Design Project: Formula One

by Charles Vasey

This article aims to stir up some of the key issues that need to be included in a Formula One Grand Prix game. Its aim is therefore to cover the areas you would research rather than guessing at how you might design the game.

I would start a Grand Prix design by considering what I know about the sport, many of you will know much more. I have two personal sources; following the sport on TV and playing a number of computer games (which are driver rather than team games). These show me very little of the real world of team work (the recent TV series on McLaren helped here) but they do give me two very key factors EXCITEMENT and SPEED. These may seem obvious but I do not think they always come through in the typical boardgame. Many Grand Prix games do not seem very fast to me, far too much time is spent in thinking of what you can do when in reality you would be on to the next corner (or off the track). This is much as the great jet combat problem where there are two groups: the Real Timers (who use computers or the Nova Books) and the Thinkers (who play with all the decisive speed of a farmer considering crop rotation). The excitement comes out in a number of ways, not all easily simulated, certainly you can get colour, you cannot get the sound and smell (described to me by a business associate who has offices in Monaco and many storeys up still hears the noise through the multi-glazing), nor can you get the macho feel of the real thing with its attendant train of "bitches and a stretch limo" (yo!) and people desperate to be noticed. You can get some of it though, after all if Football Strategy can give you the gut-wrenching side of playcalling we need the same for Grand Prix. You prepare for three weeks and blow it in three seconds.

The above two features then need to be placed against the third factor DANGER. In a weekend where two drivers have died, one retired from Imola and two cars mashed on the start line I should be expected to raise this point. As with all design decisions you need to have a clear policy on realism. To many gamers Formula One is their chance to take it to the limit vicariously so the concept of some strong sanction is not there, spinning off is about it. However, the drivers face a much worse sanction, death and dismemberment. Novices apart (who charge because they have never had a Formula One crash) the true measure of these men is that they know the risk and still do it. So you as a designer need to decide whether you are going to try to simulate the realities of driving or the imagined glories. Let's face it chums I can think of very little glamorous about hours in a tiny cars, battered by G forces and with a crick in your neck. But we all think of Formula One as glamorous. This means there are two quite distinct ways of covering the topic, both with their own validity. My choice (for all it matters) is to try to impose the mental strain of driving on the gamers by lots of tough decisions, but to hold back too much on the pain.

So armed with these very subjective views I need a little more objectivity. I like to purchase those season reviews which contain some feature articles, team summaries and race summaries. Read one after the other these bring out common tends that might escape us in the season with races spaced apart by several weeks. These summaries also contain useful information on weather, numbers of retiring cars, reasons for retirements, give one a feel for the tracks (Hockenheim is a speed track, the Hungaroring is not for overtaking, etcetera). Finally one can compare one's researches with the current season (an especially interesting idea for the present season where different rules permit you to test the differences).

It is vital in your game that you decide what exactly you are doing. Multi-player driver, team owner, replay driver or whatever. This is not part of my brief for this article so I am going to shotgun the various factors I would look for, knowing that I would have to change these in any particular game. Let's start with a random list of things that strike me.

1. Speed: Yes, we established this one early. Not only is Formula 1 fast throughout the course of the race, but its key moments are undertaken at speed. Essentially you commit to a course and either win or lose. This suggests to me that in a multi-player game mutual playing of tactics cards is much better than each player taking his turn in sequence. Of course you would need to have these mutual plays "resolved" by some form of matrix. Here you need to decide whether you inflict accurate rates of attrition, or take into account the degree of charging found amongst players. Considering the bravado that vicarious sport engenders you need to penalise persistent chargers with a black flag ban.

2. Overtaking: lots of games seem to work with one car moving and the others sitting still (waiting for their turn) so that there is, visually, a constant process of overtaking. Yet we know that this is nonsense in the real thing. All cars are moving, but some are moving relatively faster. But no matter how fast they move they need opportunities to pass cars in front. Many races seem to be a matter of a number of key duels for the elusive overtaking opportunity (as most computer games show, finding an overtaking spot on some courses is a matter of one chance per lap). So as a broad rule for a tactical game the player in front always moves first, with the player behind trying to get the ooomph to pass him. The inevitable progress of the race leader being impeded by "traffic" at times trying to move "first" as well (a big hello to Andrea de Cesaris).

3. Relative Movement: The matrix layout of The Tour with relative movements is an interesting model for Formula 1. However, we all do like to see the courses even if the detail is reduced. Part of the excitement is the differences between the courses, and the names of the various corners and chicanes. So any designer who wants to improve on the Speed Circuit three times round the board stuff is going to have merge the relative movement with position on the track. But he will also want to avoid a seventy lap race. Careful review of the race descriptions often shows a lot of "processional" driving with occasional crises. We need to simulate more of the latter and less of the former.

4. Tactics: Tyres can be of great importance as can be pit-stops (which are one of the best overtaking opportunities) and the new refuelling stops. These can win races and should be dealt with, either in detail or thrown up by the chrome of the game.

5. Technology; This may be less pronounced in 1994 but in 1993 there was an interesting effect in many races. The technologically better cars were of a different order of speed. If they failed to finish it was because all that technology, when it went, went completely (known as "crash by wire"). The technologically poor cars went pop because they tried to compensate for the lack of oomph by aggression. So they tended to go out in a blaze of glory. The poor cars that just kept driving could survive and win in a tough Grand Prix (unless Murray Walker spotted them).

6. Engines: Part of the season "game" is securing good engines and chassis, but then not knowing how they will do for the first few races, followed by an attempt to increase leads or catch up on leaders (a sort of technical race across the entire season).

7. Courses: Each course has its individual features but these can be abstracted to give some measure of "overtakability", speed and damage to engines. My summary of the 1993 Grandes Prix suggests ten of sixteen were hot and sunny. The rest included some wet or changeable conditions which helps certain cars more than others.

8. Loss Rates: in 1993 the worst race saw 19 retirements and the best only 8, but that is still a fair rate of attrition. It can be handled by individual laps or by taking losses in "stages". The Metric Mile concepts of a number of stages of different length is worth considering, although I think the last stage is not necessarily the most active. The first corner can often be a key area.

9. Qualification: Because of the overtaking factor this is a very important area in determining winners. It is also a matter of a number of bidding rounds rather than a simultaneous race, so that one can introduce a degree of play decision if time allows.

10. Drivers: Even if you race as yourself in your Jaloweicka-Ford you are going to face all the other kinds of drivers: chargers, plodders, miscalculators, lane-louts and Eddie Irvine. You might want to introduce some of this colour in achieving those loss rates (and in trading drivers).

11. Colour: You really do need to emphasise the colour. The team cars in their (changing) livery are very much part of the sport and it would not be Formula 1 without the red of Ferrari.

12. Endurance: How often does Murray Walker start boosting Johnnie Herbert only for the poor lad to get pranged in the penultimate lap. A game on the topic must have enough length to make you feel aggrieved if you survive five rounds of "combat" and go out on the sixth.

13. Music; It is a requirement that the Fleetwood Mac tune be kazooed by all players at the start of the game (air guitars are also allowed).

14. Relative Quality: You can have average cars in Formula 1, but if it is to be the real thing you need winners and losers. This gives plenty of opportunity for the bidding mechanisms to handicap the teams and we already have a fantasy league in one of the motor-sport magazines.

I am sure there are more topics that need mentioning but these ones keep coming up in my reading, and if you only simulated these in your game design I think it would be pretty impressive. Of course the true skill comes in mixing these elements to achieve the correct mixture for your tastes, I hope that you will bear in mind the need not to go far beyond real time for the race (if you want a race a session game) or a much briefer mechanism for an entire season a session.

The latest season has offered much more room for all teams to win, place or show. The pit-stop techniques are already being developed with the two-stop but slower school playing the three- stop but lighter boys. The technological elements are muted but still present. Berger clearly was very pleased to get his Ferrari home second recently because it was not in the same league (yet) as certain others. Gentlemen start your engines.

Charles Vasey

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