“Been Trying to Get Beta Access For a While…”

14500317_10154538904941085_4714524617106418717_oPart of what makes iRacing so special to the sim racing community is the testimonials page proudly displayed on the game’s official website. Boasting a lengthy list of world-renowned race car drivers from multiple disciplines of professional auto racing, names such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Garth Tander, and Simon Pagenaud all claim to be iRacing connoisseurs during their few select weekends away from the race track, using the software as a way to keep their skills behind the wheel in sharp form. The alleged unparalleled authenticity on display in the software for your average sim racer to immerse themselves in is implied to be the result of many of these drivers (and their teams) assisting the development team with the ongoing development of the sim – and who better to troubleshoot handling inconsistencies than someone who pilots the car in real life, right?

Unfortunately, the most basic of digging reveals these testimonials are purely a marketing gimmick.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the iRacing side of things as of late, a major new addition to the simulator is set to be released later this year. While not everyone’s cup of tea, dirt oval racing will be making its way to the iRacing software in the form of Sprint Cars and Late Models; the first time this discipline will be available in any sort of video game since the budget-priced officially licensed World of Outlaws title in 2010. Obviously, there’s been a lot of fanfare from the oval racing crowd in regards to this project; many North American iRacers are amateur dirt track drivers themselves, and the ones who aren’t most likely have one or two tracks they frequent as a spectator within driving distance. It’s a big deal to have a studio as experienced as iRacing trying to replicate this form of motorsports, especially since the dirt oval sim racing community has largely relied on guesswork rFactor mods for the better part of a decade.

However, some iRacers have already questioned just how accurate the depiction of dirt oval competition will be, and these comments have ignited a firestorm of sorts that perfectly displays the contrast between real race car drivers attempting to understand the popularity of iRacing, and the computer nerds desperate to use the software as a way to live out their failed racing dreams.

armchairSportsman dirt driver William Dahl gets the ball rolling by merely suggesting iRacing should find real world dirt track drivers to help fine-tune the new discipline before it’s released to iRacers around the world. Dahl also notes that he had tried his friend’s real life Super Late Model setup – which won at South Boston Speedway a few weeks prior – and the real world numbers used in his buddy’s car did not translate to the iRacing garage area at all . This was the whole point of iRacing, and is part of the reason Dahl is eager to at least give some input on the dirt track experience before paying customers are used as guinea pigs.

iRacing fanboys show up to call Dahl an “armchair expert”, one claims “just because you are a good real driver doesn’t mean you are a good sim driver” – as if sim racing is somehow more hardcore than strapping your ass into the real thing – and lastly, a final user states “how can someone who drives real cars explain the physics present in a simulation?” Dahl, completely blown away by the absurd replies he is receiving, promptly uploads a picture of his car, and leaves the discussion. Actually, he might still be shit talking with them. Who knows.

My mind is absolutely blown by what I’ve read. iRacing literally parades around a massive page of testimonials featuring drivers from all four corners of the earth talking about how great their simulator is – sometimes allegedly enlisting their help to build a car (Shane Van Gisbergen was brought on-board to tweak the Ford Falcon V8 Supercar) and yet iRacing fanboys are genuinely ganging up on a real driver willing to provide feedback for the simulation by saying he’s not qualified to talk about race car computer games. You’ve heard it here first, folks! Simon Pagenaud may have won the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship for Penske Racing, but according to your resident iRacing cucks shown above, he has no right to talk about how the Dallara DW12 drives in a video game. This isn’t just one guy who’s had a bit too much to drink, either – multiple people are echoing the same sentiment. There is literally a real life dirt driver in the comments section of an iRacing post on Facebook saying “hey, I’ll help test this dirt stuff for you because I race dirt ovals in real life”, and is being shot down by a host of iRacing losers for supposedly not knowing what he’s talking about.

So I guess iRacing can just delete the whole testimonials page – apparently the main premise of their simulator – real drivers both contributed to the development of the game and use it as a training tool – doesn’t matter anymore. And I’d stop there and end the article on that note, but I can actually go further.

2015-pics-11Elliott Skeer, let’s talk about him for a bit. According to his official website, Skeer is currently a driver in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series, won the 2015 Porsche Carrera Cup USA championship, and was a successful Mazda MX-5 cup driver from 2011 to 2014 – setting a track record at Laguna Seca in the process. In the shot above, that’s him leading the field at Sebring. iRacing loves to talk about this guy, and for good reason – he’s an incredibly accomplished driver who’s also young enough to seamlessly transfer his skills from the computer to the real thing and back again. Of course, there’s the complimentary massive article on him that can be found on the official iRacing website, and it’s what you could expect from a fairly standard marketing spiel – iRacing made me a better driver, I knew the tracks from iRacing… That sort of thing.

skeer-1Now, when the 2015 Mazda MX-5 Cup car was released for the iRacing software during March of 2016, you’re probably right to assume Skeer or someone close to him had a hand in the development of the car, correct? I mean, it basically says they do this on the official website, and Skeer was somebody they had a great relationship with.

ir-notesIt’s a no-brainer to bring this kid on board so he can help iron out the kinks in the virtual car – he’s basically the best Mazda Miata driver in North America, and he’s also a dedicated sim racer. There is no reason notto let Skeer try the car beforehand and give the last bit of feedback needed to make it a truly phenomenal experience.

es-quoteApparently to the iRacing development team, it’s not a no-brainer. Skeer can be seen in the same comments section as William Dahl, frustrated with iRacing that they refused to listen to his input or even give him beta tester status. The stories of real drivers helping iRacing to build an upcoming car or two? Yeah, this sort of calls all that into question. If one of the best race car drivers in North America under the age of 25 – someone the developer team has already struck up a relationship with – isn’t giving the cars he has driven out on the real track a final virtual shakedown, who is?  Could this be the reason behind why so many iRacing cars are unleashed upon the public with hilariously broken driving dynamics? Remember how the McLaren 12c GT3 couldn’t take kerbs upon release? Or how the Lotus 49 was a complete deathtrap despite then-newcomer Alex Rossi wheeling the car around Circuit of the Americas without much difficulty? Should we talk about the asphalt sprint car driving like it’s on dirt, or the K&N Stock Car having hidden traction control?

This is an especially strange situation to talk about given iRacing’s status in the sim racing community. They’ve got all sorts of drivers from all kinds of different racing disciplines ready and willing to test out the software – and some of these drivers have some serious credentials. If iRacing is supposedly being built with the help of real world race teams, and being used as a training tool by such a diverse array of accomplished race car drivers, why are they instead making the comments we’ve documented above? Why are drivers they’ve paraded around as sim racing ambassadors openly questioning on Facebook why they’re not even allowed to test upcoming iRacing projects? What’s going on here?

 

 

How the No Man’s Sky Debacle Affects Sim Racing

ams-2016-09-19-16-33-00-42The flood gates are about to open, and a precedent is about to be set. For the first time in the history of gaming, consumers genuinely angry with a developer over the quality of a finished product may receive their comeuppance in a fairly substantial way. Multiple mainstream sources have reported Hello Games are under investigation from a UK-based entity known as the Advertising Standards Authority in regards to their 2016 commercial success-turned-critical flop, No Man’s Sky. The investigation primarily draws attention to the content of the game’s promotional material, compared to what was actually available and functional for consumers to explore in the final product; the outcome of which is certain to send shockwaves throughout the entire gaming industry. They might not shatter windows or knock people to the ground, but they will exist, and that’s good enough for us.

There are no set instructions to follow when creating a video game. If you’d like to compose a simple text adventure allegedly simulating the effects of depression on the end user, you’re welcome to do so. Your campaign mode is not required to be longer than six hours and thirty seven minutes, nor are you obligated to include online multiplayer functionality or a host of bonus content. However, the preposterous claims made about No Man’s Sky by Sean Murray of Hello Games throughout the pre-release media campaign simply did not match what customers received when they opened the package on launch day. The Advertising Standards Authority will most certainly find Hello Games in violation of several false advertising guidelines, and with the current state of sim racing allowing developers to get away with unfinished eternal science projects, the specific results of this investigation may give our little genre a subtle kick in the ass it so desperately needs.

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If you haven’t been following the endless drama surrounding the multi-platform space exploration sandbox No Man’s Sky, the synopsis is surprisingly easy to grasp. An indie developer with a very limited back catalog announced plans to depart from their previous series of games create a procedurally generated next-generation space simulator, dazzling the E3 2014 audience with an impressive trailer indicating this might be the next big thing to take over gaming. Sean Murray, the individual in charge of Hello Games, let the new-found popularity inflate his ego, and made extremely outrageous claims about what you could see, do, and explore in No Man’s Sky throughout various promotional campaign appearances. Upon the title’s release, which raked in enormous sales figures and generated what’s possibly the most hype ever for a PlayStation 4 title, customers were unanimously disappointed with the game’s mammoth list of bugs, and slowly discovered many features discussed at length in promotional videos by Sean Murray himself – such as the entire online multiplayer component – were nowhere to be found.

Long-winded complaint monologues outnumbered genuine gameplay uploads on YouTube, Valve’s Steam platform allowed full refunds of the title outside of the allotted 120 minutes of trial time, and lengthy compilations of Sean Murray discussing gameplay elements that did not exist in the retail version of No Man’s Sky earned more individual views than the game had active players. While it’s not uncommon for even the most polished of titles to have a core group of online trolls embarking upon a smear campaign for one reason or another, nearly the entire audience of No Man’s Sky unanimously dug out their pitchforks and began writing nasty emails to anyone who would listen – because the footage didn’t lie. To everyone’s surprise, entities like the Advertising Standards Authority actually listened to them and confirmed that their outrage was justified. So even before any action has been taken against Hello Games, Sony, or Valve, the mere fact that a United Kingdom-based consumer rights group has sprang into action indeed confirmed that bad video games with misleading advertisement campaigns are something no customer should be forced to deal with.

But how does this affect sim racing?

gsc-2016-02-23-21-05-48-16Some say we’re currently in a Golden Age of Sim Racing, but I find that hard to believe. Developers openly despise their audience, and pick fights with specific users across multiple message boards with little to no reprocussions. Games like NASCAR Heat, Assetto Corsa, MX vs. ATV Supercross, and Project CARS all arrived on store shelves in a less than satisfactory state, yet failed to attract any meaningful attention to the underlying problems thanks to the decline in popularity of modern racing games.

We’ve had to put up with some phenomenally buggy games, hostile developers, and advertising campaigns that your average consumer could see right through – or in some cases, easily prove they were outright lies. Any sort of precedent being set through the eventual conclusion of the No Man’s Sky investigation means all video games, including obscure race car titles that only a few hundred people care about, will hopefully be held to a higher standard. That means better games for us, and less developers trying to see how little of a product sim racers will still hand over money for. We’re at a point where Assetto Corsa on the PS4 won’t let you create a room for just you and your friends to race in & was buggy as hell, and NASCAR Heat suffers from massive framerate issues and doesn’t even have yellow flags in online races. This isn’t cool, and it would be nice if developers were forced to listen to the complaints, rather than strategically write us off as trolls.

And developers who openly discuss certain features that eventually don’t make it into the retail game? That’ll stop, too.

Let’s look back on some instances we’ve seen of false advertising or deceptive media as it relates to four wheels and a closed circuit.

maxresdefaultClubs in Test Drive Unlimited 2

It wasn’t the greatest open world driving game, and the car roster had been significantly reduced compared to the original, but Test Drive Unlimited 2 featured two massive islands to explore, and an increased emphasis placed on competitive multiplayer racing. The main bullet point of the new online features, Car Clubs, had been intended to be a way to team up with your friends and hold automotive clan matches in what was a lighthearted yet functional street racing environment. Yes, the driving physics weren’t all that engrossing, and the NPC dialogue was insufferable, but underneath the distinct warts, there was an enjoyable online experience waiting to be unleashed, and on paper it seemed like this might keep people playing for a while.

For the first three, maybe four months of the game, Car Clubs didn’t work. The entire mode simply wasn’t functional. Online events as a whole were quite sketchy and suffered from prominent lag & connection issues, but car clubs didn’t even exist at launch. And this was a pretty big deal. Lots of people loved the original Test Drive Unlimited, and were really hyped for the sequel even though a new developer had taken over the franchise. This was supposed to be the main reason you and your buddies would purchase the game, yet it didn’t actually work when it needed to the most. By the time it did, most customers who bought TDU2 had already moved on or returned it entirely.

tftOnline Multiplayer in NHRA Top Fuel Thunder

It’s certainly not everyone’s favorite discipline of auto racing, but a company by the name of Motorsims/Moto1.net had a string of critically acclaimed drag racing games in the late 1990’s, during a period in gaming where basically every major motorsports series – from SODA to the BTCC – had an officially licensed simulator. The third iteration of the series, NHRA Top Fuel Thunder, arrived on store shelves in 2003 and advertised online multiplayer functionality; building on the success of the Moto1.net online racing hub seen in NHRA Drag Racing: Main Event. Now I can confirm there’s an online multiplayer menu in Top Fuel Thunder, but it was never functional during any point in the game’s short lifespan. The developer behind the NHRA series, Moto1.net, closed its doors shortly after Top Fuel Thunder was released. Many of the staff members got on-board with ValuSoft and Lucky Chicken Games, continuing to release NHRA products for the PlayStation 2 – some of which are actually quite good for hardcore drag racing fans.

next-car-game-2014-02-22-17-57-29-22Wreckfest Still Isn’t Done

Bugbear, the company behind FlatOut, came back in a big way during the 2013-2014 holiday season. Resurrecting the style of chaotic racing found in their previous franchise with modern graphics Wreckfest arrived on Steam’s Early Access platform in January of 2014. With three months to go before I’m forced to buy a 2017 Taylor Swift calendar, the game still hasn’t been released, and looks virtually the same now as it did almost three years ago.

Valve’s Early Access program allows developers to sell unfinished games at a fraction of the price as a full game, but doesn’t force developers to actually finish their game and deem it to be completed. Wreckfest, although sitting in the relatively obscure land of racing games not many people care about, is a prime example to use when pushing for a reform to the entire Early Access system. Yes, people paid a discounted price to play the game early and give the developers relevant feedback that can help shape the final product into something satisfactory, but that in itself is the catch if you will – there is no “final product” when it comes to Wreckfest. It’s not even close to being done despite sitting on the market for 36 months in beta form, and users were expecting it to be. That’s generally how this stuff is supposed to work.

When people buy into an Early Access game, they’re under the impression that the game will eventually be finished or deemed “done” by the developers. Wreckfest is just sort of sitting there on Steam, neglected by Bugbear, who instead announced there will be two more Early Access versions of Wreckfest.

indy500The Indianapolis 500 and Oval Racing in Project CARS

An entire year before the game’s release, Slightly Mad Studios posted a lengthy press release proudly announcing that the Indianapolis 500, as well as the entire 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series, would be available in Project CARS when it launched later that year – eventually being pushed back to the spring of 2015. By the time the game actually landed on store shelves, there were no oval tracks to be found, even despite the presence of an American Stock Car, and only the Dallara DW-12 made it into the game – albeit as part of a larger DLC pack; the drivers, teams, and liveries of the current Verizon IndyCar Series campaign were nowhere to be found. Any kind of content that inserts the Verizon IndyCar Series into Project CARS has still yet to materialize.

An official statement in regards to both the Indianapolis 500 license, as well as the presence of oval racing, has never been made. Instead, Project CARS fans were told deep inside an already lengthy thread on the official message board for the game that Slightly Mad Studios couldn’t get the artificial intelligence to navigate oval tracks in an acceptable manner, and the functionality would be held off until the game’s sequel.

1245086_origSony and Fanatec Fight, Proceed to Hurt Consumers

It’s less false advertising, and more of a strategic lack of information. This one’s pretty easy to explain: Fanatec is a company that makes high-end toy steering wheels to be used on a multitude of devices. Earlier in the year, many of their products worked for all major racing games available on the PlayStation 4. Within a week or so, compatibility was dropped. A flock of new titles that arrived on the shelves, including the highly anticipated F1 2016, alongside the now-redundant Assetto Corsa, were not compatible with Fanatec products.

There was no major announcement for this lack of compatibility, and no effort made by mainstream sim racing news outlets (aside from us) to let people know that it was time to get rid of your Fanatec stuff. Sim racers were supposed to infer, from the official wheel compatibility list released for each individual game, that Sony and Fanatec had a falling out for whatever reason. It would have been great to see this discussed on Kotaku, Giant Bomb, or VirtualR, but all outlets suspiciously declined to talk about something that actually caused major problems with a lot of sim racers. As I said, they basically woke up one morning and discovered the mighty expensive wheel they just purchased was now a fancy paperweight due to licensing agreements which had changed overnight. Again, not entirely false advertising, but it was extremely dirty how the industry as a whole handled this situation. Consumers basically didn’t know until it was too late. Not everyone who bought Assetto Corsa or F1 2016 was dedicated enough to comb through the support forums for their favorite title.

gsc-2015-04-04-16-13-26-09Realistically, the No Man’s Sky investigation will force Valve and Hello Games to change the promotional material revolving around the game to reflect what’s actually included within the retail experience. I’m not completely delusional here, this isn’t some massive supreme court case that will sculpt the future of gaming. However, the fact that we’re at this point indicates there is indeed a line in the sand that developers can’t cross when selling a $60 video game to the masses. There’s proof virtually everywhere that Sean Murray and Hello Games did not deliver on what was promised in No Man’s Sky, and there’s a whole host of other problems documenting widespread technical issues that quite frankly shouldn’t be appearing in a $60 video game.

For any sort of agency to physically research why so many people are upset with the experience found in an entertainment product, it’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s one inch closer to a point where customers can hold developers fully accountable for a sub-par product. In sim racing, with so many unsatisfactory releases and hostile personalities showing up on a yearly basis, we need the industry to keep progressing in this direction. I’m stoked that we’re progressing away from cucked businessmen who chalk up negative reviews to hostile nerds on the internet; the sheer fact that someone with more authority than a basic customer understands a video game can be bad and not worth the $60 asking price gives me hope for the future.

Credit Card Factor

credit-card-factorCD key warehouses can be a solid way to save a few dollars on your new PC gaming purchase, but unfortunately Studio 397 have discovered the dark side of this sketchy grey market. Almost 100 copies of rFactor 2’s non-Steam version were acquired by one of these outlets via stolen credit cards before being converted into the Steam edition and sold to users through their respective websites. Once it had been confirmed that the relatively large amount of rFactor 2 keys were originally obtained with a stolen credit card, Studio 397 were forced to deactivate 97 rFactor 2 keys on the users who had purchased them from said CD key outlets.

Traditionally, this wouldn’t be much of a big deal – these CD key sites routinely get busted for shady tactics, and it’s why you’ll see many PC gamers across all sorts of different message boards caution new users about the dangers of shopping for games on one of these websites. However, with rFactor 2’s extremely minuscule player base posing a legitimate threat to the game’s long-term lifespan, seeing nearly one hundred users have rFactor 2 taken away from them is like metaphorically kicking the racing sim when it’s already withering away on the ground. The sim’s all-time player count is an underwhelming 464, with a peak of 331 in the past 24 hours. It’s really not going anywhere in terms of popularity, and with how little there is to do within rFactor 2 from a “game” aspect, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where even a fraction of those 97 affected by this CD key issue would be interested enough to purchase the game again.

It’s not a good start for Studio 397, but it’s really not their fault – they can’t help it if someone uses a stolen credit card to purchase a whopping amount of rFactor 2 keys and proceeds to sell them online.

Rookie of the Year

trackThere’s a reason PRC.net has essentially been neglected on weekends. Rather than throw copious amounts of money at high-end simulation gear in a desperate attempt to live out my childhood fantasies through unfinished video games, I was lucky enough to find a ballsy car owner willing to take a shot on me. With zero real-world racing experience to draw upon, an extended family completely unfamiliar with motorsports not involving a Christmas Tree, a select group of knowledgeable Teamspeak buddies to fire me driving advice, and a sim racing career highlighted by off-track conflicts rather than sheer driving ability, I almost won the goddamn championship.

While Finnish alien Greger Huttu threw up in an amateur open wheel entry during a private test day, and iRacing dominatrix Ray Alfalla walks around passing out iRacing hero cards in the ARCA garage area, a Chevrolet Cavalier funded by the ad revenue from PRC.net took home Rookie of the Year honors, and was part of the closest championship battle in the history of Edmonton International Raceway. No, buying your kid the newest iteration of Gran Turismo and telling him to plow through Career mode on medium difficulty won’t turn him into the next Ayrton Senna, but years of competing at a high level within the online world of hardcore PC racing simulators will most certainly prepare you for the real thing. In fact, it will turn you into a legitimate threat.

shift2u-2016-09-19-17-01-46-17I stumbled into this opportunity purely by chance, though it’s a completely realistic scenario for anyone with a desire to jump into some kind of amateur auto racing scene purely on a sim racing background. I happened to run into last year’s Mini Stock track champion at Edmonton’s only sim racing center, and told him I had no problem putting down the cash required for someone else to build & maintain a car for me. I didn’t care that I wasn’t entirely familiar with the techniques required to be successful in front wheel drive cars, and I wasn’t worried about running in a lower-level class with cars that were less than pleasing to the eye – I just wanted to drive something for a season and see if the skills from the simulators we’re all familiar with transferred over to the real thing.

It was supposed to be little more than a long-term gimmick; take someone who was dominating the rFactor 2 hot lap leaderboards at the sim center, and let them putt around at the back of the pack to inflate the car count. Instead, I put the car on the podium in my first evening, beating out a sizable rookie class that included a flock of younger siblings from multiple established racing families who knew what they were doing. A few weeks later, I almost swept an entire event – failing to seal the deal in the feature race when my car owner poked his nose under me with a handful of laps to go. I responded by winning a few weeks later after an extremely satisfying evening-long duel with a reputable Super Late Model driver, who was in the process of fine-tuning the ride for his Granddaughter. I was no longer a novelty renting a car from last year’s champion; I was the points leader and a genuine threat to win the championship.

This was an absurd scenario to deal with on a personal level. Obviously, at any racing facility, you’re given free reign of the property provided you’re rocking the classic competitor wristband, and you can just sort of wander around during downtime to kill your boredom. There were many instances throughout the season where people with official-looking shirts would make light conversation with me, and I had no idea who they were, what their names were, how they knew my name, or what their role even was at the race track. It hadn’t set in yet that I was putting together an improbable championship run and people were beginning to take notice. And during the post-race festivities, where the fans are allowed to wander around the internal pit area for a bit to collect autographs or bullshit with the drivers, I was genuinely surprised to receive compliments from fans for my driving style & post-race monologues. I wasn’t aware I had a driving style, and I was most definitely winging my podium interviews, so it came as a shock that people were actually rooting for me – little did they know I was just out there because racing a shitbox was a better bang for your buck than buying an overpriced direct drive wheel for unfinished PC racing sims.

zip-tieThe reality of the season finally set in when I discovered my car owner stuffed deep within the left rear fender of his Pontiac Sunfire prior to the National Anthem. I’d put together an especially solid pair of practice sessions earlier in the day, and was on-par with his pace to the point where it would be a gladiatorial battle if we got anywhere near each other on the track. He backed away from the car to reveal he’d compressed his left rear spring using a mammoth amount of zip ties, in the exact fashion shown in the shot above, because he “couldn’t beat me on speed.” I didn’t doubt his ingenuity; after all, he built my own car and I was pretty happy with how it drove, but the Google search results say all that needs to be said about how well this worked for him in the end.

Needless to say, there were an excessive amount of zip ties lying around the track twenty minutes later, and he said you could feel each one snapping individually at speedI was used to watching guys put in hundreds of practice laps on LiveRacers before a Stock Car Extreme league race to try and take a shot at my mock qualifying time. Physically seeing a competitor zip tying his springs just to try and beat you – even after Google says things like don’t try this at home and “it’s not my fault if you get hurt” – that’s the exact moment I knew I should have got into this shit sooner.

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With three weeks left in the season, and a championship lead that was slowly being reduced thanks to a fantastic late-season push from several drivers, I contracted a crippling bowel infection. I couldn’t go to work, couldn’t eat much of anything, couldn’t run laps on my simulator of choice, could barely churn out a regular stream of articles for PRC.net, and had been put on a dangerous antibiotic known as Flagyl to get rid of the infection as soon as possible. If you do some background research on the side effects of this stuff, there are people on message boards far and wide threatening to sue Pfizer for how this shit has royally fucked up their life. Doing my best not to display any symptoms at the race track in front of officials, which included not being able to walk straight and intermittent shooting stomach pains, I suffered through a complete loss of power steering for the night and moved my car owner up the race track in the feature for second place to retain my championship lead. This was the moment in the season where I became okay with potentially losing the title. Driving that hard in that kind of state was an accomplishment unto itself.

By what can only be described as divine intervention, I entered the final event on the schedule – a 75 lap marathon under the lights – locked in what was essentially a three-way tie for the points lead with both my car owner, as well as his best friend. The highest finishing driver between the three of us would win the championship. NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series manually produces a final showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway each year with the way their current chase format works. Our final showdown came about naturally, the closest in the track’s history.

And in the most ironic twist of events, I wished I was playing Assetto Corsa instead. You can’t blow your engine in that game.

rip-engine-2Maximum Simulation Value

Released on Steam’s Early Access platform in late 2013, moving to Retail Version 1.0 during the fall of 2014, and eventually landing on current generation consoles four weeks ago, Assetto Corsa by Italian developer Kunos Simulazioni was billed as the most authentic and accurate hardcore modern racing simulator on the market. As the intense heat began to make quick work of my legs, and the smoke turned the cockpit of my Cavalier into a fog, instantaneously detaching the window net and hitting the quick release on my five-point harness were not conscious decisions, but merely subconscious reactions to my engine expiring with 20 laps to go in the season.

Was I mad? Of course. But not at what was transpiring in the cockpit and out the front windshield. I felt I had driven to the best of my ability, and the powerplant simply exploded because I’d been hauling ass chasing down the two leaders and constantly redlining the car going into Turn 3. I was not going to be haunted by a botched corner or a blown pass; I drove at 125% attack, and the poor little Ecotec shit itself. I’d had a great rookie season, won a race against someone incredibly skilled, and proved that citing “rFactor” as your previous racing experience is no longer something to laugh at.

14500595_10157510057235072_5365705019779531248_oI was mad at Kunos. These losers from Italy had labelled almost everyone who had legitimate reasons to criticize Assetto Corsa as mentally ill nut-jobs who were out to damage their reputation. They believed any sort of terminal engine damage had not been essential enough to include in a game they themselves labelled a hardcore racing simulator, and it took years just for them to implement some kind of rudimentary brake fade. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, an Assetto Corsa owner who had spoke out about the game lacking simulation value had his real-life championship run ended twenty laps early by a simulation value element present in all other racing simulators – except for Assetto Corsa. It’s almost poetic, in a sense.

So how else does real life racing differ from the unfinished eternal science projects you can find on the PC? And in what ways is it the same?

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The Cost

Justin will probably bitch at me for revealing the specific monetary value for running a season of shitbox racing, but to retain the kind of glasnost policy we’ve got going on here, I’ll start by saying it was $1250 for a 22 race championship – though that’s subject to change thanks to the weather. This digit is all inclusive, so the breakdown is essentially $200 to purchase the car from an auction, with the final $1000 being used for the “race conversion”, tires, transponder rental, and in-car radio system. Gate entry fees were $50 each weekend, and you’ll obviously need fuel, so you’re looking at setting aside approximately $2450 for a championship campaign – though this clearly isn’t a lump sum you pay all at once in February and forget about for eleven months. It’s nearly identical to the cost of upgrading your PC and investing in some serious sim racing hardware, though the gate fees are cumulative throughout the year, so anyone with any kind of job can make this work.

The experience you get out of parting with that kind of money, however, differs drastically from one medium to another.

Sure, it’s nice to have a solid sim racing setup and the ability to jump to any car and location you can possibly dream of. But let’s be real here; the games aren’t finished, developers hate their own audience, very rarely is there any sort of meaningful single player campaign, and message board shit slinging contests pull in more active users than most dedicated online leagues. With sim racing in such a pitiful state, it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify high-end purchases to play a group of video games that all seem to be stuck in a never-ending beta period.

The atmosphere of strapping yourself into some kind of low-key amateur race car most definitely over-rides the mundane process of showing up to the same track – or collection of tracks – each and every weekend. Sure, you don’t get to travel back in time to the classic layout of Watkins Glen and compete against Jim Clark himself, but stumbling around Wal-Mart half-asleep with your buddy in a quest to find snacks to get you through the event are timeless memories that no video game can replace. And with no restart buttons in sight, yes, you most certainly will waste an entire day at the track, only to come home with a horrible performance that embarrasses you to your core. But getting matched with a driver from another class on Tinder and watching the awkwardness unfold provides a set of keks that generic message board drama and iRacing voice chat fights can only hope to achieve.

ams-2016-03-03-17-30-42-81Refcar

I think a lot of sim racers will be surprised to find out that the driving standards online are actually quite high when it comes to comparing sim racing with real life.

Online leagues, for the most part, not only have better officiating, but a more concrete set of rules as well that are routinely enforced. Regardless of whether you’re at RaceDepartment competing under the Gestapo rule set enforced by Bram or one of the other prominent moderators, or if you’re racing with the relatively lax governing body of Realish Racing, you always know what’s expected from you out on the track. Yes, Bram will hand out thirty seven minutes in penalties if you do so much as breathe on a white line, but at least you’re well aware of the consequences of doing so before the lights go out, and you can expect your competitors to receive the same treatment. Even within the absurd and sometimes favoritism-laden realm of iRacing, everyone has a uniform idea when it comes to what’s allowed on the racing surface, and what’s generally not acceptable. Some private league moderators even go the extra mile to write up complete incident reports with videos and/or screenshots, partially to document the habits of certain drivers and spot problematic individuals before they happen, and partially to serve as teaching tools or precedents for future incidents.

hbtmMost notably, there is a zero tolerance policy towards disruptive drivers. I’m not talking about guys who spin more than the average person, because that’s fine; I’m talking about guys who are literally getting run over because they’re so slow, can’t hold a line to save their lives, or are clearly trying to use their car as a weapon. Basically every half decent online league gets rid of these people almost immediately, and as a result the general driving quality is better online than it is out on the real track. Combined with a dedicated group of moderators policing the action, as a driver you’re rarely left to guess at how races will be called. Failing to run a league with some semblance of an iron fist, and it dies a painful death.

This kind of ultra-serious mentality doesn’t carry over to real life, and I really wish it did, because I hate guessing at 110 km/h. I can only comment on what I see out my front windshield, but I witnessed some phenomenally bad calls over the course of the season;  incidents which would result in suspensions, lifetime bans, boycotts, and/or blacklisting in the world of sim racing.

13874598_10205527220380381_553272261_n-pngDuring a mid-summer race, a guy running a newer-model Dodge Neon threw some experimental shit at his setup, and was wrecking loose in every single corner. I mean, this guy was going to put his car in the wall if he didn’t change everything back to the way it was during the intermission. Not that he was a bad driver or anything, he just missed the setup completely. I was about five feet back from him during the opening ten lap heat, riding the brake to avoid plowing into him, and instead received a race-ending drive-through penalty for contact with him that didn’t actually happen.

You could see it on the footage – he got loose all on his own. When I brought this to the attention of the nearest official during the intermission break, they responded by saying “well, I gave you the second race, so it evens out”, referring to how they started me on pole and let me walk away from the field for an easy win. This didn’t really solve the root problem at hand; my car owner received the same penalty for non-contact in the feature race an hour later – ending his race as well.

dsc_3159At one point during the season, we were given the privilege of super pole qualifying – a rarity for our class. We were told during the drivers meeting several times that the field would be seeded via standard qualifying format, so no inversion or any novelty stuff like that would factor into the starting grid. Ten minutes before we were set to climb into our cars, we learned there would be a near-total inversion. I didn’t give a shit because my alignment was fucked during my qualifying run and I would directly benefit from the invert, but the front row had every right to be furious.

Some of the more bizarre stuff included contact rules which varied from race to race, as well as yellow line rules, which were drastically changed each week. On some occasions, we could use the rumble strip to turn the car, but not to complete a pass. The night prior to the NASCAR Pinty’s Series race, the entire field was threatened with a disqualification – save for one or two backmarkers – for touching the yellow line and “ruining the paint.” After the green flag dropped, on some weekends you weren’t allowed to attempt a pass until exiting turn two – try implementing that rule in an iRacing league. When the same driver continued to cause incident after incident due to a lack of composure behind the wheel, they were repeatedly given their spot back at the front of the pack, and we were yelled at via the in-car radio system as a group for racing too aggressively, despite my own on-board camera displaying the same driver instigating wreck after wreck.

I’m not trying to belittle anyone here; I’m simply stating the difference between driving at a physical race track and driving from the comfort of your own home, but from a sim racer’s standpoint, if any of the above occurred within the confines of a private online league, that league wouldn’t exist the following week, and somebody would probably send in an article about it to PRC.net. Keep in mind, that’s for a video game where the cars aren’t worth any real monetary value, and it’s only an hour out of your day to participate in that particular online race – so shouldn’t the real thing be taken more seriously, not less?

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The Social Element Matters

If you join a private league, or you’re just poking about in a random iRacing official session, there are no repercussions for telling it like it is. If there’s a guy in there wrecking the shit out of everybody – maybe he’s been the cause of three or four cautions  in a row – you can call him a shitty driver and ask what the fuck his problem is over the headset. League officials, provided they aren’t best buddies with the guy, will promptly remove him provided you’ve saved a few replays of his shenanigans, and most decent leagues do implement some kind of a crash limit, forcing a moderator to disqualify you after X amount of wrecks in which you’re found to be at fault. Troublemakers are booted fairly quickly, untalented drivers are told to go back to Forza, and even semi-competent drivers who simply can’t hold a line at places like Daytona or Talladega often find themselves shuffled out or intentionally dumped by a user unwilling to put up with their garbage. What I’m getting at, is it’s not uncommon for people to get banned from a league for any number of reasons. The notorious offenders are blacklisted and become household names – Chris Miller is a name that comes to mind from iRacing.

This doesn’t always work out away from the computer monitor. Across multiple classes and multiple events, drivers who weren’t achieving a base level of competence behind the wheel were simply allowed to continue doing what they were doing, even if it meant junking race car after race car. Usually, this boiled down to nothing other than politics. During our final Super Late Model event, there was a car four laps down cutting off lead lap vehicles and interfering with the outcome of the race. In a virtual environment, this guy would have been booted, no questions asked. And for a few consecutive events in our class, we were starting incomprehensibly inexperienced drivers on the front row, resulting in iRacing Rookie Street Stock-tier incident numbers; I think we hit four yellows in eleven green flag laps during one weekend, all of which involved the same driver. When I spoke my mind about this during post race interviews and asked for something to be done about it, the finger was pointed at me for being an asshole. Yes, eventually they were placed at the rear of the field, but when they resorted to outright wrecking lead lap vehicles after going several laps down, there wasn’t a sense of urgency to curb this stuff immediately. Again, this behavior would not only lead to a ban in the sim racing world, other league owners would talk to each other and blacklist you from their own leagues as well.

14457296_10210261292079365_6033189602501585459_nBut the social element affects more than just inexperienced drivers. During the first half of the season, I truly jumped into my ride each weekend telling myself “it’s Stock Car Extreme and this is just another event on Race2Play.” I had no problem moving people, pinching people, and racing guys around me as hard as I would race guys like Maciej Bekas on RaceRoom Racing Experience – I basically saw the field as hyper-intelligent AI cars that would occasionally fight back. Once I started making friends and getting to know the other drivers, it became difficult for someone like me – who’s notorious for putting the bumper to people no matter what discipline we’re in – to knock people around to the extent I’d done previously. If you compare my stats from the first half of the season to the second, there’s a drastic reduction in my performance as the year progressed, and that’s 100% the reason behind it. I started realizing there were other people in the cars around me, and I liked hanging out with them.

14088402_10205698057851211_9014376487096187190_nDash Cams Save Your Ass

It’s common practice in the world of sim racing to save your replays after each major event; doesn’t really matter if it’s online or offline. They’re fun to watch, analyze, and with most modern simulators, take ridiculously artsy pictures of cool moments that happened over the course of a run. And when it comes to organized racing leagues, they’re 100% essential to conducting a satisfactory racing environment. Drivers will inevitably wreck each other, get pissed off, and point fingers. Each and every time, the server-side replay is the great equalizer, allowing moderators to allocate blame accordingly, and demonstrating to other drivers that “yes, you really did wreck him intentionally, we’re not retarded, we can see your wheel inputs and the line you were taking, shut the fuck up.

I’ve run a dashboard camera for most of the year just to have a neat little keepsake of my extra curricular activities over the summer, but the camera has inadvertently been the unsung hero of the 2016 season. Despite saved replays being integral to the operation of any semi-legitimate online racing league, on-board cameras are still relatively new to amateur auto racing, especially because a lot of drivers aren’t technologically inclined to operate them and upload the footage a few hours after the race has concluded. My footage alone has solved several fights and disagreements between drivers in our class because you could literally boot up YouTube once you got home from the track and watch the incident develop from the cockpit of another car. In the most prominent example I can think of where I was personally involved, an inexperienced female driver believed I had intentionally spun her out during a heat race because she “saw a silver car”, and had came over to my stall to chat once we climbed out of our vehicles, only for the footage to reveal there was no silver car around her to begin with – and I was something like 50 feet behind her.

Listening to people’s descriptions of each individual incident throughout the year, and then analyzing the footage afterwards, I was surprised to see how many drivers are rattled just by being in an amateur race car and turning laps. In many instances, how they described an incident simply did not match what occurred on camera. So let this be a lesson to all of y’all reading PRC.net with a bit of disposable income: if you’re going to get into auto racing and don’t want to get your ass kicked by your competitors over something that wasn’t your fault, buy the nicest on-board camera you can find within a 100 mile radius, and keep that shit on record as long as possible.

tireI Don’t Understand Tire Wear

If you’re big into racing sims, tire wear is defined by a single number. A tire status of 98% obviously performs much better than a tire listed at 72%. Some of the hardcore guys love to measure Inner/Middle/Outer temps to try and equalize everything, but I don’t because I’m lazy. You simply try and drive in a way where you’re using as little steering input as possible, and if the tire status percent is falling at a rate that’s detrimental to the remaining distance in the race, it’s time to back off and stop pushing the car so hard. Force Feedback effects found within modern racing sims don’t replicate the fact that a tire is a dynamic piece of rubber attaching the car to the ground – one which can deform in an infinite amount of ways – so you just sort of drive in a way that doesn’t murder the numbers in the black box.

Being able to physically get out of your car and monitor tire life with your eyes and your hands is a colossal mindfuck; one which I still haven’t even began to understand. I’ve been unanimously praised by my competitors for extracting absurd lifespans out of my tires – one even went as far as saying that’s been the most prominent impact I’ve had on the class , opening people’s eyes to how long you can last on a single set – but thanks to isiMotor sims teaching me to rely solely on numbers and status indicators, visually I’m still not sure what a good tire looks like, or even what a bad tire looks like. The way to preserve tires in rFactor flawlessly transitions to real life, but the way you monitor tire wear is a completely abstract concept to me.

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Is Real Road Placebo Effect?

The current revolution we’ve got going on right now in the world of sim racing is the influx of titles implementing a dynamic track system, where the racing surface heats up, cools down, and generates rubber build-up based on where the majority of cars are driving. rFactor 2 was the first piece of software to really complete the package, followed by iRacing with their new surface model, Assetto Corsa, and eventually Automobilista. Basically, when you jump into the first practice, the track is cold as hell and the car slides everywhere, but as the virtual race weekend progresses, the track gains grip before escalating to a really slick surface thanks to all the rubber laid down.

Maybe it’s just the class of car or the tire compounds we’re allowed to use, but real life’s real road effects don’t do a whole bunch. I found that no matter the weather and no matter the amount of rubber laid down on the track, the car always performed about the same. It was really sensitive to tire pressure adjustments, but eventually I got to the point where I’d manipulate those outside of my own designated “safe zones” based on how I wanted it to drive that day. I hovered around the 15.8xx range most of the season, and regardless of whether we were freezing our assess off waiting for the thunderstorm to hit, or metaphorically cooking out on the tarmac in thirty degree heat, my car drove mostly the same throughout the year. A bit loose on entry, hooked through the center, and displayed symptoms of understeer if I botched the line on corner exit. Getting the car down to my optimal lap time felt purely psychological, as opposed to the super grip you receive in rFactor 2 from a heavily rubbered-in track.

14481730_10157510056045072_6542392418955646838_oManaging a Long Race? No Biggie.

During my time on iRacing, as well as competing across a multitude of other sims, I ran in a lot of long fucking races. The 2012 calendar year saw me attempt both time slots of the Daytona 500 – netting a pair of top fives, whereas 2013 saw me win both the 2.4 Hours of Daytona and the virtual Coca-Cola 600. 2015 was highlighted by a GT2 class win in a league where races were over an hour long, and I killed the spring of 2016 by participating in a Brazilian Touring Car series with the boys at Realish Racing, where endurance events on the schedule ran the full sixty minutes under dusk conditions. The tactic in all of them was the same; drive like a sausage for the first 60% of the race, bullshitting with your mates on Teamspeak to pass the time, and then haul ass the moment you see your competitors are starting to lose focus.

My first feature win came not during a quick 20 lap affair where I managed to hold off a driver who didn’t have enough time to make a move, but rather during the longest race of the year up to that point. I was so used to marathon sim racing events and the lax atmosphere of mindlessly clicking off laps at 75% pace before driving my balls off, that once I got around the leader and began checking out, I started talking to the in-car camera because that’s what I’ve known for like four years. A lot of people came up to me the following week asking me why I was commentating my own on-board video, and the answer is that I was so comfortable in the car, I felt like I was sitting on Teamspeak with my mates, and the monologue came out naturally as it would in front of the monitor.

So when I saw they were going to give us 75 laps to settle the championship, I was more excited than anything. The plan for these races – or any long race for that matter – is super simple. Let your car fall back naturally at the start by driving with basically no aggression whatsoever. Allow everybody in front of you to make mistakes and beat the shit out of each other. The moment you see the composed drivers starting to blow corners or fall off pace, turn on the jets. To the audience in the stands, I was a non-factor on lap 11 of 75. In fact, I was shuffled out and had no chance of touching the leaders. With 30 to go, I was the fastest car on the track and closing in on the two front-runners. This is shit you learn in online racing, but out on a physical race track, without the lag and general netcode oddities masking driver errors and handling problems, you can spot the “moment” a lot easier. Usually I’d pay close attention to the live intervals displayed on the black box screen, but in real life you can physically look into your opponent’s cockpit and see when a guy is starting to break focus.

It’s obviously a shame the car exploded prematurely and things got real toasty inside the cockpit for a while, but I can’t say I left anything on the table. Sim racing taught me how to preserve a car until the absolute precise moment when it’s time to turn on the jets, the car just couldn’t take being driven that hard. I expect nothing less from a Chevrolet Cavalier.

gsc-2016-05-22-13-50-45-00To give a definitive answer to the most-asked question in the history of sim racing message boards, YES, you most certainly can use these games to prepare your ass for jumping into a real race car. Will you go from a slob covered in Doritos crumbs playing rFactor, to a semi-professional GP2 driver with only moderate practice? No. Hell no. That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works. I have been playing this shit for years, not only driving my ass off in a number of different disciplines across every major and minor title out there, but connecting with knowledgeable community members who can explain the shortcomings of each physics engine without being blinded by fanboy goggles or viral marketing agendas. Years spent being a student of the game – or of sim racing, rather – warranted one win, six second place finishes, eight total podium appearances, two blown engines, and a Rookie of the Year award in what’s admittedly a hobby-level class. Sure, there are some teams across the continent that would dream of having a season that successful, even at the amateur level, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not much.

I think in twenty years time, racing teams both amateur and professional will recruit heavily from organized sim racing. As you can see from the results above, it’s obviously doable, but it takes a very unique sim racer – one that has almost studied the genre rather than been entertained by it. We don’t have very many of those in our community yet, and the ones that dare take such a cynical approach are instead silenced by the developers and fanboys alike for going against the viral marketing agenda.

DRM Encryption is Destroying Forza Horizon 3

getphoto-ashxLet’s talk about piracy. Technology has advanced to the point where basically any electronic product can be obtained at no cost to the end user through a relatively simple process, so naturally your average person will take advantage of this in order to save themselves money. While it’s virtually impossible to prove just how much piracy affects the financial side of a given entertainment company – and sometimes this rationale of “lost sales” can be hilarious exploited – businesses across multiple mediums of media have obviously fought back against the wave of renegade consumers who don’t intend to pay for what’s been built. Intrusive DRM programs like Starforcewhich bricked Windows 7 installs – were created during a time when ToCA Race Driver 3 was a $60 release to combat the popularity of uTorrent, GameCopyWorld, and ThePirateBay, while Croteam opted to include an invincible enemy within Serious Sam 3’s campaign mode purely to fuck with teenagers who “borrowed” the game “from a friend.”

Yet regardless of how creative each measure has been in combating piracy, there will always be pirates, and there will always be ingenious PC users who are bored enough to find a workaround. Unfortunately, in their efforts to prevent hardcore driving game fans who were short on funds from illegally obtaining a copy of the brand new open world racing game Forza Horizon 3, Turn 10 Studios broke their own product for legitimate users. There have been a steady stream of complaints regarding the game’s performance on Windows-based operating systems, but now we finally know why.

fh-3-efsAccording to a post on the official Forza Motorsport subreddit, a user by the name of dkhavilo discovered that his CPU performance was being heavily consumed by something called EFS while playing the VIP Access version of Forza Horizon 3. EFS, otherwise known as Encrypting File System, manually forces Forza Horizon 3 to constantly de-crypt relevant files during normal gameplay – a mammoth task for a driving game based around exploring an open world environment at breakneck speeds. The game is simply too big and too complicated for the DRM software to keep up, even on platforms featuring a Solid State Drive compared to the traditional Hard Drive storage systems, and as a result Forza Horizon 3 runs like shit for all but the most ridiculously powerful home computers. And unlike Microsoft Flight Simulator X back in 2006, which was notorious for high system requirements due to huge leaps in graphical fidelity and the complexity of the flight model, Forza Horizon 3 as an application is perfectly capable of running on modern computers. I mean, it’s not like the Xbox One version of the game runs poorly, and the hardware powering Microsoft’s latest console isn’t exactly groundbreaking by any means – it’s actually outdated by three years.

However, the PC version has basically been crippled by a DRM system so intrusive, it’s bottle-necking the CPU and causing massive framerate problems for all but a handful of users. It will definitely be interesting to see how Turn 10 rectify this problem, as the DRM functionality is basically built into how the game interprets its own data files. You can check out the full Reddit thread on the subject HERE; it’s certainly not pretty.