Stu­dio Pro­file

In­side Code­mas­ters, the vet­eran UK de­vel­oper bal­anc­ing its legacy with bold in­no­va­tion

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

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

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