EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes – the making of GRID

HeavyElectricity November 5, 2010 4

Arcade Heroes is proud to bring you an exclusive behind the scenes report on the development of GRID! Please note that the video and many of the shots in this article are from the game’s testing phase, and may contain differences from the final version. Many thanks to Patrick Michael, Peter Harrison, Martin Wood, the QA staff, Sega Amusements Europe and Codemasters for their help in putting this article together.

Sega’s new racer GRID is now starting to make its way to arcades, after acting as the star attraction for the company’s recent product launch event. However, at Arcade Heroes we’ve been following it a bit longer than that – many months, in fact. This allows us to bring you an exclusive look behind the scenes at the development of the game!

GRID is essentially Sega’s arcade version of Codemasters’ Race Driver: GRID series, previously seen on home consoles and computers. If that sounds like a strange product to you, you’re not alone. But hey, Codemasters bought up the Sega Racing Studio team once that studio was closed, and doesn’t compete in the arcade industry anyway. Also, it’s not the first time a console racing series has made the jump to the arcade via Sega – Ford Racing: Full Blown came out some years back. Still, bringing a game into the rather different arcade environment had its own challenges. We spoke to Peter Harrison, GRID’s producer at Codemasters, who explained some of the issues that came up in bringing the game to the arcade:

Everyone at Codemasters is very proud of the original game and its critical and commercial success, so the team we put together to create the arcade version were very conscious that we needed to maintain the level of quality and credibility expected of the brand, while at the same time producing a conversion that really worked for the arcade market. Two key challenges were fine-tuning the game to work seamlessly with SEGA’s hardware, and condensing down the whole essence of GRID into a short play experience.

As you probably know, SEGA’s Lucia hardware configuration is based around high-end PC components. The fact that GRID was written using our EGO engine, with full PC support, meant that once the design was signed off many technical aspects of the conversion were relatively straightforward. As a company we are used to catering for a massive range of delivery systems which gamers use at home. Everyone has different screens, wheels, pads, sound systems, etc.. So in one sense it was actually a luxury to be able to target a very fixed set of inputs and outputs. That said, the arcade environment has its own challenges in terms of competing noise, varied lighting levels, and so on – our audio team spent a lot of time balancing the mix to work well in noisy locations. […]

However, the greater challenges were undoubtedly on the gameplay side: creating a snappy, accessible experience without losing the depth and integrity of the original game…

Sega Amusements Europe has had some experience of developing racing games recently and knows exactly where things should be going. However, as a team that doesn’t typically create arcade games, Codemasters did a lot of research in preparation for GRID, and came away feeling very comfortable with their creative direction:

SEGA Rally 3 was one of SAE’s recent successful driving games, and indeed several members of the SR3 team work at Codemasters. So although it’s a slightly different spin on the racing genre, we looked to Rally for its straightforward front-end system and the purity of the racing experience. SEGA kindly lent us a twin for the duration of the project, which everyone enjoyed! Working on a coin-op title was a massive buzz for those of us who grew up with arcade culture, and for whom arcade gaming was a formative experience. But some of the younger developers don’t have that background, having started gaming in an era when practically everyone has console at home. So having the cabinets in-house was a great opportunity for those people to catch up on the arcade experience.

We also visited the Troc and other arcades, to see what was out there. Of course we played classics like Daytona and Outrun, plus newer games like Battle Gear, F355, Initial-D, NFS Carbon, GTi Club etc… The whole process really helped to reinforce for us what were the key strengths of the GRID brand – the sense of speed and competition, the beautiful environments, the graphical quality and style, and the pure racing buzz, born of getting the balance between arcade and simulation just right. We realised were very fortunate to be starting out with such an accomplished base to build on, and our research actually helped us to feel comfortable with focusing on preserving these factors in the coin-op conversion, and not getting diverted into trying to emulate the more gimmicky elements we came across in some other titles.

My first experience with the game was way back in May, when I went to Sega Amusements Europe during the game’s testing phase. I was greeted by head R&D man Patrick Michael, who brought me through the showroom I had visited before for the Sega Rally 3 launch on the way to the office. Sitting down to chat about the game, I learned about the long history of the GRID project, and how the game had been going up until its location test. Speaking of the location test, the game had recently returned and it was one of those units that I’d be playing. The cabinet, pictured below, was not in its final design and used one slightly modified from Sega Racing Classic. Then came some bits on the game itself: all the cars are licensed, and you’ll be racing them on a number of licensed real-world circuits too. The handling has naturally been altered from the console release.

Hit the post break for the full story, with pictures and video!

Nattering over, we move into the showroom and I get on with the game. The game’s presentation is slick, to say the least – the camera sweeps over 3D menus as you choose your course and car. The order there is important, because you can’t just take any car onto a circuit in GRID. The game gives you a choice of four vehicles to challenge each circuit with, each of a specific car class. You can take supercars such as the McLaren F1 or the Bugatti Veyron out on Long Beach, but you’ll be unable to select them for earlier circuits such as Washington. I choose to play a single race with the Dodge Challenger, and end up doing rather well until an untimely crash forces me to hit the reset button.

Ah yes, the reset button. It’s around to return the player to a forward-facing position on the track. Hit it, and you’ll respawn and move off again. Of course, you’ll only want to do that after the most serious of crashes, as it’s a standing start. A simple feature, but one born from a big design change. One of the unique features of GRID on consoles was its Flashback feature, allowing the player to undo crashes and generally mess about with temporal matters usually reserved for a man in a blue police box. It turns out that this wasn’t going to work in the arcade game, and was discounted from very early on in the design process. Harrison explains:

Our designers floated some initial ideas for incorporating “flashbacks” in the arcade game, but when we sat down with SEGA to discuss them, we all felt that they detracted from the pure racing experience which we were aiming for. Flashbacks do interrupt the race flow, and even for experienced gamers it takes a couple of tries to get to grips with exactly how they work. Also, we decided early on to focus our efforts on features which arcade gamers love, like multiplayer and leaderboards. Flashbacks simply don’t work at all in multiplayer, and they complicate the leaderboard system because you have to start thinking about extra information on the leaderboard showing whether someone drove a flawless lap or leaned heavily on the flashback system… For these reasons the flashback system was discounted right back in pre-production, when we were putting together the game design document.

Of course, the Flashback was a part of Race Driver: GRID on home systems for a reason. Cars aren’t so easy to master, circuits are filled with hazards and if you leave the tarmac there’s not much in the way of grip. Without the ability to reverse time, catastrophic collisions would be totally game-wrecking events. Codemasters spent some time adjusting the experience for arcade gamers:

The flashback feature is a counterpoint to the way that GRID’s car handling and tracks are balanced. If you play the game on console or PC, you’ll notices that there are a lot of track-side hazards towards the edges of the play area. On the city tracks for example you’ll find small protruding tyre walls and kinks in barriers. On race circuits, you’ll notice the gravel and grass surfaces have far less grip than the tarmac track. When you are driving powerful rear-wheel drive cars at the limit, you’ll find that a small mistake can have disastrous, and (thanks to our EGO physics and damage systems) spectacular consequences! The flashback feature is a way to allow the driver to enjoy honing their skills and driving on the edge, with the safety net that if they lose control in a big way, they can rewind time. Take away flashback, and you also have to make the environment a bit less punishing. Fortunately, that was something that we had already banked on doing, because getting the most out of the GRID cars can take a bit of practice! So we also spent some time smoothing out some of the trackside objects and barriers, and reducing the tendency of the cars to spin when you put a wheel onto grass or gravel. We also added the reset button. This all came together to alter the game’s learning curve; you don’t have to spend so much time learning to get the car around the track safely, so you can focus on setting quicker times and beating your friends and the AI drivers!

With all that said, you might imagine that the experience would be pretty tame. However, the crashes can be pretty spectacular! Early circuits are still rather tightly walled, and the later high-difficulty cars get particularly hard to control. On the Milan circuit, you’ll find a particularly nasty roundabout which you might see wreckage-free once in a while. Maybe. If you’re in the lead. Rather excellently, and unusually for a game with real-world licenses involved, the cars all take damage and keep it.

After having my fill of Single Race practice, I decided to plunge into the Championship Mode. This takes the track plus four cars model of the single race mode and applies it to a three-race championship. The structure allows you to use different car classes for each race, culminating in supercar showdowns in the third race. This was a conscious choice on the part of the design team:

One thing that you’ll notice when you spend some time with GRID is that each car has its own distinct handling and performance characteristics. Our car handling designers are a very dedicated bunch of driving nuts, and they worked long and hard to emulate the real-world handling traits of each car. The GRID brand does appeal to petrolheads, so we felt it important to preserve this sense of integrity in the arcade port. So that meant having custom handling per vehicle, and splitting the cars into competitive classes just as we do in our console games. We knew that the muscle cars work really well in bumpy, twisty tracks like San Francisco, whereas with wide flowing tracks such as Donington or Nurburgring you get the most enjoyment driving the GT class cars. The Okutama track, at the end of the game, has to be experienced in a supercar! Of course we could have made the car class independent of the track selection, but we decided to tie each track to the most suitable car class because we want to offer the player the best experience possible, and also some sense of progression in Championship mode.

While you can advance through the mode easily by simply making the podium, the challenge lies in finishing first to unlock the extra courses, with the big prize being the aforementioned Okutama in the final race tier. It’s a rather terrifying Japanese circuit, which contains many deceptive corners and serves to greatly magnify the difference in player skill in multiplayer. I spent a fair amount of effort on Sega Rally 3 getting to Lakeside, and between the similar “grail” of Okutama and the increased number of circuits available in GRID’s Championship mode, players should be returning for quite some time.

Of course, I didn’t reach Okutama. Blimey, no. I struggled through to the second round and found myself having real difficulty passing Milan. My approach to pretty much any game is aggressive: I default to rushdown tactics in Street Fighter games, I play serve and volley characters in Virtua Tennis, and in GRID I was flinging cars around bends at speeds which were thoroughly insensible. But the approach was not paying off. Remember that roundabout I mentioned earlier? Total carnage, and my car was wearing the results. Crumpled panels aplenty, I was valiantly fighting for a qualifying position but got overtaken on the long, easy left towards the finish line. Did I need to slow down and stay clear of the concrete to maintain performance?

I think you were robbed there…

Oh. It just so happens that any damage your vehicle sustains is for display only, and doesn’t serve to hamper you as the race goes on. The culprit in speed loss mystery turned out to be an acceleration pedal in need of calibration. Starting again, having gained some practice in fighting through the pack with a handicap, I got through and finished on Spa-Francorchamps. I was satisfied with my performance (though I was playing on easy), but rather looking forward to playing the rest of the circuits. Job well done and a pat on the back all round, right?

No, not just yet. There was still a very important part of the game I had yet to try, the multiplayer. Attentive readers will notice that the photograph earlier in the article was a single cabinet, and question how I could do that. I didn’t know either! However, I joined the QA staff who were testing the mode in another room. Have you ever considered testing games as an occupation? It sounds almost like it isn’t work at all – getting paid to play games all day, games that are often shrouded in secrecy and unknown to the wider public. Well, that’s how it sounds to someone who hasn’t actually tested a game or seen how it’s done. It’s still a good job, but not the slacker’s paradise that people might imagine. The reality is that you’ll check every solid surface, disconnect controls on every menu screen, and write up reports on such glitzy bugs as an overly persistent “Press Start” message. And testing an arcade racing game, you may well find yourself doing it on something like this:

The testing staff are great, though. They were playing games and having fun, bug reports and repetition be damned. Especially that Friday – the end of the week is reserved for multiplayer testing, the relief after general single-player testing for most of the week. Laughter fills the room many times during the course of each race, especially in Milan (or when one player decides to drive the course in the wrong direction, causing an incredible pile-up). They were still looking for bugs, with each of the six testing rigs running a different language, but fun was not being crowded out by work. Here’s an example from the Detroit circuit:

Please note: The above video is of an incomplete version of GRID and contains some differences from the final version.

GRID supports up to six linked cabinets, and multiplayer races are run to the same rules as single player races. Choose a course, choose a car and battle five other racers for first place. The main difference is that the circuit choice is democratic this time around, with each player able to see the choices of the others after making their own. A game with less than six human players will add CPU cars to make up the numbers, a change from the original home release:

“Adjusting the networking system wasn’t trivial, because we needed to add AI players to the mix; in the original game, network games are for humans only. Fortunately, we mixed humans and AI in newer titles like F1 2010, so the problems had already been solved once before.”

In case you didn’t see the video, multiplayer is one of GRID’s key strengths. Races are fast and action-packed, with an upset possible at any moment of the race – it takes just one slip to totally change the running order. Thankfully, losing a lead is more likely to provoke laughter than irritation! However, it’s equally possible to make a comeback, and if you need any proof that the game rewards skill you should race one of the supercar courses against an experienced player, Okutama in particular.

Many, many races later we retreated for lunch. Everyone was of course chatting about games (particularly fondness for the Dreamcast, a common theme in my conversations), but the best revelation concerned the diet of a games tester. You might not be surprised that it involves lots of snacking! We’ve all done it with gaming sessions – you grab whatever is available close by. However, at one point in testing Patrick needed to be out of the office for a few days and stocked up the test room with a number of items. The usual snacks and such were inolved, but also a variety of fruit. Can you guess how that ended?

“We ate the pears!”

Zoom forward some months. The Sega launch event is in full swing, showing off GRID as the big centrepiece product. Six linked cabinets are present, now in their final designs, and I grabbed a seat. The game is just as I remember, but tightened and lacking the odd bugs that were present in my previous sessions. The music is still just right to race to, and the car still lifts when I go too mental on one particular corner (actually, that was the bit I’d forgotten – smash, reset). I push through Championship in short order, but I still don’t get Okutama. I’m clearly going to have to find somewhere with the game and spend some time with it. Well that’s the important bit, I enjoyed the game! But I naturally had to ask, was there anything else that the developers would have wanted in the game?

Once we all felt happy with the game design, we didn’t have too many regrets to be honest! We had settled on having six cars on track at once, to match the maximum number of connected cabs, whereas in hindsight it might have been nice to have tried having more AI drivers to fill out the grids a little. Also, since GRID was originally released on the home platforms we’ve put even more online features into our driving games DiRT2 and F1 2010, and so we have some nice ideas in this area – even just persistent worldwide leaderboards would be a good start. But I guess we’ll have to wait for the arcade infrastructures to catch up.

GRID cabinet

So there you have it! GRID is now ready to play, and that’s how it came to be. Many thanks once again to everyone who helped in the making of this article over the course of the year. Enjoy the additional screens below, and let us know what you think of the game in the comments or on the forums.

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