Paul Coleman… On Dirt 4, the WRC, and the Love of Rally!

I think you’ll enjoy this one. This past week, Paul Coleman from Codemasters was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the new Dirt 4 as well as the WRC and rallying in general. This was a very busy week for Paul involving traveling to the opening round of the World Rallycross Championship in Barcelona to promote Dirt 4. The fact that he was still willing to take the time for this interview it a testament to his dedication to the rallying community. I hope that after reading this piece, you’ll realize just how much potential Dirt 4 has for us “hardcore” rally fans. I also hope that you’ll see that Paul is just as much as a rally enthusiast as the rest of us, and we are so lucky to have a guy like him leading the development of the best rally video game series out there.

WRB: Paul, thank you for taking the time for this interview. We’re here to talk about DiRT 4, so let’s jump right in! There’s been a lot of media and information flying around about the new game for the past few months now. We’ve heard a lot about “Your Stage”, and it looks fantastic. We’ll get into that in a little bit, but for starters, what about DiRT 4 as a whole do you think will excite the rally enthusiast?

PC: Hey, no problem. I think if you look beyond the key innovation of Your Stage the thing that will excite the rally enthusiast the most is the new career mode. You start with a test session in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta R2, then head to DirtFish Rally School to learn basic and advanced driving techniques before you embark on your professional rally career. I think the fact that you are following the type of introduction into the sport that is in keeping with the way that most start their rally career gives the game a much more rounded experience.

WRB: That sounds like a really cool improvement from Dirt Rally, can’t wait to try it out! Alright, everyone wants to hear about “Your Stage”. There is no doubt that this is a genre-defining feature. We’ve seen some videos of this in action and it is really intriguing, but the skeptic in me still has questions. With only 5 current locations, how would you reassure us that the stages will continue to feel fresh and interesting even though the landscape and scenery might be similar within an individual location?

PC: I guess the ultimate proof will be in the feedback we get from players once the game goes live but internally we feel that we have taken a significant leap towards ensuring that the experience of driving a rally stage with your co driver calling the notes is closer than it has ever been before. Previously we were limited to around 12 unique stages through the entire game. That meant that the player was running the same stretch of road over and over again throughout all of the different game modes.N ow we can curate tracks all the way through the career and ensure that the challenge is appropriate for where the player has progressed to. It also means that those players who like to compete with one another online can do it on fresh tracks. It is going to be really interesting to see how our fans react to this and I am really looking forward to seeing the results.

WRB: In our review of DiRT Rally, we said that the stages were absolutely a work of art, but when driving through them, it felt like we were driving through a static world… almost a snapshot in time. What has been done to make the stages feel more alive and dynamic when you’re on them?

PC: We’ve taken big steps forward with our lighting and weather tech to ensure that the stages really feel a lot more atmospheric and immersive. Now that we have a much bigger variety of lighting conditions we are also able to do a lot more with our weather. That means that your place on the running order will determine what weather you’ll receive while you are out on stage. In fact you’ll find that weather events like a heavy rain shower can disperse while you are mid stage. We’ve also added more moments into our stages that should help make each stage feel a lot more alive than the stages in DiRT Rally.

WRB: Another thing that we noticed about DiRT Rally was that at times, it felt like a “library” of notable rally cars and famous stretches of road, but it didn’t convey the atmosphere of being in an event. Now… I’m not asking for 50km road sections between stages, but what things has DiRT 4 done to convey the feeling of taking part in a real-life rally instead of just driving a car down a rally stage? What kind of “atmospheric” touches have you added to increase the immersion?

PC: We’ve made a lot more of the ‘wrapper’ that sits around a stage to ensure that the atmosphere you get at an event pervades throughout the game. We’ve got a full service area so that you can see your car in service while you apply set-up tweaks or carry out your repairs. At the start of the stage we show you driving up to the marshal and stopping at the start line. At the end of a stage you cross the flying finish and then it is up to you to slow the car down and pull up to the marshal to get your stage time. They are all small little things but they make a huge difference to the way the game feels as you go from stage to stage.

WRB: I know that you can’t talk much about specific cars due to licensing negotiations, but as a whole, how would say the cars feel different and better than DiRT Rally? This could be with anything… sound, physics, visuals…

PC: We’ve made a lot of improvements to the simulation but nothing as profound as the changes we made for DiRT Rally. Everything we have done in the simulation engine of DiRT 4 has been a refinement and the end result is that the cars are much more predictable. A lot of this has come from work on the chassis, suspension, aerodynamics and tyre models but we’ve also done some work on the surface modelling as that goes hand in hand with the way that we model the tyres. One of the biggest additions to DiRT 4 is our gamer handling. This has been designed for players that want to experience rallying without necessarily having the time or knowledge to be able to control the car when it is in full simulation mode. We see this as a really great gateway into the sport for people and I hope it helps those players that were perhaps turned off by the perceived difficulty of DiRT Rally get to grips with the game and therefore the sport.

WRB: Let’s step away from the game for a moment and just talk rally! Those of us who have followed you and Dirt Rally will know that you have been involved in the sport as a co-driver for a few years. I’m curious, what is it about rallying that got you sucked into the sport and what do you love so much about it that keeps you interested?

PC: It actually started with my Dad having a Lancia Delta. He’d take me to the dealership and the sales team would load me up with posters and brochures. As a result my bedroom walls were covered with images of 037s, S4s and Delta Integrales. As I grew up I think I watched more Formula 1 but I’d always watch any Rally coverage when it was on TV. Then Colin McRae arrived on the scene and I started to follow things more closely as well as playing the first Colin McRae Rally game. That led me into trying to get a job in games, specifically to work on the franchise. It’s gone full circle now, and I am getting to compete as a co driver in local rallies. That firsthand experience has fueled my passion for the sport and I feel duty bound to make the best representation of rally possible with DiRT.

WRB: There’s been a lot of hype about the new cars in the WRC this season. As a fan, what do you think of these new cars? Are they too much… not enough… or just what the championship needed?

PC: It’s a really good question. I think the cars are more exciting and they are demanding more from the drivers. They also sound great which in my opinion is a very important part of experience. Whether it is what the championship needed is yet to be seen because, right now, it could be argued that it is the fact that VW are no longer competing that has leveled playing field a bit. I’m excited to see where things go next and how the teams develop into the new rules but three winners from three manufacturers in the first three round of the championship has definitely made things a lot more open then they have been in recent years.

WRB: The results certainly have been pretty interesting 3 rounds into this season! What are your thoughts about how things have played out so far? Anything that has surprised you? Any bold predictions for the rest of the season?

PC: I was actually expecting Citroen to be quicker and I wasn’t expecting Hyundai to be as fast as they were. My only prediction for the rest of the season is that we are going to have more winners and that it will be one of the closest championships for both drivers and manufacturers than we have see for a long time. I realise that is probably not the most profound answer but I really think it’s going to be too close to call.

WRB: The WRC seems to have gotten a shot in the arm with the new cars and Red Bull TV, but there’s a whole lot more to the sport than just the WRC. What are your feelings about the sport as a whole at this moment in time? Do you think that the discipline of rallying in a good place currently?

PC: I’m actually worried for the sport. Certainly in the UK the cost of running an event has gone up and those costs are getting passed onto the entrants. With very little sponsorship it is becoming less and less affordable. With less grass roots competitions, there will less talent getting into the sport and so the elite level will ultimately suffer. It’s where I think we can help. By creating a realistic virtual experience we can introduce more people to the sport without the immense cost. We can also help by giving a platform for virtual competition providing an alternative talent pool from which people can graduate into the sport for real.

WRB: For a long time, motorsport organizations have seen video games as a just a “promotional check in the box”. This has resulted in some pretty sub-par releases over the years. Do you see this changing as we move forward? Will the changing landscape of how people consume motorsport content force sanctioning bodies to invest more time, effort, and money in pursuing quality video games?

PC: I hope so. Our relationship with the FIA World Rallycross Championship and IMG has shown that there is definitely a better way of doing things. I hope that some of the other championships out there are looking at that relationship and how positive it is.

WRB: Is there anything about rallying that you think lends itself to video games… perhaps even more than other forms of motorsport?

PC: I think there is. There was a great quote from the creator of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami, in an interview he did with the Guardian newspaper a few years ago where he said “The Colin McRae games on the PlayStation – they got very close to the survival horror structure.” I think that he hit the nail on the head with that. That sense of you and your co driver competing against the clock in a car that is falling apart around you. Where you spend your time managing your resources to try and get to the finish line. There isn’t any other motorsport that gives you that kind of challenge outside of the types of off road racing that we have been known to represent in DiRT.

WRB: Bringing it back to DiRT 4. Those things you love about rallying that you referenced earlier… how would you say some of those make their way into DiRT 4? How would you say the game expresses your and the other developers’ love for the sport of rallying?

PC: You’ll do well to find a more passionate team of developers. A great example is our audio department. When it comes to sourcing the cars, recording them and recreating that sound in the game, our guys move mountains to get the best sounding car audio out there. The same applies to our vehicle simulation team. Their passion for vehicle dynamics and giving players the most accurate depiction of the cars possible really shows in the way that the cars come alive on stage. It’s not just the cars though. Our environment teams, coders, artists and all the departments throughout the company have a passion for making DiRT the best it can be and that is only possible with a passion for the sport.

WRB: I want to finish up by taking a look into the future. One thing that I loved about the original DiRT was the cross-country Dakar-style rallying. At the time, the technology only allowed for a long, looped circuit. Do you think that the technology behind “Your Stage” would one day allow the creation of procedural generated open worlds to simulate cross-country rallying?

PC: I hope so but it is far too early to go into any specifics. I’ve always said that if we do desert racing again we would want to do it properly and Your Stage really does have the potential to open the door to that kind of experience.

WRB: Continuing with my future “wish list”, is it possible that sometime in the future, the player will be able to recce the stages and make changes to the pacenotes to suit their personal style? For example, if the default pacenote was a “left 4” changing it to a “left 3”, or adding a “caution” into the notes?

PC: This is also on my wishlist. Co driver calls are a very personal thing and I am very conscious that we are using a system that was used by Colin McRae but isn’t necessarily the choice of a lot of rally drivers out there. Giving players the option to recce stages and edit the calls would allow people to really customise the experience. It’s going to be a big job to get it working but I think there are ways that we can do it.

WRB: I don’t want to put the cart before the horse since the game isn’t even released yet, but any chance of DLC? I think that a lot of us would be willing to put out some money for more content based on the high quality of your work!

PC: It’s something that we need to work out once the game is out there and we can see what the appetite for it really is. We know that a good number of our most core fans would support it but it is whether it would be appealing enough to the wider group of players that will determine whether we actually do it.

WRB: The DiRTy gossip thread over on Codemasters’ forums has been going strong for years. Do you have any titbits that you want to share to keep their excitement and speculation stoked?

PC: Hah! Those guys are awesome. For the most part they get to the bottom of any hints that we put out there quicker than we could ever have thought. We have had to up our game to make sure that they have to work really hard to get their information now. Suffice to say that their thirst for gossip has inspired us to put some extra stuff in the game. How long it will take them to find it is another matter.

WRB: Paul, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. You guys at Codemasters have really set a new standard for community involvement and I can’t say how much we appreciate it. Even though DiRT 4 isn’t early access like Dirt Rally was, you have still done a fantastic job of keeping all of us in the loop and excited for the game. We loved Dirt Rally, and we can’t wait to get our hands on DiRT 4!

PC: It’s been a pleasure talking to you and answering your questions. I look forward to getting out on stage and hopefully racing with you guys in June.