Inside Codemasters, the veteran UK developer balancing its legacy with bold innovation
Nobody could be blamed for assuming that Dirt Rally was an aside. An initially scrappy, early-access effort, it abandoned Codemasters’ penchant for slick UIs and frictionless accessibility in favour of exposed scaffolding and a brutally unforgiving driving model. It couldn’t have been further from its forebears – even Dirt 3, which pulled focus on wet and windy European rally events over the brash Americanism that has increasingly defined the series, was made to feel lightweight. At the time, this unnumbered diversion into hardcore-sim territory seemed unlikely to be representative of a new direction for Dirt.
But it turns out that Rally was actually a skunkworks project, not just an experiment; and while the recently announced Dirt 4 certainly embraces a more familiar level of accessibility,
Rally’s DNA permeates the whole game. More than that, however, it represents something of a turning point for the entire studio.
“Codies has seen a lot of change over the last three to five years,” senior executive producer
Clive Moody tells us. “It’s not a lie to say there have been more difficult times over that period, but we’re really coming out of that in a big way now. It feels like there’s a huge renaissance going on within the organisation.”
Said rebirth has ushered in a new wave of success for the studio, and a reinvigorated sense of creative freedom. Both Dirt Rally and F1 2016 (the latter created at Codemasters’ Birmingham studio) were met with huge critical and public acclaim, and Codemasters recently bolstered its staff line-up when it acquired Evolution Studios’ development team after Sony closed what was left of the Driveclub creator. All of this, together with a management reshuffle, has put the team at Codemasters firmly on the front foot.
“Success really does breed success,” Moody says. “People thrive on that positive feedback and that gives everybody a boost. The new exec team, who’ve been in place now for a couple of years, are very product focused, but in the right way. They understand dev, they understand what we go through, they understand that we need the time, space, and empowerment to do what’s right for the games. Of course, there’s a steer in terms of what the market’s going to be and the audience that we need to be aiming for, but we’re given an awful lot of rope – which we hopefully won’t hang ourselves with.”
This new ethos isn’t only proving healthy for Codemasters’ employees, but also for the longterm future of its games. “I think in the past it was very easy for people to fill in a roadmap of releases, and just say, ‘This is where we’ll be making the money,’” chief game designer Paul
Coleman says. “But now I think there’s a lot more of a feeling that there’s a protection element to each franchise, as well as using it to make money. There were definitely times where the remit came down at a very late point to suddenly have to knock out another Dirt game when previously it hadn’t existed within any kind of plan, and to suddenly pivot as a studio and deliver that. “Clive and I both experienced that with Dirt
Showdown, which was a nine-month dev cycle from high-level design to shelf, more or less. That was pretty tight by any stretch of the imagination, and as unpleasant as I think you’d ever want it to be. Yes we turned it around, and yes there was a lot of camaraderie, but I guess it was a bit like being in a prisoner-of-war camp, rather than an enjoyable dev environment.”
Your Stage, the powerful tech behind Dirt 4’ s procedurallygenerated tracks, is a striking example of the potential benefits of Codemasters’ shift in focus. “It probably wouldn’t have happened in the old days when Codemasters was a bit more of a production line,” Moody says. “Now it’s just not like that. Your Stage has had a really long gestation period – I mean, we were thinking about something of that nature after
Dirt 3, and that was way back in 2011. It’s taken a long time: background R&D, just chipping away at that problem, waiting for some of the technology to reach the point where we could do what we needed to do with it. I think that in itself speaks very well to where Codies is at right now, and what the culture is. And it can only get better, I think, from here on in. It feels like we’ve got our mojo back.”
The studio’s return to form has also gone hand in hand with a return to what it does best: racing games. Dirt 4 will arrive first, in June; the Birmingham studio is working on new F1 and
Micro Machines games; and the team of former Evolution staff is beavering away on its next big idea. There isn’t a sports game, FPS or – thank goodness – egg-based platformer in sight.
“Obviously, Codies has tried a lot of different genres over the years, some of them successfully, some of them – let’s be honest – less successfully,” Moody admits. “But I suppose the core of Codemasters right now is something which goes back to the heritage of the business: having a real focus on the racing genre. Right now it’s all we’re doing, and it’s all we’re planning on doing for the foreseeable future.
“Ultimately, when you look at where the passion lies within the organisation, it always comes back to driving and racing. So that’s what we’re about right now. We’ve got a really great portfolio of racing titles, and that’s going to grow as a part of that focus.”
Shoring up its position as a leading racing-game specialist hasn’t meant a blanket return to old design principles, however. Your Stage is certainly one example of a new way of thinking at the studio, but Moody and Coleman also
“WHEN YOU LOOK AT WHERE THE PASSION LIES, IT ALWAYS COMES BACK TO DRIVING AND RACING”
point to an increased desire to embrace feedback from players (as evidenced by Dirt
Rally’s debut as an early-access game) and a pull back from the atmospheric, but busy, UI excesses that have crept into the studio’s recent games.
“I think we’ve perhaps strayed a bit too far down the path of making the UI the star of the show,” Coleman admits. “In some circumstances the game has almost taken a backseat to that. A lot of what we’ve done recently has been about re-finding our feet in terms of putting the player experience first and foremost, and the immediacy with which they can get into that experience and get enjoyment out of it.
“Having said that, I think you can still make a really light menu and the game will suffer as a result – because it doesn’t have the production values that make you feel warm from the moment you press Start. So there’s definitely a balancing act to be performed. I’m proud to have been part of those products that did have absolutely award-winning user interfaces, but I’m glad that we’ve also now found the right balance between industry-leading graphical interfaces and the on-track experience.”
One aspect of Codemasters’ approach that hasn’t changed, however, is the fearlessness with which it approaches each new entry in an established series. Games such as Dirt:
Showdown might have been created in unfavourable conditions, but the studio has long taken an uncommonly brave, perhaps even reckless approach to experimenting with new angles, reshaping – and indeed rebooting – established series with seemingly no concern over the inherent commercial risks of doing so.
“It is a risky approach, and it doesn’t always come off – I have to say, we don’t always get it right,” Moody says. “But the alternative is standing still and just turning over the same old, same old, which isn’t going to get you anywhere. If all you do is deliver the exact same experience, maybe a little shinier, you’ll end up in decline anyway. People will become tired of a given franchise, and fatigue will set in. You’ve got to be brave sometimes, and take a few risks, and I think we’re really fortunate at Codemasters that as a business [management] allow us the space to take those risks, and support us.”
But balancing the expectations of longterm fans with the need to innovate is no easy task, and even though Codemasters has established a pattern of continual reinvention, the legacy of its classics-stuffed back catalogue represents a significant pressure.
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, for sure,” Coleman says. “But that legacy is why I got into games in the first place. I was at university being an automotive engineer, and I changed my focus based on the enjoyment I was getting from TOCA and Colin McRae. Then I found out Codemasters was just down the road from Coventry where I was at uni, and just kind of made everything change towards getting into this company. So that heritage is important to me, from a creative perspective, and I know it’s very important to a lot of our fanbase. But it’s also important to not just try and re-sell the same stuff to the same crowd forever because people move on, things change, and you have to stay relevant. You have to keep looking toward the next big thing.”
“All of the lessons we learnt with Dirt Rally mean that now we really feel that we can put something pretty spectacular together; a really high-production-value package,” Moody adds. “Hopefully that can bust out well beyond the audience which bought into Dirt Rally and try and find a much bigger audience. Maybe even some of those lapsed Dirt 2 and Dirt 3 players can be brought back into the fold with it, and people beyond that as well.”
The shift in player tastes towards simulation-based car handling in recent years also represents a huge opportunity for Codemasters. The studio has a remarkable portfolio of series that are capable of embracing that change, but also boasts extensive experience creating games that span the whole range of driving models. That combined expertise, one suspects, can only strengthen its position over the coming years.
“I personally feel that there has often been too much of a connection between simulation and difficulty, and if a game wasn’t hard it couldn’t be a simulation,” Coleman says. “But when you speak to car engineers and racing drivers, they want a car to drive as effectively as possible – it needs to be as nimble and as controllable as it can be.
“So the exciting thing for us has been to bring our knowledge of racing and move it more to that side of the spectrum. There’s definitely a more discerning racing-game player out there that we’re hoping to capture, but that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of other people that just want to drive a car fast and have a lot of fun doing that. It’s our job to speak to all of those people.”
“I FEEL THAT THERE HAS OFTEN BEEN TOO MUCH OF A CONNECTION BETWEEN SIMULATION AND DIFFICULTY”
Moody and Coleman in front of Codemasters’ Southam HQ, which sports its own lakeside pub and a recently added gym
The Dirt team sits in mixed disciplines across two large, open-plan rooms. The studio lies within 43 acres of farmland which, while remote, makes for a rather peaceful atmosphere