The Simulationing

This week, the sim racing community will be split into two very distinct groups of people, as it is with each passing year at around this time. There will be those who brave the “mass market bells and whistles” of Codemasters’ officially licensed Formula One game, F1 2017, discovering a very modern, well-rounded racer that’s already receiving rave reviews from fans & critics alike, and there will be those that scoff at the title, unwilling to accept anything other than a bland, boring piece of software in the pursuit for unparalleled authenticity.

While brands like Electronic Arts experiment push the envelope with each new iteration of their yearly sports franchise, this year giving Madden fans three distinct gameplay styles and a narrative-driven piece on top of seemingly endless features and refinements that reflect an authentic game of professional football, the sim racing landscape is the only sub-genre of video games in which members actively call for new releases to remain stale, dated, and lifeless, while criticizing showcase elements that actively engage the user within the virtual world. These gentlemen do not want unlockable vehicles, they do not want elaborate single player career modes, they do not care for modern visual fidelity – though this is probably down to their outdated computer specifications being unable to handle it – and the thought of a car that isn’t trying to kill them in every corner, at least in their eyes, places the game into the same category as Need for Speed; a distraction for children and teenagers.

As if there has been some sort of hidden contract signed by a portion of the community, no matter how genuinely good Formula One 2017 ends up being when the routine patches stop and we’re left with a game that is considered “complete”, sim racers are not allowed to like anything that doesn’t fit the status quo of being a bland, uninspired package with some cars and tracks that are somewhat realistic. Just look at the responses from sim racers after Liberty Media revealed there would also be a small Formula One eSports championship taking place during the back half of this season, with bigger plans obviously in the pipeline for next season and beyond. I wouldn’t call it a complete meltdown, but it’s obvious the community takes offense at the mere thought of a racing game that goes against the established norm of what a simulator has traditionally been composed of in the past, being called a simulator by the biggest racing series in the world.

Is Formula One 2017 a little bit easier to drive than the real thing?

Very few of us sim racers have driven a Formula One car (hi Max, care for an interview?), so we can’t really sit here and give a definitive answer. But it’s certainly plausible Codemasters have sat there during the game’s development and said, you know what, the average consumer needs just a bit of assistance that we’ll code into the game’s tire behavior. Not a lot, but a little. And that’s perfectly understandable, because this game is not advertised but as a hardcore simulator that’ll crush your balls and force you to donate a portion of your paycheck to some financial dominatrix in Russia, but instead a reasonable virtual representation of the pinnacle of motorsport – and the surrounding activities as well.

And does Formula One 2017 offer a set of distractions that maybe pull you in a different direction and serve to entertain you rather than encourage you to focus on perfecting your speed, car setup, and racecraft?

Well, absolutely.

But does that give hardcore sim racers a justifiable reason to scoff at the title?

Not at all. And they won’t like the answer as to why.

Above, I have compared an iRacing qualification lap from Esterson Motorsports in preparation for the 2017 24 Hours of Daytona, versus the qualification charts provided by IMSA.tv for the real deal. In a simulator that advertises itself as the absolute pinnacle of authentic, accurate motor racing from the comfort of your own sim rig, the lap times produced within this software were profoundly inaccurate – the virtual Mercedes running a blistering five seconds faster than the quickest real-world team campaigning the same car. Yes, there might be some balance of power going on, and yes, the weather conditions within the simulator may have been a touch different than the real event, but five seconds is still five seconds. For the absolute top of the food chain to produce such a massive discrepancy, after years upon years of the marketing department – and other sim racers – parroting this elaborate pretense that all of the world’s best drivers use iRacing to practice for upcoming events, the discrepancy between the real thing and the virtual counterpart is equivalent to that of a Codemasters game, if not more so.

And this isn’t even an alien time, with Esterson’s YouTube account not appearing to display any sort of footage that indicates they’re at the peak of the virtual racing ladder. This is one of the more talented average Joe’s in the community, who maybe race for fun and because they’re good at it, but do not have an elaborate Facebook fanpage conducting mock interviews with their drivers.

Five seconds.

We now move on to Automobilista, a game many including myself believe to be the best commercial usage of the isiMotor engine and the absolute best “traditional hardcore” simulator you can buy with little aside from an active Steam account, eclipsing ISI’s own rFactor 2 in the process. Several weeks ago, as part of a community-wide competition, Reiza challenged all owners of Automobilista to attack the Suzuka Grand Prix circuit with their knock-off 2002 Formula One entry, code-named the Formula V10. Michael Schumacher’s pole time for the 2002 Japanese Grand Prix, set during what was arguably his prime years behind the wheel, was blown away by four seconds by a flock of nerds sitting in their basements – one hundred and thirty one nerds, to be exact. The other nineteen professional race car drivers on the grid (give or take a few pay drivers) wouldn’t even be in the ballpark if their real world laps were to be submitted to the Reiza leaderboards.

This is a game that sim racers recommend if you’ve exhausted basically all of the “mainstream” simulator options, and want something that offers maximum simulation value, though with it comes maximum obscurity as well. And yet Schumacher’s impeccable speed – which should be absurdly difficult to match for all but the most talented of sim racers – is a lap time that any moderately talented driver can obliterate.

To me, that sounds like an arcade game.

And then there’s Studio 397’s rFactor 2, which has recently partnered with McLaren themselves to hold some kind of elaborate eSports competition – the ultimate reward being a job as McLaren’s in-house simulator driver. The audience, admittedly, has been very nice – surpassing what genre front-runners iRacing have been able to do with their championship series – but the authenticity aspect is up for debate. rFactor 2 was chosen partially for it’s status as an ultra-hardcore PC racing simulator, yet the top drivers – and many more that follow in the extended leaderboards – are turning laps three seconds faster than the Blancpain GT series pole time. Yes, again there’s balance of performance that we maybe don’t see in rFactor 2, and maybe some track conditions at play as well even though these sessions are held in a public server that can’t be manipulated to produce insane grip levels…

But three seconds is three seconds, and this is a leaderboard full of professional race car drivers. To be blown out this badly by computer nerds who in some cases don’t actually possess valid drivers licenses, is not simulating much of anything. Either the real world drivers should all be fired; their jobs given to names such as Enzo Bonito and Risto Kappett, or maybe the whole thing is no more or less accurate than a Codemasters game.

Lastly, we get to Assetto Corsa, again a game with it’s own flock of followers who praise the indie racing simulator to high heavens, and during the game’s on-going botched console release, can actively seen belittling those who do not understand what the fuss is about as “console children” who cannot appreciate authentic car physics as the game’s bread and butter.

I have not chosen to consult the popular RSRLiveTiming leaderboards to compare lap times, as these laps are often completed in what drag racers call “mineshaft conditions”, in which users manually opt for insane track grip and temperature settings outside what would occur in reasonable competition.

In a SimRacingSystem GT3 event, Polish sim racer Jakub Charkot posted a qualification lap almost three seconds faster than the Mercedes AMG GT3 pole time set during the 24 Hours of Spa earlier this season. Kunos have already balanced the cars among one another, and this lap was set under authentic race variables; imperfect track grip, other traffic to contest with, and realistic fuel consumption.

Give Jakub a ride? Or re-consider your perception that these hardcore simulators that boast unparalleled levels of authenticity and realism are really no better or worse than a Codemasters Formula One game.

Though everyone will obviously have different tastes when it comes to the precise way they enjoy their pretend race cars, the elitism that a portion of sim racers hold in regards to titles like Formula One 2017 is simply not justified.

On top of having Formula One cars that are marginally accurate, the F1 series from Codemasters has an actual game built around the experience. There are stunning visuals that you can show off to the general public and they won’t crack jokes about it – as per the Visa Vegas eRace stream – there are practice training regimes, a team of mechanics that can respond to voice commands and have a simple conversation with you, there are unlockable bonus cars, dynamic racing lines, a full TV-style presentation, animated paddock area with individual characters who act out a predefined role, research and development arcs, cooperative championship play against a field of AI bots, and last but not least an artificial intelligence that’s compelling to race against.

Hardcore racing simulators, on the other hand, have marginally accurate cars and confusing menus. And then the excuses come.

  • It’s not supposed to look nice, it’s a simulator, think X-Plane but with cars.
  • I don’t care for good AI, I just like to test drive the different vehicles and better my lap times
  • The developers don’t have enough money for flashy gimmicks, but I don’t care, I just want to drive, those other modes are a distraction and take away from the driving anyways.

So if they both provide the same objective experience behind the wheel – the same marginally accurate vehicle performance that can be deconstructed with a quick trip to the results sheet of any major racing series – why is the complete game scoffed at, whereas the elaborate tech demo praised?

Jealousy.

Enjoy Formula One 2017. For those who are unwilling to, ask yourself why you put up with this abomination when the on-track product is the same.

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Maximum Destruction: A Sim Racing Phenomenon

Imagine if, later this year, upon booting up your new copy of Madden NFL 18 and spending a solid twenty minutes tweaking your Ultimate Team lineup for it’s first taste of gridiron glory, you were instead paired against five straight online opponents unable to execute basic football fundamentals: most notably completing a forward pass or progressing past the line of scrimmage. And say you grew tired of these dismal opponents, only to fire up Modern Warfare Remastered for a different kind of online competition, subjecting yourself to a full hour of pubescent children shouting obscenities over the headset, all while aimlessly wandering around the map and mercilessly slaughtering their own teammates – you included.

It’s the kind of experience that would turn off the average person from immersing themselves in modern video games, but thankfully this isn’t a scenario that happens very often in the world of high profile officially licensed sports games, nor the yearly assortment of blockbuster first-person shooters. Though mass market American football simulators and modern military games have evolved into highly intricate affairs – virtually impossible for the average gamer to pick up and play with any sort of success – the average online opponent you’ll encounter during an evening of play still manages to put up a respectable fight and express an understanding of the core mechanics of the objectively complicated set of rules. Very rarely – if ever – do you stumble upon someone who is totally clueless at the controls and unable to contribute anything to the competitive environment; a feat made all the more impressive considering the millions of customers who purchase these games with each passing year.

Yet in a highly specialized hobby, one where dedicated auto racing enthusiasts – who obviously know all the cars, tracks, and techniques needed to be successful – spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to both build a dedicated gaming PC, as well as surround themselves with hardware that sometimes isn’t even necessary to complete the experience in the first place, the opposite rings true.

Unlike Madden, NHL, FIFA, or any popular competitive online game – where you can jump on and be thrown into a compelling match against somebody else within the single press of a buttonparticipating in competitive sim racing events, no matter the software used, is often an exercise in endless pain and frustration. At the risk of sounding like a stuck-up asshole who seemingly scours the web in search of new reasons to loathe his favorite hobby, the honest to God truth is that an overwhelming majority of sim racers are fucking terrible at sim racing, and it makes for a very peculiar dynamic for those choosing to invest time and/or money into honing their skills at these games. Putting in the effort to become a skilled sim racer has next to no reward, because the community itself is so over-saturated with people who simply cannot drive in the slightest, performing well has little to no meaning if your competitors are spinning circles in the infield.

Sim racing’s absolute biggest problem, is that a solid 90% of the community members are unable to turn objectively competitive laps, and the talented 10% are spread across so many games – and leagues within those games – that genuinely compelling races are drastically outnumbered by opening lap clusterfucks and mind-blowing on-track incidents. Again, while I can boot up NHL ’17 and be treated to a fantastic match against a random opponent almost instantly, the same scenario in a hardcore racing simulator warrants something equivalent to public karting against a bunch of clueless women.

Given the recent push for these games to become not just quirky pieces of software for diehard auto racing fans, but instead a legitimate eSports branch, obviously you can see why this might cause some problems. It’s not much of an enjoyable competition if everybody sucks.

Friday night, I’m not gonna lie, I found myself watching one of Jimmy Broadbent’s streams, in which he invited some of his viewers to sign up for a private night of racing with him. Despite this being a private affair – sign-ups not optional, but required – within three corners, the opening Mazda 787B race descended into chaos; the host himself helplessly bouncing off opposing vehicles before another racer ran him off the track just a few short laps later. These are people rocking top of the line pedals, expensive PC setups, high quality steering wheels, and other miscellaneous items – can anyone say button boxes – on top of applications that display where opponents are residing from multiple angles in relation to your car, and yet the end result is basically destruction derby without the radical damage model. This isn’t a knock at Jimmy or any of the attendees participating in the event; it’s just strange how people who have invested so much into a hardcore racing simulator that wasn’t marketed to normies – but dedicated auto racing fans who have all obsessed over race cars for years – are barely able to play it.

What’s also strange is just how prevalent this all is throughout the community.

No, it doesn’t get better if you “join a league”, which is the popular response to those complaining about gigantic opening lap wrecks in public lobbies. Above is a screenshot of Eurogamer’s first Assetto Corsa championship race from this spring, in which the rather stout field was basically hand-picked from a “who’s who” of sim racing in Europe. Event organizers were forced to restart the race three times in a row, as the so-called top sim racers on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean were unable to progress more than a hundred feet without junking a large portion of the entry list. GoPro footage from Pablo Lopez displays this is more than just a byproduct of Assetto Corsa’s quirky collision physics, as there’s a beautiful on-board shot of him dodging the best sim racers in the world when the iRacing Grand Prix series visited Interlagos last season, and those chasing a $10,000 cash prize proceeded to wreck the shit out of each other mere seconds into the 2016 season.

In my own personal travels, I’ve witnessed multiple incidents during safety car periods – whether it be during a warm-up lap or caution period – meaning there are people in the community incapable of literally idling around a track at passenger car speeds; nothing short of pathetic. I’m also genuinely surprised when people adhere to blue flags, move over for faster cars out of respect, flash their headlights as a form of communication, or exhibit basic common courtesy when it comes to either pitting, or merging back onto the race track – as these are all extremely rare to witness. In one instance I also saw a league earlier this year struggle with such an abundance of wrecks, they were forced to run road course races without full-course yellows after their races turned into elaborate car parades from all of the caution periods.

For a community consisting entirely of avid auto racing fans, it’s truly bizarre how only a fraction of the participants can conduct themselves in a manner that implies they sort of know what they’re doing. Instead, I routinely see people either driving far over their heads, or totally clueless about what’s occurring around them and just sort of pointing the car in the general direction it’s supposed to go, almost like it’s a system link game of OutRun 2 in their local arcade and they’re still learning the nuances of the physics engine.

Speed is an entirely different topic, though I’ll be less lenient than I traditionally have been when covering this subject in the past. Look, it’s okay to be a second off pace and hanging around in the middle of the pack, maybe slinging it out for seventh if you’re lucky because you either blew the setup, aren’t all that experienced with the cars, or are still finding your comfort level behind the toy steering wheel. That’s totally fine; I don’t think anyone has gotten into this hobby and become a phenom, right out of the box. However, now that we’re halfway through 2017, and with social media playing such a prevalent role in our world, there are now several hundred truckloads of YouTube tutorials, guides, books, and sim racing personalities all uploading their own unique tips on how to become a better sim racer – 99% are publicly available at no cost whatsoever.

No, the community should not consists solely of aliens and cyborgs, who have dedicated every lunch break at work and three hours in the evening to perfecting their craft in the hopes of becoming an eSports superstar, but with all of this information publicly available in such a digestible, user-friendly, there’s no excuse for being a particularly bad sim racer. Yet I’ve been participating in Will Marsh’s Mazda 787B league over on SimRacingSystem under the SimRacingPaddock banner – you know, the app you’re supposed to download for close, competitive online racing – and that’s what I’ve been seeing as of late: bad sim racers. I shouldn’t have five wins in six starts, unable to see second place in my mirror, and lapping drivers after ten minutes into a twenty minute race; guys who are blowing braking points left and right as if they’re a teenage girl dragged out to public karting by her older brother.

But somehow, that’s where we are as a community. The “best sim racers in the world” wreck the shit out of each other on lap one during public broadcasts, and those not in contention for a five figure paycheck from iRacing are basically rolling hazards. Those in-between are a mix of the two, and I just don’t feel it’s necessary to treat this subject with kid gloves when there are near-infinite resources out there on how to become a better pretend race car driver. It’s fine to be a bit slow; not woefully off pace and a literal safety hazard.

Even worse, is when you take into consideration that our planet is largely a static entity, and many of the tracks we all flock to in our preferred virtual environment have been appearing in video games for what’s now generations upon generations – as there’s a finite number of both existing and historic racing circuits developers can choose to insert into their video games. Yes, everyone knows that turn one at Monza is a complete shit-show and to expect varying levels of chaos, but we’ve also had eighteen years of Formula One games to prepare for it and get better. Some of you guys have been turning laps at Monza in front of your PC longer than certain drivers on the Formula One grid have been walking the planet, so at least in my opinion there’s absolutely no excuse for the tomfoolery that occurs each and every event – as you can see in the header for this article.

You’ve had decades to learn Monaco, the Nordschleife, Laguna Seca, and I guess we could even throw Le Mans into that mix if you owned a Sega Dreamcast at the right time. I don’t understand how people haven’t figured out the corkscrew at Laguna Seca when the track layout has remained unchanged since Gran Turismo 2 hit the original PlayStation in 1999, and the fundamental act of driving a race car hasn’t exactly changed since driving games became a thing – though obviously the physics fidelity has improved. But alas, the sheer number of sim racers who are completely unfamiliar with even the most prestigious of locations, despite the money they’ve spent on the hobby, is pretty mind-blowing.

It’s very depressing to witness as someone who’s a moderately skilled sim racer. Obviously, I have found a couple good leagues to partake in over the years – a special shoutout to the guys at RealishRacing, that shit was wild – but given the kinds of people these games are built for in mind, and the sheer number of sim racers who dive head first into the hobby – going the extra mile to purchase PC upgrades, triple screen setups, expensive wheels, pedals featuring force feedback, and even VR headsets for that last bit of immersion – the talent level should be significantly higher than it currently is.

The biggest problem with sim racing isn’t the unfinished games, the hostile developers on shoe-string budgets, the sim dad’s blowing hundreds on placebo gear, aggressive fanboys, or the beautiful disasters of the community who will file false DMCA complaints on you for uploading obscure NASCAR game mods away from their preferred website. No, those are all just metaphorical cake decorations.

It’s the fact that if I boot up Madden right now, I can be matched against a dude from Detroit who’s high as fuck and in the midst of arguing with his baby momma over child support, yet for twenty minutes we can have an absolutely killer back and forth battle on the gridiron that I’ll remember for the rest of the week. But if I jump in a lobby full of so-called hardcore sim racers, guys who have spent hundreds on top of the line gear and lurk the forums endlessly at work while claiming to have followed CART, Formula One, NASCAR, or sports car racing since the 80’s, they’ll either be embarrassingly slow to the point where they will be an absolute non-factor, or destroy the entire field before we can get up through the gears.

Sim racing’s progress is actively hampered by the absurdly low collective talent level of the userbase, and this will only serve to intensify once the push for eSports integration increases. These games aren’t fun to play when such a large portion of the community are downright fucking terrible drivers, and would you look at that? Developers think this is the perfect time to shoe-horn us into playing with the community even more.

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Is Too Much Preview Footage a Bad Thing?

We’re not going for controversy today, we’re going for thought provoking.

As most of you are probably aware, we’ll be getting our hands on Codemasters’ upcoming rally simulator DiRT 4 by the end of the work week, but I can’t help but feel a lot of the excitement surrounding the title when it was initially revealed to the general public has now completely faded away. Sure, I’m looking forward to playing DiRT 4, as are many others who greatly appreciate the willingness of Codemasters to drop some of the dudebro elements in favor of a more traditional, hardcore rally sim experience, but the giddiness of having a new simulator to play – one which also gives you an entire campaign to explore and flashy graphics to complete the experience – isn’t really there.

And the problem I’m hinting at, is that we already know too much about DiRT 4. YouTube and Twitch are fantastic tools for gamers to share their experiences with others in a variety show-like format, but I feel as if they’re actively working against the mystery that comes with ripping the shrink wrap off a product and exploring what the developers have created; being genuinely surprised by features, cars, or tracks that were hinted at but not fully revealed until the disc was physically in your hard drive. In the summer of 2017, we’re at the point where multiple gaming websites and hardcore sim racing publications have played through the first few hours of the game several times over, to the point where one doesn’t even have to own DiRT 4 to easily recite what players can expect from their initial experience. We’ve seen almost every class of car in action, every new rally cross track, and experienced a large portion of the unique stage generation tool that has been promoted so heavily – to the point where most racing game communities aren’t taking part in a shared child-like excitement, they’re instead bickering about virtual reality support as if we’re two months into launch and the game has already blown past the initial new game hysteria.

That’s really lame.

It’s made me pose the question of whether too much preview footage can be a bad thing, and I feel that yes, it certainly can be. I’m excited for DiRT 4 because I think we can agree that everyone wanted a sequel to DiRT Rally, but I’m going into it knowing that there are just three landrush locations, there’s no WRC cars, I know exactly what my team livery design and colors will be, I know the preferred line through the Gymkhana challenges at the DirtFish driving school compound, and what sponsors I can expect to have on the side of my car. It’s the equivalent of buying movie tickets for a show later in the evening, and then on the car ride there reading the entire Wikipedia article while simultaneously listening to four different podcasts discussing sub-plots you might not pick up on.

DiRT 4 has been spoiled by the gaming community, but it’s not the first game to receive that treatment. Project CARS 2 has also been granted an abundance of pre-release coverage, and it’s kind of taking away from that new game hysteria. Instead of surprising people with an entire IndyCar field as an “oh by the way, we got this license” surprise, or a platter of Group C cars that traditionally don’t make it into other games, we’ve seen so much raw gameplay that people are meticulously analyzing cornering speeds because they literally have nothing else to do. I personally know of some stuff Slightly Mad Studios have planned for Project CARS 2 that’s both implemented and functional within the game, but after seeing what’s happened with DiRT 4, I’m kind of hoping they’ll continue to keep it under wraps.  And that’s because we no longer have a hobby where just taking it all in – from the art style to the menus to the content not announced in promotional material – is part of the fun in purchasing a title on launch day or soon thereafter. A return to that style of marketing would be a lot of fun for customers; you have to selectively release information, not just fill people with videos upon videos that basically spoil the entire software.

By comparison, I’d like to take a look at another Codemasters title, Formula One 2017. We haven’t seen any moving footage of this game in action; just teaser shots of four historical Formula One cars, and talk of an improved handling model from those who have tried out the game behind closed doors. People are jacked for what this game might contain, because their imaginations are allowed to run wild and there’s this whole mysterious atmosphere surrounding the title. Hype for F1 2017 is also at an all-time high, because unless you’re a snob who hates fun and will avoid any title that doesn’t label itself as a hardcore simulator boasting a userbase of less than 300 people (200 of which run five laps in offline testing, then hit up the forums bragging that the cars are so hard to drive), Formula One 2016 was one of the best racing games of our time, and it’s only natural to expect Codemasters will improve upon it. This is marketing done right; people know the game will be good because the last one was phenomenal, and there’s just enough information out there to pique the curiosity of gamers into giving the new release a go. As a gamer, it’s fun to boot up a game and be genuinely surprised, rather than have the first two hours of the game memorized.

Grand Theft Auto was another franchise that got this balance absolutely perfect. Prior to the launch of both Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, there was absolutely no raw gameplay footage available; just well-crafted trailers from Rockstar themselves that demonstrated a quality product, yet left a lot for the players to discover by purchasing the title and putting it through it’s paces themselves. Remembering back to the launch of Niko Belic’s time in Liberty City, part of the magic in playing through GTA IV for the first time was just physically seeing everything – from the HUD design to the driving physics to the narrative elements – and being able to take it all in with the controller in your hand, rather than some YouTube video where a kid flown out to some exotic location by Rockstar was allowed to screech at the camera for 45 minutes and limp around the game world.

I’m hoping that developers shy away from this kind of promotional campaign in the future. Yes, there are a lot of customers sitting around on Twitch and YouTube streams, so those will warrant the most return on your investment for paying somebody next to nothing to demonstrate the game well ahead of launch, but it’s ironic how these developers will then complain that gamers go and act so “entitled” on their official forums, aggressively demanding more and more. Look, you’ve shown them 95% to 100% of the game before they’ve even spent money on it, to the point where it’s killed all excitement and the pendulum has now swung in the totally opposite direction where they’re now nit-picking like crazy. That’s not fun for either side.

And the proof that “less is more” is a viable marketing tactic, lies in Codemasters’ 2015 title, DiRT Rally. There was absolutely zero indication that this game was in the pipeline aside from an ATI Catalyst Control Center update, so when it dropped, it sent sim racers into complete hysteria. It didn’t matter that there were only three locales and seventeen cars in version 1.0; part of the fun was in the “holy shit Codemasters you did WHAT??!?!” element that came with the old Colin McRae team dropping a hardcore rally simulator seemingly out of the sky, and they were able to ride that momentum so long it resulted in a proper, fleshed out sequel worthy of being inserted into the main DiRT series. It took a solid couple of months for any profound level of criticism to surface about the game because sim racers were too busy exploring it, rather than what we’re seeing with DiRT 4, where people are crying about a lack of VR support, the omission of WRC-spec rally cars, or a questionably small track roster for the support series. And maybe I shouldn’t use the term “crying”, because some of these are valid complaints, but the fact that they’re surfacing before your average person has spent money on the game is obviously not a direction you want to progress in.

So maybe it’s time to revisit this marketing tactic. Some people obviously don’t give a shit about spoilers and will invest long hours into a game regardless, but if developers want to re-capture some of that launch day magic, it’s time to keep a lot more of the game under wraps, and not hand out early access keys to everyone with a YouTube account or a vagina that agrees not to give the game a final score until June 6th.

Doing It Right: How Sim Racing Can Improve as an eSport

While the Visa Vegas eRace, Eurogamer Assetto Corsa Championship, and the iRacing World Grand Prix Series may be known as the absolute pinnacle of competitive online sim racing, virtual auto racing as an eSport simply hasn’t taken off in the slightest. Despite hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning in to watch world class Counter Strike or League of Legends matches, what’s arguably the most difficult and skill-based genre of video games existing on the planet – hardcore racing simulators – are struggling to reel in any sort of audience whatsoever. Attempt after attempt is made to thrust sim racing into the eSports spotlight alongside much larger titles, but regardless of who exactly is behind the organization of it all, and the simulator chosen to hold the specific competition in question, the end result is always the same; nobody cares who wins, the on-track product is unexciting, the commentators far too enthusiastic for the event, technical issues destroy the flow of the broadcast, and barely anybody tuned in to begin with. League of Legends matches are occasionally covered by ESPN, but sim racing events draw a crowd on par with high school volleyball matches – and that’s pulling from a worldwide audience?

So how do we fix this?

Let’s throw some ideas out there.

And we’ll start by talking about the broadcast crew. Right now, the biggest problem is commentators either go all out and pretend online races are these ultra-serious life changing epiphanies in a desperate attempt to build a portfolio for some kind of real life commentating gig, or it’s absurdly obvious that the commentary crew is sitting in a dark basement waiting for mommy to cook them some hot pockets – and I think on an iRacing stream this actually happened once, where one guy freaked on his roommate for busting into the room during a broadcast.

The commentators need to approach the event with the mentality that it’s an organized event with a big prize on the line, but at the end of the day remember it’s also just a video game where some guys are turning laps in their pyjamas and they can be free to joke around, use slang, and call the action as if they’re genuinely just happy to hang out and watch a race. Two guys who are fantastic at maintaining this balance are Shaun Cole and Ian Plasch – the former being the personality behind The SimPit, whereas the latter is a popular iRacing streamer with his own fanbase. Personally I love listening to Shaun as he really gets that it’s just a fun hobby at the end of the day, whereas Ian is still young enough to appeal to the younger, eSports centric audience.

The reason I suggest to stay away from serious-minded commentators, is that occasionally things can and do go wrong during the on-track action, and it creates a really poor suspension of disbelief effect. Deep monologues discussing alternate race strategies do not go well with cars glitching into the track surface and shooting off into the stratosphere, followed by commentators awkwardly trying to decide if they should explain the game suffered a technical issue, or pretend there was a sudden “mechanical failure” – as they’ve done in the past with iRacing server failures. A laid-back, casual voiceover is a much more acceptable pair for the random carnage sim racing sometimes provides.

Next, let’s talk about the competitors themselves. I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this one, but let’s go there anyways. No matter how many huge eSport racing events are held, one thing has never changed – the drivers are boring, lifeless personalities. I’m sorry guys, the majority of sim events I watch, it’s a flock of faceless Europpean forklift drivers. You have to captivate your viewers, establish heroes and villans – which in turn allows the audience to either identify, support, or root against the numerous drivers on the grid – and that simply isn’t happening in the genre at the moment, so nobody is even caring who wins these competitions. Go watch the Visa vegas eRace again, it’s ten guys who all sound the same, look like they just finished their shift at some obscure Finnish warehouse, and were told to quickly get into this weird Firesuit to pretend they’re real race car drivers. Sorry, no, this is silly. Unfortunately if you want to grow sim racing as an eSport, you’ve got to move away from “the best sim racers in the world”, because as a viewer they have the personality of an Ikea dining set.

Look at the biggest personalities in the YouTube realm: BlackPanthaa, EmptyBox, SlapTrain, xMattyG, tiametmarduk, Yorkie065… all of these people alone have exponentially more viewers than the iRacing World Grand Prix Series. Round them all up and put them into a Championship with a few top-caliber drivers such as Bono Huis and Greger Huttu. As a viewer, I now want to watch SlapTrain get the shit kicked out of him and piss myself at the various fanbases for each sim racing YouTuber fighting in the chat after a wreck, which means the story of Greger Huttu winning his 19th championship or whatever is supported by equally compelling sub-plots. Right now, there is no drama, because nobody cares if Ray Alfalla wins 1, 5, 10, or 20 races in iRacing because he’s literally some dude from Cuba who doesn’t even have a driver’s license. However, there are 1.4 million people subscribed to SlapTrain, and 51,000 people subscribed to EmptyBox. A whole bunch of those people are going to show up to see them rub fenders.

Imagine if every single Formula One driver on the 2017 grid was Kimi Raikkonen. Twenty-two Kimi’s all giving one sentence interviews in simple English does not make for good television, and when you’re trying to grow sim racing as an eSport, it does not indicate to potential sponsors or those on the fence that they should tune in next week as well. That’s what outsiders see sim racing as right now. That needs to change.

So the idea would be to go out and get all of the prominent YouTube personalities, and mix them in with a flock of very talented sim racers, to sort of balance out the grid with a pack of drivers who can run at the front and set an example of “this is what top level sim racing looks like.” The personalities give people a reason to cheer for their favorite YouTuber, and at the end of the day the series still has credibility thanks to the cluster of guys running at the front.

Now the next topic to address is the officiating, and this is one of the most important parts of the whole series – it has to be FUN for all involved. Look, thanks to my connections to certain people within the world of iRacing, as well as some of the individuals who have sent me screenshots of the internal iRacing World Championship forums over the past few months, it’s time to let you all in on something that isn’t much of a secret to the top ranked drivers on the service – Shannon Whitmore is a power-tripping asshole. The eSport series officially sanctioned by NASCAR and sponsored by a major automotive brand is basically one guy in a private section of the iRacing forums ruling the championship with an iron fist, and it would be absolute chaos if I could run wild with the print screen key and post it all on PRC. Some of the participants in the iRacing series are under twenty years old, really just kids who happen to kick ass at a NASCAR video game, and yet the head steward power-trips like a middle school teacher unsatisfied with the fact he’s on his third career choice. It’s absolutely, one hundred percent not warranted.

Thankfully, older iRacing members can act as role models or support systems for the younger sim racers, but holy mother of God, the stuff I’ve seen is insane. You CANNOT treat your sim racers like this as a steward. Officials have to remember that this is a GAME and eSports competitiors are just here to have fun and compete for a bunch of money, because they happen to be absurdly good at driving fake cars. If the competitors aren’t having fun, the on-track product will suffer.

So what cars, and what tracks? Formula One, NASCAR, and IndyCar are suffering from dwindling crowds in recent years because people have lost the passion they once had for it, so why are organizers believing that Virtual NASCAR or Virtual Formula One will catch on to some extent? Nah man, change it up. I’m not saying GT3 cars at Bristol Motor Speedway is a good idea, but the rumors about NASCAR going to Circuit of the Americas, or IndyCar going to the Daytona Infield Road Course, now’s the time to try it – this gives viewers a reason to tune in as it’s something unique that the real world of auto racing isn’t giving them. And if the event goes well, congratulations, you can now show IndyCar that an event at the Daytona Infield track went well, you had all these viewers, and the real thing just might be every bit as compelling.

There’s also the option of developers creating a special eSports-centric race car to level the playing field and prevent any one driver or team from dominating and turning the race into a snoozer; look at Gran Turismo 6’s Red Bull X1, for example (but maybe not as extreme). Send a car like that to the Nurburgring Nordschleife in the rain, or if a game allows for it, Spa in the snow with special snow tires. Why shouldn’t the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series head to the Nurburgring? Nobody can get hurt, and it’s still within the realm of possibilities; let’s do it.

Lastly, let’s talk about the reward, and the inevitable follow-up. Sorry mates, I don’t care if some pasty white dude from Europe wins 250k USD. Sure, the Visa Vegas eRace put up a huge prize, but what is the winner going to do with the money, hookers and blow? We don’t know, only a few of us ever found out thanks to keeping up with obscure sim racing news websites, and that’s lame. Even with iRacing, they put up $10,000 for a championship win, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Three time NASCAR Peak Anti-Freeze champion Ray Alfalla was interviewed by Shaun Cole of The SimPit a few months ago, and it eventually came out that the multiple iRacing championships he’d attained hadn’t led to much of anything.

This isn’t exciting for the viewers. If nothing is on the line aside from a novelty cheque that’ll go towards copious amounts of takeout and an escort or two, nobody cares about a sim racer having his life changed by a five figure prize pool.

So let’s throw ’em in a race car. Organizers of an upcoming eSports series need to track down an amateur team willing to give a complete rookie a shot, and throughout the season have one of the team members come into the commentary booth as a third booth personality to evaluate the drivers from a racing ettiquette standpoint – and this means everything from throttle application, line choice, respect for other drivers, strategy… the whole nine yards. Whoever wins the championship receives a test day with said amateur team (so we’re talking Formula 4 or Clio Cup here), and that too is broadcast live as the final episode of the online broadcast – you spend all these races rooting for a guy, and the end payoff is seeing the guy you cheered for strap his ass into a modest race car and try his hands at the real deal. If he passes the test, he’s got a ride, and if he fails the test because he’s too fat to fit in the seat OR the skills just didn’t transfer over in the manner he intended, he walks home with $20,000 in prize money.

Provided the resources are directed into the proper areas which are lacking, sim racing can take off as an eSport, but right now organizers seem to be throwing multiple piles of shit at a wall and hoping it sticks. Unfortunately, it’s not – 22 virtual Kimi Raikkonen’s are parading around a circuit, and giving viewers zero reasons to tune into each broadcast. The ideas I’ve outlined above are ways to try and turn it into something more, but they’re just that – ideas. Maybe somebody will be crazy enough to try them.

When Community Modders Have a Point

Inspiration can sometimes come from the most unlikely of sources, and today’s entry on PRC.net really stretches that concept to new heights. In my journey down the YouTube rabbit hole we’re all very familiar with, one which began with IndyCar on-board footage and ended with theories behind how the Rothschild family operates, somewhere in-between I came across a rather lengthy critical piece on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 – yes, they’re still making those games. Since the rather historic chain of releases in the late 1990’s & early 2000’s, which were a staple in the households of many millennials, the keys to the franchise have now been handed to a company known as Robomodo.

In short, the game is now a complete travesty, with many mainstream gaming outlets who once handed the Tony Hawk series 9’s and 10’s when publishers hadn’t yet taken to bribing writers, are now dishing out 3’s and 4’s, urging people to avoid the product altogether. YouTube user Flippy’s review of Pro Skater 5 doesn’t just rip apart the abomination of a skateboarding game; near the end of the video, he discusses the THUG PRO mod for Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, a free community all-inclusive pack that surpasses the work of what was supposed to be a legitimate team under a very real contract to make a Tony Hawk game. In Flippy’s words, “a team of amateur game modders broke down and reconstructed the entire Tony Hawk series to make one kick-ass Tony Hawk game on steroids, but a professional developer can’t figure out how to ship a game that works.”

That’s pretty fucking sad for an entertainment industry that is supposedly bigger than Hollywood.

In the end, this sixteen minute video got me thinking about the sim racing community itself – have there been any instances where fans kicking and screaming about a developer releasing sub-par product resulted in a portion of the userbase actually going out and proving 100% they could do a better job? The sim racing community is known by and large for their inability to be totally content with a piece of software; always demanding more from the developers with little in the way of gratitude, to the point where certain teams actively grow frustrated with these folks, proceed to label them entitled whiners, and then surround themselves with ass-kissing apologists to counter-act what can sometimes be very legitimate negativity.

But have there been any moments where major teams have been unequivocally blown the fuck out out by modders figuring out how to implement features the developers themselves have failed to create, or in some cases said were flat-out impossible without a total re-write of the game’s underlying engine?

The answer is a very definitive yes, and it’s why sim racers like myself are hyper-critical of certain developer teams who make very definite claims about shortcomings in their simulators. If you’re being upstaged by kids in a basement after telling the community something isn’t going to happen, you really need to get your shit together.

We begin our journey with one of the most controversial elements of iRacing not related to rubber – the software’s complete lack of a twenty-four hour lighting cycle. For those who don’t pay too much attention to the world of iRacing, anytime these guys host full-length endurance racing events, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans or Daytona, the entire event – yes, all 24 hours of driving – is contested under static light conditions. It’s either daytime for the complete race, or pitch black. Goofy as hell? You bet, but anyone who dares to point this out will immediately be met with a flurry of iRacers trying to justify the lack of a day/night cycle by changing the topic of conversation to other elements the simulator does do a good job of, such as the organized races, driver swaps, skill ratings, and the emphasis on clean driving.

Turning the clock back 20 years to a piece of software constructed by largely the same team behind iRacing, when Windows 98 was the hip new operating system on the block, Lee200 of the Sim Racing Mirror Zone has created his own Day/Night cycle patch for Grand Prix Legends. This allows sim racers to partake in their own Daytona or Le Mans endurance events with the wildly popular 1967 World Sports Car Championship mod, complete with the appropriate lighting changes throughout the duration of the race that a game twenty years newer by the same developers does not have.

Another one of Lee200’s mods adds rain to Grand Prix Legends. iRacing still has yet to implement rain into the service.

After the initial excitement surrounding Assetto Corsa had subsided, hardcore sim racers hoping the title would serve as the spiritual successor to rFactor were left extremely disappointed by the game’s overall lack of functionality compared to the simulators which came before it. With races scored by time, wet-weather driving, night racing, caution flags, and preset pit stop strategies just some of the features Kunos Simulazioni chose to omit while simalatenously dubbing the game to be “Your Racing Simulator”, eventually the Kunos team began to open up about why certain features taken for granted in other simulators were suspiciously absent.

The reasoning behind a lack of night racing infamously was linked to the underlying engine powering Assetto Corsa, and became an inside joke of sorts within Assetto Corsa’s official message board. Only one light source had been built into the game – the sun itself – meaning there was supposedly no way for the headlights, nor the portable trackside lights, to properly function once the sun had dipped under the horizon. According to Kunos Simulazioni themselves, night racing would be something sim racers wouldn’t see until the game’s sequel, and the sequel hasn’t even been officially announced – just implied that it would happen sometime in the future.

YouTube user stratos0508, as you can see in the above video, managed to manipulate night time conditions into a functional state within the span of about ten minutes or so. Of course, the research obviously took a lot longer than that, but the key thing here is that the professional simulation team behind the game said this wasn’t going to happen in Assetto Corsa, and some guy on the forums sat down after school with the limited time he had, and created a rough draft to prove them wrong. Sure, it’s not an authentic 24 hour cycle, but this isn’t too shabby for one guy fucking around in his spare time; so a professional team should be able to turn things up to eleven and get it implemented properly, right?

Right?

Next, let’s talk about a game a whole bunch of sim racers like to rip on for a multitude of reasons – Need for Speed Shift 2: Unleashed by Slightly Mad Studios. After the resounding success that was GTR 2, many hardcore sim nerds saw working with Electronic Arts as the team turning away from their roots as a dedicated simulator developer, with the two Shift games omitting several elements that would otherwise appeal to sim racers in favor of a mass-market approach. Those suspicions were confirmed when both Shift games dropped, the first in 2009 followed by the second in 2011, each of them exhibiting a very strange hovercraft-like tire model; an experience made exponentially worse by slight input lag that was eventually patched out (surprise) by the community.

The vanilla versions of Shift are very strange pieces of software; they offer a fairly enjoyable Forza Motorsport-type progression system with a lot to see and do, but the on-track action just isn’t quite up to par.

Many hardcore sim racers over at NoGripRacing.com promptly set out to fix what felt “broken” about the games’ handling model; desperate to improve the actual driving model considering the game built around it was a solid replacement for Gran Turismo or Forza on the PC. What members such as B7ake found, were that select typos had been creating a mysterious “instant load transfer bug” that interfered with what was an otherwise very acceptable simulation physics engine.

As a result, the version of Shift 2 that you can play in the spring of 2017, using additional plug-ins such as B7ake’s G-Tyres mod, turn Shift 2 Unleashed into a very different experience that is far superior to the one you first messed around with and promptly shelved in 2011. Once again, a lone guy in his basement poking around in the software fixed a program that had been created by a multi-million dollar professional company.

Lastly, I want to touch on the Monster Truck simulation community that has grown exponentially over the past seven years, as it takes the concept of the consumers one-upping major game companies to the absolute extremes.

After the owners of Monster Jam, Feld Entertainment, made it very clear that all officially licensed Monster Jam video games would be designed with small children in mind, and basically turned into generic off-road arcade racers – a sort of Motorstorm for kids – hardcore monster truck enthusiasts instead gave the entertainment company a giant middle finger, ripped as many assets as they could from the multitude of Monster Jam PS2 games, and starting in 2010 basically built their own entire genre from the ground up using the french freeware title Rigs of Rods as a platform.

Feld Entertainment supposedly believed there was no market for a hardcore simulator that accurately conveyed the difficulties of driving a ten thousand horsepower truck in a realistic stadium environment, instead opting to send the trucks crashing through exotic locales and urban centers, sometimes bundling power-ups and nitro boosts into the affairs for good measure. Feld instead failed miserably in their market predictions. Select online events, such as the one I’ve inserted above of the first season-ending “World Finals” online race held in the Winter of 2010, boast more viewers on that single video alone than the combined sales figures of Monster Jam’s three most recent official releases. To put the view count of 102,742 on the first Rigs of Rods World Finals event into perspective, that one virtual monster truck race has been viewed more times than every single major iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series event combined over the past three years – an online eSport championship where iRacing gives $10,000 to the winner.

All of this, created by hardcore monster truck fans in their respective basements for sheer love of the sport, while the sanctioning body hands the license to literal shovelware teams, believing there is no market for a proper Monster Jam simulator.

These four examples I’ve outlined above clearly display that whenever the sim racing community kicks and screams at developers either cutting corners or producing sub-par products, sometimes, they certainly have a valid point. Like what Tony Hawk modders have done in response to the abomination that was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, the sim racing community as a whole are more than capable of putting professional video game developers in their place. I grow very frustrated when I see apologist shills or fanboys bending over backwards to defend certain sim racing developer teams, as well as the developers themselves blasting the community for “not understanding how hard it is to create a game or implement X feature”, or my favorite “if you think it’s so easy, go and do it yourself”, because we’re in a genre where bored kids in their spare time can and very well will upstage you.

iRacing doesn’t have a dynamic day/night cycle, but some guy figured out how to make it happen in Grand Prix Legends, a piece of software iRacing released almost twenty years ago on vastly inferior & simplistic hardware. Kunos claimed Assetto Corsa requires an entire graphical engine re-write to implement night racing, but again, some guy got it working in his spare time, so why can’t the professional guys do it? One sim racer at NoGripRacing rectified typos in the Need for Speed Shift 2 Unleashed handling model, transforming the game into a fantastic package after stumbling out of the gate in 2011, and obsessed monster truck fanatics built their own goddamn ecosystem which became arguably more successful than the officially licensed games themselves after the sanctioning body failed to listen to their continuous stream of complaints regarding the line of video games.

Just think of that the next time a developer whines about a feature being difficult to implement, or a fanboy claims you’re asking too much of a certain team. There’s no justifiable reason these studios shouldn’t have their shit together.