GRID Autosport – Interview with the Chief Games Designer

GRID Autosport Q&A Interview
Interviewee: James Nicholls, Chief Games Designer on GRID at Codemasters

Being a massive racing fan and having loved the experience I received from the GRID series thus far, I was absolutely jumping with joy when first learning of GRID Autosport. Codemasters’ next entry in the GRID series is set to release this June, and to learn more about the game I had the opportunity to interview James Nicholls, Chief Games Designer on GRID. Below you’ll find discussions on how the competition in GRID Autosport gets personal with rivals and how the sense of atmosphere builds up the overall race day experience in the game. Most importantly, you’ll learn all the reasons why you should be excited for this title’s release next month.

Let the race begin!

Andrew Stevens (FB): It’s mentioned that GRID Autosport is set to be a more authentic racing game, yet it’s still meant to be a game instead of a simulation. What feeling will the player get when they take that first corner and then finish their first lap?

James Nicholls (JN): Hopefully that rush that comes with feeling like you’re actually racing against other drivers! It’s such an adrenaline spike! I think what’s unique with GRID is that you know your car can be damaged, and you’re competing with the other drivers on the track, so that first corner is about split-second decisions and that first lap is about making sure you’re still in touch with the leaders whilst not taking damage to your car. That’s the experience we create so well, and it’s actually a good example of how we focus on a game about racing, as opposed to being a simulator.


FB: I’m one that came to love the series based on GRID 2, having not played the original GRID until after playing the second. I love the feel of the vehicles in GRID 2, but also enjoyed the more fluid and lively motion of the cars in the original. Looking at the trailer for GRID Autosport, it looks like some vehicles may have more of a lively motion to them, especially when turning corners.

In terms of gameplay and driving sensation, how does GRID Autosport compare to GRID and GRID 2? It’s mentioned that it goes back to a more authentic handling style. Just how different will it be?

JN: It’s quite, quite different from GRID 2, and it’s ever so slightly more towards the simulation end of the spectrum than GRID 1, plus the actual car handling and simulation is more detailed than GRID 1. The three games share the series’ “All about the race” DNA, but the experiences have changed each time. Driving-wise, the key thing we’re really happy with in GRID Autosport is the way that the grip falls away when you’re right on the limit. That lets you “catch” the car if you’ve put too much throttle down too early, for example, because you get just enough warning that the car is about to lose traction. That said, we’ve made sure that there are lots of assistance options available so that players of all experiences can enjoy the game. In the above example, traction control would prevent the wheelspin from causing you to lose control of the car, at the expense of being a little slower than a skilled player who applied the throttle gradually.

FB: How should the casual gamer look at GRID Autosport compared to the hardcore fan of the series? What’s going to attract them to the game besides the beautiful cars?

JN: If you’re a more casual gamer, you should play GRID because it captures the experience of being a racing driver, without you needing years of track experience. GRID tries to capture the intensity of what it’s like to be in a car on a race day, and sets up the competition with other drivers in a way that no other game does. For us, it’s not about the cars or the track anywhere near as much as it’s about the competition between rival racing drivers.
If you’re a bit daunted by the prospect of diving into a fairly authentic racing game, then you should be assured that you can layer on a lot of assistance to really help you get going, and gradually turn off layers of assists until you’re racing like a pro. You still get the same career structure and racing experience as everyone else.


FB: What choices did you make or not make in GRID 2 that’s influencing the decisions made in GRID Autosport?

JN: I think they’re two quite different games, with different goals in mind. We accomplished what we wanted to achieve with GRID 2 by bringing the game to a wider group of people than we’ve reached before. However, our fans were very clear that we’d moved too far away from what they love about Codemasters Racing games and the GRID series in particular, and our community clearly told us that they were missing the feeling of racing from an in-car view, and competing in motorsports from across the globe, amongst many, many other things.
Ironically, probably the biggest GRID 2 decision that influenced this game was deciding to do the patching program we ran at the end of the game, adding fixes to the game and responding to some of the feedback we heard from our community. It was that process and the feedback we were getting that convinced us to do another GRID game with the existing technology, and team we had ready to go. Whilst we certainly couldn’t hit everything that our fans wanted straight away, I think GRID Autosport really recaptures that GRID magic of feeling like a racing driver, and hopefully provides our fans with the experience they’ve been longing for so many years!

FB: What will racing fans appreciate most about GRID Autosport?

JN: I think probably the range of racing styles in the game. We have these five disciplines: Touring Car, Endurance, Open Wheel, Tuner (Time Attack and Drift) and Street Racing. Each of them has unique AI and a unique racing style and strategy you need to master. These five disciplines cover most of the popular contemporary motorsports, and we’ve really carefully selected cars and tracks that back that up. It’s the biggest amount of content we’ve put in any GRID game, with over 22 locations and over 100 routes, but the focus is on quality over quantity. If you look at the Touring Cars we announced recently, we’ve really worked hard to license cars that represent most of the popular touring series right now, as well as mixing in some classic experiences. You’ll see that same strategy applied to each of the other disciplines as we reveal those soon!

We worked with our community when building this game, and what they told us is that even the most simulation-minded amongst them looked to GRID to provide an adrenaline rush and a refreshing change from the drier, serious simulators. I honestly believe we’ve captured the racing aspect to a remarkable level in this game, and I’m especially proud of the work our AI programmers and designers have done on the different AI in the racing disciplines, because they make the races feel so human-like and organic.


FB: GRID 2 is a really beautiful game on PC, one of my favorites from last year. How much have the graphics been enhanced or tweaked with GRID Autosport?

JN: For the PC, we’ve continued to push things forward this year. We’ve been working with Intel to make sure we add new top-end features, but, interestingly, also make sure the game is well optimized to run on a range of PC devices. We’ve added 4K resolution textures to the PC version, as well as some cool procedural grass and ground covering, overhauled lighting and more to this year’s version, so we’ve not been standing still in that regard.

Across all three platforms, we have also been spending effort squeezing and optimizing performance to make sure we can do the all important additions for a motorsports focused game. We’ve got the grid size up to 16 cars for single player racing, which has been quite an engineering feat, and by adding an internal camera view again; we’ve had to push further optimization work to keep the framerate solid when you’re looking out at the game world through the glass.

For the interior camera views – of which there are two – we took inspiration from some of the modders who patched in an internal camera view into GRID 2. Basically we’ve created a kind of “depth of field” effect, which looks like the road and the environment are in focus and the car cockpit is out of focus. It’s really atmospheric, and it draws your eye to the road and gives you that experience of “flow” in intense races.


FB: 22 locations with over 100 routes, that sounds exciting! How did you approach the atmosphere of each location? Will it be just another place to drive or will each location speak to the player?

JN: Our environment, audio and level design teams really are some of the best in the business, and they take enormous pride in our locations. We’ve not just gone for the obvious racing locations in GRID Autosport, we’ve tried to really find and create great racing arenas to compete with other drivers, and also make sure we’ve got the right blend of locations to support each of the five styles of racing. Our full location list is going to surprise and delight racing fans!

Each location has a unique atmosphere and lighting, and what our environment art team does so well is create a sense of place and a sense of a race day atmosphere. This is everything from the track-side grandstands and circuit infields, to the particle effects, the crowd and even the commentator speech you can hear through the speakers beside the track! Most racing games don’t put much emphasis on this, but we take huge pride in these details because they help immerse you in the race itself – they help you believe that you’re actually there racing. There’s nothing worse for killing your immersion than looking at a gazillion polygon car, only to look around and feel no atmosphere or sense of place.

The actual racing locations are an amazing mix of real world racing circuits, fictional circuits through cities and a few fictional racing tracks that we’ve created ourselves. We’ve got a really nice balance of locations that were fan favorites in previous GRID games, as well as new locations for this game.

Bear in mind that you can race practically any car on any location and route in the game in custom cup and online racing, and you’re really not going to run out of racing experiences in this game!

FB: Just how open and more detailed is the career mode? I like the ability to be able to practice and qualify beforehand on unfamiliar tracks.

JN: Yes, we wanted to create the sense of how each of the motorsports was different from each other, so we made sure that we created the same kind of experience you get from a race weekend on one of those sports. So, for example, in Touring Cars, you get to practice first and try out your car setup (we’ve added tuning and upgrades to this game too!). Then you get a one-shot, three-lap qualifying run to set your fastest time and define the grid order in the first race. Then in the second race at the location, the grid order will be the reverse of the first race finishing positions.

The five disciplines are all open from the outset, and you can play any of them in any order, to maximize your freedom through the game. We’re pitching the career mode as a kind of fantasy racing driver’s career, so you get offers from different teams to race for them for a season, based on your previous performances. Each season the team you’re contracted with will set a goal for you to hit, and you’ll have to try and hit that over the course of several races. You’ll have a team-mate with you on track, and you can request his or her help in hitting your goals, via your team engineer.

This creates the kind of experiences that real racing drivers have all the time, where, perhaps finishing 5th in a race or securing a solid tactical result alongside your team mate may be every bit as valuable as finishing on the podium. We also let the drama play out on the track in terms of other racing drivers. We’ll pick a rival for you in each event, who will usually be the driver standing between you and your goal. You’ll often find as the season progresses that it’s the same name coming up again and again, and that’s where the competition gets personal, which is what racing is all about!

FB: How exciting is it to work closely with your core community and how anxious is the team to see the overall feedback from the community once the game releases on June 24th?

JN: It’s been one of the best experiences of my career so far working directly with our community on this game. The best part was getting a large group of community members in, in secret, November last year to show them the game, get their feedback and also show them what we were planning. The feedback was so positive, and every time we show off more of the game, we get this fantastic, positive response.

The team is actually really excited about getting this game in our community’s hands, and obviously that will be the point at which we’ll be listening and responding to the feedback we get.

FB: Curious, do Live Routes make a return?

JN: No, we decided to park Live Routes for this game, as we were focusing on more authentic motorsports in this title. It’s a really great piece of technology though, and we’ve already done some crazy experiments with it since GRID 2. No doubt we’ll look at it again after GRID Autosport.

FB: I love racing games, so I’m happy with whatever direction you take, but having more racing games is always better! This year we have GRID Autosport, so maybe next year we’ll have GRID: World Series Racing. One is more hardcore while the other takes the turn to a more arcade style.

JN: Hah! I think we all want to focus on getting GRID Autosport right, that’s the key for us! I’m sure our fans and our dedicated community will have heaps of things they want us to do with the game and with the series once they get their hands on the game, and no doubt they’ll inspire us again to push harder, and aim for more, both with improvements to Autosport but also whatever comes next.

FB: Is this something you’ve thought about before? What do you think about this idea?

JN: I think it’s easy to forget that Codemasters isn’t the size of the EAs, Activisions and Ubisofts of this world. I’m immensely proud of our team, because we consistently punch well above our weight when it comes to delivering AAA racing experiences with a fraction of the resources available to other developers. Between Southam Racing Studio and our Birmingham Studio, we already straddle the GRID, DiRT and F1 series, so we’ve got a lot to be keeping us busy!
After GRID Autosport, we’ll see – I’m looking forward to tackling the question of “what does ‘next-generation’ mean for racing?”

FB: Do you have any final words for fans of the series and those who have yet to experience GRID?

JN: For fans of the series, thank you for your feedback and support. The team is working so hard to make sure that Autosport goes a long way to answering your wishes. You’ve helped shape this game, and you’re pushing us to make this game worthy of the GRID name. Nothing energizes us more than hearing someone excited about what we’re doing, or thanking us for what we’ve done, and it drives us to push for more.

For those who’ve yet to try GRID, here are just two reasons you should be interested. Firstly, we’re a videogame about racing, not a driving simulator. As such, we’re trying to re-create that primal desire to race and compete with others, and it creates a very different experience to most other driving games and driving simulators. Secondly, I’d say that this is a videogame, and it’s balanced and tuned as one, and one which you can tailor the challenge to your skill level at all times. Whether you are into cars or not, this is still a fantastic gaming experience. Who knows? Perhaps this will be where you get the motorsports bug!


Thank you, James, for taking the time to answer my questions and sharing more information with us on GRID Autosport.

GRID Autosport is a game I’m heavily interested in; therefore you’ll see plenty more coverage in the coming days, which includes a preview of the game and personal gameplay footage. I’m fairly confident that no one will want to miss out on how well my aggressive style of racing mixes into the world of GRID Autosport. Just sayin’!

Check back soon or follow me on Twitter.

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