Interview with Alex Grimbley
Producer of Colin McRae: DIRT at Codemasters -
(Xbox Community Network), with which Xbox Gazette is affiliated, has been able
to ask some questions to Alex Grimbley from Codemasters, about their game Colin
XCN : First
up, let's talk about the name. Why Dirt?
Alex Grimbley : It's been
a few years since Colin McRae 2005 was released and it was a game we were really
proud of, but we wanted to change the direction of the game to reflect the tastes
of gamers. Offroad has become a lot more prevalent in motorsport and also the
public consciousness and we really wanted to refresh the brand and take it forward
in different ways. It's about creating something new while also keeping the existing
McRae players satisfied. So we brainstormed lots of different names - some of
them quite amusing, but I won't go into them - but Dirt really captures the dirtier,
grittier, muddier aspects of the game.
: So is there more attitude to the game now?
Alex Grimbley : Yeah,
definitely. If you're a fan of the Colin series you'll recognise the game, but
there's definitely a freshness to it, more attitude and more oomph. We've taken
all the cool things from the last games and taken them forward, given them a bit
of an edge. Ironically for a game that's mostly offroad, it's a bit more 'street'
XCN : So what will
fans of the series see that's different?
Alex Grimbley : I think the
main thing will be much more variety of content. We've obviously still got loads
of point-to-point tracks in there, much more than before, and they'll be happy
with that. But also there's a stack of cool new offroad racing championships to
try out. There's offroad racing in America, Dakar-style vehicle in huge, expansive
environments, we've got buggies, rally X and circuit racing with cars on gravel
tracks banging into each other. There's loads that hasn't been seen in a Colin
game before, and I think that really stands out for both fans of the series and
XCN : Dirt is also
the first rally game on Xbox 360 - how do you feel about that?
: We're really pleased to be the first rally game out there on Xbox 360. I
think we need to look at it outside of rally too - I think we'll stand right up
there with all the other driving games on Xbox 360 and PS3, not just in the rally
XCN : Do you think the
Xbox 360's been missing a rally game?
Alex Grimbley : Definitely. We're
huge fans of Gotham and we play it a lot, and we're all looking forward to Forza
2. But we think the Xbox 360 needs something with a dirtier edge, and our cars
are certainly dirty. You wouldn't see them in one of Gotham or Forza's showrooms,
that's for sure...
XCN : You mentioned
Forza 2 - what's your view on that game and how do you think it will compare with
Alex Grimbley : Loads of the guys on the team here are Forza
fans and it's definitely a game we've been keeping an eye on. We think it appeals
to a different audience though. Dirt appeals to a slightly more casual gamer,
someone who likes to dip in and out of things and instantly get a really exciting
driving experience. What Forza does with tuning and customisation is really cool,
but it's not the way we wanted to go. We wanted to stay more accessible and instant
so people can pick up and play, really bash their cars around and have a great
XCN : And while we're on
other games, MotorStorm has done really well on PS3. Do you see it as a direct
threat to Dirt?
Alex Grimbley : We've really enjoyed MotorStorm too,
we think the team did a great job on it. It's very different to Dirt though -
it's very arcadey, while we're still keeping our Colin roots of the slight sim
edge with an instant arcade experience. We don't see that we're competing with
XCN : So people
will be expecting the Imprezas and Evolutions and all the other classic rally
cars, but tell us a little about the new cars in vehicles in Dirt that people
might not have driven - or even seen - before.
Alex Grimbley : Well,
something that people certainly haven't seen before is Colin's own concept rally
car - the R4 - he's been working on it in real life but we're slightly ahead of
him in the game! He sent us all his details and we got our car designers to put
it together for the game. They then sent him back the work they had done and he's
used some of it to continue building the car in real life. So that's cool, but
it's still a traditional rally car. Some of the new motors we have are the offroad
vehicles, so think of the big 4x4 vehicles you see on the roads tuned for offroad
racing. They're huge and powerful, so you can literally bash through trees and
bushes, go off the tracks and generally bounce around. Then we've got the buggies
which are mostly from America. These are massively powerful buggies with 500bhp
driving through the real wheels, typical American power that makes you wonder
how they control it. We've got purpose-built tracks for these things to take on
with moguls and bank turns. We've got big trucks in the game for the Dakar-style
rallies, and again these brutes are great fun to chuck around and just plough
through everything. But probably the most exciting addition are the Pike's Peak
Unlimited hill climb cars. Some of these monsters have 850 or 900bhp just to drive
them up mountains as fast as possible. You'll be approaching hairpin bends at
150mph with a 1000 feet drop-off on the other side, so they're pretty hairy...
XCN : The variety of motorsport
types remind me of your other successful driving series, Race Driver. How much
of an influence was Race Driver's approach on Dirt?
Alex Grimbley :
With the variety of different racing and vehicles, Dirt is doing for offroad racing
what Race Driver did for track racing. We're definitely taking their lead in offering
lots of ways through the career structure and giving the player lots of different
experiences. Having said that, everything about Dirt is new. It's using our brand
new engine called Neon. We have a lot of people here working with Neon on both
games, and going forward we're going to be able to take every cool feature or
piece of technology from the Colin series and take it over to the Race Driver
series. That will mean that the good features keep getting better, giving us more
time to think about new features that will drive both series forward.
: Sounds like Microsoft Game Studios' approach to Forza Motorsport and Project
Alex Grimbley : Exactly. There's no point starting
from scratch with every new game. You can always push things a little further.
Working like that gives you the opportunity to sit back, look at what went well
and what didn't go so well, and then act on those things much more effectively.
XCN : In Dirt's career mode
can players choose which kind of racing they want to concentrate on, or are they
forced to try everything out?
Alex Grimbley : We call the career mode
the Career Pyramid. You start off at the bottom of the pyramid with only a few
cars, and different cars let you enter different types of event. You might get
a rally car and a hill climb car to start with, so you might want to concentrate
on hill climbs. Once you've earned some money in those events you can choose which
new types of car to buy. You're in charge of what events you race in and what
kind of cars you want to invest in. If you're a rally fan you can still get to
the top of the Pyramid doing just rally, but obviously you'll miss out on the
variety of all the other events. It's not a linear progression - we've really
opened things up.
XCN : What kind
of rewards will I get if I concentrate on a particular style of rally?
Grimbley : Well, if you love rallying and concentrate on rallying, you'll
be rewarded with cool rally cars like maybe an Evo, or maybe a classic rally car.
As you progress you'll also earn money which you can use to reward yourself with
a nice new car of your choice...
: Is Colin himself in the game?
Alex Grimbley : Colin's character
is in the game, and you'll even have to race against him as you climb the Career
Pyramid. He pops up on quite a few occasions to test you out. Travis Pastrana,
the Subaru America driver and Motocross champion, is in there too. The great thing
about our AI is that it's not just about putting drivers into buckets like aggressive
or soft or patient. We actually have around 65 different characters in the game,
all of whom have different characteristics which we've modelled carefully. So
Colin is really aggressive and likes to push hard and really kick the back wheels
out. In fact, you'll need to beat Colin right at the end of the Career Pyramid,
which will be quite a challenge.
: So can you build up rivalries with some of these characters as you go through
Alex Grimbley : Yeah. You'll see some famous rally drivers
from the past, some famous hill climb drivers, some other people that you'll recognise
and the cars that they're synonymous with. You'll definitely start to learn more
about their personalities and build up rivalries with them all.
: How much input to the development process does Colin actually have?
Alex Grimbley : Colin loves to pop in to the studio and have a go on the
handling from the start of development. He gives us some great feedback on how
the cars should handle - especially cars that he's driven in the past. In fact,
remember I was talking about how we have his new concept car in the game? He drove
it in the game before he drove it in real life! We were giving him some tips!
But he also helps out on loads of little things, like how do drivers behave in
a crash? How do they brace themselves? Those are the kinds of unique things that
only he could tell us, and they really add a lot. He's actually an Xbox Live gamer
XCN : What's his GamerTag?
Alex Grimbley : Ha! I'm afraid I can't tell you that! We might try and
get him online for some games though...
: Colin has branched out into other type of racing himself. Has that influenced
the variety of modes in Dirt?
Alex Grimbley : Yeah. His input into
the handling of the Dakar-style vehicles was really invaluable since he had some
experience of that recently. He's also been doing the X Games in the States recently
and you might have seen the footage of him rolling his car, landing on the wheels,
and then continuing on without flinching! Ironically enough he lost that race
to Travis Pastrana, who is also in Dirt. But yeah, Colin definitely understood
that we needed to move on, to evolve and progress, and once we explained to him
where we wanted to take it and the attitude we wanted to capture he was totally
on board. I think it's a good fit - he's diversified his career from Rally champion
to X Games to Dakar to jumping into Le Mans, so it's only natural that his game
should branch out in similar ways.
: Out of interest, what did he say about the roll? What's his story?
Grimbley : He said it came naturally to him. We asked him how he got it going
so quickly again and he swears he was just on autopilot, it just happened without
him thinking about it. But I think he was really annoyed that he lost, because
if he hadn't rolled he would have won. Still, I doubt anyone will remember who
won as much as the roll. He was here in the studio about a week after it happened
and we all had YouTube up, showing him all the footage!
: Speaking of flips and rolls, how important are the physics to Dirt?
Alex Grimbley : They're vital, and they're one of the things about Dirt
that we're most proud of. We've taken them right back to scratch and started afresh
for the next-gen consoles. The physics we have now are probably about as realistic
as you can get, and we're updating some of them 1000 times a second. We've got
separate models for every piece of the car, from suspension to the way the wheels
grip the surface - I think we have something like 6 different types of tarmac
alone - but that doesn't come across to the player in a simulation-style way.
We're not bombarding players with statistics, it just feels really natural. Sure,
you can tune your car however you want, but you shouldn't have to understand all
that stuff to enjoy driving them. The majority of gamers won't know about everything
that's happening under the hood, but they will know that it feels good. But don't
just take my word for it - we've had Colin in to try out the physics as well as
a host of other rally drivers and co-drivers, and those guys really know what
they're talking about.
XCN : Can
you use the Xbox 360's wireless Force Feedback wheel to play Dirt?
Grimbley : You can, yes, and it's great fun. It's actually converted a lot
of people on the team to the wheel - a lot of people preferred to play with the
joypad, but now they prefer the wheel. I can actually get better times with the
wheel, which I suppose is the most important thing! We've had a prototype version
for a long time and it's been great to work with. The guy who works on our force
feedback actually has a license to race cars - he used to race touring cars -
so he really knows what cars feel like when you're thrashing them. He's been able
to transfer that sensation to the force feedback wheel and it's been a very easy
XCN : Here's the classic
racing game question: 30 fps or 60 fps?
Alex Grimbley : 30. Once you
se the game running you'll understand why. As I mentioned all our other systems
are running much faster than that, like the physics updating 1000 times a second.
And we've got some amazing blur effects that really make it difficult to notice
the difference. To be honest though, we did try the game at 60 fps with cut back
graphics and detail, but when we put it back to 30 and ramped up the visuals again
it just blew us away. We're really not too concerned about it because Dirt looks
fantastic, runs smoothly, and we're very happy with it.
XCN : Do you think people make
too much of a big deal of the 30/60 fps thing?
Alex Grimbley : There
are techniques you can do know that you couldn't in the past that make the difference
a lot less noticeable. The next generation consoles really let you mask over that.
The motion blur for instance has been taken to such a level that it smoothes the
whole screen. Like I say, we're delighted with how Dirt looks.
: Tell us about the dirt in Dirt. Just how dirty is it?
: For a start we've got a fantastic particle system which is part of our new
engine, Neon. We've got so many different types of kick-up depending on what type
of surface you're on, it all has it's own physics, and it's even affected by the
wind in the environment. You'll see dust clouds billowing in the wind for example.
Everything you crash into emits some kind of dirt. It'll get on your windshield
and you'll have to use your wipers to get it off. It'll build up on your bodywork
and you can even wash your car at the end of the stage if you want to. Basically
we've got loads of systems just to muddy cars up!
: Are there dynamic weather effects?
Alex Grimbley : The weather
will change from stage to stage, as will the time of day. That gives a really
nice feeling of progression as the day goes by or you move from country to country.
Rain will, of course, make the dirt wet, and we've got loads of different types
of mud. Wet mud, dry mud, gravel mud...
: So how many different types of dirt are there in Dirt?
: Loads - we have over 65 distinct surface variations throughout the game.
: We understand Dirt's Xbox Live mode is very different to other racing games.
Tell us about why it's unique and why it's cool...
Alex Grimbley :
We looked at doing the standard race-against-each-other-on-track Xbox Live modes
but since we're doing so many different things with Dirt we wanted to try something
new and see how people liked it. So what we've done is give you a 100 player race
on hill climb and point-to-point tracks. Not all 100 are on the track with you,
but there's a leaderboard on the right of the screen that shows your time in relation
to everyone else's. It changes really quickly and it gets really tense because
you know one little error will see you drop down the list, but if you really nail
a bend then you'll see yourself jump up a few places. It's really instantly rewarding.
And because there's 100 players racing against you there's a real sense of achievement
if you do well and make a podium place. Another cool thing is that there's no
cheating. No one will bully you off into a wall or drive the wrong way around
the track, and if you wreck your car you've only got yourself to blame.
: How do you think people will react to such a different style of Xbox Live
Alex Grimbley : We know it's very different, but we think people
really need to get in and give it a go to really see for themselves how much fun
it is. One of the important things for us was to make it instant and easily accessible,
even for people who had never been online before. We're not forcing them to compete
directly against hardcore competitors, because you can have your own little battles
with the drivers around you rather than falling half-a-lap behind another four
or five cars.
XCN : What kind
of Achievements does Dirt have and have you enjoyed the process of implementing
them, deciding how players are rewarded?
Alex Grimbley : Yeah, we've
really enjoyed that process. We've got all the standard driving ones in there
like mileage, number of cars owned, championships completed and so on. Then there
are lots of online ones too, and we've got a whole lot of really fun ones like
clean races, most time spent crashing into trees, longest jump and so on. Those
are the real fun ones - you don't even know you're doing them and then 'Plink!'
- up it pops. I won't reveal all the Achievements though, as discovering them
when you play the game is part of the fun.
: It's always interesting to hear how developers handle Achievements. Did
you research other games, and are there any games that stood out for you for their
use of Achievements?
Alex Grimbley : We did research a lot of games,
mostly driving games obviously, and PGR was quite an influence. But to be honest
we just sat down and thought about what would be cool. Then there were the ones
that just happened when we were playing the game. Someone would do a jump or a
flip and we'd think, 'that would be cool'. So a lot of them happened quite organically.
XCN : What about downloadable
content on Marketplace?
Alex Grimbley : No plans at the moment, but
it's definitely something we're looking at so never say never. There will be a
demo though - a really good demo! It'll have a Super Stage crossover rally with
Colin as your opponent, it's got buggy racing against 9 opponents which is absolute
carnage and really shows off the car models, and then we have a hill climb with
fantastic scenery and a Travis Pastrana time to beat. It's a great little package
and it's out on May 24. We think it's going to wow a lot of people.
: So what's in the future for Colin McRae and Codemasters' other driving games
on Xbox 360?
Alex Grimbley : Well, we're just going to keep moving
forward. It's something we're very good at and we've got some great skills on
the team, plus a great new engine. The next Race Driver game, Race Driver One,
is set for Xbox 360 and that will pick up where Dirt left off. It's going to take
that series in a new direction in the same way that Dirt has for Colin, so you'll
see some really cool stuff in there. With Dirt we had to build the engine from
nothing but Race Driver One can take the visuals, the physics, the damage and
so on and build on it all. Some of the initial concepts we've seen are simply
stunning. And from Race Driver we can move onto the next Dirt. Maybe called Dirtier...
: Okay - let's say I've never played Colin McRae before and I'm not really
into rally games. How would you convince me to give Dirt a go?
: I could say that it's easier to get into than a pack racing game because
you can learn how the cars work without always being at the bottom of the pile.
But really, it's about being on the edge. You're always on that fine line between
nailing a corner and smashing into a tree. That's the exciting thing about Dirt.
That feeling of being on the edge isn't just about being a fan of driving games,
it's about being a fan of gaming in general. If you like being on the edge of
control and pushing your gaming skills to the limit, then you'll love Dirt. Give
it a shot!
XCN : Thanks for your
Related links :
Mac Rae Dirt videos
Mac Rae Dirt official site
Other Xbox 360 interviews
Gazette, June 15th 2007
Thanks to : Alex Grimbley,