With the 2017 season of sim racing already shaping up to be one hell of a thrill ride, the most shocking piece of news revealed over the holidays comes not from the Bedford, Massachusetts camp responsible for crafting iRacing into the monolithic entity it is today, but from the little Swedish simulator developer known as Sector 3 Studios. After several years spent wrestling away RaceRoom Racing Experience from the depths of free-to-play hell, and embarking on a multi-year effort to rebuild the game into something hardcore sim racers could really get behind, the group recently announced rather ambitious plans to implement a robust set of features that on top of fleshing out the underlying gameplay experience, would put R3E on the path to becoming a direct competitor to iRacing. Scheduled races and online series governed by some sort of elaborate ranking system are currently on the horizon, and the revitalized competitive online format of R3E will hopefully come bundled within a free update to the base software rather than an additional package you’ll have to pay for.
In short, after nearly a decade of iRacing dominating the online racing market with absolutely no worthwhile competition to speak of whatsoever, one sim racing crew have embraced the challenge which the David vs. Goliath scenario presents, and will attempt to put something out there themselves to disrupt the established status quo. No doubt about it, the effort is honorable – sim racers need something to shake up what is quickly becoming a very stale scene – but there’s a reason only one team has embarked upon this endeavor and lived to tell the tale; it’s not an easy undertaking.
Yet despite the abundance of high quality cars and tracks currently available within Sector 3’s flagship simulator, as well as the phenomenal driving model that I can say with absolute certainty has directly helped improve my own real world car control skills in amateur racing series, I’m not entirely sure the team can pull it off. In fact, they might have bitten off a little more than they could chew. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – ambition is what moves the genre forward – but it’s also a lot of time down the drain if it goes oh so very wrong.
I’ve been privileged enough to receive press access to RaceRoom Racing Experience – allowing me to drive all the various cars and tracks free of charge as they’re added to the simulator – but I’m not in the business of blatantly omitting flaws to keep my overlords at Sector 3 content. When it comes to online racing – the physical act of joining a server and competing with humans from across the globe – RaceRoom Racing Experience doesn’t always work as intended. In fact, the quality of each online session varies so drastically from one virtual event to the next, a large portion of my screenshot folder is dedicated to fucked up things that I come across playing R3E against other sim racers.Cars warp inside of each other at a rate that isn’t acceptable, which can really be a mess during the first lap chaos when everyone’s under a blanket. The game’s archaic netcode – complete with netcode shunts – rivals that of ToCA Race Driver 2 from 2006, a problem only fixed by racing alongside close friends who’ve all been confirmed to be powered by the highest quality internet package their ISP provides. The game’s free-to-play status allows those curious about sim racing to jump in the fray at little to no cost, yet this has instead worked against the software and spawned a situation where the average online racer is nowhere near capable of keeping their car pointed in the proper direction, let alone keeping up a compelling battle. And while there are indeed a flock of talented drivers which call R3E home, the general instability of the software can cast a dark shadow over the competitive environment. The vehicle dynamics are phenomenal, the force feedback terrific, and the sounds genre-leading, but often times RaceRoom Racing Experience certainly feels as if there are many kinks Sector 3 still need to iron out.
The good news is, the team are aware of these gremlins, and unlike other developers, keep their heads down to endlessly hammer away at the product without starting fights on their official forums, or coasting on a cult of personality. The bad news is that if you’re going to establish a competitive platform within your simulator, you need a few months where everything goes according to plan, and Sector 3 haven’t been so lucky.
- The most recent Black Friday deal, which saw all the content RaceRoom Racing Experience has to offer at a discounted price, heavily crippled the simulator’s servers. If a few hundred people taking advantage of a holiday discount is enough to bring the online experience to it’s knees, how will R3E hold up when an entire wave of sim racers promptly show up to check out iRacing’s first legitimate competitor?
- When holding sponsored online competitions through a mix of hot time trial and knockout events on private servers, the team at Sector 3 were forced to lock out non-European residents in fear of online gameplay instability. If these precautions are necessary prior to a simple tournament commencing, with knockout races held for a select handful of individuals at the conclusion of the time trials, how does this same team expect to successfully open the floodgates to a host of sim racers from around the world for many races? They can’t exactly pray only German residents living in close proximity to one another will adopt the structured online format and occupy all the top ranked rooms.
- A recent build of RaceRoom Racing Experience saw the GT3 class dominated by the outdated Ford GT thanks to an oversight by the Sector 3 squad. Virtually anyone placed on the grid in Ford’s flagship supercar could easily lap a second quicker than the rest of the field, effectively turning GT3 online events into a spec series while content owners waited for a much-needed patch. With car balance playing an integral role in ensuring a fair environment for all sim racers, how can R3E owners be certain these issues will be squashed entirely prior to the online racing system launching, when they have been so prevalent in the past?
- RaceRoom Racing Experience has rarely seen any top-level online league activity grace its servers, as the game has a well-documented history of being unable to score basic information such as lap times correctly. With some Race2Play events seeing drivers achieve pole position in qualifying by almost thirty sections due to a scoring loop error, and overloaded servers producing situations where the race standings displayed by the game’s heads up display is bugged all to hell, how can we count on Sector 3’s underlying code to consistently calculate race results and performance rankings in the correct fashion?
- As Sector 3 have opted to simplify car setup options for the time being, neglecting the art of refining tire pressures completely, occasionally exploits pop up which greatly compromise the playing field; at one point in the game’s life span, minimum downforce aerodynamic configurations did not produce the instability it should have, while rumors of extreme toe values as the solution for more speed have circulated within groups dedicated to tearing up the various leaderboards. There hasn’t been much confirmation that Sector 3 have dialed in the current garage options, and with talk of increasing the setup options to a more traditional range of adjustments in the future, it only opens the door for more exploits. This isn’t an enjoyable fix to chase when prizes and points are on the line, as those who know the exploits are even less obligated to turn things over to the developers, primarily to retain their advantage online.
The key theme I’m trying to convey, is that RaceRoom Racing Experience – while providing a fantastic driving model when we speak in car-meets-track terms – isn’t exactly a stable game ready for the big leagues both literally and figuratively. You’ve got to walk before you can run, and run before you can sprint. Turning this game into some sort of valid alternative to iRacing is something I’m personally excited for because the core vehicle dynamics are satisfactory, but it’s a very big mountain to climb to make it all work without major issues. Part of the reason iRacing were able to come out swinging was because their prior release, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, was one hundred percent finished and polished as a piece of software. RaceRoom, on the other hand, is still evolving as a product; the core package hasn’t yet been dialed into perfection, and a stable online experience during periods of increased traffic isn’t even guaranteed. That’s a bit suspect if you’re trying to launch some sort of alternative to iRacing.
So with this announcement, Sector 3 have essentially been tasked with getting more right in one update than they ever have before throughout the past four or five years spent working on R3E. If successful, it’ll be the break they’ve been looking for. Yet if the endeavor crashes and burns, unable to provide a steady experience from the word go, that’s a lot of research, time, and resources up in smoke.