Formula 1 Games Have A Track Problem
Racing games are defined by the vehicles you race in, and the places you race at. Games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport feature many tens of tracks to race across, ranging from narrow city streets to fast-flowing countryside highways. They also have catalogues of several hundred cars each.
But a series like Codemasters' Formula 1 games can't rely on this sheer number of different cars since there are only tens teams on the grid, and therefore ten different cars. And these cars are not even that different to each other. The 2021 Red Bull may generate more natural downforce than any of its competitors and the Mercedes engine powered cars may have the most potent powertrain pulsing inside their chassis, but they are really not that different to drive.
And while yes, the F1 games do have a small selection of classic cars and F2 cars to play around with, they are not the focal point of the experience. Therefore, the F1 games must look to their tracklist to provide the substance of the gameplay experience. But this is where a problem arises. The real-life F1 calendar only has 23 races. Nothing more, nothing less. Sadly, this defines how many tracks the game has. Nothing more, nothing less.
When you first start playing an F1 game, you might look at the track selection and go, "Hey, I get to race in China, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. There's a mix of street races and purpose-built circuits. That's not too bad."
And yes, at first glance the F1 calendar is deceptively attractive to new players. You start playing. You race each track a few times. You memorise the layouts. You understand the required setups for each track. You start to find which ones work best for you, and which ones don't. You start figuring out the AI's strongest corners. You exploit their weakest. But soon, each race you perform feels like a stale rehash of the last. There's nothing new left to enjoy or learn.
I may have sunk more than a hundred or two hundred hours into F1 2019 since I picked it up on sale last Christmas, but now, the game is starting to tire me. Racing the historic corners of Spa or Silverstone just doesn't excite me anymore. Driving the cars is fun, but driving the tracks isn't. I think the F1 games have a serious flaw that Codemasters needs to address. They need new places for players to race at. But thankfully, there are a lot of options.
This first one is the simplest to achieve, and Codemasters themselves have shown that it can be done. Shortened versions of some of the calendar's tracks were available in previous F1 games but were scrapped for F1 2021, the series' latest release. Circuits such as Bahrain, Silverstone, Suzuka, and COTA all featured shortened layouts to race on, albeit only in Grand Prix and online modes.
To be honest, these layouts aren't very fun to drive, but they do have untapped potential. If Codemasters can wring out some of the more unique alternate layouts that many F1 circuits have, then out of nowhere the tracklist gets nearly doubled. Bahrain itself has an outer layout that is by far more interesting than the short version, which only adds a single right-hand turn and cuts lap time by more than 30 seconds. Then there is the outer layout, which does cuts out half the track but also adds a whole new twisty section to it. Formula 1 even raced there in December of 2020.
Circuit Paul Ricard in France, an annual staple of the F1 calendar, is used by many motorsports teams as a testing venue due to its various different layouts. While real-life F1 may not be able to run at all of them due to certain standards that a circuit must meet to hold F1 races, these restrictions don't exist in a videogame.
Speaking of restrictions that don't exist in videogames: driving around a circuit in reverse. The F1 community has long called for reverse races to be introduced. However, this has never been tried due to the massive logistical nightmare it creates, and the geographical problems that need solving.
Tracks need perfectly placed gravel traps, run-off areas, and escape roads in order to be safe to race around. At any normal real-life circuit, these are placed in regards to a race being run in only one direction. At Monza for example, the race is run clockwise. In the streets of Singapore, it's run counter-clockwise.
The most called for reverse-race in real life is Silverstone, as it seems to be the easiest one to switch around. But even this would be really hard to do, and would even require entire grandstands to be moved around. Chain Bear has a really well-done video about it, and I recommend checking that out if you're interested.
Running reverse races may be a headache in real life, but in a videogame, probably not so much. All Codemasters will have to do would be to move around the run-offs, gravel traps, and escape roads to suit the change of direction. Since this is not real life, anything can be done to the surrounding terrain to make room for these changes.
This would be a simple yet extremely effective way to add more racing experiences to the game.
Let's do a little experiment, shall we? From the F1 2010 game to the F1 2021 game, 31 different circuits have featured in the series, not counting a few classic tracks from the start of the decade that were only drivable using classic cars. In F1 2021, the latest entry in the series, there are only 24 tracks (there were 22 at launch, 2 more were added as post-launch free DLC).
This means that 7 unique tracks that were previously used have not been included in the game. Most recently, the Hanoi Street Circuit was included in the F1 2020 game since the real-life Formula 1 was supposed to race there. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic delaying the start of the season and forcing F1 to have a Europe-centered season, we never got to see cars race across the streets of Hanoi.
What's baffling is that Codemasters chose not to leave this track in their game in 2021. I don't understand what would have to give for Codemasters to just turn a blind eye towards having a race track in their game that doesn't match up with the real world F1 calendar.
Having classic tracks in F1 games would be a real welcome addition. Codemasters already has these environments sitting in their database. All that needs to be done is a bit of touch up to modernise the kerbing and other non-track parts of the circuit, and just add it into the game. This is of course ignoring all the programming that will have to take place to get the AI driving smoothly around new tracks, but surely it can be done.
Developers making their own circuits in games is nothing new. Look at any game that involves some sort of driving, and you'll find original racetracks. Every circuit in Mario Kart is made by developers at Nintendo. Some tracks in DriveClub are custom built to suit the area's real-world terrain. While these examples are in no way similar to a licensed entity like the F1 games, it doesn't mean Codemasters can't do this too.
The terrain and environment that surrounds the track can be auto-generated by the engine, or picked from around other tracks and pasted into these ones. The buildings dotted around a circuit like its paddock, pitlane, timing tower, and marshall posts can all just be built from scratch and used as a standard across all these original tracks.
They don't have to be glamorous and eye-catching. We don't need the glitzy hotel at Yas Marina or the glass bridge hanging over the pit straight in Shanghai. Simple and basic buildings that disappear into the backdrop because of their lack of splendour are fine, as long as we have somewhere new to race at.
Crafting original tracks will allow the developers' imagination to run free. Real-world circuits are usually constrained by terrain, budget, and Herman Tilke's monotonous design choices, but those barriers are non-existent here. This is a piece of software and anything can be done here.
Just adding 7 or 10 new tracks, completely programmed for AI to race on, will expand the game's offering and help keep players invested and interested.
This last one is the hardest to pull off, but pulling it off would be remarkable. A track editor would give the player the ability to create custom tracks, which can then be used in Grand Prix mode or online multiplayer racers.
I have two theories about how the computer's artificial intelligence (AI) in these games is programmed. The first is that they are hardcoded to know how to drive around each track. This means they have specified breaking ranges, traction zones, offensive/defensive manoeuvres for each track. The second is that the AI is simply programmed to react to the piece of race track and cars around them. This means that the AI doesn't already know where to brake or what gear to downshift to, it just looks at the track and does what suits it best.
However, in reality, I think that the AI is somewhere in between. They are given key information like breaking points, optimal gears, etc, but also react on the spot to other events taking place during races.
There are two types of track editors that could be implemented in the F1 games, and their viability relies heavily on the functioning of the game's AI.
The first one would allow players to mix and match corners and straights from existing F1 tracks in the game to create their own custom circuit. While this would offer less flexibility, it will solve the problem of AI not knowing what to do and causing havoc, as often seen in custom-made Assetto Corsa racetracks.
Since the AI already knows what to do on every corner and straight, they can implement this during these custom track races and string together the data of one corner to another. If a custom track sees Monza turn 1 leading into the Baku castle section, then the AI can simply pick up instructions from each circuit and use them where needed.
With these mixed and matched tracks AI-ready, they can be used in both online races against other players or in offline races against the AI. Wouldn't it be fun to create a circuit made up entirely of the AI's weakest corners so you can beat them on 110% difficulty?
The second type of track editor would allow the player to make custom tracks from scratch, drawing lines in the terrain to map out the circuit's layout. A complex feature set can even allow for elevation changes to be manually specified, creating some nightmarish undulations to drive across.
Player freedom can be taken to the extreme by allowing players to even place gravel traps, kerbs, and barriers wherever they please. This will allow for hardcore fans to go about designing their ideal but realistic racetracks, while the more casual player is free to mess around as much as they want.
A robust track creator will add a whole new dimension to the gameplay experience. Apart from Grand Prix mode and online races, it can even be integrated into the My Team career mode. Imagine designing your new team's own home race, similar to how Red Bull Racing has the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
But for this to work in offline modes, the AI must be able to improvise, adapt, and overcome the unknowns that custom tracks provide. However if this can't be done and the AI can't be made to work on custom tracks, it can always just be restricted to online modes.
And while online play doesn't work for everyone and many people are sure to not be pleased that an internet connection and/or an online pass (for consoles) will be required to enjoy custom races, it's certainly a better solution than nothing.
Even then, time trial mode can always be used to try and set blistering lap times that can be challenged by other players sitting halfway around the world, giving the non-online gamer some use out of this feature.
Now that I've rambled about how Codemasters can solve the track problem in their F1 games, I think I should give credit where even a little credit is due.
The F1 2021 game launched with 21 tracks. This list was the same as F1 2020 with the exception of Vietnam being dropped due to it not being on the real-life F1 calendar anymore. This meant that every track in the F1 2021 game was in the preliminary real-world F1 2021 schedule. However, this was only a one-directional feat as not every track in the preliminary F1 schedule was in the F1 2021 game at launch.
Tracks like Imola, Portimao, and Jeddah were in the original schedule and are in the current ongoing season but were not a part of the game at launch. Codemasters then did something I personally didn't expect from them. They said they were going to add these tracks to the game as free content updates. And they did.
Portimao arrived in the middle of September and was quickly followed by Imola the next month. Jeddah is set to arrive sometime this month (November), but no specific date has been given yet.
This was a great move by Codemasters as it provided something fresh to what would have otherwise been a stale offering. By adding new tracks for free, they've shown their commitment to continuously improve their F1 games.
But will Codemasters ever add alternate layouts, original circuits, or a track editor to the F1 games? It's certainly possible, but I doubt we'll suddenly see all this cool stuff suddenly pop up in next year's entry.
Do I want them to add these features? Yes. It will bring a whole new layer of complexity, longevity, and replayability to a series that might not look so appealing when you've got last year's edition sitting on your shelf. But with even more unique and curated racing experiences on offer, it might be worth a shot.