All it took was one very sad Teamspeak conversation with Maple to realize how bad things have gotten. Racing sims have reached the point where they’re almost too complicated, and the userbase, despite being plenty active on a plethora of different websites throughout the day, don’t bother showing up to the virtual track when the sun begins to set and the only thing left to do is actually fire up your sim of choice. Unfortunately, the current climate of racing sims, for whatever reason, is more akin to men’s recreation league football.
If you want to race with more than three people in a server, in a competitive format where everyone is genuinely trying to win the race, there’s no avoiding it – you’re going to have to set aside one night for league racing.
I grew up in the Call of Duty generation. Like many guys in their early 20’s, myself and a huge portion of my classmates (and teammates) raced home from school to beat the shit out of each other in Modern Warfare, World at War, and eventually Black Ops. At no point did we have designated Call of Duty nights, because with over 120,000 people playing at any point in time, you always found a match even if your whole party wasn’t online (kids got grounded and shit). When you dropped $60 on the latest Call of Duty, it wasn’t just to play the game for an hour on Saturday.
So this whole concept of “I bought Stock Car Extreme for $30, but I only touch it on Saturdays at noon for a league I’m participating in” – I’m not cool with this. I want to race more than that. I shouldn’t need to join a league for a good race when these games are marketed exclusively towards auto racing enthusiasts who by default should know their shit. And there are definitely more than 50 auto racing enthusiasts who own some of these games.
But where are they?
A lot of readers won’t agree with what’s displayed in this article, so I’ll just say it outright before we begin: I live in Western Canada. Fucking off from work four hours before my shift ends, just so I can race against competent drivers in Assetto Corsa during European prime time, isn’t exactly an option – nor is it an option for anyone else who lives in North America. The screencaps below are from my own personal experiences as a dude who lives in Edmonton trying to race online in public lobbies within my own timezone.
We start by booting up DiRT 3, a game that’s been released since 2011, runs phenomenally on all modern computers, has a simplified handling model intended to accommodate controller users as well as wheel users, and features a shit-ton of content. Even if you dislike the dudebro presentation, even if you think the rally stages are short and the soundtrack is full of stuff your teenage cousin would listen to after a break-up, DiRT 3 is objectively awesome. The game features a pretty robust online mode that allows you to progress through the ranks and unlock everything in the game without ever touching single player, which is notorious for annoying the fuck out of people with it’s forced Gymkhana events.
In my region, there were two people online. Switching regions to place myself in lobbies with people from the United Kingdom during their prime time hours would introduce horrible lag issues that would only serve to frustrate others in the room.
Increasing the realism factor and jumping over to DiRT Rally, the same problem is present. Despite the game getting rave reviews from pretty much everybody, and despite the hugely publicized Multiplayer PvP update that came out a few short days ago, the online userbase is surprisingly small. I can understand DiRT 3 having a small userbase due to the game being released half a decade ago – people have probably moved on by now – but to see a game so new have only a marginal improvement is unsettling.
Again, while switching regions does offer you other rooms to choose from, the list of people online according to Steam – slightly over 1,000 – is hardly indicative of how many people you’ll actually get to race against. Placing yourself in a foreign region to attain a new list of rooms to join runs the risk of aggravating others in the room due to lag issues, just like DiRT 3.
Next, we move to ARCA Sim Racing, a game that’s probably the best alternative to oval racing on iRacing, although the game doesn’t handle speedway or superspeedway racing all that well. Public lobbies do not exist for this game; ASRX uses a server browser that lists all races throughout the week, and most are open to the general public. Each night usually has an early race and a late race, following the real life NASCAR and ARCA schedules, and scheduled start times are almost necessary in order to keep car counts up.
Unfortunately, this format means there are some tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule that a lot of dedicated oval drivers don’t like, or aren’t very good at. Tracks like Sonoma and Watkins Glen turn the lone nightly races into a constant wreck fests, and this outcome is magnified when the 20 people in your race are the only 20 people who plan on racing ASRX that night. You don’t really have an option of just finding a different server or waiting for the late race, because that’s where everyone else from the current race will be as well.
Continuing through the list of icons on my desktop, we get to Stock Car Extreme. I’ve touched on this game in an entirely separate post, where people threw $80,000 at Reiza Studios and then celebrated by totally ignoring the game, but now that the dust has settled from the IndieGoGo campaign, it’s time to look at the raw participation numbers.
Indeed, there are a fair amount of people online, but most padlocked rooms are either leagues hosting a league race for that night, or servers set up for private communities. In the picture above, even though there are several populated rooms, if I want to just run some laps against human opponents, there are only two sparsely populated servers to choose from. Stock Car Extreme is a fantastic, fully-featured sim whose only shortcoming is the focus on obscure South American content, yet I’ve had to resort to competing in online leagues to get any relevant use out of the game.
As I’ve said in the opener, I essentially paid $30 so I could run one race a week on Saturday afternoons, and when that season ended, I had to look for another one. I’d really love to come home on a boring rainy Tuesday and bro out with a bunch of South American dudes on Game Stock Car Extreme in public lobbies, but sadly this kind of environment doesn’t exist. It is essentially being used as an indoor football facility, yet nobody wants to go to the local park to kick the ball around after work.
Sector 3 Studios tried to build this kind of casual environment within RaceRoom Racing Experience. Before the game implemented support for hosting your own lobby, every server available was run by Sector 3 and featured ten minutes of practice, ten minutes of qualifying, and a fifteen minute race. When there were people in the server, the game ran well, had a nice selection of cars, and drove like someone tried to model Assetto Corsa within the constraints of the isiMotor engine.
But as you can see above, there weren’t a hell of a lot of people online, and the game’s pricing model – essentially becoming The Sims of Sim Racing with countless
expansion Experience packs that segregate the userbase, results in the servers became a total ghost town once the European guys go to bed. Unless I jumped on R3E right after I got home from work, or woke up early on Saturday or Sunday with the sole purpose of playing RaceRoom online, there would be nobody to race against. And that’s before being picky, as I’m not fond of the recently released 2015 WTCC touring cars or the free silhouette cars the base install comes with. If you ever see me in a front-wheel drive touring car, please contact my family and tell them you’re concerned about me.
Then, we get to Assetto Corsa. Taken last night during North American prime time, this capture shows all populated public servers in Assetto Corsa. Not popular, but populated. Three of the sessions are already in the middle of a race, and two others are Nordschliefe Tourist servers. The three servers with the brand new Minorating servers are at the bottom of the list highlighted in green, indicating the ranking system designed to clean up public lobbies in Assetto Corsa hasn’t really caught on yet.
For a game that’s supposedly revolutionized sim racing and spawned hundreds of fanboys who will watch livestreams of a Kunos Simulazioni member typing away at his computer, there’s a surprising lack of people online actually playing the game they’ve sworn allegiance to. And for how many different cars are available in Assetto Corsa, that’s an awful lot of GT2/GT3 rooms at Spa.
This brings me to rFactor and rFactor 2. As you can see above, this particular rFactor install of mine is dedicated to the Dirt Late Model V2 mod, a popular amateur oval racing mod focused around the highest level of stock car racing on dirt. There is one room for the mod, with four people in it, and I was lucky I had the track the session was hosted at. The majority of other rooms, as indicated by the padlocks, are for league races or private communities, and the few open lobbies include tracks and mods that are difficult to find online. The Rallycross room near the top of the list, with eight people in it, could indicate one of five different rFactor rallycross mods, and if you were really interested in joining that session, it would be entirely up to you to find and download the mod. Good luck.
And due to rFactor 2‘s subscription-based online, the majority of servers are for online leagues. Just by the server names and padlocks, it’s easy to see that rFactor 2 has turned into an indoor football-like center as well. However, new to rFactor 2 is the ability to download mods in-game, completely omitting the hunt for hard-to-find mods as you see above in the rFactor 1 screenshot. The only problem with this, is that some mods are payware and don’t let you use this feature – such as URD’s totally not DTM we promise 2013 mod.
The other problem that arises, is that you have no idea what type of mod you’re downloading. This is especially prevalent when it comes to Formula One mods, as there can be multiple mods replicating the same season, and it’s up to you to figure out which one is the best through trial and error.
Those who don’t want to clutter their hard drive with dozens of different Formula One mods of varying quality in order to participate in pick up races are essentially forced to say fuck it and sign up for a league on a trustworthy website, even if the league uses cars they aren’t familiar with. This at least guarantees you’ll be introduced to quality mods and competitive racing, although again, if you want to play rFactor 2 for more than an hour or two each week against human opponents, too bad.
Sites like the numerous sim racing subreddits, VirtualR, the iRacing Forums, and RaceDepartment are often swarming with activity at all hours of the day, with users happily discussing their favorite racing sims well past their bed times. You would think that all of these people would have no problem jumping on their sim of choice for a few laps or even a race or two, but in reality the online landscape is quite a bit different than what one would expect from a community this passionate. Despite these games being marketed to auto racing enthusiasts and computer geeks across the planet at very reasonable prices, the current online environment in sim racing is extremely sparse, spread across numerous titles and often in secluded communities with very little tangible activity.
Try as much as you’d like to sugar-coat it, a room with four other random drivers isn’t fun.
It is as if everyone has made a conscious decision to treat these $30 video games as a replacement for Recreation League Football, and then refuse to even go near a soccer ball during the rest of the week. Setting aside a few hours of one night to run in one race, and then retreating to the various different community message boards is now the norm. As someone who wants to race not just on Saturday at noon, but on Tuesday evening and maybe even Monday afternoon as well, there’s literally nothing to do until League Day and it kind of sucks since now I have all these racing sims installed on my PC that don’t get a whole lot of use. It’s like I paid an entry fee to Men’s League Football instead of bought a video game from Steam.
Why? You tell me. Maybe I just need to quit my job and adapt a sleeping pattern putting me in line with European timezones.
I guess I could race against the AI in the meantime…