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.
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.