs].
With DRS (Drag Reduction System) and KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) the steering wheels are a lot more complicated this year. With the drivers themselves complaining about being too busy whilst driving, are players going to have too much to do as well?

PJ: I think so. I can talk from personal experience because in my first 6 months in multiplayer races I was getting used to the car handling and I was getting used to a new steering wheel as well. I was gaining on the guys in front and then about half way through the race I realised that I hadn’t used KERS, so I thought “man, I’m going to gain on them even more if I use KERS.” So the first time I tried to use it coming out of a corner I smashed it into the wall and my race was over.

It really is a case of that you have a lot to do now. It probably will take a period of 5,6 or 7 laps to get used to the car. Then you have a number of things at your disposal like DRS which has a massive impact on the stability of the car, so you can’t use it too early in a corner. KERS is obviously the turbo boost and it’s really and trial and error as to where the best places are to use it are unless obviously you’re going for an overtake or a defensive manoeuvre. Also there’s a lot more playing around with the fuel mixture this year. You can adjust the fuel mix up and down and see it in a digital readout and you may need to save fuel later on. You can also move the break balance around several times a lap if you wish, just like Michael Schumacher. But that’s a little bit of a step too far even for me and I’ve been hands on with the game for 7 or 8 months now!

How are you dealing with jump starts [i.e. a car moves before the 5 red start lights go out]?

PJ: We looked at race starts for probably the first 5 or 6 months of the game. We tried 3 or 4 different things and they weren’t quite right so we are not implementing a jump start monitoring for F1 2011. That’s very much the way we do development. We look at a particular feature and we think if we can do it justice. There’s almost like a stage 1, 2 and 3 delivery plans. Only if stage 1 is going to eventually get you to stage 2 or 3 do we go with it. If it’s a kind of stage 1 and you need to go back a re-write it then we put it back for future iterations. That’s what has happened with the race starts this year.

What approaches have you used with the competitor drivers as they were a little erratic at times in F1 2010?

PJ: Yeah, absolutely. We are totally re-writing the penalty system at the moment and also driving assists as well. You’ve got this initial period where all drivers are allowed to use driving assists and there aren’t any penalties for doing so, but as soon as you go over a certain driving length you then get weight penalties on the car. One of the criticisms, and rightly so, was the fastest ultimate lap you could do was with the driving aids on and the guys who had them all off felt pretty hard done by that.

This year, the ultimate lap will be done by someone without driving assists because it doesn’t carry any of those penalties. Now we are taking all that back into the feedback mechanism. It is really, really difficult. With the high speed impacts [incidents] within the sport itself they’ve got 3 stewards, and if you ask another 3 [stewards] they’ll give a different opinion on the incident, but I think last year maybe some of the time we were a little bit too strict in certain scenarios and not strict enough in others. That’s really an area we are looking to address this year.

F1 2010 was quite harsh on hot laps when you went slightly off the track and it penalised you. It was almost like Gran Turismo Grand Prix!

PJ: Absolutely. We were talking about that earlier [at E3] on in terms of time trial. Just two wheels off and sometimes it would penalise that lap. Another one, if you did it in the last sector on tracks like Montreal [Canada] you can get such an advantage by bypassing the chicane that it invalidates the next lap, so that’s massively frustrating. We are perhaps looking into making those laps kind of count but they would automatically go below a lap where was no gain from going off the track. Or just doing an incremental penalty so that lap still counts but maybe you lose two tenths for your wheels going off the track. Those are 2 areas that we are looking to prototype at the moment. I’m not sure which one will make it in, if either, but all the feedback that we get we do act upon and try to see if we can improve on it.

Presumably the 107% rule to qualify for the Sunday race is in?

PJ: Yeah, after the first race of the season we weren’t sure if we were going to need it and then obviously the HRT turned up [and failed to qualify for a race] and we were like, aw man. One of the guys asked me if all the cars were grey would you know the difference between them. Absolutely you would especially with the bottom tier 3 cars. I would probably know the difference between the rest as they have different handling traits which players will learn. But yeah, physically you’ll drive the nuts off an HRT (Hispania Racing F1 Team) and you’re still 6 seconds off the pace.

Do driver personalities influence their driving styles in F1 2011?

PJ: Yeah. Last year we took the AI behaviours from DIRT and from GRID. In slower series it works pretty well because the drivers are just making a key decision at any point in time. In F1 it doesn’t work as there is so much going on around you and because you are going so fast and things change so often. Now we’ve almost got an AI driver with 6 brains. One’s just looking at deploying KERS or DRS, the other one is thinking about overtaking, one about slipstreaming and one’s thinking about blocking the guy behind. All of that ties into so the driver knows where the best place is to position his car on the track.

We had driver personalities last year but we’ve moved on so drivers like Hamilton and Alonso look for smaller gaps on the track, smaller little spots, so you can really begin to notice them. In the latest build at the moment, it’s still the early stages, so they are all really, really fast and they are all super aggressive. They are always looking to deploy their KERS and to get through but we can refine that back now.

Will you be able to race against the real drivers using live GPS feeds from F1 races?

PJ: There is technology in development. Basically it takes the accurate GPS that’s coming in and in theory you should be able to take the place of another driver on the track. I think it could work quite well in the dry if it was totally consistent and you had your tyre model right. The obvious worry is that the F1 guys are so consistent and so fast that they just disappear off into the sunset. That wouldn’t be too fun. But as soon as you introduce variability like the weather. How wet is wet? How would you even be able to simulate it? Obviously if I crash into Alonso in my game and no one crashes into him in real life it blends between different algorithms. I think the concept of it is amazing but the execution is really, really difficult to get right.

There was a sort of solution that you could go through cars rather than crash into them.

PJ: Yeah, the latest one that I saw was that you would knock them off but then over the duration of the next 10 laps they would artificially speed them up to regain their true race position. I think there are areas that might make more sense, like downloading just the grid positions and I’ll do my story in the race and if I drove as Hamilton. That’s much more achievable but actually racing the guys as they appear in real life is massively challenging.
Who is your F1 2011 World Champion based on your AI?

[Laughs] With our AI, Sebastian Vettel is still doing exceedingly well, even in our game, I must admit.

So you haven’t run a full season to see how it turns out?

PJ: No, I’ve not run a full season yet. The AI guys are running them at the different tracks. All the guys are so aggressive at the moment; we need to dial that back a little. They’ve all kind of got the instincts of a Schumacher, Hamilton or Alonso. Never give up their position or they defend my position to the last. It’s difficult because not only do we have the driver personalities but we have the team tiers.

Red Bull is fundamentally the best car, although personally for my driving style it’s not my favourite. I prefer the Ferrari, which is a bit more tail happy and I’m able to control the car a bit more. Or a mid-range team such as a Lotus Renault, that’s a good all rounder. Almost like the Mario Kart style with no threes, but solid two’s all the way down. It’s a good car to get used to as well. So you’ve got the driver traits in addition to the car behaviours. But I think it’s the performance of the Red Bull that is having the biggest impact at the moment.

Thanks for your time Paul.

Formula 1 2011 is due for release on the 23rd Sept 2011 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. PS Vita and 3DS versions are also in development.