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.

Advertisements

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

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

So how do we fix this?

Let’s throw some ideas out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Community Modders Have a Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon I’ll Be Pro: Someone Made a Sim Racing Rap Album

verbal-chicaneryI’ll be the first to admit, I was ready to tear Verbal Chicanery a new asshole. I regularly cringe at some of the extra-curricular side projects avid sim racers tend to dabble in from time to time, such as creating audition videos for sponsorship contests typically reserved for real drivers, or filming their wives/girlfriends turning idle-speed laps in their simulator rig, so an entire album rapping about the obscure hobby of sim racing immediately struck me as the absolute pinnacle of how bizarre our collective community could get. I was in high school during Eminem’s resurgence of sorts, so I’ve seen what happens when a whole lot of delusional pasty white kids get their hands on entry-level audio recording programs, and combining that with the often-times embarrassing behavior of sim racers was as if I’d entered a special kind of hell designed specifically for me and about thirty other people.

To my surprise, however, Verbal Chicanery by Rhys Gardiner transcends many late-night ideas tossed around on TeamSpeak that should have been abandoned, if not entirely forgotten the following the evening. Featuring acceptable instrumental packages, creative phrasing, and an underlying lyrical theme that explores some of the shittier parts of sim racing which mirror a lot of PRC sentiments on the topics addressed in each piece, I’m actually left wanting more. Rhys found a sweet spot between comedy and insightful exposition, writing genuinely hilarious songs that also double as a commentary on how far off the rails sim racing has traveled. This is not an album intended to serve as a soundtrack of sorts to our virtual racing adventures; it instead openly mocks certain portions of the community with reckless abandon, continuing to dig into uncomfortable topics with the throttle pedal pinned firmly to the floor.

Split into two distinct sections, Verbal Chicanery is structured in a very dynamic fashion, with the first six tracks focusing solely on sim racing, before a half-time narrative piece setting the stage for the back half of the record – dropping the extremely niche subject matter in favor of broader topics acting as a throwback of sorts to pseudo-artists such as John LaJoie. The flow of the record is very cohesive, each song digging a little bit deeper into sim racing insanity before peaking at the very center of the record, and proceeding to dial back absurdity with the final six tracks, acting almost as a sampler of sorts for Gardiner’s other work.

The introduction piece is a little shaky, but Everybody LookVerbal Chicanery’s second track and first proper song – firmly establishes the album’s theme and stance. Gardnier is not here to tell us about the joy of these very obscure video games obsessed over by a fraction of a fraction of Steam’s overall userbase, but immediately begins ripping into sim racers who refuse to do anything other than participate in offline hot lap sessions with poorly-filmed YouTube videos of their escapades, or cherry-pick online races with a small field of competitors to prevent their egos from shattering after a defeat. Gardiner’s commentary on the subject is much appreciated, as despite the 16,000-member strong Reddit sim racing community, many titles that are routinely praised by the group feature pitifully small online server browsers, with games such as Automobilista struggling to attain more than 20 total drivers across all active sessions outside of league hours. It’s hilarious hearing someone put this passive-aggressive dick-waving contest into lyrics.

The following piece, Running Default, discusses the overwhelming amount of sim racers who seemingly have no fucking idea how to drive despite months of practice, and promptly accuse those faster than them of cheating when the driver in question tells them he only made minor tweaks to the supplied setup. This is a problem I’ve noticed myself across many online racing leagues, even when handing out setups to ensure people at least had a decent starting point with whatever car we were driving that season – there are a whole bunch of sim racers in our hobby who just don’t fucking get how to drive a car at competition speeds, and they can’t deal with it. It’s obviously frustrating to experience it first-hand, but hearing it described with tone & rhythm adds another layer to the message itself; it’s fucking annoying. Running Default benefits from great delivery and a simplistic backing beat, with Gardiner hitting his stride and feeling confident in his abilities as a random guy messing around with recording software. The combination of Everybody Look and Running Default was a great way to start the record.

Verbal Chicanery sputters a bit with Lights Out, a track nearly saved by featuring one of the better instrumental beats on the record, but after the very distinct theme set with the first two songs, the non-critical vibe of Lights Out contrasts too much with the overall tone being conveyed with the record. Lights Out lacks the one-two punch of humor and insight on the pitfalls of the sim community, instead being an underwhelming filler piece that is more along the lines of the corniness I first expected from this project. The lyrics try to address the nerves of making it through opening-lap chaos unscathed, but it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album – it’s too serious, too corny, too “oh my God, you’re rapping about sim racing, please stop.”

Soon I’ll Be Pro, however, absolutely nails the concept of sim racing comedy rap with flying colors, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of accompanying YouTube video will follow in the near future. This is the pinnacle of Gardiner’s creativity and it’s clearly the song that fueled the whole project; Soon I’ll Be Pro takes extremely specific shots at sections of the iRacing community and specific individuals in particular, who spend copious amounts of not-always-disposable income on absurdly high-priced simulation gear in the hopes of making it into one of two $10,000 iRacing championships, or landing some sort of real-life ride from their sim racing exploits. Had this been released as a single on the iRacing forums, or any sim racing forum for that matter, people would actively demand Gardiner’s head – it’s that good, or bad depending on your inner fanboy.

It’s clear Gardiner had a lot of fun both writing and performing this track, as the rich lyrics and uncomfortable, very direct knocks & impersonations take the piece to spectacular heights. If someone were to make a video compilation of all the cringe-tacular happenings in the world of sim racing, from Jason Jacoby’s eternal love for Domino’s Pizza and monolithic sim rig, the legally binding contracts for iRacing teams that don’t participate in any meaningful online events, the “sim racer’s girlfriend runs a sim team to feel included” stuff, and the guys bragging about injuries they received from direct drive wheels, Soon I’ll Be Pro is the soundtrack to the insanity. I want a video for this song, even though it may possibly go viral and make us all look like complete losers to the outside world.

screenshot2016-05-06at2-39-24pm-pngSadly, the pinnacle of Verbal Chicanery’s lyrical hilarity and creative drive marks a very steady slide that lasts for the final portion of the album. A guest appearance from sim racing YouTube personality Jimmy Broadbent serves as the album’s half-time split, shifting the remaining songs away from sim racing, into broader topics meant to serve as a demo for Gardiner’s other work.

While the final tracks all feature rather acceptable instrumental pieces, the lyrical content just doesn’t resonate in the same manner, which is why I’m left wanting a bit more from the original theme of taking the piss out of sim racing. Rag Top is the only notable standout of side two, starting off as a generic expose about modern American muscle cars before trailing off into trackday fights between two wanna-be race car drivers, and a clever Murray Walker impersonation, complete with audio effects to mimic a shitty YouTube upload of the race. Rag Top is good work, but other pieces just don’t feature the same amount of depth or creativity behind them.

I’ve suffered far through far too many wanna-be Eminem knock-offs over the past decade, but what Rhys Gardiner has put together as some sort of goofy project in his spare time to take the piss out of sim racing in a creative way honestly isn’t terrible. At least one of his songs deserves an accompanying video, and as a whole the lyrical content of his work draws attention to how ridiculous and annoying the sim racing community can be; it’s nice to see someone else going about what I’m doing here at PRC, but in a different and unique manner. I’m not saying everybody should go out and start messing with Cool Edit Pro, Garage Band, or Audacity, but Gardiner’s creation in Verbal Chicanery was worth the twenty minutes I set aside to listen to it, and that says a lot.

Can Good Simulators Kill Sim Racing?

mclaren-6_aeenhnpOne of the most intriguing aspects of the sim racing landscape compared to other areas of the video game industry, is how small, little-known indie developers can directly compete with major releases churned out by established studios – and occasionally come out on top in the long run. As we saw with Assetto Corsa’s rise to PC simulator prominence for about two and a half years – starting in the spring of 2014 and lasting until the summer of 2016 – even though Turn 10 and Slightly Mad Studios had pushed out comparatively huge racing games onto the market that dwindled what Kunos Simulazioni had created, Assetto Corsa’s active userbase only continued to grow. Steamcharts displays a pretty striking graph for us when we actually try to verify this statement with raw data, showcasing a massive surge in the popularity of Project CARS on its day of release, only for Assetto Corsa to slowly rise up the charts and overtake it in the spring of 2016.

comparisonBut can the opposite also be true? Is it possible for one simulator to be so astronomically ahead of its contemporaries, that the rest of the hardcore simulation developers simply can’t keep up and offer an equally compelling product? I believe so, and this is what might end up killing sim racing as a genre when all is said and done. Not the toxic community or the eternal science projects developers hold their users hostage with, but a game so good, it’s pointless for the others to even try. Those that do, will never achieve enough sales to keep the company afloat, and one by one, developers will simply fall off the map until there’s basically nobody left.

iracingsim64dx11-2016-10-16-19-59-16-57_1_origLet’s begin by taking a look at iRacing. As I’ve touched on in a previous article, back in 2008 when the service first entered the public market, iRacing was a totally different beast compared to every other simulator you could go out and purchase after work. While most pieces of software were just stand-alone games with a very generic, almost dated online component, iRacing offered this elaborate, mammoth online career with races going off every hour, and a genuine sense of progression to the whole experience that other games simply didn’t have. As a result, almost everyone who was interested in half-decent online races flocked to iRacing, while the once-popular rFactor leagues were now full of drivers who were simply too lazy (or poor) to upgrade their PC’s. At the same time, oval racing fans who had been patiently awaiting the next generation of licensed NASCAR console games, promptly abandoned ship from the woeful Eutechnyx offerings after only a release or two, and signed up for iRacing.

Even though other games had objectively better physics models and drove like proper race cars, it wasn’t uncommon to come across people on the iRacing forums, or on the in-game chat feature, who simply refused to install anything but iRacing on their PC’s because “I can’t race people.” Numerically speaking, there are a surprisingly large amount of sim racers for each game to have its core audience on paper, but iRacing did so many things so well, that if other games didn’t offer even a quarter of the iRacing-style online experience, people refused to even test the waters.

This is part of the reason why rFactor 2 stumbled out of the gate and had such a paltry following in the immediate years afterwards; people didn’t want an open modding platform with slightly better graphics when they were fairly content with a piece of software that had this massive online racing world to explore, and most of the cars & tracks they would have spent months building in their free time already available to purchase.

dirt-4-evo-6-carNext, I’d like to talk about what Codemasters are doing with DiRT 4. After years spent appealing to teenagers obsessed with energy drinks and the X-Games crowd that couldn’t care less about rally racing to begin with, Codemasters are set to bring back rally in a big way this June, with the release of DiRT 4 across all current generation gaming platforms. Unless you’re like that one guy on 4Chan who deems Mobil 1 Rally Championship (1999) to be the ultimate rally simulator despite its dreadful physics, there’s an enormous list of reasons to get excited about DiRT 4. From the mammoth roster of cars, in-depth single player career mode, and the randomly generated stages which promise a game you simply won’t be able to memorize in an afternoon, DiRT 4 basically ticks every last box fans of the genre have been asking for. Seeing it in action will obviously be a different story, but for the time being, this game looks really fucking good.

However, on the flip side of this spectrum, teams such as the folks behind gRally, the officially licensed WRC games, or even Milestone if they plan to launch another rally title, have absolutely no point in trying to make a competing rally game. gRally may offer open ended modding support, but no reasonable informed customer, let alone veteran sim racer, is willingly going to choose one add-on stage that took three months to build over a game where you press a single button and the built-in software presents a high-fidelity, seven minute stretch of road based on your exact perimeters.

As a result, these developers simply cant recover the cost of development with sales figures, because there’s one killer app on the market.

project-cars-2-directing-suiteLastly, let’s explore what happens if Project CARS 2 or Gran Turismo Sport end up being genuinely good pieces of software that are enjoyed by a vast array of people. Slightly Mad Studios are planning to inject all of this eSport compatibility into their upcoming title along with a dynamic track element, full seasonal weather effects, and a mass-market roster of cars with no major brands missing in the lineup. Gran Turismo Sport for the PS4 will introduce a dedicated userbase in the millions to the eSport kingdom, with a drastically altered progression system which moves away from the single-player grind-fest the series is known for, in favor of a rigid online structure akin to what iRacing offers. Essentially, the name Gran Turismo alone guarantees a huge crowd of people using the new online competition features of the title to its fullest extent, and potentially asking even more from it.

So how are teams like Sector 3, Studio 397, or Reiza Studios offer even a fraction of that experience on shoe-string budgets and minimal staff members? Currently, there’s a bit of talk that the three “indie” studios mentioned will implement some sort of structured online racing element to their titles in the coming months and/or years – and alright, that’s great, but if these mass-market games like Project CARS 2 or Gran Turismo Sport end up partially warranting the hype surrounding them, you’ve now got three developers rolling out online features they’ve spent a lot of money on implementing that are used by exactly nobody because someone else is doing it infinitely better, and an audience of nobody doesn’t keep the company afloat. And with how small these companies are by nature, they can’t go out and offer “something different than mass-market game X or Y”, because we’re currently in a period where the Sector 3 team still haven’t implemented tire pressures into RaceRoom Racing Experience, and Automobilista is still clearly powered by a modified version of a physics engine lots of us were first exposed to in 2006, if not sooner.

formula-v12-spaWe’re entering a very interesting time in the history of sim racing. While there are a lot of bold promises on the table from the likes of Polyphony, Codemasters, and Slightly Mad Studios, if these teams manage to accomplish what they’ve set out to achieve, the little guys – Studio 397, Reiza Studios, Sector 3 – they’re simply not going to survive. Right now it’s at least sort of worth giving money to everybody and trying out every game on the market, because there’s no one title that gets everything correct and is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. However, with Codemasters acquiring almost the entire team from Evolution Studios and experiencing a resurgence of sorts, followed by Slightly Mad Studios seemingly getting their act together and initial previews for Project CARS 2 looking kind of okay, and Gran Turismo shifting the focus of their franchise into the modern era, away from the Japanese-style RPG progression elements that once made the game a chore to play, we’re looking at a future where a lot of the smaller teams – such as those who don’t even let you create custom lobbies for the console version of their simulator – will be spoken of in the past tense.