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Shifting from AAA to Early Access

Dirt Rally lead designer explains what Codemasters gained (and lost) by debuting its latest in Steam's in-development game program

Given the subject matter of Codemasters' Dirt Rally, it's only fitting that the racing game went off the beaten path to find its way onto store shelves. The game launches on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 next week, bringing it to the console confines its predecessors found success on for nearly 20 years. But the game's arrival was never a sure thing. As lead designer Paul Coleman told GamesIndustry.biz recently, Dirt Rally had doubters right from the start, even internally.

"We had this diamond-in-the-rough prototype that I put in front of our executives at Codemasters, and they were not confident," Coleman said. "We've seen the racing genre go into a bit of a decline over recent years, so a racing game is already less of a business proposition than it used to be. Then it's a rally game, which is a sort of niche of racing. And we'd been working on this prototype trying to make the most authentic rally game ever made, and that meant it was much more simulation-based than it had been previously, so it was a challenging proposition. We'd kind of created this niche within a niche of a niche, and the business was reluctant to put all their support behind it and for us to go into a full dev cycle based on this prototype."

"We had this diamond-in-the-rough prototype that I put in front of our executives at Codemasters, and they were not confident."

Codemasters had funded the development of that prototype over years, and Coleman said it was getting good feedback from everyone who'd seen it, even in its early form. The concern was that the prototype had been attempting to be a (perhaps intimidating) technical simulator for diehard racing fans, but it wasn't quite clear whether that audience was large enough to support Codemasters' usual development model. So when it came time to decide whether to scrap the prototype and start anew or greenlight the game for the full-scale development and marketing blitz, the company opted to instead take a third option. With a promising but unproven project on its hands, Codemasters decided Dirt Rally would be a good candidate for Steam's Early Access, even though there wasn't much history of AAA developers using the service to launch their games.

"Although we were perhaps a bigger developer than traditionally would use Early Access, it seemed like a really great opportunity to not put out a game that was broken or unfinished, but to put something out there to test whether what we had done was palatable to our audience," Coleman said. "Because certainly the vocal guys on our forums and the comment threads had been asking us to make this type of game, but we needed to check they were actually going to put their money where their mouth is and buy into this kind of experience... We were confident from a development team perspective that what we had was very new and interesting and fresh, but from the business perspective, the numbers just weren't stacking up."

The team was well aware that managing perceptions would be key to the Early Access campaign's success. The big fear was that people who heard about the project without getting all the details might make some erroneous assumptions about the state of the game or Codemasters' plans, which would lead to a hive mind of negative sentiment around the game before it had a chance to win converts. One way Coleman said they got around that was to announce the game on Early Access all of five minutes or so before it was available on Steam.

"People didn't really have time to dwell on it, and that was a tactical decision on our part," Coleman said. "We didn't want to announce and then allow people to dwell on the situation too much, the fact that perhaps the game wasn't going to be available on PS4 and Xbox One right off the bat, the fact that this was a new Dirt game but it might not be what people were expecting it to be. We wanted to catch people off guard."

"One of the things we made very clear from the get-go was that this wasn't us asking them to be our quality assurance team and bug find for us."

It helped that excited fans could play the game as soon as they heard about it, but Coleman also stressed how important it was that the game they found waiting for them didn't feel like an incomplete mess.

"One of the things we made very clear from the get-go was that this wasn't us asking them to be our quality assurance team and bug find for us," Coleman said. "This was more about giving them a prototype that was well-polished, that met the production values we hold as a studio. It was about asking them to tell us what you think about the experience, what you think about the direction we've taken the franchise in, and we'll continue on that promise if it's what you like."

The plan seemed to work, as Coleman explained, "We quickly found that the players who bought into it straight away were so taken aback by how we'd listened to their requests and delivered on those requests that they found themselves evangelizing about the product pretty quickly. Word of mouth really spread, and the game started to do way beyond the numbers we were expecting it to do as part of this Early Access program."

Even if it was used to prove out the potential audience for Dirt Rally, the Early Access program helped make it a fundamentally better game, Coleman said. The months spent in Early Access let the developers refine the game's physics system, as well as address a force feedback system Coleman described as fundamentally broken.

"We'd been making console games prior to this and had very little understanding of how to make great force feedback for the PC sim audience," Coleman said. "They were quite quick to tell us how wrong we got it, and some of that feedback was not necessarily the most constructive, but that's the Internet."

Fortunately, not all of the feedback was unconstructive, and there were dedicated players who worked closely with the developers to help them understand what they got wrong and how it could be improved. The end result was a better game, and a more well-rounded experience for all players.

Another perk of the Early Access campaign came in the way it harnessed the community to increase awareness of the game.

"The [marketing] spend we put on Dirt Rally for PC was the lowest I think we have ever spent on a game at Codemasters as a company, or even as a publisher."

"The spend we put on Dirt Rally for PC was the lowest I think we have ever spent on a game at Codemasters as a company, or even as a publisher," Coleman said. "The numbers were incredibly low before we got publishers on board for the console version. I think we'd spent about £20,000 ($28,250) on marketing Dirt Rally as a PC product. The success of it was entirely down to word of mouth and news stories and the fact we were constantly updating the game with monthly updates, so we were always getting mentioned in news feeds and channels. But without players saying they loved what we did, we would have gotten nowhere."

That said, those bonuses inevitably come with some trade-offs, like the amount of resources devoted to it.

"The game didn't necessarily get the full assault that we would put on a title if we were building it from the ground up over an 18-month dev cycle with the ambition of putting it in a box and going through all the usual processes," Coleman said. "So yeah, you could argue our career mode is a little bit basic because we needed something in there from the start, and once we put it out there, there was very little time to iterate on and refine it."

Given that one of the game's biggest selling points is its simulation engine and things like that benefit from the sort of constant refining the Early Access model encourages, that trade-off was a worthy one in Coleman's estimation.

"The iterations we took that through... we've never really focused on the gameplay as much as we did with this title," Coleman said. "It's always been about the bigger picture, the high-production value stuff that's great from a package point of view but isn't necessarily integral to what the game feels like in your hands. That was the big shift we took in Dirt Rally."

So did the Early Access experiment pay off? While Coleman says Dirt Rally is loved (as of this writing, 91 percent of reviews for it on Steam are positive), he adds that the number of units shipped "do not constitute a financial success" (at least not yet).

"I think there was a bit of a perfect storm with Dirt Rally and Early Access," Coleman said. "I don't think it's a silver bullet. I wouldn't use it again if we were going to try the same thing again, for example. It was just, from my perspective as a developer who'd poured my heart and soul into that prototype over the previous couple of years, it was really important for me to not just let go and consign it to the archives."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.