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Reader Submission #141 – Looking for Simulation in the Wrong Places

In pursuing the sole goal of perfecting race car dynamics in a semi-static environment, modern simulation developers often lose sight of the immersive sim elements that serve to complete the experience. While teams like Reiza Studios or iRacing will spend months behind the scenes refining and polishing a brand new car to be released into their respective piece of software with an upcoming patch or DLC launch, we very rarely talk about the various race weekend elements that these companies traditionally overlook.

Restricted sets of tires over the course of an entire event, limited backup cars and repair times that carry over from open practice to the race itself, as well as intricate cockpit systems & ignition sequences, are all questionably absent from our simulator experiences despite fans and developers alike lobbying for near 100% accuracy. It’s certainly a bit hypocritical that all major and minor race sim teams boast a hardcore experience, but unlike Flight Simulators, an asterisk is hidden in the fine print; this level of authenticity is confined solely to race car physics, which is only part of the complete package. There’s no debris on the track after an accident that safety trucks can be seen cleaning up, no push starts in iRacing’s World of Outlaws content, furthermore, when these elements are introduced, sim snobs turn their noses up at the title, calling it “simcade” and down-voting you into oblivion on Reddit for suggesting you’re enjoying your time with it.

Today’s Reader Submission from Leo G. believes we’re looking for simulation value in the wrong places, and that the sim community as a whole is a bit hypocritical. They want a hardcore experience, but only when it’s convenient for them, leading to developers awkwardly building pseudo-hardcore titles that technically could all classify as simcade.

Hey PRC team, your recent pre-season testing post has driven me to put into words something I’ve been thinking for a few years now – the sim racing community is full of hypocrites.

Sim racers (and the developers as well) are extremely dedicated to “realism”. We want our sims to be the most realistic experience possible, and creating that should be priority #1 at all times. The problem is that all of the details that can be measured, gathered, and recreated – simulated – don’t mean a thing if the feedback isn’t right. And playing games on the computer is very different to driving the real thing. That doesn’t mean harder or easier, but different. I’ve been sim racing for over twenty years and have been participating in club level motorsport for about the last five. Whilst my sim racing experience definitely helped prepare me for the track, I noticed an interesting development. The more time I spent behind the real in real life, the worse my sim racing became. I believe this is because the feedback that I’m most heavily relying on while in my actual car just doesn’t exist at my computer desk.

But we still chase the perfect sim, absolute realism, as if this is something that can objectively be achieved. As if we’ll reach a point one day where we actually will have a simulation that is 100% accurate and realistic… but what does it matter if the experience itself can’t be recreated?

This brings me back to your pre-season testing post. Your first drive in a new race car and… what was that? Old tires? And the track was covered in debris, dirt, and… glass? I think you’re spinning tales, because I’ve been playing the most realistic sims available for years and I’ve never had to drive on old tires on a filthy track… oh wait, that’s because our “realistic sims” are only telling half the story, and pretending like the other half doesn’t exist.

Have you heard the story of (pretty sure it was) Graham Hill driving four consecutive Grand Prix on the same set of tires? The rubber back then was so hard, the tires got faster as they wore out. Funnily enough, I did a USAC style league race at Michigan on iRacing many years ago in the Lotus 49 – a complete 250 mile event. In testing for this race, I found out that the tires got faster as the race wore on. As in, three seconds a lap faster. On a two mile oval. That’s insane.

It would have been great to be able to run the tires in practice and qualifying to wear them in for the race, just like what would have happened in real life… but that’s not what our sims are about. I found the whole situation to be slightly amusing as it turns out there were many others in the field who hadn’t done their research and kept pitting for new tires during cautions, not realizing that they were only making things worse. This sort of thing would never have happened in the real world.

Another similar story comes from the Blancpain Endurance Series, when Shane Van Gisbergen made his debut at Monza. Van Gisbergen is a multiple time race winner in V8 Supercars, winning the overall championship in 2016. He’s a bit of a gun and is fast in anything he drives. So what does a driver of his caliber get for his first Monza GT3 experience? Old tires. Shane did not get a fresh set of boots at any point throughout the weekend. Teams get five sets of tires for three drivers to share across all of practice, qualifying, and the three hour race. Yeah. If you get invited to race as a co-driver – you don’t just waltz in and own the place. You might not even be allowed to make any setup changes.

And of course, there is so much more that real racing drivers have to contend with. In the sim, we can blow an engine with two minutes left in qualifying, hit the reset button, and still take pole. We can change every single adjustable component of the car just by loading a different setup. We can destroy our cars with reckless abandon and have a sparkling shiny new one in the blink of an eye. That’s not realistic. That’s not sim. Not even close. In the real world, if you put a car into the fence during your first lap of Friday practice, there’s a real chance you could be done for the weekend. I’m not talking about going all the way to add driver fatalities because that’s absurd, I’m saying it’s insane how we have 99 backup cars and you can hit the track with a new one in five seconds when depending on the damage, resources of the team, and the series schedule, a real team might be out of action for a few weeks.

Another example, the fanfare and attention that Fernando Alonso received for passing up the Monaco Grand Prix in favor of the Indianapolis 500. In a simulator? No big deal, you can run Monaco, Indianapolis, and the Coke 600 in a span of a few hours. And let’s not forget the Nurburgring 24 – they might all be on the same weekend in real life, but this is sim racing – we don’t care for such trivial details here!

So why is no one talking about this sort of thing? If we’re a mob that pride ourselves on our commitment to pure simulation, why are we blatantly ignoring the details that we actually can pursue, features that most certainly could be implemented into our sims that would go a long way to improve their depth, immersion, and experience – things that absolutely would make them more of a true simulation than what we have now.

But no one seems to care. We claim to want the “most realistic simulation possible”, but guarantee if we went down that road, the forums would be filled with cries of “it’s too hard / I don’t like it / why should I have to do it this way”. Come on people – go to the track one day and compare what you see with what we have and ask yourself – is it really good enough? Can we do better? Even watching a race on TV, you pick up on so many details that sim racing conveniently ignores. 

I really wish we could turn the enthusiasm we have for things like “accurate recreation of the effect of different air density on the engine and aerodynamics” into this completely untapped side of racing. There is so much sitting there, waiting to be taken advantage of. Why are we ignoring it?

Hey Leo. Personally I don’t think your specific examples mentioned above are all that compelling, but the overall theme and argument of your submission, however, is.

Developers spend all this time perfecting things such as engine and aero efficiency as it relates to air density, but then the core experience of the physical race weekend itself is still very simplistic and largely unchanged from IndyCar Racing II back in 1996. You have four sessions; three provide infinite vehicle resets with 100% fresh equipment (though iRacing has an option to override this), two of them you can turn laps at your leisure, a third scores qualifying times, and in the race you have one shot at the thing unless you’re offline and presented with a restart button. Vehicle status resets at the beginning of each session, you’re given unlimited backup cars, unlimited spare parts, unlimited sets of tires, and the ability to make radical adjustments you’d never have the time to complete at the track with the click of a mouse button. It’s very… simplistic, and doesn’t really reflect the challenges real drivers are presented with.

So let’s go over what sims could reasonably implement without much trouble.

Modern simulators give you an entire Summit Racing catalog of setup adjustments at your finger tips in the garage area, some of which would be nearly impossible to perform while physically at the race track and the clock ticking. Changing tire pressures is as simple as running an air compressor, but spring and sway bar swaps physically require you to remove and then re-install the parts by hand, cutting into precious practice time – not to mention the complete implausibility of a minor league team coming to the track with an entire collection of gears, or even springs sorted neatly by 25lb increments. My change would be to implement a load-out screen prior to clicking Go or Join Session on the race configuration menu, where you’d have to pre-select the handful of adjustments you wanted to bring to the track, and part of the skill as a sim racer – like a real team – would be knowing ahead of time what parts you needed.

Limited sets of tires have been implemented in Codemasters’ F1 2016 of all games, though this game was obviously deemed simcade by the sim racing community because it’s not a no-nonsense simulator based on the ISI motor engine sporting graphics from ten years ago. I would like to see this implemented across other games, however, as it would encourage sim racers to treat practice sessions in a bit more of a professional manner, turning conservative, safe laps to break in the tires rather than balls out mock qualifying runs that routinely end in destruction for themselves and the cars around them. I’d also like to see general car degradation be cumulative across the entire race weekend, and users be given just one spare backup car – in the long run it’s much simpler than coding in an entire safety system like iRacing have done because it accomplishes the same goal of making sim racers treat each other with a bit more respect, so the developers win on that front.

At the same time, I’d like random mechanical failures to be eradicated – which although it sounds very un-sim-like and against the theme of this post, mechanical failures are down to shitty parts, and sim racing titles don’t have a meta-game inside them where you’re tasked with finding the best parts or engine supplier for your team, so it would be wrong to fuck someone out of participating in a race on what’s essentially a random number generator. But if someone blows a motor naturally by shooting the revs into oblivion, or cuts a tire down by running over debris, that’s on them.

This would also remove bullshit setups out of the equation, as people would be more inclined to create stable setups in an effort to click off controlled laps rather than struggle with hyper-loose cars on the edge of control. If you go into an online league race knowing one wreck over the next two hours across four different sessions could have drastic consequences, you’re not going to even bother testing out a forum setup with 0 wing and crazy stiff sway bars.

These are all features that are pretty easy to implement. But what happens if you go further?

I’ve found it pretty ironic how to this day, iRacing still hasn’t enabled car collisions on pit road. It’s very strange how this is a game that prides itself on simulation value and producing a highly authentic experience that can supposedly be a substitute for a real world motorsports career, but then you can go and warp through cars on pit lane. I’m not sitting here demanding motion captured high definition pit crews that you can send flying for a laugh, I’m talking about basic “let me hit other cars so I learn to respect their physical space on pit road.” Considering this existed in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season over fourteen years ago, there’s no excuse for iRacing not having this in 2017. It should really have been implemented by now.

Yet unfortunately a lot of times I hear things such as “it might be too hard for a significant portion of the userbase to grasp” – which is what also happened Kunos Simulazioni let you flick all the switches in the cockpit back when netKar Pro was their flagship simulator. Sim racers, who jerked themselves off over taking part in a “hardcore” hobby and being somehow better than “Need for Speed and Forza kiddies”, suddenly were like a fish out of water. now that they had to complete an ignition sequence to start their cars.

And this, sadly, is why Leo’s alternative simulation value elements he’s brought up today aren’t implemented, and why developers get a severe case of tunnel vision and only focus on vehicle physics first and foremost. The average sim racer simply isn’t skilled enough to be anything other than frustrated if new simulation value elements are introduced. Sim racing is a genre where users spend an hour downloading rFactor mods, turn five woefully off-pace laps in private testing, and then race to the forums to inexplicably brag how they were unable to control the car and that historic drivers must have been more skilled than modern fighter pilots, despite all historic racing footage clearly indicating a large portion of the field was a combination of drunk/stoned/horny.

The moment you crank up the difficulty level any more than it already is, participation levels are going to fall off a cliff. This obviously results in less people playing the game, and in the sim racing landscape this creates a very dire predicament, as most developers aren’t swimming in basements full of gold coins, but rather struggling to break even and forced to make careful decisions when it comes to licensing and pay models. So a lot of the immersion elements on the drawing board simply aren’t put in at the end of the day because there’s such an intricate line between breaking even and financial peril for these teams.

There’s also the insane levels of cult-like behavior in our community that can fuck over games before they’ve even got a chance to shine. DiRT Rally and Formula One 2016 were both spectacular games, but each of them were almost immediately written off by a community who largely scoffed at additional immersive elements, like having to refine your driving line throughout practice for car upgrade points or hire crew members – which was so incredibly basic I’m almost confused as to how grown men threw hissy fits at what’s basically one menu option you touch every six races. So developers with genuinely good ideas behind closed doors are almost afraid to introduce these elements, as there seems to be a whole bunch of people in our community who aggressively lash out against anything that isn’t a strictly car on track with opponents simulator, and then convince their friends to do the same.

For example, I’ve heard people from the Assetto Corsa kingdom knock iRacing for being a giant ePeen dickwaving contest due to iRacing’s ELO rankying system, when in reality the concept of both safety rating and iRacing is objectively one of the service’s best features and it’s why the game has been so successful. These old men who seemingly hate progression, fun, and anything that isn’t strictly car on track are partially what’s holding sim racing back, as developers will then fear adding new elements in fear of backlash from the vocal minority, because sim racing in itself is just a bigger collection of vocal minorities spread over five or six main message boards. Unlike Call of Duty, where one angry YouTube video is countered by 15,000 sales, sim racing devs don’t have that luxury. The vocal minorities on the forums are your customers.

Would I like sim racing developers to move past splitting hairs over car physics, and into other realms of realism? Sure. Safety trucks on the track after accidents would be cool, limited repair times and a finite box of spare parts or backup cars I think have the potential to be welcome additions, but unfortunately developers have basically been backed into a corner by the community. The average sim racer isn’t talented enough to cope with anything more hardcore than what we already have, and any genuinely creative elements are met with immense hostility from grown men for being too entertaining. So this has created a landscape like what we have now, where developers obsess over transmission behavior and doppler effect refinements rather than fleshing out the metaphorical world around these cars.

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