After going hands on with the game, we caught some time with Codemasters producer Michael Rowland to discuss this new direction for F1 video games.
Where did the idea for F1 Online: The Game come from?
"We are the Codemasters online studio and we started back with MMOs, so it's Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online. We were offered the F1 licence, so we did a lot of tech demos and design, trying to see what fun and different things we could do.
"The console games are more cockpit, first-person, simulated games, but we wanted to make a more casual, free-to-play game. We wanted to make it accessible as a browser-based game in Unity with a good engine. We got the assets from the Birmingham studio, got a full art team, a programming team, designers; the full shebang. It just mushroomed out from there."
The top-down racing really reminds us of Micro Machines...
"We often hear the comparison to Micro Machines, which was one of our earlier games. Our project codename early on in the development was Micro F1, which we thought was catchy! But then we came up with F1 Online. We had many assets already, but we had to do additional artwork on the courses, because in the console game you never see the roofs of buildings. Monaco was really difficult, but it proved our concept."
How confident are you that players will get the new control system?
"When we made the racing, and came up with the 'magic arrow' for controlling the car, there was a lot of trial and error in how that would work and feel effective. But what we have now is the best solution and we have tested it. The feedback we get is that when people play it, it makes sense. The more people play it, the more they get it. You really have to try it to understand it."
Do you feel that people are going to play this game instead of F1 2012, or as well?
"We hope that they will play it as well as the console version. It is not meant to compete against F1 2012, otherwise we wouldn't implement it. It's a free to play game that is browser-based, but also adds something new in the management features. You can play in your own time, at work, or at home, or whenever you have got that spare moment. It's about short, fast, quick sessions as part of a long progression through the team management career mode.
"I don't know how, but we have managed to make a quite addictive management and driving game... you don't even think about the console version when you are playing it."
How do the championships work?
"Championships run on a 24-hour cycle and you can drop in or drop out at any point during that cycle. So you can start playing a championship, but then drop out, and come back later, when you will be put in the lobby with other people playing quick play. But the system knows that you are in a championship and they are not. This way we can always ensure that you are racing against people of the same skill class."
Are you pretty confident the matchmaking system can handle all the different classes?
"We have a class system called the CPI, which involves classes from U to S. U has levels one to nine and is the entry level. The matchmaking system knows which group you are in and then matches you up with similar class players. The jump from U class to A class is significant, as anyone will see when they jump from custom to F1 races. The system knows all this and ensures there are no poorly-matched players."
The game is going to be free to play, but how will the micro-transactions work?
"We will only charge for items of customisations and convenience, never anything that could give a significant advantage in racing.
"I use the analogy of that if you are a student and you have got all day just playing the game, then you can go through not paying anything. But if you are a hard-working father, you come home and you have got an hour or two to spare and you just want to get into the game, and don't want to wait around 24 hours for something to be built, you can just pay a few quid and it's job done. You don't really get extra components or extra equipment, you just get the same items, only quicker.
"It's probably the only way we can really do micro-transactions without affecting the game. Players won't be able to pay to get a turbo boost on the track or something like that."
Shame, we would have liked a turbo boost. So, after launch will F1 Online be updated every season with new teams and drivers?
"Yes, we have a really strong pipeline of new content. We have the 2012 assets that we are going to introduce after the console game launches. Our turnaround is going to be pretty quick on that because we can just roll them out online. Plus, as its browser-based, we don't have to worry about Sony or Microsoft either, which is a relief."
F1 Online: The Game is currently in closed beta, but Codemasters expects to launch the open beta in June.