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How F1 2023 has better balanced the handling conundrum of racing games

As the graphics of Formula 1 computer games have become ever more impressive in recent years, the demands for car handling to be as real-world as possible have ramped up too. But this has left game developers with a bit of a conundrum.  

On the one hand, they want to produce a car that feels real and challenging to the hardcore sim-racers, but if they do that too well then it risks alienating the casual gamer who just wants to jump in and have some immediate fun. 

It's a balancing act that the official F1 games have had to tread in recent years, and it's something that was central to one of the big changes made to this year's F1 2023 release. 

As part of a concerted effort by game developers Electronic Arts, a new handling model was introduced to help the game's cars feel both more stable and more realistic – pleasing both sides of the audience. 

As F1 2023's senior creative director, Lee Mather told Motorsport.com: "There was a significant amount of work done to achieve what sounded like a fairly simple goal. 

"There was a point where we were discussing areas of the handling that we felt were weak, not just in terms of the tech, but also in terms of the experience that the players had.  

"It's very easy to get caught up in: 'Oh, this is really cool tech, let's develop that.' But then you have to think what is the end goal of making that change?  

"The brief that was given to the handling team was stability. We wanted a car that was stable, easier to drive, and, when it's at its best, is a very easy car to drive." 

F1 2023 rendering

F1 2023 rendering

Photo by: Electronic Arts

Having an F1 car that feels easier to drive at its peak may seem a bit counterintuitive for a game that wants to challenge its best players, but Mather says it is actually a step closer to realism. 

"As a driver would always say, an F1 car at its best is easy to drive relative to what they are used is," he explained. 

"Obviously that's a different feeling for a player, but obviously, they still need to feel like a hero. So, when you get into a qualifying trim on the best tyres on a clean track, which is relatively rubbered in from previous sessions, it should feel great and it should feel stable.  

"Then that gives us the opportunity, as the tyres wear, as the marbles build up, and as rain transitions in, to give the player the feeling of that going away, but the car still being controllable." 

Traction and inertia 

One of the criticisms of previous F1 titles was the way the cars seemed to snap away in an instant when they lost grip – especially under acceleration if players got too greedy with the throttle. 

Rather than a bit of extra wheelspin being something that could be corrected, players would find that the whole rear end totally went away, spinning them around or off the track before they knew it. 

Mather explained that a lot of work went into F1 2023 to address this and make the tyre model a lot more realistic. 

Rendering from F1 2023

Rendering from F1 2023

"One of the biggest complaints I'd say we had was that traction was a problem in previous games," he said.  

"It was not just the way that the traction came and went, but the impact on the car, how it rotated – so the lateral grip went completely as well as the longitudinal.  

"We did a lot of work on the tyre model to adjust this relationship, so if you get wheelspin, you don't get drive forward, but you don't also lose complete control of the car laterally. It doesn't just go sideways. 

"This is the sort of thing our physics guys are very good at, as obviously there's a rotating mass there as well with the wheel and tyre, and we've done a lot of work on inertia there. 

"We also did similar with the rotation of the body of the car, and how willing it is to rotate. You've always got the balancing act of a car that rotates in a more cumbersome way is obviously easier to drive, because it's slow to go into a slide. But that's not realistic, it's not fun and it's not engaging.  

"But if you have a car that's as direct and as snappy as you would expect, the counter is it's very hard to catch as well. So, amongst those things, we also worked on the relationship between aerodynamic grip and traction from the tyres." 

Help came from an external source too, as data provided by the Mercedes team allowed Mather's team to better line up the performance profile of the F1 2023 car with the real-world thing. 

F1 2023 rendering

F1 2023 rendering

Photo by: Electronic Arts

"We were able to compare it with some overlays that Mercedes were happy to share with us," he said. 

"We could see where our car was stronger in areas of traction, in terms of cornering speeds, and where the lap time was being delivered in the wrong way, whether it was tyre grip or aero. So, we were able to re-balance that as well.  

"With all those things, it gave us a really stable handling model." 

The sim versus game debate 

Having driven an F1-level sim, the handling model of F1 2023 is certainly the closest the game's franchise has come yet to mirroring the experience of real-world F1 car dynamics - even if they remain very different. 

Critical perhaps is that the car performs as you would expect it to; there are no weird driving quirks, impossible-to-correct slides or bizarre spinning-on-a-dime events. 

But there is definitely a greater comfort zone at play in F1 2023 that doesn't exist in the real sims. It's not as brutal to drive, it isn't an animal to handle over kerbs and bumps, and there isn't that intensity of hanging on for dear life as you battle on the edge of adhesion. 

Mather says his own experience of an F1 sim made him understand the nuances well between a simulator and a game – as he said the priority for him is in producing something that players should enjoy. 

F1 2023 rendering

F1 2023 rendering

Photo by: Electronic Arts

"I was miles off Jenson's time, but I was able to get around the circuit quite comfortably," he said. "That was because the relationship between what gear I should be in for each of those corners was very, very close to the game. And today, it's so much closer so I think it would be even easier. 

"So, it wasn't difficult to navigate the circuit but, as I started pushing, obviously, the incidents came. And I think that's what we look for. We look for that sweet spot where the players, in that midpoint, they can race and enjoy and really play and get a great experience.  

"Then, for the players at the real extreme end of the scale, when they start looking for those absolute tenths, that's where obviously the pressure comes in and the mistakes come in. And I think the handling model allows for that as well." 

For McLaren's Lando Norris, one of the best-qualified drivers in terms of comparing games, simulators and actual F1 cars, it is clear that playing F1 on a console is never going to be like the real thing.  

"The games are so easy and nice," he says. "There are no bumps and there are kerbs you can just drive over, so we can go a lot quicker in the game. But it is getting there." 

But this clear divide between a game and a simulator/the real thing is nothing to be ashamed of – as they are targeting completely different things.  

Norris added: "There are games, and you have actual simulation programmes, and there's a big difference between these two. 

"One is it is a game and it's meant to make you happy and enjoy it. And it's not often that you enjoy driving on a simulator because it's a very different experience. You're actually driving it rather than just playing it."  

Lando Norris, McLaren, on the grid with his engineer

Lando Norris, McLaren, on the grid with his engineer

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Mather says that the feedback he has had from Norris – knowing that F1 2023 is not designed to be a 100% simulator – has been encouraging. 

"His feedback was really positive hearing him talk about the game," he said. "Obviously he's compared it to iRacing and rFactor, which are PC-specific titles and cater to a different audience. But we were really pleased with the comments he made because they were highlighting the areas that we felt we'd improved significantly.  

"We also get a huge amount of feedback from the professional Esports drivers. But that's an area where we have to be cautious about what we do and don't do, because it could completely alienate the audience.  

"But we do build a very well-structured game in that if you turn all the assists off and you play 100% race distance, you get a very, very authentic F1 experience. And if you play with traction control, ABS, dynamic racing line, and steering assist, you can play even if you've never played a racing game before."

Looking to the future 

While feedback from players on the F1 2023 handling model changes has been positive, Mather says his team will not simply sit back and think that is job done. 

Work will continue on fine-tuning how the game cars produce their lap time so that they are as in line with the real world as possible. 

F1 2023 rendering

F1 2023 rendering

Photo by: Electronic Arts

And he suggests that further progress on improving things will come as console technology moves on, and efforts can focus on the latest generation models. 

"The starting point is always simulating something as realistically as possible," he said. "To have that car generate its lap time in the same way that an F1 car does requires us to simulate at an incredibly high level.  

"And where a game such as ours maybe is behind some of the PC-specific titles is in things like the fidelity of the tyre model, the ability to sample track surfaces at such an incredible rate that a PC can, and we are running a huge amount of capacity to have such intelligent AI opposition. 

"But we are always further developing our tech. We're currently working on suspension for next year and things like that, so physics is an ongoing development.  

"It's a constantly moving goalpost because, as we drop generations of hardware as well, more performance becomes available to us and we can focus on doing things in a most performant way."

For Mather, critical to the success of the F1 franchise is in producing cars that are both enjoyable and challenging to drive, but without making them so difficult to handle that they alienate much of the audience. 

He cites one of the key messages that has come from Sky F1 pundit and former driver Anthony Davidson, who has helped consult on the F1 games for many years. 

"Because he's still a live sim driver for Mercedes, he's able to give really strong feedback," said Mather. 

"And something he said from the very beginning is that to an F1 driver, an F1 car is easy to drive. A player shouldn't feel a poor driver because the game is overly difficult for them. 

"Our game in the past was perceived as unrealistically overly difficult, but without some of the positives that come with that challenge. I think that's something we've balanced out really nicely this year."

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