Towards the end of April, Codemaster released DIRT Rally on Steam Early Access with relatively little fanfare. The title is the developer's latest in the DIRT series, following the release of DIRT: Showdown in 2012. DIRT Rally represents a new style for Codemasters: the game is made by a small development team, it's a PC-only title, the studio is going heavy on the simulation aspect, and it's an Early Access release. Codemasters is hoping fan feedback will help this DIRT become the best one yet.
Of course, since the game was announced and released in the same day, some players may have missed it. You may not know anything about DIRT Rally at all. no problem. DIRT Rally chief games designer Paul Coleman is here to provide some insight on this racing sim.
"We have set out to make the best Rally game ever made," Coleman tells me. "Having had the chance to compete in real world rally events as a co-driver it really opened my eyes to elements of the sport that we weren't doing justice to. We have been prototyping this experience for a while now, breaking down every system and rebuilding it with that pitch in mind. It's taken us out of our comfort zone but I think the results have been very exciting and I'm delighted we've been able to get it into the hands of our fans."
It's a Hardcore Racing Sim, but They Haven't Forgotten You Weekend Drivers
The physics engine on DIRT Rally is intense and it's been developed to feel like you're actually whipping around a corner in Monte Carlo. That means there's a learning curve if you're new to racing games or used to arcade-style racers. Codemasters doesn't want those people to feel left out, but the new focus is here to stay.
"We never set out to make a hardcore simulation, but by approaching each facet of the physics engine with a core-out approach we have ended up with an experience that is a simulation and offers a challenge that some players may not be used to," says Coleman. "Ultimately we want this game to be embraced by all players who have a passion for the art of driving but by getting the simulation as close as we can to reality it means we have much stronger foundations onto which we can layer elements that will make the experience broader."
"The key thing to remember is that anyone can drive a rally car at normal speeds down any stage; it's driving it fast that is the challenge. The depth that this new physics model has given us not only feels more intuitive but also has a much greater sense of reward when players get to grips with it. I'm confident that as we introduce more race styles we will be reaching out to a wider audience but I want to make sure that the connoisseurs who have been crying out for this type of experience continue to enjoy the depth of challenge that DiRT Rally provides."
It's a Sim, so Every Car Is a Labor of Love
The difference between an arcade-style racers and a simulation is that every car and track has to feel exactly right. The team on DIRT Rally is small, so it takes time to tweak every vehicle to real-world specifications. If the 1995 Subaru Impreza or BMW E30 M3 Evo Rally doesn't handle like their real-life counterparts, the sim feel is lost.
"Right now a car takes about a week to get from after our Vehicle Artists have completed the model to be taken into game with all its cameras, damage and surface specific chassis tuning set up," explains Coleman. "That is only possible now because of the time we have spent reworking the physics engine from the ground up. 12 months ago we were still using the same physics engine that was used for DiRT 3 but there were limitations and we had hit a bit of a wall in terms of getting the best out of the cars. This was especially true for the Rear Wheel Drive cars."
"We made the decision to rebuild it completely and over the last year we have been refining the new engine. The key difference with this engine is that as well as much greater fidelity within the car itself; Engines, Turbos, Transmissions, Drivetrains, Differentials, Brakes, Suspension, Aerodynamics are all modelled more accurately than ever before. We've also worked on the surfaces to better simulate how a loose surface acts underneath a tire that is spinning and sliding. It's that part of the simulation that has really brought about the biggest change in the feel of DiRT Rally."
DIRT's Rewind Feature Is Dead, Dead, Dead
DIRT Rally is feature-light in its current incarnation, as Codemasters focuses on getting core systems just right. One feature that won't be coming back though is the Rewind. This game is meant to mimic the real world and there are no do-overs in life.
"It just wasn't right for the way that we wanted players to approach our stages," Coleman says about cutting Rewind. "We want players to be driving these stages with the mindset of a real world rally driver. There are no rewinds in real life (I've experience this first hand) it's all about taking a measured approach and getting the car to the next service area and then on to the finish. Winning is a bonus. In our Online Events we've taken this notion even further. In the Daily Event you get one shot at it, there are no restarts. In the Weekly and Monthly Events you can restart but doing so restarts the whole event. Rally is as much about surviving the event as it is about getting the best times and we want players to embrace that."
Early Access Means Things Are Going to Change
Codemasters turned to Steam Early Access because they wanted DIRT Rally in fans' hands, not because they had a game they needed to get out the door. The focus is set, but otherwise, things are going to change in DIRT Rally while it remains in Early Access.
"The key thing to say here is that we are not using Early Access as a content delivery method," began Coleman. "Obviously we are delivering more content along the way but it wouldn't be true Early Access unless we were taking onboard the things that our fans want us to improve and refine. A really good example of this has been the reaction to our Force Feedback. Players have been disappointed with how the game feels on their steering wheels. I'll hold my hands up and say that we hadn't broken this part of our code down in the same way that we had with the physics engine."
"So, we've reached out to members of the community asking them what they want from the experience and then we have set about rewriting the way our Force Feedback works. Its early days but that, coupled with better wheel configuration and calibration options will be getting added to the game to give players the feeling they want from their wheels. It's something that simply wouldn't have been possible without being in Early Access."
More Content Is Right Around the Corner (Mods Will Take Longer)
In addition to tuning the core game, Codemasters is still working on improving the game's current roster of 17 cars and 36 tracks across three real-world locations.
"The immediate future has some small patches so we can iron out some of the hardware specific issues that always occur when you release a game to the public," Coleman says. "We'll continue to work on the new content that is in our roadmap but we have plenty of room for improvements along the way. It's all very exciting and this is just the beginning."
"Pikes Peak is our next update and we've got some legendary cars to go with that pack. After that we are bringing Germany Rally with some new and exciting Rally car classes to the game. We'll be adding some awesome Rallycross circuits into the mix before heading to Finland Rally. I love all motorsports and I am a total petrol head . It's not my perfect car list but I think we'll have the majority of iconic cars that fans will be asking for. Of course the further down the road we go the more we can get new cars in and react to what the fans have been asking for."
"We really want players to tell us what they want to mod and we'll try and build support in as much as we can," Coleman says about the modding scene. "Steam Workshop is something we are looking at. Ultimately I would love for us to eventually be able to leave DiRT Rally with the fans and let them continue its development."
It's All about You, the Player
It's still early (access) for the team at Codemasters, but fervent fans have already gotten in there and offered their feedback to make DIRT Rally a premier rally racing sim. The team is delighted at how the process has been going so far.
"We've been delighted with the reception," Coleman admits. "The fans love the direction that we have taken DiRT Rally in and they are talking about it so passionately. I think over the coming weeks they will start to be a bit more critical as they play the game more so we'll be keeping an eye on all our social channels and forums and keeping on top of the feedback we are getting. We're taking all the fan feedback and feeding it into our project backlog. These are getting prioritised and worked on as we speak. It's very new for the team as we've never had the chance to work in this way and directly react to the feedback the fans are giving us."