Accomplishment Without Achievements: How F1 2013 Made Me Feel Like a Winner

Sports games aren’t usually the realm of deep storytelling, and that goes double for racing games. But one racing game has recenlty elicited a stronger feeling of accomplishment than most single-player stories could, so I want to share that journey. Once upon a time back in 2010, I started my digital Formula 1 race-driving career with Codemasters’ Formula 1 2010. It was the first major, well-received Formula 1 game in a long time -- the Psygnosis-developed titles on PlayStation were quite good, but the history of the license since then has been hit-and-miss. F1 2010 set the stage for a good series and F1 2011 improved upon that, and having recently returned to Formula 1 2013 I’m still very impressed and happy with the quality of the game.

And that’s what has struck me the most since returning to F1 2013: tangible accomplishment and progression without a story that holds your hand and makes it blatantly obvious. Maybe it’s because I know and love the sport, or maybe I’m reading into something that isn’t there, but I’ve created my own story instead of a pre-written narrative.

Central to the game and its career mode is the feeling of moving up the Formula 1 ladder.

It’s always a chase to catch the top driver and team in Formula 1 racing, and the 2013 season seen in Formula 1 2013 was no different

It’s always a chase to catch the top driver and team in Formula 1 racing, and the 2013 season seen in Formula 1 2013 was no different

While Formula 1 itself is the top motorsports championship in the world, there are tiers within it. There are small bottom-feeder teams like Marussia and Caterham at the end of the grid (though they’ve both recently gone broke in real life), teams of rising and falling prospects like Williams, Force India and Sauber in the middle, and then a set of teams at the top truly in contention for race wins and championships. In 2013 those top teams included Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull Racing, Mercedes and Lotus. There is an order, and rare is the day when it gets turned upside-down -- either within a race or for an entire season. There are even often hierarchies within teams; most teams employ a “number 1” driver and a “number 2” driver, and that is represented in the game as well.

In prior Codemasters F1 games, though, that hierarchy of teams was far too easy to blur. In F1 2010, I almost won a championship with a Sauber. In F1 2011, I won a championship with a Williams -- unthinkable in real life at that point despite the team's extensive history. It was too easy to succeed based on player skill in this context.

For my F1 2013 career, though, it’s been much tougher and more realistic. When I began my career last fall, I started with the Scuderia Toro Rosso squad, which is Red Bull Racing’s junior team and a fixture of the back of the grid. That was precisely where I remained while driving that car -- scoring points, but not challenging for race wins.

But in F1 2013, as in real-world Formula 1, it’s all relative. I wasn’t winning, but that was fine; those performances got me noticed by better teams, and so when I moved teams in the middle of my first season, it felt like I’d been freed. I won a race with the Sauber and contended in even more races, performances which allowed me to move to the Lotus-Renault team for the second season. The Lotus-Renault was a car which was incredibly competitive in the real 2013 season. And lo, I met that standard in the game, too -- winning a couple of races, qualifying well, and moving up to fourth in the driver’s championship by mid-season.

Fernando Alonso out front in the Ferrari in   F1 2013  , followed by the black and gold Lotus

Fernando Alonso out front in the Ferrari in F1 2013, followed by the black and gold Lotus

That’s when the career mode e-mail inbox lit up with a contract offer. During the career mode, you’re given e-mail updates on how you’re doing race to race, what weather to expect at the next track and, near the end of the season, contract offers for the following season. This replicates the real “silly season” in F1 racing, where drivers jockey to secure employment for the following year. In F1 2013, there are also mid-season contract offers -- it’s how I’d moved to Sauber the first year, and now I’d received another one.

It was from Ferrari.

Though Enzo Ferrari passed away in 1988, the team which bears his name is still a powerhouse of Formula 1 racing

Though Enzo Ferrari passed away in 1988, the team which bears his name is still a powerhouse of Formula 1 racing

For those that only know the famous Ferrari sports cars, Ferrari is the soul of Formula 1 racing. Red Ferrari cars have been involved in each of the 65 F1 World Championship seasons, and team founder Enzo Ferrari saw his job as running a racing team first and using street-car sales to fund the racing team second. Ferrari is one of the perennial contenders, and are one of the most successful teams in F1 history. You don’t say no to Ferrari just as baseball players don’t say no to the New York Yankees.

So my driver moved to Ferrari and I promptly won the first race at Spa-Francorchamps. I made another step up the ladder to a car that should allow me to compete for every race left in the season. But it wasn’t something I could do easily -- just because I had a faster car didn’t mean I suddenly found the game easy. Having a better car makes finding speed easier, this is true, but it also ups the expectations. Managing tire life and wear is crucial in the current Formula 1 world, and it’s a big part of holding and maintaining a lead in the game as well. Knowing just how hard and far to push a set of tires before changing them is a learned skill. At Spa, I had to do so perfectly -- hold a lead and use my car’s speed without destroying tires. But I did it, and winning my first race for the team -- the most famous of Formula 1 teams -- was rewarding. No achievement or trophy popped up on the screen, but I felt like I had achieved a small personal goal.

A few racing games have tried to shoehorn a story in -- recent Need for Speed titles, Forza Horizon and Codemasters’ Grid games have injected various level of narrative. This has ranged from having actors and actresses in cutscenes to DJs talking over your radio about what's happening in the game's world. Other sports-racing games, including the motorcycle racing MotoGP series, have tried to build a framework similar to what Codemasters’ F1 series has -- utilizing a real-world ladder to chart progress. In both F1 and MotoGP, your character receives e-mails and messages from an agent (who supervises your career) and team representatives (who inform you about the next race weekend). But for me, I think it’s the tangible feeling that you’re making progress -- from a bad car to an okay one to a top-of-the-grid team -- that helps make F1 2013 revelatory.

Starting from the bottom of the grid and moving up is the way to succeed in Formula 1: it’s a path followed by Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna and so many more. Not only is the bottom-up path a common road, but success is relative. A new driver makes his name not only by taking wins, but by outperforming expectations. Whether that's Senna in the Toleman at Monaco, or a young Michael Schumacher a year after his debut at Spa, or future world champion Fernando Alonso in a Minardi -- sometimes a win isn't just from a victory. Unlike in Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, you're not buying a new car or trying a new form of racing, and progress isn't gated by first-place finishes. You can succeed without winning in F1 2013 just like in real life. I hope future iterations of Codemasters’ F1 series lean into this more and bring in more rungs to the ladder that exist below the real Formula 1 -- the GP2 and 3 series, World Series by Renault and even go-kart racing.

Formula 1 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and allowing you to climb to the top yourself makes the championship champagne taste all the sweeter.