Where Sim Racing *Could* Be

No, I wouldn’t be “better off” sticking with mass-market simcade titles, leaving hardcore simulators to man-children who are impressed with improvements that could be best described as “hair-splitting.”

A few days ago I published an article on here giving a detailed rundown in regards to the three eternal science projects currently at the forefront of the hobby, and this was met with some pretty extreme hostility from anonymous readers who are under the impression I just “don’t get” the world of sim racing. Though I’m too lazy to source exact comments, the general tone from some users implied that the numerous ultra-bland products labelled by the community as “hardcore simulators” are perfectly fine the way they are, and vocalizing the idea that they’re actually unfinished science projects was supposedly due to my own personal tastes. Truth be told, I have spent exponentially more time in DiRT 4 than the elitist sim racers who promptly hit the delete key over a slightly simplified driving model, but there’s still an argument to be made on this topic.

The average racing simulator – and I’m talking everything from Assetto Corsa and Automobilista, to rFactor 2, RaceRoom Racing Experience, and even Project CARS 2 – is an extremely boring affair. Regardless of which simulator you call home, the theme behind all of them is a shared concept: here are some cars, here are some tracks, and here are an enormous number of variables you can tweak before each race. The sim racing community by and large claims that merely refining your driving skills should be your primary incentive to keep loading up the application every afternoon for months on end, but this poses the question of what happens when your driving skill reaches a level where relentless practice is no longer required?

The answer is that there’s no reason to play, because developers fail to provide reasons to keep playing. There are no hidden cars or tracks to unlock – in fact the list of content is so similar between rival simulators, there isn’t much of a need to buy them all. There is no driving school to help you refine your skills or introduce you to new cars that are a bit daunting. In most cases, there is no Career Mode, and when it does exist, I would still label it as something that could have been accomplished in an early PlayStation 2 title. Games such as rFactor 2 don’t even provide you with a proper championship mode; fanboys encouraging you to instead keep track of points by hand on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. There is no in-game paint shop, no rocking soundtrack, no easter eggs to discover, no utterly preposterous challenges set by the developer a la F-Zero GX, and little in the way of creativity.  Online victories never reward you with anything substantial for your accomplishments, and there is no incentive to race cleanly unless you buy the sole game on the market where that’s the entire purpose of it’s existence.

Many will now launch into their trademark angry tirades, proclaiming I should shut down the website and waste my time in the array of non-serious racing games on the market such as Grid: Autosport, while questioning why I even bother with simulators (or running a simulator blog) to begin with.

It’s a very simple answer. I’ve been around this genre for an absurdly long time. There was a point just over a decade ago in which developers realized that their creations needed to not only be robust simulators, but enjoyable games on top of it. I’m simply wondering where that mentality went, and how the same people responsible for such wonderful creations suddenly threw everything to the wayside in favor of absolutely jack shit.

We start with the almighty GTR 2, which by this point should need absolutely no introduction whatsoever. Using the isiMotor engine as a base and featuring the semi-obscure FIA GT Championship, GTR 2 in retrospect is considered by many to be one of the greatest racing simulators ever conceived. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I let my buddy have my old Driving Force GT/G27 pedal setup because he’s been an observer of this sim racing thing for quite some time (we used to tear it up on DiRT 2 back in the day, so by no means is he a shit driver), and to get him started he picked up GTR 2 on Steam for eight dollars – I think most will agree this is a fine starting point.

We’ve turned a lot of laps on this game over the past few weeks.

GTR 2 has existed for over a decade. It does not feature a dynamic racing line like Automobilista does. The tire model wasn’t re-written a billion times over the course of it’s lifespan like iRacing. The transmission and driveline model is pretty simplistic compared to the revisions seen in RaceRoom Racing Experience, which received heavy attention from Sector 3. There wasn’t an earth shattering patch that added downshift protection. There’s no noticeable drivetrain flex – something that came in a major iRacing update. Modern sim developers all advertised these refinements as absolutely integral to the evolution of their games, while some still kept asking why they needed Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to conduct their own offline championships.

GTR 2 by comparison received a single patch in it’s lifespan, going from Version 1.0, to Version 1.1. There was no six-month-long campaign on the part of Blimey! Games to re-write the suspension code or have the car slightly shudder upon changing gears. And yet at the end of the day, my buddy remarked that he’d never driven a game before that felt so much like a real car. He’s not wrong; GTR 2 still drives in a fantastic manner, which begs the question why developers become insistent on splitting hairs over lengthy intangible physics refinements when the average person interested in these games can still be blown away with physics from 2006, sans new tire model 5.0, new surface model, new driveline model, and any other self-masturbatory bullshit?

Wouldn’t the logical progression then be to expand on the “gamey” elements, with physics improvements popping up gradually rather than being the ultimate priority?

Knowing the average person isn’t accustomed to proper competition driving techniques, GTR 2 bundled with it a detailed driving school mode to ease newcomers into the art of racecraft – never forcing them to just sort of hit the track and suck until they started to suck a bit less. The ultra-high default difficulty setting (100%) subtly worked in tandem with the school to give customers a valid reason to sit down and invest time into practicing; rather than allowing users to drop the AI speed to 65% and bomb around like an idiot for their participant badge, they’d have tangible goals to work towards. Once the school was completed, users would then have another mountain to climb in partaking in the game’s numerous championships against rather stout AI to unlock the pieces of hidden content.

You could argue that these elements weren’t much, but what they did was imply Blimey! Games understood that their simulator also had to function as a game. GTR 2 was not a bland sandbox with “some cars and tracks that you can race on,” catering only to hardcore sim racers who are thrilled just to attack a track in isolation with their car of choice. On top of providing a very competent set of driving physics that really didn’t require any major refinements, GTR 2 gave you a set of goals to actually go out and achieve. You didn’t have to be a hardcore auto racing fan to enjoy GTR 2; if you liked cars and weren’t a terrible driver, GTR 2 allowed you to sit down, improve your skills, and chase some dragons while perfecting the skills required for sports car racing in the process. You know, like a game.

This is partially why people were so excited for the inevitable third entry in the series and beyond; what would Blimey! do next? Would we have a career mode in which you could buy, sell, and upgrade cars? Would there be a paint booth, so those without photoshop could still rock a custom livery? Would there be special time trial events set by the developers with ridiculous times to achieve, and rewards like extra cars or tracks for those to complete them? Now that the driving physics had been nailed down, the sky was the limit for the GTR franchise to evolve as a game.

GTR Evolution launched a few years later as a paid expansion pack for an entirely different game. Some cars, some tracks, the end. Several years later, RaceRoom Racing Experience – what you could call a spiritual successor to GTR Evolution – doesn’t have a driving school, wet weather driving, custom liveries, or even tire pressures for the hardcore guys to adjust; press releases and message board rumors instead masturbate over endless physics refinements for what is included.

Disappointment is an understatement considering I still remember buying GTR 2 from Best Buy.

Developers and fanboys alike then turn around and wonder why outspoken personalities such as myself are calling their games “eternal science projects.” I’m sorry that some of us have merely been around long enough to remember when games built in the exact same genre for the exact same target audience also had to function as entertainment.

Shifting gears, EA Sports snatched up the exclusive license to NASCAR in 2003, marking the end of Papyrus dominating the PC sim racing market with their hyper-realistic simulators built on an improved version of the Grand Prix Legends engine. To metaphorically put the nail in the coffin, EA Sports then launched NASCAR Sim Racing in February of 2005, which was intended to replace the Papyrus classic NASCAR Racing 2003 Season by providing sim racers with better physics, a modern set of stock car racing rules, and improved online netcode.

I don’t want to say there was huge support for the title, but a lot of people were curious at the time if EA Sports could genuinely invade a market they weren’t all that familiar with, and provide a valid platform for the hardcore guys to make use of. NASCAR had changed as a sport since the final Papyrus title – a new title sponsor, new cars, a new points system, and some new race procedures – so there was a genuine reason for EA to at least try their hand at the matter.

NASCAR Sim Racing was a brutal game; if you think Project CARS is the pinnacle of sim racing disappointment, you simply haven’t been around long enough. The launch and subsequent post release support from EA was so abysmal, those who did support what EA Sports were trying to do in the oval racing market opted to remain playing the vanilla version of NSR – these were the days of manually downloading and installing a patch executable, none of this automatic stuff from Steam. Though the game did do NASCAR fans a favor by including all three major series – and their respective tracks – in the base package, virtually every other portion of the game was either incomplete, or flat-out inferior to the aging Papyrus title. Just by the lack of third party paint schemes and mods available at the now deceased Blackhole Motorsports, you knew that NSR’s days were numbered from launch.

However, NASCAR Sim Racing still brought with it some excellent ideas.

Traditionally reserved for the EA Sports console releases, the extensive Career mode in which you progress through the three primary NASCAR series while upgrading your car and signing sponsors had now been implemented into the PC game, again implying that EA Sports knew a simulator also had to function as entertainment, and not a generic sandbox for just a few hundred extremely dedicated users. The liveries you could select from weren’t all that aesthetically pleasing, the vehicle models were woefully inaccurate, and there wasn’t much in the name of immersion – just a few additional menus in which you could allocate sponsors or upgrade development time – but the existence of such a mode conveys that the developers of NASCAR Sim Racing saw value in expanding beyond a sandbox.

In fact, this was actually the second time a career mode had been implemented into the PC version of an EA Sports NASCAR title.

The developers responsible were Image Space Incorporated, the same developers who eight years later would entirely omit a single player championship feature in rFactor 2, and whose fanboys would try and convince sim racers to use Microsoft Excel to keep track of championship points in lieu of the feature’s omission.

rFactor 2 doesn’t sting because it fails to match up in terms of features compared to Forza Motorsport 7 – the two titles aren’t even trying to accomplish the same thing. No, rFactor 2 stings because Image Space Incorporated were fully capable of building a game with some kind of rudimentary single player progression system that gave people an incentive to keep racing, and for whatever reason, deemed it no longer to be necessary now that Electronic Arts was out of the picture. Let me break this down for you real quick: Electronic Arts is now the biggest gaming company in the world, while Image Space Incorporated were forced to part ways with rFactor 2 and give the keys to Studio 397 because they had no idea how to make their title relevant.

rFactor 2 would have been an insanely wild ride if ISI opted to include some sort of single player campaign mode that could be modded and re-configured by the game’s users; imagine with simple text editing and image file replacement, a Blancpain Endurance mod in the same fashion of the screenshot above. Picture downloading a mod that not only gave you a fleet of modern GT3 cars to drive at your leisure as you would in a modern simulator, but also converted the game’s default “campaign” mode into a six race schedule, allowed you to purchase a car, upgrade it, and sign a bunch of well known European brands and sponsors?

Suddenly you’ve got a decent reason to play rFactor 2.

Image Space Incorporated refused to continue down this path. “Here are some cars, some tracks, and some incomprehensible babble about new our thermonuclear tire model” they said. “Studio 397 will now be taking over development of rFactor 2,” they said. And I have no sympathy for how the situation played out. Despite the disastrous launch, I watched NASCAR Sim Racing implement some genuinely good ideas into the world of PC sim racing that made me want to mess around a game I’d otherwise have no use for. I then watched this exact same team, eight years later, systematically strip all of these ideas out of their software until nothing was left aside from some cars, and some tracks.

What would a hypothetical NASCAR Sim Racing 2 look like, with an even deeper career mode? What would have happened if ISI recycled the remains of this mode for rFactor 2, but let users modify the shit out of it? Their own schedule, their own cars, their own tracks, and their own sponsors to paste on the cars? Suddenly you’ve got a reason to boot up rFactor 2 again, and again, and again.

We don’t have that. We have a sandbox – some cars, some tracks, and endless physics revisions, even though the average sim racer couldn’t find fault in the original driving model that justified such an extreme pursuit of perfection. The fact that there are still leagues run using the original rFactor, such as the Historic Sim Organization, which pump out brand new mods with each passing year, is a testament to that fact.

Yet in ten years, developers such as Image Space Incorporated couldn’t give us more stuff to do, or improve upon what they had clearly already built. They instead gave us less.

And it’s for these reasons why many within the sim community began to refer to Assetto Corsa as a Chris Harris hotlap Simulator, in reference to the popular automotive journalists who frequently takes out exotic supercars on empty race tracks for his YouTube videos.

Assetto Corsa is not the first game of it’s kind to exist. While in past articles I’ve deemed the Kunos Simulazioni product to be a spiritual successor to the very first Need for Speed, a more adept comparison would be to Enthusia Professional Racing. Developed by Konami for Sony’s PlayStation 2, Enthusia wasn’t so much of a direct shot at the Gran Turismo franchise, but instead an attempt at creating a game centered around highly authentic driving physics. Konami, long before anyone else, had caught on to the fact that Gran Turismo had prioritized car collecting and car culture above a realistic driving model, so the team instead worked to win people over with a much better sensation behind the wheel despite a smaller list of vehicles and locations.

Does this motive sound familiar? That’s because it is; Assetto Corsa is a now multi-platform title after several years spent as a PC exclusive, because Kunos Simulazioni believed a portion of console racers would value high quality driving physics over the meta-game of car collecting. To their credit, they were correct. A lot of people bought Assetto Corsa, whether it be for the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

These people then complained that Assetto Corsa had very little to see and do, despite an acceptable array of cars and locations.

Despite being the same game at first glance – both Enthusia and Assetto prioritized driving physics while featuring a hodgepodge of around 200 cars and a variety of locations – Enthusia succeeded and generated a tangible cult following for one simple reason; there was a game built around it.

Enthusia’s career mode was designed as a complex role playing game taking place in a dynamic ecosystem, offering users greater rewards and quicker progression for intentionally punching above their weight class. Whereas Assetto Corsa offered some extremely generic themed events that you’d be none the wiser for completing, Enthusia challenged you to enter races in a vehicle not quite suited for the job, scolded you for bad driving, and gave you several objectives to complete for your own personal benefit – more cars, tracks, and upgrades awaited beyond each locked door.

Both games brought highly authentic driving physics to the console masses, approximately a decade a part. One offered an entire world to explore, points to earn, an incentive to challenge yourself and race cleanly, while the other merely handed you some cars and some tracks.

Kunos had ten years to study a game that was trying to accomplish the exact same goals as their own work. They didn’t, and then complained that the console crowd is “tough to please.”

I was alive and coherent during the time when developers realized simulators also needed to double as pieces of entertainment, or in simpler terms, games. Better yet, I personally remember being excited at the future of the genre, because I thought the features listed as “new” back then would be a sign of things to come.

“What would GTR 3 look like?” – I’d think to myself. GTR 2 already had a driving school, multiple championships, and unlockable content… will they possible experiment with a career mode in GTR 3? No, they wouldn’t. GTR 3 would turn into a bland expansion pack for a completely different game – just some cars and some tracks. The proper sequel to this expansion pack would also omit wet weather driving, tire pressure adjustments, and custom livery support. I would then go on the forums and see people talking about how great this game is, only to be blasted when I brought up all of the fun stuff that had suspiciously vanished over the course of a decade.

“Go play Formula One 2017”, they told me.

“Would Image Space Incorporated get their act together for NASCAR Sim Racing 2? I’d love to blast through career mode, but the original NSR has some problems.” Oh boy teenage James, if only you knew their flagship title eight years later would ship without a season mode, and people on the forums would suggest you to keep track of points from single races in a spreadsheet.

“Konami had a good thing going with Enthusia, I wonder if the next game will be bigger?”  Incorrect; it will come from a small Italian team and not feature any sort of quirky campaign mode that defined the original game and actually made it worth playing in the first place. It will be a random collection of European cars and tracks, with an AI that doesn’t really work and severe performance issues.

Here is the sad reality; sim racing had an extremely bright future as a both a genre and hobby in the mid 2000’s, which is when all of the above games were released. There was nothing wrong with how these games drove from a physics standpoint – at least not to where they required near-infinite physics revisions post-release – and they accomplished this feat while simultaneously dabbling in game-like elements that gave people a reason to keep playing. The hardcore guys were satisfied by the driving experience alone, while those on the outside looking in could at least try one of these titles out of curiosity, and come away with a mostly positive experience.

Sim racing could have been incredible. The door was essentially wide open for developers to keep improving on an already solid foundation. I don’t think anyone really understands the optimism seen around RaceSimCentral in the mid 2000’s. All Blimey needed to do was take GTR 2 and add just a few more bells and whistles than the previous game. It wasn’t difficult.

Then something happened.

The driving schools were eradicated. Then wet-weather driving disappeared for the genre’s most prolific release, what we know as the original rFactor. Career mode was seen as an afterthought and maybe a bit excessive when a basic season mode would be “enough”, but championship support soon followed. The ability to select your paint job for an online race disappeared, as did custom livery support in select games. Suddenly, “fixed setup racing” became a thing, because learning the in’s and out’s of race car mechanical adjustments was “too hard” for alleged enthusiasts. Night racing was lost. Safety cars were lost. Rolling starts were lost. The ability to jump the start? Yep, that too was cut. Brake fade? Cut.

And they weren’t replaced with anything. This is the key takeaway from this article. Myself and others have not been advocating for pieces of software the developers are incapable of producing. We’re merely wondering why they stopped in the first place.

People like myself, who were around for the golden age of sim racing, are now wondering what the fuck happened to the genre. For voicing the observation that the scene is now polluted with eternal science projects, we’re also being told that none of this actually matters, and sim racing isn’t for us. In some instances, the features, modes, and other little additions we’ve request, only to be shot down fanboys on claims they’re “not essential for sim racing” were once implemented without question by these same developers they’re trying to make excuses for!

Hardcore racing simulators will probably never be on the level of Formula One 2017 in terms of being able to receive R&D reports from a walking, talking avatar sporting your team’s appropriate polo shirt. And that’s okay; I think we can all understand Formula One have probably given Codemasters a blank cheque to do whatever is necessary to push out a premium product. But from 2005 to 2006, sim racing was on a path to be well worth the thousands some would inevitably spend on high-end hardware to pilot virtual race cars, and asking for an improved campaign mode or God forbid night racing in an upcoming game certainly didn’t seem like an awfully preposterous demand.

Yet suddenly, it is. And those who assist in defending the complacency of certain developers are partially responsible for this scenario manifesting in the first place.

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The Fall ’17 Eternal Science Project Recap, and a $250 Bounty

Turning the clock back all the way to fourth grade, our humble classroom led by a former Irish nun had been given the task of writing autobiographies as a final English project. Once a week for what seemed like the entire back half of the semester, we were dragged into the school’s computer lab to partake in notoriously lengthy writing sessions that really tested the patience of your average ten year old. Not being a piece of shit in school and already knowing I’d be doing something with writing later in life, I did my best to at least complete the assignment within a reasonable time frame and have something ready to submit for grading. Yet as the year drew to a close, I noticed something exceptionally odd – a firm completion date for the project was never set.

Many times I would ask if I could print my paper and get everything over with, only to be told that it was still too early to hand in my assignment, and to occupy myself with editing in the meantime. So for several afternoons – and these afternoons were spread over a period of weeks – I sat there bored out of my fucking mind, making excessive, unnecessary, borderline pretentious revisions to a paper in which I had no idea when the due date was, in the hopes that one day I would get to call it “finished” and have it assessed properly.

That day never came, and the same mentality of endless pretentious revisions to knock weeks of nothing off the calendar would end up infecting one of my favorite adult hobbies. Welcome to my own, personal hell.

I’ve dubbed them Eternal Science Projects, because that’s what they are. Sim racing developers, at least some of them, have decided over the past few years that their racing simulators should be evolving platforms instead of complete packages. Like a child preparing extensively for a non-existent science fair, teams of nerds from around the planet are essentially “building something in their room” – and that something is a simulator but the questions of “by when”, “for whom”, and “to do what” are never answered in concrete fashion. With no metaphorical “due date” in sight for these games, developers are free to obsess for months over transmission behavior, turbocharger dynamics, and obscure content nobody wants, rather than focus on making a game to captivate their audience for launch day.

It is for this reason that GTR 2, a game released over a decade ago, seems almost timeless when compared to modern offerings. It’s not because GTR 2 is genuinely that good, but because the genre has progressed so little in eleven long years due to the eternal science project mentality, the standard for what constitutes as an objectively good simulator hasn’t changed at all. Because sim developers have spent so long on upping the physics refresh rate, or coding their own turbo model, or modeling their own fake Formula One cars to get around the absence of real Formula One cars, we live in an era of sim racing in which GTR 2 (2006) features wet-weather driving and a built-in race school, but you can buy three “new” PC racing sims that have neither.

To begin the month of November, we will shine a spotlight on the three most prominent eternal science projects in the world of sim racing. Equally mismanaged in their own special ways, you almost feel bad for the people directly involved.

Originally conceived as Reiza’s answer to Assetto Corsa, Automobilista was intended to supercharge the aging ISImotor engine into a formidable current-generation simulator platform. The small group from Brazil had acquired the license to ISI’s extremely popular game engine, which would allow them to upgrade the fidelity of the overall in-game experience and inject new additions far beyond what users had experienced in titles such as GTR Evolution or the original rFactor, thus justifying a purchase on the outset.

Reiza advertised improvements to aspects such as the force feedback, tire model, suspension behavior, and racing surface adhesion, but in execution, your average sim racer simply won’t be able to feel the difference between Automobilista and a good rFactor mod that they can obtain for free. This doesn’t mean Automobilista is a bad game or a blatant rip-off for those new to the scene, it just means that one developer within the ecosystem intentionally went out of their way to work on a project with diminishing returns, rather than attempting to push the genre forward in any meaningful way.

It’s not like rFactor was an unplayable, broken piece of shit with cruddy vehicle handling to begin with that justified a different team to revamp the engine; there would have been no problem using the vanilla isiMotor engine as a platform for a deeper racing experience – career modes, team management, car upgrades, that sort of thing – but Reiza have instead descended to boasting about splitting hairs over new turbo calculations in development blog posts and preview videos (above).

Answer me this, how many of you have outright avoided a racing game because the turbo model was calculated in a simplified manner?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

On top of the diminishing returns, promises of high-profile downloadable content for the most part failed to materialize. While the focus of Automobilista’s content was originally intended to shy away from a primarily South American compilation to ensure a greater appeal to worldwide audiences, the team have done quite a poor job of restructuring the game to include any sort of captivating content. Season Pass owners received a fleet of historic Brazilian touring cars and re-used assets from a previous game (Formula Truck), along with some tracks that most people already downloaded for free as third party mods. Reiza have churned out locales such as Oulton Park, Brands Hatch, Hockenheim, Adelaide, and Imola for paying customers, though high quality conversions of these iconic circuits from other simulators were already available free of charge.

If Automobilista was to be eradicated from my Steam library in five minutes, I can’t say I’d be upset – I’d just boot up GTR Evolution, as it’s literally the same end-user experience, physics engine and all. Reiza could have done something truly exciting and unique with Automobilista; instead they are celebrating an alternate calculation for turbochargers and a slightly different heads up display that will be in the next update.

Whenever that is.

We now move on to discussing rFactor 2, as we’re rapidly approaching the end of Studio 397’s first full year spearheading the title’s development. Again, if you’ve been living under a rock, Image Space Incorporated are no longer responsible for rFactor 2, so there’s been a lot of hype surrounding what might happen to this simulator under the guidance of a brand new outlet. Most believe the unproven clan will somehow resurrect rFactor 2 from the dead and turn it into the all-encompassing platform many thought it would be at launch in 2014, but as is the theme with this entry, there have been some hiccups.

Big ones.

The team to their credit have been great at keeping hardcore fans updated with the title’s progress by means of scheduled journal entries, but in this situation, these blog posts have actively come back to haunt the Studio 397 crew – there’s now an extensive archive of “things that haven’t materialized,” and many of the entries cover the exact same topics over and over again with little new information to reveal. January 2017, April 2017, and August 2017 all more or less introduce the new GUI and talk about DirectX 11 integration that’s still being fine-tuned, before alluding to new content and then ending abruptly; the posts almost formulaic in nature. I know I get a lot of flak here for covering the same topics repeatedly, but this takes treading water to a whole new level. Sure, Studio 397 are giving people a roadmap, but to the end user these blog posts mean fuck all if you’re not saying anything that wasn’t already said before, especially if you can’t demonstrate you’re actively making progress.

These posts, when read back-to-back, give off the impression that Studio 397 aren’t doing much of anything and that rFactor 2 is basically dead.

Did the new graphical user interface finally make it’s way into a new update? No. Are the ranked online races or “competition infrastructure” discussed in February making progress? Also no. Is the DirectX 11 variant of the game stable yet? No. Has MoTec telemetry implementation started yet? No. Have the brand new Zandvoort track and Radical roadster been been improved to a non-beta state? No, that will come sometime in 2018. Will the Corvette C7.R GTE or Tatuus Formula Cars be released in any sort of reasonable time frame? No. Have improvements been made to the game’s spotter code? No.

So what’s the plan for Studio 397 going forward?

Load up the October roadmap with three paragraphs of pretentious self-masturbatory physics talk as a distraction. As with Automobilista, there’s no way in hell the average sim racer will be able to feel the differences these alleged changes will supposedly make, but Studio 397 believe this is the next major mountain for rFactor 2 as a simulator to climb.

To be fair, Studio 397 have indeed released five new GT3 cars for rFactor 2 – albeit in various states of completion, and conveniently in a special rFactor 2 store so negative reviews cannot be left on the content – but since rFactor 2 was handed over to the upstart team, the simulator has needed a significantly more robust resurrection than some GT3 cars that were most likely outsourced to various community members. The game needed a new interface, seamless DirectX 11 integration, a tangible reason to drag people to its’ online servers, and a plethora of exciting content.

After (almost) a year at the reigns of rFactor 2, Studio 397 have accomplished something like 15% of their team goals, and are already proceeding to jerk themselves off over physics improvements that basically nobody will either notice, or care enough for to buy/re-install the game. So you have this company pumping money into a dead game that nobody cares for and offers almost the exact same experience as Automobilista, which itself offers the exact same experience as GTR Evolution (a nine year-old game), all while stuff like Formula One 2017 lets you lounge in the team paddock prior to free practice.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s like a kid building a science project in his room, but there’s no science fair for him to enter, no target audience to woo, and certainly not any guidance to speak of. He’s just amassing a pile of shit and responding with “I made a lot of progress this month” when concerned adults begin making serious inquiries. The most perplexing part of all this, is that the rFactor 2 forum is still full of people who believe that one day, rFactor 2 will rise up against all the critics and regain it’s status as the ultimate racing simulator.

No guys, that ship has sailed.

Another ship that has sailed would be the existence of sim racing’s Holy Grail, GTR 3. In January of 2017, a newly-created sister company to Sector 3 Studios operating under the name of SimBin UK announced they would finally be embarking on a journey to make GTR 3 a reality. Despite a collection of staged renders that did not depict any actual gameplay, the sim racing community was promptly whipped into a frenzy – even as initial interviews indicated the game would use the Unreal 4 engine and potentially tread into simcade territory.

Strange how some sim racers blast Project CARS 2 for being “simcade” while openly endorsing a simcade GTR 3, but I guess my bias is showing.

Since that January news break, we’ve heard precisely nothing in regards to the development or progress of GTR 3 itself, which is scheduled for a summer 2018 launch. What we have heard out of the SimBin UK camp has little to do with GTR 3 as a product, but instead centers awkward promotional pieces that imply the group have already became affiliated with the wrong kinds of people. It would be low hanging fruit to rip on RaceRoom Racing Experience for re-doing their GT3 physics for a third time when tire pressure adjustment still isn’t the game after four years, so this is the direction we’re going in today.

SimBin UK were said to be creating a program by the name of Women and Wheelsan all female eSports sim racing championship said to launch this fall – but there’s a ominous cloud of skepticism hanging over the whole ordeal. It’s now November, and there’s snow on the ground – hardly autumn anymore. There is no scheduled start date, nor have SimBin UK announced what game will be used considering moving footage of GTR 3 has not yet been revealed to the public. There is no official social media account for the Women and Wheels championship, nor is there any sort of official website to find out more information – just a small forum to fill out for Emails on the matter. A google search on Women and Wheels reveals this championship was talked about once, on September 4th, 2017, and has not been mentioned by any gaming outlet or SimBim UK themselves since. Prizes listed on the SimBin UK home page include expensive acupuncture and Skype dates provided by a group called Epiphany Junkie, which is a rabbit hole I don’t suggest any sane person to explore.

If I had to take an educated guess, Women and Wheels doesn’t exist; it was a ploy by SimBin UK to earn brownie points in the eyes of potential investors by having a few nice social justice-themed articles written in their favor.

The second piece of promotional material comes from Punch Technology, who were recently asked to build high performance developer PC’s for the SimBin UK team, and are now offering those builds to the general public. Again, the mock-up screenshots first released in January depicting RaceRoom Racing Experience assets within the Unreal 4 Engine are used liberally, even though they are now ten months old and are literally just proof-of-concept pictures that bare no resemblance to what GTR 3 will actually contain.

For a game that is supposedly six to eight months away from launch, it’s very strange that SimBin UK have placed a metaphorical burka over such a niche project; this isn’t DOOM or Call of Duty, it’s just a sports car racing game, you can’t really spoil a whole lot. Yet their official Twitter has not been updated. Facebook has not been updated. Further interviews with the Speed brothers have not been conducted. GTR 3 isn’t just an eternal science project, it’s a model train set in the basement the rest of the family isn’t allowed to see.

Thankfully, Dave from Punch Technology helped us out. You know how some websites have an automatic pop-up box with an alleged live support representative, but everyone just assumes they’re bots programmed to respond to certain phrases? Dave from Punch Technology is not a bot; he gave us exclusive information on GTR 3 because it’s a Wednesday morning and he was presumably bored at work. Thanks Dave, you’re the real MVP today. SimBin UK have supposedly expanded to at least fifteen staff members, moved offices twice, secured funding, and met their in-house deadlines.

It’s just strange that SimBin UK, despite all of their social media accounts, were incapable of telling their core audience about this.

And it’s for this reason I will close this post by announcing a $250 CDN bounty for the first person who can email us with undisputed proof of GTR 3’s existence. I don’t believe this game will see the light of day. Members of the sim racing community are starting to have their doubts. Eternal science projects suck, but vaporware sucks more, and after an entire decade, we’re getting a bit tired of random teams announcing GTR 3 is on the horizon, only for it to seemingly vanish. For that reason, moving footage of SimBin UK’s GTR 3 in action, or several screenshots/off-screen pictures that haven’t been released to the general public, will net you a decent payday if you submit said content to us. We won’t announce you as the winner for obvious reasons, but we’ll definitely throw up what you’ve sent us if legitimate.

 

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.

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.

https://i2.wp.com/www.wrcthegame.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/eSportsWRC_GrandFinal_Wales-105.jpg

 

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.