Though Studio 397 have been given the keys to drive rFactor 2 off into the sunset, that doesn’t mean the original developers of the simulator – Image Space Incorporated – are about to rest on their laurels anytime soon. We’ve heard from several sources, including an email exchange with Tim Wheatley himself many months back, that the team are hard at work on an upcoming project; one that will “use” the isiMotor engine rather than “develop” it, so it’s certainly hard not to let speculation run wild – because if there’s one thing all sim racers love to partake in regardless of their preferred discipline of motorsports, it’s playing the waiting game for either a new simulator, or an update for a sim they haven’t touched in several months.
Last year, I predicted this secret project would manifest into an officially licensed IndyCar simulator. Image Space Incorporated appeared to have an excellent relationship with both Dallara and the Verizon IndyCar Series, to the point where Indianapolis Motor Speedway was included in rFactor 2 as default content, and they were sharing data about the current spec aero kits with third party mod teams working on other games, so it wasn’t a stretch to assume things would be kicked into high gear with a fully-licensed IndyCar simulator sometime in the future. ISI achieved worldwide recognition for their fantastic open wheel simulator F1 Challenge ’99-’02 over a decade ago, so an IndyCar sim would almost be a sort of homecoming celebration for them; it’s not quite Formula One, but after years upon years spent developing multiple sim racing sandboxes with heaps of unlicensed content in the base package, it would be a return to their roots to create an open wheel sim with the blessings of a major racing series.
The biggest problem with this hypothesis, however, lies with IndyCar itself. Featuring only twenty two drivers on the grid for the 2017 season, all of whom pilot cars that are generally regarded as the worst looking vehicles in the history of auto racing, IndyCar isn’t just a shadow of its former self; the series is on life support. People aren’t going to the races in person, they aren’t watching the races on television, about half of the drivers on the grid are regarded as washed up stars of yesteryear, and I’ve read stories of Indianapolis residents not even knowing IndyCar was a championship series; they just thought the Indianapolis 500 was a one-off special event. While many sim racers would no doubt love a hardcore IndyCar game because of the variety the series provides – visiting temporary street circuits, ovals, and purpose built road courses all within just a few months – it’s probably not feasible on the IndyCar side of a potential deal. These guys can’t put their own fans in the stands for $50, so who’s left to buy an IndyCar video game most of them won’t be able to complete a lap in for $60?
But regardless of the IndyCar situation, ISI are still making some sort of undisclosed project, and the language used to describe it implies the software won’t be some kind of eternal science project, but a feature-complete simulator you’ll be able to purchase, install, and play without worrying about things like developer blogs, road maps, new builds, and all of the garbage that has infected sim racing as of late. And looking at the types of sim racers who still play rFactor 2 religiously, there’s basically one move ISI could make that would win virtually everybody over and generate both the most amount of buzz, and highest number of sales across the entire planet while still remaining true to their sim racing roots.
Resurrect Sports Car GT.
Released in April of 1999 and published with the help of Electronic Arts in an era long before they were known as the world’s worst company, Sports Car GT was ISI’s first major racing simulator, centered primarily around North American multi-class GT racing as sanctioned by IMSA. Though the game included a slew of fantasy circuits to diversify the track roster, sim racers were introduced to locations such as Lime Rock Park, the Las Vegas Infield Circuit, Sebring International Raceway, Road Atlanta, and a high-quality version of Laguna Seca that blew away what Papyrus had built a few years earlier for IndyCar Racing II. Not only was the vanilla release extremely well-received by major gaming outlets, bundling impressive graphics with equally robust physics and a simple career mode that allowed you to buy, upgrade, and sell cars, Sports Car GT’s third party mod community promptly exploded in popularity. Absolutely everything went right for this game.
Fast forward fifteen years, and GT racing is even more popular than it was in 1999, with the added bonus of being financially stable; limits being placed on car development to prevent costs from launching into the stratosphere and prototype-like machinery from dominating each event via liberal interpretations of the rules package.
On the software side of things, sim racers have been begging for an all-GT oriented sequel to GTR 2 after the company now known as Slightly Mad Studios won several awards for what was on paper a very obscure simulator based on the European FIA GT Championship. With the cars being relatively easy to learn yet difficult to master, and brand loyalty playing an integral role when it comes to on-track dick waving, many sim developers have thrown top level GT cars into their software to satisfy the needs of sports car racing fans, though being inserted into a diverse smorgasbord of content just isn’t the same as firing up a piece of software with menus, features, and functionality as elegant and focused as the Ferrari’s, McLaren’s, and Porsche’s it features.
But this is where resurrecting Sports Car GT in that fashion, makes perfect sense.
rFactor 2 is a great simulator, but only in very specific circumstances. The Stock Cars ISI tried to implement a few years ago in an effort to woo the oval racing crowd are still woefully inadequate, with the AI unable to provide a compelling oval racing experience. There are plenty of open wheel cars to mess around with, but all of them allow you to beat and bang with your opponents as if they’re bumper cars at the local summer festival. And yes, while the game welcomes third party mods with open arms, most of them just aren’t very good – either quick conversions from other platforms, or beautiful 3D models with objectively poor physics. This has created situations where a lot of people end up buying rFactor 2, only to wonder what all the fuss is about.
And then there’s the endurance racing content by UnitedRacingDesign.
The popularity of rFactor 2 in certain sim racing circles has skyrocketed thanks to what’s basically two mods from the same payware modding team, as URD’s unlicensed GTE and Prototype packages show off the isiMotor engine in the absolute best possible way. With several leagues – including the prestigious VEC – making use of both mods in an online endurance racing format, events are long enough for the dynamic track to naturally evolve in the intended fashion, the tires behave in such a way that those who drive the cars understand why rFactor 2’s thermonuclear tire model is such a big deal, and the 24-hour lighting cycle, driver swaps, and weather patterns play an actual role in the event as opposed to being features the large majority of rFactor 2 users will never touch.
What I’m getting at, is that the major new features that make rFactor 2 a technological masterpiece which so many hardcore sim nerds can be seen masturbating over on the official forums, are actually made use of when it comes to GT and endurance racing content. So it would make sense for ISI to reboot Sports Car GT and make that type of racing their primary focus, as it puts the level of detail and functionality they’ve spent years working on at the forefront, rather than hiding it in options menus to be neglected by a large portion of their customer base.
Licensing is also made significantly easier for Image Space Incorporated by choosing to pursue GT & endurance racing. With so many series and sanctioning bodies around the world running under the same basic set of rules and specifications, there isn’t actually a need to go out and license one exact racing series directly, such as Blancpain, IMSA, or the World Endurance Championship.
Merely acquiring ten or twelve of the most popular GT entries, along with a handful of prototypes and a decent selection of major racing circuits is enough to get things off the ground, as regardless of whether it says Blancpain Endurance Series above the windshield of a McLaren 650s, or a fictional World GT Championship moniker, the physical on-track product isn’t any different. This is what they appear to have done Sports Car GT, as I can’t find anything on the packaging or in-game track signage that states it’s an official IMSA product of any sort – it just has an ass load of various GT cars on tracks that just so happened to be on the IMSA schedule, as well as a few international tracks like Donnington Park and Hockenheim thrown in for good measure.
We’ll obviously learn in time what ISI are up to behind the scenes, but I’m under the impression they are resurrecting Sports Car GT with an updated set of cars and tracks, using the isiMotor 2 platform as a base. Sports car racing is the absolute best way to make use of all the new additions to the isiMotor engine first implemented in rFactor 2, the popularity of sports car racing is at an all time high and people are desperate for some sort of modern game primarily focused around GT racing, and it would be a sentimental returning-to-their roots story for a company many have thought lost their way with the haphazard development of rFactor 2. There’s basically no reason for them not to do it at this point.