Are an Over-Saturation of Streams Hindering SimRacing as an eSport?

npas-daytona1-1500This topic shouldn’t need a lengthy introduction, so I’ll make things as short as I can for today. The growth of the eSport phenomenon in very specific mass-market titles, such as Counter-Strike, League of Legends, and even the Madden NFL franchise, has led to a scenario where every basement-dwelling nerd armed with a semi-competent PC and modern high-speed internet connection believes the world deserves to see a live play-by-play broadcast of whatever online match they’re participating in.

Whether the footage focuses on the first person viewpoint of someone playing their title of choice into the wee hours of the morning, or is instead an elaborate production built to present the online competition as if it were a major sporting event – complete with some sort of amateur commentary team – the popularity of streaming has skyrocketed over the past three years. Gamers are not only scouring YouTube for hilarious gameplay clips accompanied by colorful personalities; they also want to watch this stuff unfold in real-time within a competitive setting. For a large portion of the planet, live broadcasts of League of Legends matches have become what Sunday Night Football is to traditional sports fans.

However, while other video game genres are prospering from this relatively cutting-edge way to consume these titles from a spectator standpoint, sim racing has become even more obscure despite an influx in broadcasted events. Hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to watch fighting game tournaments or Call of Duty matches, but simulators such as iRacing – who openly bill themselves as “the original eSport racing game” – reel in less viewers than your kid’s Christmas concert.

The reason behind this probably isn’t what you think.

shootout-streamAbove is a screenshot I snapped only seven laps into last nights iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze shootout, a 40-lap brawl that brought together the absolute best active oval drivers on the iRacing service for a quick little romp before the actual season began. Despite the iRacing simulator being a predominantly oval-focused simulator, with the majority of users residing in North America and flocking to the numerous stock cars found within the online-only racing sim, the broadcast attracted just over 200 viewers. Nick Ottinger, Ray Alfalla, and Byron Daley are some of the absolute best in the world at driving a virtual race car in iRacing’s competitive environment, and yet this “star-studded lineup”, the sim racing equivalent to rounding up as many of the best active League of Legends players on the planet for an impromptu broadcasted showdown, had less viewers around the world than what a local Canadian high school football team can reel in on a weekly basis for their games.

Make no mistake, 206 viewers is absolutely brutal for how much effort is being put into these events, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen such a low number on a major iRacing broadcast. Aside from the opening round of the season at Daytona, and the inevitable shitfest that occurs at its sister track Talladega, view counts for Peak Anti-Freeze series races – the highest level of sim racing in the world – never manage to acquire more than a few hundred people watching at once. It’s simply awful for the image iRacing tries to present to the general public; you have these massively elaborate broadcasts that are watched by basically nobody.

c1juohuwgaaj3lShifting gears away from iRacing, Formula E and the monolithic credit card company VISA held a one-off million dollar prize purse showdown back in January, dubbed the Formula E Visa Vegas eRace. Despite the enticing event format, which saw the world’s best virtual road racers compete toe to toe against the complete roster of Formula E drivers in a static setting that relied on driver skill over dialing in the perfect setup, the broadcast could only retain around seven to ten thousand viewers or so, most of whom mocked the dated visuals. We later learned the event was aired on a Twitch channel that primarily hosted Counter-Strike tournaments, meaning that for all the money that had been dumped into this supposedly world class event conducted with the FIA’s blessing, they couldn’t even stream the footage to the correct audience.

pit-lelIt’s a pretty dire situation when you look at the bigger picture of what’s going on; you have all these fantasy bullshit games skyrocketing in popularity that are being watched by millions around the world, but the genre of sim racing – which lends itself quite well to this online broadcasting thing – is basically stuck in a rut and unable to capitalize on the boom in any meaningful way, even with the help of companies such as the FIA, iRacing, and a goddamn credit card company doing everything in their power to spread the joy of sim racing. None of this seems to be working.

So what’s happening, and how do we reverse it?

Oct 11, 2015; Concord, NC, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Joey Logano (22) during the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

I think you could make a fair argument by drawing attention to auto racing’s steady decline in popularity away from the computer monitor, as both Formula One and NASCAR – two of the biggest racing series in the world – have struggled to deal with empty grandstands as of late, so if people aren’t going to the races in real life, why would they ever watch nerds on the internet compete in a virtual representation of it?

stands-inlineIn my opinion this is a decent argument, but despite the lack of people in the stands, nobody’s telling you the other side of the story. NASCAR tracks are removing grandstands en mass, but on the flip side, the NASCAR Subreddit is growing exponentially with each passing month, more and more YouTube videos about NASCAR are uploaded every day, and Twitter/Facebook stats always shoot up whenever there’s a big moment on-track.

The reality is that people just don’t go to events anymore because tickets are too expensive for what they offer, and the high definition, fifteen million camera television broadcasts by and large offer a better experience than sitting in a stationary spot for four hours out of your day, only able to see the cars for a second or two at a time. Auto racing isn’t declining in popularity; people are just consuming it in a different fashion. You only have to look at the 2017 release calendar to figure out people still fucking love racing at its core.

  • F1 2017 is due for release this fall.
  • DiRT 4 is due for release this summer.
  • Project CARS 2 is due for release this winter.
  • Gran Turismo 7 is due for release this fall.
  • Need for Speed 2017 is due for release this fall.
  • Forza Motorsport 6 is still being updated.

That’s a whole lot of major racing game releases by big-name developers for a sport that’s supposedly in decline and people don’t care for. And developers like Electronic Arts, Polyphony Digital, Turn 10, Codemasters, and Slightly Mad Studios are all teams that don’t just go out and make hardcore games for a sport that is falling like a rock in the court of public opinion. They’re in this to make money. Racing games still obviously make money judging by how many are coming out in 2017 alone.

So if auto racing isn’t dying, and racing games are more popular than they’ve ever been before in the gaming landscape, why has sim racing not taken off as an eSport?

The answer is actually pretty simple: too many goddamn people are trying to cash-in on the boom at once, and it’s over-saturated the market.

16930391_10154436905289001_1935531452_oThere is no cohesive effort to present sim racing as a legitimate eSport by a talented group of individuals who know what they’re doing, and the “market”, so to speak, is flooded with so much useless crap and amateur broadcasts, that any sort of meaningful viewerbase that would otherwise give sim racing a proper footing in the eSports market is instead split across hundreds if not thousands of miscellaneous videos. Above I’ve provided an example of what I’m getting at – here you have an iRacing user, who obviously has the technological know-how to stream some sort of sim racing broadcast, is going out and wasting it all on an iRacing practice session. Completely and utterly pointless.

On top of endeavors like this, you have so many private leagues that stream all their races for their 17 YouTube viewers, and an abundance of individual twitch users who hit record on basically any simulator they play, that it’s impossible as a viewer to figure out what you want to watch. It’s as if the National Basketball Association suddenly expanded to 485 teams overnight – which means no one series or simulator as a whole can gain the following needed to make the next step up the eSport ladder; there simply aren’t enough viewers to go around for the sheer number of broadcasts shitting up YouTube and Twitch. Everybody is trying to get a piece of the pie all at once, but the sim racing pie isn’t big enough for everybody because this is an incredibly niche genre to begin with, so what happens is that they’re walking away with crumbs, and as a result the genre doesn’t go anywhere.

iracingsim64-2014-06-08-22-59-09-57Fixing this doesn’t happen overnight, but there is a way to at least reverse from where we’re at right now.

There needs to be one major sim racing championship that is pushed to the forefront as the definitive online competition in the genre that everybody does their part to help promote, so outsiders or those on the fence can follow the action and think “wow, this looks neat, I want in,” rather than stumbling through a YouTube & Twitch landscape cluttered with amateurish sim racing broadcasts.

It has to have the best sim racers in the world, the best sim racing commentators calling the action, the best broadcast crew working to present the event in a professional fashion, showcase the best piece of software our genre has to offer, be aimed at a target audience who will be somewhat receptive to it, and boast a massive, meaningful prize for those who finish well.

The Visa Vegas eRace, for everything it got oh so terribly wrong during the abhorrent display in January, came the closest anyone’s ever gotten to launching sim racing as an eSport into the spotlight. There was a major prize on the line, a solid roster of drivers on the grid, and a professional studio-quality production fueling the whole thing. Before the first green flag even dropped, it made for entertaining TV.

But it was over too quickly – the race was a one-off exhibition event that was completed in two hours, instead of an entire championship where we could grow to know and love (or hate) certain personalities over an entire season – which is why a lot of people watch sports; the natural story lines that develop are pretty fucking entertaining. Yet instead of moving on to race number two with all of the competitors rattled by technical issues and a hastily amended final outcome, the credits rolled and that was it. Now what? Back to our obscure streams that nobody watches? What are we supposed to do now? Just sort of sit around and wait for all of these obscure rFactor 2 streams to quadruple in size?

Of course not. You have to keep it going. This is why you conduct a major sim racing championship instead of a one-off race.

Now in terms of simulation software, rFactor 2 looked absolutely awful – a kind of Flight Simulator 2000 vibe with modern lighting and reflections, so not a whole understood why this genre is so special to so many hobbyists. Straight up, you can’t be using rFactor 2 for this kind of thing. It’s just not the kind of software that looks good in the spotlight. Go away fanboys, you know it looked like a goddamn cartoon and this matters on this kind of platform. People were openly asking on the stream what was happening during the pit stop segment, because the cars were just sort of parked in an empty paddock area as if they’d wandered outside the map in an old Call of Duty game. You can’t have this. Sorry.

You also can’t have this event broadcasted on a Counter-Strike tournament channel. Here, I’ll put it in even simpler terms; you aired a Formula One race on the Golf Network. Good job.

And okay, Bono Huis won $200,000 USD… Good for him! Do we get a follow up episode? Do we tune in next week to see him test a Formula E car? Of course not! We have to head back to our obscure little websites, three weeks later, to see spy shots posted on a sim team’s Facebook page, to find out what happened to our champion. That’s not how you get people excited for the winner, or what future events may hold in store.

What you need is one killer championship. Because at the moment, you don’t have that – instead you have several minuscule tournaments that are spectated by only a fraction of the sim racing community.

maxresdefaultIt’s obviously a pain in the ass to coordinate a kind of all-encompassing world sim racing series to help advertise the genre on a wider scale, but you have to walk before you can run. Sim racers are burying themselves in endless low-quality streams of private leagues watched by twelve people, while the developers of the games themselves struggle to retain any kind of meaningful audience with their own broadcasts, simultaneously asking why sim racing hasn’t exploded in a fashion similar to League of Legends or Call of Duty despite how well the genre lends itself to a competitive platform.

You need to reel people in with one major production first, and you haven’t done that. Hell, you’re not even paying people to cover your events, instead telling them that “the prestige of the iRacing Pro Series is more than enough compensation for your work.”

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Unreal Promises

r3eUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve probably both heard and gotten extremely excited over one of the biggest announcements within the sim racing scene in recent memory – Sector 3 Studios and their sister team SimBin UK will be moving away from the trusty powerplant created by Image Space Incorporated, which has fueled all of their simulators dating back to their inception as companies, in favor of adopting the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine for future projects. The announcements have always been supplemented with an array of proof-of-concept photos depicting RaceRoom Racing Experience assets within the Unreal Engine, and of course these are then promptly eaten up by a large portion of the sim racing community due to the enhanced visual quality compared to what sim racers are traditionally accustomed to with these types of games.

However, I’d really like to know why people aren’t asking basic questions about this announcement, as even the most preliminary investigation efforts in regards to information on Unreal 4 uncovers a much larger story developing right under our collective noses – both SimBin UK, as well as Sector 3, might actually be in big trouble when it comes to the future of their software, and these announcements are possibly part of a last-ditch attempt to bail themselves out of a very precarious situation.

I mean, let’s take a step back and look at this from a very general standpoint; here you have a group of passionate sim racers who have been working with a dedicated racing simulator engine for a little over a decade – an engine they have refined and tweaked on their own for years upon years in the pursuit of realism – suddenly dropping almost everything except the 3D models in favor of starting from scratch with the building blocks typically reserved for first person shooters and adventure games that occasionally make use of a lighthearted vehicle component.

Is this not ridiculously out of place? Why is everybody just going along with this and refusing to ask serious questions?

Time to go on a bit of a journey with this one.

Above, I’ve inserted footage of someone’s little drift game they’ve built within UE4; a tech demo of sorts to show off quasi-realistic vehicle physics. Passing over the fact that it’s someone’s pet project they’ve messed around with in their spare time, let’s directly address two major themes that will undoubtedly arise as you take a gander at the video clip:

The first, is that it doesn’t look all that great; as if someone made a custom map mod for one of the Just Cause games, or quickly threw a bunch of converted content and/or community mods into Grand Theft Auto 4, recording their escapades on a third party Ebisu track. This is the Unreal Engine 4 in action – there’s excessive bloom, depth of field, and motion blur that makes it look like those shitty Xbox 360 Kinect games we all had to suffer through at one point, or Triple-A titles that are simply trying too hard on the visual aspects. This is the last thing sim racers have been asking for.

Second, despite this guy’s best efforts to create a semi-realistic racing demo within UE4, the car floats around as if it’s making use of a third party handling mod for one of the PC Grand Theft Auto titles. Now sure, simplified, approximated physics may be fine for open world sandbox games where the driving element also has to co-exist with platforming, exploration and shooting elements, but GTR3, and eventually RaceRoom Racing Experience according to Sector 3, will supposedly be making use of this engine. We’re talking a genre of games where people spend years learning how to manage their tires in an endurance racing format, maximizing every last bit of the track for the final tenth of a second advantage on their opponents, or commanding the vehicle to the absolute edge of the tire – and holding it there.

What I see above does not indicate this kind of gameplay experience will be able to thrive in Unreal Engine 4; I’m instead looking at an engine where the driving portion is just one aspect of the entire sandbox. It seems designed for open-world games where there is a driving element sitting off to the side – so war games that make use of military vehicles, or open world free-roaming sandboxes – as opposed to a hardcore racing simulators that focus solely on the art of performance driving.

Next, I’d like to present our readers with gameplay footage of Moto Racer 4, the only dedicated racing game currently available for purchase powered by the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine, as the other title is like this weird battle kart hybrid reminiscent of Mashed on the PS2. As you can tell by the title of the video, “worst game of 2016” in all capital letters, it’s obviously not very good at what it’s trying to be – a simple-minded arcade racer. An entire team of developers cannot build a budget-priced motorcycle racer with the Unreal 4 Engine, yet we’re supposed to expect this same engine to power a highly advanced racing simulation focusing on ultra-high tech GT3 and prototype entries?

Oh please.

To elaborate on this topic a bit further and sort of drill home the point I’m trying to make for people not quite sure where I’m going with this one, Wikipedia has a phenomenal list of every single game either released¬†or currently in development that’s powered by UE4, and there’s a very ominous trend that you can check for yourselves if you feel like killing five minutes of your day – race cars are nowhere to be found on this list. There are shitloads of adventure games, fighting games, shooters, role playing games, and even a pretty big list of survival horror titles, but auto racing titles are practically non-existent. To get any sort of driving game resembling a proper simulator, you have to go back to Unreal Engine 3 and take a peek at the indie rock crawling title Off-Road Drive – and even that game is unable to depict high speed vehicle behavior in a realistic fashion, with the commentator in the linked video noting the car comes to an almost instant stop the moment you let off the throttle, not to mention several instances of what’s quite frankly bizarre weight transfer and other miscellaneous bullshit.

Gee, maybe this engine isn’t very good for driving games?

KartKraft was first announced in September of 2011. At the time of this entry on PRC.net, it’s now February of 2017, and KartKraft has failed to materialize in any meaningful fashion, with major, non-abrasive sim racing outlets such as RaceDepartment openly questioning what has happened to the game. MotoRacer 4 launched in October of 2016 to abysmal critical reception. Obliteracers was a no-name arcade racer that scored a lowly 60% on Steam, and saw an embarrassing peak of 67 active users all playing the game at once. That’s the entire history of Unreal 4 powered driving games.

Three titles, one of which is vaporware and hasn’t been released to the public in seven years, one of which is a shitty battle kart racer, and the last is described as the worst racing game of 2016.

Despite this obvious red flag of developers unable to harness the power of Unreal 4 to create a captivating racing game, as well as the engine’s complete lack of history producing racing-oriented titles to the point where developers are using the engine to create anything but racing games, Sector 3 Studios, as well as SimBin UK, have decided that this engine is the future of their ultra-hardcore racing simulators, dropping an engine which was specifically built to function as a race car simulator in the process.

Sound absolutely ridiculous? Let’s keep going.

ss_b39e0e9ec9a4d332cbb8d9b6b482210a498718bb-1920x1080Several interviews with Chris and Allan Speed of the Sector 3/SimBin family have warranted lengthy explanations as to what sim racers can expect from both GTR 3, as well as RaceRoom Racing Experience in the future once both products make the switch to Unreal 4. Thanks to the excellent work of Paul Jeffrey over at RaceDepartment, we’re able to see the brothers making very concrete, specific statements regarding the future of simulators published under the Swedish umbrella of simulation studios, and upon dissecting their answers, it’s extremely cliche to say and I really need to stop using this phrase so often, but I’m left with much more questions that I’m shocked my fellow sim racers aren’t asking.

So let’s go through a few standout quotes – and please keep in mind I’ve chopped some up and cleaned up the grammar to focus on the core topic at hand:

In GTR3 we will have much improved car damage over what is industry standard at the moment, as well as a new particle system and a modern UI system.

First of all, the “new particle system” isn’t a new particle system; it’s simply Unreal’s particle system.

Second, manufacturers have placed more licensing restrictions on car damage than what we were accustomed to a decade ago – and this is something that teams like Kunos Simulazioni and Turn 10 have been very open about discussing with their users in recent times to kind of calm the complaints about very simplistic damage models. Car companies simply won’t allow heavy damage in modern driving games, so I’m confused as to how these guys intend to step it up in the fashion they’re talking about. The moment you sign a license agreement with, say, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, or Lamborghini, they call the shots – and traditionally, they say “you can’t show our cars with massive damage.” So these guys are sitting here making claims they most likely won’t be able to back up once licensing deals are on the table, waiting to be signed.

With Unreal, we will have aquaplaning and water displacement that will affect the handling of the car, as realistic as possible here. Puddles will build up around the track, rain will occur on different parts of the tracks, and there will be as much variability in the weather as we can achieve.

While it’s true that Unreal 4 supports a vast array of weather effects, these effects are purely visual – elaborate particle systems, if you will. Their inclusion does not, by default, affect how a player traverses through the game world by making the terrain more difficult to retain traction on. A developer can manually adjust basic friction and overall grip variables for the surface of the game world – or race track, to be more specific – in an effort to fabricate what a wet surface would feel like in a race car, but these advanced dynamics alleged to be introduced in GTR 3, where cars naturally hydroplane over specific puddles of water that form on the racing surface… Unreal 4 doesn’t do that.

Yes, puddles do form, and you can inject a variety of rain effects into your game which react naturally to physical objects in the environment – for example, matches played in the rain in Rocket League – but they don’t actually do anything to the racing surface or your car’s behavior. It’s an immensely detailed water splash animation; or in the case of a puddle, displacement animation.

In fact, merely running a Google search on “Unreal Engine Aquaplane” only brings up about a page of links re-directing back to the GTR 3 interview originally conducted on RaceDepartment. So we’ve got a developer saying they’ve switched to the Unreal engine partially to make use of its advanced aquaplaning simulation and treacherous wet weather driving conditions, when this feature has never actually existed in any iteration the Unreal engine and doesn’t warrant any relevant search results of people even talking about it, aside from Sector 3 and SimBin themselves.

Oops.

We will mirror the full weekend structure, rules and regulations, types of classes and individual driver strengths of that series, different weather attributes, day/night cycles, animated pit stops everything you would expect from that series will be included.

Again, Unreal 4 supports the ability for a talented group of content creators to inject day/night cycles into the sandbox, and even compose their own weather patterns if they’re wanting to go to that extent. That’s not the issue here. However, these elaborate visual effects and atmospheric conditions are not tied into vehicle physics; injecting a fancy third party weather plug-in will not suddenly make your vehicle’s engine generate more or less horsepower based on the humidity, air temperature, and elevation – which I assume is what the duo mean by “different weather attributes.”

In fact, vehicle editing as a whole is extremely basic, a far cry from the elaborate HDV files isiMotor enthusiasts are used to obsessing over. So not only has the complexity of vehicle editing been reduced dramatically compared to the simulation-oriented engine Sector 3 and SimBin plan to depart from, believing you can somehow tie weather into vehicle performance is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Additionally ,we are going to improve on the physics found in RaceRoom Racing Experience, and take over the best bits of the audio from RaceRoom as well.

The Unreal Engine is almost a closed toolbox of sorts; you simply can’t take part of one game engine, and throw it into another without years upon years of work – as the engine was never designed for that to begin with. It has been designed so you open up the toolbox and create a game with Unreal. So how are you going to improve on physics created in a purpose-built race car simulation engine by starting from scratch in a toolbox where car physics are greatly simplified and considered only a fraction of the entire experience, and still manage to have an internal playable demo within six months time created by a team of anywhere from four to seven individuals?

Unreal is an engine used to create first person shooters. The AI has been built for humans and bots, the collisions are built for characters, and the ballistics are built for guns. You can’t remove these characteristics from the core engine, so it’s no wonder that no major racing simulator – or even the odd arcade racer, for that matter – has been constructed using Unreal as a base. The ones that try, fail spectacularly.

suspensionSo after two thousand words, you’re probably wondering what in the hell is going on here?

After looking at some of the stuff above, and the overall storyline fueling this blog entry – a hardcore racing simulator developer announcing they’re dropping a trustworthy sim engine in favor of something that traditionally powers first person shooters – one important question still remains: Why are Sector 3 Studios and SimBin UK choosing to pursue this route when it’s absolutely nonsensical for them to do so?

Though we’re obviously not privy to all the inner-workings that would undoubtedly help flesh out the conclusion a story like this, one thing we do know for certain is that ISI’s baby, rFactor 2, is now living comfortably under Studio 397 banner, with Marcel Offermans and Luminis in charge of the project to a certain degree. I’m under the impression that there was more to this deal than most originally thought, as it’s extremely suspicious that after Sector 3 and SimBin have spent over a decade using the isiMotor engine in all of their software, merely months after rFactor 2 has changed hands and there’s been a shakeup of sorts at ISI, one of the main developers powered by ISI simulator technology is suddenly expressing their desire to jump ship to a first person shooter engine. The timing of that is a little too impeccable to be a coincidence.

You do not develop hardcore auto racing simulations for over a decade using a purpose-built auto racing engine, only to suddenly abandon everything except your physical assets and run to an engine that quite frankly has no purpose creating racing games let alone simulators, while struggling to explain the benefits this new engine will provide your upcoming games. This is sketchy as fuck, and I’m disappointed I’m the only one pointing this all out.

gRally Struggles to Remain Relevant

772533407_preview_grally07Just because you can build it, doesn’t mean you should. The development of open source PC rally simulator gRally was once a quest to move on from the ancient Richard Burns Rally platform by taking the best bits of what the rally sim community could come up with and packing their work into an entirely new title, but with five years spent behind closed doors, virtually no major advancements in development to speak of, and a very different sim racing landscape compared to when the title was first teased in December of 2012, I have a very difficult time supporting what RBR-Online.it are attempting to do in the spring of 2017. gRally has moved onto Steam Greenlight, so they’re inching closer to letting the public have a go at what the indie simulator has to offer, but a very important question needs to be answered – does anyone actually care?

No, they don’t. And there are fairly valid reasons as to why.

grallysim-2014-05-01-08-59-47-933According to VirtualR, talk of gRally first began sometime in 2011, which at least provided a reason for this project to start up in the first place. At the time, rally simulators just weren’t made, and the few rally games on the market had taken a very casual approach that put off a lot of hardcore simulation fans. The Milestone WRC titles were nothing to write home about, featuring giant tracks and a really simplistic handling model, while Codemasters’ own DiRT 3 injected a lot of non-rally elements into the core gameplay experience, forcing many of our resident sim dads to tolerate both short course off road racing, as well as freestyle gymkhana, in addition to what was a very simplified point-to-point rally offering – intended primarily for a different generation of gamers.

Richard Burns Rally had also been getting a bit long in the tooth; people were simply tired of modding it, sick of working with ancient software and the limitations placed by SCi on the actual rallying due to the technology they were working with at the time – so it was only natural to want something more. RBR-Online.it basically came out and said they’d provide a solution to these problems by creating their own simulator that met everyone’s needs.

Then they went silent for several years.

sweden-vw-3-r_ndhr-jpgIn the meantime, the market became over-saturated with rally games, and not just any rally games, but good rally games. While the team behind gRally were hard at work on their own little simulator, Codemasters built a spiritual successor to Richard Burns Rally in private, and just sort of released it on Steam one day without any prior warning. DiRT Rally was an instant success, warranting a current generation console release, as well as a PlayStation VR re-release a few months later. Milestone, the company who once spearheaded the officially licensed WRC titles, lost the WRC license, but promptly set out to build their own hardcore simulator. Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo features significantly more content than DiRT Rally, though your experience may vary depending on your platform of choice – the PC version can be turned into a sublime experience with certain third party patches which remove trademark Milestone niggles, while the PS4 version suffers from enormous framerate and input lag problems.

Regardless, there are two exceptional modern rally simulators you can currently purchase for the PC, built by massive developer teams with equally massive budgets and licenses.

richardburnsrally_sse-2016-12-10-14-11-01-98And we haven’t even gotten to the other two players. The WRC license ended up going to a French team by the name of Kylotonn Games, who stumbled out of the gate in 2015 with WRC 5, but allegedly put together a somewhat acceptable simcade offering with WRC 6 in 2016 – depending on which sim racing outlets you trust. Richard Burns Rally, a simulator rally enthusiasts have been playing & modding for over a decade, has also been blown wide open, with the NGP physics project basically re-building the game from the ground up, producing a driving model that takes lessons learned from other modern simulators and generates much more convincing tire behavior at the limit of adhesion compared to the vanilla experience – which saw literal rocket ships maintain crazy slip angles that added to the title’s Grand Prix Legends-like reputation of being completely fucking ridiculous for veteran sim racers to master.

So there are four reasonable rally simulators on the market in February of 2017. The team behind gRally believe there is room for a fifth, and it looks like this:

The major sim racing websites will all celebrate this game’s arrival on Steam Greenlight, but I can’t say I echo their enthusiasm. We are spoiled with high quality rally simulators, as DiRT Rally, Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo, and Richard Burns Rally 2016 are all available at this very moment – with the latter being a free download thanks to the game’s abandonware status. Codemasters have also recently revealed their plans to release DiRT 4 in June of 2017, bringing that number to four by the time the public would be able to get their hands on gRally in some sort of beta environment.

hq720I’m unsure what incentive anybody would have to buy this game. DiRT 3 was free at some point last year and basically any person on the planet who didn’t already own it yet was still curious about the game, now have DiRT 3 in their Steam library, which despite the addition of race types unrelated to point-to-point rallying, is still a fantastic all-encompassing off-road racing game. DiRT Rally was essentially a high-res remake of Richard Burns Rally, Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo offers more content than DiRT Rally and a more realistic sense of weight transfer provided you pick up the third-party patch that unfucks all of Milestone’s hiccups, and DiRT 4 will be on store shelves in a few short months – a game boasting randomly generated stages, online leagues, and a massive single player career mode. And if none of the above sound appealing, you can just go out and download a 2016 upgrade for Richard Burns Rally, as the game is technically abandonware and people can just release the whole game, brought up to 2016 standards, on Mediafire.

gRally, on the other hand, have sent out this incredible list of features to get people excited.

  • gRally is not in a position to have official licenses at the moment and its starting point is a limited number of racing cars.
  • gRally, considered its Indie character, is modding-oriented. We developed integrated Unity tools that will facilitate the insertion of your creations, whether it be additional cars or tracks.
  • gRally recreates the range of real rally conditions that drivers must face, including various type of surface and climate as well as different times of day and night.

Next to no content, visually unappealing, powered by the Unity engine, and encouraging scratch-built modding projects – all when a game set to be released in a few months has an in-game stage generation tool… Why should we be excited for this, exactly? In 2011, I can at least see why this game was on the drawing board, but fast forward to 2017, and it’s instead horrendously dated, falling behind no less than four or five rally games that offer an infinitely better experience.

I’m genuinely surprised the project wasn’t scrapped; there is no point to this title’s existence.

Guitar Queer-o

16716053_1375071449232086_8758369761658143409_oWhile there was a bit of an uproar when it was revealed that DiRT Rally for the PlayStation 4 Virtual Reality headset would ship with additional content not seen in the vanilla package, those fears can officially be put to rest, though they now indicate that sim developers might not know how to craft a compelling and innovative experience for this technology. Introduced as a PSVR exclusive feature, DiRT Rally’s co-driver mode was kept heavily under wraps in the lead up to the title’s release, with many sim racers speculating about Codemasters creating some sort of online co-operative functionality just for this specific segment of the userbase – one which put you in the passenger seat and tasked you with reading out pacenotes to your buddy of choice as they flew through Sweden, Wales, or Monte Carlo – but the reality is unfortunately much different, and significantly more ridiculous than anyone could have envisioned.

Codemasters made a Guitar Hero mini-game for DiRT Rally.

Seriously.

thunderstruckInstead of pairing you with a friend riding shotgun – also sporting a VR headset from the comfort of his own home – tasked with reading out complex strands of stage notes at a lightning quick pace from the virtual passenger seat to ensure your success on any of the game’s twelve stages, DiRT Rally’s co-driver mode asks you to hand your little brother the Dualshock 4 so he can play a shitty knock-off version of Guitar Hero on the main monitor, where him successfully hitting each note translates to the correct visual directions being displayed on-screen.

There was a huge opportunity for Codemasters to go out and create a memorable diversion that could potentially show off the unique experience a VR headset can provide under the right conditions, and instead they’ve straight up missed it by a country mile. Inserting a simplified version of Guitar Hero into a game most of us have already played to exhaustion, and designing the mode in such a way where it only applies to bystanders who probably won’t want to sit and watch you play DiRT Rally to begin with, won’t get people to rush out and pick up a copy of DiRT Rally VR. We already know that racing games are an incredibly unique way to showcase what a virtual reality headset can do at its absolute best, but we’re at the point where developers need to innovate and take things to the next level.

This certainly isn’t it. In fact, it’s perpetuating the stereotype of VR-based titles being more of a fancy tech demo than anything else, with developers struggling to find out what to do with this technology beyond the initial application of first-person viewpoints.

Above, I’ve linked a twenty one minute compilation of Giant Bomb co-founder and former Gamespot persona Jeff Gerstmann struggling to understand how virtual reality will retain a long-term appeal, as he demonstrates numerous fully-priced PSVR titles that just aren’t very exciting pieces of software. While some of his experience is hampered by technological issues that make him visibly uncomfortable during his trial runs, Jeff notes that after you get over the initial “coolness” of physically existing inside a game world and being able to look around at your own discretion, the decline in texture resolution and lack of exciting quirks to make it more than just an extreme first person view isn’t enough to offset the obvious cons of the hardware.

To combat this, developers such as Codemasters need to push the envelope and offer genuinely interesting diversions to their software that really justifies the existence of a purpose-built VR title. A Guitar Hero spin-off isn’t that.

Codemasters, listen up. Let us walk around the car in the service park to inspect the damage, and make repairs by physically kneeling next to the vehicle and ripping the bumper off, or changing a few tires if it’s needed. Make the user nod their head up and down to indicate to the official to start the count-down clock for each stage. Create a co-op mode, where you can invite a buddy to your offline session, and his ass is thrown in the passenger seat, where he can look at his lap and read out pacenotes – which would actually be of use in DiRT 4, as the randomly generated stages will be impossible to memorize and actually require someone to get good at co-driving should this mode exist. And on closed-circuit off road races, make it so mud accumulates on the visor of the helmet, requiring the user to either shake their head, or wave their hand in front of the censor, for the virtual avatar to rip away a tear-off.

This is all shit I’m just pulling out of my ass on a boring Saturday evening, but I’m sure a large portion of the DiRT audience would appreciate these little elements to a Guitar Hero mode that will be used exactly once before promptly being ignored for the rest of the game’s lifespan. Otherwise, if this is the kind of “innovation” we can expect from the VR generation, don’t expected it to last very long.

 

Not Very Exciting: The rFactor 2 February 2017 Roadmap

20170217175429_1I think before I dive deep into discussing what Studio 397 have talked about in their February 2017 roadmap for rFactor 2, it’s important to come out and say that I have an obvious bias against the number one eternal science project that’s just sort of been sitting off in its own little corner, regardless of who is currently responsible for its ongoing development. I purchased rFactor 2 during the spring of 2013, and since then it simply hasn’t evolved as a complete package in the way a lot of us expected it to; dated visuals, an AI component which has the tendency to go bonkers unless you stick to specific combinations, and a really poor selection of vanilla cars and tracks have done little to captivate me into dealing with the significantly smaller modding scene and barren wasteland of an online community. There’s nothing all that exciting to drive, not many people to race against, it doesn’t look very good, and the stuff it does do well, other simulators accomplish with about the same proficiency.

The only time I actually deal with rFactor 2 in any sort of meaningful sim racing fashion is when I’m paid to officiate private events at the local sim center, and even then, we’re already exhausted our options with the default array of content; you obviously need a commercial license to use certain freeware mods in a paid customer environment, and that’s not an easy thing to acquire when a large portion of rFactor 2’s content has been converted and/or ripped from other simulators.

20170217162351_1Studio 397 have been publishing these little blog posts once a month to kind of keep people informed on the state of rFactor 2, and I gotta give credit where credit is due, at least they’re trying to be transparent with the whole process. Image Space Incorporated were notorious for their slow development times, and we’ve even had some people come to us with info regarding what was going on behind the scenes, and long story short, it’s a very good thing they’re out of the picture now.

However, I still feel Studio 397 have inherited a sinking ship.

The blog post begins with Studio 397 revealing they’ve began work on implementing a virtual reality component into rFactor 2, which will accommodate popular consumer headsets such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Now at face value this indicates they’re doing their best to keep up with what’s new and hot in the world of gaming technology, but if you dig around the sim racing community, the overall reception towards VR headsets appears to be changing. Both Paul Jeffrey of RaceDepartment, as well as Shaun Cole of The SimPit, have uploaded pieces that draw attention to a very different side of the VR craze, hinting that these elusive headsets are on their way to being a passing fad that wasn’t quite ready for a large scale commercial audience.

Mainstream VR technology is still very much in it’s infancy, with issues surrounding the pixel density one of the main concerns from members of the public perhaps looking to upgrade from their current viewing solutions. As of today, no current VR headset can hope to match the graphics quality one can achieve with a standard monitor setup, let alone come close to the Ultra HD / 4k screens some lucky gamers have access to within their own gaming rooms. Couple this with the need to pack some serious hardware into your gaming PC in order to run the vast majority of VR ready title’s at a reasonable performance level, it quickly becomes clear that VR gaming has not quite reached the stage where everyone would be willing to take up the obvious advantages, despite the many remaining pitfalls of the technology. – Paul Jeffrey, RaceDepartment

While Paul’s article is more of a quasi-opinion piece that highlights both the positives and negatives of this new technology, concluding with an admission that the resolution just isn’t quite there yet, Shaun Cole’s comments provide very interesting insight into the public reception to VR technology. Away from his YouTube channel and the “online” sim racing community of sorts, Shaun is paid by simulator companies to help work their trade show booths and demonstrate elaborate simulator rigs, some of which include the use of VR headsets. Shaun notes that at a lot of these events, he’s made a mental note of the percentage of people that get sick from the headsets, or the number of times the Oculus units suffer from hardware failure… As he puts it, VR is a great experience for himself, but it’s not a great “shared experience” – it’s just not catching on and exploding like a lot of people predicted.

Coming back to how this relates to rFactor 2, Studio 397 have embarked on the task of implementing VR functionality into their main simulator – which obviously isn’t easy – at a period where its actual popularity is sort of in limbo. This might not pay off for them.

20170217170928_1There’s talk of implementing some kind of detailed stat tracking system that they’re calling “competition infrastructure”, but details are pretty scant at the moment, so we’re basically left to speculate on this front. My biggest worry, even if Studio 397 do manage to sit down and create a simpler version of iRacing that everybody unanimously agrees is a decent effort at organized online racing, is that rFactor 2 just doesn’t offer enough exciting content to warrant multiplayer series, nor does it have the userbase to make use of new infrastructure.

For example, taking an outdated Camaro GT3 car that nobody cares for to a track barely anybody is familiar with, like Atlanta Motorsports Park or the Tiger Moth Aerodrome, just isn’t going to get people excited when Sector 3 (and Reiza Studios as well, now that I think about it) will be introducing the same kind of experience to the market very shortly, boasting multiple seasons of GT3, DTM, and Group 5 racing.

And we haven’t even started to talk about iRacing or Project CARS 2, though in this instance, I shouldn’t need to.

Running events at the simulator center, I’ve seen this problem manifest itself firsthand. Currently we’re making use of the URD cars in a WTCC style two-race format, with a 40 minute practice and 10 minute qualification process to kick off the evening. People wanna run Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Infineon Raceway, Watkins Glen, and instead there’s like… the Charlotte infield road course, this weird fantasy track called Loch Drummond, or this knock-off Top Gear track, so instead we’re forced to run Interlagos & Estoril twice.

So Studio 397 are working on some sort of competitive online format, but there’s nothing in rFactor 2 that you can’t already find an abundance of in a rival simulator, all of which plan to offer their own online competition stuff in the near future if they don’t already do.

rf2-gfxThe next main topic I’d like to discuss is the change from DX9 to DX11, which unfortunately isn’t the major leap people were expecting. I get this is primarily for under the hood stuff and designed to future-proof the software, but rFactor 2 at the moment has this horrid, washed-out look to everything, and they desperately need to do something drastic in an effort to move away from this sterile vibe they’ve got going on. Instead, their comparison shots have basically jacked up the contrast and put a blue filter on everything, which some people have been able to re-create by photoshopping the DirectX 9 image supplied by Studio 397.

To my surprise, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the base software wasn’t so visually unappealing; for example, iRacing will be abandoning DX9 support very shortly, but their software already looks half-decent for what it’s used for, so people don’t need to be kicking and screaming for some sort of massive graphics overhaul with DX11. However, rFactor 2 is cemented into the bad part of 2012, and the rest of the industry has moved on. It’s fairly disappointing to see this big reveal warrant a blue filter and some darker shadows that in some instances – such as the first image I’ve inserted into this post – have actually made the game look more cartoonish due to the increase in contrast.

eventinfosectorsThere are plans to re-do the user interface, plans to insert radio functionality – sort of pointless when everyone’s already using Discord or Teamspeak – as well as plans to create this private modding forum to help bring all these modders together and train them on how to create content for rFactor 2 more effectively.¬† And I mean, some of this sounds good on paper, but unfortunately, the last element is just too little, too late. There simply aren’t enough people making stuff for rFactor 2 as it is for this to be even the least bit beneficial. We’re just not seeing the massive mods for rFactor 2 that encompass entire grids of vehicles that we were once privileged enough to receive from talented community members for the original game.

20170217165301_1NOLA Motorsports Park will be released on February 28th, marking the addition of yet another empty, uninspiring racing facility to rFactor 2 that will nicely compliment other tracks people promptly push aside, such as Palm Beach, Atlanta Motorsports Park, Mores, Toban, Mills Metro Park, and the multiple infield road courses featured at Homestead, Charlotte, and Indianapolis.

God that’s a horrible track list.

Obviously we’ll continue to monitor the development of rFactor 2 as it’s a modern racing simulator still trying to earn its piece of the spotlight, but as you can see, it’s just extremely hard to get excited about this title, and I’m left wishing Studio 397 would just start over on an entirely new project. I’m honestly confused as to what they’re trying to salvage here, though to their credit, at least they’re trying.