- F1 2011 insight
Building Buddh in virtual reality
When asked what it will be like trying to learn the brand new Buddh International Circuit, McLaren driver Jenson Button recently said: "The first time you run on a new circuit is a strange experience because you're piecing together an incredibly diverse and vivid set of data in your mind. That's quite an intense experience."
The developers behind the computer game F1 2011 put themselves through a similar experience earlier this year, albeit in an office in Birmingham and at a slightly slower pace. Well before the circuit was finished in Greater Noida, they set themselves the challenge of building it in virtual reality, giving gamers a chance to drive Hermann Tilke's latest creation before the likes of Button and Hamilton.
Designing environments that don't exist in real life is nothing new to the games industry; in fact, exploring made-up worlds is part of the appeal of many games. But the difference with F1 2011 is that the Indian circuit would one day exist in real-life, and to add to the pressure on developers Codemasters, the real thing will be beamed around the world on October 30, making any mistakes in the game immediately obvious.
"The trickiest thing with working on an F1 game is that all the information is out there in the real world, or at least it's going to be," the game's senior producer Paul Jeal told ESPNF1. "So people then know when something isn't quite right and might wonder what a tree is doing in a certain place or maybe even a hotel. The lap time also has the potential to be wrong or the DRS zone might be in the wrong place, so you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. I think our guys would like to be more creative but we're always very careful in that regard."
But the task was not completely new to the Codemasters team after it faced a similar challenge with the Korean International Circuit last year.
"It was one of our big risks from the start of the project and we knew that track creation on that side of things was a bit of a worry," Jeal added. "This time we were quite cool and, having done it once, India didn't hold many fears for us, especially as there were more drawings and information available than last year. I think for India this time they designed the track and forwarded it on to the teams to experiment with on their simulators and feedback before they took it on to the next level. We were worried for 2010, but we were not really as worried this year."
But there were still some pretty substantial gaps in the circuit data that the team received and it was Stephen Johnson's job as technical art director to fill them in.
"For most of the tracks in the game, depending on how kind the people are that own the tracks, we end up getting CAD data which has the track lines, some of the height data and a lot of the time it will also have the outlines of the buildings. Obviously these tracks have existed for a long time so you can also find pieces of information on the net and you can watch the previous races, allowing you to cover almost every angle. Unfortunately, that didn't really happen with Delhi."
Instead the team got CAD data showing the outlines of the track and an artist's impression of what the circuit buildings would look like. But they didn't have access to height data and with the actual circuit developers in India shifting a considerable amount of soil to create undulations that was important.
"We started off by piecing together the track from images we had of the site, which showed that some bits were higher than others," Johnson added. "That was okay and a fair stab, but after several weeks they sent us some data that had a lot more about the track undulations."
So the track started to come together but the surrounding buildings are often what people indentify with most, and second-guessing how they would look was a trickier challenge.
"I think on the major things we're pretty close to reality," Johnson said. "We got a CGI promo flyover movie that they sent us with all the buildings surrounding the circuit, but they've not built any of those yet! So we've probably built some things they had in their plans or still intend to build, but haven't realised in reality.
"We tried not to put things in that we felt they wouldn't stand a chance of getting ready for October so hopefully it's not too far off. We also used a little bit of creative licence because we knew it was the same architect as Korea, so we knew that it would be a fair bet that some of the things would be along the same lines and I think they are actually now very close."
The team also had to try and make the far distance as realistic as possible, but didn't have the time to make the trip out to India. Again the use of some creative licence came in to play, and Johnson revealed that a track like India is actually more difficult to get right than the detailed streets of Monaco.
"Monaco's great because there's lots of stuff to see at any given time. So you can fill the screen with things that are interesting and they tend to be close up and block out a lot of the other parts of the track. But when you have an open track like India you can see a lot of the things in the far distance, and you have to draw something and it has to be representative. You look at any game that is open-world, they try to cover things up as much as possible. But if we don't have that option it's a bit of a panic situation. So you try to fill it with the odd tree here or the odd building there, but just try and keep the distance as close as you can get away with."
But even if there was an element of panic, it doesn't show up in the final product. Of course the ultimate test will be how it compares with the real thing this weekend, but from the images we've seen so far it appears to be pretty much spot on. Meanwhile, work is well underway on F1 2012 with the Codemasters team turning their attention to a certain building site outside Austin, Texas.