What if I told you that the most trusted name in sim racing was just that – a name?
There’s a very definitive aura surrounding both the GTR franchise itself, as well as the developers listed on the package – SimBin. Released during the height of sim racing’s supposed Golden Age – an era of feature complete simulators sparked by Sierra’s Grand Prix Legends in 1998 before sputtering out in the mid 2000’s – the officially licensed virtual counterpart of the FIA GT Championship became a cult classic piece of software known for it’s unprecedented realism, even as the series remained a relatively obscure alternative to more established motorsports in European markets.
Whereas Grand Prix Legends rocked the video game landscape by introducing virtual auto racing fans to the concept of a hardcore, no-nonsense driving game when the technology was just barely able to handle it, GTR2 refined that sort of unforgiving experience to absolute perfection. No, the Ferrari’s which adorned the cover of the game weren’t absolute death traps to drive at the limit of adhesion, nor were dense forests and small hamlets hidden around blind corners of wide-open circuits; the game was instead bathed in an atmosphere unlike any other – rivaling projects of substantially larger budgets. Emotional orchestral scores and properly slick menus gave way to a downright beautiful racing game that pushed modern computers to their absolute breaking points, and when you finally got past the flash and pizzazz, your Saleen S7 screaming out of the final corner to begin your first true hotlap after everything had been tweaked to your liking, GTR2 held up its end of the bargain where it mattered the most – on the virtual racing surface.
SimBin were heralded as heroes, and some have even mentioned the game in articles with titles such as “Crap Best Sellers and Hidden Masterpieces” that otherwise focus on the exploits of major celebrities such as Justin Bieber and movies like Fifty Shades of Grey; the game captured several awards of great significance during a period when hardcore PC racing simulators were largely ignored in favor of mass-market titles that only vaguely represented an authentic driving experience. While the world was caught up in the frenzy of Forza Motorsport’s first release, a hotshot car-collecting game for Microsoft’s very first home console that looked to steal a bit of thunder, monolithic video game press entity GameSpot awarded GTR2 a score of 90%, and dubbed it not only The Best Game Nobody Played of 2006, it also won Best Driving Game period.
Exponentially more people were picking up a copy of GTR2 from their local electronics retailer and spending long hours getting lost in the cars and tracks of the FIA GT series, than were actually leaving their homes going to events on the real life FIA GT Championship schedule. YouTube footage from the 2004 season reveals a very empty Hockenheim Grand Prix circuit for the fourth round of the season, while someone claiming to have inside knowledge of sales to the point of previously being under a non-disclosure agreement mentions a few hundred thousand units were moved during a time when digital distribution straight up wasn’t a factor in the video game market. You had physical to go to the store and make the conscious choice to pay full price for an obscure racing simulator you grabbed off the shelf with your own two hands that your PC might not have been able to run in the first place, instead of merely capitalize on an eight dollar Steam sale.
It was a really, really big deal.
Unfortunately, the success of GTR2 – while beneficial for hardcore simulator fans desperately wanting a “killer app” that served to showcase the quantum leap in progress sim racing as a genre had made over the past eight years – ultimately had the complete opposite effect on the multiple companies involved. GTR2 is not seen as a celebration of the right people coming together and sharing a common goal of rocking the video game world with the little FIA GT racing game that could, but rather the source of a continuous war between two rival companies. Both want to be known within the industry (as well as to the general public) as the little indie developer that made it big by busting their asses and creating a truly compelling product, but the reality is that only one team can hold that honor.
And because SimBin Studios UK have recently come out and announced GTR3 is confirmed to be in the pipeline – generating hype primarily by pointing at a game from ten years ago and saying “we’re bringing that exact product back” – it’s important for sim racers to know that calling this new racing simulator a direct sequel to GTR2 and writing SimBin on the box, doesn’t mean it’s a GTR game by SimBin.
And it also doesn’t mean it’ll be any good. Or that it’ll come out at all.
The SimBin team a solid amount of our readers know, love, and most likely hold in extremely high regard, actually split up very close to the end of GT Legends’ development cycle. A very lopsided fracture at its core, a vast majority of the team remained with Ian Bell and continued on as Blimey! Games (later to be re-named Slightly Mad Studios), whereas a small cluster of individuals – consisting mostly of Swedish sim racing enthusiasts – retained the SimBin name and became almost a Nordic version of Reiza Studios; an extremely small, nationalistic sim racing development team tasked with basically starting from scratch – but at least they had the name everybody recognized to reel people in.
An internal war still remaining largely behind closed doors, a victim of this split ended up being the Xbox 360 version of GTR, which was originally intended for a May 2006 release.
Shortly after the split, possibly in the fall of 2005, publisher 10Tacle Studios came to SimBin and asked the team for a sequel to GTR, as they (rightfully) believed the market was ready for the next game in the series. The few remaining individuals at SimBin had to reluctantly explain that the team was simply too small after the fracture to handle a project as large as GTR2, needing a bit more time to get on their feet as a company. 10tacle were unfazed by this, solely interested in producing a killer racing simulator based on the FIA GT Championship, and proceeded to contact Ian’s team at Blimey instead.
However, because sim racers had already associated the name SimBin with stellar products in both the original GTR and GT Legends, an agreement was made with all parties to keep the SimBin logo and namesake on the package, though the majority of the development would actually be handled by the group currently known as Slightly Mad Studios. At the time, it was exceptionally smart marketing. Blimey Games were essentially playing the role of session musicians in a manner similar Anton Fig filling in for Peter Criss during the downfall of KISS at the end of the 1970’s; helping to maintain a public perception of unity and consistent quality that would reel in customers without subjecting the project to development hell, as SimBin at the time had less than ten employees on the payroll and just getting back together as a team, whereas Blimey were already a functioning company ready to begin work on the next project.
Problems crept up almost immediately for both teams, when GTR 2 – as mentioned above – was not just a niche racing simulator intended for a fraction of a fraction of an already obscure community, but began winning awards from mainstream gaming websites that otherwise didn’t give racing simulators the time of day, much less Driving Game of the Year awards. Overnight, having GTR2 on your resume genuinely meant something within the industry in regards to acquiring future projects for the team, as independent developers churning out a critical and commercial successes thanks to a racing game centered around a series with empty grandstands in real life was basically the most ridiculous miracle story in the history of video game development, and publishers would obviously want a piece of that talent for the road ahead.
No sane person who was presented with millions of dollars on the table by a potential publishing deal would openly state “well, yeah, our name is on the box of this massively successful indie racing simulator, but we didn’t actually make it”, so this lead to a situation where both Blimey! Games, as well as SimBin, attempted to take credit for the success of GTR2; each attempting to push the other under the rug despite a very tangible business deal – and even Wikipedia – stating the raw facts.
SimBin, or at least the new, Swedish-oriented SimBin, eventually did rebuild themselves into a respectable company, as evidenced by their numerous simulators released throughout the late 2000’s. Race: The WTCC game landed on store shelves shortly after GTR 2 arrived – raising a bit of justified suspicion within the community as to how the same developer put out two radically different racing simulators of varying quality in the span of a month – before embarking on a multi-year journey in 2007 with Race 07 and it’s abundance of paid expansions sold primarily through Valve’s radical new Steam platform.
No, they weren’t inherently bad games by any means, but most hardcore sim racers at the time believed they were missing that extra pinch of atmosphere and overall quality that shot GTR2 to the absolute forefront of everyone’s radar. You could either have a massive array of sports cars with a bumping orchestral score and some of the finest visuals ever seen in a PC simulator relative to the era in which the game was released, OR you could have… a Chevrolet Lacetti passenger car and some other obscure amateur track day warriors.
To their credit, SimBin realized that Race 07 was a bit of a dud, and made every last effort to flesh their flagship simulator out with an elaborate array of race cars from around the world – including an expansion pack that directly addressed their most prolific critics and introduced three entire classes of GT cars to the simulator under the moniker of GTR Evolution – but even though it said “…from the creators of GTR2” on the package, it wasn’t having its intended effects. Despite a complete re-structuring of the company from the ground up, and wrongly advertising that they were the team that had created GTR2, they weren’t actually benefiting from it.
In December of 2008, only a few months after SimBin had released the GTR Evolution expansion for Race 07 to a very lukewarm reception, Electronic Arts pulled the covers off of the newest Need for Speed title to be released in the fall of 2009. Given the name of Need for Speed: Shift, Slightly Mad Studios had been recruited to build the absolute biggest game of their careers by the single most important entity in modern gaming: Electronic Arts. Guaranteed millions of sales almost by default, and assisted by an international marketing machine that will undoubtedly be studied by future generations of game design students, the title promised to be a drastic change in direction for the franchise, taking advantage of Slightly Mad’s experience with both GTR games, as well as GT Legends, to produce a quasi-hardcore simulator intended to compete against Forza Motorsport – now on its third rendition.
Regardless of how you feel about Need for Speed: Shift in hindsight (my buddy was so frustrated by one of the rival races he actually snapped his disc in half), as a company, the miracle story Slightly Mad Studios had achieved with GTR2 finally paid off; senpai most certainly noticed them. They earned the right to play in the big leagues.
By comparison, SimBin Studios, the team that had been running around with the “…creators of GTR2” emblem attached to their products in the hopes it would drum up additional sales knowing full well almost nobody at the current rendition of the company worked on GTR2, were already working on churning out a mass-market console game of their own. Dubbed Race Pro and bundling a majority of the content released for the PC version of Race 07 on one disc, the title looked to introduce hardcore sim racing to the Xbox 360 user base.
While some sim racers claim Race Pro was the game that finally convinced them to make the switch to PC gaming and dive head first into the world of hardcore simulators, Race Pro as a product was hardly a compelling alternative compared to a similar offering with the budget of Need for Speed. Plagued by poor framerate, visual fidelity which never matched the preview screenshots, a save game corruption glitch simply unacceptable for a developer to include within their software that far into the Xbox 360’s lifespan, and launched at a time where dedicated racing wheels for the Xbox 360 weren’t as common as they are now for current generation consoles, Race Pro was both a critical and commercial flop. Personally, I liked what it stood for and thought the game had potential with a proper aftermarket wheel, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t already get on the PC.
With unflattering reviews of their mass-market console release prior to launch day, and the knowledge that their partner in crime was now playing on a world stage despite their own desperate attempts to convince the general public to buy their games solely because “we made GTR2, sort of…”, twenty four hours after Race Pro hit the shelves to basically no fanfare whatsoever, SimBin began digging themselves into a metaphorical hole and announced they were seriously looking into a lawsuit against Slightly Mad Studios for taking credit in the development of GTR2.
Wikipedia lists that SimBin did not create GTR2; that credit goes to the team at Blimey! Games, who are now known as Slightly Mad Studios. Yet after landing a multi-year deal publishing deal with Atari for a multitude of otherwise uninspiring touring car games based on the same technology which powered rFactor – including the failed Xbox 360 game in Race Pro – the team at SimBin believed the correct plan of action was not to create a compelling product which lived up to the game they claimed to help create many years ago, but instead seek genuine legal advice in an attempt to sue the team who did.
These are the kinds of legal threats that cost actual money.
A little over a year later, just enough time for any private legal matters to play out naturally, Henrik Roos, the former Dodge Viper in the FIA GT Championship depicted in GTR2, revealed that SimBin as a company were in extremely serious financial trouble, and major investors had spontaneously backed out following unspecified “unsuccessful business ventures.”
This is sim racing. It’s basically the same 3,000 hardcore users purchasing every game, playing it for a week, and then going back to their simulator of choice. Games that sell poorly come out all the time, and rarely do they tank a company. Rarely would one or two hardcore racing simulators sink a team that focuses exclusively on hardcore simulators.
You tell me what happened.
According to VGChartz, the two games in the Need for Speed: Shift sub-franchise spearheaded by Slightly Mad Studios sold a combined total of six million copies; though I’m guessing these numbers aren’t entirely accurate, and a member of SMS themselves may soon find themselves in our comments section violating their non-disclosure agreement to ensure we got this number right. Regardless of whether the combined total sales figure is six million, or sixteen million, that’s a lot of fucking money in the bank accounts of Slightly Mad Studios – an elaborate reward for their miracle rise to prominence as an AAA game developer.
With nervous suits at Atari looking on at one of their developers, wondering why “the miracle team that created GTR2” was instead shitting out stuff like Race Pro and endless expansions for their aging simulator, it’s understandable as to why the folks in Sweden were becoming a bit trigger happy with their multiple legal threats in an attempt to re-write history and calm the concerns of their overlords. I mean, just comparing screenshots is enough for someone at Atari to start questioning that something wasn’t quite right with what they’d been advertising their crew to be capable of.
The Swedish incarnation of SimBin first announced GTR 3 during the Christmas season of 2011, subsequently teaming up with VirtualR.net to unleash a tidal wave of information which teased the new title, but the influx of news and ground-level hype suddenly stopped in June of 2012 – only six short months after it had began.
When SimBin finally did reveal their modern flagship simulator to the general public, it ended up being a barbaric slap in the face to all sim racers who were patiently expecting something every bit as hardcore as the sequel to GTR2 the team once announced across all major sim racing media outlets. Though Sector 3 have done their best to whip the game into a traditional racing simulator over a period of years, in the very beginning RaceRoom Racing Experience was a a desperate attempt at churning out additional revenue for the company, as the game first arrived as a free-to-play racer where fictional cars, tracks, and even liveries forced users to first purchase “funny money” before any micro-transaction took place, giant corner markers obstructed the trackside scenery, and the application initially failed to include anything aside from an online hotlap competition – with no head to head multiplayer component in sight.
All of this, from the team that promoted themselves as the guys who created one of the most difficult and demanding racing simulators of all time.
The entire process of shipping out a game that went against every single ideology the company once stood for screamed “we are on the absolute breaking point as a company”, and SimBin indeed went bankrupt only a short time later – later re-emerging as Sector 3 Studios. Across the planet, with their CEO now residing in Singapore and development handled primarily over the internet rather than in a tangible office, the team that really did create GTR2, Slightly Mad Studios, jumped into the fray on both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with Project CARS, eventually moving a combined total of two million units.
Sector 3’s most recent update for RaceRoom Racing Experience has the artificial intelligence recklessly smashing into one another. Users are still unable to manually adjust the tire pressure of their race cars.
It says that GTR3 might not even happen.
The team who built the critically acclaimed GTR2 – a title that so many of you once fell in love with either a decade ago, or just a few months back thanks to a flash Steam sale? That crew is now known as Slightly Mad Studios, and whether you’re happy with how Project CARS turned out as a racing simulator, or are constantly run into crippling issues that can be easily documented with the PlayStation 4’s Share feature, these guys are still making racing simulators and doing their thing.
SimBin, on the other hand, sold a whole bunch of payware mod packages for a fancy re-skin of rFactor, have already failed once at making the transition to the console racing platform, ran into long-term financial troubles shortly after announcing they would sue Slightly Mad Studios, announced GTR3 for the first time before revealing it to be an atrocious “freemium” racing game loaded with intrusive micro-transactions which no sim racer would ever want in their library, finally went bankrupt, and then announced GTR 3 again during a time when their other game, RaceRoom Racing Experience, is still missing features found in Race 07 from almost a decade ago.
I love the kind of on-track product sports car racing provides, and I love the idea of heading out to Wal-Mart to snatch a copy of GTR3 for my PlayStation 4, ripping off the shrink wrap as if I was thirteen years old, and being greeted with an elaborate sports car racing experience after throwing the disc into my console. In a genre filled with many simulators that throw a whole bunch of random cars and tracks at you with no clear focus, this is something I’ve personally been demanding for quite some time, and so has the overall sim racing community. We all really want GTR3 because of what it represents.
But can SimBin Studios UK actually churn out GTR3 as intended, after such a ridiculous, unstable, and blatantly idiotic history?
Probably not. There’s a chance this game may never see the light of day.