Unreal Promises

r3eUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve probably both heard and gotten extremely excited over one of the biggest announcements within the sim racing scene in recent memory – Sector 3 Studios and their sister team SimBin UK will be moving away from the trusty powerplant created by Image Space Incorporated, which has fueled all of their simulators dating back to their inception as companies, in favor of adopting the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine for future projects. The announcements have always been supplemented with an array of proof-of-concept photos depicting RaceRoom Racing Experience assets within the Unreal Engine, and of course these are then promptly eaten up by a large portion of the sim racing community due to the enhanced visual quality compared to what sim racers are traditionally accustomed to with these types of games.

However, I’d really like to know why people aren’t asking basic questions about this announcement, as even the most preliminary investigation efforts in regards to information on Unreal 4 uncovers a much larger story developing right under our collective noses – both SimBin UK, as well as Sector 3, might actually be in big trouble when it comes to the future of their software, and these announcements are possibly part of a last-ditch attempt to bail themselves out of a very precarious situation.

I mean, let’s take a step back and look at this from a very general standpoint; here you have a group of passionate sim racers who have been working with a dedicated racing simulator engine for a little over a decade – an engine they have refined and tweaked on their own for years upon years in the pursuit of realism – suddenly dropping almost everything except the 3D models in favor of starting from scratch with the building blocks typically reserved for first person shooters and adventure games that occasionally make use of a lighthearted vehicle component.

Is this not ridiculously out of place? Why is everybody just going along with this and refusing to ask serious questions?

Time to go on a bit of a journey with this one.

Above, I’ve inserted footage of someone’s little drift game they’ve built within UE4; a tech demo of sorts to show off quasi-realistic vehicle physics. Passing over the fact that it’s someone’s pet project they’ve messed around with in their spare time, let’s directly address two major themes that will undoubtedly arise as you take a gander at the video clip:

The first, is that it doesn’t look all that great; as if someone made a custom map mod for one of the Just Cause games, or quickly threw a bunch of converted content and/or community mods into Grand Theft Auto 4, recording their escapades on a third party Ebisu track. This is the Unreal Engine 4 in action – there’s excessive bloom, depth of field, and motion blur that makes it look like those shitty Xbox 360 Kinect games we all had to suffer through at one point, or Triple-A titles that are simply trying too hard on the visual aspects. This is the last thing sim racers have been asking for.

Second, despite this guy’s best efforts to create a semi-realistic racing demo within UE4, the car floats around as if it’s making use of a third party handling mod for one of the PC Grand Theft Auto titles. Now sure, simplified, approximated physics may be fine for open world sandbox games where the driving element also has to co-exist with platforming, exploration and shooting elements, but GTR3, and eventually RaceRoom Racing Experience according to Sector 3, will supposedly be making use of this engine. We’re talking a genre of games where people spend years learning how to manage their tires in an endurance racing format, maximizing every last bit of the track for the final tenth of a second advantage on their opponents, or commanding the vehicle to the absolute edge of the tire – and holding it there.

What I see above does not indicate this kind of gameplay experience will be able to thrive in Unreal Engine 4; I’m instead looking at an engine where the driving portion is just one aspect of the entire sandbox. It seems designed for open-world games where there is a driving element sitting off to the side – so war games that make use of military vehicles, or open world free-roaming sandboxes – as opposed to a hardcore racing simulators that focus solely on the art of performance driving.

Next, I’d like to present our readers with gameplay footage of Moto Racer 4, the only dedicated racing game currently available for purchase powered by the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine, as the other title is like this weird battle kart hybrid reminiscent of Mashed on the PS2. As you can tell by the title of the video, “worst game of 2016” in all capital letters, it’s obviously not very good at what it’s trying to be – a simple-minded arcade racer. An entire team of developers cannot build a budget-priced motorcycle racer with the Unreal 4 Engine, yet we’re supposed to expect this same engine to power a highly advanced racing simulation focusing on ultra-high tech GT3 and prototype entries?

Oh please.

To elaborate on this topic a bit further and sort of drill home the point I’m trying to make for people not quite sure where I’m going with this one, Wikipedia has a phenomenal list of every single game either released or currently in development that’s powered by UE4, and there’s a very ominous trend that you can check for yourselves if you feel like killing five minutes of your day – race cars are nowhere to be found on this list. There are shitloads of adventure games, fighting games, shooters, role playing games, and even a pretty big list of survival horror titles, but auto racing titles are practically non-existent. To get any sort of driving game resembling a proper simulator, you have to go back to Unreal Engine 3 and take a peek at the indie rock crawling title Off-Road Drive – and even that game is unable to depict high speed vehicle behavior in a realistic fashion, with the commentator in the linked video noting the car comes to an almost instant stop the moment you let off the throttle, not to mention several instances of what’s quite frankly bizarre weight transfer and other miscellaneous bullshit.

Gee, maybe this engine isn’t very good for driving games?

KartKraft was first announced in September of 2011. At the time of this entry on PRC.net, it’s now February of 2017, and KartKraft has failed to materialize in any meaningful fashion, with major, non-abrasive sim racing outlets such as RaceDepartment openly questioning what has happened to the game. MotoRacer 4 launched in October of 2016 to abysmal critical reception. Obliteracers was a no-name arcade racer that scored a lowly 60% on Steam, and saw an embarrassing peak of 67 active users all playing the game at once. That’s the entire history of Unreal 4 powered driving games.

Three titles, one of which is vaporware and hasn’t been released to the public in seven years, one of which is a shitty battle kart racer, and the last is described as the worst racing game of 2016.

Despite this obvious red flag of developers unable to harness the power of Unreal 4 to create a captivating racing game, as well as the engine’s complete lack of history producing racing-oriented titles to the point where developers are using the engine to create anything but racing games, Sector 3 Studios, as well as SimBin UK, have decided that this engine is the future of their ultra-hardcore racing simulators, dropping an engine which was specifically built to function as a race car simulator in the process.

Sound absolutely ridiculous? Let’s keep going.

ss_b39e0e9ec9a4d332cbb8d9b6b482210a498718bb-1920x1080Several interviews with Chris and Allan Speed of the Sector 3/SimBin family have warranted lengthy explanations as to what sim racers can expect from both GTR 3, as well as RaceRoom Racing Experience in the future once both products make the switch to Unreal 4. Thanks to the excellent work of Paul Jeffrey over at RaceDepartment, we’re able to see the brothers making very concrete, specific statements regarding the future of simulators published under the Swedish umbrella of simulation studios, and upon dissecting their answers, it’s extremely cliche to say and I really need to stop using this phrase so often, but I’m left with much more questions that I’m shocked my fellow sim racers aren’t asking.

So let’s go through a few standout quotes – and please keep in mind I’ve chopped some up and cleaned up the grammar to focus on the core topic at hand:

In GTR3 we will have much improved car damage over what is industry standard at the moment, as well as a new particle system and a modern UI system.

First of all, the “new particle system” isn’t a new particle system; it’s simply Unreal’s particle system.

Second, manufacturers have placed more licensing restrictions on car damage than what we were accustomed to a decade ago – and this is something that teams like Kunos Simulazioni and Turn 10 have been very open about discussing with their users in recent times to kind of calm the complaints about very simplistic damage models. Car companies simply won’t allow heavy damage in modern driving games, so I’m confused as to how these guys intend to step it up in the fashion they’re talking about. The moment you sign a license agreement with, say, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, or Lamborghini, they call the shots – and traditionally, they say “you can’t show our cars with massive damage.” So these guys are sitting here making claims they most likely won’t be able to back up once licensing deals are on the table, waiting to be signed.

With Unreal, we will have aquaplaning and water displacement that will affect the handling of the car, as realistic as possible here. Puddles will build up around the track, rain will occur on different parts of the tracks, and there will be as much variability in the weather as we can achieve.

While it’s true that Unreal 4 supports a vast array of weather effects, these effects are purely visual – elaborate particle systems, if you will. Their inclusion does not, by default, affect how a player traverses through the game world by making the terrain more difficult to retain traction on. A developer can manually adjust basic friction and overall grip variables for the surface of the game world – or race track, to be more specific – in an effort to fabricate what a wet surface would feel like in a race car, but these advanced dynamics alleged to be introduced in GTR 3, where cars naturally hydroplane over specific puddles of water that form on the racing surface… Unreal 4 doesn’t do that.

Yes, puddles do form, and you can inject a variety of rain effects into your game which react naturally to physical objects in the environment – for example, matches played in the rain in Rocket League – but they don’t actually do anything to the racing surface or your car’s behavior. It’s an immensely detailed water splash animation; or in the case of a puddle, displacement animation.

In fact, merely running a Google search on “Unreal Engine Aquaplane” only brings up about a page of links re-directing back to the GTR 3 interview originally conducted on RaceDepartment. So we’ve got a developer saying they’ve switched to the Unreal engine partially to make use of its advanced aquaplaning simulation and treacherous wet weather driving conditions, when this feature has never actually existed in any iteration the Unreal engine and doesn’t warrant any relevant search results of people even talking about it, aside from Sector 3 and SimBin themselves.

Oops.

We will mirror the full weekend structure, rules and regulations, types of classes and individual driver strengths of that series, different weather attributes, day/night cycles, animated pit stops everything you would expect from that series will be included.

Again, Unreal 4 supports the ability for a talented group of content creators to inject day/night cycles into the sandbox, and even compose their own weather patterns if they’re wanting to go to that extent. That’s not the issue here. However, these elaborate visual effects and atmospheric conditions are not tied into vehicle physics; injecting a fancy third party weather plug-in will not suddenly make your vehicle’s engine generate more or less horsepower based on the humidity, air temperature, and elevation – which I assume is what the duo mean by “different weather attributes.”

In fact, vehicle editing as a whole is extremely basic, a far cry from the elaborate HDV files isiMotor enthusiasts are used to obsessing over. So not only has the complexity of vehicle editing been reduced dramatically compared to the simulation-oriented engine Sector 3 and SimBin plan to depart from, believing you can somehow tie weather into vehicle performance is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Additionally ,we are going to improve on the physics found in RaceRoom Racing Experience, and take over the best bits of the audio from RaceRoom as well.

The Unreal Engine is almost a closed toolbox of sorts; you simply can’t take part of one game engine, and throw it into another without years upon years of work – as the engine was never designed for that to begin with. It has been designed so you open up the toolbox and create a game with Unreal. So how are you going to improve on physics created in a purpose-built race car simulation engine by starting from scratch in a toolbox where car physics are greatly simplified and considered only a fraction of the entire experience, and still manage to have an internal playable demo within six months time created by a team of anywhere from four to seven individuals?

Unreal is an engine used to create first person shooters. The AI has been built for humans and bots, the collisions are built for characters, and the ballistics are built for guns. You can’t remove these characteristics from the core engine, so it’s no wonder that no major racing simulator – or even the odd arcade racer, for that matter – has been constructed using Unreal as a base. The ones that try, fail spectacularly.

suspensionSo after two thousand words, you’re probably wondering what in the hell is going on here?

After looking at some of the stuff above, and the overall storyline fueling this blog entry – a hardcore racing simulator developer announcing they’re dropping a trustworthy sim engine in favor of something that traditionally powers first person shooters – one important question still remains: Why are Sector 3 Studios and SimBin UK choosing to pursue this route when it’s absolutely nonsensical for them to do so?

Though we’re obviously not privy to all the inner-workings that would undoubtedly help flesh out the conclusion a story like this, one thing we do know for certain is that ISI’s baby, rFactor 2, is now living comfortably under Studio 397 banner, with Marcel Offermans and Luminis in charge of the project to a certain degree. I’m under the impression that there was more to this deal than most originally thought, as it’s extremely suspicious that after Sector 3 and SimBin have spent over a decade using the isiMotor engine in all of their software, merely months after rFactor 2 has changed hands and there’s been a shakeup of sorts at ISI, one of the main developers powered by ISI simulator technology is suddenly expressing their desire to jump ship to a first person shooter engine. The timing of that is a little too impeccable to be a coincidence.

You do not develop hardcore auto racing simulations for over a decade using a purpose-built auto racing engine, only to suddenly abandon everything except your physical assets and run to an engine that quite frankly has no purpose creating racing games let alone simulators, while struggling to explain the benefits this new engine will provide your upcoming games. This is sketchy as fuck, and I’m disappointed I’m the only one pointing this all out.

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Running on (Vaporware) Fumes

42A wonderful, feature-length interview conducted by Paul Jeffrey of RaceDepartment with Chris and Allan Speed of Sector 3 Studios and SimBin UK respectively has warranted significantly more questions than answers in what was originally meant to be a very celebratory article. Announcing to the world of sim racing that the highly anticipated follow-up to GTR 2 is in development yet again, and giving virtual sports car enthusiasts a rough online as to what they should expect when the multi-platform simulator launches in 2018, there’s actually been a bit of confusion over the exact information revealed in the piece at RaceDepartment, which went live earlier this morning. There is supposedly a game in the works, but contradictory responses from the Speed brothers have already revealed a bit of troublesome insight into GTR 3’s ongoing development hell, which has been a focal point of sim racing coverage dating back to its first publicly unveiled iteration in late 2011.

Don’t get me wrong, I personally want to see GTR 3 happen, as I’m fed up with smorgasbord games that offer a vast array of cars and tracks to explore, but rarely manage to string together a cohesive experience in the end product. GTR 3 represents a throwback to a time when video games shipped as finished, feature complete simulators, and I desperately want that mentality back in the genre of sim racing, represented by a stellar package that captivates a large portion of the community. However, some of the answers given by Chris and Allan Speed make it hard to believe as an outsider that this game is even coming at all, or there must be a complete disconnect between what’s being discussed in the interview, and what’s actually happening at SimBin UK.

It’s not appropriate to call these guys liars because they’re obviously still very early in the alleged development cycle, so realistically there isn’t much of anything for them to show potential customers who are incredibly enthusiastic about GTR3, but there are an absurd number of red flags popping up for a title that was literally just announced, and already has this grassroots campaign behind it.

gtr3-1First, the early material released under the GTR 3 tag had no relation to the actual GTR 3 game in development – it was a selection of vehicles and locations from RaceRoom Racing Experience, thrown into the Unreal 4 Engine. As an end customer who will obviously be following development of the game very closely, because I want to know if it’s worth picking up come launch day, I find it odd for a new team to announce an entirely new game by using heavily manipulated artwork that by their own admission has nothing to do with the game they just announced. This would be like if Kunos Simulazioni had announced Assetto Corsa with photoshopped screenshots of netKar Pro assets thrown into Unity. This sounds asinine on paper, so I’d like to know what purpose this serves with SimBin?

Yes, I understand SimBin UK have labeled these “proof of concept” shots, but if there’s this brand new game being worked on we should get excited about, why can’t you show us relevant material relating to this game? I really don’t care about seeing RaceRoom Racing Experience assets in the Unreal 4 engine; Sector 3 did this already in the spring of 2016. Why can’t we see GTR 3 during a major announcement and interview for GTR 3?

That’s red flag number one.

umRed flag number two is when Chris Speed mentions SimBin UK are yet to decide on how they’re going to fund the GTR 3 project, also adding they’re still in the process of hiring people. I would like to know what company begins working on a major multi-platform release without knowing how they’re going to afford it in the first place, and to the best of my knowledge don’t even have a solid foundation of staff members to help bang out the project because they’re talking about hiring staff members – you know, something basic to get the company  functioning as a legitimate game studio  – for the next two months.

That’s a lot of variables, intangibles, and “eithers” for a project that is supposedly “100% coming.” This would be like if I’d gone out and announced that my rock band were set to put out our first full EP in late 2017, but we had no idea how we would pay for studio time to record the album, and we were still in search of a lead guitarist, drummer, and bass player.

untitled-2The third red flag pops up when Chris is asked about potential licenses for the upcoming simulator. Rather than drop subtle hints and imply we should get ready for a big surprise in the near future, Speed talks in “aims” and “goals” – their “aim” is to have an official series license, and they’ve been in “talks” with a few partners, but nothing has been confirmed or even hinted at as of yet. Isn’t this something you secure before you start work on a game?

fourOur fourth and final red flag boils down to a portion of the interview I can see many racers skipping over because it doesn’t have any of the exciting, colorful details you’d want to hear about GTR 3, but instead boils down to staff member logistics and the state of the gaming industry in the United Kingdom.

Allan Speed claims there is “not much happening in the UK at the moment”, which is one of the most absurd statements from a developer I’ve ever heard given the context of his comments. Yes, Evolution Studios were shut down as a company, but a majority of the team were absolved by Codemasters, and they have promised a new IP in the future, along with announcing the long-awaited DiRT 4, set for a June 2017 release. There obviously is a lot going on in the UK, so I don’t understand how the head of a video game studio with direct ties to the industry itself could be this far out of the loop when this stuff was headline news and genuinely got people excited over the future of Codemasters and therefore racing games out of the UK.

Allan also mentions SimBin UK consists of just four people at the moment, with three more set to join sometime in February or March. By comparison, Kunos Simulazioni – the masterminds behind Assetto Corsa – clocked in at around twenty individuals, with coding wizard Stefano Casillo being a fundamental key in how the team were able to operate as such a small outlet, because like him or not, let’s give some credit where credit is due, the guy is an absolute genius when it comes to coding. So you’re looking at a team that’s less than half the size of Kunos Simulazioni, with no Stefano equivalent to pick up the bulk of the work, claiming to be well on their way to churning out GTR 3 for a multi-platform release complete with all the bells and whistles of a feature-complete product, something Kunos Simulazioni were unable to do with double the people, as the recent 1.12 update for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One renditions of Assetto Corsa have still failed to include things like leaderboards and custom lobbies.

Um… Yeah, no.

p45_01So to recap, we have a team announcing GTR 3, but releasing screenshots of a totally different game’s assets placed within the Unreal engine. They are unsure how they will fund this new project, the current team as of this writing only consists of four staff members, and they have not announced the acquisition of any licenses that would actually attract people to buy the game, but are willing to go on public record with a sim racing outlet as large as RaceDepartment to say this game is 100% coming, there will be an internal demo in six months, and the end product will boast an experience similar to what people can expect from the mass-market Formula One games developed by Codemasters.

I can’t be the only one who finds this all incredibly sketchy.

gearbox-ceo-teases-duke-nukem-announcement-next-week_x9qf

RaceDepartment to Revive GTR 2?

rd-leagueThought it hasn’t been officially announced on the parent website – only mentioned casually on the brand’s Facebook page – the gang at RaceDepartment appear to be working on putting together one last grand finale for GTR 2 – the critically acclaimed FIA GT simulator which marked the end of sim racing’s golden age, in which developers pushed out incredible feature-complete packages focused around one specific auto racing series. Details are obviously scant at the moment, but RaceDepartment rarely tease these things without following through to completion, so it appears we will soon see a lot of sim racers dust off their copy of GTR 2 – or nick it from the Steam marketplace for a mere $8 USD to avoid obvious Starforce bullshit – to partake in a throwback series of sorts.

In my opinion, it’s a great move for the website to host such a championship, as many modern sim racers we see currently clogging up the message boards were simply not around during the title’s original heyday in the late 2000’s, or were just too young at the time to become heavily involved in the competitive side of the GTR 2 community. Rather than telling these sim racers how things used to be in the world of sim racing and hoping they’ll understand the rants of veteran sim racers dissatisfied with the current crop of eternal science projects, they’ll be shown what a complete racing simulator offered in a setting where these elements are made use of, such as a 24 hour day/night cycle, fully animated pit stops, and even wet-weather racing. While it’s an extremely bold move for any website to start an online championship with such an old product, there are certainly enough people chilling out on RaceDepartment on a daily basis to guarantee a large field of cars for the first event on the schedule.

243552-gtr-2-fia-gt-racing-game-windows-screenshot-time-to-admireHowever, as with every older simulator running on modern hardware and operating system combinations, there are of course mammoth potential problems that could dismantle the whole thing before it even starts. Facebook user Jim D. notes that he had tried to administrate an online league for himself and his acquaintances using the excellent Power & Glory mod for GTR 2 – a package focusing on historic GT vehicles from the 1960’s and 1970’s – but was eventually forced to give up due to the massive amounts of technical issues relating to mismatches. This is something RaceDepartment will have to figure out long before initial qualifying rounds begin, as the website traditionally only allows paying premium members to enter in multi-race championships.

Also throwing a dastardly curve ball into the mix would be the Prodrive-backed Ferrari F550 GTC – which drastically altered the online playing field when GTR 2 was once a prominent player in the sim racing landscape. While Slightly Mad Studios had done their absolute best to faithfully re-create every single vehicle entered in the FIA GT Championship, as well as some of the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa entry list, the Ferrari F550 GTC as constructed by Prodrive exhibited Mercedes-like dominance throughout the 2003 and 2004 campaigns, with this ridiculous performance accurately being reflected in GTR 2’s virtual counterpart. If RaceDepartment don’t attempt to neuter the F550 GTC for league play, 95% of the grid will be running this car, defeating the purpose of the very diverse vehicle roster.

maxresdefaultAs RaceDepartment are known to have somewhat close ties with Sector 3 Studios and the SimBin operation as a whole, my own personal speculation is that drivers who finish well at the end of the GTR 2 RaceDepartment championship will receive some sort of advanced access to the allegedly upcoming GTR 3, provided the recent announcement is set to materialize in the distant future and not what appears to be a subtle attempt at securing funds for the project behind the scenes. As the CEO of SimBin, Chris Speed, has revealed in a prior interview with RaceDepartment, they intend to have a rough draft of the game ready in only six months time, so I can see a GTR 2 league on none other than RaceDepartment contested throughout the spring being the perfect pre-game meal into an onslaught of promotional material.

We hope to see a more official announcement about this online championship in the coming days.

GTR2 as a Bargaining Tool

264156_screenshot_big_01Editor’s Note: A couple of hyperlinks have been added to convey relevant information, and a sentence or two regarding 10tacle’s knowledge of the original SimBin split have been updated.

What if I told you that the most trusted name in sim racing was just that – a name?

There’s a very definitive aura surrounding both the GTR franchise itself, as well as the developers listed on the package – SimBin. Released during the height of sim racing’s supposed Golden Age – an era of feature complete simulators sparked by Sierra’s Grand Prix Legends in 1998 before sputtering out in the mid 2000’s – the officially licensed virtual counterpart of the FIA GT Championship became a cult classic piece of software known for it’s unprecedented realism, even as the series remained a relatively obscure alternative to more established motorsports in European markets.

Whereas Grand Prix Legends rocked the video game landscape by introducing virtual auto racing fans to the concept of a hardcore, no-nonsense driving game when the technology was just barely able to handle it, GTR2 refined that sort of unforgiving experience to absolute perfection. No, the Ferrari’s which adorned the cover of the game weren’t absolute death traps to drive at the limit of adhesion, nor were dense forests and small hamlets hidden around blind corners of wide-open circuits; the game was instead bathed in an atmosphere unlike any other – rivaling projects of substantially larger budgets. Emotional orchestral scores and properly slick menus gave way to a downright beautiful racing game that pushed modern computers to their absolute breaking points, and when you finally got past the flash and pizzazz, your Saleen S7 screaming out of the final corner to begin your first true hotlap after everything had been tweaked to your liking, GTR2 held up its end of the bargain where it mattered the most – on the virtual racing surface.

ss_a42e011fa9d9f6dc4b8923d02ab80c06167aebe6-1920x1080SimBin were heralded as heroes, and some have even mentioned the game in articles with titles such as “Crap Best Sellers and Hidden Masterpieces” that otherwise focus on the exploits of major celebrities such as Justin Bieber and movies like Fifty Shades of Grey; the game captured several awards of great significance during a period when hardcore PC racing simulators were largely ignored in favor of mass-market titles that only vaguely represented an authentic driving experience. While the world was caught up in the frenzy of Forza Motorsport’s first release, a hotshot car-collecting game for Microsoft’s very first home console that looked to steal a bit of thunder, monolithic video game press entity GameSpot awarded GTR2 a score of 90%, and dubbed it not only The Best Game Nobody Played of 2006, it also won Best Driving Game period.

Exponentially more people were picking up a copy of GTR2 from their local electronics retailer and spending long hours getting lost in the cars and tracks of the FIA GT series, than were actually leaving their homes going to events on the real life FIA GT Championship schedule. YouTube footage from the 2004 season reveals a very empty Hockenheim Grand Prix circuit for the fourth round of the season, while someone claiming to have inside knowledge of sales to the point of previously being under a non-disclosure agreement mentions a few hundred thousand units were moved during a time when digital distribution straight up wasn’t a factor in the video game market. You had physical to go to the store and make the conscious choice to pay full price for an obscure racing simulator you grabbed off the shelf with your own two hands that your PC might not have been able to run in the first place, instead of merely capitalize on an eight dollar Steam sale.

It was a really, really big deal.

Unfortunately, the success of GTR2  – while beneficial for hardcore simulator fans desperately wanting a “killer app” that served to showcase the quantum leap in progress sim racing as a genre had made over the past eight years – ultimately had the complete opposite effect on the multiple companies involved. GTR2 is not seen as a celebration of the right people coming together and sharing a common goal of rocking the video game world with the little FIA GT racing game that could, but rather the source of a continuous war between two rival companies. Both want to be known within the industry (as well as to the general public) as the little indie developer that made it big by busting their asses and creating a truly compelling product, but the reality is that only one team can hold that honor.

jpgAnd because SimBin Studios UK have recently come out and announced GTR3 is confirmed to be in the pipeline – generating hype primarily by pointing at a game from ten years ago and saying “we’re bringing that exact product back” – it’s important for sim racers to know that calling this new racing simulator a direct sequel to GTR2 and writing SimBin on the box, doesn’t mean it’s a GTR game by SimBin.

And it also doesn’t mean it’ll be any good. Or that it’ll come out at all.

gtlegendsspd_1The SimBin team a solid amount of our readers know, love, and most likely hold in extremely high regard, actually split up very close to the end of GT Legends’ development cycle. A very lopsided fracture at its core, a vast majority of the team remained with Ian Bell and continued on as Blimey! Games (later to be re-named Slightly Mad Studios), whereas a small cluster of individuals – consisting mostly of Swedish sim racing enthusiasts – retained the SimBin name and became almost a Nordic version of Reiza Studios; an extremely small, nationalistic sim racing development team tasked with basically starting from scratch – but at least they had the name everybody recognized to reel people in.

An internal war still remaining largely behind closed doors, a victim of this split ended up being the Xbox 360 version of GTR, which was originally intended for a May 2006 release.

Shortly after the split, possibly in the fall of 2005, publisher 10Tacle Studios came to SimBin and asked the team for a sequel to GTR, as they (rightfully) believed the market was ready for the next game in the series. The few remaining individuals at SimBin had to reluctantly explain that the team was simply too small after the fracture to handle a project as large as GTR2, needing a bit more time to get on their feet as a company. 10tacle were unfazed by this, solely interested in producing a killer racing simulator based on the FIA GT Championship, and proceeded to contact Ian’s team at Blimey instead.

However, because sim racers had already associated the name SimBin with stellar products in both the original GTR and GT Legends, an agreement was made with all parties to keep the SimBin logo and namesake on the package, though the majority of the development would actually be handled by the group currently known as Slightly Mad Studios. At the time, it was exceptionally smart marketing. Blimey Games were essentially playing the role of session musicians in a manner similar Anton Fig filling in for Peter Criss during the downfall of KISS at the end of the 1970’s; helping to maintain a public perception of unity and consistent quality that would reel in customers without subjecting the project to development hell, as SimBin  at the time had less than ten employees on the payroll and just getting back together as a team, whereas Blimey were already a functioning company ready to begin work on the next project.

11Problems crept up almost immediately for both teams, when GTR 2 – as mentioned above – was not just a niche racing simulator intended for a fraction of a fraction of an already obscure community, but began winning awards from mainstream gaming websites that otherwise didn’t give racing simulators the time of day, much less Driving Game of the Year awards. Overnight, having GTR2 on your resume genuinely meant something within the industry in regards to acquiring future projects for the team, as independent developers churning out a critical and commercial successes thanks to a racing game centered around a series with empty grandstands in real life was basically the most ridiculous miracle story in the history of video game development, and publishers would obviously want a piece of that talent for the road ahead.

No sane person who was presented with millions of dollars on the table by a potential publishing deal would openly state “well, yeah, our name is on the box of this massively successful indie racing simulator, but we didn’t actually make it”, so this lead to a situation where both Blimey! Games, as well as SimBin, attempted to take credit for the success of GTR2; each attempting to push the other under the rug despite a very tangible business deal – and even Wikipedia – stating the raw facts.

gtr2-decalSimBin, or at least the new, Swedish-oriented SimBin, eventually did rebuild themselves into a respectable company, as evidenced by their numerous simulators released throughout the late 2000’s. Race: The WTCC game landed on store shelves shortly after GTR 2 arrived – raising a bit of justified suspicion within the community as to how the same developer put out two radically different racing simulators of varying quality in the span of a month – before embarking on a multi-year journey in 2007 with Race 07 and it’s abundance of paid expansions sold primarily through Valve’s radical new Steam platform.

No, they weren’t inherently bad games by any means, but most hardcore sim racers at the time believed they were missing that extra pinch of atmosphere and overall quality that shot GTR2 to the absolute forefront of everyone’s radar. You could either have a massive array of sports cars with a bumping orchestral score and some of the finest visuals ever seen in a PC simulator relative to the era in which the game was released, OR you could have… a Chevrolet Lacetti passenger car and some other obscure amateur track day warriors.

To their credit, SimBin realized that Race 07 was a bit of a dud, and made every last effort to flesh their flagship simulator out with an elaborate array of race cars from around the world – including an expansion pack that directly addressed their most prolific critics and introduced three entire classes of GT cars to the simulator under the moniker of GTR Evolution – but even though it said “…from the creators of GTR2” on the package, it wasn’t having its intended effects. Despite a complete re-structuring of the company from the ground up, and wrongly advertising that they were the team that had created GTR2, they weren’t actually benefiting from it.

3_1217Blimey Games, on the other hand, now operating under the more familiar name of Slightly Mad Studios, did benefit.

In December of 2008, only a few months after SimBin had released the GTR Evolution expansion for Race 07 to a very lukewarm reception, Electronic Arts pulled the covers off of the newest Need for Speed title to be released in the fall of 2009. Given the name of Need for Speed: Shift, Slightly Mad Studios had been recruited to build the absolute biggest game of their careers by the single most important entity in modern gaming: Electronic Arts. Guaranteed millions of sales almost by default, and assisted by an international marketing machine that will undoubtedly be studied by future generations of game design students, the title promised to be a drastic change in direction for the franchise, taking advantage of Slightly Mad’s experience with both GTR games, as well as GT Legends, to produce a quasi-hardcore simulator intended to compete against Forza Motorsport – now on its third rendition.

Regardless of how you feel about Need for Speed: Shift in hindsight (my buddy was so frustrated by one of the rival races he actually snapped his disc in half), as a company, the miracle story Slightly Mad Studios had achieved with GTR2 finally paid off; senpai most certainly noticed them. They earned the right to play in the big leagues.

gt_2By comparison, SimBin Studios, the team that had been running around with the “…creators of GTR2” emblem attached to their products in the hopes it would drum up additional sales knowing full well almost nobody at the current rendition of the company worked on GTR2, were already working on churning out a mass-market console game of their own. Dubbed Race Pro and bundling a majority of the content released for the PC version of Race 07 on one disc, the title looked to introduce hardcore sim racing to the Xbox 360 user base.

While some sim racers claim Race Pro was the game that finally convinced them to make the switch to PC gaming and dive head first into the world of hardcore simulators, Race Pro as a product was hardly a compelling alternative compared to a similar offering with the budget of Need for Speed. Plagued by poor framerate, visual fidelity which never matched the preview screenshots, a save game corruption glitch simply unacceptable for a developer to include within their software that far into the Xbox 360’s lifespan, and launched at a time where dedicated racing wheels for the Xbox 360 weren’t as common as they are now for current generation consoles, Race Pro was both a critical and commercial flop. Personally, I liked what it stood for and thought the game had potential with a proper aftermarket wheel, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t already get on the PC.

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With unflattering reviews of their mass-market console release prior to launch day, and the knowledge that their partner in crime was now playing on a world stage despite their own desperate attempts to convince the general public to buy their games solely because “we made GTR2, sort of…”, twenty four hours after Race Pro hit the shelves to basically no fanfare whatsoever, SimBin began digging themselves into a metaphorical hole and announced they were seriously looking into a lawsuit against Slightly Mad Studios for taking credit in the development of GTR2.

Wikipedia lists that SimBin did not create GTR2; that credit goes to the team at Blimey! Games, who are now known as Slightly Mad Studios. Yet after landing a multi-year deal publishing deal with Atari for a multitude of otherwise uninspiring touring car games based on the same technology which powered rFactor – including the failed Xbox 360 game in Race Pro – the team at SimBin believed the correct plan of action was not to create a compelling product which lived up to the game they claimed to help create many years ago, but instead seek genuine legal advice in an attempt to sue the team who did.

These are the kinds of legal threats that cost actual money.

sueA little over a year later, just enough time for any private legal matters to play out naturally, Henrik Roos, the former Dodge Viper in the FIA GT Championship depicted in GTR2, revealed that SimBin as a company were in extremely serious financial trouble, and major investors had spontaneously backed out following unspecified “unsuccessful business ventures.”

This is sim racing. It’s basically the same 3,000 hardcore users purchasing every game, playing it for a week, and then going back to their simulator of choice. Games that sell poorly come out all the time, and rarely do they tank a company. Rarely would one or two hardcore racing simulators sink a team that focuses exclusively on hardcore simulators.

You tell me what happened.

untitled-5According to VGChartz, the two games in the Need for Speed: Shift sub-franchise spearheaded by Slightly Mad Studios sold a combined total of six million copies; though I’m guessing these numbers aren’t entirely accurate, and a member of SMS themselves may soon find themselves in our comments section violating their non-disclosure agreement to ensure we got this number right. Regardless of whether the combined total sales figure is six million, or sixteen million, that’s a lot of fucking money in the bank accounts of Slightly Mad Studios – an elaborate reward for their miracle rise to prominence as an AAA game developer.

With nervous suits at Atari looking on at one of their developers, wondering why “the miracle team that created GTR2” was instead shitting out stuff like Race Pro and endless expansions for their aging simulator, it’s understandable as to why the folks in Sweden were becoming a bit trigger happy with their multiple legal threats in an attempt to re-write history and calm the concerns of their overlords. I mean, just comparing screenshots is enough for someone at Atari to start questioning that something wasn’t quite right with what they’d been advertising their crew to be capable of.

gt-legends-comparisonThe Swedish incarnation of SimBin first announced GTR 3 during the Christmas season of 2011, subsequently teaming up with VirtualR.net to unleash a tidal wave of information which teased the new title, but the influx of news and ground-level hype suddenly stopped in June of 2012 – only six short months after it had began.

gtr3-teaseWhen SimBin finally did reveal their modern flagship simulator to the general public, it ended up being a barbaric slap in the face to all sim racers who were patiently expecting something every bit as hardcore as the sequel to GTR2 the team once announced across all major sim racing media outlets. Though Sector 3 have done their best to whip the game into a traditional racing simulator over a period of years, in the very beginning RaceRoom Racing Experience was a a desperate attempt at churning out additional revenue for the company, as the game first arrived as a free-to-play racer where fictional cars, tracks, and even liveries forced users to first purchase “funny money” before any micro-transaction took place, giant corner markers obstructed the trackside scenery, and the application initially failed to include anything aside from an online hotlap competition – with no head to head multiplayer component in sight.

All of this, from the team that promoted themselves as the guys who created one of the most difficult and demanding racing simulators of all time.

Yeah, no.

raceroom-racing-2The entire process of shipping out a game that went against every single ideology the company once stood for screamed “we are on the absolute breaking point as a company”, and SimBin indeed went bankrupt only a short time later – later re-emerging as Sector 3 Studios. Across the planet, with their CEO now residing in Singapore and development handled primarily over the internet rather than in a tangible office, the team that really did create GTR2, Slightly Mad Studios, jumped into the fray on both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with Project CARS, eventually moving a combined total of two million units.

Sector 3’s most recent update for RaceRoom Racing Experience has the artificial intelligence recklessly smashing into one another. Users are still unable to manually adjust the tire pressure of their race cars.

bankruptThree thousand words later, what does this all say about the upcoming multi-platform release of GTR3 in 2018, created by a team with the name of SimBin Studios UK?

It says that GTR3 might not even happen.

The team who built the critically acclaimed GTR2 – a title that so many of you once fell in love with either a decade ago, or just a few months back thanks to a flash Steam sale? That crew is now known as Slightly Mad Studios, and whether you’re happy with how Project CARS turned out as a racing simulator, or are constantly run into crippling issues that can be easily documented with the PlayStation 4’s Share feature, these guys are still making racing simulators and doing their thing.

SimBin, on the other hand, sold a whole bunch of payware mod packages for a fancy re-skin of rFactor, have already failed once at making the transition to the console racing platform, ran into long-term financial troubles shortly after announcing they would sue Slightly Mad Studios, announced GTR3 for the first time before revealing it to be an atrocious “freemium” racing game loaded with intrusive micro-transactions which no sim racer would ever want in their library, finally went bankrupt, and then announced GTR 3 again during a time when their other game, RaceRoom Racing Experience, is still missing features found in Race 07 from almost a decade ago.

I love the kind of on-track product sports car racing provides, and I love the idea of heading out to Wal-Mart to snatch a copy of GTR3 for my PlayStation 4, ripping off the shrink wrap as if I was thirteen years old, and being greeted with an elaborate sports car racing experience after throwing the disc into my console. In a genre filled with many simulators that throw a whole bunch of random cars and tracks at you with no clear focus, this is something I’ve personally been demanding for quite some time, and so has the overall sim racing community. We all really want GTR3 because of what it represents.

But can SimBin Studios UK actually churn out GTR3 as intended, after such a ridiculous, unstable, and blatantly idiotic history?

Probably not. There’s a chance this game may never see the light of day.

GTR 3 Announced for the Third Time

gtr-3-by-simbin-02No, this is not a drill – we hope, anyway. The fine folks over at RaceDepartment have teamed up with the newest incarnation of SimBim Studios UK to help reveal their current project to the world of sim racing in front of the audience who would love to hear something like this the most. Set for a multi-platform release across the Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4 sometime in 2018, the long-awaited third entry in the hardcore sports car simulator franchise, GTR 3, is confirmed to be in development.

Again.

gtr6Initially announced as an Xbox 360 racing game during the spring of 2006 before quietly being cancelled, and then again as a purpose-built PC simulator in late 2011 prior to the underlying software drastically being re-branded into a free-to-play racer known as RaceRoom Racing Experience, Chris Speed of SimBin Studios UK claims the goal with GTR 3 is to push out a top level sports car experience that caters to both casual fans and hardcore sim racers, citing Codemasters’ excellent F1 2016 as inspiration for the project, but leaving sim racers largely in the dark regarding what they should expect on launch day. While we know the title will be powered by the Unreal 4 engine and feature an impressive boost in visual fidelity compared to Sector 3’s current work, key elements such as official series licenses, a potential roster of cars and tracks, or what progression elements the game may contain to keep people engaged have not been made public. All we know is that it will be a quasi-mass market simulator akin to what DiRT Rally or Assetto Corsa have been sold as.

To calm the fears of those who outright refuse to tolerate the intrusive micro-transactions seen in RaceRoom Racing Experience, Speed has confirmed GTR 3 will at the very least ship as a standalone product in the traditional sense, which does not require the use of funny money nor the acquisition of an extensive downloadable content platter to indulge in what GTR 3 will offer to sim racers; a throwback to the days of when video games were sold as complete products.

751818-931477_20060908_003Am I excited? Certainly so.

GTR 2, released in 2006 by a very different team operating under the name of SimBin Studios – currently flying as Slightly Mad Studios of Project CARS fame – was really the last complete racing simulator we were sold prior to certain trends within the industry locking even the most obscure developers in a stranglehold. Coming in just a year prior to the ridiculous downloadable content frenzy spearheaded by juggernaut console franchises, and long before simulators simply threw a random assortment of cars at the customer and said “entertain yourself”, GTR 2 marked the very end of sim racing’s golden age, where competent developers took aim at one specific series in particular, and busted their collective asses to build a highly accurate rendition of whatever they’d acquired the license to – no matter how unfamiliar it was to the general public. While not without its faults, GTR2 absolutely nailed every last element of the FIA GT Championship because SimBin as a developer were focused on creating the very best FIA GT experience possible – the quality of the title engrossing sim racers in a series most of them had never heard of prior to their purchase.

In an era where developers rush to acquire any licenses they possibly can, and spit out games that are merely physics sandboxes with semi-functional racing elements tacked on almost as an afterthought, it’s absolutely fantastic to see a sim racing developer return to a very focused and concrete theme behind their product. Part of Sector 3’s biggest struggle when working on RaceRoom Racing Experience for the PC is that different pieces of content pull them in different directions; sometimes they’re working on the modern DTM cars, other builds focus around the GT3 machinery, and sometimes Steam downloads an update and greets you with a surprise that a car you loved driving now resides in an entirely different class. A product such as GTR3 allows a company to sit down and say “let’s focus on building the best possible sports car game we can make with the technology we have available”, as opposed to being pulled in eight different directions by eight different pieces of content.

And not only have Sector 3 struggled with this problem; iRacing, Automobilista, Project CARS, and Assetto Corsa all suffer from being a “jack of all trades” simulator, yet a master of none. Assetto Corsa features many modern Prototypes, but no Circuit de la Sarthe nor the ability to race at night. Project CARS features two different eras of stock car racing, but no ovals in sight. It’s really quite silly, and the impression I’ve gotten from the initial announcement is that GTR3 slaps this ideology straight in the face. As a result, I expect the overall quality and theme of the game will greatly benefit from a very centralized focus.

866967-945729_20080424_002However, some sim racers are already claiming the sky to be falling, as Chris Speed’s description of a sports car simulator that appeals to both the hardcore crowd as well as a mass market audience have some sim racers believing this game will be neutered beyond recognition in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. I find this to be an exceptionally strange fear. GTR2’s way of appealing to casual racers was by creating a separate tutorial mode that taught the basics of driving a race car – something which everyone could use a bit of brushing up on every now and then – and lumping sets of driving aids into three distinct categories that could be toggled in a dedicated Realism  menu to produce the driving experience of your choice. Most people of the hardcore obviously set this shit to Simulation and never touched it again, but lesser settings were definitely there and in no way sacrificed the integrity of the simulation in favor of the casual audience.

Hell, both NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, and even the almighty Grand Prix Legends, offered entire alternative physics models for people who found the ideal variant of the game far too difficult for what their preliminary set of skills could cope with, and those are two titles which most of the sim racing community agree to be the most difficult home simulators ever released to the general public. Did the arcade handling models see stuff like Grand Prix Legends tossed aside by sim racing snobs for not being hardcore enough? Nope.

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I think a lot of people expected me to tear the GTR3 announcement apart, but in reality, this is the exact kind of game the sim racing genre needs – a throwback to a much better time. With Sector 3, Kunos Simulazioni, and even iRacing sitting around and churning out games that just sort of throw random cars and tracks at the user in a stale and uninspiring physics playground, it’ll be a nice change of pace to have a game on the market that really attempts to build an atmosphere and sense of identity around one core racing series that is reproduced to perfection. It sucks that we won’t see this game in a completed state until 2018 at the very earliest, but at least someone in the genre has finally smartened up and figured out that you can’t just keep endlessly fine-tuning your own sandbox simulator to try and compete with everyone else’s nearly-identical sandbox simulator.