If there were to be a hypothetical grade school report card for PretendRaceCars.net, the most prominent comment left by our instructor would most certainly be “does not play nice with developers” – and I can’t blame them. Inside this hyper-critical mess of long-winded articles viciously deconstructing every modern racing simulator on the market, we’ve left absolutely no reserved seating for any developer willing to have a voice in the matter. Sometimes, it’s liberating to give consumers a safe haven to voice their complaints, away from the reaches of power-tripping forum moderators, but we’re fully aware that it’s gotten to the point where a whole lot of prominent figures in the world of sim racing see us as little more than a well-written “hate blog.” How do I feel about that? For the most part, it’s a feeling of indifference. It doesn’t really matter whether developers are willing to sit down with us or not. This place is a consumer-oriented site, written from the view of three guys who simply consume products, whereas places like RaceDepartment or VirtualR function as official news outlets.
But have we tried to change the identity of this place a bit, and open up a line of contact with a few different developers? Yes, we most certainly have. Back when we first got up and running in the spring of 2015, Kunos Simulazioni were what you could call “closet supporters” of this place, and we reached a point where a text interview had actually been pretty far along in the works, but they eventually declined to send their completed interview questions due to how the community would potentially react to them conversing with PRC.net on amicable terms – it would raise a few red flags. Most recently, another text interview was in the works with Sector 3 Studios, but again things failed to materialize. I can’t really fault them for this one, as they are busy as shit behind the scenes, and it shows in the sheer volume of content they’re continuing to add to their simulator.
So obviously, judging by the title of this entry, the last person I expected to play ball with us and commit to any sort of interview would be Ian Bell of Slightly Mad Studios. We’ve ripped apart his game. We’ve ripped apart the marketing tactics used to promote the game. We’ve ripped apart him. At this point, Mr. Bell has absolutely no obligation to tell us anything other than to fuck off, and yet he’s the first major developer to publicly give us the time of day. Now I’m obviously not a big fan of the guy, and I’m not a big fan of Project CARS – or any of the work created by Slightly Mad Studios for that matter – but for him to take the time out of his presumably busy schedule and answer ten fairly difficult questions for the readers of PRC.net is an incredibly cool move. For a brief moment in time, we’re going to temporarily push aside all of the ugliness and work together to bring the sim racing community an interview that will answer many questions sim racers around the world have been desperate to know the answers to. This one’s for you guys.
Lap One: Even dating back to the days of the GTR franchise, every project with your name on it has routinely achieved almost unfathomable sales numbers for what is an otherwise incredibly niche genre the common gamer isn’t all that interested in. Do you feel the sales of Project CARS are a testament to the game’s quality, or have your strategic marketing techniques simply helped the title reach new audiences?
Ian Bell: Thanks for the kind words. The answer is both really. We sold very well with GTR, and GTR2 particularly, despite what we all felt was a poor marketing effort from 10TACLE. What sold those games was pure passion and for GTR2 in particular, a solid package with few bugs and the obvious desire from the developers to go the extra mile on everything.
The Shift series sold phenomenally well because, well… It’s Electronic Arts. They know how to market a game. EA get more than their fair share of abuse, and with us it was no different. It wasn’t EA that forced us to make Shift a more simcade experience in terms of handling. We knew the market we were selling to, and worked hard to enable the average gamer to have fun with the physics. Those new physics were made up mainly of a new brush tire model that Eero coded up after his stint on Richard Burns Rally. It was never as good as we hoped it would be and Eero was adamant is was as good as he could make it. That’s why we moved to our new and very complicated SETA tire model for games following that.
To go back to my initial point; I felt we marketed Project CARS very well and delivered a game that although initially had too many bugs, has improved a lot. We plan to replicate our GTR experience with pCARS2 and with Bandai Namco’s full Quality Assurance effort behind it this time, hope to deliver a more solid experience out of the box.
Lap Two: You’re not a new character in this genre by any means; veteran sim racers can recall your name popping up in F1 Challenge 99-02 communities long before establishing yourself as the Head of Slightly Mad Studios. As a sim racer at heart, pushing aside all connections to Slightly Mad Studios for a brief moment, when you sit down to play Project CARS on your own leisure time, are you content with the experience it offers?
Ian Bell: No, I’m not content. I feel it’s too difficult with a gamepad and I feel it requires too much fiddling with settings to get the very best experience from it. When you get those settings correct, such as the Force Feedback sliders, it can be fantastic and as a sim, actually simulates more than any other game on the market. We are working very hard on those areas for the sequel, as well as some other firsts that should get people very excited.
I can’t say I’ll be content with pCARS2 though, as I’m rarely completely happy with the work we do.
Lap Three: All video games undergo mammoth changes as development progresses from the design document to the final product, and Project CARS is no exception. However, several elements of the project WMD members expected to see the light of day – and were functional in preview builds – such as oval racing, the Indianapolis 500, and the release of the title on Nintendo’s Wii U console, all failed to materialize. To complicate matters, when these omitted features were finally addressed, many customers felt deceived by Slightly Mad Studios. Do you believe their feelings are justified?
Ian Bell: Yes and no. It’s never possible to deliver everything you set out to deliver at the start of a project, in exactly the way you plan to deliver it. End users rarely see what you’re planning to ship until you pass the point of knowing exactly that you can deliver said feature and you start marketing. Therefore they aren’t aware that it’s common and normal to drop features during development. With WMD we were developing fully in the open for the first time, in the full glare of the public. Anything we stated that we intended to deliver, we worked our arses off trying to do so. We failed on Ovals and on full pit crew animations. Have the people looking forward to those features got a right to be pissed off? Of course they do. In mitigation, we did add over two hundred features we didn’t plan to add, for free, as well as monthly free cars for the first ten months after ship. Many of those new features were post-release user requests.
Lap Four: Despite unfavorable reception from the hardcore sim racers Project CARS had been built in mind with, the game has still managed to reel in an entirely new set of fans just getting familiar with the world of sim racing. Even though the game has failed to resonate with the diehard sim racing nerds powering this hobby, do you take pride in the fact that another group of individuals have used Project CARS as a “stepping stone” of sorts before moving to more advanced simulators?
Ian Bell: We are the most advanced simulator and I’ll explain why I think so. Give me any metric by which that ‘most advanced simulator’ can be measured, be it detail in the tire model, the heating model, Hz cycle rates, time of day, weather, you name it and we are doing more, for more of those metrics, than others are doing. So this question falls a little flat. The handling in Project CARS is what the race drivers tell us it should be – or as close as we could model it – and that is something which moves away from the handling of the current so called best simulators.
Other sims arguably have one main thing on us in terms of physics and that’s ease of handling at or beyond the limit. We’ve since added two more parameters to the SETA tire model which allows us to better simulate that grip/slip/re-grip experience around the limit, and I’m confident Project CARS 2 will be our new GTR2 when people get their hands on it. Further, we’re going hell for leather on the defaults, ensuring more people get the best out of things such as Force Feedback, without fiddling with settings.
Lap Five: We’re at a point in the evolution of video games where almost every title ships with a few comical bugs here and there, some eventually going viral through the usage of social media. However, it became apparent immediately after launch that the sheer volume of bugs and issues present in Project CARS crossed well into unacceptable territory. Can you walk us through what it was like to be in charge of your team when patch after patch would continuously fail to rectify show-stopping issues, and in some cases create new ones?
Ian Bell: I agree we shipped with too many bugs. We also shipped a game that was more in depth and more extensive than any sim that had shipped before. We developed it with the input and advice of 80,000 people, not an easy logistical exercise. We developed it for less funds than would normally be required and with very little of those funds available to allocate to Quality Assurance testing. We worked on shipping new features every month and we delivered that. Those also brought some new bugs due to the hectic pace we signed up to in advance.
Going forward, we have proper funding, the Quality Assurance department of Bandai Namco, and we’ll never agree to monthly feature and content updates again for such an extended period. So it was frustrating. We didn’t want to be accused of more ‘false promises’ such as the complaints over the disappearance of oval track and lack of animated pit crew, so we went with it and gave it our all. As each patch shifted from more features, less bug fixes to the opposite, things started to improve. But yes, we’ll never sign up to anything like that again. For Project CARS 2, I’ll say it’s a quarterly update frequency at the most.
Lap Six: Switching topics temporarily to the upcoming Project CARS 2, one of the perks for financially supporting the development of the game at the highest level is essentially a dinner date yourself. Now, aside from some of the obvious personal safety issues that may arise, how does this dinner date help Project CARS 2 to become the best virtual racing experience it can possibly be?
Ian Bell: You’d be amazed at the insights you can learn from a half pissed punter face to face. On personal safety, let me just say that their table etiquette better be impeccable or there’ll be trouble. Look, I’m a 250 pound ex-rugby player. While I’m nobody’s pushover and tend to not like to take unjustified crap, I’m a compete pacifist who hasn’t been in a proper fight for 18 years. And when I was, they started it (and lost).
Lap Seven: Let me rattle off a few names here… Rene Rast, Nic Hamilton, Ben Collins… All three extremely big names in the world of auto racing, and all three took time out of their schedule to help with the development of Project CARS. In your opinion, which acquisition was the most valuable in terms of raw feedback, and why?
Ian Bell: I wouldn’t dream of splitting them. They all stand out in their own way and each brings something unique to the table. They are actively testing and giving detailed feedback constantly. This is absolutely not just a marketing gig. We’ll take all of the residual marketing goodness they can provide of course, but that’s not the main benefit or aim.
Lap Eight: As people began to explore Project CARS in the weeks and months after the title finally made it to store shelves, the hardcore sim racers among us slowly uncovered numerous “oddities” hidden within the game. Wet weather tires were unstoppable in dry conditions, a minimal camber value produced precious speed and grip advantages at no extra cost, and in some cases, the DRS system on certain vehicles would generate colossal physics engine failures – glitches similar to those present in your pair of Need for Speed Shift titles. With such a big team, so much funding, and literally thousands of sim racers paying to test the product, how did this stuff find its way into the retail version of Project CARS?
Ian Bell: A lot of misinformation in this question. How can wet weather tire issues emulate issues seen in Shift if -I can assure you – it’s a completely new tire model, from scratch, not one line of code shared with the brush model Eero wrote? Your accusation that wet tires hammer dry tyres in the wet ignores tire wear, which you can turn off. But yes, the base grip levels were off initially and were fixed.
Let me say this though. If these bugs, which will always slip in, are the catalyst to set you off on what PRC.net has become then I suggest you leave the community because I can assure you of one thing, there will always be “oddities;” there will always be bugs. Every new game will bring their own. As games get ever more complex, with infinite possible gameplay variations in multiple areas, the Quality Assurance teams can never be smart enough or big enough to catch them all. The important thing is that you acknowledge them and fix them as quickly as you can.
As a post script, our “so much funding” was less than 25% of the going rate for an AAA multi-platform game.
Lap Nine: It’s a difficult question, but our readers would love an explanation on this one, so I guess we’ll have to go there. Throughout the history of PRC.net, we’ve been hit with a steady stream of Emails from ex-Project CARS forum members outlining a set of very restrictive and controlling moderation practices. Most of these submissions more or less claim that Slightly Mad Studios are hyper-sensitive to criticism of their product, and these complaints date back to a period prior to the game’s official release date. Some have stated they’ve simply felt unwelcome for merely reporting a genuine problem with the game. Is there a reason you and your team have chosen to moderate the forums in such a manner?
Ian Bell: Good question. We have one simple rule in terms of moderation when it comes to criticism: We welcome it, as long as it doesn’t become abusive or overly repetitive from one individual.
You will always get disgruntled ex-forum members who were removed who absolutely did nothing wrong in their minds. When I review the actual history, it’s invariably a justified removal. We have gotten it wrong on a few occasions and rectified it.
In short, it’s how you say it, not what you say. The last part of your question is preposterous. We had 80,000 people on WMD who we actively asked to criticize every aspect of Project CARS during the years spent in development. Of those users, less than 0.1% of the population were removed from the forum, again, for not being able to formulate their criticism without abuse or constant – often whining – repetition. I’ve just looked through our public forum and from the first two page of threads alone, eight threads contain clear criticism. Some of those threads are more than six months old. If we were so averse to criticism we’d have closed them, and I’d not be answering your questions here.
Final Lap: Lastly, for those who weren’t satisfied with the original Project CARS title, what can you tell us about the sequel that may possible entice them to give it a shot on launch day?
Ian Bell: I’ve covered most of this above. The rest I’ll leave until the time when we start teasing properly. In short, we’re better funded, have better Quality Assurance, are not held to our public promises early on, know where we failed, know where we need to improve and have everything in place to make pCARS2 our GTR2. That’s how we see it internally.
Usually I use PRC.net to analyze the answers a developer has given in an interview, but this time, I’ll instead simply extend my most sincere gratitude towards Ian Bell for being the first major developer to sit down with PretendRaceCars.net in this kind of manner, and I’ll let you guys in the comments section below can go to town as you wish. I will say that some very interesting information has been revealed within this interview, and there will certainly be a lot to talk about across sim racing message boards far and wide as this piece begins to circulate.