Today’s Reader Submission comes from Steve Smith, author of the highly sought after Grand Prix Legends strategy guide Four-Wheel Drift and former editor in-chief for Car & Driver Magazine in the 1960’s
My first racing sim was Dave Kaemmer’s “Indy 500” (I had
been addicted to computer simulations since Bruce Artwick’s pinball
game and to auto racing since I was knee-high to a 60-spoke Borrani)
and I believed that I must have set a new world record when I turned
a 242-mph lap of the Brickyard…so I wrote to Mr. Kaemmer to boast
about it. Not so fast, he said. Someone had gone even faster, I was
informed, by using a trick that I hadn’t thought of (although Jim Hall
had, some 30 years earlier; the ‘trick’ is in current use 25 years later,
now known as the “DRS Zone”): flattening the wing on the straights;
raising it in the turns.
My letter resulted in a correspondence with the developer (the
late, much-lamented Papyrus), a ‘road test’ of the game for my old
alma mater, Car and Driver (of which I had been the Editor-in-Chief in
the Sixties), an offer from Papyrus to join a small group of outsiders
comprising the beta team of “Grand Prix Legends” (Doug Arnao,
Alison Hine, Achim Trensz and John Wallace), an assignment to
write the strategy guide (“Four-Wheel Drift”) that shipped with the
game, and a minor involvement in “NASCAR Legends” (I seemed to
be the only dude they knew who had actually driven Riverside).
Now, in the subsequent century, I’m still at it (remaining on my
hard drive: Assetto Corsa, Project CARS, Game Stock Car Extreme
and rFactor 2… after shit-canning DIRT Rally).
Like many in the sim ’community,’ I joined Slightly Mad
Studio’s crowd-funding scheme for PC when that star-crossed
venture heaved into view four years ago. At first, I was an ardent
supporter and an enthusiastic participant, firing off a blizzard of
modest suggestions that I hoped would be helpful.
As the birthing process dragged on (and on and on), the PC
players (by which, I mean Windows users, not the “Project CARS”
players) seemed to get discouraged because nobody was listening to
them. They were soon replaced by hoards of clueless console players
whose sheer volume buried any intelligent exchange of information
(the triumph of the lowest common denominator), and whose main
complaint seemed to be that SMS had gotten wrong the color of the
Armco at Brünnchen.
My main concern, then and now, was the user interface,
visually and physically. Why, I wondered, if the game had presets
for my Fanatec wheel and pedals, should I have to struggle with 13
additional settings before it felt anything like it should? And the
menu design, which seemed to have emerged without a thought as to
legibility (the fonts seemed to have been chosen for their ethereal
sans-serif beauty rather than EZ-Read clarity) and usability. Early
on, I recommended Ed Tufte’s classic book on the subject (“The
Visual Display of Quantitative Information”), a suggestion which
was cheerfully ignored.
And nobody seemed to have counted the number of keystrokes
and/or mouse clicks to move from one task to another (or measured
the real estate that the cursor has to move between tasks). Or why
the setup menu requires eight pages to display the information
presented in just two pages in, say, GSCE’s efficient setup menu.
(The issue here isn’t insufficient room; there are acres of empty space
in PC’s UI.)
As my mentor, Doug Arnao, pointed out a generation ago, the
single most important element in setting up a car is not your laptime
(which is subject to a few dozen variables), but the temperature
across your tires’ treads. In the real world (I’ve done my share of r/w
racing; I have a 3rd-place trophy for a Trans-Am race in the Porsche
911 that I shared with Bert Everett), what you do in practice is run a
few laps at what you hope is qually speed, come in and measure the
temps at the outer, middle and inner tread. If the outer tread is
hotter than the inner, you add negative camber (and the opposite if
the inner is hotter). There is no way you can do this in the pits in PC.
The other huge fault in the UI is the lack of an X-Y graph (like
almost every other sim since the beginning of time) for choosing the
ratios for your gear stack. All PC gives you are the raw numbers,
which are impossible to visualize unless you are a particular kind of
idiot savant. With a simple X-Y graph, you can immediately see
which gears are too long and which are too short. And their relationship
to each other. But apparently something this easy, this obvious,
didn’t look ‘cool’ to SMS’s art directors, so we’re left to guesstimate
what’s best for the transmission. Or embark on the long-winded
process of cut-and-try.
When there was no reaction to any of this, I began to suspect
that SMS never had any intention of listening to the army of ‘early
access’ players they had created. Or maybe that the ‘investors’ were
so loud and boisterous that the developers, overwhelmed, simply
clapped their collective hands over their collective ears, put their
heads down, and got on with the business of getting the game out the
door. I drifted away from the forums, figuring whatever will be, will
be, and awaited what used to be called the “shrink wrap.”
Nonetheless, when the game finally launched, I (and many,
many others) was horrified to see how lame the final result actually
was. Is. The UI faults pale in comparison with the game’s other
shortcomings (too well pawed-over to repeat here). Yet it seems
impossible that four years of work by a staff of 140, eighty thousand
kibitzers and thirty million dollars couldn’t have created something
much, much better. (Papyrus made GPL—still miraculously going
strong—with a fraction of the resources, in a quarter the time). Time
will tell if PC has the staying power to sustain its initial (commercial
of not critical) success. Maybe the console fanboys will continue to
be entranced… although I can’t see why they would prefer Project
CARS over Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, which are professionally
That’s my take. I could be wrong…but I don’t think so.
See you at the races.
One guy I used to race with a whole bunch always used to praise the gospel of inner/middle/outer tire temperatures, and I remember him saying something about this fabled Grand Prix Legends strategy guide that broke the process down for him, but I wasn’t aware the guy behind the guide was once the editor in-chief for Car & Driver Magazine, was on the beta team for Grand Prix Legends, and also raced Trans-Am back in the glory days. It’s crazy someone with such a long list of credentials found their way to an alleged hate blog and took the time to submit their own story, but that’s exactly what makes PretendRaceCars.net so unique.
Grand Prix Legends has always felt like driving on ice for me, but I’ve been particularly impressed with the third party content released for it. I’m not a fan of the default 1967 F1 cars, but both the Can-Am cars, as well as the European Prototypes drive fairly well given the limitations of the now ancient game engine. Even better, I got to check out the historic Edmonton Speedway that my family grew up drag racing at, and it was cool to run laps while my uncle pointed out landmarks and told stories of a place that was demolished 30 years ago to make way for housing developments. Previously, I was only given glimpses of the track in Fast Company when it was billed as Big Sky Raceway located in Montana.
I fully agree with what you’ve written about Project CARS – there is absolutely no way 80,000 investors would all come to the same conclusion on the game’s direction, so in my opinion Slightly Mad Studios simply built a shiny version of Race 07 and gave the illusion that WMD members were helping with the title. It’s comparable to giving a small child plastic toys to harmlessly bang around while their father works on a home improvement project. There are still some shining moments with the game; the twitter feed in career mode is the right feature to steal from EA’s Madden NFL games, I personally had no problems with the game’s default force feedback, and the Radical was a blast to drive around the Nordschleife, but the rest of the game was drowning in a sea of bugs and bad design choices consistent with the other products Slightly Mad Studios have released.
I agree that the setup menu is atrocious. I’m not sure how Slightly Mad Studios could look at all these other fantastic racing sims that have beautiful, intuitive setup screens, and then go in the totally opposite direction. I’m a scrub who only adjusts the final drive when building a setup, so my main gripe is, as you said, eight fucking pages when every other title can fit everything into just two. This also applies to other needlessly complicated portions of the user interface, such as selecting a car or configuring the game’s extensive force feedback settings.
Will Project CARS keep the attention of console racers? Probably not. Forza Motorsport 6 is on the way, and the Xbox One will have a brand new Logitech racing wheel to go along with it. Gran Turismo 7 will inevitably land on the Playstation 4, and I think that should be the nail in the coffin for Project CARS on that system. The game Slightly Mad Studios tried to build isn’t all that bad, but you can’t release a game with that many bugs in 2015, and then openly attack anyone who dares to draw attention to the numerous issues.