The Making Of Colin McRae Rally
On its release in 1998, Colin McRae Rally heralded a new age of realistic racing simulations. For the first time, gamers could put pedal to the metal in an authentic rallying experience with life-like physics, real-time car damage and varied stage-based courses from around the globe. We talk to Gavin Raeburn, Brian Coller and Jamie Adamson from Codemasters’ McRae development team about their work on the pioneering rally-sport simulation.
Rallying is an ideal sport to feature in a videogame. Substituting the corporate gloss and over-powered engine capacities of Formula One with the raw, visceral excitement of tearing through unpaved roads in a souped-up street car, it appeals to the boy racer in us all.
So it may come as a surprise, in this day and age, when rally-sport sims are ten a penny, that there wasn’t really any notable gaming experience to replicate the thrill of the gravel power slide until Sega Rally Championship hit arcades in 1995.
Sega Rally was the first racing game to make the distinction between the ‘feel’ of driving on various road surfaces, such as mud, gravel and asphalt, and admirably demonstrated to gamers the inherent fun of simulated off-road driving.
During the 32-bit-console era PlayStation owners eyed the Saturn-exclusive conversion of Sega’s landmark rally-sim enviously, and it wasn’t until the release of Infogrames’ V-Rally in 1997 that the sport was properly represented on their machine. However, Infogrames’ title, although generally well-received, took an arcade-like and unrealistic competitive off-road racing approach.
It also featured notoriously ‘featherweight’ fantasy-physics, where cars would flip and spin like empty cardboard boxes at the slightest mishandled bump or mis-taken bend. Fortunately, for more discerning fans of the sport, a new contender for rally-sim champion was just around the corner, one that would provide a far more genuine experience, with just the player on an open road racing against nothing but the clock.
Back in late 1996 over at Codemasters Warwickshire HQ, a young team including Brian Coller, Jamie Adamson and Gavin Raeburn, were coming to the close of development on their first motorsport title. Having gained the official licence for the TOCA British Touring Car Championship, the Darling brothers were intending to grab a slice of the lucrative racing-sim market, which was as yet untapped by their company.
On its release TOCA Touring Cars was acclaimed by gamers and press alike for its realism and advanced real-time damage modelling. With TOCA out of the bag, the team turned its attention to the second of the Codemasters ‘driving licences’, a rally game endorsed and even developed with the co-operation of the ‘Flying Scotsman’ of rally driving, the recently deceased Colin McRae.
“Colin McRae and TOCA were two of the strongest licences available to us at the time,” says Gavin, justifiably proud of the distinguished pedigree of both titles and the association with the world-famous rally champion. “We felt that the McRae licence would add authenticity to our series and elevate the game above the many derivative, unlicensed racers on the market.”
Jamie adds, “Sega Rally was a hit in the arcades at the time and, therefore, did have some influence on the decision to make a rally game, but a more important influence was Colin’s 1995 World Championship win. Having a British driver become champion, and Colin being such an exciting driver meant that it was perfect to base a videogame on.”
Apart from Sega Rally, we wondered if the Codemasters team had played any other rally sims in preparation for the development of Colin McRae. Jamie replies: “In terms of other rally games influencing the way Colin McRae was made, the development team obviously played existing rally games of the time, but it was more a case of watching real rally footage and trying to capture the fast pace and excitement the sport is famous for in the game.”
However, one title that definitely wasn’t an influence was Sony’s epic Gran Turismo (released just before Colin McRae and still the biggest-selling game on Sony’s flagship console), which the team only became aware of midway through the game’s production.
The project team started with code taken from the previous TOCA game, but this soon proved unworkable and was abandoned. A new game engine needed to be developed specifically for Colin McRae. Fortunately, this enabled the team to address the subtleties of off-road driving in a much more applied manner than simply altering its previous TOCA engine that had been primarily designed to simulate circuit racing on asphalt.
The driving-physics of the Colin McRae franchise are deservedly well renowned, and were unparalleled at the time of the original game’s release. “The car physics system used TOCA as its foundation, which was then built upon to provide all the functionality required for simulating rally cars,” says Brian.
“One part of the handling system that has always played a major role in the Colin McRae series is the effects of the many, different ground surfaces that are used throughout the game. The difference between driving on smooth asphalt, the loose ‘pea gravel’ of Australia and the snow of Sweden has always been important to us as it’s one of the unique aspects of rallying.”
“Of course, having a World Rally Champion advising and offering feedback to the team during its development didn’t hurt either.” Colin definitely contributed to the game on the car-handling side, playtesting and offering advice until the cars felt right. Nicky Grist was always helpful, too, when it came to the tracks and co-driver calls,” reveals Jamie.
Most racing games of the era, including Gran Turismo, were notorious for featuring ‘indestructible’ licensed vehicles that wouldn’t even suffer a scratch to their paint work, even after a 140mph collision with a brick wall. Colin McRae was one of the first motorsport simulations to feature realistic damage modelling, following in the footsteps of the pioneering TOCA.
This ‘warts and all’ approach could easily have complicated the licensing of the game’s featured vehicles from their respective manufacturers, but luckily, all of the companies involved were keen to play ball. “Before Colin McRae Rally, not many racing titles had really tackled car damage to the extent that was needed to portray rallying at its best,” says Jamie.
“So when it came to licensing the cars for Colin McRae, the manufacturers were told upfront that our intention was to re-create the types of crashes that rallying is famous for, so it became more a case of how much they wanted their car to feature in the game.” Fortunately, the manufacturers were happy for their cars to feature heavily in the game, even in a destructible state.
Another notable feature of the original Colin McRae was the realistic and very atmospheric track-modelling, and the global scope of the stages featured in the game. For the creation of these courses, a dedicated track-design application was developed in-house.
Although limited in comparison with design tools available to development teams today, this application was subsequently built upon and used on all games in the franchise until Colin McRae 2005. “Before creating a new rally stage we would always sit and watch hours of video footage and look through hundreds of images to really get a feel for the key features and ambience of each country featured in the game,” says Brian.
“Not only did our research enable us to get the visuals right, it also showed us what types of corners and road features were fun to drive in real rallying, which we then transferred to the game.” The track tool supported a single continuous length of track, worked in 2D only from a top-down viewpoint, and could only represent the various textures applied on the track as solid colours.
“Even with all the limitations of the track tool it had many strengths, which even current 3D modelling applications lack when it comes to designing levels for racing titles. The level-design team could quickly and easily adjust the shape and flow of the road to get the playability factor spot on.”
Jamie is happy to elaborate on the varied array of worldwide locations featured in Colin McRae. “The intention was to create a game that contained familiar rally locations, but also some dramatic locations that we felt would be cool to include, such as Indonesia.”
“All of the tracks are fictional, but research was done in the real-world locations, with designers picking classic styles of roads or corners and adding in recognisable scenes to create a believable and exciting series of tracks.” Jamie continues, “The limitations of the platform at the time meant that achieving the full scope of some of the countries was difficult, especially Corsica, but there were many times when features were created and tweaked until the desired effect had been achieved.”
The game was completed after a development period of around 18 months and the team relate that it was pleased with the results of its labours, having successfully integrated nearly every feature it had set out to do so in the game. “Pretty much everything we wanted to do with the game was kept in, with the exception of some code for flocking birds!” says Jamie proudly.
“Circuit racing was down as a possible inclusion for the first game, but was kept back until Colin McRae 2.0 because it was felt at the time that it didn’t suit the overall feel of the first game, which was very authentic rallying, especially with the inclusion of the Rally School training mode.”
So looking back, does he wish the team had done anything differently for the original Colin McRae? “No game is perfect but we got most things we wanted into the finished product. Anything that the team has subsequently wanted to do or change about the game has been done with each sequel, such as new countries and vehicles, new track-building techniques, improved handling and better graphical effects. Even with DiRT there are things that we always think about to improve the next time around.”
Deservedly the game was a massive hit for Codemasters. It shifted well over a million units in Europe alone, and it would later be re-released on Sony’s Platinum range of best-selling titles. Thanks to the title’s extremely positive critical and consumer reception, and also the preceding TOCA game, Codemasters was awarded the title of Publisher Of The Year by Edge magazine during 1998.
The game’s success spawned an arguably even more impressive sequel, Colin McRae Rally 2.0, which was released two years later. “The sequel built on the success of Colin McRae by enhancing every area of the game,” says Jamie. “From the menus onward it was clear that it was a slicker, more polished title, and once you got into a race it was obvious in the improved car handling and graphics that a lot of time and effort was spent on making the game a worthy successor to an already good game.”
On being asked his final thoughts on why the Colin McRae franchise has proved so popular with gamers over the last nine years, Jamie offers this summation. “I think the uniqueness of the Colin McRae experience is what has kept the series at the top of the rally pile for so long. There have been a lot of other rally games released during the same time period, but each has done things very differently to our games, even when they’ve tried to emulate them.”
“Colin McRae is a perfect mix of arcade and simulation handling that makes the titles easy to play but hard to master. Some rally games were too arcade-like and therefore too easy and short-lived, while others were too simulation heavy and very frustrating for most players.” Jamie thinks for a second, then concludes, “Colin McRae has always pulled the player into the game early on, made them feel that maybe they can be a top rally driver, and then made them want to succeed at it. Because it’s fun.”
A sentiment echoed in the life and career of Colin McRae, a rally driver whose legend will live on in memory and perhaps even through his games.