Melbourne House Q&A

We talk to the developer of the upcoming PlayStation 2 racer, Grand Prix Challenge.

We recently had the chance to talk to Andrew Carter, executive producer at Infogrames' internal development team Melbourne House, about the Australia-based developer's upcoming title, Grand Prix Challenge. The racer makes use of the F1 license and features some truly impressive visuals on the PlayStation 2. We had a chance to talk to Carter about Melbourne House's background and the game's development.

GameSpot: How long has the game been in development?

Grand Prix Challenge is just the latest in a very long line of games developed by Melbourne House.

Andrew Carter: From the concept to going gold it took us 18 months of development.

GS: How big is the team working on it?

AC: The size of the team varies during the development process. In the early stages we had around 24, but at the peak, towards the end of the project, we had around 40 staff working on Grand Prix Challenge.

GS: What other games have they worked on before?

AC: Over the years we have built up a very experienced racing team, and our racing engine is already fourth generation. Many of the core team worked on Dethkarz (PC), GP500 (PC), and Le Mans 24 Hours (Dreamcast).

GS: Could you give me some background on Melbourne House?

AC: Melbourne House is, in fact, one of the oldest development houses of the games industry. We released our first game in 1980 on the Sinclair ZX80. We actually developed under the name Beam Software and published using the Melbourne House brand. Over the past 22 years we have made many titles including The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Way of the Exploding Fist on all of the 8-bit home computers in the '80s; Star Wars on the NES, Super Smash TV and Shadowrun on the SNES, and Hunt for Red October on the Game Boy in the late '80s; KKND, Dethkarz, and GP500 on the PC in the '90s; and more recently 24 Hours Le Mans on the Dreamcast. Today we are part of the internal development force of Infogrames and have roughly 90 staff. As such we are focused on developing for PS2.

GS: Why did you decide to develop a racing game?

Melbourne House is aiming to make the "Gran Turismo of F1 games" with Grand Prix Challenge.

AC: Many of us here have a great passion for cars and motor racing. We love cars! Prior to making racing games we were inspired by some of the great arcade racers of the '90s. When the first amazing 3D hardware like Sega Model 2 and Model 3 appeared running games like Daytona and Sega Rally, we were really floored and amazed. We dreamed of being able to produce games with this kind of hardware, so when we found out that 3dfx were going to make high-spec 3D graphics cards for PC, it opened the door for us to begin creating high-end 3D racing games. Dethkarz was our first 3D game using 3dfx and was a high-speed, futuristic combat racing game with huge open vistas, sweeping curves, and great physics, not all that dissimilar in principle to what F-Zero has now become. We then went on to GP500 on the PC, which we made for MicroProse, then LeMans on the Dreamcast as part of Infogrames. Of course Grand Prix Challenge (GPC) is our latest game.

GS: Who are your inspirations in the development community? Why?

AC: For inspiration we look towards developers in Japan, more so than Western countries. Our inspirations are the likes of Polyphony with Gran Turismo and Sega's classic arcade racers. We also have a great respect for classic titles like Grand Prix Legends. We like games that are well made, with flair and fun, but with a depth not obvious at first. At the beginning of GPC we looked at other console F1 games and felt that they were very serious, restrained, and maybe boring. Also we felt that the handling, physics, and AI in existing games were very basic and not much fun. So our target was to make Grand Prix Challenge the Gran Turismo or Sega Rally of F1 games with the idea of capturing the feeling of those types of games in an F1 game. We think GPC truly captures the ferocious feeling, the exhilaration, and speed of racing an F1 car, but it has a hidden depth that takes time to realize.

GS: What do you think sets Grand Prix Challenge apart from other racers on the PS2?

The team wants to focus on physics, car handling, AI, and other aspects of most F1 games that the team feels are lacking.

AC: Working on the prestigious F1 license was a dream job for us here at Melbourne House. You know, our offices in Melbourne overlook the Australian Grand Prix track. Each year when the show comes to town it's an amazing feeling--the carnival of screaming engines--and the atmosphere is simply overwhelming. It's true, year after year there is a sea of Grand Prix titles out there, especially from Sony and EA. But honestly even with all those titles we haven't enjoyed playing an F1 game since the early days of PlayStation. To us as racing fans ("petrol heads" as we say in Australia) we feel these games are more like cleverly structured marketing packages with an emphasis on superficial features but little substance or real depth to the racing. For us these games are neither fun nor realistic, and it is a worry sometimes that game players may have a low opinion of F1 racing games because of this. From the beginning of GPC we set out to focus on this aspect of the game and to bring great car handling, great AI, and carefully balanced races, which are fun and provide for pit-stop and weather changes even in short length. Most of all we focused on making the game really fun and trying to move away from the stale, overly serious presentation of other F1 titles. Compared to other racing games, GPC really pushes PS2. It is very difficult to have 22 very detailed cars with full physics and AI simulation running on richly detailed tracks at a nonstop 60 frames per second with no slowdown. Achieving this with wet weather and replays was particularly challenging, and we don't know of any other title that manages this feat.

GS: What can you tell us about the game's graphics engine? What kind of performance are you getting out of the PlayStation 2?

GPC is really pushing the PS2 hardware, achieving a variety of graphical effects at 60 frames per second.

AC: When we started GPC we really set out to push the PS2 hardware. We wanted to achieve a level of graphical splendor at least equal to Gran Turismo but with the great effect of a 22-car racing field. This was very difficult. In the end it meant discovering a special graphics technique of PS2 that nobody else seems to yet know about. Basically it means we have almost twice the polygon and simulation capacity of any other PS2 title. Eye candy therefore is a big wow-factor in GPC. First the game runs at a constant 60 frames per second with zero slowdown ever. It also runs at double the resolution of many other PS2 titles. We have the most complete and detailed F1 car models (more than 11,000 polygons per raw car model, 20,000 polygons with multipass effects) running on the most complete and detailed F1 tracks (more than 500,000 polygons per track) yet. Add to this dynamic weather effects including variable-strength rain composed of up to 10,000 individual particles, sunny to wet transitions, dynamic environment mapping, per-pixel road lighting, and full-on wet-weather spray effects with all 22 cars generating up to 1,000 spray particles. We have multipass rendering for graphical effects such as reflection of real trackside environments and reflection on track surfaces. Actually there are tons of subtle and not-that-subtle effects in the game. It's "particle city" out there on the track! Achieving this with a full field of 22 cars at a nonstop 60fps is an achievement we are extremely proud of. Take a look at the stunning replay cameras--they are better than TV and show the full graphical beauty of GPC.

GS: Was it difficult to get this kind of performance out of the hardware?

AC: It was very difficult to be honest. There was slowdown in the game until the last days of development. There were times in the last few months of development when I didn't know for sure if we could solve all the technical hurdles. But in the end, each time we hit a wall with PS2 performance we found a new way of exploiting the hardware to make it go faster. That is really both the cool thing and sometimes the nightmare of PS2--there is always another way, another approach to get more from it. It can be very time consuming, and in the end the development schedule and our ingenuity are the only limitations.

GS: What have you learned about the PlayStation 2 hardware?

Melbourne House used its experience from previous games in crafting the feel of GPC's gameplay.

AC: There is always more on offer than seems to be the case at first. Discovering the right approach for the machine is much more important and specific than other platforms. Even the graphics, modeling and texturing need to be approached in a way that is unique for good results. For me it is a much cooler machine now than seemed to be the case when we first received its specs. Its flexibility and almost organic design means that there is always something new to try. However that means unique approaches to many things, and I think everything has to be made especially for the platform to get great results. The way that GPC runs at 60fps would not be an option on any other platform.

GS: How did you develop the handling and physics in the game?

AC: Well I guess we know what we like in racing games, and over the years we've evolved a strong understanding of what makes handling good and what makes it bad. We've evolved a lot of techniques from Dethkarz to GP500 to Le Mans, so GPC is the next step in that evolution. For each of the 22 cars in the field there is a sophisticated car simulation running that models all the key forces that act on a real car, so that is the basis in making it feel natural. The key with F1 is retaining a feeling of flexibility and fun in such a sensitive car. The ability for a player to push the car to the edge of its dynamics, then play with it there without loosing control too easily was important. The edge is like a rubber band that will snap if you push too hard, and it's just not fun if it snaps too easily or unrealistically. GPC has a slightly more flexible rubber band than a real F1 car, although the overall dynamics are very similar. We developed the physics engine and feeling in the handling throughout the entire GPC development schedule.

GS: What type of experience were you aiming to give players in a race? Why?

GPC mixes elements of arcade racing and simulation-style gameplay.

AC: GPC is ultimately the most sophisticated F1 simulator with very realistic physics and car simulation. However, it is deliberately presented in a way designed to evoke the sensation of an arcade game because that's our style--cool simulation. Our goal with the game was to bring gamers to F1 and F1 to gamers. So it offers a variety of car handling and AI levels, which provide the level of depth suitable for everybody from beginner to expert. Expert handling is simulation level--you are in charge of all handling aspects, and you choose between automatic or manual transmission and change antilock braking (on/off) and traction control (off/low/high) in real time during the race. Intermediate basically provides much more downforce on the car and has a bit less power. So it's much easier for intermediate players to go faster around the corners and is a good way to ramp up and become expert. As a novice you should choose beginner as your handling setup. The game will take care of automated braking, and traction control is switched on to avoid your car from spinning off the track. This allows you to concentrate 100 percent on steering and learning the track until you feel confident enough to take on more handling aspects of your car. On top of that, AI is individually selectable from four levels: easy, medium, expert, and a hidden ace mode. This basically controls the speed and aggressiveness of the other cars.

Grand Prix Challenge features the full variety of racing modes.

GS: Give us a brief rundown of the various modes the game will offer. What inspired the watch mode? How much customization are you letting players do? Was it challenging to make sure the game remained balanced in spite of whatever modifications players make?

AC: To begin with, you'll find the quick race mode, where you charge from the back of the grid to victory against the entire field of cars starting in 2002 grid positions. Grand Prix mode accurately reflects a real Grand Prix weekend. It provides great track previews that really capture the fantastic and unique feeling of each circuit in F1. You practice to tune your car and qualify to gain a high grid position; you can also watch other cars during qualifying. During the formation lap you set up your race strategy, and then the race begins. Championship mode provides the full season of 17 Grand Prix races where the aim is to become world champion. The idea of the Grand Prix Challenge mode is to introduce the player on a gradual level to ever more complex situations and challenges that F1 drivers face during the GP season. It's also a great way to learn to play GPC, as it is presented as a collection of mini GP seasons, which are initially not too long to play and provide simple racing conditions. It gradually ramps up to very long races with very tough and realistic racing conditions. In time trial mode you race against the clock with your best ghost lap displayed to race against. Your fastest lap for each circuit is automatically saved to a memory card. And finally there is multiplayer mode, where you race head-to-head on any of the 17 F1 tracks with a full Grand Prix weekend. This mode, as with all the others, allows players to set up many race options like race length from five laps to full distance, weather conditions, tire wear on/off, race rules on/off, damage on/off, etc. All these options are scaled to the chosen race length, so, for example, a 10-lap race simulates all these factors as if it were a full-length race, and pit strategy becomes key in even short races, if you want to.

GS: What are you proudest of about the game?

Melbourne House feels Grand Prix Challenge is one of the most balanced F1 games to date.

AC: We are most proud of the overall balance of the game and the overall feeling it provides during a race--we think the mix of simulation, handling, and finely tuned races and options combined with the visuals and sound make the game feel good. We are very proud of the fact that with superdetailed graphics and a full field of 22 cars at constant 60fps we are pushing PS2 very close to its technical limits. This definitely is a big achievement. Considering we run a field of 22 cars, we are not afraid of any comparison with the Gran Turismo series in that regard. We think GPC provides the best console F1 experience to date, and it's tuned for all skill levels from beginner to expert, from three laps to full race length, sunny or wet. Everyone who likes racing games should have lots of fun!

GS: Thanks for your time.

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