Though many PRC readers indulge in the world of auto racing simulators from the comfort of their own custom-built pseudo cockpits deep within their respective man caves, a large majority of gamers who are otherwise unaware these extremely niche pieces of software exist are instead introduced to the genre through Simulator Centers – quiet establishments that charge anywhere from $20 to $40 per hour for a romp in elaborate rFactor setups. While some of these outlets can be fairly successful, establishing a core group of loyal customers before going on to host private championships, complete with a live steward for those who just don’t have the time to explore PC gaming and would rather merely show up and race, things can also play out in a completely different manner.
There’s a bit of a mess currently occurring in Australia with one prominent simulator chain, and it’s quickly becoming a very definitive example of what happens when individuals enter the simulator scene in the hopes of making a quick buck, rather than doing it for the love of the hobby and letting the following roll in naturally. With locations listed in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney, The Grid promised motorsports enthusiasts real Formula One simulators, but an overwhelming negative backlash has allegedly caused two of the three locations to completely shut down, with specific customer reviews indicating a third may not be all that far behind.
Getting these businesses off the ground in the first place can be exceptionally difficult, so I do partially sympathize with The Grid’s struggles; one can’t just go out and install something like Assetto Corsa or Project CARS on ten different PC’s, insert them into any array of specialty sim cockpits that can be purchased online, and call it a day unless they want a free cease and desist letter, accompanied by a nice platter of legal troubles following shortly thereafter. Individuals running sim cafes must understandably pursue hefty commercial licenses, which can put the likes of Assetto Corsa and iRacing far out of reach for an outlet that hasn’t even opened its doors to the public based on the figures I’ve been provided with. As a result, the cheapest, and most reasonable option ends up being the original rFactor – which is a complete and utter eyesore compared to the significantly more modern offerings.
However, there’s a major catch: injecting each commercial rFactor install with a bunch of sweet community mods one can find on RaceDepartment, NoGrip, the TrippTeam archive, or rFactorCentral is out of the question – you have to contact every single creator for permission to use their work in a paying customer outlet, meaning a lot of the cars and tracks people would otherwise want to drive when they come in for the first time are sadly off limits for a multitude of reasons. Teams such as IDT explicitly prohibit the use of their Long Beach track in commercial settings (as you’ll see on all of their loading screens), while comprehensive GT3 car collections making use of ripped car models from other titles are also a definite no-no in a commercial setting. And sure, you could go out and insert something like CTDP’s fantastic Formula One 2005 package into your simulators – especially in country that boasts a rich motor racing history such as Australia – but then Formula One Management themselves have every right to come knocking, and those guys don’t exactly fuck around.
So what ends up happening for honest companies not willing to dance with potential legal issues, is a lot of customers come in and immediately complain about both the graphics of the original rFactor, as well as the lack of content to select from. Unless the establishment has enough of a dedicated userbase to create a private championship or other equivalent competition that will reel people in regardless of the on-track product, the only alternative is to then apply for a liquor license and just sort of hope a bunch of people come in to get drunk and turn laps in rFactor – which isn’t the kind of environment a lot of actual sim racers would be interested in. At that point, you’re printing money for yourself, but the core audience who are interested in the actual racing portion, have fucked off long ago, unwilling to deal with a bunch of drunks at what’s essentially a themed bar.
This is the spot The Grid have worked themselves into, but it’s also where I stop sympathizing with them. Even with a lack of exciting content or current generation graphics, you can still sit down and craft a core experience that will generate a decent amount of revenue for what you’ve set out to achieve, and a create roster of regulars provided you create a solid plan of action for the future. Yet according to a pretty solid collection of Google reviews, The Grid have done the opposite, reportedly scamming people out of hundreds of dollars.
Several customer reviews have absolutely trashed The Grid for shady business practices and half-assed event services that made grandiose claims, yet delivered only a fraction of what they were advertising – whether it be regarding the software itself, the food, the alcohol, or the officiating, which was practically non-existent and resulted in chaotic demolition derbies that were “better suited for kids parties than people looking for a simulated race experience.” This obviously upset a lot of people, but it was purely a teaser of what was to follow. Owners supposedly closed up two of the three locations without any sort of formal warning to potential customers, continuing to accept money for parties and other miscellaneous gatherings long after the locations were shut down while knowing full-well their establishment was not open for business – supported by two of the locations listed as Permanently Closed on Google.
Simulator Centers are an admittedly hard sell to us already entrenched in the hobby, as very few sim racers would willingly pay extra to play a selection of video games we already own at home, not to mention customize to a virtually unlimited extent in the manner commercial licenses will explicitly not allow. However, for those who are unaware the hobby of sim racing exists or just don’t have the time to explore PC gaming at their leisure, a simulator center can be an excellent window into the genre without all of the hassle that comes with sitting down and getting into one of these games – not to mention a way to meet fellow hobbyists who otherwise avoid the traditionally toxic major sim racing forums. Unfortunately, Australia’s The Grid have demonstrated what happens when these establishments are run with the wrong principles – and the wrong individuals – fueling the endeavor.
If there happens to be a sim cafe in your area, all I can say is to investigate the place first and be very cautious about spending your money in large quantities – places like The Grid do exist.