Codemasters - Dirt 5

EA Games purchased Codemasters in 2020, and I have deeply mixed feelings about that. This could be very good for the sim racing genre, but the potential consequences for Codemasters and the game genre are profound.

First of all, we have to mention, EA is the graveyard of beloved game studios. It chewed up and spit out Visceral Studios (makers of Dead Space) and if BioWare’s next game isn’t a hit, I can’t imagine it’ll be long for this world. 

Codemasters is now on that same chopping block. Upper management will make all kinds of noises about how committed they are to the success of the studio, but if it doesn’t deliver smash hit games year after year, it’s gone. If you haven’t been following Jason Schreier’s excellent coverage of labor abuses in the game industry at Kotaku and now Bloomberg, you really should. EA is a name you hear frequently in his articles, and it’s almost never uttered in dulcet tones. 

And speaking of year after year, sim racing has generally resisted the yearly release treadmill. In fact, well-received sim racing games last years. RFactor 2 came out in 2012. RaceRoom Racing Experience, 2013. Assetto Corsa, 2014. All of these games are still being played. Some of them still even have developer support. 

These games are considered ancient by gaming standards. But the community mainly lives in the PC space, which means that a game’s lifespan is not constrained by the vagaries of console generation. This is one of the great things about the community — we buy one game and keep playing it forever. 

F1 2021

In my opinion, this is a great thing for consumers. A good physics engine is a good physics engine, and there’s no reason to sell me a brand-new one when you can improve the one you’ve already made, then add new tracks, cars, and customization options. 

Meanwhile, Codemasters is one of the few companies with yearly sim racing releases (which is why they caught EA’s attention, I’d wager). Their F1 franchise is one of the biggest titles in racing, and they recently acquired the WRC license. Both of these represent a decent chunk of the sim racing market. 

On top of that, Codemasters recently acquired Slightly Mad Studios, makers of the Project Cars franchise, another significant series. The acquisition of SMS made Codemasters a behemoth in the sim racing space just in time to get swallowed up by the gaming leviathan that is EA.

Let’s be real here: EA isn’t interested in catering to small market, niche gamers like sim racing fans. We’re demanding, cranky, opinionated, and rare. EA releases are targeted at the mass market. I worry that, under EA’s supervision, Codemasters will try to push out yet another bland GRID game or get saddled with the struggling Need for Speed franchise. 

“Who cares?” mutter my fellow grumpy sim racers. “This won’t change what Kunos Simulazioni or the iRacing team does.” Yes, that’s probably true. But when a genre’s standard bearer takes a mortal wound, the genre as a whole suffers. American RPGs aren’t better off with BioWare on the ropes. The horror genre suffered when the Silent Hill franchise died and Capcom seemed to forget how to make a good Resident Evil game for several years. 

Yes, we still got games like Greedfall and Amnesia. But unlike other genres, a sim racing game can’t get by on inventive, limited experiences. We’ve come to expect huge rosters of cars (or a smaller number of perfectly simulated cars inside of a particular racing series), laser-scanned tracks, and years of ongoing support from developers. 

Codemasters - Dirt 5

Pure speculation on my part here: When a genre looks exhausted to investors, does it becomes harder to convince them to throw money at devs for a new game in that genre? And if EA chews up Codemasters and spits them out… how might that affect the investment capital available for other sim racers games produced by different devs? I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. 

Also, who really wants to get on a yearly release schedule? Assetto Corsa Competizione has shown that you can expand on an modern racing game with new DLC that adds new tracks, new series, and entire new classes of cars (GT4), while keeping the base game price below the AAA cost of ~$60.

On the plus side, with EA money behind them, the audience for F1 and WRC titles could radically expand. Madden and FIFA, as flawed as they are, are two of the most popular sports titles in the world. Two of autosport’s premier racing series deserve to be as popular and well-known in the video game space. 

If EA can resist screwing with Codemasters for a while, they may be able to radically expand the scope of the F1 and WRC franchises, making them more than an annual deliveries of new cars and new tracks. F1 has been moving in this direction — we’ve been getting more and more story-oriented content over the last few years. 

F1 2021

The Codemasters devs understand that part of the fun of F1 isn’t just the racing — it’s the team drama, the clashing personalities, and the game of musical chairs at the end (and sometimes middle!) of every season. I’d love to see that expanded.

But knowing EA, Codemasters will probably have to convert all their games onto the Frostbite Engine or something. I’m trying to hold out hope, but it’s 2021. Optimism seems like a sucker bet.

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