Early 2005 was a fascinating and turbulent time in the world of simulated racing for many reasons. A new company called Simbin had transcended the modding world and released a demo of GTR, making everyone wonder if finally they might be stepping away from GPL, a new and exciting online magazine called AutoSimSport had started expertly reporting on the genre, and the greatest Rally sim of all time, Richard Burns Rally (RBR) was starting to be broken open by modders everywhere.
For me, an intrepid reporter for the aforementioned magazine, this was all I needed to hunt down high adventure and before long I was involved in the beta of the most fascinating mod of them all: RBR-Online. Upon delving into the early beta forums I found I had to brush up on my Italian and was soon talking with the development team with whom I remain in touch with to this day, looking back, it’s remarkable to think that simracing can build such friendships, but then, some of the rallies we enjoyed were epic! Chatting with Luca Giraldi, head developer Paolo Ghibaudo and community manager Luisa Ghibaudo (who became a writer for AutoSimSport herself) excitedly in the forums and discussing the depth and ambition of RBR-Online as we put together magazine articles to spread the word seems like only yesterday.
RBR-Online took the base sim of RBR and pulled it away from its console inspired interface and allowed drivers that were registered on their website to compete alongside one another across a number of stages, cumulatively scoring on an overall leaderboard, as in, you know, Rallying. Even though one would drive the stage alone, as one does in rally driving, the tension built up in advance of a stage, and then watching the times come in at the finish easily counts as some of the most heart rending online racing I have ever done. There’s something about being separate from your competitors in these environments that adds a little more to the thrill of it all, you can do nothing to influence their driving, it is not a matter of driving defensively, your only choice is to be as quick as you can.
And therein lies the challenge, RBR was difficult, achingly difficult. As simracers that had got used to track driving over the years, a serious rally sim came as a shock to us all. Addressing the “track to stage” mindset is not an easy leap. On the track you know where you are going, this means that you can practice for a bunch of laps and then find yourself able to push at 100%, pushing at 100% means leaving no spare brain capacity and so once we jump in a rally car we instinctively want to push to that level, but we can’t because some spare brain needs to be left behind to listen to the poor bastard who foolishly volunteered to sit next to you and bark out directions. No doubt a decision he began to regret the first time you careened into a ravine/rolled into a river/smashed into a copse/rolled end-over-end an improbable amount of times.
This first hurdle goes hand-in-hand with a remarkably different driving technique on loose surfaces, the fact that the surfaces are, indeed, loose, and the fact that roads are inevitably barely wide enough for your car. Enough time in RBR would result in one developing heroic pace and sweating behind your force feedback, but all too often a stage would end with you proceeding directly to the scene of the accident.
Thus, in online rallies in RBR, there would often be non-finishers, but that was part of the excitement. There may be some fast guy ahead of you that you are worried about, but you’d soon be ahead of them when they spent 30 seconds reversing out of a hedge. It led to a tactical way of driving, just getting to the end was an achievement, doing it quickly doubly so. RBR-Online went on to establish the WIRC (World Internet Rally Championship) and crowned many champions before eventually closing its doors.
By now the courageous reader is wondering why they are bothering reading about my trip down memory lane: “Come on Denton, that was nearly ten years ago, you old fart, no one was even alive then!” And you may have a point, but if you could forgive my overtly amative expositional opening paragraphs I’d like to tell you about something happening right now that you really should be aware of.
After many years of operation, RBR-Online was shut down, and talk of a new project was seen here and there from Paolo Ghubaudo, who some of the keen among you will remember talking at length to Simon (spamsac on RAVSim) about back in 2011. Then in its nascency, the talk was of an all-new scratch built sim that would be the spiritual successor to RBR, and would take the dream of RBR-Online even further. Three years on, they are ready to talk about gRally.
I sat down with Luca Giraldi over a glass of smooth Sangiovese last week to talk about where the gRally project is now and what we can expect from the sim.
Jon Denton: So, Luca, firstly, it’s been a while since we spoke, how have things been going?
Luca Giraldi:Very well, thank you! Of course, in the team we all have our personal life, our respective families, sons, and some other hobbies… But as soon as we were able to find some more spare time, we have been working hard on gRally.
Jon Denton: Other hobbies? I’m not sure the simracing community will accept this! It’s great to hear that the project is still being worked on,gRally has been under development for a few years now, as it has not been a full time job, how much of a challenge has it been to keep working on it alongside “real life” jobs and commitments?
Luca Giraldi:Well, this is where we can find the real essence of gRally; it’s born out of our passion for the racing sim and for the vehicle simulator in general, but unfortunately we can only build it in our free time, and we don’t have that much free time, really. We’re a small – very small- group of people with one common dream: To build an excellent rally sim. But gRally is and remains a completely home-made product, and this, I suppose, is also one of the most fascinating aspects of it. We started the simulator from scratch and now we see something coming to fruition, and this is the reason why we keep saying that everything is possible…
Jon Denton: Is gRally independently funded or do you have backing? Dare I say it, even from a publisher?
Luca Giraldi: It’s currently funded by us, no one is giving us money for anything. We pay everything we need to develop it, also in terms of the time needed to do something. We hope that soon gRally will be supported by fans, which would help us a lot!
Jon Denton:I suppose that means I should pick up the bill for dinner then! The website www.grally.net went live a few days ago, in case anyone was thinking of throwing a donation of either money or skills in the direction of the team. One question though Luca, what does the “G” stand for?
Luca Giraldi: Oh that’s an easy answer: “G” stands for “ghiboz”, the nickname of Paolo Ghibaudo, the main programmer of the sim.
Jon Denton: Yea, I should have guessed I suppose. How are you going about collaborating on the sim, do you all live near to one another or do you work over the web?
Luca Giraldi: We live in different towns many kilometres apart, so we work using the web with many new technologies. Sometimes we all meet up together for a weekend spending time in heavy development, and some fun. In these occasions we get to see that it would have been easier to produce the sim working closely with one another in an office, but it’s not really possible.
Jon Denton: Is gRally built completely from scratch in all areas? Graphics engine, physics, audio, and all that?
Luca Giraldi: To develop gRally we started from the scratch with everything, but we decided to use external, existing open source libraries to accelerate the creation of the game in some areas. With regards to the physics, I am sure this is something we will discuss more, but the physics engine has been absolutely developed from the ground-up, but using all our knowledge and experience in order to simulate the maximum possible level of realism.
Jon Denton: Right, well let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it all then…
At this point, rather helpfully, a waitress arrives with our dinner, initially Luca’s gnocchi di spinaci in salsa di zucca which I try to keep my eyes off before my strozzapreti con ragu alla bolgnese sormontata con pecorino arrives. We take a brief moment to utter superlatives about our dishes, and take a sup of wine before continuing.
Jon Denton: So, can you give us some detail as to the content planned for the “V1.0” release? Tell us about what gRally is and what it is going to do.
Luca Giraldi: Okay, <puts down his fork>, I hope you’re sitting comfortably <slurps some wine>, you have a drink, so relax and I will begin…
<I don’t put down my fork>
It will take me some time to explain what we have in mind for gRally but… I hope you’ll like what we’re going to tell you. gRally. A dream. But a special kind of dream. A dream made into reality. We started from our RBR-Online motto that was “Dream. Experience. Believe.” And then we started dreaming ourselves. Our dream is to develop simulation software that is free for those who want to play it. gRally, indeed, will be free software. We will provide it for download and everyone will be able to play it without paying a single penny, in offline mode. For those who want to be part of the multiplayer experience, we will ask a small amount of money, as we did with RBR-Online. In this case, the money will cover the cost of the setup and management of these multiplayer events and championships.
So, championships like WIRC (World Internet Rally Championship), EIRC (European Internet Rally Championship) and CIIR (Campionato Italiano Internet Rally) will be started up again, using the new simulator and connectivity software. But the software will be and will remain free. And on this decision we are building our hopes… That people will understand this, will appreciate it and will support it, not only with money but also with new content. Basically, we would like the community to play a strategic role in the development of the software. gRally, ideally, will be a platform to be used for modding and creativity – mods that will be selected and approved by the gRally team – and thanks to tools and guides for the creation or the import of contents users can create new cars, new rally stages, new audio, etcetera… In this way, we will be able to have a bigger development team, as a true community effort, and that will keep the game alive for a long time, and we hope, eventually gRally will become the essential product for any rally sim enthusiast.
If we are honest, we don’t have any wish to become rich with this project. We want to prove that a dream can be turned into something real. We’re not competing with any software house because we’re not a software house. We were born as modders of the amazing Richard Burns Rally, and we still are.
Jon Denton: From modders to developers of a scratch built sim is a dream that deserves to be realised, especially as it has been over ten years now since RBR was released. Rally simmers are thirsty for something new. What is the timeline for release?
Luca Giraldi: Time to market… Well, we have a roadmap that will bring us to the eventual release of the game but at the moment it is something that is currently more a draft than a final plan, because we have to have the spare time to work on the sim and spare time can suddenly, sometime, disappear… This makes it very hard to work in absolutes with timescales.
We’re working hard, building and destroying what we’ve done several times because we’re implementing solutions sometimes to improve the game that affect the entire code base. But step by step, we’re reaching the point where we are ready to release the beta.
Jon Denton: Do you plan to provide support for a wide range of controller peripherals, for each driver’s various “rig” set-ups?
Luca Giraldi: We’re planning to provide full support to as wide-a-range of controllers possible. We’re investing a lot of time by doing this. Our aim is to provide to the players with the most accurate feedback possible from the car. The driver will be able to fully customize the force feedback and there will be a very refined and rich set of options for this. More importantly, it will be possible to work on these parameters directly within the sim, while you are driving. So you will be able to tailor your steering wheel reactions to your heart’s content. We are in contact with some hardware companies and we will contact more of them, so that we will be able to provide the beta-testers with an entire set of options specifically developed for each peripheral.
Jon Denton: Physics of the tyre are very different in rally sims when compared to track sims. As so many different road surfaces and tyre choices exist. How have you worked with this to develop the optimum feel?
Luca Giraldi: The tyre model took inspiration from the acclaimed “Pacejka model” but we “tweaked” with some interesting features that we’ve added with the aim of improving the force feedback feeling. This has been done in order to better simulate the varying situations that the different road surfaces present, especially in the case of gravel. We have also worked on the model to avoid the well-known issue of the Pacejka model at low speed.
The real challenge here is to simulate a rally tyre on cars that are more than 30 years old. To simulate a car on a track is a relatively easy task to perform, and is really a very different thing. It is not easy, however, to simulate the reaction of a car – let me say the 1980 Audi Quattro S1 – that uses more than 500hp on an irregular surface that changes inch-after-inch. It’s damn difficult!
We have worked with telemetry data, and in some cases we have spoken with drivers that were at the wheel of the beasts in question in order to understand what the difficulties were while driving such cars. We’re still working and refining this, but we think that we have achieved a very good result. To be honest, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. All of us, before all of this, are passionate driving simmers, and we’ve spent a lot of hours driving on Richard Burns Rally, iRacing, rFactor and Assetto Corsa because we enjoy all of these sims. We think that we’re not that far from the feeling that these sims are providing. When we asked a few friends to try our sim, the most common comments we received was: “This is serious stuff!” We have been able to get rid of the “soapy” effect that often cars have in a sim and the feedback you have on the steering wheel, even at slow speed, is amazing.
We’re not talking about an arcade or a console game here, for sure.
Jon Denton: How much of the vehicle is being simulated in the physics engine? Will details such as brake fade with excessive temperature, clutch wear, mechanical failures through abuse, or even on the stage repairs be modelled or possible in the sim?
Luca Giraldi: It’s on the to-do list, but at this stage we need to be sure that the basics of the simulator work and are appreciated by our beta-testers, and then by the public. Some of the things you’re suggesting are, in any case, not so easy to be implemented with the time and budget we have.
Jon Denton: I do apologise, I am a tyrant when it comes to these things! How about the graphics? Modern graphics are reaching very high levels when it comes to genuine artistry. What have been the challenges to developing, what could be, an entire forest to drive around?
Luca Giraldi: This is a strategic decision that we need to take. The biggest challenge is making the graphics widely usable on a range of PC’s. You can have the state of art sim, where you struggle to understand what is real and what is not, but then you need to have a PC used by NASA to send a satellite into space in order to have a satisfactory frame rate. We think that we’ve reached a good compromise between quality and realism, thus preserving a good frame rate for most. It’s not easy to develop a scalable sim.
Jon Denton: Indeed, appealing to a broad range of simmers is nigh on impossible when it comes to the thousands of configurations that are out there. Tell me about the sound engine, rallying is noisy, but at the same time requires a keen ear to listen to pace notes. How much work has gone into the various creaks, moans and bangs of a rally car chassis?
Luca Giraldi: When talking about racing and rally cars, we can say that they are not making noise, but creating music and symphonies. We love the sound of racing cars so we’ve tried to make it as good as we can on gRally. We’ve recorded onboard, internal sounds moreso than sounds from the outside, because the sound you hear when driving is very different from what you hear when the car is passing by. Again, it’s not easy to do, but we’re happy with what we’ve got now.
Jon Denton: What about the pace notes? Drivers can be very particular, you know, some people feel better with numbers for corners and some with words, some prefer the sharper turns to be higher numbers and some lower, and some like to have the notes called out three or four corners in advance. How much variance in the configuration of pace notes do you plan to put into the sim?
Luca Giraldi: There will be standard calls but the player will be able to fully customize the notes.
Jon Denton: And in which languages in the initial release?
Luca Giraldi: English for sure, at least at the beginning. But we’re still evaluating how many languages we will be able to support, at the beginning. It will also depend from the collaboration we will get from the community.
Jon Denton: Indeed, I suppose with the limited amount of samples to make it would not be hugely difficult for the community to create many language packs, this really seems to be becoming “the people’s rally sim.”
Luca Giraldi: That is our dream.
Jon Denton: Thanks Luca, it has been a pleasure, as always. More wine?