Kicking Super Bowl weekend off by changing things up here on PRC.net, Twitter user FMecha actually tweeted me this article back in January, but I’ve just gotten around to reading it now. On January 12th, official Gran Turismo fansite GTPlanet posted a lengthy opinion piece stating how racing sims are falling in popularity, despite numerous advancements in the genre. If you haven’t read through the article, I assure you it’s worth taking five minutes out of your day to plow through the wall of text. Michael L. has done a fantastic analysis of the overall sales numbers regarding popular titles like Gran Turismo, Project CARS, and Assetto Corsa, and offers his own insights as to why we’re seeing these games take a back seat. In short, Gran Turismo is no longer the household name it used to be back in the early 2000’s due to diehard fans being unsatisfied with recent releases, and many racing games offer a near identical content list that confuses the casual fans among us; if you own Project CARS, there’s no real reason to track down Assetto Corsa – to a more casual racer, they’re both racing sims with the Nurburgring, Spa, and a ton of modern GT3 entries.
Now of course, with GTPlanet’s overall userbase, the comments section exploded with activity, each member offering their own explanations as to why the racing genre as a whole has seen a reduction in sales despite the obvious increase in realism and fidelity. And I think one comment in particular by GTPlanet user CSLACR managed to hit the nail on the head. The casual “car guys” who were once sucked into phenomenal titles such as Need for Speed Underground 2, Project Gotham Racing 3, or Gran Turismo 4, simply can’t deal with the substantial increase in difficulty. And with online racing being such a huge part of the modern gaming experience, it’s not fun for them to join a server and get anally ravaged by either A) amateur race car drivers or B) guys who have been playing this shit since 1998.
I think CSLACR is correct. As racing sims improve over time – maybe not in the crop of features and game modes, but I’m talking the overall fidelity of the driving model – the times of jumping into a server at 2am with your bros on Project Gotham Racing are over. Unless you dedicate some serious time to practicing in your sim of choice, you’ll basically get destroyed. And this is what really fueled the influx of fantastic racing games around a decade ago. Developers found out how to inject the “pick up and play” factor into driving games without going overboard with rewind features, or begging guys to simply turn on assists that more or less drive the car for you. You didn’t need a wheel to enjoy NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup. You didn’t need to be a car setup guru to play through multiple seasons of F1 Championship Edition. Online races in Forza 2 were only lopsided if someone showed up in a leaderboard car.
But climb into an Open Wheel car in any modern sim, and you’ll be blown out by guys who have already built baseline setups for multiple different tracks. You’re not going to know that the tires don’t wear in the Flat 6 mod for rFactor 2 unless you comb the comments section of certain articles that break down the unrealistic driving style required to be successful. A quick race at the Nurburgring, and you still aren’t quite familiar with the final sector of the world’s greatest race track? That’s too bad, everyone else in the server memorized it back when Gran Turismo 4 was still new, and the front row on the grid is separated by three tenths. What’s this? You’re racing with a controller? Don’t say that too loud or the host might boot you.
We’re at a point where these games have become so complicated, the learning curve no longer resembles a steep slope, but rather a brick wall. Now, as an experienced sim racer, I personally don’t mind how difficult the games are getting because I’m comfortable and knowledgeable in this environment, but objectively, this isn’t helping the genre grow.
So how do we fix this decline in popularity?
You change the target audience, so the new generation of sim racers are a group of people who are willing to take on the mammoth learning curve. Project CARS and Assetto Corsa don’t need to be pushed on teenagers who would much rather be playing Battlefield 4 or whatever version of Assassin’s Creed we’re getting this year. You don’t need guys like SlapTrain or BlackPanthaa bouncing off the guard rails in an effort to drag people out to the online servers in Assetto Corsa, as their audience are the very gamers who will run five laps, realize the game is too difficult, and never touch it again.
You need to push these games on car guys, the same way Madden NFL football is pushed on Football fans. People don’t pick up Madden because they see it in Wal-Mart one day and think “I heard it got good reviews on IGN.” They buy it because they’re football fans and they love that shit. Modern sims need to be advertised in AutoSport, Top Gear, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Autoweek… Stuff that’s relevant to people who love cars and auto racing. The people who read these magazines and invest themselves into automotive culture will have no problem braving the steep learning curve of racing sims and sticking around for a while, because by default it’s something they’ll enjoy regardless. And it extends to more than just magazines as well. You have tons of Australians turning out to each event on the current V8 Supercars schedule, but do those fans know that the Ford Falcon is available for Project CARS in the latest DLC, and they can race the exact event they just attended from the comfort of their own home?
Right now, you’ve got a large group of Battlefield 4 kids picking up stuff like Assetto Corsa or Project CARS out of curiosity because BlackPanthaa played it for a giggle, then growing frustrated over those titles due to the insane difficulty, but literally nobody in the stands at your local race track knows this genre exists. And I’ve seen this phenomenon at my local sim center in person. We have guys showing up who are Canadian Superbike riders, SCCA road racers, Whelen All-American Series track champions – they invest hours and hundreds of dollars into playing rFactor 2 at a fancy arcade, and they have no idea the world of sim racing exists for their home computer. Yet guys who literally would never touch a hardcore racing simulator – they just subscribe to GameSpot on YouTube for weekly vidya news – hear all about the latest Project CARS DLC.
There’s something wrong with that. Change it. And I think the guys behind VRC Pro have actually laid out a pretty good baseline with this video:
The VRC Pro team don’t attempt to lure in the Call of Duty crowd with trailers on GameSpot and hope they’ll become invested in a super hardcore radio controlled racing simulator. They simply put the laser sights on the people who already love R/C racing, and go to town on that very specific group of potential customers. This is what some of the modern sims need to do. No more trying to rope in console gamers who will grow frustrated and go back to Halo by the end of the night. There are people out there who love this shit and don’t even know it exists. Go find them.