Pitpass ran an interesting story yesterday about the deadlock that appears to have been reached between Sony and Bernie Ecclestone who are in negotiations to create a new Formula 1 video game. It is a shame that Bernie’s “hardball” attitude has led to this apparent stalemate.
I have been a big fan of Sony’s Formula 1 series of games. Its history can be traced back to 1996 when Formula 1 (based on the 1995 season) was released. It was a complete masterpiece. Developers Bizarre Creations had made the first 3D Formula 1-based video game and they got it near enough perfect first time round. It is still a joy to play the game today.
It was an arcade-style racer which meant that it was fairly basic, certainly by today’s standards. But it was a huge hit even among non-F1 fans. It was Europe’s second biggest selling video game of the year.
Formula 1 97 followed the year later, refining the product to a great extent. You could even set an option to have tear-off strips. When your visor got too dirty you had to press a button to clean it! It also had a separate arcade mode which felt like a completely different game. This meant that the game pleased non-F1 fans and dedicated F1 geeks alike.
From there, things went a little pear-shaped. Despite the huge success, Bizarre Creations decided to call it a day with F1 so that they could concentrate on Metropolis Street Racer. That series has since become the hugely successful — and, I must say, excellent — Project Gotham Racing series.
In the meantime, Psygnosis, the publishers who owned the rights to the F1 game, were left in the lurch. Visual Sciences were given the job of developing Formula 1 98, but they had just a few months to do it in. Sure enough, the game was an utter beast — buggy, unplayable and generally unsatisfying.
Another change of developer came for Formula One 99. Studio 33 were brought on board. They managed to do a competent job, but it was clearly a case of getting the basics right first as the game was slightly bare. It was, however, the first game to incorporate the Safety Car! Whether gamers enjoyed the experience of being behind the Safety Car is another matter…
In the intervening period, Psygnosis was bought by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and renamed Studio Liverpool. This began Sony’s association with the F1 license. Gradual improvements were made for both the 2000 and 2001 editions, but the glory days of Bizarre Creations’s games would not be reached on the PSone again.
It is worth remembering that this period was a rather congested time for Formula 1 fans. In some years there might have been around half a dozen different versions of the F1 game. The PSone alone had four F1 games released in 2000.
As well as the Sony offering, Video System brought their F1 World Grand Prix brand from the Nintendo 64 to the PlayStation. Developed by Lankhor, the game was highly realistic, with a dizzying array of different set-up options and horrifically realistic handling. At least, I hope that was the case because it made the game damn well unplayable. It was a struggle even to reach the end of a straight. It was without a doubt the worst F1 game I have ever played.
The following year, Video System published a second game based on their 1999 license. This time they turned to Ubi Soft to develop it. F1 Racing Championship was considerably better than the first attempt, but that wasn’t saying much. As it was the third PSone game based on the 1999 season, there was little reason to buy it, particularly as the year was now 2000!
More successful was the Electronic Arts series. The company made the brave decision of publishing F1 2000 at the start of the 2000 season. Sony had been releasing their games at the end of each season. This meant that there were some inaccuracies in the game as teams proved to be more or less competitive than their pre-season testing form showed. But that seemed academic when all of a sudden there was a chance to play the F1 game several months earlier than normal, and crucially before the Sony edition came out.
However, the EA game was simply not as satisfying as the Sony version. For one thing, EA brought in Visual Sciences to develop the game, although this was kept quiet! VS was the company that made a hash of Psygnosis’s Formula 1 98. Although this time round they did a better job, it was still a bit of a handful to play.
EA also made the decision to release an updated version called F1 Championship Season 2000 at the end of the season to fix some of the inaccuracies of the original. There was quite a neat “scenario mode”, where you would relive actual events from the 2000 season. But by now the PSone market was truly over-saturated with F1 games.
Presumably realising this, FOA gave Sony an exclusive license to publish Formula 1 games from the 2003 season. EA’s parting shot was to release F1 Career Challenge. This took advantage of their licenses for the seasons from 1999 through to 2002. You would begin your career in a poor car and try to make your way up to a better car through the seasons.
This added a much-needed new dimension to F1 games which were often very samey for the obvious reasons that they were all based on the same circuits and the same cars time and time again. Sony / Studio Liverpool have since added a career mode to each of their subsequent F1 games.
These were difficult years to be an F1 gamer. Instead of getting what we wanted — namely, a decent F1 game every year — we were getting several mediocre games, none of which did the trick. Thankfully this changed with the move to the PS2 and the exclusive license awarded to Sony. It was tough luck if you didn’t own a PS2 though.
Sony’s early PS2 games were not all that great. But they were notable for being the only way you could get DVD reviews of the 2000 and 2001 F1 seasons, complete with footage from F1 Digital+. These remain the only official review DVDs of those seasons.
Every year the F1 game improved a little bit. Formula One 04 was enjoyable enough. But Formula One 05 was probably the first time you could say there was an F1 game as good as Formula 1 97. There were also some neat features where, using the Eye Toy peripheral, you could insert your own face into the game and watch yourself participate in the podium ceremony. Rather surreal, but good fun! Unfortunately, F1 05 was far too easy to play even on the hardest difficulty settings. Another nice touch was a set of unlockable classic cars.
Formula One 06 further refined the game. By now, a number of authentic features had been added to please the F1 fans. For instance, in career mode if you are stuck in the test driver role you have to be prepared to trundle around an empty track doing consistent laps — a lot more difficult than it sounds! Come race time you could even choose to drive the formation lap yourself and you would have to get the tyres up to temperature.
There has been one game on the PS3, F1 Championship Edition (strangely familiar title, that). It is based on the 2006 season. I’ve never had the chance to play it, but it looks great.
Just as the F1 series was becoming great again though, the F1 games have dried up. I had wondered why. After all, the 2007 season ought to have been more lucrative for Sony because of the hype surrounding Lewis Hamilton. Unfortunately, Bernie Ecclestone seems to have thought this more than Sony did, leading us to the current deadlock.
In the meantime, Electronic Arts have signed a £5 million deal with Lewis Hamilton. However, this does not necessarily mean that a new EA F1 game is on the horizon. Several years ago Jacques Villeneuve was involved in a fantasy racing game called Speed Challenge: Jacques Villeneuve’s Racing Vision. This EA deal could be a similar plan.
With stalemate all round, it is probably too late even for a game based on the 2008 season to be made. What a terrible shame. You might think I am going overboard a bit. But for me, the annual video game has become an important memento of the season, just as much as the review DVD is. If I feel a bit nostalgic for Pedro de la Rosa in an Arrows, I stick on Formula One 99. Now it looks like two whole years will be lost.
Fans of F1 games should check out F1Gamers. The site is chock full of obtrusive adverts, but it’s a good resource nevertheless.