One of the most intriguing aspects of the sim racing landscape compared to other areas of the video game industry, is how small, little-known indie developers can directly compete with major releases churned out by established studios – and occasionally come out on top in the long run. As we saw with Assetto Corsa’s rise to PC simulator prominence for about two and a half years – starting in the spring of 2014 and lasting until the summer of 2016 – even though Turn 10 and Slightly Mad Studios had pushed out comparatively huge racing games onto the market that dwindled what Kunos Simulazioni had created, Assetto Corsa’s active userbase only continued to grow. Steamcharts displays a pretty striking graph for us when we actually try to verify this statement with raw data, showcasing a massive surge in the popularity of Project CARS on its day of release, only for Assetto Corsa to slowly rise up the charts and overtake it in the spring of 2016.
But can the opposite also be true? Is it possible for one simulator to be so astronomically ahead of its contemporaries, that the rest of the hardcore simulation developers simply can’t keep up and offer an equally compelling product? I believe so, and this is what might end up killing sim racing as a genre when all is said and done. Not the toxic community or the eternal science projects developers hold their users hostage with, but a game so good, it’s pointless for the others to even try. Those that do, will never achieve enough sales to keep the company afloat, and one by one, developers will simply fall off the map until there’s basically nobody left.
Let’s begin by taking a look at iRacing. As I’ve touched on in a previous article, back in 2008 when the service first entered the public market, iRacing was a totally different beast compared to every other simulator you could go out and purchase after work. While most pieces of software were just stand-alone games with a very generic, almost dated online component, iRacing offered this elaborate, mammoth online career with races going off every hour, and a genuine sense of progression to the whole experience that other games simply didn’t have. As a result, almost everyone who was interested in half-decent online races flocked to iRacing, while the once-popular rFactor leagues were now full of drivers who were simply too lazy (or poor) to upgrade their PC’s. At the same time, oval racing fans who had been patiently awaiting the next generation of licensed NASCAR console games, promptly abandoned ship from the woeful Eutechnyx offerings after only a release or two, and signed up for iRacing.
Even though other games had objectively better physics models and drove like proper race cars, it wasn’t uncommon to come across people on the iRacing forums, or on the in-game chat feature, who simply refused to install anything but iRacing on their PC’s because “I can’t race people.” Numerically speaking, there are a surprisingly large amount of sim racers for each game to have its core audience on paper, but iRacing did so many things so well, that if other games didn’t offer even a quarter of the iRacing-style online experience, people refused to even test the waters.
This is part of the reason why rFactor 2 stumbled out of the gate and had such a paltry following in the immediate years afterwards; people didn’t want an open modding platform with slightly better graphics when they were fairly content with a piece of software that had this massive online racing world to explore, and most of the cars & tracks they would have spent months building in their free time already available to purchase.
Next, I’d like to talk about what Codemasters are doing with DiRT 4. After years spent appealing to teenagers obsessed with energy drinks and the X-Games crowd that couldn’t care less about rally racing to begin with, Codemasters are set to bring back rally in a big way this June, with the release of DiRT 4 across all current generation gaming platforms. Unless you’re like that one guy on 4Chan who deems Mobil 1 Rally Championship (1999) to be the ultimate rally simulator despite its dreadful physics, there’s an enormous list of reasons to get excited about DiRT 4. From the mammoth roster of cars, in-depth single player career mode, and the randomly generated stages which promise a game you simply won’t be able to memorize in an afternoon, DiRT 4 basically ticks every last box fans of the genre have been asking for. Seeing it in action will obviously be a different story, but for the time being, this game looks really fucking good.
However, on the flip side of this spectrum, teams such as the folks behind gRally, the officially licensed WRC games, or even Milestone if they plan to launch another rally title, have absolutely no point in trying to make a competing rally game. gRally may offer open ended modding support, but no reasonable informed customer, let alone veteran sim racer, is willingly going to choose one add-on stage that took three months to build over a game where you press a single button and the built-in software presents a high-fidelity, seven minute stretch of road based on your exact perimeters.
As a result, these developers simply cant recover the cost of development with sales figures, because there’s one killer app on the market.
Lastly, let’s explore what happens if Project CARS 2 or Gran Turismo Sport end up being genuinely good pieces of software that are enjoyed by a vast array of people. Slightly Mad Studios are planning to inject all of this eSport compatibility into their upcoming title along with a dynamic track element, full seasonal weather effects, and a mass-market roster of cars with no major brands missing in the lineup. Gran Turismo Sport for the PS4 will introduce a dedicated userbase in the millions to the eSport kingdom, with a drastically altered progression system which moves away from the single-player grind-fest the series is known for, in favor of a rigid online structure akin to what iRacing offers. Essentially, the name Gran Turismo alone guarantees a huge crowd of people using the new online competition features of the title to its fullest extent, and potentially asking even more from it.
So how are teams like Sector 3, Studio 397, or Reiza Studios offer even a fraction of that experience on shoe-string budgets and minimal staff members? Currently, there’s a bit of talk that the three “indie” studios mentioned will implement some sort of structured online racing element to their titles in the coming months and/or years – and alright, that’s great, but if these mass-market games like Project CARS 2 or Gran Turismo Sport end up partially warranting the hype surrounding them, you’ve now got three developers rolling out online features they’ve spent a lot of money on implementing that are used by exactly nobody because someone else is doing it infinitely better, and an audience of nobody doesn’t keep the company afloat. And with how small these companies are by nature, they can’t go out and offer “something different than mass-market game X or Y”, because we’re currently in a period where the Sector 3 team still haven’t implemented tire pressures into RaceRoom Racing Experience, and Automobilista is still clearly powered by a modified version of a physics engine lots of us were first exposed to in 2006, if not sooner.
We’re entering a very interesting time in the history of sim racing. While there are a lot of bold promises on the table from the likes of Polyphony, Codemasters, and Slightly Mad Studios, if these teams manage to accomplish what they’ve set out to achieve, the little guys – Studio 397, Reiza Studios, Sector 3 – they’re simply not going to survive. Right now it’s at least sort of worth giving money to everybody and trying out every game on the market, because there’s no one title that gets everything correct and is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. However, with Codemasters acquiring almost the entire team from Evolution Studios and experiencing a resurgence of sorts, followed by Slightly Mad Studios seemingly getting their act together and initial previews for Project CARS 2 looking kind of okay, and Gran Turismo shifting the focus of their franchise into the modern era, away from the Japanese-style RPG progression elements that once made the game a chore to play, we’re looking at a future where a lot of the smaller teams – such as those who don’t even let you create custom lobbies for the console version of their simulator – will be spoken of in the past tense.