XCN Q&A: Colin McRae DiRT

We’ve got another XCN exclusive just for you lucky readers, this time in the form of a Q&A sessions with theProducer for Codemasters Colin McRae DiRT – Alex Grimbley.

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’ than before!

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 newcomers.

Dirt is also the first rally game on Xbox 360 – how do you feel about that?

Alex Grimbley: 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 genre.

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…

You mentioned Forza 2 – what’s your view on that game and how do you think it will compare with Dirt?

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 time.

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 it directly.

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 4×4 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…

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 Gotham Racing…

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.

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.

What kind of rewards will I get if I concentrate on a particular style of rally?

Alex 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 the game?

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 too…

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?

Alex 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.

Can you use the Xbox 360’s wireless Force Feedback wheel to play Dirt?

Alex 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 process.

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.

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?

Alex Grimbley: 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 racing?

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.

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.

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?

Alex Grimbley: 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!

Thanks for your time Alex!


Russ Clow

Russ Clow not only nearly shares his name with one of the best Gladiators around, but he also has a bundle of experience under his belt. Since a very young age he's been playing video games, and has been working in the video game industry for most of his working career. Russ is a secret Sony Fanboy, although he tries hard to hide it so as to keep his position as Editor-in-Chief. When he's not playing games, Russ likes to play football with the "lads".

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