Video games have come a long way over the past few decades. Gaming has become a huge industry and is now a common part of modern life. It also seems that technology has finally caught up with the creators’ visions. Environments, people and vehicles display a realism we’ve never seen before, giving players an unprecedented level of immersion, but don’t take our word for it. This comparison between Pole Position (1982) and F1 2015 (2015) says it all.
Codemasters’ Dirt series has been thrilling players for years and their latest title, DiRT Rally is no exception. In fact this is widely regarded as hands-down their best rally game yet. We were delighted to chat with Chief Games Designer, Paul Coleman. The UK-native son, has been the force behind DiRT for over a decade. It comes as no surprise to us that his expertise goes beyond the game because he’s a real life rally co-driver. Gaming and racing? Oh yeah, we had lots to talk about!
MLAS: Let’s chat about your rally racing for a bit. How long have you been a co-pilot?
Paul Coleman: Back in 2011, towards the end of the DiRT 3 project, I was approached by one of our community members Jon Tucker who was looking to get back into rallying. His co-driver had gone on to do other things so he approached me to see if I would be up for it. In the end Jon came and worked in the studio with us as our project manager for a year and during that time, he also worked as our test driver. We did some road based rallying in April 2011 while we were getting the Impreza built and then started doing proper stage rallying in August 2011.
MLAS: How often do you race and where? (Please don’t spare the details. We love that stuff.)
PC: Not as often as I would like, but it is a very expensive sport to be involved with and with zero sponsorship available we’ve had to fund everything from our own pockets. As we both have young families it is very challenging to balance those commitments with rallying. That said we have competed in six events over the years and they have been at a pretty decent level. The Malcolm Wilson Rally, the Scottish Rally and the Somerset Stages to name a few. Although they are all set in forests in the UK, they each come with their own set of challenges ranging from asphalt to gravel stages. We’ve had to deal with crashing and mechanical failure too which are some of the hardest moments to come to terms with.
MLAS: What were some of the design revelations you had after getting first-hand experience in a rally car? Eureka moments, if you will.
PC: It’s hard to call out any specifics but the overall perspective I have of the sport, having sat in the car and competed has opened my eyes to a wide variety of things that we did in our previous games that were superfluous or unnecessary. There was also a bunch of stuff that would have been really easy for us to do but we had never considered. I guess that firsthand experience has really helped direct where we put our effort and ensure that we are creating the most authentic rally experience possible in DiRT Rally.
MLAS: You voiced the game’s co-driver but as I hear you went the extra mile to make sure the audio was as authentic as possible. Please tell us about that process.
PC: The first thing I did was to sit down with Jon and ‘recce’ the stages. This involved looking at the stage maps and then driving the stages many times to ensure that the calls were as consistent as possible. You can run a huge variety of cars down our stages, so we used a style of note writing called route notes that describe the shape of the road ahead. (Pace notes are a different style that are very personal to the driver and the vehicle that they are using.) Once we had the notes written, we set about recording them. We took the intercom from inside our car to get the most authentic sound and I wore my crash helmet and plugged it into that. I then sat in our D-Box motion seat while the stage was driven live. I called the notes in pretty much exactly the same way that I would call them when on the track, racing as a co driver. I think the results have been excellent; the recording really captures the intense and calm moments of the stage and you can even hear the impact on my voice as the seat jolted around through the bumpy sections of Greece and Wales.
MLAS: A number of our My Life at Speeders have been avidly playing DiRT Rally since it debuted on Steam last December. Was it always intended to launch the game this way?
PC: When we first put pen to paper on the High Level Design back in 2012, Early Access wasn’t really even a thing, so we always assumed that we would be making a full console & PC release. Over the years the prototype we developed, the way the industry evolved and circumstances in the studio lead us towards using Early Access to see if our fans had an appetite for this type of game. Looking back I think it has been an incredible experience and we are delighted with the reaction to it. It definitely wasn’t some kind of fiendish master plan.
MLAS: There’s usually a question of diminished quality when a game is ported from consoles to PCs and vice versa. However DiRT Rally on the console looks and sounds really great. How did your team get around that?
PC: The thing that really helped us was the fact that we had this awesome PC game as a target to aim for. The game was getting pretty close to final quality by the time we were ready to get things running on console so things were pretty locked down. That solid foundation meant that it was really just a case of making sure that the console game came as close as possible to that PC experience. The most important thing for us was ensuring that the gameplay was identical; we then did everything we could to get the game looking and sounding great, too.
MLAS: This game gives players the option to race iconic cars like the Group B’s Lancia 037 Evo 2 and Audi Sport Quattro Rallye; or navigating Pikes Peak in the record-smashing Peugeot 208 T16. What kind of access was needed to reproduce them for the game while maintaining authenticity and was it difficult to get?
PC: It is totally dependent on the manufacturers and the owners of the vehicles. Some of the classic cars are actually a little bit easier to do because they have very enthusiastic owners who are delighted to see their vehicles represented in the virtual world. Some of the more modern cars come with CAD which really helps our artists but then the teams are super secretive about the way they set the car up, as this is their secret to success out on stage. We basically use a mix of technical data, interviews with the owners and drivers and old press cuttings to try and represent the car and its character as best as possible. The extra depth in our simulation engine and the passion of our car handling designers really shines through. Add to that the fact that we had Jon working as our test driver validating everything we did for a year and it’s how we made this all come together.
MLAS: As a player, it’s the little things that really heighten my gaming experience. For example, hearing gravel hit the bodywork proportionally as I take corners and exhaust pops in the right place. What are some of the fine details you enjoy about DiRT Rally as a gamer, game designer and racer?
PC: Yeah, there is so much that we have done like that that really makes the difference and I think it really speaks to that firsthand experience shining through. I think the coolest thing about DiRT Rally is the way the audio really shines through. We’ve always painstakingly recorded the cars whenever we can get access to them but on our previous projects our vehicle simulation has been so primitive that we never took full advantage of those recordings. By better simulating the vehicles we’ve been able to unlock the potential of the recordings and I’m delighted with the results.
MLAS: One of the more amusing comments I’ve seen repeatedly is that DiRt Rally is “the Dark Souls of rallying games.” Was there a concern that the learning curve is too high for new players?
PC: Not for me personally but I am sure that a few people were concerned that going down a more authentic simulation route was going to be too challenging. I guess the thing is that Dark Souls isn’t a popular game just because it’s difficult. It’s an action RPG that goes to great lengths to subvert your expectations, and it’s unlike any other game in its genre. It sets out to specifically unsettle you with the design of the world and the enemies you face. The way DiRT Rally is different is that while it doesn’t hold your hand, the simulation is realistic and can be easily understood by anyone that has seen a vehicle in motion. We’re not subverting your expectations of how a vehicle should be behave in a real world environment. Actually, it’s quite the opposite and it is a little frustrating that people put us in the same bracket due to some assumptions they have made.
MLAS: Every year it seems we’re closer to affordable VR gaming systems. Is that something you’ve considered for this series?
PC: We already support Oculus on PC but it is a little bit rough around the edges. We are working towards supporting that better over the coming months. The stuff we have learned about VR as we have developed DiRT Rally has put us in a great position to potentially support other VR platforms too. VR and rally games do work really well together. The fact that you spend a lot of time sliding your car sideways through a corner in DiRT Rally and that VR lets you look in the direction of travel is one of the coolest aspects of it so I think it makes sense to support it as best we can.
MLAS: What do you hope for the future of DiRT Rally?
PC: I really hope that DiRT Rally opens people’s eyes to the sport that I love. I got into rally games because I love cars and it was one of the most exciting forms of motorsport with heroes like Colin McRae, Tommi Makkinen and Richard Burns fighting each other for the World Championship. Today rallying is struggling to get that kind of attention and it is a notoriously challenging sport to spectate. However, rallying is incredibly fun to compete in and DiRT Rally gives people the opportunity to experience that buzz.
MLAS: Your experience making rally games goes all the way back to Colin McRae Rally 2005. Do you get more or less nervous as a launch date approaches?
PC: I think going onto Steam Early Access having announced the game 5 minutes before was probably the most intense launch I have ever had. On previous games we had finished the game and we were actually at home taking respite on launch day. This time there was an amazing atmosphere in the studio and doing a live stream that same day was a really fun thing for us to do. Now that we are putting the game on console there is still an air of excitement to see what the reaction will be, but I don’t think it will top that Early Access launch.
MLAS: Making a living by doing what you love is a truly beautiful thing. Surely Paul the Game Designer started out as Paul the Gamer. When did you realise that your life’s path pointed towards making games in addition to playing them?
PC: I actually started life wanting to be a car designer. I chose all of my subjects at school to get me onto an Automotive Engineering course at University but once I got there I found that the Mathematics was beyond me. I struggled at it for a while but found myself playing more and more games as a hobby. My love of cars naturally led me towards games like Colin McRae Rally and Gran Turismo and when I found out that Codemasters was 15 miles away I decided to chase that dream instead. I started at Codemasters as a games tester a couple of months after I graduated in 2003 and I’ve never looked back.
MLAS: The video game industry was never as big as it is today. Did your family support your chosen occupation?
PC: My parents were wary of it. I think they were happy that I had found employment doing something I enjoyed but I’m not sure my father ever got to see me shine. He sadly passed away in 2007 but I hope that if he can see me now, he will see that it has all been worthwhile. My wife is incredible, she is so supportive and understanding of the long hours and the time I have to spend away from her and my 15-month-old son. Without her support, it would have been impossible to pour my heart and soul into games.
MLAS: What has been the most outstanding moment in your career so far?
PC: Seeing the fan’s reaction to DiRT Rally. Previously our games always reviewed well but our user scores have been a disappointment. Knowing that our fans love the game we have made has been hugely rewarding and has given us a renewed confidence as we look toward the future.
MLAS: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to make that jump from gamer to developer?
PC: Be passionate, work hard and believe in what you do. It is not easy and because it is an exciting industry there are thousands of people fighting for the positions that are available, but if you love games, there is no job like it in the world.
MLAS: Which was your favourite game as a kid and what do you play for fun now?
PC: Geoff Crammond’s Formula One Grand Prix. I spent hundreds of hours doing full race distance championships on my mum’s PC back in the 1990s. It opened my eyes to racing simulations and while I had a lot of fun with Outrun, Chase HQ and Super Monaco Grand Prix in the arcades it was F1GP that really resonated with me as a young motorsport enthusiast. As for what I play now, I spend the free time I have available for games playing Destiny with a group of friends as it is a decent way for us to hang out online while shooting stuff.
A Final Word
On April 5th 2016 DiRT Rally will be available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC (DVD). However if you can’t wait (which we completely understand) click over to Steam and add “the most authentic, challenging and thrilling rally game ever made” to your game library right now. Then come back here and tell us what you think about it! For more updates on DiRT Rally, give their official channels a follow and rally on!