Art director Harvey Parker reveals how Codemasters got approval from Bernie Ecclestone for this imaginative racer
Just take one glance at F1 Race Stars, and you’ll immediately grasp that the latest racer from Codemasters isn’t exactly what you’d expect from the acclaimed British studio, let alone a licensed Formula One experience. With a little pinch of Mario Kart, a healthy helping of Pixar and a errant twitch of F1, Race Stars is a family-friendly experience which hopes to not only provide an entertaining arcade experience but also attract new fans to the world’s most popular motorsport.
Undoubtedly the most unique licensed experience to be released this Christmas, we caught up with F1 Race Stars’ art director, Harvey Parker to learn exactly how the game was conceived…
GamerZines: Who was the unfortunate person who had to pitch F1 Race Stars to FOM (Formula One Management)? How did you guys get away with it?
Harvey Parker (Art Director for F1 Race Stars): It’s incredible isn’t it? I was brought on board the project eighteen months ago at which point there was probably three or four people working on it. The design bible was pretty solid at that stage which was fantastic [for me] as an art director. It allowed me to concentrate fully on what the game was going to look like without it constantly changing. Gaz Cooper (Chief Games Designer) and Chris Grey (Senior Producer) had the pleasure, the privilege, the audacity to pitch this to FOM. I believe history says that Bernie, [Mr Ecclestone to the likes of us] got involved. He heard the pitch, he saw what we wanted to do and he said, “Yep, let’s make this happen!”
GZ: FOM has a pretty ferocious reputation when it comes to controlling their license, as they have so many different commercial interests which they have to keep happy…
HP: They’re understandably precious about what they have there. I’ve worked on licensed racing games for over a decade and I’m amazed and absolutely delighted that we’ve been able to do this. I was blown away by the opportunity and that’s why I accepted the job here; it’s a once in a career kind of opportunity. I was more than happy to come on board and help out.
GZ: The art design is very unique for a racing game. Especially a kart racer, as they tend to have all the same sort of look. How long did it take for you to pin down what you wanted the game to actually look like?
HP: Early on I had strong ideas on what I wanted to do with the game. You’re absolutely right a lot of karting games have been visually stuck in a rut. Even though technology has improved, the polishing and art direction [for this genre] was set around twenty years ago really. Formula One is the pinnacle of motor racing, it’s the second most watched sport on the planet, it deserves to have the very best kind of tie-in with family entertainment in mind. There’s a particularly genre of high-end family entertainment which has been set over the past ten years by studios like Dreamworks, Pixar and Disney. There’s yet to be a name for this genre, but you easily recognise the style in those movies. You see a movie poster fifty yards down the road and you know instinctively that it’s promoting a movie that you can take the whole family to and you’ll all get something from it. That just seemed like a natural fit for this sport. When we were producing a game we wanted to appeal to as many people as possible; primarily to kids as well. For me it was kind of marrying the two up and in doing so, our pre-production was more akin to that of one of these animation studios.
Forget about the fact that we are making a video game, this is such an incredible opportunity we need to be ambitious about what we were doing from the ground-up. Let’s concentrate on the fact that in a large way we’re re-branding F1 for kids, I want it to feel as thorough and as truthful as that exercise deserves to be. It just so happens that we’re making a video game, but it could involve TV, it a movie or toys and in actual fact wouldn’t it be great if it was all those things? There is a solidity to the end result that, yeah all this could end up as toys, a movie or a TV show due to the way it has been designed and that’s one of the successes. It’s been great working with the talent here at Codemasters, and re-pointing that talent in a different way and seeing what results I could get from the art teams.
There are lots of phenomenally talented people here, but they are more used to delivering realism and striving for that. There were growing pains along the way, but in working closely with those teams and setting out these early ambitions and asking ourselves, ‘What would Pixar do?’ That isn’t to throw five years of pre-development or millions of dollars at it, what would they do in our situation? You get a real good sense of what Pixar’s core pillars are when you look at their concept art. Those key shapes, colours, tones and moods that they set with those that are absolutely paramount and present throughout the entire films before the details get added. Those early concept art images that these studios produce formed a lot of the ideas, rules and the ambitions for our game. I was adamant that I didn’t want us to go through a concepting period that was then largely forgotten in the actual implementation of those assets which is quite often the case. You see fantastic concept art which is pushing the boundaries early on, but when it comes to implementing it something gets lost along the way.
It was a painful three or four, five months early development in striving for this look, but as soon as we started to nail it – it felt right, it felt instinctively good. When we presented the artwork to the teams, there were lots of smiles, lots of laughter and the general feeling that we should’ve done this years ago. Everybody was on-board and that was so reassuring, it opened the floodgates to bringing this style across in the tracks, the F1 elements, the non-F1 elements, the drivers and the cars obviously as well.
GZ: It’s almost like the F1 license is inconsequential to All Stars as you riff on the sport’s components so much. You don’t even have to like F1 to enjoy the game, is that something you agree with?
HP: Absolutely and that was one of the primary goals early on. All Stars was to appeal to people who have a small knowledge of F1, no knowledge, maybe they like it, maybe they don’t; I wanted it to appeal to everybody. You picture that situation where the family loses Dad on a Sunday afternoon because he’s watching F1. This in some ways could unite that family in playing this game. Everybody gets a little bit of understanding. It’s a bit like the dumbed down understanding of the offside rule in football, in what we’ve done with the F1 traits in our power-up system with inclusions like the Safety Car, KERS and DRS. They’re actually quite technical and if you know F1 it’s going to put a smile on your face. If you don’t know F1, you’ll understand what they do to you in the game, and when you do perhaps chance upon a Formula One race on the TV you’ll hear these terms and know at a very basic level what they actually mean. That’s something where the license actually brings a lot of value, truth and personality to what would be another karting game. It’s stretched us as developers into thinking very creatively into what we can do with our power-ups, the cars and how they handle.
The last thing we wanted to do was to ape Mario Kart directly, which is the elephant in the room. Every other karting game basically just rips it off pretty much lock stock, that wouldn’t work for Formula One. It was refreshing actually and it allowed us to think of a karting game with a different handling experience. Formula One cars don’t drift around corners unless something goes very badly wrong. It allowed us to think of another way of introducing a similar result; slowing down for corners, managing corners well and getting rewarded for it, but in a much more sophisticated way. It’s almost one foot into training kids into how they’ll approach racing games in the future. It’s just that tiny bit more serious, albeit with a very, very small ‘s’ at the start of that word. There’s an element of skill there which is a tad beyond karting games if you choose to take it. That’s the important thing too; it’s as light or as heavy as you want.
F1 Race Stars is released for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in Europe today.
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